What is Worship? Part 1

Note: Reprinted from Worship in Song by Scott Aniol, published by BMH Books, Winona Lake, Indiana, www.bmhbooks.com. Used by permission.



What is Worship?

What worship style do you use? Do you prefer traditional or contemporary worship? Is worship for you or for God?

These questions and many more like them are prevalent in evangelical circles. Professing believers of various nationalities, denominations, and associations have begun asking the question, “What is worship?” Is worship the rituals and liturgies we find in the Old Testament? Is worship what goes on during a Sunday morning church service? Do I worship when I mow the lawn? Can I worship God by myself? Is worship even necessary today?

Godly men throughout history have tried to define worship:

Worship is the work of acknowledging the greatness of our covenant Lord (John Frame)1 (emphasis original).

Worship is the believers’ response of all that they are—mind, emotions, will, and body—to what God is and says and does (Warren Wiersbe).2

To worship Jesus Christ is to attribute worth to Him (Joseph Carroll). 3

The worship of the church, then, consists of individual, cor­porate, public, and private service for the Lord which is gen­erated by a reverence for a submission to Him who is totally worthy (Charles Ryrie). 4

Worship is to feel in the heart … Real worship is, among other things, a feeling about the Lord our God (A.W. Tozer). 5

Worship is our innermost being responding with praise for all that God is, through our attitudes, actions, thoughts, and words, based on the truth of God as He has revealed Himself (John MacArthur). 6

Worship is the activity of glorifying God in his presence with our voices and hearts (Wayne Grudem). 7

All the controversy over what worship really is has driven believers to ask this very important question—What is worship? It is very important that we develop a sound, biblical definition of what it means to worship. To do so, we must go to the Scriptures. Any definition we contrive is insufficient unless it finds its basis in the Word of God.

Worship in the Old Testament

The most common word for worship in the Old Testament is shachah. Lexicons define this word: “to bow down, prostrate oneself.” In the New American Standard Bible, it is translated as “worship” 99 times, “bow” 31 times, “bow down” 18 times, “reverence” 5 times, and “fall down” 3 times. The general idea, therefore, is some kind of physical prostration in awe and rever­ence of someone or something. This meaning is demonstrated in several passages.

And Jehoshaphat bowed his head with his face to the ground, and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem fell before the LORD, worshiping [shachah] the LORD (2 Chron. 20:18).

And Ezra blessed the LORD , the great God. Then all the peo­ple answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped [shachah] the LORD with their faces to the ground (Neh. 8:6).

Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped [shachah] (Job 1:20).

Oh come, let us worship [shachah] and bow down; Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker (Ps. 95:6).

In all of these instances, shachah is translated with a descrip­tion of physical bowing or prostration. This comprises the most common concept of worship in the Old Testament—a physical response to something. A review of the passages listed above will emphasize the reason for the response.

In 2 Chronicles 20:18, Jehoshaphat and the people fell down in worship before the Lord because of the message they had received from Him:

Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel the son of Zechariah, the son of Benaiah, the son of Jeiel, the son of Mattaniah, a Levite of the sons of Asaph, in the midst of the assembly. And he said, “Listen, all you of Judah and you inhabitants of Jerusalem, and you, King Jehoshaphat! Thus says the LORD to you: ‘Do not be afraid nor dismayed because of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours, but God’s. Tomorrow go down against them. They will surely come up by the Ascent of Ziz, and you will find them at the end of the brook before the Wilderness of Jeruel. You will not need to fight in this battle. Position yourselves, stand still and see the salvation of the LORD , who is with you, O Judah and Jerusalem!’ Do not fear or be dismayed; tomorrow go out against them, for the LORD is with you” (2 Chron. 20:14-17).

The people bowed down and worshiped the Lord in Nehemiah 8:6 because they had heard His Word read to them:

Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month. Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law (Neh. 8:1-3).

Job fell to the ground in worship after news of his family’s death. His response was to trust and depend on the sovereign control of God over the situation. The reason for the command to bow down in worship in Psalm 95 is also clear. “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker. For He is our God, And we are the people of His pasture, And the sheep of His hand” (Psalm 95:6-7).

