My Story of Better Understanding Worship


In September 2003, my band was invited to perform at a church fellowship called Harvest Land Ministries (Clarkston, Michigan). Harvest Land is a loving, Bible centered foreign missionary church. We arrived early; met our hosts; set up the equipment; sound checked; and then waited for the event to begin.

As with most church meetings, the in-house praise and worship team started with a mixture of popular inspirational songs. Then my band was introduced and we performed a set of original tunes just before the guest speaker was to take the podium.

The guest speaker was David Ravenhill[1. http://www.davidravenhill.com]. David is the son of the late noted British author, evangelist and missionary Leonard Ravenhill[2. 1907-1994]. He is a son who has certainly followed in his father’s footsteps. He – too – is an author, evangelist and missionary. I believe, David was on site throughout most of the setup. Although, I didn’t realize he was “the speaker” until he was actually introduced. Humble in his demeanor; an English gentleman: he was unassuming and unpretentious.

Before David shared the message he had planned, he decided to make a point about an expression that had been used a few times earlier in the meeting. The statement was, “… leading folks in praise and worship…”. As a musician, my defensive radar immediately became activated, because David (I supposed) was a “non-musician” getting ready to criticize or at least get into the business of the preceding musical presentations – either the praise and worship team’s or my band’s (or perhaps both). I first decided not to listen and to just kind of… tune him out. But a little voice inside of me said, “You should listen to him”. So I gave David my full attention.

David very simply explained that the “leading in praise” part of “leading in praise and worship” was pretty straightforward. Someone – anyone – can remind and/or encourage another individual or a group to “praise” the Lord – that is, to think of God’s love, goodness and mercy and to thank him for it. He explained that, that part is relatively easy because we have no problem of being thankful for what is perceived as providence when good things have happened to us.

This is very interesting, because it easily includes people who do not even believe in “ a god”! I have heard people who live their lives bent on doing their own thing and having no allegiance to God at all, say things like, “Thank you Jesus!” when something perceived as providence comes their way.[3. Me]

David went on to share that the “leading in worship” component of the phrase is another matter all together. He pointed out that he did not believe one could “lead someone else in worship” in the context the phrase was used. He equated true worship with practical obedience. He went on to cite the very first instance in scripture where the word worship is translated into English.

Abraham said to his servants,

Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.[4. Genesis 22:5]

David rhetorically asked, “Were they going someplace to sing; to pray; or to have some kind of emotional experience? No, they went up the mountain to do what God had told them to do! They went up the mountain to be obedient.”

The scripture says “we will worship…” but only Abraham had the command from the Lord to sacrifice his son Isaac. Isaac did not know where the sacrifice was until he was tied up and on the altar. [5. Me. See Genesis 22:9]

David went on to mention, that today, “We mistakenly equate worship with singing songs, raising our hands, closing our eyes and/or having some perceived otherworldly emotional experience”. He said Abraham was not going up the mountain to do that. He and his boy were going up the mountain to be obedient. He then started the message which he had planned to share – which now unfortunately (and certainly not David’s fault) I don’t even remember its title.

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Hearing this pre-main message address has made a tremendous difference in my life; my attitude; and in my worship of God. I have always been challenged to look at things in a very straight-forward fashion. I look for – as much as possible – a clear interpretation of natural things and especially spiritual things. As detective Sergeant Friday (of Dragnet fame[6. Starring Jack Webb circa 1967 – 1970 ]) says, “All we want are the facts…”

To my knowledge previous to that time, I had never really heard anyone explain specifically worship by itself in a practical way. David’s explanation seemed to go right to the heart of the matter. It had nothing to do with how one feels; the music or the elaborate words spoken towards God. For me, it avoided the confusion surrounding worship and gave a specific usable example of it.

Because of how I became a Christian[7. That is another story.

http://www.rufusharris.com/personal_journey.html] and thanks to my first mentor [6. Fred Little, Jr.], I am compelled to be practical and relevant in my spiritual thinking and practices. So, I began to – with a little more depth – to look into this topic and I would like to share it with you. My purpose in sharing this specific blog is to help bring clarity to the word “worship” and to our actions regarding it, as presented in the Scriptures – especially as it relates to the teaching of the New Testament.

