Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Essentials of Biblical Christian Worship

As a preface, let me state that the following, my final paper for MWS 501 (A Biblical Theology of Christian Worship), is not even close to comprehensive. This is a huge topic, and I have read so much over the past few months. There is so much more to talk about in this area. But we're limited to 3,000 words (the following is 2,997) so this is what I came up with.

I'm pleased with the result, and though it was difficult to write, the process of writing really helped to clarify it in my head.

So, brave reader, enjoy the following. Or fall asleep trying.

The Essentials of Biblical Christian Worship:
Responding to the Revelation of God

“Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.”[1]

Latreuein is a Greek term occurring about 90 times in the Septuagint. Based on its use in Biblical and non-biblical literature, it would probably be best translated “to serve.”[2] Yet we see it in verses like Exodus 3:12, which reads, “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”[3] In other words, God told Moses that God’s people were to serve Him at Mount Sinai, as a form of worship to Him.

Do we recognize this truth? What is our concept of the word “worship”? Do we incorporate service, homage, reverence, and awe into these seven letters, or do we have a much smaller picture of what the word means?

Worship is more than activities that take place on the weekend. And yet the language of today suggests that worship is a few well-rehearsed and well-transitioned songs. We in the church ask each other questions like, “How was worship today?” This gives the impression that worship is a measure of human experience or performance. Worship leaders use phrases such as, “Now let’s continue to worship,” or “Let’s spend some time in worship.” This implies that worship is confined to a specific time in the worship service. Just as the word “worship” is full to the brim with meaning, so also do these phrases sometimes overflow with unintended connotations. Over the history of the church, and perhaps the last half-century in particular, we have limited the scope of what it means to worship.

To redefine worship, to regain the richness of what it means to worship, we must look to the Bible. The Bible is at its core God’s story, the true story of God and the world He created.[4] Creation came forth from the words of God, and to gain an understanding of what it is to worship the Creator, we must look to God’s word to us, the Bible.

God has, throughout the history of man, initiated and defined the relationship between Himself and his people. At Mount Sinai, as part of his covenant with Israel, God gave Moses detailed instructions on the sacrificial system, the building of the tabernacle, and the laws which would guide the Israelites.[5] These were the boundaries for worshiping God. In Jesus we see the fulfillment of each of these boundaries, and Christ confirmed this with his words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”[6] If we are going to understand worship, we must first acknowledge that God, through Jesus Christ, has established the foundation, and is the foundation.

With that in mind, this paper will seek to define and defend the essential elements of Christian worship from a Biblical perspective. Drawing from Scripture’s examples in the Old and New Testaments, we will explore four essential facets of true worship. First, worship needs to be Trinitarian in theology and in practice. Second, it must recognize the struggles of the present age but anticipate the coming kingdom. Third, true worship, though not limited to the “worship service,” is demonstrated by the structure and content of believers’ gatherings. And finally, authentic worship encompasses all aspects of the worshiper’s life and faith.


We live in an individualistic culture that sways dangerously into the realm of narcissism, concerned with my rights, my life, my liberty, self-esteem, self-worth, self-realization.[7] It is only natural that when worshiping God, we see worship in the same light: my baptism, my offering, my church.

The problem is that this way of thinking is antithetical to one of the great mysteries of God: the Trinity. This way of thinking is—in practice—Unitarian. By contrast, Trinitarian worship recognizes the importance of the Trinity and articulates the view that “worship is the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father.”[8] In other words, worship is not our own. Worship is participation in Christ’s worship of the Father.

One of the key elements of Trinitarian worship is belief in the sole priesthood of Christ. When God established his covenant with the Israelites at Mount Sinai, the Day of Atonement was provided to deal with the sins of Israel. The high priest would each year carry out the appropriate rites to remove the sins from the people of God. In this way Israel would remain holy and continue to be the nation that God blessed and through whom God blessed the world. In the letter to the Hebrews, we see that Jesus was the ultimate high priest, offering once and for all atonement for the sins of mankind. “The perfection of his sacrifice makes it possible for him to enter heaven itself, ‘now to appear for us in God’s presence.’”[9]

This is crucial to our understanding of worship. The only way that our sacrifice, our offerings, and our worship is acceptable to God is through Christ, our high priest. In other words, we must understand our worship as a participation in the perfect worship of Christ. We can not view our offerings as our own, but by the Spirit we participate in Christ’s worship of the Father. “It is he who leads our worship, bears our sorrows on his heart and intercedes for us, presenting us to the Father in himself as God’s dear children, and uniting us with himself in his life in the Spirit.”[10] This removes any chance of pride or performance from our worship.

