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In the 1950s, A.W. Tozer authored a book entitled, Worship: The Missing Jewel of the Church. Were he still alive today, Tozer would doubtless still define worship as this “missing jewel” in the Church at large–despite our worship teams, ever-new worship choruses, worship concerts, worship CDs and worship magazines. Though “worship” attracts much attention, I am convinced that there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the precise nature of true worship.

That being said, there are also healthy signs on the horizon, for many have begun to delve afresh into God’s Word in order to determine how He would have them to worship. Perhaps this is the result of a restoration of many to biblical soteriology: as many church leaders return to a biblical doctrine of salvation, they desire to have God-centred churches and, therefore, worship–in many circles–is receiving more biblical attention than it has in decades past.

We were created for one reason: worship. The psalmist said it well: “Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord” (Psalm 150:6). Not only were we created to worship, we are also born again in order to worship the Lord. It is, perhaps, significant that John 3 deals with the need to be born again and John 4 deals with the responsibility to worship: as if God is telling us that the next logical step, after being born again, is to worship. There is therefore no greater subject for the Church to study than that of worship.

There are many issues to consider when we study the doctrine of worship. What is worship–precisely what do we mean by “worship”? When are we to worship–publicly only, or privately as well? What elements are involved in worship? What is the purpose of worship? How are we to express our worship? What role do our emotions play in worship? How are we enabled to worship? Is worship under the New Covenant any different from worship under the Old Covenant–does the Old Testament guide us as to how we should worship God today? On what day are we to worship–the Sabbath, or the Lord’s Day? Should we treat the Lord’s Day any different than we do the other days in the week (a question to which the Church at large seems to be saying, “No!”)?

Sadly, much of the discussion concerning worship today comes down to music. Should we sing choruses, or hymns only? Should we sing hymns, or only the Psalms? Should we sing to instrumental accompaniment, or should we sing a capella? If we agree to have instrumental accompaniment, ought it only to be with the piano and organ, or are drums, guitars and other musical instruments permissible? Worship wars are waged over merely peripheral issues. But we cannot contemplate biblical worship by simply giving brief consideration to music, and leaving it at that. Biblical worship is a vast issue, and we must consider it in far greater depth if we will understand our biblical responsibility in terms of Christian worship. There is much ignorance about worship; I trust that these pages will help to reverse some of that.

In these studies, we will consider issues such as: the explanation of worship, the essentials of worship, the expression of worship, the expectation of worship, the enablement of worship, the examples of worship, and the effort of worship.

The Definition of Worship

The more one contemplates and studies the concept of worship, the harder it is to define. Worship, much like love, is one of those things that we know when we “see” it, but it is rather difficult to finalise a definition for it. I think, however, it is fair to say that worship is both “caught” as well as “taught.”

Our children, for instance, should see us worship, and should “catch onto” that. They should desire to mimic in their own lives the worship that they see in ours. Paul spoke of this concept in dealing with worship in his first epistle to the Corinthian church:

23If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? 24But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: 25And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.

(1 Corinthians 14:23-25)

In the above passage, worship is “caught” by the visitor to the Corinthian assembly. He comes in, sees God’s people involved in true, biblical worship, and finds that worship somewhat “contagious.” This is sometimes what worship is like. You can’t always describe it, but you know when you are in the midst of it. When you read Revelation 4, for instance, though the word “worship” is not found, you know that you are reading about it.

However, if we fail to “teach” worship, our “worship” can become unacceptable. It is not enough to know subjectively when worship has taken place; we must be able to look into the Scriptures and determine precisely what biblical worship is.

Sadly, this is where the Church at large has seemed to be for years now: “worshipping” in a way that is unacceptable in the eyes of God. The reason for this, perhaps, is that there has been a sad lack of biblical instruction in the matter of worship. Consider this indictment against Old Testament Israel toward the end of the kingdom years: “Now for a long season Israel hath been without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law” (2 Chronicles 15:3). A survey of the surrounding chapters shows that the Israelites were in spiritual tatters because of this lack of teaching from the priests.

Solomon wrote, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). I rather like the rendering of the New King James Version, which reads, “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint…” Every time the word “vision” is used in the Old Testament (in the [Authorised] Kings James Version), it refers to revelation from God. And the word rendered “perish” in the (Authorised) King James Version literally means “without restraint.” What Solomon is saying is that, when God’s revelation is absent or marginalised, people cast off all restraint and “run wild.” I am afraid that this is precisely what has happened in the realm of worship in many churches. Since there is no authority (i.e. subjection to God’s Word), every church does that which is right in its own eyes; rather than asking, “Is it biblical? Does it have Scriptural warrant?”

The result of such unregulated “worship” is seen in two ways (which we will discuss in greater depth later): (1) tyranny of conscience; and (2) idolatry, of which even believers can be guilty. You will thus appreciate the importance of this study on worship. Since it is our life’s mandate to worship God, we had better be sure that we are doing so properly.

