Class XII: Worship
What is worship? What does it mean to worship God? And what does worship have to do with the unity that should exist in the body of Christ?
There is a strong connection between worship and unity. For one thing, worship is one of the sweetest and most valuable fruits of the unity we’ve been discussing. Also, true worship will naturally foster unity. When we focus our hearts and minds on Jesus Christ, finding our greatest satisfaction in him, the Holy Spirit also fills us with a desire to love those around us. And that contributes mightily to unity.
But if there is such a connection between worship and unity, it’s ironic that worship is so often the cause of disunity. Disagreements over musical style are rampant in churches, and far too many Christians are even willing to leave a church because they are not getting a “good enough” worship experience.
Then there are other questions about worship, especially in the context of a congregation. Exactly what is it about corporate worship that makes it different from several hundred individual quiet times happening at the same time and in the same place? What can we do to help others glorify God during our weekly worship service?
We obviously can’t tackle everything there is to say about worship in this class. But it’s important for us to consider how we can help each other toward the ultimate goal of worshipping Christ.
I. WHAT IS WORSHIP?
First, we must understand what worship is. Developing a biblical definition of worship is not easy. There is no one-to-one correspondence of any Greek word to our English word “worship.” It’s clear, however, that worship extends far beyond what goes on in a church building on a Sunday morning—and certainly far beyond praise in the form of song.
Worship in Spirit and Truth
One of the most important biblical passages about worship is John 4, when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well. After Jesus alludes to the sin in her life, she invites him (as a diversion) into a debate on worship. Should believers worship in Jerusalem, as the Jews said, or at the twin mountains Gerizim and Ebal in Samaria? Jesus responds by telling her that one day worship will not be constrained to either place (verse 21), and then he says something quite remarkable:
A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth. (John 4:23-24)
The words “in spirit” and “in truth” are important for understanding true worship.
- “In spirit” means that true worship is not limited to some physical location, whether a church or a temple. Worship takes place in the human heart—the human spirit—and is not confined to any particular “holy” place.
- “In truth” means that true worship takes place by means of the One Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is called the “true vine,” the “true manna,” the “true Shepherd,” the “true temple,” the “true Son.”
Worship in the New Testament
Other New Testament passages also teach about worship. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (10:31). Thus worship is a matter of a Christian’s whole life, not just one “holy” time of the week.
To the Romans, Paul writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship” (12:1). Christ, the perfect Lamb, is the one sufficient sacrifice for us, and his death fulfilled the Old Testament temple worship system. Thus the sacrifices we offer now are not burnt offerings; rather, we offer every aspect of our lives to God. We are called to offer our whole selves to the Lord, always and continually.
Indeed, worship is at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. Revelation 14:7 sums up the demand God makes of the human race: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and the springs of water.”
So then, how might we define worship? D. A. Carson defines it like this:
Worship is the proper response of all moral, sentient beings to God, ascribing all honor and worth to their Creator-God precisely because he is worthy, delightfully so. This side of the Fall, human worship of God properly responds to the redemptive provisions that God has graciously made. While all true worship is God-centered, Christian worship is no less Christ-centered. Empowered by the Spirit and in line with the stipulations of the new covenant, it manifests itself in all our living, finding its impulse in the gospel, which restores our relationship with our Redeemer-God and therefore also with our fellow image-bearers, our co-worshipers. Such worship therefore manifests itself both in adoration and in action, both in the individual believer and in corporate worship, which is worship offered up in the context of the body of believers, who strive to align all the forms of their devout ascription of all worth to God with the panoply of new covenant mandates and examples that bring to fulfillment the glories of antecedent revelation and anticipate the consummation.
Tim Keller defines worship simply as “obedient action motivated by the beauty of who God is in himself.” In other words, it is something much more than being moved in our affections, but it is certainly not less.
Given all this, here are five things we can say about the nature of worship (unpacking some of that dense Carson quote):
First, worship is God-centered. It is our proper response to the magnificence, the splendor and majesty of God’s character—a God who is, as Carson writes, delightfully worthy” of our praise. Worship goes beyond simply knowing what God is like; it means that we take delight in the perfection of his attributes.
