What Constitutes Worship?


What constitutes worship? There has to be a line drawn somewhere.—J. C., Georgia


Worship: 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.Merriam-Webster Dictionary For our purpose here we will confine the subject to Christian worship.

Worship Who?

We are to worship the one true God; who, speaking through Moses, told the Hebrews: “… Do not worship any other gods besides me.” (Deut. 6:4; 5:7-10 NLT). Jesus repeated this same command in the New Testament: “The Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the Lord your God; serve only him’” (Luke 4:8 NLT).

Are we to worship Christ also? The apostle Peter says yes, “you must worship Christ as Lord of your life” (1 Pet. 3:15 NLT). The wise men from the East came to worship Him as an infant, (Matt. 2:11) and when He is crowned King He will receive worship from all who live. The book of Revelation records: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, And strength and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12).

Why is Jesus Christ worthy of worship? Because of the singular place He fills in the plan of God. Even before He was born it was prophesied that He would be called Emmanuel, “which is translated, ‘God with us’ ” (Matt. 1:23). Even now He is the first fruits from the dead, the first of our race to receive immortality (1 Cor. 15:23); and when He returns, He will conquer the nations and become the supreme ruler of earth. All nations shall “bow before him, all people shall serve Him” (see Psalm 72; Phil. 2:9-11).

Since the heavenly Father has committed the destiny of the earth into His hands, can we not look up to Christ reverently in worship?

Worship, How?

When Jesus visited the town of Samaria He declared to the Samaritan woman He met at the well that “the time is coming and is already here when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for anyone who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24 NLT).

Here we have Jesus Himself telling us how we must worship God: “in spirit and in truth.” If we understand these words, then we may know more about the meaning of worship. However, the word “spirit” has many and varied definitions. So we must think of these words of Jesus in the context in which they were spoken.

The word “spirit,” used in this verse, is from the Greek word pneuma from which our English word pneumonia and several other words relating to the lungs are derived. The simplest definition for spirit is breath or air. As used in this verse, the old Hebrew term to breathe upon is an expression meaning speak to. Just as the words we speak are a reflection of our thoughts, so we are to worship God in thought and in speech—acceptable thought and acceptable speech.

Prepared to Worship?

To use acceptable thought and speech in worshiping requires preparation. And a large part of preparation is learning. The worshiper who sacrifices to an idol to appease his god cannot worship truly because he worships without knowledge of the true and living God. One must acquire knowledge of God through His written Word before he can form a proper attitude and respect for God. Two people may sit side by side in Church, go through the same motions, give the same percent of their income, join in the same prayers, sing the same songs, yet one may be worshiping God acceptably, the other may be an abomination (Prov. 15:8; 28:9)—because one is worshiping in “spirit and in truth” and the other’s first interest is far away.

Worship that pleases God requires preparation. To have our worship accepted at the throne of heaven we must put away anything that God classifies as defiling. Jesus gave this illustration:

“If you are standing before the altar in the Temple, offering a sacrifice to God, and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there beside the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God” (Matt. 5:23-24 NLT).

What is the sacrifice that God desires most? The sacrifice He wants “is a broken spirit. A broken and repentant heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17 NLT).

What Makes Worship Acceptable God?

Jesus also told about those who “honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matt. 15:8 NIV). While their hearts were pursuing the goals of this world, they could not worship God “in spirit and in truth.”

A good illustration of acceptable and unacceptable “spirit” is found in a story Jesus told a story about a proud Pharisee and a dishonest tax collector. The Pharisee prayed saying: “I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else, especially like that tax collector over there! For I never cheat, I don’t sin, I don’t commit adultery, I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” However, the tax collector “stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’”

Jesus says of them “I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For the proud will be humbled, but the humble will be honored” (Luke 18:11-14 NLT).

It is the repentant heart, not the self-righteous heart that justifies one before God. The Pharisee was slow to see his own sins and quick to accuse others, the tax collector was humble and sincere.

Acceptable worship must begin with a sincere heart instructed in the Word of God. Worship must continue daily without interruption in a consecrated life. Our continual attitude and prayer must be that of the Psalmist: “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my anxieties: And see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23-24).

Worshiping God is not just something we do when we go to church. We are to “Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks” (1 Thess. 5:17-18).

Worship and the conduct of the worshiper cannot be separated. The Bible tells of a time when the Israelites performed the outward signs of worship according to the law, but their worship was empty of any spirit or truth and God detested it. The Lord sent the prophet Isaiah with this stern message of warning: “Listen to the LORD, you leaders of Israel! … ‘I am sick of your sacrifices,’ says the LORD. ‘Don’t bring me any more burnt offerings! I don’t want the fat from your rams or other animals. I don’t want to see the blood from your offerings of bulls and rams and goats. Why do you keep parading through my courts with your worthless sacrifices? The incense you bring me is a stench in my nostrils! Your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath day, and your special days for fasting—even your most pious meetings—are all sinful and false. I want nothing more to do with them. I hate all your festivals and sacrifices. I cannot stand the sight of them! From now on, when you lift up your hands in prayer, I will refuse to look. Even though you offer many prayers, I will not listen. For your hands are covered with the blood of your innocent victims. Wash yourselves and be clean! Let me no longer see your evil deeds. Give up your wicked ways. Learn to do good” (Isa. 1:10-17 NLT).

To worship God acceptably, our conduct must also be acceptable. Scripture contains many commands of this sort. For example, Paul instructed the church of Thessalonica to “encourage each other and build each other up, … honor those who are your leaders in the Lord’s work. They work hard among you and warn you against all that is wrong. Think highly of them and give them your wholehearted love because of their work. And remember to live peaceably with each other. Brothers and sisters, we urge you to warn those who are lazy. Encourage those who are timid. Take tender care of those who are weak. Be patient with everyone. See that no one pays back evil for evil, but always try to do good to each other and to everyone else. Always be joyful. Keep on praying. No matter what happens, always be thankful, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:11-18 NLT).