O come, let us worship!

Seven basic principles that define Christian worship as a moment of mystery and meaning.

John M. Fowler, Ed.D., is an associate editor of Ministry.

Worship! The prerogative of the Creator. The privilege of the created. The delight of heaven. The first duty of angels. 1 From Genesis to Revelation, worship constitutes a major theme of the Scriptures. From Cain and Abel's controversy on approaching God to the universal celebration on the sea of glass the Bible is concerned with worshipeither in condemning the false or in upholding the true.

That concern can perhaps be best understood by looking at some of the major principles of worship from a biblical perspective.

Principle 1: Christian worship is God-centered.

Worship antedates the creation of humanity. As such, worship exists not for the stimulation or fulfillment that it may bring us, but because of God's character and worthiness. Consider Isaiah's vision, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory" (Isa. 6:3);* or the psalmist's acclaim, "Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised" (Ps. 48:1); or Habakkuk's demand, "The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence" (Hab. 2:20); or the proclamation of the angel of Revelation, "Fear God and give him glory . . . and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the fountains of water" (Rev. 14:7). The message is clear: acknowledge that God is God, and "ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; [and] worship the Lord in holy array" (Ps. 29:2). This message becomes particularly demanding at such a time as the present, when "the concept of the majesty of God has all but disappeared from the human race." 2

The first commandment emphasizes this priority and exclusivity of God in worship: "You shall have no other gods before me" (Ex. 20:3). In His confrontation with Satan, Jesus reaffirmed the absolute nature of the commandment: "Begone, Satan! for it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve' "(Matt. 4:10). This emphasis carries two important meanings. First, a service that deviates from or minimizes the uniqueness of God cannot be true worship. Second, true worship calls for a deliberate and radical rejection of all other gods that compete for human attention and adoration, whatever those gods be: mammon, power, status, sex, science, arts, philosophy, or any other preoccupation that charts for self a course independent of its Creator.

Thus Christian worship takes place at that moment when self is stripped of all its pride, pretensions, and deviations and moves toward the recognition of its Maker and Redeemer. The oldest hymn of praise and worship, composed and sung after the redemptive experience of the Red Sea crossing, pictures this emptying of self and recognition of the God who acts in human history for the redemption of His people. Out of such experience true worship is born: an acceptance of God not as some impersonal force but as my Lord, "my strength and my song" even as He remains the Sovereign of the universe, "glorious in power" and "majestic in holiness," to "reign for ever and ever" (see Ex. 15:1-18).

In Christian worship the approach to God involves both mystery and meaning. Transcendence and immanence invite us to wonder at the profound and to experience the known. Even as we re late to God as ' 'our Father,'' we are ever reminded that He is the Father in heaven, the entirely other. Even as we sing "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Al mighty," we may expect coals from the living altar to transform our sinful lives so that we can experience the Lord "who walks with me, and talks with me along life's narrow way." While the divine otherness must instill in us a sense of awe and wonder, the approachableness brought about by divine grace must lead to a spirit of thanksgiving and humility (see Heb. 4:16; Rom. 5:2; Eph. 2:18; 3:2).

Christian worship is neither fear nor familiarity, neither appeasement nor frivolity. Instead, it is, as Whitehead writes, "an apprehension of the commanding vision" as well as "an adventure of the spirit, a flight after the unattainable ... the high hope of adventure." 3 Worship is God-centered, in the words of William Temple, "to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God; to feed the mind with the truth of God; to purge the imagination by the beauty of God; to open the heart to the love of God; to devote the will to the purpose of God."4

Principle 2: Christian worship is an experience of redemptive faith.

Only the faith of the redeemed acknowledges God as Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer, and anticipates that in Him life meets its fulfillment. Without such a confession, worship is impossible. Other religions may utilize worship as a means to find or appease God or to affirm communal solidarity, but Christian worship is a result of a redemptive experience. "Do you believe in the Son of man?" asked Jesus of the man whom He liberated from blindness. Out of that healing and redemptive encounter came first the faith response, "Lord, I believe," and then the worship (John 9:35, 39).

Faith precedes worship: "For who ever would draw near to God must believe that he exists" (Heb. 11:6). And redemptive experience provides the urge and the community for worship: "How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God" (Heb. 9:14). On this human response to divine initiative, Segler comments: ''Before religion can be known as sweet communion, it must be known as an answered summons. . . . The central thing in our religion is not our hold on God but His hold on us, not our choosing Him but His choosing us, not that we should know Him but that we should be known of Him.'' 5

Principle 3: Christian worship is Christological.