Second, worship is Christ-centered. We see this very clearly in Revelation 5, where the Lion of the tribe of Judah, who is also the slain Lamb, is the only one in creation who can open the scroll of history. So Christ “stands in the very center of the throne,” one with God himself (v.6), and is praised as the one who was slain, who is worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals. From then on in the book of Revelation, worship is addressed “to him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.” Worship is no less Christ-centered than it is God-centered.
Third, worship is Spirit-enabled. Paul says it most clearly in Philippians 3:3—”For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God.” In its own power, the human mind is incapable of perceiving or delighting in the excellencies of God. It is the Holy Spirit who regenerates us, gives us spiritual sight, and brings us from spiritual death to life. When we worship, we do so not by our own power, but by the Spirit’s.
Fourth, worship encompasses our entire lives. Worship is not merely singing praises to God; it involves both adoration and action. Worship does not end with what we say, but includes what we do as well.
Fifth, worship is delight in the beauty of God and of Christ. It is not delight in the experience of worship. In our evangelical culture, worship too often refers to the emotions we experience while we sing about God, and we can end up adoring that experience more than we adore God. True Christian worship involves both the mind and the emotions. Thus, if our worship of God is so emotional as to be devoid of thought—or so cerebral as to be devoid of passion—then we are not truly worshiping. True worship is both thoughtful and passionate. True worshippers worship in spirit and truth.
II. WHAT IS CORPORATE WORSHIP?
So what about corporate worship? Is it simply worshipping God with a group of people? Does it matter what we do in corporate worship?
What if our church decided to go hiking together in the mountains every other Sunday morning, instead of gathering in this building? We’d still be assembling together, and we’d be worshipping God, too. So would that qualify as corporate worship? Or what about a church picnic—is that corporate worship? After all, we’re doing things for the glory of God, and we are doing them together as a congregation.
But no, surely there’s something more to corporate worship than that.
Doing What God Wants Us To Do
The fact is, corporate worship is not simply doing worshipful things together as a church. It is doing the things God wants us to do when we are gathered together. This couldn’t be clearer in the teaching of Scripture:
- First, there is a great difference between us and God. He is infinite, all-powerful, and all-knowing. We are finite, frail, and ignorant. Thus we cannot know who he is unless he reveals himself to us, nor can we understand what kind of worship will be pleasing to him unless he tells us.
- Second, we are sinful to our core. Not only are we incapable of determining what will please God in worship, but without divine guidance, our hearts would naturally tend away from true worship, not toward it.
- Third, God cares very much about the way in which we worship him.
Even at the very beginning, God looked with favor on Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s (Gen. 4:4-5).
In the second commandment, God prohibited worship through images, making it clear that he alone regulates how he will be worshiped (Ex. 20:4). When the people made the golden calf in Exodus 32, they didn’t intend it to be another God. They were worshipping the God “who brought them up out of Egypt” (Ex. 32:4-5). However, they were worshipping Him in a way he had forbidden, and the consequences were disastrous (Ex. 32:19-28).
When Nadab and Abihu offered up “unauthorized fire” to the Lord, “contrary to his command,” God struck them dead (Lev. 10:1-3).
When Uzzah reached out to steady the ark, his intentions were good. Yet he was trying to “serve God,” so to speak, in a way that God did not want to be served. “Therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark” (2 Sam. 6:7).
Jesus rejected the worship of the Pharisees, quoting from Isaiah that “They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men” (Mark 7:7).
The point is that God does not leave us free to improvise in our corporate worship. Indeed he has told us in the Bible what ought to happen when a congregation gathers publicly for the purpose of worshipping God. Here are some of the things we see congregations doing together in the New Testament:
- Publicly reading Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13; Col. 4:15, 16)
- Listening to preaching and teaching (Acts 2:42; 1 Tim. 4:13)
- Sharing the Lord’s Supper and celebrating Baptism (Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 11)
- Encouraging each other and praising God in song (Eph. 5:19).
- Praying together (Acts 2:42)
- Publicly confessing our faith together (1 Tim. 6:12)
And of course, all these elements should be infused with the truth of Scripture.
