Worship is sometimes described as the missing jewel in the evangelical crown. It has become perhaps the major focus of a majority of Christian churches in the second half of this century. But once again, our focus reveals our sinfulness. By placing our own activities in church under special focus, we have grabbed the wrong end of the worship stick. In our concern for relevant ‘worship’ we have reversed the Bible’s concerns. For in the New Testament, worship is not so much something we do, but it is first of all and mainly something Jesus Christ does for us!
Jesus, our liturgy leader
In its breathtaking sweep of his portrait of the person and work of Christ, Hebrews describes our Lord as the ‘liturgy leader’ (leitourgos, 8:2). In the context of the epistle’s argument, Jesus is the Minister of the sanctuary. Jesus Christ is the One True Worshipper, the Leader of our worship, who has gone ahead to lead us in our prayers and intercessions.
As such, the leitourgia, or worship, of Jesus is contrasted with the leitourgia, or worship, of sinful human beings—even at our religious best. Jesus’ activity is the worship and offering which God has provided for humanity and which alone is acceptable to God:
The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man.
Somewhat surprisingly, the acceptable worship which Jesus is said to offer is not an especially pure kind of sacrifice—although it has those overtones—but is primarily his obedience. Have a look at Hebrews 10:5-10 and note how the obedience of Jesus is contrasted with the ceremonies and rituals of religious worship.
Jesus’ life of self-offering to the Father was on our behalf, on behalf of the world. This offering culminated in the one true sacrifice of love and obedience on the Cross, which alone is acceptable to God, for all people for all time. In this offering we are sanctified (Heb 10:14).
Worship is obedience, the obedience of faith
Therefore it is no surprise that Romans 12:1-2 declares that all of life is now to be seen as worship:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship(latreia). Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Here and in the following chapters Paul goes on to detail this ‘offering of the body’ in the practical terms of daily relationships, including paying taxes! That is, worship is moved from the ‘sacred’ sphere of special places and special times and made very ordinary, or secular. The worship God wants of Christians is obedience, the obedience of faith. John records that Jesus’ disciples approached him and asked, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” “Believe in the One he has sent”, Jesus replied (Jn 6:28-29). The worship God wants of us is faith, trust in his promises given to us in his Son. This is the faith which if true to the magnitude of God’s promises is to underpin and drive every activity of life.
Because Jesus Christ is the One True Worshipper on our behalf, worship is not now to be seen as something properly belonging in a building, but rather as the entire life of faith. The worship God wants is our whole life of faithful obedience, and as shocking as this may seem, it belongs more in the kitchen, the workshop and the street than in a church. Indeed, in describing what goes on inside churches, the New Testament writers only very rarely use the worship words which abound in the Old Testament.
Historically, Christian theology and practice quickly lost ‘worship’ as a word to describe all of life, and reserved it to describe what happens in church—to describe our address to God. As a consequence it was re-sacralised, and church-ified, invested with a meaning quite contrary to that given by the New Testament and the person and work of Jesus Christ it witnesses to.
Praise is confession
The characteristic activity of church in the New Testament is not ‘worship’ in the usual sense of the word, but edification. Ephesians 4:1-16 is a good example of this. The gifts are given by the ascended Christ to his Church in order “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up”. ‘Building’ is the language of edification, of ‘raising an edifice’. The activities the New Testament includes in ‘building up’ the church are Word-based ministries—Bible reading, preaching, private and public admonition and exhortation on the basis of Scripture. Paul’s instructions to Timothy are in this direction (1 Tim 4, 2 Tim 3:1-4:8). And importantly, these activities are to produce praise.
Praise is not just an extra to these activities, but integral. Why? To answer that we need to remember that teaching the Bible—formally from the pulpit or informally in private conversations with each other, ought not be the dry activity it is sometimes caricatured as being. How could this be the case when God promises to be present with us in person as we meditate on his Word? That is the marvellous promise God gives to Joshua as he stands on the edge of the Promised Land at the head of a rag-tag Israel. A promise which is constantly re-echoed throughout Scripture:
No-one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life … I will never leave you nor forsake you…Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful … the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Josh 1:5-9)
God promises to meet with us in and with his word of the Bible. And, as John 14-17 makes clear, all of God comes to us in this way: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The characteristic response we are to make to God as he comes to us clothed in his promises, clothed with the gospel, is faith. In the context of the New Testament’s vision of what church is to be, this faith most appropriately takes the form of confession. To each other we confess and testify of the greatness of God [Ed: In Briefing #173, we called such praise ‘advertising’]. We do this by the very activity of making God’s Word the centre of our activities—by reading it, preaching it, making it the basis of exhortation, and even setting it to music in hymns and praise. The Spirit uses all this, we are assured, to build us up in Christ. Praise is integral to our activities in church, because it is another form of our response of faith. It is part of our whole life of worship, but only one part of it.
No doubt because of the emotional uplift involved, we may sometimes think that praise is where we most meet God, and thus give it centre stage. But that is a significant misunderstanding. In the same way that worship is not primarily something we do, but something that Christ does for us by taking our prayers and praises and making them acceptable to God, it is not so much we who meet God in our edifying activities, but he who meets us in his word of the Gospel. Praise is just our heartfelt and thankful response to the God who has already come to us. We “declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful life” (1 Pet 2:9). And, we do it to build up those around us (Eph 5:15-20, 1 Cor 14). The order is important—God meets us; and the place is important—in the word of the gospel. Lose that focus and we will not only deny what God promises about how he works in our lives, but run the risk of over-valuing the place of praise when we meet together. We can do this by moving praise from a response which is to edify our neighbour (as much as it is to honour God) to a place where it takes on a life of its own.
On the other hand, we cannot over-value the significance of all our worship activities as they stem from faith—whether baking cakes for our neighbours or reading the Bible or singing hymns. By the grace of God, by faith, we are united to Christ and thus join in his heavenly worship on our behalf. Whether our mundane activities are focussed outside the church in private acts of love to our neighbours, or inside the church in Bible-based edification, they are all offerings to God made acceptable by the obedience of his Son. The first prayer of thanksgiving after the Communion Service in the Book of Common Prayer has captured it: we present “ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice” by, through, and with Jesus Christ. Thus, with Jesus as our liturgy leader, heaven itself rings with our prayers and praises! By faith we are caught up into a worship of cosmic proportions, an offering which takes up the whole world and presents it to the Father until that day when all things will be subject to Christ, and Christ will be subject to God, and God will be all in all! (1 Cor 15:20-28).
Transparency in Church
What Christians are seeking to do in meeting together is to hear and understand what God has to say about himself and us. We ought not lose our nerve because some people scorn a focus on Bible teaching, labelling it as ‘scholastic Protestantism’ or a naive belief in ‘propositional revelation’. For it is in our meditating on the content of Holy Scripture day and night, being careful to do everything written in it, that God promises to meet with us, and do us good.
It is here the relevance question is solved. The Bible does not need to be made relevant; it creates its own relevance. God confronts us directly through it, and exposes us for what we are, and what he wants us to be in Christ. Not relevance, but transparency is needed. The Bible needs to be clearly and appropriately taught so that what God is doing in the world through the gospel might be transparent to the outsider and he may be convicted of his sin, fall down on his face and confess “surely God is in your midst!” (1 Cor 14:22-25).