‘Worship definition’ is surprisingly not an easy topic to get around no matter which denomination a Christian is from. There are myriad definitions and explanations, some of which even contradict each other and sometimes lead to confusion, unedifying debates and arguments.
The root cause of this challenge of understanding ‘worship’ may well stem from two reasons:
- The Bible only describes worship and doesn’t explicitly define what it is
- The word ‘Worship’ is both noun and verb
In this post, let’s attempt to understand various worship definitions by referring the Bible and other material.
What is worship?
Worship definitions from the dictionary
- reverence offered a divine being or supernatural power; also: an act of expressing such reverence
- a form of religious practice with its creed and ritual
- extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem
- to love, respect, and admire someone or something very much, often without noticing the bad qualities of that person or thing
- the act of worshipping God or a god, often through praying or singing
- The feeling or expression of reverence and adoration for a deity
- Religious rites or ceremonies, constituting a formal expression of reverence for a deity
- Great admiration or devotion shown towards a person or principle
Simply phrased, the dictionary worship definitions can be summarized as the highest love and adoration that we experience and express toward someone or something.
Understanding worship definitions from the Bible
As stated at the beginning of this article, a formal definition of worship is not given in the Bible. However, we can gain an understanding of what worship is by studying the various descriptions of worship and how it is talked about by the many men and women of God contained in the scriptures.
Worship in the Old Testament
Genesis 4 narrates the first act of worship of God by Cain and Abel. In verses 3 and 4, we read about both the brothers bringing offerings to the Lord. This idea of worship is found throughout the Old Testament.
For example, after God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, when they reach the mountain, Abraham commands his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” (Genesis 22:5). Again, worship here means offering a sacrifice to the Lord.
The sacrificial offering was therefore the predominant understanding of worshipping God in the Old Testament.
We also find scripture describing many physical expressions of praise and worship
- “Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts.” (1 Chronicles 16:9)
- “I will sing of your love and justice; to you, Lord, I will sing praise.” (Psalm 101:1)
- “Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the Lord.” (Psalm 134:2)
- “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” (Psalm 141:2)
“Then the man bowed down and worshiped the Lord” (Genesis 24:26)
“When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, “He is good; his love endures forever.”” (2 Chronicles 7:3)
“And the Levites, of the Kohathites and the Korahites, stood up to praise the Lord, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice.” (2 Chronicles 20:19)
“Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy.” (Psalm 47:1)
“Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music” (Psalm 98:4)
“Along with their relatives—all of them trained and skilled in music for the Lord—they numbered 288.” (1 Chronicles 25:7)
“Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with timbrel and harp.” (Psalm 149:3)
Worship in the New Testament
In the New Testament, St. Paul expands on the prototype of Old Testament sacrificial worship by introducing the concept of the living sacrifice in Romans 12:1, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”
The worship definition for Christian believers is therefore not just confined to isolated acts of offerings at various occasions. Instead, worship is the spiritual stimulus uniting our faith, morals and works!
Worship is the primary attitude, activity and ministry of every Christian. Everything else should come next. Whether our calling is pastoral or in teaching or evangelizing or preaching or healing or delivering or anything else—we cannot take up any ministry without becoming a worshipper first.
Living sacrifice is to consecrate our lives wholly to the Lord as His willing subjects in His Kingdom. It means to agree to lose our rights, lay down self, pick up the cross daily and follow Him.
Spirit and Truth
No article on defining worship can ever be complete without referring to John 4. When the Samaritan woman talked worship theology to Jesus, she spoke with an understanding of ‘place’ being an important focal point of worship.
Jesus famously responded, “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21-24)
God is Spirit, so it’s not really about a physical space. True worship is something far deeper and profound—and its essential elements are spirit and truth. This means we must worship in the truth as revealed by the Holy Spirit and ensure the object of our worship is the One True God alone. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13)
Worship begins at the Cross
The ultimate worshipper and worship leader is Christ Jesus. On the Cross, He also becomes the only acceptable worship offering to the Father.
“Since His ascension after His resurrection, Jesus ministers for our sake (Hebrews 9:24) in the Heavenly sanctuary as our Mediator. Only when we approach God through Him, we are saved because Christ intercedes for us always (Hebrews 7:25) in His dual role as the once-for-all sacrifice (victim) and the everlasting High Priest (Hebrews 7:24).
As the great High Priest, Christ is the real worship leader who declares the Father’s Name and sings His praises “in the assembly.” (Hebrews 2:12). We are to simply follow His example and join our songs with His! “The glory of song in worship is that we get to join our voices to His.” – Reggie Kidd.
