The number of conversations I have had with someone that involved a disagreement because of assumptions about one or more definitions has been frequent. I have learned the importance of words. Therefore, if we are going to continue our conversations about worship, we ought to at least be oriented in the same way. The goal of this article is to offer a working, yet comprehensive, definition of biblical worship.
What do I mean my biblical worship? By biblical, I mean that the definition will arise from our study of Scripture. Dictionaries certainly have a definition of worship as utilized in their respective languages, but we want to explore what it might look like to define worship from a biblical perspective.
As a natural extension of “biblical worship”, our definition of biblical worship will be set in a Christian perspective. Worship will be defined differently in each religion, and it could be argued that one could define “worship” for other religions from Scripture and the various events recorded therein. Today, we are focusing on biblical, Christian worship.
A Working Definition of “Worship”
Talking about worship suggests an interaction between two or more beings or objects. In our case, we are looking for interactions that include the God of the Sacred Scriptures. Although there are exceptions, events occurring between God and humanity are often in the context of a covenant. First, in the Garden of Eden, then with the people of Israel, and finally, by those who enter the new covenant by Jesus of Nazareth. Covenant is the context in which biblical worship occurs.
Through the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the early Church determined that the God of Israel, now the God of the New Covenant, was triune: whom through the Sacred Scriptures we now understand as Father, Son, and Spirit. Each Being, although One, “acts out” their own role in the salvation story. The Spirit unifies and empowers the Church, that is, the people of the New Covenant; Christ fulfilled the Covenant with Israel, giving humanity everything pertaining to life and salvation, allowing access to the Father. This is God’s role in the context of the covenant.
One could go into much more depth concerning the covenant and the role of our triune God in the world, but that is as far as we will go for this article. It is important to remember that worship occurs within the context of the covenant and recognizes the distinct role of each person of the Trinity.
Now let us look at an example of worship within this context. A common text for exploring worship, both its theology and its liturgy, is that of Isaiah 6:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say to this people:
“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is a desolate waste,
and the Lord removes people far away,
and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
And though a tenth remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak,
whose stump remains
when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.
The first observation of this passage must be that the Lord is the one who came to Isaiah. The prophet did not enter the presence of God; God initiated this interaction. This is important to understanding worship. We do not initiate worship; it does not arise from our own self. It is a response to the presence of the living God. Worship is a response to God.
As with all true theology (see my post here about theology), we need to consider this within the context of our lives. How does this shape our liturgies? From our Sunday morning worship, our daily Scripture reading and prayer, our small groups, and our day-to-day activities; how does this affect our actions?
Worship is now a response to the presence of God within the redemptive covenant fellowship of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the work of the Son, to the Father. Let us continue to look at this passage.
Isaiah provides a response not uncommon to entering the presence of God. He quickly realizes his condition before the holy God and cries out “Woe is me! For I am lost”. Granted, this event occurred prior to Christ inaugurating the Kingdom of God and atonement through His death and resurrection. However, we may want to consider his reaction and how it may be appropriate to our worship. Acts of confession and recognizing God’s holiness are themes that we ought to consider incorporating in our worship.
Please note what happens after Isaiah cries out these words. The angel touches him in the lips and says “your guilt is taken away, your sin is atoned for”. If you do incorporate confession into your worship, include an absolution. There are plenty of ways to do this without making your congregation thinking that the pastor is the one forgiving their sins. We can declare someone’s forgiveness not because of our power, but because we know that God forgives those who ask and therefore we affirm the truth.
Taking a step back, let us consider the setting of Isaiah’s dream. He appears to be in a heavenly setting, as he notes the throne and the seraphim singing God’s praise. Although more of an Orthodox thought, maybe evangelicals ought to consider that our worship and liturgies may be a way of joining the heavenly liturgy. This brings an eschatological dimension to our worship.
This is why the Orthodox understand their liturgy to be an ascension into heaven to participate in the heavenly liturgy, a transfiguration of sorts, with the climax being the Table. Here they participate with the heavenly beings and those who have gone before us in hearing the Word and then dining with the one, true God.
Then the Lord speaks. He asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” The Lord seeks one who will listen, who will hear what He has to say. He seeks to empower one who will go to others on His behalf. Isaiah, having been transformed by the Lord through the act of forgiveness, offers his service: “Here I am! Send me.”
When he first entered the presence of God, Isaiah knew he was not worthy. Having his sin atoned for, however, and experiencing the power of forgiveness, Isaiah now stands before the Lord in confidence. Through the Word of the Lord, Isaiah is now empowered to serve. God then gives Him his command.
Transformation and Theocentricism
This encounter between God and Isaiah offers a couple of more elements to include in our definition of worship.
The first is that of transformation. How do you know if one has worshiped? If the worshiper has truly encountered God, they will be transformed. And if the worshiper has been transformed, then they become obedient. This is how one knows whether or not they have worshiped. Note Isaiah’s transformation. It was not necessarily that of being transformed into a “better” person or anything of that sort, but rather being transformed to participate in God’s story: obedience. Isaiah hears and listens to God’s plan, and then the rest of the book of Isaiah is about him participating through obedience in God’s plan.
Secondly, by participating in God’s story, we realize that worship is about God’s glory. We do not worship for our own sake. That belongs to the pagan cults. Our worship is for the honor and glory of the triune God. In the evangelical’s attempt to be relevant, we have compromised the integrity of this truth. Our preaching no longer preaches Christ, but rather self-help with Christ tagged along. Our songs describe what we do towards God and we forget to proclaim God’s work. In some evangelical churches that have significantly reduced historical worship, these are the only two aspects of our worship. We must recover a God-centered approach to our evangelical worship.
Again, consider the practical implications of the theology that we are discovering. If worship is not for us and does not stem for us, how do we begin our worship services? What language do we use to communicate the proper relationship between God, humanity, and the world.
With these biblical insights, let me submit the following working definition of worship:
“Worship is a response to the holy, triune God within the redemptive covenant fellowship for God’s glory by the Holy Spirit, through the Son, to the Father, and brings about transformation, which is evident through obedience.”
What about you? How would you define worship?
Jason Palmer is the Editor of TalkingWorship.com. Jason has a Bachelor of Science in Ministry with a Worship Arts Major and Music Minor. He has lead worship for evangelical churches for 7 years and desires to see worship leaders become confident in their calling.