PRAISE IS GOOD… WORSHIP IS MORE

This blog must first include clear definitions of the words: “praise” and “worship”.

Praise is both a verb and a noun. As a verb, praise is an action when someone expresses “warm approval or admiration of”[8. Google dictionary] someone or something. As a noun (a person, place or thing), it is a thing. It is the very act of “expressing that approval; admiration, or commendation.” [9. Dictionary Reference.com] Therefore, praise is something an individual or a group can participate in and it is something others can see or see the results of it (a praise service; a placard; a certificate; something done in special honor of…, etc.). Praise – simply – is appreciating something; thanking someone or the very action of performing that deed. All this is pretty straightforward. Now let’s look at worship.

Worthy of mention, worship in the British idiom (the king’s English spoken in Great Britain and its territories) can be used as a title for various political or judicial officials – for example, mayors and magistrates. Basically in Great Britain, a civil officer or a lay judge who administers the law, especially one who conducts a court that deals with minor offences. Out of respect, that type of an official would be called, “Your worship Sir Leonard, the Mayor of …” etc. for example.

In the U.S., the word worship is generally understood as:

  • Reverence offered to or an act towards a divine being

  • A form of religious practice with its creed and rituals or even the

  • Extravagant respect; admiration for; or devotion to an object of esteem (a god, God, or as one might regard money or a figurine)[12. Merriam-Webster]

Further we call worship:

  • The church meeting itself

  • Attending church

  • The singing of praise songs

  • Emotional outbursts of joy or ecstasy in a meeting

  • Or, a mixture of all the above

In attempting to bring understanding to this word and its activity – as it relates to Christianity – one also needs to understand what worship meant from a pre-Jewish (that is, from Adam through the life of Abraham) and a Jewish perspective because Christianity has roots in both. So we’ll start with the Hebrew dictionary and how the Hebrew word “worship” is defined there.

In the Hebrew dictionary worship is simply defined as:

To depress (that is, to lower oneself); to be face down as a spontaneous effect, and/or to bow down in reverence to royalty or to non-royalty.[14. OT 7812 – Strong’s Concordance and Thayer’s Greek and Brown Driver and Biggs Hebrew Lexicon]

In the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible this word is translated:

To bow (self) down, crouch, fall down (flat), humbly beseech, do (that is [15. Bold Emphasis Mine], make) obeisance[16. That is to curtsey, bend, or to bob (that is, like the motion of a rocking chair) – So that’s where the rocking at the Wailing Wall comes from], do reverence, make to stoop, worship.[17. OT 7812 Biblesoft’s New Exhaustive Strong’s Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary Copyright © 1994, 2003, 2006 Biblesoft, Inc. and International Bible Translators, Inc]

Worship by this definition – for the most part – is a physical action. Ideally, when a person physically bows before someone that person shows the importance, respect, reverence, yielding, and recognition of that person to whom they are bowing. I describe it as a type of surrender to that person – a type of being at that person’s mercy; a deference to that person. However the very act of bowing can be genuine or it can be counterfeit – the counterfeit characteristic of worship will be examined little later in this blog.

As I continued to study – surprisingly – I found that although Genesis 22:5 is the first time the English word “worship” is used in translation, it is not however – the first time that, that specific Hebrew word[18. OT 7812 – Strong’s Concordance and Thayer’s Greek and Brown Driver and Biggs Hebrew Lexicon] appears in scripture. It is actually – the third time it occurs. The two earlier occurrences are in: Genesis 18:2 and in chapter 19:1. That posed to me a question: Why are not those two earlier words translated worship too? Or on the other hand, why is not the third occurrence translated, “bowed down”?

