Tracing Worship

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You’ve probably heard the word “worship” before. You might be familiar with worshipping on Sunday morning, or singing along with a “Praise and Worship” team. Worship is a word that is thrown around and gets attached to a lot of activities done in church. It’s so often used that it may never have been defined for you, and you may have grown up assuming you know what it is and how to do it. 

In English, the word “worship” comes from “worth-ship.” Worship is ascribing worth to someone or something. In Christianity, worship is saying that only God has absolute worth. You can see how easy it is for humans to start “worshipping” things other than God by ascribing worth to the wrong things.

HOLINESS

Another way of viewing worship is through understanding that God alone is holy. Holiness is the primary characteristic of God. “To say that God is holy is to say little more than that He is God” (A.S. Herbert). When we recognize or acknowledge that someone or something is holy, it is simply noting that God is in the midst, or is working in the life of an individual who is taking on the divine character of God.

If you were to pick up your Bible and start reading from beginning to end, you would get a pretty interesting picture of how God and His people interact throughout history. There might be times when the story slows down, or you feel like the text is repeating itself as you watch the Israelites and prominent figures make mistake after mistake. You would also see that the people of Israel recognize that God is holy and worthy of worship.

From the creation stories of Genesis 1-2, the Scripture writers portray forms of worship. First we see that the structure of God’s creation schedule is similar to a very ordered worship service (liturgy). Second, we see that God places the newly formed man into Eden to “work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15, NIV). The Hebrew word for “work” can also mean “service to God,” while the words “take care” come from the word strongly connected to “keeping the commandments.” From the very beginning, the authors of the Bible make it clear that worship is a part of humanity’s identity.

ALTAR WORSHIP

The story of Genesis introduces several instances of altar worship, a practice that was common in the region to many religions. Individuals worshipped their deities by offering meat, grain, or sometimes people, on an altar of wood or stone that could be set ablaze as the offering ascended to the gods in the smoke. According to the Genesis story, the early people of God used the altars to give thanks to God, to give agricultural offerings, and to offer up prayers and petitions.

COVENANT, COMMUNITY, AND THE LAW

We also see the introduction of covenant as a facet of worship in the book of Genesis in the stories of Noah and Abraham. A covenant is a legally binding contract between two parties that has conditions and consequences for those involved. The introduction of covenant for God’s people solidified relationship with the Creator and bound the two together.

The covenants in the book of Genesis lay the groundwork for the biggest moment in the Israelites’ history: the Sinai Covenant.

In the book of Exodus, the children of Abraham become true worshippers of God after they are taken out of Egypt and brought to Mount Sinai. At Sinai, God gives specific instructions to Moses for the Israelite people on how they are supposed to worship Him. This important moment in the story of God’s people is when the whole nation corporately affirms that they will worship God together through following the Law given to Moses on the mountain. They are now a covenant community and a worshipping community. Worship becomes about the individual’s faithfulness to God and to the community.

The Law given at Mt. Sinai includes the 10 Commandments: four laws teaching how to worship God, and six laws teaching how to live as a part of a faithful community. Hundreds of other laws are given, including very important directions and schematics for a new form of worship: communal worship in the tabernacle.

TABERNACLE AND TEMPLE WORSHIP

The tabernacle was essentially a mobile place of worship. While the Israelites traveled through the desert on their way to Israel, the tabernacle was the place that the presence of God rested and where sacrifices and other ritual acts of worship could take place with the help of the Levite priests.

With the introduction of the Law, ritual sacrifice, and observances of holidays, Judaism became a structured religion. For the Israelite people, worship was about the everyday. The way food was prepared and eaten was done according to the Law, and thus was an act of worship. The way fabrics and clothing were woven and worn were in adherence to the Law. How you grew crops, treated members of the community, wore your hair, healed the sick, dealt with mold, and how you treated animals were all a part of worshipping God.

As the Israelites moved into the land of Canaan, the physical land of Israel became an important part of worship. To be a follower of God not only meant that you were following the Law, but also living in and worshipping God in the land of Israel, as a biological descendent of Abraham.

When you failed to live your life according to the Law, that was when sin entered the scene. An individual who sinned not only broke the Law, they separated themselves  from their community of Law-abiding citizens and God. In order to make right the wrongs that breaking the Law caused, sacrifices were necessary. Because the consequence of sin is death, the God of the Israelites required animals to be sacrificed and blood to be poured out to “atone for” and cover the sins of individuals, families, and the entire nation.

The animals (usually a cow, goat, or doves, depending on what was affordable) would have the sins of the people “passed on” to them through the humans touching the animals, sometimes forehead-to-forehead. Now the animal carried the sin of the humans. The animals were killed and burned on the altar, making the sinner cleansed in the sight of God.

There were many different types of offerings and sacrifices that could be made that didn’t involve the death of an animal, as well. Sometimes grain or wine was offered. Sometimes people would share meals with the priests. The temple and what it represented became the center of religious life for the Israelites at varying degrees throughout their history.