The integrating reality of Christian worship is the cross. It is the cross that gave birth to the Christian community. It is the worship of the crucified and risen Lord that sustained, motivated, and energized the church (1 Cor. 1:18- 31; Acts 2:22-36). It is the bleeding Lamb by the throne that moved the 24 elders, the four living creatures, and myriads of angels to bow and worship the One slain for the salvation of the fallen race (Rev. 5:9-14). Without the cross's revelation of God's character and the redemption of humanity provided there, Christian worship loses its very basis. We ascribe glory to God, but it is to God who "shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). Without that Christological perspective, ascribing glory to God would, in itself, be no different from the dance of the sun worshiper, the fire-walk of the mystic, the prayer wheel of the monk, or the meditation of the philosopher.

Further, the promise of Jesus that "where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20) is an assurance that Christians gathered in worship experience the presence of Jesus. We gather in His name, in accordance with His teachings (Matt. 28:20), to glorify the Father through Him (1 Peter 4:11), to affirm the workings of His Spirit (Rom. 8:16, 26, 27), to hear His word (1 Tim. 4:13), to eat of His broken body and drink His cup (1 Cor. 11:23-26), and to give notice to the world that we are His people (1 Cor. 1:1-9). As Hans Kung states: "Christ is present in the entire life of the church. But Christ is above all present and active in the worship of the congregation to which He called us in His gospel. ... In this congregation there occurs in a special way God's service to the church and the church's service before God. Here God speaks to the church through His Word, and the church speaks to God by replying in its prayers and its songs of praise. Here the crucified and risen Lord becomes present through His Word and His sacrament, and here we commit ourselves to His service. . . . Here God's new people is reminded of the great deeds and promises of God, which are pro claimed aloud in thankfulness and joy the creation and preservation of the world and of man, the calling and guiding of Israel up to the eschatological saving act in Christ's death and resurrection and on to the consummation of the world and of mankind." 6

Hence, apart from Christ there is no worship.

Principle 4: Christian worship affirms fellowshipwith the Spirit and within the body of worshipers.

Without the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit, the church would have no life. It is the Spirit who makes Christ real to us and makes His indwelling possible (John 14:17, 18, 21, 23). It is the Spirit who gives the assurance that Christ "abides in us" (1 John 3:24). It is the Spirit who teaches truth, endows us with spiritual gifts, and empowers us for mission (John 14:26; 16:23; Eph. 4:11; Acts 1:4, 5, 8). It is also the Spirit who can motivate us into a worship experience, marked by unity, fervor, and praise, as was the case with the apostolic church (Acts 2:41-44, 47; 3:8, 9; 4:24-26).

Jesus told the Samaritan woman that "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24). Michael Green's comment is worth noting: " 'Spirit' for John, as for Paul, is the opposite of 'flesh,' and 'flesh' stands for all our fallen humanness. To say that God is Spirit, and that the only way to worship Him is in Spirit and in truth is first and foremost to slam the door in the face of our approach to God in our own strength or goodness. How can 'flesh' approach God who is 'Spirit,' how can sinners approach the Holy One? They cannot. But the good news is that God has opened a way." 7 The way of the Spirit: ' 'For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Rom. 8:14-16).

The Holy Spirit creates not only the vertical fellowship with God, but also the horizontal fellowship of worshipers with each other. The Spirit who brings about regeneration and motivates worship is also the Spirit who reconciles and unites. The barrier between people on account of race, national origin, sex, etc., stands abolished because of the fellowship of the cross and of the Spirit. Christ has reconciled us to God and breached the gulf between us, so that in Him we have become a new creation, a new humanity (Eph. 2:11-16)with constituents that are different but united, free but dependent, and held together by the ' 'grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit" (2 Cor. 13:14). In the age of the Spirit, what was once the irreconcilable two become "one," with both having "access in one Spirit to the Father" (Eph. 2:13, 18).

