Biblical Worship, Part 2

According to Part 1 in this series, the basic way to revitalize the public worship of God is to help believers find more meaning in the activity. Much more is involved, then, than just tinkering with the order of service or simply devising creative ways to worship. As Hurtado notes,

“This is not a matter of guitars versus organs, sedate style versus ‘happy-clappy’” church music (Larry W.  Hurtado, At the Origins of Christian Worship, [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], p. 114).

Part 2 now begins a discussion aimed at accomplishing that goal. This article involves explaining to people what guidance Scripture offers as to the part the physical body has in exclaiming the adoration of God. It also centers on a discussion of the meaning of the various words for worship that are used in the Bible. It concludes, then, with some practical reasons for worshiping God as suggested by noted scholars who have addressed the matter in their writings.

The Physical Aspects of Worship

Scripture gives patterns for employing the physical in worship. It draws attention to bodily posture in prayer. For example, believers may kneel in adoration to the Lord as Solomon did at the dedication of the first Temple. Near the end of the solemn occasion the sacred record says that, following his prayer in consecrating the building, the king arose from where “he had been kneeling with his hands spread out toward heaven” (1 Kings 8:54).

In a similar manner, during a farewell meeting with Paul as he departed to continue his voyage by sea the Christians at Tyre also knelt in Prayer. Luke who was with the apostle at the time reports, “All the disciples and their wives and children accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray” (Acts 21:5).

At the same time the Bible reveals that it is just as acceptable to stand as to kneel in prayer. When Abraham was before the Lord interceding for the sparing of Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction, he stood to present his plea. He had just learned from three heavenly beings of the scheduled catastrophe. Two angels went on their way toward the metropolis. One, Who was probably the pre-incarnate Christ Himself, remained to converse further with the patriarch. In a memorable encounter between the human and the divine Scripture says, “The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD” (Gen. 18:22).

Then whether kneeling, standing, or sitting, according to Scripture a believer may bow his head and close his eyes before the Lord in worship. When doing so he follows the example of Moses at the miracle of the burning bush. As he stood for a moment before that awesome sight, Jehovah identified Himself from the flames as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Bible says, “At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God” (Exod. 3:6). King Jehoshaphat conducted himself in a similar manner before the Lord in worship. The inspired historian reports, “Jehoshaphat bowed with his face to the ground, and all the people of Judah and Jerusalem fell down in worship before the LORD” (2 Chron. 20:18).

The above passage also makes clear that a believer may fall on his face before the Lord in adoration like those of Bible times. Joshua did so. Before the attack on Jericho upon, recognizing that he was in the presence of the heavenly commander of the armies of Jehovah, Scripture declares, “Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence” (Josh. 5:14). Ezekiel took the same posture before God once. He was witness to a hair-raising vision of the awesomeness of Jehovah. He describes his response by saying, “When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking” (Eziek. 2:1).

However, references in the Bible to one’s falling on his face in prayer may not always mean that the toes, tummy, and nose of the believer’s body in touching the ground. For example, as to the physical posture of Jesus in His prayer in Gethsemane, Matthew reports that “he fell with his face to the ground and prayed” (Matt. 26:39). Similarly, Mark records that “he fell to the ground and prayed” (Mark 14:35). At the same time Luke explains that He “knelt down and prayed” (Luke 22:41). Perhaps, then, His was a position of extreme bowing before the Father. However, clearly, sometimes the reference to lying before the Lord describes a complete horizontal position. John’s must have been one of total prostration when he described his reaction to seeing the risen Lord saying, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17).

Further, a believer may lift his hands in adoration before God as Nehemiah did (Neh. 8:6). He may also clap his hands in showing appreciation to the Lord  according to Psalm 47:1.
He may worshipfully dance before the Lord as David did on one occasion (2 Sam. 6:14). Of course, then, he may employ his voice in praise, song, and prayer to God as one of ten leper did. Luke reports, “One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice” (Luke 17:15). His “loud voice” was likely one of an unconscious increasing of its volume, rather than one intended merely to fit into a religious ritual. Certainly, he was not just “acting Pentecostal” when he worshiped in this way.

