STUDY TWO: CORPORATE WORSHIP IN THE BIBLE
© Rosemary Bardsley 2007,2013
‘Worship’ forms a significant role in contemporary Christianity. Increasingly the word has come to refer to the time spent in singing songs of praise. We refer to the ‘worship leader’ or the ‘worship ministry’, or a ‘praise and worship’ service. But, interestingly, the meeting together of Christians is never called “worship” in the New Testament.
A. WHAT IS ‘WORSHIP’ IN THE BIBLE?
A.1 Worship – an expression of reverential fear and wonder
The Hebrew word shachah, and the Greek word proskuneo are the words most commonly translated ‘worship’ in English. As we have seen, they both refer to bowing down or prostrating oneself before a person or being in whose presence one feels reverential fear and wonder. These words refer to the attitude we are supposed to have towards God, and that we are forbidden to have towards false gods. A Greek word with a similar meaning - sebomai – includes the ideas of both reverence and devotion.
Worship in this context is a deliberate acknowledgement of God as God. It is the kind of attitude demanded in the following scriptures, irrespective of whether or not the actual word is used:
In what ways do these passages command us to worship God?
This worship of God – this giving God the reverence due to him as God – is encapsulated in the first three commandments [that we should have no other God but God, that we should not worship idols, and that we should not use his name in an empty way – Exodus 20:3-7], and also in the ‘greatest’ commandment, that we should love the Lord with all our heart, soul and strength [Deut 6:5].
Comments from John Calvin:
On the first commandment: ‘The purpose on this commandment is that the Lord wills alone to be pre-eminent among his people, and to exercise complete authority over them. To effect this, he enjoins us to put far from us all impiety and superstition, which either diminish or obscure the glory of his divinity. For the same reason he commands us to worship and adore him with true and zealous godliness. The very simplicity of the words well-nigh expresses this. For we cannot ”have” God without at the same time embracing the things that are his. Therefore, in forbidding us to have strange gods, he means that we are not to transfer to another what belongs to him. Even though there are innumerable things that we owe to God, yet they may be conveniently grouped in four headings:  adoration (to which is added as an appendix, spiritual obedience of the conscience),  trust,  invocation,  thanksgiving.  “Adoration” I call the veneration and worship that each of us, in submitting to his greatness, renders to him. For this reason, I justly consider as part of adoration the fact that we submit our consciences to his law.  “Trust” is the assurance of reposing in him that arises from the recognition of his attributes, when – attributing to him all wisdom, righteousness, might, truth, and goodness – we judge that we are blessed only by communion with him.  “Invocation” is that habit of our mind, whenever necessity presses us, of resorting to his faithfulness and help as our only support.  “Thanksgiving” is that gratitude with which we ascribe praise to him for all good things. As the Lord suffers none of these to be transferred to another, so he commands that all be rendered wholly to himself.’ [Institutes of the Christian Religion II.VIII.16]
On the second commandment: ‘In the previous commandment, he declared himself the one God, apart from whom no other gods are to be imagined or had. Now he declares more openly what sort of God he is, and with what kind of worship he should be honoured, lest we dare attribute anything carnal to him. The purpose of this commandment, then, is that he does not will that his lawful worship be profaned by superstitious rites. … he wholly calls us back and withdraws us from petty carnal observances, which our stupid minds, crassly conceiving of God, are wont to devise. And then he makes us conform to his lawful worship, that is, a spiritual worship established by himself.