It is through Jesus that our worship becomes meaningful and ministers to the Father in the voice of the Son. That’s the kind of worship the Holy Spirit wants to inspire in us. This is why Christ-centered worship matters. If Jesus is not the focus, the worship is bogus.” – The Worship Kenbook
Once we understand the Cross and the free gift of redemption we receive at Calvary, our hearts can’t help but gratefully join with Christ through the Spirit to sing God’s praises forever!
What is false worship?
If Christ mandates that worship must be offered in spirit and truth, it obviously means we can also offer worship in flesh and lies.
When we are trying to arrive at an appropriate worship definition, we therefore cannot ignore what constitutes false worship too. Fake worship in flesh and lies is the outcome of one or more of these 3 aspects of worship going wrong:
1. The worshipper
The worshipper must be a Spirit-filled believer—I mean baptized in the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:15-17). Else, the worshipper is confined to an intellectual, procedure oriented worship without any emotional investment—it cannot be the ‘living sacrifice’ we are called to offer.
This kind of worship rarely leads to any life transformation and bears no fruit in the church or in the worshipper’s personal life.
2. The act/method of worship
New Testament worship is based on a spiritual offering of the living sacrifice. We cannot worship with any method that we come up with out of our own wisdom. Acts 2:42 shows us that the worship of the early church consisted of the Apostles’ teachings, fellowship, community prayers and the Eucharistic meal. This and all the other expressions given earlier in this article should be ingrained in our worship.
“We must be willing to study how God has worked in traditions other than our own. The charismatic must learn the contemplative—and the contemplative, the charismatic. The liturgical and sacramental must learn the freedom of the spontaneous, and the spontaneous must learn the beauty of the liturgical and sacramental… This all involves much humility and much patient effort. But it always results in growth.” — John Michael Talbot
3. The object of worship
Going back to the dictionary worship definition (the highest love and adoration that we experience and express toward someone or something)—if God is not the highest love of our lives, then what/whoever is becomes our God and the object of our worship. This is the very basis of idolatry and spiritual prostitution!
In evangelistic circles, there is this concept of ‘worshipping the worship’, which means we worship the method/act of worship rather than God Himself. If you can ‘worship’ only with contemporary songs, smoke bombs and multi-colored strobe lighting, you might want to check your heart to see who/what you’re actually worshipping.
In the Catholic side too, there is a group called SSPX, which insists worship must be offered only in the Latin language using the rituals that existed before Vatican-II. In trying to be doctrinally dogmatic without common sense reasoning, a language becomes a false god by itself! Or zealous religiosity can become another false God!
We need the Holy Spirit to lead us to the truth and only then we can offer living worship that is acceptable to the Father. This means living a life yielded to God in every possible way.
Worship is our highest love, reverence, admiration, gratitude and adoration that is experienced in the heart, demonstrated and expressed inside and outside the church as a truthful, living sacrifice to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.
A few useful quotes that expand on what worship is
“True worship is a valuing or a treasuring of God above all things.” – John Piper
“We worship one God in the Trinity and the Trinity in unity, without either confusing the persons or dividing the substance… but the Godhead of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.” – Athanasian Creed (500 A.D.)
“The highest form of worship is the worship of unselfish Christian service. The greatest form of praise is the sound of consecrated feet seeking out the lost and helpless.” – Billy Graham
“For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” – St. Therese of Lisieux
“Gospel music to me has always been a balm for the soul. It has been able to usher in the spirit, usher in worship, true worship and praise, healing. I find the music to be very good at healing and the passion, you know, which is a testimony being told in song.” – Kim Fields
“Worship is the activity of the new life of a believer in which, recognizing the fullness of the Godhead as it is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and His mighty redemptive acts, he seeks by the power of the Holy Spirit to render to the living God the glory, honor, and submission, which are His due.” – Robert Rayburn
Christian worship as a noun is the inward disposition that the highest love of our hearts is God and He alone is worthy of offering ourselves wholly to Him. Worship as a verb consists of teaching/studying the Word, prayers, the Eucharistic meal and fellowship with believers. Music and song are vehicles—among many others—to offer praise and worship to the Lord. Worship cannot be confined to Sunday church alone and must reach into our everyday lives through daily personal adoration and in loving our neighbor.
Worship is our mission—to become the best possible worshippers we can ever be. If we fail to become worshippers on earth, we are never going to be happy in Heaven!