A Working Definition

Genesis 22:5 is the first time that the word “worship” is found in the (Authorised) King James Bible (the Hebrew word shacah is found also in Genesis 18:2 and 19:1–it is translated “bowed” on both occasions). The word basically means “to bow,” and it carries the implication of bowing to someone or something that you deem to be worthy of such respect. Several Old Testament passages illustrate biblical worship:

  • Exodus 34:14–For thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God:
  • 1 Chronicles 16:28-29–Give unto the Lord, ye kindreds of the people, give unto the Lord glory and strength. Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name: bring an offering, and come before him: worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
  • Psalm 29:1-2–Give unto the Lord, O ye mighty, give unto the Lord glory and strength. Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
  • Isaiah 6:1-6–In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar.

Exodus 34:14 forbids us from bowing to any other gods (physically, emotionally, mentally, volitionally). It is this verse that Jesus quoted when tempted to bow to Satan (Matthew 4:8-10). God is a jealous God, who will not share His glory with another. Therefore, we are not to bow down in worship to anyone or anything other than the God of the Bible. David tells us in 1 Chronicles 16:28-29 that we are to worship only one God–Jehovah–and that we are to ascribe to Him glory and strength. He quotes, as you can see above, from his own words in Psalm 29:1-2. Isaiah 6 is a well-known passage, describing the worship of Isaiah the prophet. Though the word “worship” is not found in this text, it is clearly illustrated. When confronted with God, Isaiah bowed in worship, adoration and repentance.

The New Testament illustrates biblical worship equally powerfully. Though there are many examples we could consider, notice but two:

  • 1 Corinthians 14:21-25–In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord. Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe. If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.
  • Revelation 4:1-11–After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter. And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald. And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold. And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come. And when those beasts give glory and honour and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever, The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.

In the 1 Corinthians passage, Paul has been warning his readers of the dangers of speaking in tongues in corporate worship. Though the gift of tongues (i.e. the ability to speak in a language not ordinarily known to the speaker) was a legitimate gift of the Spirit at the time, Paul nevertheless gave very specific instructions concerning the exercise of this gift in the church: not more than three people could speak in tongues in a single service, each had to speak in turn, no one could speak in tongues if an interpreter was not present, etc. He goes on to speak of the effect that the gift of tongues might have on an unbeliever. Assume that an unbeliever walks into the church, and sees someone speaking in tongues (without an interpreter). What, do you suppose, will be his reaction? Surely he will think that the speaker (and probably the rest of the church, too) is mad? But if he walks into the service and hears the clear, intelligible exposition of God’s Word, “thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.” That is, when the worship of the church is orderly, and God’s Word is clearly proclaimed, the worshipper is confronted with the true God, and thus falls on his face to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

The Revelation 4 text reminds us very much of Isaiah 6. John (like Isaiah) was confronted with the glorious God and thus bowed his will, heart, mind–his all–to the God with whom he was confronted. This is the biblical picture of worship. And, so far, there is no music at all! I am not against music; I think music has a wonderful role in worship (we will deal with the issue of music in a later chapter). Interestingly, however, music actually plays a very minor part in the biblical consideration of worship. The thrust of worship in the Bible is that we bow down to Almighty God when confronted with His glory.

In all of the aforementioned passages (Genesis 22:5; Exodus 34:14; 1 Chronicles 16:28-29; Psalm 29:1-2; Isaiah 6:1-6; 1 Corinthians 14:21-25; Revelation 4:1-11), we see at least four things that are involved in biblical worship. These elements thus help us to define biblical worship.

Reverence in Worship

Our modern English word “worship” derives from the old English weorthscipe, which literally means “worth-ship.” Worship speaks of “worthiness.” In an old Anglican Wedding Ceremony, the groom would vow to his wife, “With my body I worship thee.” This did not mean that he must treat his wife as a goddess, but that he understood his wife to be someone of great worth in his life. Centuries ago, many towns in England were referred to as “towns of worship,” which meant that they were towns, for whatever reason, that were to be held in high esteem. When we worship God, then, we ascribe to Him the worth that is His due.

In all of the above-quoted passages, we see tremendous respect and reverence for God. When the voice came from heaven to Abraham, he immediately responded, “Behold, here I am.” When called to sacrifice his son, he unflinchingly obeyed. To the Israelites in Exodus 34, God revealed Himself as a jealous God and, thus, demanded all respect and reverence from His people. In 1 Chronicles 16:28-29 and Psalm 29:1-2, we are told to ascribe glory and strength to God alone, for He alone is worthy of our reverence. When Isaiah and John were confronted with the holy God, they both fell on their face before Him, offering Him the reverence that is His due. The same is said of the worshipper in 1 Corinthians 14 when confronted with God in the preaching of His Word. Worship, indeed, involves reverence.