The Mental, Volitional, and Emotional Aspects of Worship

In addition to the physical, Scripture gives patterns for the mental, volitional, and emotional in worship. Without these, all physical gestures before God are meaningless. Concerning unacceptable worship in Israel, Jehovah declared, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men” (Isa. 29:13).

Then, to kneel without feeling a sense of awe is worthless. To stand without reverence is empty. To lay prostrate just to act religious is hypocritical. To lift hands without hunger for God means little. To clap hands to “act” Pentecostal is mere form. To raise the voice minus a corresponding inner compulsion is simply to make religious noise.

I learned in my own worship experiences that it is a mistake to simply mimic the outward actions of our Pentecostal fathers in worship. Further, seeking to return to the physical aspects of worship in Old Testament times is unwise. Some, however, use James’ quotation of Amos at the Jerusalem Council as a proof text in calling for a revival of the worship practices at the Tabernacle and the Temple. He recites basically Amos 9:11 from the Septuagint which says, “After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it” (Acts 15:16).

However, Palma concludes that the reference to rebuilding “David’s fallen tent” in this context does not focus on worship but rather on the dynasty of the king which the prophet declared God would restore. He writes, “The intent of the Amos quotation is to stress that the Messiah, David’s descendant, has already become King and is in the process of extending His kingdom” (Anthony D. Palma, “The ‘Tabernacle’ of David,” [Advance, Jan. 1994, pp. 18-19). The fact is that the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 makes possible a more desirable worship with a greater emphasis on the spiritual than the physical aspects of Old Testament times.

The Spiritual Aspects of Worship

The pronounced emphasis of the New Testament on Worship is on its spiritual aspects. Certainly it provides patterns for the spiritual in worship. Indeed, biblical worship is essentially spiritual. Jesus explained that to the Samaritan woman. He declared, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

Then, worship which is truly acceptable to God is only that which comes by the aid of the Holy Spirit. Believers pray in the Spirit (Eph. 6:18). They sing in the Spirit (1 Cor. 14:15).  Their privilege is that of worshiping in the Spirit as much as Elizabeth did. Luke explains that when she was expecting her son John she met Mary who was then pregnant with Jesus. Luke says, “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41). Luke indicates that she worshiped in the Spirit as he describes the event saying, “In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!’” (Luke 1:42). Increasing its volume so that she spoke with “a loud voice” suggests that hers was an utterance of the Spirit. She continues with other equally profound declarations as she engaged in a prophetic-type worship.

Considering the context one may conclude that Mary also worshiped in the Spirit on this occasion. The quality of her composition alone indicates that. Its content is noteworthy. She worshiped for God's goodness to her (46-49); His goodness to all (50); His dealings with the oppressed (52b-53); as well as His relationship to the proud (52a, 53b); and finally for God's faithfulness to Israel (54-55). Obviously, her worship was far from being selfish in nature.

In connection with the miraculous birth of his son John the Baptist, Zacharias also worshiped in the Spirit (Luke 1:67-79). The Evangelist declares that he “was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied” (67a). Observe that His worship was of such a spiritual nature that Luke described it as prophecy. His Spirit-inspired praise focused on what Jehovah would do in the lives of both Jesus (68-75) and John (76-79). Though, biblically speaking, not all prophecy is praise, on this occasion for Zacharias it was.

Spirit-filled believers from time to time experience the joy of such prophetic praise. Occasionally I find myself struggling to meaningfully worship. I may discover that I am hardly conscious of the words of a song I am singing. With that realization there have been times when I have ceased all worship activities for a brief period until I could express my gratitude to the Lord more purposefully. Apparently I am not alone in this. Randy Peterson writes, “There is so much you want to say to God, but getting the right words out is a problem. You mutter the usual things: ‘Thank you’ for this or that; ‘I praise you.’ And you know God is listening, but you want to say so much more. Those phrases don’t begin to vent the true feelings of your heart” (Randy Peterson, Giving to the Giver: Worship that Pleases God [Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, Publishers, Inc., 1990], pp. 125, 126).

