Word Study #50 — Worship

I don’t know how many printed cards or form-letters we have received, over the years, from all varieties of “churches” that we have visited, bearing some variation of this standard message:
“We were delighted to have you worship with us today. We hope you enjoyed the service, and that your needs were met. Our church offers many exciting programs for all ages. Please do not hesitate to call on us for your pastoral needs. We hope to see you again.”
Such drivel is immediately consigned to the recycle bin: yet another group has vividly demonstrated its total ignorance of (1)what worship is about, (2) what church is about, and (3)how easy it is to spot phony “hospitality.” Whether they loudly thump their Bibles, quoting chapter and verse, or scarcely open the pages at all, does not seem to make a difference. Although their stated agendas may label themselves “liberal” [“accepting/welcoming”]–translation: “Anything goes here!”– or “conservative” [“faithful”]–translation:  “You gotta do it MY way!”–,  their attitudes are identical.
Jesus, not surprisingly, said it best: (Mt.15:9, Mk.7:7) “Your worship of me is empty: you are teaching as ‘doctrines’ the commandments of (mere) men.”

We may be forgiven for imperfectly understanding the concept of “worship.” This English word has, after all, been used to represent no less than a dozen different Greek words – none of which, however, makes any reference to sitting in the audience of a lecture (scholarly or otherwise), a political speech, or a professional concert (classical, country, rock or rap, or anything in between!) Nor do any of them provide a clue as to what sort of “needs” are supposedly to be addressed. “Enjoyment”, likewise, is totally absent.
Because, to put it most simply, worship is not about you or me and our “needs”! It is about the object of our devotion!
When the Magi spent weeks, months, or perhaps years making their way across hostile deserts to “worship” before the King they had sought, do you think it was to acquire some sort of “warm fuzzy feeling?” I doubt it. Their tenacity, and subsequent openness to guidance, reveals rather a deliberate expression of fealty to an acknowledged superior! That “pledge of obedience [allegiance]” is also precisely what Satan later asked of Jesus (Mt.4:9-10, Lk.4:7-8), and what Jesus flatly refused to give, with his unequivocal statement that one’s allegiance is due only to God! (See W.S.#4).

Of the multiplicity of words used in the new Testament, the majority only occur once or twice, and are usually traditionally translated in other ways, as in Lk.14:10 (doxa much more often is rendered “glory” or “honor”) or Ac.17:25 (therapeuo is usually used of healing). Although some overlap exists, it is helpful to look at the lexical meanings of the most common words.
Latreuo (16x rendered “serve”, and only 3x “worship”) classically (L/S) referred to human servitude – either as a slave or a hired worker – as well as to “serving the gods with prayers and sacrifice”. Bauer adds “the carrying out of religious duties, usually of a cultic nature”, and Thayer also focuses on the performance of prescribed rites. Not surprisingly, many of the New Testament occurrences of latreuo are descriptions of the old ways that were left behind by both Jews and Gentile converts (Ac.7:42, Heb.10:2, Ac.26:7, Rom.1:35, Heb.13:10), although there is also occasional mention of “serving God”(Ac.27:33, Rom.1:9, Rev.7:15) in a more enlightened way.
Proskuneo, by far the most common (59x), carries the greatest implication of acknowledging a sovereign by bowing to the ground, or falling at his feet, although the word was also used in common courtesy as a formal greeting. This word referred to the gesture of submission required by political conquerors, the refusal of which resulted, not uncommonly, in peremptory execution. It was, however, also used of supplication, as when someone begged for Jesus’ attention (Mt.8:2, 9:18, 18:26; Mk.5:6). It’s going on all the time, in the joyful scenes around the throne (Rv.4:10, 5:14, 7:11, 11:1, 11:16, 14:7, 15:4) Interestingly, although in pagan culture, physical obeisance was often an effort to avert the wrath of the gods (L/S), in the N.T. it is a scene of joyful celebration of the triumph of the Lamb!  Interestingly, proskuneo is always an active verb — never a noun or an adjective.
Various forms of sebo, sebaomai, and sebazomai ar)e sprinkled throughout the narratives, L/S notes that these refer to “the reverential awe that prevents one from doing something disgraceful”, and is used to describe “religious” people like Jewish proselytes (Ac.18:7, 16:14) who were open to the Christian message, as well as the varied objects of pagan worship (II Thes.2:4, Ac.17:23). This term became more politicized when the emperor adopted the title “Augustus” (sebastos) and demanded to be worshiped as a god (by the burning of incense). Our first century brethren would have surely been shocked at the ease with which so many today who call themselves “Christian” remain so ambivalent about the priority of their Kingdom loyalty!

Jesus’ most detailed discussion of “worship” (proskuneo), interestingly, was with the woman at Jacob’s well in Samaria (Jn.4:20-24). He quickly steered the conversation away from details of placewhich no longer matters – (4:21) – to the object and attitude (22-24) which does matter. The Father is seeking (present tense) for those who will worship him “in spirit and truth.” “God (is) spirit” – there is no verb: but both nouns are nominative. The latter pneumati and aletheia are both dative objects of the preposition en.
There is no easy resolution to the arguments between trinitarian and non-trinitarian positions here; but both “sides” frequently obscure or ignore the connection to Jesus’ own definition of “truth” (Jn.14:6) – see W.S.#26 – and that the “true [genuine] worshipers” are designated by the same word. Their identification with Jesus, therefore, is most obvious.

One more word that needs attention, although it, too, is only traditionally rendered “worship” once, (against 3 x “religious/religion”): threskia, sometimes classically used of formal cult worship, but succinctly and deliberately re-defined by James (1:26-27) when he points out quite bluntly that “religion” which does not extend help to the needy is useless! – and the “real thing” consists of caring for widows and orphans, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world. This is presented, not as the cause, but as the inevitable effect/evidence of genuine worship.

A cursory survey like this cannot possibly produce a neat “definition” of as far-reaching a term as “worship.” One can, nevertheless, glean an assortment of elements that must be included in any such definition:
– Worship may involve a single individual (Mt.8:2, 9:18) or a group assembled for the purpose (Rv.4:10, 5:14)
– The focus is upon the one who is worshiped, not the worshiper. (Jn.4:23, Heb.1:6, Rv.15:4)
– Location is irrelevant (Jn.4:21)
– It is the appropriate response of gratitude for being included in the Kingdom (Heb.12-28)
– No faithful messenger of God will accept any hint of worship personally directed toward him (Rv.19:10)
“Enjoyment?” “Exciting programs?” “Needs?” I don’t think so.

The beginning of an understanding of genuine Christian worship might be simply:

–to declare our admiration and absolute allegiance to our King
– and to report for duty in his service.

What observations can you add?


One Response to Word Study #50 — Worship

  1. […] biblical concept(s) encapsulated in the word…if you want to explore that further check out my mom’s excellent article on the subject.  For now we’ll just work with the common English usage: that is, some […]

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