Our view of worship will also carry into all aspects of faith and spirituality. John Witvliet had it right when he wrote that worship “both reflects and shapes our view of God and the world.”[11] Thus, a Trinitarian view of worship causes one to understand life in Christ as participation in the Trinity. Communion, for example, is an extension of the Son’s communion with the Father. [12] Baptism, too, is not our own, but a participation by the Spirit in the baptism, death and resurrection of Christ.[13]

A Trinitarian view of worship recognizes that worship is not about us. It is not by our own power or righteousness. Instead, worship is about Christ. The only way we have access to the throne of God in heaven is because He is our mediator, our high priest, and our lead worshiper. With this truth we can rest in the assurance that Christ has offered all the offering and sacrifice necessary to secure our salvation. Our worship is not a means of gaining favor with God, but a thanksgiving to God for his saving grace given to us through Jesus Christ.

Present and Future Age

A second essential element of Christian worship has to do with our understanding of time. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul states, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”[14] One might read this and discern that the old self is gone and we are a new creation in Christ. This is true, but the statement also points to an understanding of time. Paul was trained as a Pharisee, and as such he thought of time in terms of “the present age” (pre-Messianic advent) and “the age to come” (post-Messianic advent). Paul’s statement in Corinthians understands that the old age is passing away, and the age of the kingdom of God has now arrived in the death and the resurrection of Christ.[15]

There is a tension here, though. For if God’s kingdom has come in Christ, why is there still sin and evil in the world? In Paul’s understanding, the answer is that the old age and the age to come are now overlapping. The evidence of this is the Spirit. Paul describes the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing the fullness of the kingdom coming soon.[16] This tension recognizes the importance of the Spirit. Beyond that, there are two reasons we must understand the tension between the “already” and the “not yet.”

First, we must recognize our current mission in the “already.” One of the terms of God’s covenant with Abraham, Jacob, and the Israelites, is that God would bless the nations through them.[17] God had set them apart for this purpose, but the purpose was never fully accomplished by the Israelites. So God in his wisdom sent his Son. At the start of the gospel of Matthew, the evangelist uses a genealogy to trace the generations from Abraham, who was set apart, to Joseph, husband of Mary, mother of Christ. This connects the mission of the Israelites to the mission of Christ. Matthew ends, too, with Christ making this commission to his disciples:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”[18]

Christ, then, is the fruition of God’s covenant with Abraham, Jacob, and the nation of Israel to redeem the world. And in Jesus’ words to his disciples, he commissioned the church to be part of the same calling.

Worship, therefore, must embody in Christians a lifestyle that is winsome to the nations. That is our purpose for this time. Our songs should sing the language of bringing Christ to the nations. Our resources should go towards evangelism, missions, and outreach. Our prayers should petition God to bring justice to the oppressed.

God has given us this time to recognize that things are not right, and we have a part in making it right.[19] And worship should be the fuel that moves us outside the walls of our church buildings. Though sin and death surrounds us, we are to be a light to the nations, pointing people to Christ with our words and indeed our entire lives.

Second, we must recognize our future hope, the “not yet.” Dr. Gerald Borchert calls this the Eschatological Perspective as found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.[20] We are to live and find hope and joy in the expectation of Christ’s return. This perspective can be found in the entirety of Philippians. Paul encourages the church at Philippi to grow in knowledge and insight “until the day of Christ.” Live according to the gospel in the knowledge that “you will be saved—and that by God.” Press on toward our citizenship in heaven because “we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”[21]

When we live in the light of Christ’s return, we remember that we are not alone. Christ is with us by the Spirit. We also remember that Christ’s final victory over sin is already won. Most importantly, we remember our security of salvation in Christ. This affects the way we proclaim Him, the way we view Table Worship, the way we minister to others, and all aspects of our faith. Our songs should point to the promise of Christ’s return.

