Friday, September 22, 2006

What is Worship?

'WHAT IS WORSHIP?' was delivered at a Seminar on Worship and Musicians’ Workshop at Kota Bharu Baptist Church, on 2 September 2006.

INTRODUCTION – Worship in Spirit and Truth

If a first-year junior were to ask you, ‘What do I need to know to have a meaningful experience of university here in Kota Bharu?’ how would you answer? You may proceed to tell him where to eat, or list the best beaches in the East Coast. You may tell him how to get cheap AirAsia tickets, or if you are a kaki-ponteng like I was, guide the junior as to which classes to skip for more sleep. But, being the responsible senior you would most probably guide the junior on the best books to use, which lectures to pay close attention to, and what to expect in the exams. Because you know unless a student fulfills his primary purpose in university – to master the course and ace the exams – no amount of Thai food or sandy beaches will make a good university experience.

What do we need to know to have meaningful experience of worship? Musical skills? Good singing? Nice melodies? I suggest that unless we understand the primary purpose for worship, our experience of worship will be shallow at best. We may enjoy the music or get a good feeling from singing, but never encounter the living God or understand our relationship with Him. What is worship? How should we worship? Should we clap, should we dance, can we use rock music or should we sing only hymns?

Read John 4:21-24

Jesus’s response goes straight to the heart of worship. Firstly it is spiritual. The nature of our worship corresponds to the nature of the One we worship – God is spirit, so we worship in spirit.. Because He did not reveal himself to us in any physical form, so worship is not to any physical images but with our hearts and words we worship the Unseen God1. Any form of worshipping images, statues, paintings are excluded. Secondly it is in truth. While we can fool others by enthusiastic singing or playing, we can’t fool God who knows our hearts. But more than just being truthful we are to worship IN the truth – knowing who we worship, who we are before God, and how He relates to us as revealed in the Bible must form the framework for our worship.


The Bible has a particular version of human history that tells the story God and man. If I may try to summarize the story of the Bible this way: God creates the Universe and puts man in charge under him but man rebels and loses this perfect relationship. Sin and pride increases and climaxes with terrible judgment in the Flood and dispersion at Babel. Then God chooses one man, Abraham, to kick-start his salvation plan for mankind. Through Abraham comes a nation who is the stage for the Saviour who finally comes to save mankind by dying on the cross for us. We can trace the origin and evolution of worship as we run through this history.

Made for Worship (Man in Eden)

In Eden, we see a perfect relationship and work. In six ‘days’ God created the heavens and earth and on the 7th day He rested. Every one of those days had a ‘morning and evening’ but the seventh day has no end. Six eras of creation past, the seventh age is one of REST. And mankind was brought into existence into this rest2 - enjoying creation and perfect fellowship with God the Creator. As God’s representative authority (i.e. image) on earth, we serve God by taking care of this earth. In the Garden was unbroken fellowship and joyful service to God. We can say we were made for worship.

(Rest is a theme that will be played out throughout the Bible till Revelations. Man loses this rest because of sin. Israel partially regains it in the Promised Land3. But finally Jesus gives us rest from our sin and striving4, from our alienation from God, a rest we re-enter by faith in Christ5, and will fully enjoy in the new heaven and earth6. Also, man, created in God’s image, we are told, were made to ‘rule and subdue’ the earth unlike any other creature7.)

Saved to Worship (Israel at Sinai)

The Israelites were saved from Egypt, (it is said 8 times in Exodus) so that ‘they may worship’8 God at Sinai. God chose a people for himself, redeemed them from slavery in Egypt, and gave birth to a nation with the goal of worshipping him again – enjoying fellowship and serving Him. At Sinai, it becomes interesting. A disorganized group in the desert were shaped into a nation under a God-king (theocracy). A constitution-like Ten Commandments and a legislation comprising moral, civil, and ceremonial codes are given. Together with that are detailed instructions on how to build and conduct worship at the Tabernacle. Can we learn anything about Christian worship from the way Israel was taught it?