The worship hour, therefore, more than any other occasion, must bear a testimony to Christian unity and purpose. Is this not particularly so when worship involves the celebration of the Lord's table, the one symbol that recalls the price paid for, and reaffirms the necessity of, the ministry of reconciliation? That occasion, when the redeemed of the Lord come to proclaim visibly their loyalty to God and their unity with each other, is a moment of mystery and wonder. Isn't it tragic, then, that at times our indifference and disunity turn that moment into a pagan relic of routine and meaninglessness? Without the inner relevance of the Eucharist defining our liturgy, worship becomes, in the words of Earth, a "theological impossibility." 8 So are prayer, thanksgiving, and praise! All these take on meaning only within the context of a redeemed relationship. Hence the plea of Jesus: "So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Matt. 5:23, 24).

Principle 5: Christian worship transcends and transforms its symbols to convey abiding meaning and purpose.

Symbols are important. Both the Old and the New Testaments in their descriptions of worship services assign a significant role to symbols, involving time, space, form, and other tangible ingredients. The sanctuary and Temple services in the Old Testament provide graphic illustration of form and order in worship. When the Corinthian church was about to explode in experiments in freedom bordering on excess, Paul warned them of the necessity for dignity and order in worship: "God is not a God of confusion but of peace." ''All things should be done decently and in order" (1 Cor. 14:33, 40).

And yet form and order in themselves are not the end of worship. Form must not turn into formalism and order must not freeze into rigidity to the point where the outward beauty obscures the inner grace, the routine dominates the essential, the ritual quenches the spiritual, the secondary overtakes the primary, and the letter outstrips the spirit. Worship is not worship unless our spirit holds communion with His Spirit. Such communion has room for interplay be tween reason and emotion, order and variety, regularity and spontaneity, reverential and relational. The key is balance.

Consider how our Lord lifted the Sabbath out of the routine and recognized its centrality to worship. First He acknowledged the need for form: "And he came to Nazareth;. . . and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day" (Luke 4:16).

To Him, the Sabbath was more than a form, more than a symbol. It was divinely consecrated time for worship, and He hallowed it by His own example. As an institution that preceded sin, the Sabbath was grounded in God's example and command after Creation. To keep it holy was to "delight in the Lord," and to confess the sovereignty of God (Isa. 58:13, 14; Eze. 20:20). The Sabbath constitutes an assurance in time that God is real and that He abides with those who seek Him in time, here and now. More than that, it is also a bridge from the pre-Fall earth to the new earth, when all creation will worship the Lord "from sabbath to sabbath" (Isa. 66:22, 23).

By the time of Jesus' incarnation, however, culture and tradition had corrupted the Sabbath, honoring its form but ignoring its spirit and making it a burden. Jesus reinstated the Sabbath's true nature by announcing that it was made for man, and that He is the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27, 28), and that it is a day marked for redemptive activities (John 5:17, 18). He let the spirit of Sabbath transform the form while submitting to the essentials of the letter.

Consider also His attitude to the place of worship, an issue that disturbs some people today. Nazareth was hardly an inspiring place. Its synagogue likely had nothing of significance in art or architecture or aesthetics. Its leaders were probably of no consequence. Nothing there would have attracted the average worshiper. But as His custom was, Jesus went there for public worship on the Sabbath day, setting an example worthy of emulation by succeeding generations.

Hills are beautiful, woods are dark, deep, and lovely, gardens so inviting, the home peaceful, the open skies of a velvety night so engaging of praise, the radio seminar so thought-provoking, while the church has a boring speaker, a hypocritical leader, an uncouth member . . . and yet, corporate worship demands our presence. God's command to Israel, "Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst" (Ex. 25:8), is more than an invitation to build a temple in the desert. It is an assurance that in corporate worship the community of saints walks with the God of history and faith, with the church of the past and the present, all the while forging a path to eternity. Community of faith is essential for the continuity of faith. Hence the warning of the author of Hebrews and the acclaim of the psalmist: "Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Heb. 10:24, 25); "I was glad when they said to me, 'Let us go to the house of the Lord!' " (Ps. 122:1).

The psalmist also recognized that we don't go into the temple empty-handed: "Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts!" (Ps. 96:8). Although sacrifice and offering were a part of Old Testament worship ritual, the Christological emphasis in the New Testament taps the true intent of biblical sacrifice: self-denial (see Mark 8:34; Gal. 2:20; 2 Cor. 4:10-12; Heb. 13:15; 12:28). Governed by such a spirit, worship becomes leitourgia ("to serve," "to prostrate," "to worship"), a mark of the Philippian church (Phil. 2:20). Monetary contributions and other material gifts become "a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God" when given by those who first "gave themselves to the Lord" (Phil. 4:18; 2 Cor. 8:5).