This point is well illustrated in 2 Kings 17:24-41. The Assyrians have conquered the land of Israel, and have brought Gentiles to live in the land. The eventual result would be the intermarriage of Gentiles with Israelites, which would give birth to the Samaritan people. Scripture tells us that when these Gentiles came to live in the land, “they feared not the Lord.” God, therefore, sent lions into the land as an act of judgement. Seeing this, the Assyrian king commanded that a priest be sent to Samaria to teach the people to live according to the law of God. He believed that if the people in Israel lived according to the law of “the God of Israel,” they would be delivered from His hand of judgement. The priest, therefore, came to the people of Samaria “and taught them how they should fear the Lord.” Sadly, though they externally honoured Jehovah, “every nation made gods of their own, and put them in the houses of the high places which the Samaritans had made, every nation in their cities wherein they dwelt.” The divine commentary on this is chilling: “They feared the Lord, and served their own gods…”

We can learn much from this passage, but we will take time to annunciate but one lesson: even the pagans in the land of Israel understood something of worship. Though we certainly would not deem them to be faithful to the one, true God (for they still served their own gods), they at least understood that they must “fear the Lord.” Their false worship involved reverence–how much more must true worship involve reverence?

Revelation in Worship

In Abraham’s worship experience, God revealed Himself to Abraham. Abraham did not seek God and ask, “Should I sacrifice Isaac?” Instead, God broke the silence and spoke to Abraham. Exodus 34 follows on the heels of God’s self-revelation at Sinai. In Isaiah and John’s case, they were both confronted with God in a vision. There is no indication that they asked for the vision; God simply chose to reveal Himself to them. In the New Testament worship service in Corinth, the worshipper is confronted with God as revealed in His Word.

God takes the initiative, and we worship according to His Word rather than our whims. We must worship whom Scripture tells us to worship and how Scripture tells us to worship. That is, our worship is not based upon a figment of our imagination, but upon God’s clearly self-revelation to His people.

There is much about “spirituality” in today’s world; religion is “in” in many circles. The problem is that this renewed interest in “spirituality” is nothing more than renewed interest in idolatry. As Michael Horton has observed, the threat to the Church today is not secularism–it is idolatry. Much of the “spirituality” out there consists of worship (reverence) that is not according to revelation. Because people worship their own way, they ultimately worship a god of their own imagination. True worship can only be exercised in accordance with God’s revelation in the Scriptures.

Rationality in Worship

Though biblical worship certainly involves more than human understanding, it never bypasses the understanding. Much of what is termed “worship” in churches today completely bypasses the brain of the worshipper, and seeks to tug directly at the emotions. We ought to be extremely careful of this.

In our own church, we are very careful about the songs that we sing in our worship services. All songs are “screened” by the elders before being introduced to the worship of the church. It is easy to stir the emotions with the right type of music, but that is not our task. In many churches, as the preacher challenges people to obedience, soft music can be heard playing in the background, which sometimes results in emotional rather than rational “decisions.” I tried this once, but was immediately convicted and have never done so again.

Once again, there is nothing inherently wrong with music. But it is wrong when the music so plays on the emotions that the mind is completely bypassed. We will speak more of this in a later chapter, but we must always remember that music is to be a servant to the lyrics in any given song. When the music itself dominates the lyrics, you are no longer in the realm of worship.

This principle is clearly seen in the Corinthian worship service. When the outsider enters to chaotic tongue chatter, he is wholly unimpressed. But when he sits under the rational exposition of God’s Word, he is driven to his face before the holy God of the Scriptures. He responds from his heart and with his will, but only because the call to worship has made sense to him.

The same is true in each of the quoted instances. In each worship illustration, the worshipper is responding rationally to God’s self-revelation. God reveals Himself and calls the worshipper to obedience, and it always makes perfect sense for that worshipper to obey. Worship is never merely “ecstatic” or “emotional”–it always involves the mind.

The best way to pursue rational worship in the local church is through systematic, expositional preaching. God has given us the mind of Christ in a rational Book; if we will instruct the minds of church members, we must clearly and rationally explain God’s revealed Word to them.

I once met a pastor, who had been saved from a Hindu background. I noticed that, whenever this man prayed, he suddenly adopted an affected tone. His prayers were almost like chants. I understand that he has most likely picked up this habit from years of Hindu practice, but it was interesting to note nevertheless. Many professing Christians would doubtless find this greatly impressive. We somehow think that the more “mystical” our worship is, the more “worshipful” God finds it. That is a dangerous thing!

Take Hinduism, for example (since I have just mentioned it). There is absolutely nothing rational about Hinduism. Consider, for example, the Ganesh Chaturthi Festival, held in certain Hindu-dominant areas, during September each year, to celebrate the birth of Ganesh, a Hindu god with a human body and an elephant’s head. The Festival lasts for ten days, during which the Hindus worship images of Ganesh that they have purchased on the opening day of the Festival. The idol lives for ten days in the home of the family that purchased it, during which time that family worships it, adorning it with offerings of food and flowers. There are various incarnations of Ganesh, and Hindus are encouraged to worship as many of these incarnations as possible. At the end of ten days, once the Festival has come to an end, there is no more use for the statues. They are, thus, cast into a local river, which is soon filled with hundreds of Ganesh-images.

Is there anything rational about such worship? Of course not! It is sad to see millions of Hindus held captive in such darkness. But, before we get too critical, I wonder if our own worship is not sometimes just as irrational? We do not think about our worship, and thus we seek all sorts of emotional highs when we gather to worship.

