What is worship?

•WORSHIP  (Definition)

To reflect back to God his self-revealed worth.  The word “worship,” in the English Bible, attempts to translate one of two groups of Hebrew and Greek words.  Group one relates to acts of homage, from the Hebrew word shachah.  It means to prostrate, bow down, or stoop.  Similarly, the Greek word proskuneo means to do reverence, to prostrate, or to kiss towards.  Group two consists of words that primarily relate to labor or service.  The Hebrew word Abad means to serve or stand, and was generally used to refer to the work of the priests and Levites in their temple roles.  The Greek word Leitourgia refers to the service, work or ministry of worship (the work of the people).

There is a cycle that happens during worship.  It is a communication cycle, which theologians call the “dialogical process.”  Simply put, it consists of God revealing Himself to humans, and humans responding accordingly.  In other words, God shows and tells what He is like, and humans respond with, in the words of A. W. Tozer, “astonished reverence, breathless adoration, awesome fascination, and lofty admiration.”   The human part of the dialogue (read “worship”) is to acknowledge and reflect the attributes of God back to Him.  This is much like the Moon, which has no light of its own, but simply reflects the light of the Sun.

The word “worship” comes to us from the Middle English word Worthschipe, and refers to something that shows or possesses a state of worth.  Unlike praise, worship is a response to the being and nature of God, rather than to his works.  In everyday terms, “praise” would be like boasting about the great things your spouse has accomplished.  “Worship” would resemble appreciating your spouse for who they are, such as loyal, compassionate, honest and encouraging.  Worship, then, centers on character traits, rather than deeds.  Both types of expressions are necessary; both are Biblical!  “Worship” and “praise” are different components of the same relationship.  Christians worship God for Who he is, and praise him for what he has done. 



            It is essential that God be worshiped for who He says he is, rather than for whom we wish or think Him to be.  Christian worship, therefore, must be Trinitarian (one God, revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit).  It is common to hear that all religions worship the same concept of god, but this is not true.  The Christian God is the One True God, who has revealed himself as simultaneously singular and plural; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God.  This concept of God is unlike any other!  Next, Christian worship must be Christocentric, that is, centered on the person and work of Jesus.  It is Jesus who has both shown us the Father (Jn 14:9), and made us acceptable to be in His presence (Heb 10:19-20).  Finally, Jesus taught that worship must be offered in “Spirit and Truth” (John 4:24).  This verse is interpreted in various ways, but in all circumstances it functions as a continuum that helps the worshiper maintain balance, so that one falls into neither license nor legalism. 

There are three general types of worship the Christian should practice.  First, the follower of Christ should develop the habit of personal worship.  Christians are the temple of God, and God’s very Spirit dwells in them (1 Cor 3:16).  Various terms are used for this junction of creature and Creator: the “secret place” (Ps 27:5), the “inmost place” (Ps 51) and the “inner being” (Eph 3:16).  It is here, at the intersection of time and eternity, that mortals are privileged to commune with The Divine.  A wonderful by-product of personal worship is penned by the Apostle Paul: “that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:17-19).  The thought that mere mortals can have both knowledge of, and experience with, the Living God is unfathomable, but true!

            Second, Christians should practice corporate worship.  The Apostle Peter addresses Christ-followers in cooperative terms like “people,” “priesthood” and “nation.”  Why?  Peter continues “That you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pt 2:9).  Some may question the need for the corporate gathering, in lieu of the practice of personal worship.  Again, both are important; both are Biblical.  Jesus said “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt 18:20).  It is not that Christ manifests himself differently to the individual than He does to the gathering, for He does not change.  It is “we” who change; “me” has become “we.”  In corporate worship, gathered Christians reflect the very nature of the Triune God, simultaneously singular and plural, and experience God corporately through both the presence of The Holy Spirit, and through one another.  There is also a dual audience in corporate worship, reflected in Paul’s writings to the Ephesians: “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5:19-20).  We sing to God and to one another.

            Finally, the Disciple of Christ should engage in a lifestyle of worship.  When our first parents breathed their initial breaths and brushed the dirt from their newly created skin, they must have looked up and seen God wiping the primordial clay from his hands.  They instantly knew from whom they had come, and for whom they should live; they were created worshiping!  Author and educator Harold Best notes that when they sinned, they simply traded gods, but kept on worshiping.  A lifestyle of worship means that Christ-followers demonstrate their love, and thereby their worship, through their obedience to God.  Jesus said, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me” (Jn 14:21).  This is why, when tempted by Satan to trade gods, Jesus replied, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only” (Matt 4:10).  The Apostle Paul’s teaching on worship urged Christians to consider the mercies they had received, and to worship by offering themselves as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1).  Scripture does not demand perfection; we all know that living sacrifices tend to crawl off the altar.  The daily life of a worshiper, however, is fueled by God’s mercies to live a life that is pleasing to God. 

To understand worship, simply answer the question “How does the God of the Bible describe Himself?  As the Moon reflects the light of the Sun, Christians should mirror God’s attributes back to Him with “astonished reverence, breathless adoration, awesome fascination, and lofty admiration.”  Do this, and you will obey the greatest commandment, to “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5-6).

