Biblical Foundations for Worship, Part 1: Begin With God

Note: Articles classified as essays may be long, advanced, or esoteric.

There is no shortage of disagreement and confusion in the Church concerning worship. This is often exacerbated by a lack of clarity surrounding the vocabulary used when discussing such a broad topic. The term “worship” itself is one example: depending on the context, it is defined as God-honoring music, a gathering of believers, or even a life orientation. Without some shared understanding of vocabulary and definitions from a common source, edifying conversation and mutual learning about this weighty subject is impossible. Conversely, based on clear definitions of terms, it is possible to dialog about worship with almost no common ground or understanding between participants.

Such dialog is desperately needed. Understanding worship is eternally important. The Book of Revelation ends the biblical canon describing two groups of people: those who worship the beast, and those worship the Lamb. There are eternal ramifications associated with each group. With this in mind, the definition of worship I will use in this writing is the following: Worship is the whole-person response1 to who God is and what he has done,2 realized both individually and corporately by his grace and in accordance with his standards.3

Worship is the whole-person response to who God is and what he has done, realized both individually and corporately by his grace and in accordance with his standards.

Using this definition, we consider several foundations for Christian worship in three broad sections: God, humanity, and response. Specific resources other than the Bible are referenced throughout to inform and support conclusions, including standard biblical theology of worship texts and other relevant sources. Additionally, the Scriptures themselves will be used frequently in each section as a baseline of support in the writing.

Begin With God

True worship must start not with humanity’s response, but with the object and subject4 of worship: God himself. However, comprehending a self-existent, eternal God from the perspective of fallen, fallible humanity has severe limits. David declared, “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable” (Ps. 145:3).5 Paul wrote, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33). Thus, in understanding God, growth is always possible because he is the infinite and everlasting God (Isa. 40:28) who was, is, and will always be (Rev. 4:8).

True worship must start not with humanity’s response, but with the object and subject of worship: God himself.

Nevertheless, this immortal God who “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:16) has graciously made himself known to humanity. The Scriptures give clear evidence of who he is and definite record of what he has done. They reveal his character, his “everlasting love” (Jer. 31:3) for his people Israel and, ultimately in Christ, his love for the world. Scripture also reveals his desire for restored relationship with fallen humanity. He not only initiates covenant with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, but initiates the new covenant through Christ, “the one through whom salvation comes not only to Israel, but to all who submit to him in repentance and faith.”6

Careful study of the biblical canon has produced many insights into the one true God. While by no means exhaustive, the following are selected as key components for focus in understanding God, the only being worthy of worship.

GOD AS HOLY

First, God has been revealed through the scriptures as holy. In Leviticus, God tells the people of Israel repeatedly to be holy because he is holy (Lev. 11:44-45; 20:7; 20:26; 21:8). Isaiah and the apostle John both record visions of the heavenly throne room where God was being unceasingly worshiped as “holy, holy, holy” (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8).7 Hill noted that “a favorite epithet of the Old Testament writers for God is ‘the Holy One of Israel’ (2 Kings 19:22; Ps. 71:22; Isa. 1:4).”8

When describing God, holy is used to “ascribe a uniqueness to him that is almost incomprehensible. It indicates that he is distinct from all that is creaturely and corrupt, that he is distinct from this physical and fallen world.”9 While other entities like bread, water, or even people are declared to be holy in the Scriptures, their holiness is only derived from the source of holiness, God himself. He alone can touch something common and make it consecrated.10

God’s holiness, or unique otherness and excellence, is seen in the Scriptures through his other attributes and is the umbrella under which they are all expressed. He is, among many other things, omnipotent (Rom. 1:20), ruling with absolute power. His eternal power is clearly revealed in creation. Unlike the worthless idol gods of the nations surrounding Israel, the one true God of Israel made the heavens (Ps. 96:5). He is omniscient (Ps. 139:1-6), perfect in knowledge. He is also omnipresent (Jer. 23:23-24), eternal (Jn 1:1-2) and righteous (Ps. 145:17).11 Isaiah penned, “‘To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him?’ says the Holy One” (Isa. 40:25). He has no rival being for comparison, he alone (Rev. 15:4) transcendentally and intrinsically holy.

GOD AS PERSONAL

The holy God of the Bible has also been revealed in his name, Yahweh. While there are many titles given to the one true God in the Scriptures, Yahweh is unique. It is the name God self-disclosed12 to Moses at the burning bush (Exod. 3:13-15). When Moses asked what he should tell the people this God’s name was, God answered, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exod. 3:14), or Yahweh.

This name is different because it is the “personal or covenant name of God.”13 In choosing to reveal himself as Yahweh, God was signaling to Moses and his people what he was like and what he desired. Yes, Moses needed to remove his shoes and hide his face because he was in the pure presence of a holy God (Exod. 3:6),14 but in that moment, God made it clear he was also the one who initiated personal relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and was also extending relationship to Moses and his oppressed people in Egypt. Yahweh did not want to be known at a distance; he wanted to be in close fellowship with Moses and the people of Israel.

God’s self-revealed name Yahweh (LORD in most English translations) is often joined with other expressions to further explain his character and relationship with his people.15 He is: The LORD My Banner (Exod. 17:15), The LORD My Shepherd (Ps. 23:1), The LORD That Heals (Exod. 15:26), The LORD Is There (Ezek. 48:35), The LORD Our Righteousness (Jer. 23:6), The LORD Who Sanctifies You (Exod. 31:13), The LORD Will Provide (Gen. 22:14), The LORD Is Peace (Judg. 6:24), and The LORD of Hosts (1 Sam. 17:45).16 The close God who is also strong and mighty in battle as the LORD of Hosts (Ps. 24:8-10). Truly, the Scriptures demonstrate Yahweh is whatever his people need him to be! God’s revelation as holy is perfectly balanced by his nearness, as is shown by his chosen name, Yahweh.