Responsiveness in Worship

What did Abraham do when God called his name? “Behold, here I am.” And when God told him to sacrifice his son? “And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.” When God spoke, Abraham responded. What happened when God spoke to Isaiah? “Whom shall I send,” asked the Lord, “and who will go for us?” To which Isaiah immediately responded, “Here am I; send me.” When the worshipper in 1 Corinthians 14 hears God’s Word expounded, he responds by falling on his face. The same is true of the 24 elders in Revelation 4, who represent the Church of the Old and New Testament. Worship is not merely academic–it calls for a response.

Our first response in worship is repentance: us falling down on our faces before a thrice-holy God. Worship, it is often said, is all of us responding to all that we have seen of God. It is the natural response of man to God’s greatness.

Charles Colson, who was involved in the Watergate scandal during Richard Nixon’s administration in the United States, was saved by God’s grace during his time in prison. In one of his books, he speaks of the power of the Oval Office (i.e. the White House office of the President of the United States). He relates how powerful men would often desire a meeting with the President to discuss certain issues. He recalls how these men would walk into the office and would suddenly be overcome with a sense of awe. In that office, they felt as if they were in the presence of greatness, and they would “melt” when they realised it.

Worship ought to do the same for the believer, for it is his response to the greatness of God. Corporate worship is the believer’s “appointment in the Oval Office.” Worship is our repentance and reformation of life in the light of the character of God.

What, then, is the definition of worship? I would state it thus: worship is the reverent and rational response to the revelation of God. It is thus both thoughtful and heartfelt. And there is nothing greater than this reverent and rational response. “True worship,” said John Stott, “is the highest and noblest activity of which man, by the grace of God, is capable.” [John R.W. Stott, Christ the Controversialist: A Study in Some Essentials of Evangelical Religion (London: Tyndale, 1970), pg. 160]

The Duty to Worship

No true believer will deny that God’s people are duty-bound to worship Him. Most would doubtless acknowledge that this duty to worship is a daily duty–that we are to worship God every single day. But do we always fulfil this duty? Perhaps one reason that there is such little meaningful worship when local churches gather is because there is little meaningful worship by church members during the week. When we gather together on Sunday for corporate worship, it is a strange thing, for we have not worshipped God during the week. Perhaps this is why many evening services appear to be more worship-filled that morning services–because by the evening service, we have grown somewhat “accustomed” to worship.

Without a doubt, the Bible teaches the believer’s daily duty to worship God. One passage that clearly illustrates this truth is John 4, where Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman concerning God-honouring worship. On their way from Judea to Galilee, Jesus and the disciples pass through Samaria (a somewhat strange route for a Jew to take, for he would most often bypass Samaria at all costs!). Entering a particular Samaritan village, Jesus sits down at a well to rest, whilst His disciples go further into the village to find something to eat. While the disciples are away, a Samaritan woman comes to the well to draw water. Jesus asks for something to drink, a request that she finds rather startling (for Jews generally avoided all possible conversation with Samaritans, and for a Jewish Teacher to speak to a Samaritan–and a woman, to boot–was unheard of!). She vocally expresses her shock, to which Jesus replies, “If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water” (John 4:10). Intrigued, the woman seeks more information concerning this “living water.” Jesus tells her to call her husband so that He can tell them both about the “living water.” When she tells Him that she has no husband, Jesus reveals His knowledge of her adultery: she had been “married” five times previously and was currently living with a man who was not her husband. She immediately realises that Jesus is a Prophet and changes the subject to worship:

The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things. Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he.

(John 4:19-26)

The Samaritans, who claimed to worship the God of Abraham, insisted that the place to worship God was Mount Gerizim, whereas the Jews, who also claimed to worship the God of Abraham, insisted that God must be worshipped in Jerusalem. Though worship activity in the Old Testament certainly centred in Jerusalem, Jesus taught some valuable lessons in His response to the Samaritan woman.

Worship is Universal

First, he taught that worship is not limited to a particular geographical location (John 4:20-21). In the Old Testament economy, worship was practised at the Temple in Jerusalem. But Christ’s ministry, death and resurrection ushered in a time when the locale of worship would not matter. Because of Christ’s ministry, we are not bound to worship the Father at a particular place. In terms of worship, there is nothing sacred about Jerusalem, Mount Gerizim or any other physical location.

Since worship does not revolve around a particular locale, the local church building is no more special or sacred than your own home! It is a wonderful privilege to have church buildings, and to be able to “dedicate” the building to the corporate worship of God. But there is nothing sacred about the bricks, cement and glass that comprise a church building.

Several years ago, an unbeliever with whom I was acquainted, had visited a certain church in another part of our country whilst on holiday. When he returned, he told me of the great “worshipful” experience he had had at that church. I was acquainted with the teaching of that church, and knew full well that nothing but apostasy and heresy had flowed from the church’s pulpit for years (denial of the virgin birth, of the resurrection, of the deity of Christ, etc.). So I asked this man what he meant by “worshipful.” “Well,” he responded, “it was such a lovely building, with wonderful stained glass windows…” Sadly, this man equated worship with stained glass windows!