The first mention of the word also involves Abraham[19. Genesis 18:2] and the second incorporates Abraham’s nephew Lot[20. Genesis 19:1, The son of Abraham’s brother Haran Genesis 11:27]. Both of these instances refer directly to the physical act of bowing down to the ground in honor of three men and to two angels, respectively[22. This is not the place to discuss or to postulate who were those 3 men or two angels]. As a matter of fact, the Hebrew word for “ground” (earth or dirt)[22. OT 776 – Strong’s Concordance and Thayer’s Greek and Brown Driver and Biggs Hebrew Lexicon] is included in both of those earlier passages. In both instances, they physically bowed down to the ground. The third mention[23. Genesis 22:7] of this word does not reference the word “ground” or bowed down at all. There is a difference, I dare say a big difference with the third reference.

THIS WORD WORSHIP INDICATES SOMETHING ELSE

The difference is simply in the context. The author of Genesis[25. Commonly considered Moses] penned the Hebrew word for Abraham’s action of obedience as: an act of bowing, doing reverence and/or stooping down. The translators of this passage may have seen this difference too; and that may have prompted them to translate it differently in English – as the word “worship”. Especially since this is the very first occurrence of that Hebrew word [26. O.T.7812-Strongs Concordance Number] being translated as “worship” in the English Bible. Although not very important though, also absent from that particular text are the Hebrew words for: ground, earth or dirt. Something definitely different occurred in this event. Genesis 22:5 does not directly refer to a physical act of bowing – it refers to a spiritual act of bowing – which is indicated through a willful act of obedience.

From the preceding understanding, we can learn a phenomenal lesson from Abraham especially when we compare it to what the New Testament says about Abraham. It says, this man Abraham is the father of the faithful; the father of all who believe; the father of all who walk in the footsteps of faith as he did[25. Romans 4:11-12. Also, if there is doubt about walking in Abraham’s footsteps look at these exhortations: John 13:15; Rom 8:29; 1 Corinthians 11:1; Ephesians 5:2; Philippians 2:5; 1 John 2:6; 1 John 3:16; Revelation 12:11]. He is an example to believers as to how to believe in God. It is faith tied to obedience. This is the rule not the exception.

Abraham trusted God unambiguously – not having any vagueness or uncertainty in his trust of God. He reasoned according to what God had promised him; he figured that after his personal obedience (the sacrifice of his son Isaac) God would indeed raise Isaac from the dead. He was assured of this because of what God had previously promised him regarding his son’s future[27. Hebrews 11:17-19]. Moreover, it must be blatantly mentioned here, the scripture does not indicate at all that Abraham contended or pleaded with the Lord about what he had been commanded to do. The Lord had said to Abraham,

Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about. Gen 22:2 NIV

The next verses indicate that early the next morning Abraham prepared to do what the Lord commanded; and then traveled three days to the place where God had told him to go. And after his arrival he went up the mountain to do the task[28. Genesis 22:3-5]. This is very straightforward. Abraham absolutely trusted God. He reasoned that God could and would do what he had promised. He was sure of what he hoped for regarding God and sure of what he did not see in regard to God.[29. Hebrews 11:1] For Abraham his worship was obedience. He said so, he was going to worship. This is key! The father of faith shows us the way. We are to reason (that is, to think) on the promises of God and do what he has commanded us.

WHEN WORSHIP IS WORTHLESS

Here we will look at counterfeit characteristics in worship. It has been said, “Looks can be deceiving” or as Jesus says, “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make right judgment”[30. John 7:24 NIV].

Physical bowing may make look like one is yielding, respectful or humble. One might look as if one is being compliant, but there is no real compliance at all. Bowing in pretense means the person is still on guard for themselves and even possibly ready to strike the person to whom they pretend bow to – not being submissive in attitude – regardless of the physical act of bowing. Abraham’s worship in Genesis 22:5 was sincere; difficult – and another thought – impossible to counterfeit. It was based on a command and a act of obedience towards God’s command.

