HopeCC Blog

On Corporate Worship Pt. 1

Why does the church (THE CHURCH, not limited to, but including HopeCC) gather regularly to sing, open the Word, give tithes and offerings, observe the Lord's Supper, etc.? Where does the mandate for this activity come from? Does such a mandate exist?

God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.

My community group began this season (and, as of this writing, continues for a few more weeks) in a study called “The Pursuit of God In Corporate Worship” by John Piper. You may be tempted to think it more than a little self indulgent for the Worship Arts Director of the church to choose a study on corporate worship for the group he co-leads, and while there may have been a little truth to that in the beginning, I have come to believe that corporate worship is something we could all learn more about and approach with ever increasing reverence and joy. The majority of what follows comes from that particular study (not from my paltry intellect).

First things first, what do we mean when we use the term "corporate worship"? Before I can define it, I must define what worship is. Worship is the reaction of the heart (the inner intellectual and emotional center of a person, not the organ that pumps blood) to what it finds to be glorious. We worship what we desire most and what bring us the greatest joy. Corporate worship simply describes when we do that [worship] together. You can observe corporate worship happening in many places in this world— restaurants, sports stadiums, concert venues, golf courses, dare I say even political rallies, etc. What we're concerned with in this context is corporate worship in the gathering of the local church; even more specifically, our local church.

The regular gathering of the local church for the purposes of corporate worship— i.e. preaching, singing, and observing ordinances —has been happening since the genesis of the church recorded in the second chapter of Acts. In the New Testament, we get occasional references to them (see 1 Cor. 14:23, Acts 2:46, Heb. 10:25), but little in the way of description and virtually no instruction is given on the prescribed form these gatherings should take. In fact, in the New Testament, they are not even called worship gatherings or services. This should raise our curiosity as to why we are given so little instruction for our gatherings. So much instruction is given for just about everything else, so what gives?

There's something even more amazing happening here that makes me thankful for pastors and teachers who've given themselves to be able to read and interpret the scripture in its original languages (because I cannot). The Old Testament Hebrew word for worship (hishtahavah) carries the basic meaning to “bow down” with the sense of reverence and respect and honor. It occurs 171 times in the Old Testament. When the Old Testament is translated into Greek, 164 of those occurrences are translated into the same greek word— proskuneo. Proskuneo appears 26 times in the Gospels, where people would bow down before Jesus, and it appears 21 times in the book of Revelation, where the angels and elders in heaven bow down before God. In the epistles of Paul it occurs only once (1 Cor. 14:25) where the unbeliever falls down at the power of prophecy and confesses God is in the assembly. It doesn't occur at all in the letters of Peter, James, or John. Hebrews 1:6 and 11:21 are OT quotations and Acts 7:43, 8:27, 10:25, and 24:11 are not used in reference to Christian worship.

That's pretty amazing— that the word used for worship throughout the Old Testament is used in the context of a bodily-present Christ (the Gospels), in the context of the presence of God in heaven (Revelation), and pretty much nowhere else in the middle where we find ourselves. John Piper posited that this is because of Jesus' treatment of worship (proskuneo) in His conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:19-24…

John 4:19-24 The woman said to Him, "Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship." Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."

"What Jesus is doing here is stripping proskuneo of its last vestiges of localized and outward connotation. Not that it will be wrong for worship to be in a place or that it will be wrong for it to use outward forms; but, rather, he is making explicit and central that this is not what makes worship worship. What makes worship worship is what happens 'in spirit and in truth' – with or without a place and with or without outward forms. The next most frequent word for worship in the Old Testament (after proskuneo) is the word latreuo (over 90 times) which is usually translated 'serve' as in Exodus 23:24, 'You shall not worship their gods or serve them.' When Paul uses it for Christian worship he goes out of his way to make sure that we know he means not a localized or outward form for worship practice, but a non-localized, spiritual experience. In fact, he takes it so far as to treat virtually all of life as worship when lived in the right spirit. For example, in Romans 1:9 he says, 'I serve (or: worship) God in my spirit in the preaching of the Gospel.' And in Philippians 3:3, Paul says that true Christians 'worship God in the Spirit of God . . . and put no confidence in the flesh.' And in Romans 12:1, Paul urges Christians to 'present your bodies as living and holy sacrifices acceptable to God which is your spiritual worship.'" —John Piper

That's great, but what does that have to do with church gatherings and corporate worship in particular? I'm glad you asked and I'm saving that for a future post. The main takeaway here is that New Testament Christian worship is primarily an internal, individual experience of the heart meant to be enjoyed in every moment, in all things and not an outward expression performed at prescribed times and/or places. So, Father give Your people a desire to live a life of worship to You, in all things, for Your highest glory and our greatest joy until our faith is made sight and we spend eternity with You, our greatest treasure. Amen.

To the praise of His glorious grace,

Andy Tucker