‘The commandment has two parts. The first restrains our license from daring to subject God, who is incomprehensible, to our sense perceptions, or to represent him by any form. The second part forbids us to worship any images in the name of religion… [II.VIII.17]
On the third commandment: ‘The purpose of this commandment is: God wills that we hallow the majesty of his name. Therefore, it means in brief that we are not to profane his name by treating it contemptuously and irreverently. To this prohibition duly corresponds the commandment that we should be zealous and careful to honour his name with godly reverence. Therefore we ought to be so disposed in mind and speech that we neither think nor say anything concerning God and his mysteries, without reverence and much soberness; that in estimating his works we conceive nothing but what is honourable to him. …
‘… First, whatever our mind conceives of God, whatever our tongue utters, should savour of his excellence, match the loftiness of his sacred name, and lastly, serve to glorify his greatness. Secondly, we should not rashly or perversely abuse his Holy Word and worshipful mysteries either for the sake of our own ambition, or greed, or amusement; but, as they bear the dignity of his name imprinted upon them, they should ever be honoured and prized among us. Finally, we should not defame or detract from his works, as miserable men are wont abusively to cry out against him; but whatever we recognize as done by him we should speak of with praise of his wisdom, righteousness, and goodness. That is what it means to hallow God’s name.’ [II.VIII.22]
A.2 Worship as service
Two other words abodah [Hebrew] and latreuo [Greek] speak of worship as service. In this context, the acknowledgement of God that expressed itself above in reverence and awe in his presence, here expresses itself in deeds done in the service of God. These may refer to specifically religious acts, or to a life committed to serving God.
Identify the kind of service/worship indicated in these passages where sebomai is used
2 Tim 1:3
A.3 Worship as giving honour and glory to God
Two other Greek words are used in the New Testament to indicate the kind of respect due to God:
 timao – which is variously translated ‘honour’, ‘show proper respect to’. While this word is used to refer to the respect due to specific human beings [e.g. one’s father and mother], it is also used in reference to the honour that is due to God. The most significant such reference is John 5:23 where Jesus said that God has entrusted all judgment to the Son ‘that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him.’
 doxazo - which is usually translated by ‘glorify’ and means to ‘magnify, extol, praise … ascribing honour to Him, acknowledging Him as to His being, attributes and acts … to do honour to, to make glorious’. [Vines]. To glorify God is stated as the duty and purpose of Christians both individually and corporately [Matthew 5:16; Ephesians 3:21].
A.4 Giving as worship
In Deuteronomy 26:10-11; 1 Chronicles 16:23-29 and Matthew 2:10-11 giving of money or other physical possessions is viewed as an act of worship. What do these verses teach?
B. CORPORATE WORSHIP IN THE OLD TESTAMENT BELIEVING COMMUNITY
Israel as the people of God was commanded to worship God alone [Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5]. This was part of their identity as God’s holy people. This corporate responsibility of worshipping God alone outlawed worshipping anything else as god [Deut 8:19; 11:16]. This responsibility of worshipping God was not confined to religious actions but embraced the whole of life.
B.1 When we look at the poetry and songs of Israel we come closer to our contemporary concepts of worship:
- In Exodus 15 Moses and Miriam led the people of Israel in a song extolling the Lord.
- In 1 Chronicles 17:7-36 David’s psalm of thanks to the Lord is recorded. It is an exhortation to worship.
- A number of the Psalms are calls to corporate worship of the Lord [for example, 29, 66, 81, 95, 96, 98, 100, 105-107, 118, 134, 135, 136,148-150]. In addition to those using the actual word ‘worship’ are those that exhort the believing community to praise, magnify or exalt the Lord, and to celebrate or commemorate his great acts on their behalf in the past.[Many other Psalms are expressions of individual worship.]
- Both corporate and individual songs also include expressions of dependence upon the mercy of God [for example, Psalms 5:1-7; 32; 130].
B.2 When the Israelite community came together it was not specifically to worship but to commemorate and acknowledge God’s gracious actions towards them. They were commanded to:
- Commemorate the Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread annually [Exodus 12; 23]
- Celebrate the Feast of harvest, annually [Exodus 23]
- Celebrate the Feast of Ingathering, annually [Exodus 23]
By these feasts the Israelites acknowledged their dependence on the mercy and the bounty of God, and in this acknowledgement these feasts were an observable expression of worship.
B.3 At times of great national significance the people of Israel came together before the Lord. Such times included:
- The reaffirmation of the covenant [Joshua 24]
- The dedication of the temple [1 Kings 8]
- Times of national repentance [Nehemiah 8-9]
- The dedication of the wall of Jerusalem [Nehemiah 12:27-43]
In each of these there is an element of worship, and in that worship elements of both praise and commitment.