The temple was also a place that had overlap with the monarchy. Kings were coronated in the temple; they were considered divinely appointed, as well as servants of God. Being faithful to the king was also an act of worship because it meant trusting in God’s choice of leader, and putting faith in God’s covenant with David that said his descendants would be blessed and a Messiah would come forth from that line.

EXILE

In 586 BC, the Babylonians sent thousands of people into exile, destroyed the temple, and killed many of the priests and prophets. Without living in the land of Israel and without the temple, the people couldn’t make sacrifices. In the midst of so much destruction and restriction, the Israelites began to reexamine their faith. They held onto as many practices as possible from the homeland, but the destruction of Jerusalem and their captivity caused them to try new things and question what they believed.

The writing, preservation, and use of Scripture became an important movement in exilic Judaism. Jews also started gathering together in synagogues to pray and worship together on the Sabbath. By the time the Jews were able to enter back into Israel, the face of Judaism had changed.

Eventually, people moved back to Jerusalem, they rebuilt the temple, and they started life back up, but they carried with them many of the practices they had begun when they moved to Babylon.

NEW TESTAMENT

By the time we get to Jesus, a lot has changed. Jesus, like many rabbis, travels around teaching in synagogues. There are religious sects like the Pharisees and Sadducees. There is a new beautiful temple. The Jews are thoroughly monotheistic. What is considered Scripture is well set. The Jews live under Roman rule, but still hold onto their distinct way of life and strict adherence to the Law.

Jesus, being the ultimate worship guide for humans, teaches the Jews around Him new but congruent ways to worship God and interpret the Scriptures. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples see the connection of Jesus being a sacrificial lamb, like those offered in the temple. Jesus, being the pure, sinless Son of God, took on the sins of the world and allowed Himself to become the ultimate sacrifice. For the followers of Jesus, sin was completely atoned for in Christ’s death. Sin and death were no longer threats to their relationship with God, others, and creation, because even though Jesus died, He did not stay dead. He was resurrected and triumphant over death.

After Christ’s resurrection and ascension into Heaven, the Church is born. The book of Acts lays out for us the practices of Jesus’ followers. At first, worship for Christians was acknowledging that Jesus was the Messiah, Savior, and fulfillment of the Law—while still being consistent to the practices of Judaism. Over time, God reveals to the apostles and believers that there are different ways of worship.

As we read the New Testament, we see major modes of worship among the believers. The first is that followers of Christ believed and were baptized. Personal faith that Jesus is Lord is the primary act of worship for Christians. Baptism, then, is a personal statement believers participate in to demonstrate God’s cleansing in their life, but also is a rite of passage into a larger body of believers: the Church. Throughout the letters, we see Christians challenged to worship God by adhering to a moral code of holiness, i.e. acting like Christians.

Christians are also seen gathering together. Just as in the Old Testament worship was about community, the Church in the New Testament affirms similar themes. Christians gathered together to pray, sing, hear the Scriptures, and listen to sermons. Christians were also well known for eating together. Sharing meals is an important part of life in Christ. Finally, Christians were known for their service. The book of Acts shows us that they took care of fellow Christians by sharing money, making clothes for widows, and distributing food.

A TRANSFORMED OFFERING

Every aspect of how we live can constitute worship, because, as we’ve discussed, worship is ascribing worth to someone or something. Looking from the Old to the New Testament, it may seem that the outward nature of worshipping God has changed throughout the years. This isn’t necessarily the case. In Psalm 51 David writes that God does not ultimately desire the sacrifice of a burnt offering on an altar, but rather a transformed and repentant heart—this is what God wants today and always has wanted since the beginning of time. God desires to be in relationship with us, and as we worship and grow in Him, we can begin to understand what that looks like in our everyday lives.

3 WAYS TO WORSHIP WITH A CUP & A CLICK

You’ll need a computer, your Bible, and a cup of your favorite drink to get started.

1. TYPE IT IN

Search online for “Bible verses about worship” or head to BibleGateway.com and type “worship” in the search bar.

2. REEL IT IN

After selecting a passage, flip to that section of your Bible and read the chapter. Use these colors to underline the following and help you focus on the reading:

Yellow: Who is God? Find words or phrases that highlight the character of God.

Red: What is worship? Underline the unique way the person worshipped God.

Blue: What’s going on? Seek out the context or situation in which the person worshipped.

3.  SOAK IT IN

Finally, as you sip on your favorite drink, let the words of the passage soak in. As Proverbs 19:14 says, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to You, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” Meditate on the Word. What does it mean? How can you apply it to your own life?

Repeat this practice as part of your daily worship. If you finish reading the “worship” passages, switch it up and search for other Scriptural key words to deepen your love and understanding of His Word.

—Courtney Rose, Metropolitan Division