I said last week that in thinking about worship, we need to begin with the principle that our worship is only and entirely about and for God. As I noted, this statement raises an important issue: why is that OK for God to demand our worship? Having answered that question, however, there’s actually another one which we ought to address. In order to understand what it means to worship God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we need to make sure we’ve defined our terms properly. What is worship?
We can start to answer this question by looking at the words the Bible uses. One Greek word, latreia, basically means “service.” In the Greek version of the Old Testament (which is called the Septuagint), it was used of the ritual of worship, but also more broadly to refer to the obedience God wants from us to his commandments. For the New Testament writers, it came to mean the surrender of our hearts, and thus our whole lives, to the Lord. This is what we see in the beginning of Romans 12, where Paul says that our worship is to offer ourselves to God as living sacrifices.
Another word, leitourgia, also means “service”; this is the word from which we get our word “liturgy.” In the Septuagint, this word is used specifically for the work of the priests in the temple, including above all the offering of the sacrifices on the altar. By the time of the New Testament, its meaning had expanded to include the offering of our prayers to God, and we see it used that way in Acts 13.
The most common New Testament word for worship, which is also the most common word in the Greek Old Testament, is proskuneo. That word meant to get down on your knees, put your face on the ground, and kiss it. The English word for that practice is obeisance. This was a gesture of total submission, reverence, and adoration, humbling yourself completely before another and acknowledging their absolute authority over you.
These words are used to translate a number of Hebrew words, but there’s one worth noting which they don’t include. Siakh can mean “to consider,” “to study,” or “to meditate.” In regard to worship, it’s used as Israel was called to remember and to reflect on all that God had done for them as a people, which was central to their worship (and should be central to ours).
In the biblical words, then, we see that worship is our service to God. This begins with gathering together as he has commanded to join in particular acts according to one form or another—a liturgy—including giving God praise, acknowledging his lordship, giving him our offerings, and praying to him. The service of worship God wants from us goes beyond that, however, to include the offering of our whole selves as our sacrifice to him. That means every desire, every decision, every thought and idea, every hope, every fear, every plan, every opportunity, and every single moment.
We also see that worship involves remembering all the ways God has blessed us and re-telling the stories of his goodness, to ourselves and to each other. In this way, our gratitude to him for our salvation and for all his blessings is renewed, and our love for him is deepened and strengthened.
Finally, worship is about humbling ourselves before God, bowing down before him and admitting to him and to ourselves that he’s Lord and we aren’t. Worship is submitting ourselves completely to God, but not grudgingly or resentfully, and not because we think we’re going to get something out of it. Rather, we submit ourselves because we recognize that we don’t stand before God as equals, for he is far, far greater than we are in every respect, and far more good. Because of all he has given us and done for us, we submit ourselves to him in love and gratitude, because it’s the least we can do.
This is a good picture, but it seems incomplete to me. These are all words that describe the outward activity of worship. We obey God, we serve him, we bow before him, we remember and talk about all that he’s done. There’s something about the substance of worship that isn’t quite specified here, though we see it in the worship of God’s people throughout Scripture. Where it is captured, actually, is in English, in the history of our word “worship.”
You see, the Old English form of the word, if we just change it to modern English spelling, is “worthship.” It’s the same ending as words like “relationship” and “partnership”; the heart of the word is “worth.” It meant to ascribe worth to something or someone—to declare that person or thing to be very important to us—and to treat them accordingly. We worship those things or people which we believe are worthy of our time, effort, energy, commitment, and sacrifice.