Therefore, we might say that corporate worship is a congregation’s act of praising God together through the forms and elements commanded and exampled in Scripture.
Worship is Not Singing
One important implication of all this is that corporate worship is much more than singing, as when people say, “Now that we’re done worshipping, let’s listen to the preacher.” In fact, the center of our corporate worship—the most important worship we do—is the hearing from God through his preached Word. Of course singing is a part of our worship, and God has made us in such a way that music deeply engages our hearts and stirs our affections. That’s why Scripture commands us to do it. But while singing is worship, we should never fall into the trap of thinking that worship is singing.
III. HOW CORPORATE WORSHIP IS UNIQUE
What does corporate worship do that our own private worship does not? There are many things, of course, but here are four:
First, Corporate Worship Displays our God-Glorifying Unity
Personal quiet times are wonderful and worshipful times, but there is something special about gathering publicly with the entire church and praising God together. By singing, praying, reading and preaching Scripture, and confessing our faith together, we show the world in a unique way that we are united by our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
There is a bitter irony here, however, because the corporate worship time—which ought to be a church’s greatest display of its unity in Christ—often becomes one of the biggest points of division in the church’s life! People insist on hearing their own favorite style of music; they complain that they “can’t worship” because this or that is happening in the service; and they privately seethe because the service isn’t meeting this or that felt need. For something that is supposed to reflect unity in Christ, the public worship service can become an astonishing source of selfishness and strife.
How do we fight against that? How do we make sure the corporate worship time remains a reflection of God’s glory and our unity in Christ, rather than an occasion for strife? Very simply, we must hear what Paul commands in Philippians 2:3-4: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interest of others.” In other words, we must submit to one another, love one another, and serve one another for the sake of Jesus Christ.
Second, Corporate Worship Allows Us to Help Each Other in Worship
One of the great advantages of worshiping together as a church is that we can help each other to grasp the glory of God and to respond joyfully. That happens in the structure of our worship services, in the musicians’ playing their instruments, in the swell of voices as we sing together, in the work of men who have studied hard to prepare a sermon, and in other ways as well.
Here are a few things we can do to help each other worship God when we gather together:
- Regularly attend the services.
- Sing joyfully and loudly.
- Discuss the sermon after the service.
- Express joy to each other during the service.
- Welcome those around you who are unfamiliar.
- Be attentive; take notes during the sermon.
- Foster a culture of prayerfulness.
The author of Hebrews tells us to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24). That certainly includes helping each other to worship.
Third, Corporate Worship Is Edifying
Third, corporate worship is an opportunity for us to edify each other. You might be surprised to discover that in Scripture, God is not the only one we address during times of corporate worship. Paul writes to the Ephesians, for example, “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19).
When we sing on Sunday morning, or read Scripture, or pray, we are communicating not only to God but also to each other. Why is this important? Because we are weak people, who need constant reminding of the great truths of Scripture. As Peter wrote, “So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have” (2 Peter 1:12). We need to be reminded to persevere in this life, and our corporate worship time is perhaps the most important way we do that for each other.
Finally, Corporate Worship Offers a Taste of Heaven
It’s often been observed that the Bible begins in a garden but ends in a city. Heaven is the place where the whole community of God’s people will dwell with him forever, praising his name and delighting in his glory.
Corporate worship is a snapshot of that experience—one we can appreciate in this life. The author of Hebrews paints a beautiful picture of what awaits us:
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (12:22-24)
When we come together in worship on Sunday morning, we catch a glimpse of the glory of that final congregation in heaven. That’s when heaven feels most real, and the things of God feel most valuable.
Despite the brokenness of this world, we are made for heaven—and the more we act in light of that truth, the better we will use this life for the glory of God. Thus we need to be reminded, every Sunday, of what it will be like to praise God forever with his people.
Life can be difficult, and when we walk through hard times, our Lord’s promises and the final dwelling he has prepared for us can seem far away, almost like a fairytale. So savor the moments when you are surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ who are enraptured with his beauty. Relish those times when heaven feels real, because you know that you will worship with these brothers and sisters—and millions more—for all eternity.