However, sometimes when I thus struggle to worship biblically, I find myself suddenly overshadowed by the Spirit. As my being is filled anew with Him, the words flow readily. The quality of my expressions increase dramatically. My ears hear my voice uttering praise with words more profound than my human mind can compose. I have concluded, then, that, as I cannot pray, preach or do anything else as I ought without the aid of the Spirit, so it is in my worship. Certainly others know also the sweetness of such truly spiritual worship.

Biblical Definitions

To know the definitions of basic biblical words for worship obviously aids in finding more meaning in it. The common English word worship originally was “worth-ship.” Randy Peterson explains, “Worship, in English, means to declare or recognize the worth of something or some one” (p. 8). When believers engage in the activity, then, they ascribe value, worth to God. They may say, “Thank you Jesus, Glory to God, Praise the Lord, Hallelujah, or Amen” in an empty, repetitious manner. Or, far better, they may declare, “God, I'm glad you are not a changeable Person such as human beings are! Rather than being temperamental or moody, You are always the same when I come to you” Further, they may lazily clap their hands as their basic means of demonstrating praise to God, thoughtlessly joining others because it is an acceptable ritual. Or, far better, they may seek to compose meaningful expressions of their gratitude to gladden the heart of God. What if a husband never does anything but clap his hands to show he enjoyed the food his wife has prepared at the end of each meal?  Likely, she would feel better if he composed some appropriate words to say to her. Since He is a Person, wouldn’t the same kind of thing hold true with the Lord?

The Old testament has a half dozen or so different Hebrew words for worship which the scholars translate with only one. The same is true with regard to the Greek words in the New Testament. A couple of these in both cases are the most commonly used. For example, the Hebrew word shachah and the Greek word proskuneo suggest that believers should “bow before” the Lord with a sense of reverence and awe as they worship. Both words speak of the attitude of the ancient peasant in the only audience of his life with the King. Further, the Hebrew word avad and the Greek word latreuo suggest that believers should rise from their reverent adoration “to serve” their Sovereign with all diligence. From this Greek word comes the English “liturgy.” It is not likely that the peasant would have the joy of carrying out the personal request of his King more than once in life. Randy Peterson speaks of this part of worship saying, “We serve God by doing what he says, as a servant would carry out the orders of his master” (p. 13).

Biblical worship, then, incorporates the whole of one’s life. It occurs in every aspect of a believer’s world, at church, on the job, and at home. As David Peterson concludes, “Thus, acceptable worship in Old Testament terms involves homage, service and reverence, demonstrated in the whole of life” (David Peterson, Engaging God: A Biblical Theology of Worship [Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992], p. 73).

To emphasize this Morgan declares, “If I have not been worshiping God for the last six days, I cannot worship Him” just on Sunday in the church building (G. Campbell Morgan, “Worship, Beauty, Holliness” in Classic Sermons on Worship, ed. Warren W. Wiersbe [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1988], p. 128). Then he adds, “The worship of the sanctuary is wholly meaningless and valueless save as it is preceded by and prepared for by the worship of the life” (p. 129).

Then, there is a doctrine of worship in Scripture all must live by, regardless of culture. True, styles of music may vary, but the believer worshiping biblically should feel at home in any church in the world that worships the same way. Some say Christians need to conceptualize worship so that in every city there are churches with varying styles of worship which suit the tastes of every ethnic group. For example, they say in Lagos, Nigeria, there should be a church where the Housa can sing in a minor key and another for the lively singing of the Eboes. Or, in New York City there should be a church for Jews, one for African Americans, another for Gringos, and a third for Hispanics. There may be some common sense truth here, but what is more needed are churches where all true Christians can worship biblically. Certainly the Pentecostal fathers made no attempt to provide differing styles of worship to suit the tastes of Catholics, Episcopals, Baptists, or Muslims. They simply worshiped after the pattern of Acts.