I fear that what we are taught in regard to worship is foundationally weak or just simply uninformed. Many “worship leaders” make much ado about raising hands and singing enthusiastically saying, “Brother and sisters, sing it like you mean it!” Rather than saying, “Sing it because you mean it and don’t sing it if you don’t mean it”. That would be a true worship leader. Because worship goes far beyond just singing. So very often, we sing words that we truly do not mean and it seems okay for us to do that – but it is not. We may sing:

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear

And Grace, my fears relieved.

How precious did that Grace appear the hour I first believed?[31. Amazing Grace – John Newton 1799]

Consider this. Is it true that God’s grace has taught our hearts to truly fear or respect him? Has his grace truly relieved our fears? Was God’s grace valuable from the first hour we believed? A contemporary songwriter Matt Redman wrote the following words echoing the apostle Paul in Philippians 3:10:

Oh, to know the power of your risen life, And to know you in your suffering;

To become like you in your death, my Lord, so with you to live and never die

Knowing you, Jesus, knowing you

There is no greater thing

You’re my all, you’re the best

You’re my joy, my righteousness

And I love you, Lord… [32. Knowing Jesus – Matt Redman]

When we sing this (and songs like it) do we really want to know (in the sense “learning” and “understanding”) the power of Jesus’ risen life? Do we really want “to know” him in his sufferings? Is to know Christ the greatest thing for us? Is he truly our joy? Do we really love him, especially in the light of Jesus’ words, “If you love me you will do what I say”[33. John 14:15]? Do we sing these things for nothing? Do we sing these in vain?

How frequently do we bow our heads and close our eyes in prayer and really don’t pray? Most everybody prays when in trouble, but even when we pray, do we pray according to God’s prescription? Do we pray according to his will? Do we pray in the manner he taught his disciples to pray? We have much practice “saying” the right things but not really meaning what we say from our hearts. “God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good!” Do we really believe that? Do we really believe this in our personal lives? Are our mouths are full of clichés which are automatically spouted when we greet folks or are greeted by them and even at times, when we speak to God?

How important is our respect or reverence offered toward God; our religious practice with its creeds and rituals or public devotion; attending “church”; or singing praise songs without our obedience to him? It is not very important; and I dare say it is not very important to God either. We place much energy – far too much energy in and on things that do not count – thinking they do count without obedience! We are too satisfied with simple appearances. We think if people just show up that means everything is okay and that doesn’t mean everything is okay.

In line with this idea, the Lord Jesus speaking to the Pharisees[34. The Pharisees were a religious and political party in Palestine in New Testament times. The Pharisees were known for insisting that the law of God be observed as the scribes interpreted it and for their special commitment to keeping the laws of tithing and ritual purity. (from Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers)] and teachers of the law[35. The teachers of the law were men learned in the Mosaic law and in the sacred writings, an interpreter, teacher. (from Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, Electronic Database. Copyright © 2000, 2003, 2006 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)] called them hypocrites! A little further on he said in Matthew 15:7-9:

“… Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you. ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’”

Let’s look at the word “worship” in a Greek dictionary. It means to “revere, i.e. adore”. Strong’s Concordance actually indicates the word worship is a probable derivative of a word meaning, “to kiss, like a dog licking his master’s hand”[36. NT:4352 – Biblesoft’s New Exhaustive Strong’s Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary. Copyright © 1994, 2003, 2006 Biblesoft, Inc. and International Bible Translators, Inc.]. Jesus said an individual’s revering and adoration of the Lord is worth nothing if their hearts are at a distance from him. What does that mean, “their hearts are far from me”? We know what it means, but we act as if we don’t. If my heart is far from my wife that means that I don’t care for her or love her as I ought to. My heart is somewhere else or with someone else! I would know it and so would my wife! Again, we know what it means, but we act as if we don’t – especially when it relates to our faith.