B.4 The priests’ daily ministry in the tabernacle/temple can also be understood as a form of ‘worship’. As priests, they represented the people before the Lord. While all the people could not be in the house of the Lord every day, the priests were there as their representatives. What did they do?
- Every day they kept the lights on the lampstand burning [Exodus 27:20-21]
- Every week they placed new ‘shewbread’ before the Lord [Exodus 25:30]
- Every day they offered incense to the Lord [Exodus 30:1-7]
- Every day they presented to the Lord the morning and evening offerings/sacrifices [Leviticus 9;17; 1 Kings 18:29,36; 2 Kings 16:15; Ps 141:2]
- Every day they had to preserve their own ritual cleanness [Exodus 30:17-21]
- Every day the high priest bore the names of the tribes of Israel into the Holy Place [Exodus 28:6-29]
While all of this easily degraded into mere ritual, its real intention was to express the heart of a nation of redeemed people committed to honour their God. [As Christians we are not commanded to follow these outward physical expressions of worship; however, if we look deeply enough into their symbolism we can see shadows of the real spiritual worship that we offer to God in and through our Saviour Jesus Christ and the salvation we have in him, and to which all of these symbols pointed with sure and eager expectation.]
This corporate worship of the Old Testament believing community is an expression of:
- A shared identity
- A shared redemption
- A shared Redeemer/God
- A shared awareness of sin
- A shared hope of forgiveness – through the sacrificial system
- A shared hope of a future grand reality
C. CORPORATE WORSHIP IN THE NEW TESTAMENT BELIEVING COMMUNITY
In the corporate worship of the New Testament believing community, the church, we also see the expression of:
- A shared identity – we are all children of God by faith in Christ
- A shared redemption – we are all bought with a price, saved through Christ.
- A shared Redeemer – Jesus Christ
- A shared awareness of our sinfulness
- A shared hope of forgiveness – through the death of Christ
- A shared hope of a future grand reality – the return of Christ and an eternity in his presence
Although there seems to be a fundamental similarity between the corporate worship of the Old Testament believing community and the corporate worship of the New Testament believing community, there are some fundamental differences. These differences centre on the fact that the Christ to whom the Old Testament worship looked forward in symbol/mystery form, is now the focus and the reality of New Testament worship.
C.1 Components of worship in the New Testament believing community
Nowhere in the New Testament is the form or the practice of worship specifically described. What we know about it is picked up in references here and there, some written to correct improprieties in church meetings.
We can identify the following aspects of New Testament worship:
- Singing [Acts 16:25; 1 Cor 14:15; Eph 5:18; Col 3:16]. This singing included psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, and was considered a way of communicating God’s truth about God to each other, encouraging each other, and expressing thankfulness.
- The Lord’s supper [Acts 2:42,62; 20:7; 1Cor 11:17-34].
- Praise [Acts 2:47; Hebrews 13:15]
- Teaching God’s truth [Acts 2:42; 1Cor 14; Eph 4:7-16; Col 3:16]
- Prayer [Acts 2:42; 12:5,12; 1Cor 11:1-5,15; Eph 6:18-20]
- In New Testament worship every believer is a ‘priest’ [1 Peter 1:9]
- The final expression of New Testament worship is described in Revelation [4:10; 5:8-14; 7:9-17; 11:15-18; 15:1-8; 19:1-10]
C.2 Worship is only possible because of the mediation of Christ and the enabling of the Spirit
Read these passages. In what way do they teach that it is only through the work of Christ and of the Spirit that we can worship God?
D. WORSHIP IN THE CHURCH TODAY
An exercise for you
List similarities and differences between New Testament worship and worship in contemporary Christianity
What opportunities are there for an individual Christian to participate in corporate worship?
What are hindrances to Biblical worship in contemporary churches?
Suggest ways to encourage the involvement of a greater percentage of church adherents in the corporate worship of the church.