Practical Guidelines

Martin offers practical guidelines for meaningful worship (Ralph P. Martin, Worship in the Early Church [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964], pp. 11-17). He declares that believers should worship God because of His nature. He is a living God; in Him all creation lives, drawing their moment-by-moment existence from Him. He is a holy God; no creature in all the universe is in His class.  He is a gracious God; therefore, we come to Him boldly, in confidence rather than in terrified fear. Then believers should worship the Lord because of His actions. He gives both material and spiritual blessings. Finally believers should worship the Creator because of His claims on them. He created, made them both spiritually and physically; therefore, they belong to Him.

In her ministry to children my wife used to illustrate this truth with a flash-card story of “The Little Boat Twice Owned." In it a lad carefully crafts a model boat. He sailed it soon after the next rain that swelled the ditch in front of his house. Swift water carried it away. Days later he saw it in the window of a pawn shop. Understandably, though, the proprietor refused to let the boy have it without recovering the money he had loaned on it. Some time passed before the young man returned with money in hand to reclaim his boat. Outside the shop he held it in his bosom declaring, “Now you are mine, twice mine! I first made you, and now I have bought you back for myself.” It seems clear, then that Martin emphasizes the objective aspects of worship.

By way of contrast, Dobbins focuses on the subjective aspects of worship. He says believers should attend the house of worship because it provides an occasion for fellowship, both with God and with man. Also, public worship assists in giving proper perspective to life. Christians need that, since their outlook on life so easily gets out of focus as they live in a sinful environment.

Dobbins declares also that the public assembly provides a fitting setting in which sinners may be converted. Most who become believers in Acts do so in a preaching situation. Paul declares that if worship services are conducted as they should be and “an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” (1 Cor. 14:24, 25).

Continuing, Dobbins encourages attendance at public worship because it provides an opportunity for real learning, coming to know God personally rather than just learning about Him, such as might be the case in Christian education classes. Then, the ministries in worship services give strength for Christian Character, as “means” of imparting grace. Focusing on the several reference to believers being “together” in Scripture, Root says, “They were together because there some things they could get only from being together, and there were some things that God wanted them to do together to enhance their togetherness and cause spiritual growth” (Mike Root, Split the Grape Juice: Rethinking the Worship Tradition [Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1992], p. 41). In like manner, they energize for service. In such meetings believers provoke one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24, 25). Thus Broadus declares that “. . . the worship of God nourishes the deepest root of morality; individual and social” (John A. Broadus, “Worship,” in Classic Sermons on Worship, ed. Warren W. Wiersbe, [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1988], p. 17).


The discussion above, then, has shown that revitalizing public worship comes mainly through assisting believers to find more meaning in it. That involves explaining to them what guidance Scripture offers as to the part that the physical body has in exclaiming the adoration of God. It also centers on explaining the meaning of the various words for worship that are used in the Bible. It concludes, then, with some practical reasons for worshiping God as suggested by noted scholars who have addressed the matter in their writings.


Broadus, John A. “Worship.” In Classic Sermons on Worship. Ed. Warren W. Wiersbe. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1988, pp. 11-29.

Hurtado, Larry W. At the Origins of Christian Worship. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.

Martin, Ralph P. Worship in the Early Church. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964.

Morgan, G. Campbell.  “Worship, Beauty, Holliness.” In Classic Sermons on Worship. Ed. Warren W. Wiersbe.  Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1988, pp. 125-135.

Palma, Anthony D. “The ‘Tabernacle’ of David”  Advance, Jan. 1994, pp. 18-18.

Peterson, David. Engaging God: A Biblical Theology of Worship. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.

Peterson, Randy. Giving to the Giver: Worship that Pleases God, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, Publishers, Inc., 1990.

Root, Mike. Split the Grape Juice: Rethinking the Worship Tradition. Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1992.