If you ask 21st-century Christians what the word ‘worship’ brings to mind, answers might include music, singing, liturgies, bands, emotional experiences, lifting hands, hymnals, and for some, smoke machines. But for Christians in first-century Rome or Ephesus, our 21st-century associations would never cross their minds. The Greek words in the New Testament that we translate ‘worship’ have a number of meanings. Most of them suggest humble submission or service, not singing. In fact, nowhere in the New Testament is a gathering of Christians referred to as a worship service — an assembly, a gathering, and a time of edification, but never ‘worship’.
During Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Jews saw the temple in Jerusalem as the place where their sins were acknowledged and dealt with, and where they could experience unique fellowship with God. How shocking it must have been for them to hear Jesus say, ‘I tell you that one greater than the temple is here’ (Matthew 12:6). After the resurrection, the early Christians came to understand that Jesus’ death on the cross was the perfect and eternal sacrifice which the temple sacrifices merely foreshadowed. Later, Paul describes the church as rising ‘to become a holy temple in the Lord’ (Ephesians 2:21). In addressing individual believers, he says, ‘Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?’ (1 Corinthians 6:19). In other words, God’s meeting place is no longer confined to a building such as the one in Jerusalem called the temple. Our ‘place’, where we now worship and meet with God is the exalted Lord Jesus Christ. And we can do that together or apart, on Sunday mornings or any day of the week.
Meetings and more
In Colossians 3:16 we’re told to ‘sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God’. Paul is reminding us of the importance of gathering together to ‘teach and admonish one another’ through music. But the next verse goes on to say, ‘And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him’ (Col. 3:17). Our singing praises to God is meant to prepare us for daily life. Paul is calling for a radical, inward authenticity of worship that leads to continually giving thanks to God.
In a similar vein, Paul and the other New Testament writers consistently apply Old Testament words for temple events and worship to life in general.
- ‘God, whom I serve [or: worship] with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness…’ (Rom. 1:9). Evangelism is worship!
- ‘And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased’ (Heb. 13:16). Serving others is worship!
- ‘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’ (Rom. 12:1). When focused on God and done in faith, everything we do can be worship!
The New Covenant takes the focus off ceremonies, seasons, places and forms, and highlights what takes place in our hearts — not just on Sunday, but in all of life. That doesn’t mean meetings are unimportant. But worshipping ‘in spirit and truth’ doesn’t only apply to what we do on Sunday mornings. It’s the way God has enabled us to know Him forever – enabled by the Spirit, through the atoning work of Christ. The ultimate challenge of ‘worship in spirit and truth’ is not, ‘How do I make a church meeting God-centered?’ but, ‘How do I make my life God-centered?’.
The Godward life
I’ve had the joy of leading music in the church since the mid-1970s. Like all worship leaders, I’ve had my share of equipment problems, off-key vocalists (including myself), and unresponsive congregations. I’ve also had moments of incredible intimacy with God when I was completely undone by His glory and mercy. But none of those things make me a worshipper. A worshipper of God is someone who seeks to magnify the glory of God in Christ in the power of the Spirit in all of life. My most difficult task regarding worship is not picking songs or leading a congregation, but seeking to exalt God’s grace in Jesus Christ in my daily decisions and thoughts. Giving God glory in front of a crowd is much easier than being grateful when I don’t get credit for something I’ve done, or when I suffer a crushing loss, or when I’m disappointed by others. That’s when I find out if I am truly interested in worshipping God — or worshipping myself.
Worship is something we DO with our bodies in all of life. We can worship God through our eating, drinking, typing, speaking, cooking, driving and countless other ways. We worship God whenever we perform an act out of a desire to draw attention to His greatness and goodness, especially revealed in sending Jesus to die as our substitute on the cross.
Keep the main thing the main thing
How sad it is when we endlessly debate the secondary points of worship and miss what really matters: the Almighty Creator has called us to enjoy an intimate relationship with Himself, even after we spurned His loving rule. Through the perfect sacrifice of His Son, we are now able to proclaim His greatness and His glory both as individuals and together, through our words and our lives, and not only in meetings, but in every moment of life.
Have you ever imagined heaven being one worship meeting after another for all eternity? I’m sure there will be a lot of singing. But the Bible suggests the essence of heaven will be life lived at a new level, where every thought, emotion, word and action is an ongoing response of gratitude, praise and worship to the true God, our Creator/Redeemer, the one from whom, through whom and to whom are all things.
May God empower us by His Spirit to live that way THIS side of eternity!