Worship in Perspective: an overview of biblical teaching
©David Peterson (2009)
In broad terms, acceptable worship means relating to God or engaging with God on the terms that he proposes and in the manner that he alone makes possible. It involves honouring, serving and respecting him, abandoning any loyalty or devotion that hinders an exclusive relationship with him (Engaging with God, chapter 2).
Although some of Scripture’s terms for worship may refer to specific gestures of homage, rituals or priestly ministrations, worship is more fundamentally a way of speaking about faith expressing itself in obedience and adoration. Consequently, in both testaments it is often shown to be a personal and moral fellowship with God relevant to every sphere of life.
From a New Testament perspective, acceptable worship is only possible through the mediation of Jesus Christ, on the basis of his death, resurrection and ascension, and the gift of his Spirit.
Revelation and redemption essential for genuine worship
God is worthy of homage, praise and grateful service because he is creator, lord of history, and judge of all. But humanly-devised religion receives God’s condemnation in Scripture. It cannot bring people into a right relationship with God or enable them to please him. God must rescue them from the darkness of ignorance and the corruption of sin, bringing them to a true knowledge of himself, if they are to worship him acceptably. Thus, the Old Testament insists that Israel could only draw near to the Lord because of his gracious initiative and provision. He uniquely revealed his character and will to them, and rescued them from captivity in Egypt, establishing them in the land where they could serve him without hindrance. Revelation and redemption are the basis of acceptable worship in biblical thinking (Engaging with God, chapter 1).
God’s self-revelation to Israel was particularly associated with Mount Sinai, the tabernacle in the wilderness, and then the temple in Jerusalem. Here the word of the Lord was given and received and his rule over his people and his presence amongst them were powerfully represented. The ritual established in connection with these sanctuaries was to be Israel’s way of acknowledging his kingly presence and God’s way of sustaining a rebellious and unfaithful people in a relationship with himself. His special provisions for Israel were designed to bring blessing to the rest of humanity (cf. Gen. 12:3; Ex. 19:5-6). So worship and God’s covenant are closely linked in Scripture.
Israel’s compromise with other religions and the corruption of her worship was a significant factor in the divine judgment that eventually came upon the temple and the nation. Nevertheless, the prophets predicted that the temple would be restored and that Israel’s worship would be renewed ‘in the last days’. This was another way of saying that the covenant would be renewed (Jer. 31:31-4). The relationship of the people with God would be transformed so that his intention of blessing the whole world through them might be fulfilled. The word of the Lord would go out from Jerusalem and the nations would be drawn to worship God in the fellowship of his people, in his holy ‘house’. Acceptable worship is thus an important aspect of biblical eschatology.
Worship under the New Covenant
When the apostle Peter asserts that Jesus Christ is ‘the living stone – rejected by mortals but chosen by God and precious to him’, he indicates the fulfilment of these Old Testament hopes in the person and work of the Messiah (1 Pet. 2:4-5, 9). God is building a new ‘spiritual house’ with Jesus as the ‘cornerstone’ or ‘keystone’ (Eph. 2:20). This temple of ‘living stones’ is really the community of those who have come to Christ. They are ‘chosen’ and ‘precious’ because of their link with him. God dwells in their midst through his Spirit (Eph. 2:21-2) and he has chosen to manifest his glory to the world through them. As a ‘holy priesthood’ they are called to live out the role given to Israel at Mount Sinai and to be ‘a holy nation’. But they do this by ‘offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ Jesus replaces the levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system, which was designed to maintain the holiness of God’s people and facilitate their service to God.
Jesus and his people
The starting-point for Christian reflection on this matter appears to have been the conviction that God fully and finally manifested himself in the person of his Son. Jesus Christ is at the centre of New Testament thinking about worship. He is the ultimate meeting point between heaven and earth and the decisive means of reconciliation between God and humanity. He is the centre of salvation and blessing for all nations. While some passages suggest that Jesus is exclusively the new temple, others show how temple ideals are also fulfilled in the church. Thus, it is in Jesus and the community that he gathers to himself that we see the full reality towards which the temple pointed.
Worshipping Jesus and worshipping the Father
At one level, the New Testament shows how the earliest disciples were drawn to worship Jesus himself (Engaging with God, chapter 3). At another level, we are shown how Jesus made possible a new relationship with God as Father by means of his death, resurrection, ascension, and subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Through the ministry of the Son and the Spirit, the Father obtains true worshippers (Jn. 4:23-26). Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity lies at the heart of a truly Christian theology of worship. Each person in the Godhead plays a significant role in establishing the worship appropriate to the New Covenant era.