Biblical worship, however, is not focused upon a particular building, place or any other physical element. I thank God for our church building, but if that building was to collapse today, Brackenhurst Baptist Church would still exist! Worship takes place wherever God’s people are–whether they are in a church building, a private home, or an open field!

Worship is Intimate

Second, worship is an intimate engagement with the loving God (John 4:21). Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman about worshipping “the Father.” This would have been an absolutely foreign concept to a Samaritan; in fact, it would have been alien to most Jews! Few Jews–and even fewer Samaritans–would understand God to be their Father. Yet we have the wonderful privilege of intimately worshipping our Father. We sing of and worship the thrice-holy Lord God Almighty; but we worship the thrice-holy Lord God Almighty as our own Father. Worship enables us to intimately engage with our loving, heavenly Father.

Worship is Intelligent

Third, worship is intelligent (John 4:22). This again points us to the rationality and thoughtfulness of worship. Whereas the Samaritans did not know the God they worshipped, the Jews knew Him, for they had received the written oracles of God, which enabled them to worship thoughtfully and rationally.

I wonder how many churches there are today to which we could apply John 4:22–“Ye worship ye know not what…” How many churches there are in which people have no concept of the God whom they claim to worship! They may be caught up in the experience of worship, but they have little concern for the God of that experience. Many revel in the wonderful worship they have just experienced, yet they could not even tell you the Scripture passage on which the preaching was based! Often (though not always), when people claim to have “felt” the presence of God, they are unwittingly referring to a god of their own imagination.

The Samaritans worshipped such a god. Though they claimed to worship the true God–the God of Abraham–the fact that they “worshipped” Him their way proves that they never actually worshipped Him (for not all “worship” is accepted by God–we must worship Him in the way that He prescribes!).

If you will truly worship the God of the Bible, your mind must be present. In corporate worship as well as private (or family) worship, we must exercise our minds. I am saddened to see people in our own congregation, completely bored and disinterested, looking all around the building from the moment I begin preaching to the moment I finish. Yet some of those same people wonder why it is that they get nothing from the worship service! If you refuse to engage your attention and understanding, you will be like the Samaritans, “worshipping” that which you do not even understand.

Worshipping God in any way other than that which He has prescribed amounts to idolatry. When the Israelites were in the wilderness, shortly after having been delivered from Egypt, God called Moses alone to the top of Mount Sinai. After waiting some forty days for him to return, the people decided that he most likely would not come back. So they turned to Aaron, “Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.” Astoundingly, Aaron consented to this request! After collecting jewellery from them, he fashioned a “molten calf,” which he described as “thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:1-4ff). A case can be made that the people did not turn completely from Jehovah–they simply desired to make a visible representation of Him that they might worship. But any such representation of the true God is contrary to His commands (specifically, the second of the Ten Commandments); therefore, it is nothing more than gross idolatry. Here, those who were meant to be God’s people worshipped that which they did not know–they were not worshipping intelligently.

It is for this reason that the preaching of God’s Word must be central in public worship. It is through the Word of God that we gain an understanding of who He is; only then will we bow in humble worship. This, of course, places a weight of responsibility both on the preacher and on the congregation. The preacher must study his text, properly and prayerfully exegeting it in order that he might properly explain and apply the Word to the lives of his listeners. The congregation, on the other hand, must come to the gathering prepared to hear from God. That means that each worshipper ought to have spent time in personal worship throughout the week as well as that very day before the commencement of the worship service. Wake up early, spend time in personal reading, meditation and prayer. If you have a pre-service prayer meeting, make the effort to attend. If you have a pre-service Bible class, make the effort to attend. Do whatever is necessary to prepare your heart to hear from God.

Today, there is a movement to replace the centrality of preaching with drama in worship services (in whatever form–live drama, video, etc.). This, by the way is nothing new–study the Church history of the Middle Ages, where precisely the same emphasis was being placed on drama. The Reformation returned the Church to its emphasis on preaching, but the slide has begun again. But what is the cause of this? Why do people want to replace preaching with drama? Perhaps some blame can be placed on people gathering for worship unprepared. But the greater emphasis must surely be placed on unprepared preachers–preachers who do not open the Scriptures that their congregations might see God. I have committed before God and before my local church that if I ever reach a point in my ministry where it is clear that I am no longer opening the Scriptures to show my people God, I will step down from the pastorate, and allow someone else to take my place: someone who will show the people God.