GOD AS TRIUNE

The holy and personal God of Scripture is above all the Holy Trinity of three persons. While not explicitly defined in proof-texts,17 the doctrine of the Trinity is “a summary doctrine, encompassing the full scope of the biblical revelation.”18

Throughout the New Testament, God is presented as one being that exists in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.19 Jesus commissioned his disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). The Trinity is seen in the audible testimony of the Father about the Son, confirmed by the Holy Spirit descending like a dove at the baptism of Jesus (Matt. 3:16-17). Paul proclaimed our God and Father is worthy of glory forever (Phil. 4:20). The disciple Thomas, who as a Jew was monotheistic, declared Jesus to be Lord and God when he saw him after the resurrection (John 20:28).20 The Jews sought to kill Jesus because he was claiming to be equal with God the Father (John 5:18). The resurrected Lamb is declared to be worthy of honor and glory (Rev. 5:12), signaling his divinity since only God is declared worthy of worship in the Scriptures. Peter stated that when Ananias and Sapphira had lied to the Holy Spirit, they had lied to God (Acts 5:3-4).

All Christian worship is triune worship.

In addition to these and other specific passages, a close reading of the whole narrative of Scripture offers convincing confirmation of this important doctrine. While each distinct member of the Trinity is seen to be God, the Bible also strongly affirms that God is one (Deut. 6:4). Christians worship one God in Trinity, eternally existing as one in three distinct, uncreated persons. All Christian worship is triune worship.

Worshiping God Rightly In Light of Who He Is

The holy, triune, and personal God, who alone is worthy of worship (Deut. 6:13-14), must be reverenced and honored by his standards. A pure heart and moral integrity are prerequisites for being a true worshiper in God’s presence (Pss. 15; 24:3-5).21 Hill explained, “Since the heart or inner person is the wellspring or fountainhead of the worship of God, it is necessary to have a right heart before God to offer right or true worship.”22

A pure heart and moral integrity are prerequisites for being a true worshiper in God’s presence.

The concept of personal piety is at the center of accepted worship in both testaments.23 Cain’s offering of worship was rejected, not because of substance, but because of the spirit of his offering (Gen. 4:1-8).24 Jesus quoted Isaiah in condemning the Pharisees for giving lip-service and vain worship to God while their hearts were far from him (Matt. 15:7-9). Paul wrote that circumcision was nothing if not accompanied by obedience, and that true circumcision was a matter of the heart (Rom. 2:25-29).

A pure heart and proper actions cannot be disconnected conceptually in the Scriptures. As Block pointed out, “The Scriptures refuse to divorce persons from their actions or their hearts from their deeds.”25 The Old Testament records in many places Yahweh’s rejection of Israel’s corporate worship performance because of their sin, which is seen in their external disobedience to the Torah. The oft-recurring sinful mixing of pagan practices and idol worship with worship of Yahweh was against truth and therefore corrupted and unacceptable.

Inward sincerity or proper outward conduct, taken individually, will never be counted as worship Yahweh accepts. In responding to the one true holy and triune God, acceptable worship must be given by his standards with both “clean hands and a pure heart” (Ps. 24:4).

In the second part of this essay, we will look at our whole-person response to the one holy, personal, triune God and consider several implications for worship today.

 


 

  1. Warren W. Wiersbe, Real Worship (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 26.
  2. Dinelle Frankland, His Story, Our Response (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 2008),24-25.
  3. Daniel I. Block, For the Glory of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 23.
  4. Marva Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1995), 80.
  5. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
  6. Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, New Studies in Biblical Theology, ed. D.A. Carson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 183.
  7. Allen P. Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2006), 42-43.
  8. Andrew E. Hill, Enter His Courts with Praise! Old Testament Worship for the New Testament Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), xxiii.
  9. Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation, 43.
  10. R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton, Il: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998), 40.
  11. Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation, 44-45.
  12. Hill, Enter His Courts with Praise! Old Testament Worship for the New Testament Church, 35.
  13. Robert E. Webber, ed., Webber, The Complete Library of Christian Worship, Vol. 1, The Biblical Foundations of Christian Worship (Nashville: Star Song Publishing Group, 1993), 25.
  14. Hill, Enter His Courts with Praise! Old Testament Worship for the New Testament Church, 35. 
  15. Webber, The Biblical Foundations of Christian Worship, 26.
  16. “The Names of God in the Old Testament,” blueletterbible.org, Accessed February 26, 2020, https://www.blueletterbible.org/study/misc/name_god.cfm
  17. Webber, The Biblical Foundations of Christian Worship, 36.
  18. Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 19.
  19. Webber, The Biblical Foundations of Christian Worship, 36. 
  20. There is disagreement about this verse, and some believe that Thomas’ expression was one of surprise and not addressed to Jesus but God the Father. This is not a majority position and is typically taken by writers who deny the doctrine of the Trinity. To the best of my understanding, the plain and obvious meaning of this text is a declaration of Jesus’ divinity from a former skeptic Thomas, who was seeing the resurrected Son of God for the first time.
  21. Block, For the Glory of God, 67.
  22. Hill, Enter His Courts with Praise! Old Testament Worship for the New Testament Church, 11.
  23. Hill, Enter His Courts with Praise! Old Testament Worship for the New Testament Church, 11.
  24. Vernon M. Whaley, Called to Worship: From the Dawn of Creation to the Final Amen (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009), 34.
  25. Block, For the Glory of God, 69.