In the English Bible, the word “worship” occurs a total of 243 times. There are at least eight Hebrew and Greek words translated “worship” in the Bible. The words mean to “bow down” as a lesser would do a superior; to “serve” as a slave would minister to a master; to “respect” and hold in “awe” and to “thank.” Over two centuries ago, a man defined worship like this:
Worship comprehends all that respect which man owes and gives to his Maker. . . It is the tribute which we pay to the King of Kings, whereby we acknowledge his sovereignty over us, and our dependence on him . . . All that inward reverence and respect, and all that outward obedience and service to God which the word enjoins, is included in worship.
In English, “worship” means to “give” or “recognize” worth. God doesn’t become “worth” more when we worship Him. Our worship is a recognition of the worth that is already His.
Once I asked a university class: “If God had never done anything for you, would He still deserve your worship?” The class replied: “no.”
It was the wrong answer.
God is so great and mighty that to fail to recognize that greatness, respect it, and submit to it, would not only be the height of disrespect, but the height of foolishness. God deserves our worship because He is the creator of all things and the supporter of nature. Amos the prophet described Him as the one who “. . . forms the mountains, creates the wind, and reveals his thoughts to man, who turns dawn to darkness, and treads the high places of the earth . . .” (Amos 4:13). “He builds his lofty palace in the heavens and sets its foundation on the earth, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out over the face of the land” (Amos 9:6).
God deserves our worship because He is the author and director of history. Throughout the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, God repeatedly informs (22 times to be exact) His people of events to come and then says, when it happens, “you will know that I am the Lord.”
God deserves our worship because He is simply supreme. The prophet Isaiah wrote:
Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. . . The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom” (Isaiah 40:26, 28).
We worship God because of who He is. But in the Bible, one of the most important reasons for worshiping God is for what He has done – His act of salvation.
Is God A “He?” In current religious circles, it has become popular to remove gender from the descriptions of God, preferring to refer to him as “he/she” or sometimes “he” and sometimes “she” or even as “it.” The Bible is not so ambiguous. While God is said to act, at times, like a “mother,” God is virtually always referred to as “he.” We are not trying to say God has gender, or that he has the physical characteristics of a male. We are simply trying to refer to God as He refers to Himself. To do otherwise, we believe, would be making God into what we want God to be. The word for that is “idolatry,” something God condemns.
Worship in Assembly: Remembering God’s Saving Act
In the Old Testament, God’s greatest saving act was delivering His people from Egyptian slavery. He called Israel to remember that event by assembling as a people every Sabbath – see Deuteronomy 5:15. They also remembered the Exodus at the beginning of the harvest season (Passover), and at the end of harvest season (Feast of Weeks and Tabernacles) – see Deuteronomy 16. Remembering God’s saving act was done according to His directions. Israel was not given a free hand to remember this saving event when, where, and how they chose. Note the following command given to Israel at the Exodus: You are not to do as we do here today, everyone as he sees fit, . . Be careful not to sacrifice your burnt offerings anywhere you please. Offer them only at the place the LORD will choose in one of your tribes, and there observe everything I command you (Deuteronomy 12:8, 13-14).
The assemblies were to be tools not only to remember God’s great saving act, but also to teach that act to the next generation. God put it this way:
Go at once and select the animals for your families and slaughter the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe. Not one of you shall go out the door of his house until morning. When the LORD goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down. Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the LORD will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians'”(Exodus 12:21-27).
Christian Worship In Assembly
The Lord’s Supper
Christians also remember the saving act of God in assembly. Jesus’ death and resurrection is called an “Exodus.” (This is difficult to see in the English Bible, but it is plain in the Greek text of the New Testament. On one occasion, Jesus met with Moses and Elijah, and they spoke of his “departure” which he would accomplish in Jerusalem. The word translated “departure” is the Greek word for “Exodus.”) His sacrifice on the cross is called a “Passover” sacrifice. (51 Corinthians 5:7) On the night Jesus was betrayed, he took the unleavened bread of the meal and called it His “body.” He took a cup of wine and called it the “blood of the new covenant.” He urged the disciples to eat the bread and drink the wine in memory of what he would do on the cross. The ceremony came to be known as the “Lord’s Supper” (1 Corinthians 11:20). It was observed in the early Church on the first day of the week, the day of Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection was the final proof that he was the son of God (Romans 1:4) and that happened on the first day of the week. All of the gospel writers record the specific day of the week of Jesus’ resurrection. It was important to them. On the day of his resurrection, Jesus was declared to be the Lord of the dead and the living (Romans 14:9). The Spirit of God came in fulfillment of Jesus’ promise on Pentecost, also the “first day of the week” and, not coincidently, the day the disciples were meeting together. The disciples continued to meet on that day (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2).
The Lord’s Supper reminds us of the significance of God’s saving act in Christ.
The bread symbolizes Christ’s body, which we enter when we become Christians. Paul wrote that Christians are all baptized into Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12:13,27). By partaking of the bread, we symbolize that we are united, that we are all members of the same body. Paul wrote: “Is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). This is why the Lord’s Supper is often called “communion” or “fellowship,” because in it, we commune with one another and with Jesus.
