This is a guest post by Daniel Boerger. He and his wife Brenda worked on the Natqgu New Testament in the Solomon Islands. He is the translator of the Interpreted New Testament, available in print, ePub, Kindle, and free on Android.
II. B. What is Biblical Worship? At its Core it is Not Any Particular Action or Manner of Action, or Form.
Many biblically literate Christians will immediately answer, “It is worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23‑24 NASB But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”) But despite this being an important biblical truth, it is not a definition of what worship is. It is merely an truth about the manner in which God’s people should worship. It does not define what worship itself is.
There are 178 occurrences of forms of the word “worship” (i.e. worship, worships, worshiping, worshiped, worshiper, worshipers) in the New American Standard Bible, so I trust that is approximately true of the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts.
Just over 50 percent of the time, these words occur with nothing in the immediate context to clarify what the word means.
About 27 percent of the time, the worship word is in the immediate context of words and phrases indicating that the worshiper was physically prostrating himself (i.e. bowing low, falling (face down) on the ground, bowing before something, falling at the feet of someone, etc.).
About 16 percent of the time, the worship word is in the immediate context of words, phrases, and sentences indicating that the worshiper was serving God or a deity.
About 7 percent of the time, the worship word is in the immediate context of words, phrases, and sentences indicating that the worshiper was offering sacrifices of some kind to God or a deity.
About 2 percent of the time, the worship word is in the immediate context of words and phrases indicating that the worshiper was offering praise to God.
The above percentages total 102 percent because a few of the occurrences overlap and were counted twice.
In four passages (Genesis 47:31, Judges 7:15, Nehemiah 8:6, and 2 Chronicles 20:18) the biblical text indicates that the people involved were “bowing in worship,” suggesting that the bowing was an integral part of their worship. Bowing, in all the passages where it is associated with worship, indicates a posture implying and expressing a total submission and pledge of obedience to God’s will. It was the most common visible means of expressing an inward attitude of worship.
In the biblical cultures, worship was such a basic concept that people didn’t need a definition spelled out in Scripture as to what it was, because they all knew what it was. The only explicit definition of worship in Scripture is found in Romans 12:1. (NASB) Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.
Romans 12:1 indicates that true spiritual worship is serving God by means of self-sacrificially offering your life in complete obedience to him.
I rendered the second part of this verse in The Interpreted New Testament (TINT) this way: Offer yourselves, your bodies, and everything you do to serve God—following his holy will in all things. Do this as your sacrificial offering to him. For this is the essence of true spiritual worship which pleases him.
My own summary definition of biblical worship is: to offer, pledge, or swear fealty to God (or to a false god)— which is a formal committing of your life, will, and resources to him in total submission, service, loyalty, faithfulness, and obedience, promising him your highest ultimate allegiance above your own desires and above all other authority or commitments.
How is this different than modern definitions? Biblical worship is something so special it is properly reserved for God alone (Deuteronomy 6:13; Daniel 3:28; Luke 4:8; Revelation 19:10; 22:8). It is never appropriate to worship other people or authorities. This is because it is a pledge of ultimate submission of your life in obedience above all else to whatever you are worshiping.
The Scriptures command us to give due honor and praise to people (Romans 12:10; 13:7). So these acts, in and of themselves, cannot be the core of what worship is.
The actions we commonly think of as worship can be means of expressing true worship. We are commanded to meet together regularly for corporate times of worship and we are commanded to praise and adore God (1 Chronicles 23:30-31; Psalm 104:35; 106:1, 48; 113:1; 117:1; 135:1-3 and many other places). So we can do these things in submission to God’s commands and in that submissive obedience we are genuinely worshiping God. But we can also do all these things that we think of as worship without being truly submitted to him because we are reserving our highest allegiance to our own desires in defiance of God’s will. Many people go through the motions without genuinely worshiping at all. This is false worship, which God detests (Isaiah 1:10-17; 29:13; Matthew 15:7-9). And yet many people doing these things think they are worshiping God and pleasing him in what they do because they have an inadequate understanding of what true worship is—even though they may realize that they are not fully submitted to him.
True biblical worship can be done anywhere, anytime, with anyone, or even alone—this is at least part of what it means to worship “in spirit” (John 4:24). Any act of obedience and submission to God’s will is an act of worship. It is not just the acts of corporate gathering at a worship service or singing songs of praise. The modern definition of the word leaves out the core meaning of what biblical worship is—i.e. complete submission—and focuses way too narrowly on certain outward means which can be either acts of true worship or acts of false worship, depending on one’s heart attitude. At least part of the meaning of worshiping “in truth” (John 4:24) is being truly repentant and wanting to submit to God’s will in all things. But the modern definition misleads many into thinking that certain outward actions are, in and of themselves, true worship and pleasing to God, when that is not the case at all if their heart attitude is wrong. Therefore, the modern word “worship” is, on its own, an inadequate translation of the biblical concept which misleads many to the detriment of their spiritual lives.