What is Worship?
It is first necessary to note that the Bible employs a number of terms translated "worship" which are variously applied to God, men, demons, idols, etc. Some of these terms denote honor or respect and therefore, depending on the circumstances, may properly be directed to either God or man. In the present study, however, our focus is upon the religious homage, reverence and services which properly belongs to God alone.
Jesus leaves absolutely no doubt that such worship is the right of none but God. When, for example, Satan tried to entice Jesus to worship him, He immediately responded: "Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve" (Matthew 4:10; cf. Deuteronomy 6:13).
The same truth is illustrated in the writings of John. For concerning the appearance of an angel to him, the Apostle writes: "I fell at his feet to worship him. And he said unto me, see thou do it not: I am thy fellow servant, and of thy brethren that have the testimony of Jesus: worship God" (Revelation 19:10).
The Early Biblical Record of Worship
Man is by nature a worshipping creature. He was created to worship God, his Maker. And from the dawn of human history, as the Biblical record testifies, faithful men have worshipped their Creator in various but Divinely appointed ways.
Abel affords the first of a few illustrations. Scripture says: "And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering" (Genesis 4:4). Regarding this incident the writer of Hebrews comments: "By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts" (Hebrews 11:4).
Noah was also a man of faith and worship. "And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD, and took of every clean beast, and of every clean foul, and offered burnt offerings on the altar" (Genesis 8:20). The faithful Abraham worshipped in a similar fashion. "And Abraham said, I and the lad will go yonder and worship. And they came to the place which God had told him of: and Abraham built and altar there?" (Genesis 22:5, 9; cf. Genesis 13:18). We further read: "And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped" (Exodus 34:8).
The Folly of Idolatry
Although man's well being is entirely dependent upon his worshipping the God for whom he was created, from ancient times many have foolishly turned from the living God to idols. In the words of Paul: "Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things, Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever, Amen" (Romans 1:22, 23, 25).
Idolatry brings moral and spiritual ruin. Hence the Psalmist says: "Confounded be all they that serve graven images, that boast themselves of idols" (Psalms 97:7). It is therefore with much rejoicing that Paul reminds the Thessalonians of "how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
It is important to note, however, that idolatry does not necessarily involve worshipping a graven image. It may take a much more subtle form. One makes an "idol" of anything to which he devotes the adoration, service or resources that are properly God's due. Thus Paul, for example, warns against "covetousness, which is idolatry" (Colossians 3:5), and pointedly rejects those "whose God is their belly" (Philippians 3:19).
Idols are called "vanities" - i.e., empty things (Acts 14:15). Idol worship is indeed vain or empty worship. But as we have seen, idolatry is worship in which one turns from God. On the other hand, worship, which is purportedly directed to God, can also be vain or empty. Accordingly, to certain of His professedly religious countrymen Jesus says: "Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoreth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:7-9).
Speaking to the woman at Jacob's well, Jesus said: "But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth" (John 4:23, 24). True worship is not a mere formality but an issue of the heart. The writer of Hebrews therefore urges: "Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith" (Hebrews 10:22).
One may of course properly engage in private or family devotions. Regular, personal and family Bible reading and prayer are vitally important. They are, however, no substitute for worship in the public assembly of the church. Scripture commands: "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching" (Hebrews 10:25).
In the New Testament the Lord's Day worship regularly embraces the following practices, although not necessarily in the order listed here.
- The singing. Congregational singing is a significant part of the worship. Hence Paul enjoins: "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:19; cf. Colossians 3:16).
- The teaching. Paul informs us that the congregational teaching is to be done by the male members of the church (1 Corinthians 14:34; 1 Timothy 2:11-12). The Apostle further states: "How is it then, brethren? When ye come together, every one of you hat a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying, For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints" (1 Corinthians 14:26, 33).
- The contribution. The Lord's Day worship includes contributing a portion of one's income for the work of the church, especially the support of those proclaiming the gospel and provision of the needy. Paul instructs the Corinthians: "Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come" (1 Corinthians 16:1,2).
- The communion. Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper on the night of His betrayal. "And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave it unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you" (Luke 22:19, 20). Emphasizing the importance of observing the communion, Paul says: "For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord's death till he come" (1 Corinthians 11:26). In harmony with this teaching, we read that "upon the first day of the week, the disciples came together to break bread" (Acts 20:7). This observance remains and indispensable part of the Lord's Day worship today.
- The prayers. Regarding the worship of the early Christians, Luke writes: "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42). Thus, along with these other expressions of worship, prayer has always occupied a prominent place in the assembly of the saints. Illustrating the type of prayers employed, Paul writes: "I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, giving of thanks, be made for all men" (1 Timothy 2:1).
Man's only true hope of life and happiness lies in worshipping his Creator in accordance with the dictates of His will. And although God has authorized various expressions of worship through the ages, the essence of what He now requires is that His people worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23, 24). In summary, all of those that are truly set apart to God "worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh" (Philippians 3:3).