The bread of the Lord’s Supper, like the bread of the Passover, is unleavened. Cooks in Jesus’ day and before took leftover dough and allowed it to ferment. Then, they would take a little of the fermented dough (called “yeast”) and place it in new bread dough. The fermentation made the bread rise. But unleavened dough was pure. No fermentation could take place. The unleavened bread stands for the purity of life God calls us to, and the Lord’s Supper reminds us of that. Paul wrote: “Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast–as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).
The wine of the Lord’s Supper reminds us of the blood sacrifice of Christ. This blood was given for the forgiveness of sin (Matthew 26:28) – our sins. Christians are reminded of the high price of forgiveness Jesus paid for us, and should be motivated by the Lord’s Supper to live sinless lives. The wine also reminds us of the “covenant” or “agreement” Jesus made possible between us and God. It is an agreement to be God’s people and live a holy life.
In the early Church, Christians assembled to worship God and observed the Lord’s Supper as part of a meal, just as Jesus did when he first instituted it. Later, the Lord’s Supper was taken out of the context of a meal and became a ceremony, with bread and wine passed among the members. Often, Christians all drank from the same cup. In more modern times, each participant in the communion service usually has his own cup. There is a prayer of thankfulness before the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine, just as Jesus did.
Other Acts of Worship in Assembly
Though the Lord’s Supper is the central act of worship in assembly (remembering the saving act of God), other things also go on. Even from Old Testament times, singing has been an important feature of worship. There were special choruses in the Old Testament and many songs were written to be sung on the way to assembly (Psalms 120 – 134) and also sung in groups (Psalm 136). Jesus and his disciples sang at the end of the Passover (Matthew 26:30) and Paul mentions singing as part of the church assembly in Corinth (1 Corinthians 14:26). In the early Church, all singing was done without musical instruments. In fact, by the fourth century (when some were calling for using instruments), church leaders specifically forbade their use, citing the historical precedent that they had never been used before in Christian assemblies, as well as expressing concern that it would make worship music more “worldly.”
The early assemblies of the Church also had preaching, or Bible teaching, in which all assembled were urged to live according to the Word of God. Prayer also was a part of the group assembly. History has preserved an account of an early worship service from the early second century.
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in the cities or the country gather together in one place and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the leader verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray and as we before said. When our prayer is ended, bread and wine are brought and the leader in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. Justin Martyr, Apology I.LXVII.
Christian Worship In Life
Though worship in assembly was an important part of Israel’s spiritual life, there was something that could make that worship totally unacceptable to God – even if they did everything in assembly totally right. That “something” was the way they lived their day to day lives.
In the eighth century, God said to Israel:
The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me? I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations – I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow (Isaiah 1:7-17).
Two hundred years later, God was still warning Israel. Through Jeremiah He said:
Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”- safe to do all these detestable things?” Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 7:9-11).
The point of this is, worship in assembly follows best out of a worship in life. In Romans 12:1, Paul wrote: “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.”
Some have taken this text to mean that everything we do in the Christian life is worship. But God never allows people to worship Him on their own ground. Our approach to God must always be His way and in His time. In keeping with the whole Bible it is better to view this passage in as saying we should live worshipful lives. In other words, our lifestyle should bring God honor. In that way, our assembled worship will not become unacceptable to God.
Lifestyle and Assembly: A Case Study
We see how “worship in life” and “worship in assembly” come together in a case presented in 1 Corinthians. As we’ve already seen, the assembly of the early church often included a meal during which the Lord’s Supper was observed. But in the Corinthian church, the symbolism of the Supper was lost in the meal itself. The rich had plenty to eat and drink. Some even became drunk! The poor on the other hand, who had nothing, went hungry. The selfishness, self-centeredness, and undisciplined lifestyles of some of those Christians took the meaning out of the Lord’s Supper and the worship out of their assembly. (Read 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 for the whole story.)
Christian Participation in Assembly
The assembly of God’s people reminds us that we were not saved to be individuals, but saved to be part of something bigger than ourselves: the body of Christ. There is no salvation outside the body of Christ. There is no fellowship with God outside the body of Christ. It is within the body that we are to encourage and be encouraged. It is within the body of Christ that we grow spiritually and help others grow. It is in Christ that “the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:16). All this makes the body of Christ, the Church, very important. It means also that it is important to be a part of a local body of Christ so that you can participate in these blessings. Finally, it means that the act of assembling together for worship with other Christians is important.
The writer of Hebrews put it like this:
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:23-25).
Later, the writer of Hebrews described the assembly of Christians from a heavenly perspective when he wrote:
[Y]ou have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect . . . (Hebrews 12:22-24).
Since Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden, God has been planning a homecoming: a time when He will welcome us back into His fellowship. On earth, that fellowship is entered through Christ, and it is celebrated by holy living and in Christian assembly. Those two serve to ready us for a heavenly fellowship when God will usher us into His physical presence, and give us the keys to the home his son Jesus has prepared for us.
During his ministry, Jesus anticipated that great day with these words:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am (John 14:1-3).
It will be a prepared place for a prepared people.
Are you preparing?
Are you a Christian?
Are you living the Christian life?