Christ as sacrifice and high priest of the New Covenant
Central to New Testament teaching is the insistence that Christ’s death is the ultimate sacrifice, provided by God to cleanse his people from the defilement of sin and consecrate them to himself in a relationship of heart-obedience. The victim and the priest of the New Covenant are one, because Jesus offered perfect worship to the Father by a lifetime of obedience, culminating in his death.
A special inspiration for Christian thinking about the sacrificial significance of Jesus’ death appears to have been his own reinterpretation of the Passover for his disciples at the Last Supper. By means of his sacrifice and heavenly exaltation he has opened the way for Jews and Gentiles to approach the Father together. They can draw near with the certainty that their sins are forgiven and that they have been accepted into the life and fellowship of his coming kingdom. They can serve him with gratitude and whole-hearted devotion because of their trust in what God has done for them through Christ (Engaging with God, chapters 4, 6, 8).
Fundamentally, then, worship in the New Testament means believing the gospel and responding with one’s whole life and being to the person and work of God’s Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Worship and the word of God
Evangelism is the means by which people are initially drawn to present themselves to God as ‘a living sacrifice’ (Rom. 12:1; 15:15-16). The New Testament also shows that, if Christians are to be motivated and equipped to serve God in their everyday lives, they need to be exposed to an ongoing, gospel-based ministry of teaching and exhortation. Throughout Scripture, the word of God is fundamental to a genuine engagement with him. While it is true that worship terminology can be applied to every sphere of life, missionary preaching, the establishment of churches in the truth of the gospel, and support for such ministry are viewed as specific and particular expressions of Christian worship in the New Testament. At the same time, they are clearly a form of service or ministry to the churches (Engaging with God, chapters 5, 7).
Jesus removes the need for a cultic approach to God in the traditional sense. Yet the New Testament demonstrates that our understanding of his work can be greatly enriched by viewing it in terms of transformed worship categories. His sacrifice on the cross, his entrance into the heavenly sanctuary, and his intercession for us, provide the only basis for relating to God under the New Covenant. The whole of life is to be lived in relation to the cross and to the sanctuary where Christ is enthroned as our crucified saviour and high priest. Indeed, it is ultimately our destiny to share with him in the fellowship of that heavenly or eschatological reality and to ‘serve him day and night in his temple’ (Rev. 7:15). Meanwhile, we worship God as we acknowledge these truths and respond to his mercies with grateful obedience.
The character and function of Christian gatherings
The uniqueness and total adequacy of Christ’s work is obscured by any doctrine of human priesthood, charged with some form of sacrificial ministry in the Christian congregation. There are no sacred buildings where God is especially present in the gospel era. There is no divinely-ordained ritual of approach to God for believers under the New Covenant. Nevertheless, several texts suggest that God presences himself in a distinctive way in the Christian meeting through his word and the operation of his Spirit.
The edification of the church
The purpose of Christian gatherings is often expressed in terms of edifying or building up of the body of Christ (e.g 1 Corinthians 14; Eph. 4:11-16; Heb. 20:24-25). We minister to one another as we teach and exhort one another on the basis of his word, using the gifts that the Spirit has given us, in the way that Scripture directs. Edification is to be our concern even when we sing or pray to God in the congregation. However, all this is not a purely human activity, for God is at work in the midst of his people as they minister in this way. Edification is first and foremost the responsibility of Christ as the ‘head’, but he achieves his purpose as the various members of the body are motivated and equipped by him to play their part. We meet together to draw on the resources of Christ and to take our part in the edification of his church (Engaging with God, chapter 7).
Worship and edification
From one point of view, the gathering of the church is meant to be an anticipation of the heavenly or eschatological assembly of God’s people. It is to be characterized by worship or divine service in the form of prayer and praise directed to God and in the form of ministry to one another. Worship and edification are different dimensions of the same activities. Put another way, participation in the edification of the church is an important aspect of that total obedience of faith which is the worship of the New Covenant. From another point of view, we gather together to encourage one another to live out in everyday life the obedience that glorifies God and furthers his saving purposes in the world (Engaging with God, chapters 8, 9).
The gospel is the key to New Testament teaching about worship. The gospel declares to us the ultimate revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ and the ultimate redemption in his sacrificial death. He fulfils and replaces the whole method of approach to God associated with the Sinai Covenant. The teaching and practice of the Old Testament is not discarded but is transformed in the New Testament. It becomes the means for understanding the work of the Messiah and how we can relate to God under the New Covenant. Through the gospel message of God’s mercy in Christ, and through his Spirit, men and women from all nations are united in his praise and service.