The Lord indicates that one can praise the Father (that is, honor him verbally) – saying all the right things – but one’s heart not be in line with or in true allegiance to the Father. But what does that mean? That means, one can say wonderful things to the Lord and not really mean them. That is flattery which is defined as “excessive and insincere praise, especially that given to further one’s own interests”[37. Google definition] – it may impress those who look on but it does not impress the Lord at all. For example, here are other excerpts from a few wonderful praise songs:

Oh Lord, you are beautiful to me your face is all I see…[38. By Warren Barfield]

Lord, I lift your name on high…[39. By Rick Founds]

I surrender all, all to him I freely give…[40. Judson W. Van DeVenter]

When we sing these lyrics and others like them, do our lives show that the Lord is beautiful to us? Is his face all we really see? Or do we see “other” faces too? Do we show in our everyday lives we lift his name on high in the way we live? Have we surrendered all? I can imagine one might say, “We aspire to do these things!” Actually, I agree with you, but does it mean we have achieved them? No! The question is, what is aspiration worth without doing what we need to do to reach what we aspire to do? It is not worth much. Not a perfect example but it is similar to someone who wants to play an instrument; always talks about it and does very little to do what is necessary to ever learn to play the instrument. Another example (which is close to home), many of us aspire to lose weight but do very little to lose the weight. After awhile, who believes what we aspire to? Very few. The Lord knows our hearts.

A hypocrite is:

A person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs and who feigns (fakes)[39. Parenthesis comment, Mine.] some desirable or publicly approved attitude, especially one whose private life, opinions, or statements belie his or her public statements [41. Dictionary.com].

One who exalts the Lord publicly but their own obedience is far from what the Lord requires has a problem that needs attention.

The Lord Jesus follows up Isaiah’s prophecy in regard to people honoring the Lord just verbally with what I feel is highly significant: “their teachings are but rules taught by men”[43. Matthew 15:7-9; Isaiah 29:13]. What does this mean? Their teachings were simply rules that they had made up, thought up, and dreamed up by men; those men being those who are teachers / leaders. The Message Bible says it a bit harsher, “They just use me as a cover for teaching whatever suits their fancy”. This verse has caused me to call into question many of my own practices; to examine myself in the faith[44. 2Corinthians 13:5]. I do not want to follow lockstep teachings which are the rules just taught by men. We need be concerned that our definition of worship fits the biblical definition of worship.

One can attend or sing at a worship service or meeting [45. I think that “worship service” is a misnomer] and not truly worship at all although he or she can appear to be doing so. According to scripture, worship is sincerely bowing down to God. Sincerely bowing to the Father is spiritually bowing down to the him and it is shown through obedience to him. Since physically bowing down can be faked or contrived, as I mentioned earlier: Worship is spiritually bowing down to the Father which is shown or indicated through obedience to Him – like with Abraham[46. In Genesis 22:5].

JESUS SPEAKS ABOUT WORSHIP

The Lord Jesus gives further very important information regarding worship. He told the Samaritan woman (in so many words) that worship has nothing to do with “a place”. How often do we in the Christian community hear of “places of worship” whether it is our services; a building; or an event? Jesus said, one will “worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem”[48. John 4:21 – Not in Jerusalem? Whoops!]. Here also he introduced the idea of “true worshipers”[49. This is certainly the opposite of false worshipers.], those who worship the Father in “spirit and in truth”. He says in reality that those who worship in spirit and in truth are the folks the Father actually seeks (or looks for) and then he emphatically and with more emphasis he says, “God is spirit and his worshipers must (that is, are obligated to[50. The parenthetic comment mine] worship in spirit and in truth”. There is no other way to worship the Father except in spirit and in truth. It is unacceptable for Christians to worship in any other way. Why don’t we hear this more often?

Today, we hear sermons about other things like: [51. And these things can be all good, but are they worship based in spirit and truth?]

  • Achieving personal goals

  • Jobs

  • Wealth and prosperity

  • Our families[52. This is something that reasonable people in the world (that is, non-Christians) already knows how to do. Luke 6:32-36]

  • God and Country [53. Another post on this coming]

  • Clichés

  • Great emphasis on buildings, services, and moments in time

And a myriad of things but are they worship?

We often place emphasis on these things rather than on what Jesus said about true worshipers. Many of the above items are not bad in and of themselves but they are not necessarily worship to God. Before we go further, let’s look again at what the Lord Jesus says about worship.