The method for worship was with five major offerings9 – the burnt offering, grain offering, fellowship offering, sin offering and guilt offering – were prescribed. The sin and guilt offerings atoned for sins and ritual uncleanness. The grain offering showed thanksgiving, and the fellowship offering, a meal shared by priest and family in the presence of God, signified fellowship. The burnt offering accompanied atoning sacrifices but also signified dedication and surrender, a ‘pleasing aroma to God’, which was kept burning continuously. In their execution10 animals were slaughtered after laying hands on them, indicating substitution, and life-containing blood11 poured out – showing a penalty paid to turn away God’s wrath. The need for these sacrifices emphasizes God’s holiness, man’s sinfulness, and the crucial need for atonement. The order of sacrifices when carried out12 – sin offering-burnt offering-fellowship offering – shows that worship culminated in fellowship with God. With repentance and forgiveness, consecration and God’s acceptance, relationship is restored and maintained by the sacrifices. Worship begins with repentance, followed by surrender and finally a celebration of peace and fellowship with God. (The way it was in Eden, I might add.)

(The place for worship was the Tabernacle. Built according to detailed instructions, God dwelt among His people in the central chamber called the Most Holy Place. No one approached the Holy God except the sanctified High Priest bearing the blood of the sin offering once a year on the Day of Atonement. The High Priest would sprinkle the blood on the atonement-cover that stood between the Holy God and the Law in the ark. The Book of the Law was also housed there as a witness against them.)

In Christ we Worship

With the benefit of the New Testament we understand now that the sacrificial system was imperfect, and while it served the nation Israel at the time, it foreshadowed and was perfected by Christ and Christ alone. Christ is the sin offering who ‘died outside the city gates’ and whom God sent to ‘condemn sin in sinful man’13. He is the lamb without defect, the guilt offering who died to redeem us and cleanse our conscience14. He is the ‘pleasing aroma’15 that satisfies God all the time. Christ embodies every aspect of the sacrifices, fulfilling what it foreshadowed, and perfected it. Christ is the perfect, sinless, life-for-life substitute and His sacrifice is once for all making sinners perfect in God’s sight, ending all sacrifices16

Previously only the priest could conduct sacrifices, and even then he needed first to be cleansed. But today, ‘we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus,.. by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith..’17 Christ is himself the ‘mercy seat’ and the ‘atoning sacrifice’18 of the Tabernacle. In the language of John’s gospel, Christ has ‘tabernacled’19 with us, abiding even in our hearts by the Spirit. He is, as the furnishings of the Tabernacle presaged, the ‘bread of life’, ‘water welling up to eternal life’, and the ‘light of the world ‘20.

Just as the sacrifices were central to Israel’s worship, mediating atonement, consecration and fellowship, Christ is the center of our worship, our atoning sacrifice21, making us perfect and holy in his sight22, and Christ ushers us into His presence to enjoy peace23. Relationship is restored and maintained by Christ! It is through Christ and His work alone that we have access and we worship God.

(And because of Christ’s merciful work we are exhorted to offer up our bodies as living sacrifices24 (as opposed to the dead ones in the OT), and our words as sacrifices of praise25 - the only sacrifices left for us!)


Our Attitude

The Greek have many words that have been translated to worship and praise in the Bible. Words for worship are latreuo (to serve), sebomai (to revere), and proskyneo (to bow down to). Words for praise are aineo (to praise for a work), epaineo (to commend for qualities or works), eulogeo (to bless or speak well of), exomologeomai (to confess) and doxazo (to give glory to). Worship celebrates the relationship we have with God, delighting in Him just as God delights in His people. In worship we bow deeply and humbly to the Holy One, who is above all things. He is the Absolute Reality, self-existent, and self-sustaining, ruling over Created Reality. When we celebrate God in this way, our hearts are fired up and imagination is captured to contemplate the God from whom we derive our existence. He is our very Source – He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care26. We are creatures of worship – if we fail to worship God, we will bow to other things and become its slave instead. But when we worship God, we find perfect freedom.