Principle 6: Christian worship demands the proclamation of the Word.

When Jesus stood up in the Nazareth synagogue, He turned to the book of Isaiah and proclaimed God's Word and its relevance for His time. The apostles gave preeminence to the "ministry of the word" (Acts 6:4; 1:17, 25). Paul instructed that his Epistles be read in the churches (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27).

Why is the reading and the proclamation of the Word so primary in Christian worship? First, because it is God's Word. Through the Word He speaks (Heb. 1:1), He instructs (2 Tim. 3:16, 17; 4:2), and He accomplishes His purposes (Isa. 55:11). As D. T. Niles of Sri Lanka once wrote, the Bible read and proclaimed invites us to join life's most significant conversation"between God and Abraham, or God and David, or Jesus and the men on the road to Emmaus. . . . That is the ongoing conversation. We join in the conversation on the road to Emmaus, and as we listen to Him as He talks, the words of Scripture be come His words to us." 9

Second, whatever expectations we may bring to worship, the greatest of them fades to nothing when we hear God's expectation of us. The Word during worship must confront the worshiper with that divine voice. Earth notes: "It [the Bible] is expectant of people who have eyes to see what eye hath not seen, ears to hear what ear hath not heard, and hearts to understand what hath not entered into the heart of man.

. . . God expects, God seeks, such people. . . . The expectancy brought to the situation by the congregation, in tense as it may be, is in truth small and insignificant in comparison to that expectancy . . . which comes from . , . the open Bible." 10

The Bible proclaimed is in fact the guarantee of preserving Christian worship from the frigidity of boredom, on the one hand, and the frivolity of entertainment, on the other. Where the Book is central, all eyes and hearts turn to its Author.

Principle 7. Christian worship is eschatological.

We worship in time, and time anticipates the future. The admonition to the Hebrews not to neglect congregational gathering was made in the context of the eschatological "Day drawing near" (Heb. 10:25). The final message to the world from the three angels of Revelation 14:6-12 is a call to distinguish between true and false worship, and to return to the worship of the Creator- Redeemer God. The Lord's Supper also reminds us of the eschatological nature of Christian worship. "For as often as you eat this bread," says Paul, "and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor. 11:26; see also Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-18). As Ellen White comments: ' 'The Communion service points to Christ's second coming. It was designed to keep this hope vivid in the minds of the disciples." 11 Thus the table notifies the believer that the journey of faith begins at the cross and culminates with the second coming of Jesus.

Meanwhile the believers gathering around the table here on earth have a responsibility to "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." Every occasion of worship is thus an opportunity to affirm that hope and pray for its hastening: "Thy kingdom come."

Ellen White underscores beautifully the eschatological hope in the hour of Christian worship: "To the humble, believing soul, the house of God on earth is the gate of heaven. The song of praise, the prayer, the words spoken by Christ's representatives, are God's ap pointed agencies to prepare a people for the church above, for that loftier worship into which there can enter nothing that defileth."12

1 The two most descriptive passages of God's
throne in heaven one from the Old Testament
and one from the New portray scenes of
heavenly worship: Isaiah 6:1-6; Revelation 4; 5.

2 A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy
(New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961), p. 123.

3 A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern
World (New York: Macmillan Co., 1926), p. 276.

4 William Temple, The Hope of a New World
(New York: Macmillan Co., 1942), p. 30.

5 Franklin M. Segler, Christian Worship
(Nashville: Broadman Press, 1967), p. 61.

6 Hans Kung, The Church (Garden City, N.Y.:
Image Books, 1976), pp. 305, 306.

7 Michael Green, / Believe in the Holy Spirit
(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.,
1975), p. 107.

8 Quoted in J. J. Von Allmen, Worship: Its
Theology and Practice (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1965), p. 156.

9 In Charles E. Bradford, Preaching to the
Times (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald
Pub. Assn., 1975), p. 40.

10 Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word
of Man, tr. Douglas Horton (Boston: Pilgrim
Press, 1928), pp. 121, 122.

11 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1940), p. 659.

12 ____, Testimonies (Mountain View,
Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 5, p.
491.


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John M. Fowler, Ed.D., is an associate editor of Ministry.

October 1991

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