In John 4:21-24, Jesus basically points out three things about worshiping the Father:

  1. Worship has nothing to do with a specific place – which means that true worship can occur in any place.

  2. True worshipers worship in spirit and truth – not in apathy or in doing things that are untrue.

  3. True worshipers are those people whom the Father hunts for – those are folks the Father actually looks for. How special is that? I think pretty special to have the Father looking for you, especially if he is not angry!

He then emphasizes a second time, pointing out the Father’s worshipers are obligated to worship in two ways: In spirit and in truth.

SPIRIT AND TRUTH DEFINED

What does worshipping “in spirit” and “in truth” really mean? First, let’s look at what “spirit” is. We will find at first it is a little complicated. The spirit is:

The rational soul, the vital principle (by which the body is animated), mental disposition (the disposition or influence which fills and governs the soul of anyone; the efficient source of any power, affection, emotion, desire. Furthermore, it can also mean: a current of air; breath from the nose; the Spirit of God; an angel; or a demon. [53. Paraphrased NT:4151 Biblesoft’s New Exhaustive Strong’s Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek and Thayer’s Greek Lexicon]

The purpose of this writing is not to go into every nuance of the word, but to understand the meaning of the word in the context of the scripture in which it is found. So let’s first see what it is not. Spirit in the context of John 4:21-24 is not:

  • A demon

  • An angel

  • The Spirit of God (although the spirit does comes from God)[53. Ecclesiastes 12:7]

  • The breath from the nose and

  • Neither is it a current of air

By context the definition of the word “spirit” in John 4:21-24 is the human spirit. It is the human spirit because the context is about people worshiping the Father (God, who is also spirit[54. John 4:24]). Spirit here is the rational soul, the vital principle (by which the body is animated – without the spirit the body is dead[55. James 2:26]) and our mental disposition or outlook. It is the character or influence which fills and governs the soul of anyone; the resourceful basis of human power, affection, emotion, or desire[56. Extrapolated from Strongs’ Concordance NT:4151].

From this it is shown that the human spirit has two characteristics that can relate to this passage:

  1. It is that part of us by which the body is put into motion that is, made alive. The body without the spirit is simply – dead.[57. James 2:26; Job 34:14-15; Ps 104:29; Ps 146:4; Eccl 12:7]

  2. It is also the very important principal by which the body moves – the reason, the motivation for which we live.

The first of the two characteristics is kind of obvious. The human spirit is that thing within us which determines whether we are physically alive or dead. This is obvious.

The second characteristic is not as clear, but it is understandable. What is an important principal by which the body moves? What is the motivation for which we live? It could be a career; a relationship; watching an athletic activity; love; hate; revenge; a religion (whether it is true or false); the list could go on and on. This principal or motivation could be one (or more) of a myriad of other things which stimulate and/or encourages an individual to move about with motivation or enthusiasm.

A simple example of spirit is the idea of “school spirit”. School spirit is:

… Typically recognized as enthusiasm for the various sports and activities a school has to offer. Going to football games and cheering (for the home team), basketball games and taking part in school government, all of these things show school spirit.[59. From Ask.com]

When one has school spirit, that one is motivated and enthusiastic about the school and its myriad of activities. When one has school spirit, that one enjoys it and is encouraged to have more of it. The person is “all in” when it comes to their school. One might even come to blows if someone says something negative about their alma mater.

SchoolThemes.org has even given 3 reasons why school spirit is so important. I thought this very interesting:

  1. School spirit can improve a student’s commitment to education. This commitment can in turn act as a deterrent to negative behavior, such as dropping out of school.

  2. School spirit creates a positive learning environment for both students and teachers and having a positive learning environment is one of the many things that make going to school so exciting.

  3. School spirit helps to develop and foster relationships among people.

The point here is that the grand idea of being part of what one perceives as the “best school” is a very important principal by which one’s body moves. For students, school spirit is an important motivation for students to live by and for.

In fairness, something else regarding school spirit, there are varying degrees of