The Worship Service

A third essential of Biblical Christian worship deals with the worship service. When most people hear the word “worship” they think of the worship service. Worship services in Christian churches around the world take a variety of styles and forms. Some churches claim their worship to be contemporary, others blended, still others traditional. Musical instruments, artistic expressions, usage of Scripture, and views of the sacraments vary greatly between denominations.

What is the Biblical model for the worship service? Is there a right and wrong way to conduct services? In Planning Blended Worship, Robert Webber wisely begins the discussion by differentiating between style, structure, and content.[22] The content of Christian worship must be Trinitarian, which has already been addressed in this paper. We turn now to elements of structure and style.

The structure that Webber strongly recommends is based on the church in Acts as well as the church through its first 600 years. This structure is the fourfold pattern of worship: Gathering, Service of the Word, Table Worship, and Dismissal.[23] In my view, the Service of the Word and Table Worship are of particular importance to this discussion, and are absolutely essential. Both activities find their roots in Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”[24]

The Service of the Word is transformative in the worship service. God’s words in the opening chapter of Genesis cause creation to burst forth.[25] Much later when God speaks to Job, Job is overcome by his unworthiness to reply and covered his mouth in silence.[26] These are just two illustrations of the power of the word of God. The written word of God—the Bible—is awe-inspiring and life-changing. It “takes up residence within us and shapes us into Christ’s likeness.”[27] Therefore Scripture must be a regular part of the worshiper’s life, and it must be an integral part of the worship service.

Table Worship should also be a regular part of the worship service. Four images have formed our understanding of worship at the Table. The breaking of bread in Acts 2:42 (cross reference Luke 24), the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:20, Communion in 1 Corinthians 10:16, and Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 14:16.[28] These pictures express, respectively, the presence of the resurrected Christ, remembrance of Christ’s death for our sins, participation in the intimate relationship we have with Christ, and thanksgiving for God’s gift of salvation to us.[29] These are essential aspects of worship. We must always recognize the presence of the resurrected Christ. We must remember Jesus’ sacrifice and give thanks for our salvation. And we must acknowledge that we are part of the body of Christ, along with every other believer.

This leads to another essential aspect of the worship service, which is also apparent in Acts 2:42. Koinonia, or fellowship, was a huge part of the early church meetings. A danger of our individualistic culture is the tendency for worship services to become based on individual experience, which creates a sort of “tunnel vision” relationship between the individual and God. While our relationship with God is obviously crucial, we should also give attention to other believers. Based on Paul’s language in verses such as 1 Corinthians 14:3-26, 1 Thessalonians 5:11, and Ephesians 4:11-16, a purpose of the worship gathering is mutual upbuilding or edification.[30] The church is the body of Christ, and it needs growing and maturing. As noted before, worship is often synonymous with service. In this case, serving each other worships God, and builds up the body of Christ in the process. “In one sense the body of Christ is already complete.... In another sense that body is said to grow to perfection… The body metaphor reflects the ‘already—not yet’ tension of the two ages. It is a heavenly entity and yet it is an earthly reality.”[31] Our worship must consider others and seek to build them up. Examples of structural elements that serve this purpose are hymns, which not only praise God, but they are rich in theology, and are thus a teaching tool. Other examples are times of discussion following the teaching, times of intercessory or healing prayer, and the passing of the peace.

The worship service, then, serves a number of purposes integral to Biblical worship. First, there must be a focus on the word of God, which changes us into the likeness of Christ. Second, there must be a proper understanding of the table, which gives us proper attitudes of celebration, thanksgiving, remembrance, and participation. Third, the worship service is not only vertical, looking to God, but horizontal, looking to those around us. These purposes of the worship service are all essential to Christian worship, because as stated in a quote by John Witvliet earlier, our worship and our view of God and the world around us are interrelated. In forming a worship service that includes these aspects, we are guiding believers to live out their faith in the world in these ways.