(See The Knowledge of The Holy by A. W. Tozer and The Wonder of Worship by Ronald Allen)



•PRAISE  (Definition)

 Active boasting in the acts of God.  The words “praise” and “worship” are sometimes used interchangeably (perhaps because it is difficult to distinguish God’s acts from his traits), but the two words are actually distinct.  When the word “praise” appears in our English Bibles, it is usually a translation of the Hebrew word halal, or its Greek counterpart ainos.  Halal implies not only a command to boast, but also a sense of exclamation and abandonment.  “Someone paid my rent!” would be an example of halal.  When halal is directed towards Jah, a shortened form of the name YAWEH (God’s holy, unspeakable name), we arrive at the word “hallelujah,” usually translated “praise the LORD!”  “Hallelujah” has become so much a part of the Christian’s vocabulary that it is often not translated at all; the word itself has become an exclamation of praise.  (As a side note, different spellings or pronunciations, such as “alleluia” are sometimes used, and are completely acceptable.) 

Praise is, first and foremost, active.  Just as the ancient Hebrews could not conceive of a God who does nothing, neither could they merely think their praise; they had to embody it (Luke 19:40).  It is similar to the difference between reading a book on swimming and actually swimming; praise is akin to jumping into the water.  Secondly, praise is boasting.  In the ancient world, the Hebrews confronted a whole host of gods, such as the Canaanite god Baal.  Praise, in this context, resembled the ultimate “my Dad can beat up your Dad” statement, as in Psalm 96:4-5: “For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods.  For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.”  Finally, praise is acknowledging the acts of God.  If, for example, you see a turtle on a fencepost, your immediate supposition is that the turtle did not get there by himself; someone else intervened on the turtle’s circumstance.  This is the inherent understanding in praise, as in Deuteronomy 10:21: “He is your praise . . . who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes.  Praise, then, is a tangible recognition of God’s divine interventions.  It is “active boasting in the acts of God.”



It is always interesting to explore the application of a theological word.  One interesting question is “Who should actually do this boasting about the acts of God?”  Scripture is clear that praise is expected of all servants of God, “small and great” (Rev 19:5), and that eventually all creatures will praise him (Ps 150:6; Rev 5:13).  A second question is “Why praise?”  In addition to the fact that halal is an imperative, Scripture suggests that praise is fitting for creatures, and befitting the Creator, as in Psalm 147:1: “Praise the LORD.  How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him!”  In other words, praise fits!  It fits us, as though we were designed for this very purpose.  And it fits God, because He does such amazing things. 

When is praise appropriate?” has far-reaching implications for the Believer.  Hebrews 13:15 exhorts “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name.  Praise is to be a continuous and sacrificial dialogue because of what Christ has done in His victory over sin and death.  This continual offering (read lifestyle) of praise is not meant to be burdensome, but rather, is a refreshing invitation to live above the fray.  The continuous recognition of God’s goodness will transform its practitioner into a free and joyful participant in the Kingdom of God. 

Praise is even appropriate when things are difficult.  Neither Scripture, nor this author, suggests that one should praise God because of bad things, but rather, in spite of them.  Paul and Silas, for example, “were praying and singing hymns to God” while in prison, and at midnight, no less (Acts 16:25)!  This type of praise is sacrificial, and requires a mature perspective to be offered sincerely.  Further, God can be praised even in the face of tragedy.  The Apostle Peter writes to the persecuted Christians, “These [sufferings] have come so that your faith . . . may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Pt 1:7).  Praise, in the context of suffering, is an audacious declaration that God is both sovereign and good.

There is no restriction on where God should be praised.  Psalm 113:3 asserts “From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the LORD is to be praised.”  This is in keeping with Jesus’ teachings that, because God is Spirit, location is no longer relevant (John 4).  Finally, one may ask, “How should God be praised?”  Light may be shed on this question by examining other, less-frequently used, Hebrew and Greek words.  They are, in reality, various types of actions.  We are to confess His praise (romam; yadah; exomologeo), sing His praise (tehillah; humneo), play His praise (zamar: psallo) on all available instruments (Psalm 150), and dance His praise (machol).  These actions can either erupt spontaneously from a grateful heart, or be the result of studied preparation and refinement.  Exodus teaches that praise can be articulated in a simple song of deliverance, like Moses’, or in combination, as when Miriam played, danced and sang in praise of God’s deliverance.  Incidentally, she may have been the very first worship leader as she led the children of Israel in corporate praise.

Praise is fitting for all creatures in all situations at all times.  It should be offered everywhere and in every way.  The various actions of “praise” imply that its expressions can be both planned and spontaneous; ordered, and clamorous.  It is always a focused boast of what God has done, and is never about us, or our praise of God.  What has God done in you that you could not do in yourself?  Find some concrete ways to boast about his acts in your life, and you will know the meaning of “praise”!

(See Praise! A Matter of Life and Breath by Ronald Allen; also, Enter His Courts with Praise! by Andrew Hill).

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