In every instance, the physical response of worship relates directly to an understanding of truth about God. In 2 Chronicles 20 the people realized the Lord was going to protect them. In Nehemiah the people heard truth from His Word. Job responded with dependence on God’s sovereignty even during a difficult trial.

When we consider worship in the Old Testament, we often think of the physical manifestations of worship—the rituals, the bowing, the sacrifices, and so forth. Authors, who are attempting to define worship biblically, often do so in those kinds of terms. However, if we examine the essential essence of worship in these biblical references, it is clear that no matter what form worship took, in the Old Testament it consisted primarily of two elements: a presentation of truth about God and a fitting response to that truth. No matter if the worship was expressed actively through ritual and ceremony or if it was a spontaneous reaction, the essence of the worship was the same—response to truth about God.

Worship in the New Testament

In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), shachah is translated with the word proskuneo, which means virtually the same as its Hebraic counterpart. It emphasizes a physical manifestation of worship. Proskuneo is common in the Gospels (26 occurrences). People would often bow down worshipfully before Jesus when they understood who He really was. For example, “And as they went to tell His disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, ‘Rejoice!’ So they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him” (Matt. 28:9).

This word is also common in the book of Revelation (21 times) because the angels and elders in heaven often bow down before God because of who He is. “The twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever” (Rev. 4:10).

So in the Gospels and Revelation, the concept of worship is very similar to the Old Testament. Worship is a response (often physical) to an understanding of truth about God.

It is interesting that proskuneo virtually disappears in Acts and the Epistles, which is why we cannot tie the essence of worship to some kind of outward physical description. The word that replaces proskuneo in these books is latreuo, which is usually translated “serve.”

For God is my witness, whom I serve [latreuo] with my spirit in the gospel of His Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers (Rom. 1:9).

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service [latreuo] (Rom. 12:1).

For we are the circumcision, who worship [latreuo] God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh (Phil. 3:3).

Paul de-emphasizes the physical manifestations of worship, which helps us recognize its essential element, a response to truth about God. For instance, the “therefore” in Romans 12:1 demonstrates that offering our bodies as sacrifices of worship is in response to the rich truths laid out in chapters 1-11. Notice also latreuo is often connected with an emphasis upon the internal spirit of man, such as in Romans 1:9 and Philippians 3:3.

The Essence of Worship

Christ emphasized this essential definition of worship in His discussion with the Samaritan woman in John 4. When Jesus met the woman at the well and confronted her about her sin, she tried to change the subject, and in doing so, provided Christ the opportunity to address the very important topic of worship. The woman asked Jesus what the proper means of worshiping was:

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:21-24).

Because of God’s strict commands concerning worship, the Jews at that time were very concerned with the outward forms—where, when, and how they should worship. The woman was asking what the proper outward forms of worship should be. Jesus replied that with His coming, the outward forms weren’t necessary anymore, and He emphasized the two essential elements of worship, namely spiritual response (spirit) and understanding of truth.

Therefore, worship can be defined as follows: Worship is a spiritual response to God as a result of understanding biblical truth about God. This definition captures the biblical essence of worship and can be expressed in countless ways through actions, attitudes, and affections. In reality, worship should encompass all of life as we have seen especially in the language of the Epistles.


1 John M. Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 1996), 1.
Warren W. Wiersbe, Real Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 26.
3 Joseph S. Carroll, How To Worship Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody, 1984), 36.
4 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor, 1988), 428.
5 A. W. Tozer, Whatever Happened to Worship? (Camp Hill, Pa.: Christian Publications, 1985), 82.
John MacArthur Jr., The Ultimate Priority (Chicago: Moody, 1983), 127.
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1006.

aniol_scott_09.jpgScott Aniol received a bachelor’s degree in Church Music at Bob Jones University and a master’s degree in Musicology at Northern Illinois University. He has taken seminary classes at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary and did graduate work in choral conducting and church music history at Concordia University in River Forest, Illinois. As the executive director of Religious Affections Ministries, Scott speaks on the subjects of music and worship at various churches and conferences. His most recent speaking engagements include the Great Lakes Conference on Theology, Central Seminary’s Foundations Conference, International Baptist College, and Bob Jones Seminary. Scott’s book, Worship in Song, was recently released by BMH Books. Check out his Web site at Religious Affections Ministries.
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