Worship is Redemptive

Fourth, worship is rooted in redemption (John 4:22). “Salvation,” said Jesus, “is of the Jews.” The true God has revealed Himself through “the drama of redemption.” [“The drama of redemption” is the manner in which Michael Horton presents worship in, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centred Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002).] The Jews were the nation through whom Messiah–the salvation of the world–would come. The Samaritan woman worshipped a false god, for the true God is the One who grants salvation through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The principle is simple: the only ones who can worship God are those who have been saved by God. I recently read a book, in which four men presented their views of worship. All four gave their church liturgies, and all four were pretty good. One of the churches represented, however, practises something with which I would strongly disagree (though it is a solid church otherwise). It is a very large church, with a well-orchestrated worship team. The pastor of the church says (correctly so) that God deserves the best in our worship. In order to ensure that God gets the best, this church pays those involved in their worship team. Now, I don’t have too much of a problem with remunerating those in your worship team (and many worship leaders might echo a strong “Amen” to this practise!), but this particular church goes a little further than I think is biblical. They actually hire “professionals” to play in their worship team–even some who make no profession to faith in Christ! Since God has created all gifts, and given people the abilities they have, this man has no problem in allowing unbelievers to play in the church orchestra–and to be remunerated for it.

I understand where this man is coming from, and I certainly believe that all ministries of the church–including music–should be ministries of excellence. But I cannot agree with having unbelievers taking an active and public part in the worship service of the local church. Unbelievers cannot worship God, and anyone involved in leading in worship ought to be practising worship himself! Worship is Christ-centred, and those involved in leading public worship ought to strive for Christ-centeredness in their lives.

Worship is Desirable

Fifth, worship is something that God seeks, that He desires (John 4:23). There are few things that God is said in Scripture to seek–worship is one of those things. Since God has created us to worship Him, He longs for us to worship Him. As John Piper has well said, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” [John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions (Leicester: Inter-Varsity,1994), pg. 25]

Worship is Theological

Sixth, worship is rooted in theology (John 4:24). I say this because Jesus makes a theological statement about God before speaking of how worship is to be practised. We are to worship God “in spirit and in truth” because “God is a Spirit.” To say that “God is a Spirit” is to say that He is not a physical Being–He is not bound by physical limitations. Since God is a Spirit–since He is not a physical Being–worship is not to be centred on the physical. Jesus has already told this woman that the place of worship is not the most important thing about worship. Here, He gives the reason for that: because God is a Spirit (which means that He is everywhere at the same time!). Since God is a Spirit, “they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” What does this mean?

Spiritual Worship

Our worship is to be real–really rational! To worship “in spirit” (the [Authorised] King James Version correctly renders this word with a small “s”–He is not speaking of the Holy Spirit, but of the human spirit) means that worship ought to be “in the realm of the worshipper’s spirit.” This includes the thoughts and the words. Simply put, it is real rather than ritualistic worship; thoughtful rather than merely emotional worship. Our worship must be rational and reflective. If we will worship God in spirit, as He requires, our worship must reflect upon who He is and what He has done for us in Christ.

Because true worship involves the heart and the thoughts, there is a sense in which it ought to tire us out. Sunday is a day of rest from our normal, weekly activities (work, study, etc.) but, since Sunday calls for intensive worship, there is a different type of fatigue that we experience: fatigue from the engagement of the mind in the worship of God.

Perhaps the problem with the Samaritan woman was that she had “localised” God. God was at Mount Gerizim; therefore, as long as she went to the right place, she believed that she had worshipped God. But if we reflect on the fact that God is a Spirit–that He is everywhere at once–we will be forced to be reflective in our worship. The Sanhedrin in Jesus’ day had the same problem–they were so fixed on the externals that they believed worship was simply about adhering to a list of stated rules. But Jesus insists that worship is internal–it affects our words, our thoughts, our meditations.

Scriptural Worship

As we have previously noted, where there is no revelation of God, people will cast off restraint. We must, said Jesus, worship God “in spirit” (i.e. with your heart and thoughts). But we must also worship Him “in truth” (i.e. according to the truth that He has revealed). Unbelievers cannot worship God because true worship is “in truth”: through the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (see John 14:6). The exclusivity of Christ is as applicable in worship as it is in salvation: the only way to worship God is through the Lord Jesus Christ.

To worship in spirit and truth, then, means to reflectively, thoughtfully worship God, as He has revealed Himself in the Person and the Work of His Son, Jesus Christ. Your worship is only pleasing to God if it is heartfelt and based upon the truth of Jesus Christ–the very Messiah to whom the Samaritan woman spoke that day. That we are expected to worship “in truth” necessarily implies that God has given us a true standard by which to worship.

“The regulative principle” is something that has come under severe criticism in many circles. This principle was clearly formulated by the Reformers, though it was practised long before then (it is a biblical principle). The regulative principle basically states that we must worship God in the way that He has prescribed in Scripture. The Baptist Confession of 1689 (22.1) states it this way: “…the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.” That is, the only way to acceptably worship the true God is to worship Him in the way that He Himself has instituted.

As well as being a biblical principle, this is common sense! Since God is the sovereign Ruler of the universe, He is the only One who can tell us how we ought to worship! Contemporary author, David Peterson, tells us that worship is “an engagement with [God] on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible.” [David Peterson, Engaging With God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), pg. 20] In sum, we might say that God Himself has revealed that we must worship, whom we must worship, and how we must worship. And, as the Heidelberg Catechism succinctly states (in another context), “we should not be wiser than God.” [The Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 98. The question reads, “But may images not be tolerated in the churches as ‘books for the laity’?” And the answer states, “No, for we should not be wiser than God. He wants His people to be taught not by means of dumb images (Jeremiah 10:8; Habakkuk 2:18-20), but by the living preaching of His Word (Romans 10:14-15, 17; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:19).] God has laid out the principles of biblical worship; indeed, let us not think that we are wiser than God!