And what of style? Webber again sums it up nicely:

“Style is not now, nor has ever been, a matter of biblical tradition. Whether our worship is formal, informal, or a combination of both, the style of worship depends on taste. We must allow our style to reflect who we are as a people. No one style is normative for all churches.”[32]

Authentic Worship

I will conclude with a final essential of Biblical Christian worship that has been alluded to throughout this paper. True Christian worship is not confined to the worship service, but encompasses all aspects of faith and life, so that the profession of faith in worship matches the living out of that faith.

In James’ letter to believers, he instructs them to avoid double-mindedness. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”[33] Our worship, what we profess on Sunday, should be evidenced by how we live our lives Monday through Saturday.

Worship that is inconsistent with life transformation is empty and unacceptable to God. Through the prophet Amos, God tells Israel “Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”[34] To worship the Father in a way that is acceptable to Him, we must let the Spirit transform us to be Christ to the world:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”[35]

True worship shows reverence and homage to God, serves God, points others to Christ, demonstrates the wonder of the Trinity, is mediated through Jesus, and is meaningfully structured in the worship service. It is our present and expectant response to the revelation of God, and it will transform us until Christ returns.

Sources Consulted

Bartholomew, Craig G. and Michael W. Goheen. The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.

Bechtel, Carol M., ed. Touching the Altar: The Old Testament for Christian Worship. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008.

Borchert, Gerald L. Worship in the New Testament: Divine Mystery and Human Response. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008.

McCann, J. Clinton, Jr. “The Hope of the Poor: The Psalms in Worship and Our Search for Justice.” In Touching the Altar: The Old Testament for Christian Worship, edited by Carol M. Bechtel, 155-178. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008.

Peterson, David. Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Torrance, James B. Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Webber, Robert. Planning Blended Worship: The Creative Mixture of Old and New. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.

[1] Bob Dylan. “Gotta Serve Somebody”, Slow Train Coming, Sony Music Entertainment Inc., 1979.

[2] David Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 64.

[3] Exodus 3:12, (New International Version), emphasis mine.

[4] Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 11.

[5] Exod. 20-31 (NIV).

[6] John 14:6 (NIV).

[7] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987) quoted in James B. Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 41.

[8] Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 30.

[9] Peterson, Engaging With God, p. 229-230. Hebrews 9:24 (NIV).

[10] Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace, 29.

[11] John D. Witvliet, series preface to Touching The Altar: The Old Testament for Christian Worship by Carol M. Bechtel, editor (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), xi.

[12] Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace, 32.

[13] Ibid, 74.

[14] 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV).

[15] Bartholomew and Goheen, The Drama of Scripture, 188-189.

[16] 2 Cor. 1:22 (NIV).

[17] Genesis 12:3, 22:18, 28:14, Exodus 19:6 (NIV).

[18] Matthew 28:18-20 (NIV).

[19] J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “Hope of the Poor: The Psalms in Worship and Our Search for Justice,” in Touching the Altar: The Old Testament for Christian Worship (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 160.

[20] Gerald L. Borchert, Worship in the New Testament: Divine Mystery and Human Response (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008), 140-145.

[21] Philippians 1:10,28; 3:20 (NIV).

[22] Robert Webber, Planning Blended Worship: The Creative Mixture of Old and New (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 20-22.

[23] Ibid, 20.

[24] Acts 2:42 (NIV).

[25] Genesis 1 (NIV).

[26] Job 40:1-5 (NIV).

[27] Webber, Planning Blended Worship, 88.

[28] Ibid, 129.

[29] Ibid, 130-131.

[30] Peterson, Engaging With God, p. 206.

[31] P. T. O’Brien “The Church as a Heavenly and Eschatological Entity”, 111, quoted by Peterson, Engaging With God, 210-211.

[32] Webber, Planning Blended Worship, 22.

[33] James 1:22 (NIV).

[34] Amos 5:22,24 (NIV).

[35] Romans 12:1-2 (NIV).

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