What is Worship?

By Emmanuel Okai, West Africa Regional Director, National Director, Ghana & Church Pastor Akim-Oda, Ghana

Like many who grew up in rural sub-Saharan Africa before the 1960s, I experienced various practices in African Traditional Religion similar to the performances of Baal priests during Elijah’s time.[1] I was raised in my maternal grandfather’s village, where shrines, deities, sacred groves, taboos, and festivals in honour of lesser gods and ancestors were the order of the day. As a child I observed the fervour and spectacle that accompanied the worship of created things—a worship regime based on fear, which often created mistrust even among close family members. The system of worship never promised nor could deliver anything beyond our earthly existence. Death was an enemy that held the community captive—enslaved with fear, without hope beyond the present world (Hebrews 2:15).

With maturity and experience, I came to see that worship is derived from the idea of worthiness, or something of immense worth or value. Worship is directed towards objects or beings worthy of our total devotion, respect, love, allegiance and service. Worship is “respect and reverence paid to a divine being or supernatural power.”[2]

As I read through the Scriptures, I came to see that Isaiah highlights knowledge of the true Creator God and good deeds as paramount in true worship.[3] When Elijah confronted and ultimately defeated the Baal worshippers in that rare religious contest, he told Israel to make a choice between two forms of worship[4] (1 Kings 18:21). False worship is based on wrong knowledge of who really is worthy of our devotion and allegiance. At an early age I came to the realization that God is the only one who is worthy of worship because he created and sustains all things—seen and unseen (Colossians 1:16).

It is not difficult to classify what I experienced in my childhood days as forms of false worship. However, it is more difficult to identify and categorize false worship practices that occur among those who do not bow to idols, especially those who mention the name of God or Christ as part of their proclamation of faith. Yet, Jesus declared: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21 NRSV). Foundational to true worship is knowledge of who God is and what his will is, and how to be in relationship with him and others. Anything we do that does not honour the Father’s will is not true worship. Jesus is the one who set the basis for true worship when he declared, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24 NRSV).

Worship results from focusing on the life, death, resurrection, ascension and return of Jesus. The shepherds and wise men from the East were given detailed direction to the location of the Messiah (Luke 2:10-20) by angels, and they worshipped because he had been divinely revealed. Jesus emphasized the need to know the true God who is Creator of all that there is—seen and unseen.[5] In doing so, he is speaking of God as Father, Son and Spirit—in essence speaking of himself. Here are several examples of Jesus being worshipped:

  • A leper kneels before Jesus in worship (Matthew 8:2)
  • A ruler kneels before Jesus after Jesus healed his son (Matthew 9:18)
  • The disciples worshipped him after he walked on water (Matthew 14:33)
  • A Canaanite woman worships him as she asks for help (Matthew 15:25)
  • A man tormented by evil spirits came and bowed before Jesus (Mark 5:6)
  • A man healed of blindness by Jesus worships him (John 9:38)
  • Thomas worshipped Jesus by saying, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28)

He was worshipped after his resurrection and his ascension, and he is still worshipped today. Jesus is the object of our worship—all we have, all we do, all we hope for revolves around him. This is why we produced the GCI Worship Calendar. Our only focus is Jesus. We don’t focus on Israelite days—that is false worship. We focus on Jesus—his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, his identity, and his church. As Christians, nothing else is worthy of worship.

Worship that is true involves offering ourselves, totally and unconditionally to God.[6] We know that everything we have comes from him. We know our identity is in him. We know our future is in his hands. He is the only one we worship—asking him to guide our ambitions and goals to be in line with his will. True worship begins when we strive to love God above everything else, allowing his will to prevail in our lives as we serve him alone.[7] True worship is focusing on God—giving glory and praise only to him.

Actions that depict worship

  • Since true worship involves our total person, many actions that we perform constitute worship. When they proceed out of a good heart, our thoughts and desires for God are forms of worship.
  • We build our worship calendar and our special worship services around Jesus, our Immanuel—his birth (Christmas), his life (Epiphany), his love for the world (Palm Sunday), his passion (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday) his resurrection (Easter Sunday), his ascension (Ascension Sunday), his Body—the church (Pentecost), his identity (Trinity Sunday), his return (Christ the King Sunday).
  • Love those whom God loves—Jesus said when we love others, we are loving him. When we honor and respect those whom God has created and calls his children, we are worshipping God.
  • When Thomas was convinced that Jesus is Lord, he exclaimed, “my Lord and my God!”[8] Our confession of faith, prayers, singing and our declaration of God’s majesty in praises are actions of worship.
  • Worship involves our emotion. In exclaiming, “Rabboni,” Mary Magdalene was expressing a sigh of relief, and an emotional attachment, devotion and love to Jesus.[9] When people cry, laugh, shout or dance exuberantly (like David) in response to God’s grace, such emotion constitutes worship.[10]
  • Worship includes our thanksgiving – the healed leper and blind man returned to give thanks to Jesus; Mary washed and anointed the feet of Jesus[11], the disciples offered materials things to enable the work of God to progress. Offerings in terms of money, time, ideas and energy in the service of God are forms of worship.

No such thing as perfect worship

In his article, “Perfect Worship,” Joseph Tkach points out how inadequate we are in expressing our worship in the right way. Thankfully, as the apostle Paul told us in Romans 8, the Spirit intercedes on our behalf—not only in how and what to pray, but also in how to worship. Our best example for worship is Jesus, who spent his life worshipping the Father. Everything he did was according to the will of his Father. Tkach concludes, “The last word on worship is that we must look to Jesus as the one who is doing it right for us, and he invites us to join in what he is doing.”[12]

Our knowledge of the true God, our offering ourselves as living sacrifices, our determination to love our neighbour and our various actions meant to show our devotion and reverence for God must be mediated and perfected through Jesus, our Lord and High Priest, who sits in the heavenly realm offering the most acceptable worship on our behalf.

[1] 1 Kings 18:26–28.

[2] Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary

[3] Isaiah 1:2-3, 10-18: When we wash ourselves and cease from evil and do good, our sacrifices to God become acceptable.

[4] Elijah said “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him, but if Baal, then follow him”. Elijah was saying there is a true God and a false god; and Israel must make up their minds whom they would follow.

[5] John 17:2 – 3

[6] Romans 12:1 – “And so dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be living and holy sacrifice – the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.” (NLT)

[7] Luke 14:25 – 27 – Jesus demanded total commitment from any who claims to follow him; Matthew 22:36–38.

[8] John 20:24 – 29

[9] John 20:16

[10] 2 Samuel 6:12 – 14, 21 – 22

[11] Luke 12:3, 7

[12] Tkach, Joseph, “Perfect Worship,” 40 Days of Discipleship, A self-paced doctrinal educational plan, Volume 1, Grace Communion International, 2016, p. 124.

3 thoughts on “What is Worship?”

  1. Emmanuel – thank you for this very accessible “survey” of worship. This would make an excellent small group discussion series. And thank you for sharing your unique life experiences that add such depth to your knowledge.

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