The first clear indication of the regulative principle in Scripture is Exodus 20:1-11–the opening four of the Ten Commandments:

And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

(Exodus 20:1-11)

The first commandment (“thou shalt have no other gods before me”) deals with the whom of worship: we must worship only the one, true God. The second commandment (“thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”) deals with the how of worship: we must worship the God of the first commandment in the way that He prescribes. There is a battle for worship in the spiritual realm, but the God of the Bible is the only One who deserves the worship of men. We cannot make any graven image of the one, true God because we have no innate concept of what He truly is. The only concept we can have of Him is the concept that He Himself reveals. Therefore, we must worship Him in accordance with His self-revelation.

The next two commandments expand upon this. “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” we are told. We are always to think before we speak. It is frightening to hear believers “punctuate” their prayers with the use of God’s name, almost as if we simply insert God’s name as a pause when we cannot think of anything else to say! We use the name of God over and over again without even thinking about it. This is nothing more than taking God’s name in vain–a practise that He clearly forbids. When you speak the name of the Lord, you had better think about Him of whom you are speaking, for this is what He has commanded.

The fourth commandment also speaks of God’s regulation in worship: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” He has given us six days in which to work, but has commanded the seventh as a day for rest. It is this day that provides the most ample opportunity for worship. This is God’s Day, the day on which we are to say no to all else and focus intently on worshipping the Lord our God. This is the way in which He has regulated our weekly worship; let us be sure to obey Him in this regard. A man I was recently speaking to told me of his conviction that the next major issue that churches that are serious about Scripture will have to face is the issue of the Lord’s Day: what do the Scriptures teach about the Lord’s Day? He may just be right! I am afraid that professing Christians have turned Sunday into “Convenience Day” rather than the Lord’s Day. That is, many have said that they will worship God on Sunday if it is convenient to do so. We have turned the Lord’s Day into our day, with a “commitment” to worship the Lord “if there is nothing else more important to do” (and, by the way, there isn’t!).

There can be no doubt that God has regulated the way in which He is to be worshipped. But why is this “regulative principle” so important? I have already mentioned this in passing, but there are two basic reasons that this regulative principle is so important.

First, because of the danger of tyranny of conscience. If we do not allow the Word of God to authorise our worship, somebody or something else will! Somebody may come along with this argument: “I can tell you how you should worship God. I know my way works, because we have been doing it in our church and our church is really growing!” Human methods, therefore, take the place of God’s Word as our authority. We, thus, have multitudes of “worship experts”–not because they teach biblical worship, but because they teach “productive” pragmatism.

This, by the way, is nothing new; it has been a problem throughout Church history. Just a few centuries ago, the Roman Catholic Church put people to death for not following their prescribed way of worship. People were put to death because they biblically insisted that only believers should be baptised, and then by full immersion. This was foreign to Roman Catholic “worship,” and so the Catholic Church persecuted those who practised this.

There was another issue over which many more were put to death than the issue of baptism: observance of the Lord’s Table. The Roman Catholic Church taught that the bread and wine at the Table of Remembrance actually physically becomes the body and blood of the Lord (a doctrine known as “transubstantiation”). Those who began to reform according to God’s Word saw the error of this teaching, and so began to practise a more biblical form of Communion. The Catholic Church, however, which taught the authority of their Pope to speak ex cathedra (i.e. to speak with the same authority–or greater–as Scripture), insisted that their way was right. Therefore, they denounced those who disagreed with them as heretics, and executed many of them for their stand on Scripture. Two such martyrs were Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley who, as their stakes were set alight, cried, “Today, we will light a lamp that will never be quenched!” This statement proved to be prophetic, as this added more “fuel of conviction” to the kindled embers of the Reformation.

The point is simple: because the Roman Catholic Church was going outside of Scripture, it was terrorising the consciences of those who sought to worship God. Those who reformed to Scriptural worship were freed from such tyranny (though many were eventually put to death for their commitment to God).

Looking further back in history, we see the same tyranny of conscience present in the Church of New Testament days. Paul warned the Colossians of those who would tyrannise their conscience with dietary restrictions or insistence upon observing certain holy days:

Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ. Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, And not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God. Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.

(Colossians 2:16-23)

We might sum it up thus: the regulative principle is important because it shows us that God’s Word, not man’s opinion, is our final authority in all matters–including the matter of worship. Perhaps this is so unpopular in many circles because people don’t want to think. It is too much effort to study the Scriptures and to challenge church leaders who are advocating unbiblical worship practises. Therefore, they simply submit to the teaching of their leaders, and revel in the “worship experience.”

