In the world of contemporary evangelicalism a great deal is said about worship. Outside countless ecclesiastical buildings countless notice boards advertise worship services. Many of the gatherings that meet in these buildings find use for the services of a worship leader. The shelves of Christian bookshops groan beneath the weight of CDs and DVDs whose liners invite us to become part of a "world of worship", to share in a "worship experience". On the surface, there seems to be no shortage of worship.
However, a closer examination of this "worship industry" leaves little scope for complacency. Indeed, it quickly becomes apparent that much of what is packaged and sold as worship is very different from the pattern of worship provided in Scripture. In the narcissistic emotionalism of its content, the unscriptural banality of its lyrics with their seemingly endless repetition, in its aping of the music of the world and its glorification of individual musicians or "worship leaders" this "worship" falls very far short of anything mandated by the Word of God. That such a distorted and deformed substitute should, in the eyes of Gods people, pass for real worship is indicative of a serious failure to grasp the true nature of worship as presented in the Gods Word.
When studying any Scriptural concept, it is often helpful to begin by looking at the passage of Scripture where that concept is introduced for the first time. Our endeavour to understand Scriptural worship takes us to Genesis 18: "And the Lord appeared unto him (Abraham) in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant (vv.1-3).
The word "worship" does not appear in the English translation of this passage. However, the word translated "bowed himself" is the word most commonly translated as "worship" in the Old Testament. This passage, then, could be said to present us with a prototype of Scriptural worship and it has important lessons for us about the motivation, the attitude, the object and the consequences of true worship.
The Motivation Involved
First of all, we should notice the motivation behind Abrahams act of worship. We could imagine a number of circumstances in which the patriarch might have been moved to bow down before these strangers. Had they presented the threat of physical danger he might have bowed in supplication to beg them for favour. Had they bestowed some gift upon him he might have bowed as an expression of gratitude. This account presents neither of these motivations. Abraham had nothing to fear from these men and he had, at this stage, received nothing from them. His act of humility arose purely and simply from his recognition that he was in the presence of someone greater than he was.
That should be the motivation for our worship too. There are three chief ways in which we approach God. We come to Him with prayer and supplication to ask for His help and blessing. We return with thanksgiving and praise when we receive that blessing. But worship transcends any purely personal considerations. It has to do with who and what God is, and not with ourselves. It is the fervent, heartfelt acknowledgement of His worth. In the words of J N Darby, "It is the honour and adoration which are rendered to God, by reason of what He is in Himself, and what He is for those who render it. Worship is the employment of heaven; and a blessed and precious privilege for us upon earth, if the enjoyment of it be vouchsafed to us" (7.88). Rightly has it been described as the Christians highest occupation.
The Attitude Expressed
This understanding of the motivation of worship will inevitably inform the attitude in which that worship is offered. In both Hebrew and Greek, worship is a postural term that speaks of the complete abnegation of self. When Abraham bowed himself before the Lord he was making a dramatic statement about the relative importance of himself and the One he worshiped. He was of no significance, and so he abased himself. True worship must always adopt this attitude spiritually. It is the least selfish, least egotistical activity known to humankind. Any talk of "worship experience" misses this crucial point. Such terminology turns the spotlight back on the self, its feelings, emotions and responses. True worship, by distinction, is not motivated by what we receive, or what we feel, but by what we can give as we acknowledge the absolute, extraordinary and unparalleled worth of the One to whom our worship is directed.
The Object Addressed
If this is what worship is, it should be very apparent that it cannot be lightly offered, nor are many worthy of it. Indeed, while our fellow men may command our respect, attract our affections or our love, we do not find in them the value that makes them fit objects of our worship. Only God, in the greatness of His person, is worthy of worship. This is indicated in this first mention of worship. In Genesis 18 it was Jehovah who appeared to Abraham. The passage records a Christophany, a pre-incarnation appearance of the Son of God. So, Abraham bowed, not before an ordinary or extraordinary man, but before the Son of God. It is worth noting that it is He who receives the first worship recorded in Old and New Testaments (Mt 2.2). Mankind as a whole has crucially failed in ascribing to lesser entities the worship due to God alone. How careful we should be to ensure that we follow the example of Abraham in directing our worship only to the Father and the Son.
The Consequences Enjoyed
Abrahams worship was not an isolated or self-contained act. Rather, it had consequences well beyond itself. Firstly, it led to service. As Abraham straightened himself from the ground, he immediately sought to minister to his visitors, describing himself as "thy servant" (significantly in the singular). Worship should always come before service. This is true in the sense of priority. Worship must precede service it is an incongruous thing if brethrens voices are often heard in the preaching of the gospel or the teaching of the Word while they consistently sit silent on a Lords Day morning. But worship also comes before service in the sense of motivation. Abrahams recognition and acknowledgement of the worth of his visitor engendered in him a burning desire to serve. Indeed, one of the Hebrew words translated by "worship" can be, and sometimes is, translated as "serve". Nor is this link difficult to substantiate in the New Testament. The familiar words of Romans 12.1 exhort us: "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service".
The offering of a living sacrifice is an act of worship; at the same time it is our logical service to God. It should not be a strange thing that our worship should lead us to serve more fervently. Indeed, it would be very strange if we could contemplate the greatness of our Saviour and not be moved to love Him more and serve Him better.
It was another consequence of Abrahams worship that he gained a fresh understanding of God. It was in the atmosphere and aftermath of his worship that he received a renewal of Gods promise. This was followed by a revelation of Gods purpose in relation to the cities of the plain, and by a remarkable experience in prayer. For Abraham, worship deepened communion with God. True worship always will, for it causes us to learn more about God and to enjoy more fully the reality of our relationship with Him.
In the example of Abraham we see worship as God defines it and desires it. In the light of this patriarchal prototype, how does our worship compare? Individually and collectively we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to worship God. He seeks worshippers (Jn 4.23) and He seeks worship. It is our highest activity, part of the purpose for which we have been saved. It is our shame and our loss if we accept any substitute for worship in its reality. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that what we offer is in accordance with His will and in keeping with His person.
To be continued.