Worship is at the heart of the Church’s existence (Psa. 96:7-9). But what exactly does this mean? In the opinion of many church leaders, worship simply means “singing about God”—a kind of warm-up before the sermon starts (giving late-comers a chance to find a seat). But this sentiment expresses a very anemic and shallow view of this glorious activity.
In both Hebrew and Greek (the two languages in which the Bible was originally penned), the word “worship” literally means “to bow down,” and is commonly used to describe the gathering together of God’s people (John 4:19-24). Worship, therefore, is not restricted to singing, but encompasses all that the Church does when her members gather together.
Covenant and Sacrifice
For many believers, the first question that arises in discussions about worship concerns style: “What kind of music does your church have? Do you sing old hymns or contemporary praise songs?” But this is to put the cart before the horse, for the style of a church’s worship is (knowingly or not) largely determined by their ideas about the nature of that worship. In other words, before we can answer the question about what worship looks like, we must first discover what worship is.
The two most important concepts for understanding what worship entails are covenant and sacrifice. Though Christianity is often described as “a personal relationship with Jesus,” there is much more to it than that. True, God’s relationship with his people is personal, but a more biblical description of this relationship would be that it is covenantal (Gen. 17:1ff). In other words, God never deals with us merely as individuals, but always in the context of a covenant or formal arrangement that he has made with us collectively.
Throughout the Bible God continually calls his people to renew their covenantal relations with him, and the way this is done is through sacrifice (I Kings 3:15; Psa. 50:5). In New Testament times it is no longer animals, but the worshipers themselves, who are the sacrifices (Rom. 12:1-2). The concepts of covenant and sacrifice, therefore, lie at the core of biblical worship.
Leviticus 1:1-9 perfectly illustrates this. In this passage we see the various elements of a covenant renewal ceremony:
Call to Worship: God invites the worshiper to draw near with an offering from his herd (vv. 1-2);
Confession and Cleansing: The worshiper places his hands on the offering’s head, symbolically transferring his guilt to the animal. The sacrifice is then slain and its blood is sprinkled on the altar as an atonement for the worshiper’s sin (vv. 3-5);
Consecration: The slain animal is then cut up and arranged in such a way as to be a fitting burnt offering to God (vv. 6-7);
Communion: The smoke of the slain and flayed animal, representing the worshiper, now ascends into God’s presence where it becomes a “food offering with a pleasing aroma to the LORD,” a communion meal (vv. 8-9);
Commission: Once the sacrifice has been made, God sends the worshiper out renewed and empowered for service in his kingdom (Num. 6:22-27).
How does this all apply to our worship? The answer is simple: all of the elements of our worship follow this same pattern of covenant renewal and sacrifice. First, we are called to worship; then we confess our sin and are cleansed by the blood of Christ; after this we are consecrated by the “sword of the Spirit,” the preaching of the Word of God; following this is the celebration of communion, or the Lord’s Supper; and the service culminates with God’s commission to us, pronounced in the minister’s benediction.
All churches have a “liturgy” (a word that comes from the Greek term in Romans 15:16 translated “priestly service”). The real question, then, is not, “Is your church liturgical?” but, “Is your church’s liturgy biblical?” We believe that our worship at Exile Presbyterian Church—a renewal of God’s gracious covenant with us, by which we offer ourselves as living sacrifices to him—faithfully follows the Bible’s pattern for Godly worship.