Second, the “regulative principle” is vital in order to guard us against idolatry of heart. John Calvin described the human heart as a “perpetual forge of idols”, ever churning out new gods [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 1.11.8, pg. 97]. If our hearts are not restrained by God’s revelation, we will worship a god of our own imagination. Scripture is clear on the condition of man’s heart. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Again, “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). “But that is a description of the unregenerate heart!” you might say. “God destroyed those whose hearts were evil in the Flood!” But notice what God said about man after the Flood, when only Noah and his family remained on earth: “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8: 21).

Because our hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked, ever churning out new gods, we must heed the words of Paul to the believers in Corinth:

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;

(2 Corinthians 10:3-5)

Since our hearts are prone to idolatry, we must exert every effort to stay in the Scriptures, thus casting down any imagination that would exalt itself against the knowledge of the true God. We must think on those things that will help us to worship God in truth through the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. If the Scriptures do not regulate our knowledge and worship of God, we will worship a figment of our imagination.

I shudder when I hear people make statements like: “I think that God is like…” Or, “I can’t imagine God doing…” Or, even worse, “If I were God…” Such statements make us guilty of idolatry. Rather than looking to the Scriptures to see what God is like, we worship a god that we have created in our mind. This is why God’s Word is to be central in corporate, family and private worship: because only in the Word do we have a revelation of the one, true God.

Many people today–well-meaning, no doubt–embark on what theologians term a “theodicy.” That is, they seek to “defend” God. Perhaps some calamity takes place, and well-meaning people find it necessary to defend God to a scoffing world. More often than not, however, these “theodicies” are nothing more than exercises in idolatry. Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose son was diagnosed with progeria, a disease in which the sufferer ages rapidly and ultimately dies in the teenage years, wrote a book entitled, When Bad Things Happen to Good People [Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People: 20th Anniversary Edition (London: Pan, 2001); originally published: New York, Schocken, 1981.], in which he argued that God must either be unloving to allow evil, or impotent to stop it. His conclusion? That God is impotent to stop evil in the world, as much as He would like to stop it! People may be impressed by such “theodicies” (the late Christopher Reeve described Kushner’s conclusion as “one that both Dana [Reeve’s wife] and I could accept” [Christopher Reeve, Still Me (London: Arrow, 1999); pg. 50]), but any view that departs from Scripture (as Kushner’s certainly does) is an exercise in gross idolatry.

We must, therefore, worship God according to His own revelation if we will worship Him acceptably. Our worship must be Scriptural.

Continual Worship

True worship must be spiritual (real), Scriptural (regulated) and continual (regular). The Samaritan woman doubtless had the concept that there was a certain time to worship God. It was at this time that the worshipper was required to go to Mount Gerizim and practise his or her devotion. Since God is a Spirit, however, He is everywhere at once, which requires us to worship Him 24/7–24 hours a day, seven days a week.

When the local church gathers on a Sunday, the gathering is certainly for the purpose of worship. But this worship is simply a continuation of what should have taken place during the week. Sunday is the day for corporate worship, but private and family and public (i.e. at school, at work, etc.) worship ought to have taken place throughout the preceding week! The greatest worship services will take place when those attending have been committed to worshipping God throughout the week. The greatest worship services in our own church have taken place during times of great trial for the church, which has forced church members to examine their hearts throughout the week. Thus, when we gather on Sunday, people have worshipped throughout the week, and the worship in the corporate gathering is real. If we will worship God corporately, we must be committed throughout the week to David’s words: “23Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: 24And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). As we worship God sincerely in the week, our corporate worship on Sunday is powerful. Sunday prepares us to worship God throughout the week, which prepares us to worship God on Sunday again. Our worship must, therefore, be 24/7.

Understand that worship is for all of life: private, family, public and corporate. Worship must take place every day and everywhere. Most of our studies in worship will focus on corporate worship, but corporate worship will never be real if there is no worship during the week. If we do not worship God throughout the week, our corporate “worship” on Sunday will be one of three things: (1) an exercise in hypocrisy; (2) an exercise in futility; or (3) an exercise in idolatry. We must carry our corporate worship into daily life and our daily life into our corporate worship. God allows both blessings and burdens into our life for the purpose of strengthening our worship. Our corporate worship is that which enables us to face the blessings and burdens of Monday through Saturday; if we crumble under burdens, our “worship” is worthless! Worship, without a doubt, is to be continual: “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Perhaps above all else, we must stress once again the importance of engaging the mind when we worship God. If we will worship God in a worthy manner, we must reflect upon the One whom we worship. As we sing praise to God, let us think about that which we sing. If we don’t reflect upon that which we sing, our worship is no more honouring to God than if we were singing Mary had a Little Lamb! I would challenge you to engage your mind during preaching. Search for God in the Scriptures as the Word is expounded, for only then can you worship Him in spirit and in truth.

This principle, I might add, holds as true for our private and family worship as it does for our corporate worship. We ought to engage our minds seven-days-a-week as we seek to worship the Father in spirit and in truth. You can only do this privately the same way as you do it corporately–by seeking God’s face in His Word. If worship is a reverent, rational response to God’s revelation, then we must be daily in God’s Word, pleading that He would open our eyes to behold wonderful things out His law (Psalm 119:18). As we do so, we can hope to worship God in spirit, as long as we come to Him through the truth of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.