In All of Life

It may come as a surprise to you that the word worship is never once used in the NT to describe Christian activity in churches. Most likely, church leaders were steering away from temple-based worship of the Old Testament since, as we have seen, Christ inaugurated a new order and made obsolete the old rituals.27 More importantly, the worship in the new order meant it is no longer bound to a particular time and place. A revolution has taken place. God no longer dwells in a human tent but indwells every believer and the body of Christ is the new ‘temple’. We approach God no more through a priest but directly and confidently by the blood of Jesus. We have immediate and continuous access to God through Christ and we can worship God freely all the time!

Worship has in a sense broken free from the boundaries of the OT tabernacle to now engulf all of time, space, and our entire lives. The writer of Hebrews declares, that Christ has achieved eternal redemption, entering the Most Holy Place by his own blood, ‘so that we may serve [latreuo] the living God!’28. Unhindered. And unencumbered. Paul asserts: ‘offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship.’29 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in everything we do we shall worship God. This is the great paradigm shift of the New Covenant that we must embrace – the sacred institution of worship overflowing as it were boundlessly into the whole experience of life.

(To speak of a church meeting as ‘time for worship’, ‘worship meeting’ or ‘coming together to worship’, and to call someone a ‘worship leader’ can be misleading if we forget this: Worship is all the time, and all time is worship.)

Expressed Together

With the background of an all-encompassing worship as a lifestyle, when Christians gather to read the Word, pray, or sing, we are expressing our worship through the vehicles of words and songs. On one hand we receive God’s Word and the Sacraments – reminding ourselves of God’s holiness and greatness as well as His mercy and sacrificial love. (Hence Bible reading and good preaching is essential, and adequate preparation of the heart is vital. We are also told to ‘teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.’30 Paul recognizes that the songs we sing are a powerful medium of instruction. We teach one another as we sing!) On the other hand we respond with prayer and praise – expressing our deepest, heartfelt response of remorse over our sins, thankfulness for His mercy, praise for His greatness, surrender to His Lordship, adoring Him and delighting in His love. (Hence orderly and well-conducted services are vital.) Oh, that our worship will grow – both the sacrifice our bodies as well as fruit of our lips. May we live such worshipful lives so that our praise is so much more meaningful, and may we sing so passionately as to overflow into all our living.


We were made for worship – to enjoy God’s fellowship and glorify Him in joyful service. We are, as Israel was, redeemed and saved to worship. Christ restores and maintains our fellowship with Him through His perfect atoning sacrifice. Breaking all boundaries, worship engulfs our entire lives so that we may worship him in the totality of our lives. Such truths must compel us also to worship Him exuberantly as a congregation. Until when in heaven we will with every tribe and nation fall before His throne and worship31:

Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.

1 Deut 4:15-16
2 Gen 2:2-3
3 Deut 12:10, Jos 1:13
4 Matt 11:29
5 Heb 4:9-11
6 Rev 14:13
7 Gen 1:28
8 Exo 3:12, 4:23, 7:16, 8:1, 8:20, 9:1, 9:13, 10:3
9 Lev 1:1-6:7
10 Lev 6:8-7:38
11 Lev 17:11, Gen 9:4
12 Lev 9:1-24, Lev 16
13 Heb 10:10, 10:19, 13:10-11, Rom 8:3
14 Isa 53:10, Heb 9:13-14; 1Pe 1:19
15 Eph 5:2
16 Heb 10:10-14
17 Heb 10:19-22
18 Rom 3:25
19 John 1:14
20 John 6:35, John 4:14, John 8:12
21 Rom 3:25, 1 Jn 2:2, 4:10
22 Heb 10:10-14
23 Rom 5:1-2
24 Rom 12:1
25 Heb 13:15
26 Ps 95:6-7
27 Heb 9:10
28 Heb 9:14
29 Rom 12:1
30 Col 3:16, Eph 5:19
31 Rev 7:9-12


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