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How to Worship God? Understand That Worship Is for God

Updated on April 10, 2010

Worship is for God. This seems to be an obvious statement, but it is one that needs to be made anyway. Worship is for God.

Or is it so obvious?

Today Christians go to church, slide comfortably into their seats, lean back and relax, ready to enjoy the show. Yes, it’s a show for God, but we enjoy watching it; and hearing it; and being emotionally stirred until we feel that God must be impressed. The music moves, the prayers are full of pathos, and the leaders up on the stage seem completely taken up with “getting into” the worship of God. 

Perhaps we felt like we were really adoring God. The music, the lights, the beat, was just right. Yes, we love that kind of stuff.

But was God satisfied? Was God glorified? Did we truly worship God?

When we worship God, we must regard Him is holy, unable to look on any uncleanness.
When we worship God, we must regard Him is holy, unable to look on any uncleanness.

Flashback to Moses

Moses trudged up the mountain, rain smashing into his face and blurring his vision. His shins were bruised from slipping on the rocks. How much further? He could barely see and his lungs were tight.

A few days ago he had been up here. He had spoken with God, face to face, as he would normally speak to a friend. But this was God. And he was both terrified and enthralled at the same time. He had heard, straight from the mouth of God, details on how He wanted to be worshipped. The Lord had left nothing behind: from temple garments, to sin offerings, to materials, and placement of the altar and the showbread table; all was described exactly how He wanted it. God had even written it down, and Moses had trembled as he took the two smooth stone slabs into his hand and studied the writing. What an honor! To be in the presence of God, bowing before Him, and taking God’s own words into his hands to show the people!

But the people had had their own ideas of how they wanted to worship God. Moses’ brother, Aaron, had encouraged them on by collecting their jewelry and melting it into an idol: a cow, of all things! And Aaron told them that the golden cow was their God who had brought them out of Egypt. The people had loved it. It was time to party, have some fun!

Moses was normally a quiet man. People called him meek, gentle. But this had been too much. After having just been in the presence of the One true God, speaking to Him, and carrying His own commands down on the stones in his hands, the golden cow was too much. When Moses had reached the bottom, the Levites gathered to him and he commanded them to kill the idol worshippers. Three thousand died. Still it was not enough to cover their sin. God was jealous for worshippers to worship Him correctly.

Now Moses was trudging back up the mountain to intercede for them once again. Stubborn people. If they only would have waited to see how God wanted to be worshiped, so many lives would have been spared.

This God was a holy God. And that didn’t just mean “unique” or “different” or “religious”. It meant separation from all that was evil. Pure. Undefiled. He was a God in whose sight no wickedness could dwell. He was a consuming fire; passionate for His glory, for all power, for undivided devotion from all creatures. And His own people were partying around a metal cow.

Is worship in our churches primarily for our entertainment or to get an emotional high? Or is it for God?
Is worship in our churches primarily for our entertainment or to get an emotional high? Or is it for God?

A Difficult Subject

Worship is not an easy topic to understand. It involves both spirit and body, mind and emotions. It is both attitude and action. And it involves a God who is holy. Worship is to be set apart for God. Because it is for God, and because the consequences have been severe when people didn’t understand this, Christians must take care to worship God as He wants to be worshipped. Sometimes this means a complete change of method, a reorienting of our focus from the golden calf to the holy God, a cleansing, purifying, and purging of all worldly corruptions and influences. And sometimes it is painful. In the Old Testament it was often the death of a sacrificial lamb.

I realize this is in direct contrast to the goals of many evangelical churches, whose desire, whether openly declared or subtly enacted in worship is to please the participants (or rather, the attendees). Rather than having the sole purpose of the worship service be to exalt a holy God and to please Him, we often get caught up in pleasing ourselves, giving ourselves and emotional foot rub, while ignoring the desires of our jealous God.  

Please, dear Christian, do not tread carelessly on this area that is so sacred to God’s heart. Take off your sandals to approach the throne of grace.

In this article, I will attempt to give a Biblical definition of worship, and to come closer to understanding what God desires when we worship Him. The Biblical word translated as “worship” is proskuneo, meaning a literal “bowing down.” There are many verses full of these precious principles of “bowing down.” I pray that God will bless my attempt to understand these verses, and give me humility to graciously present His word to you. I also hope that He will continue to transform my understanding of worship so that I may “worship Him aright.”

The Definition and Purpose of Worship

A good definition of any term should be able to say what the term is and in the same idea exclude what it is not.

The following definition is simple enough to include everything that worship is, while complex enough to provide specific guidelines and exclude what worship isn’t. Also, a good definition should come from God’s Word, as He is the originator of all existence. What is worship to God? When He uses the term “worship,” or “bow down,” what does He mean? Since worship is for God, He must define “worship.”

Worship: the act and attitude of giving honor to God.

This definition was gleaned partially from the meaning of the New Testament term “worship” (proskuneo) in Greek:

“To kiss the hand to (towards) one, in token of reverence… to fall upon the knees and touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound reverence, in the NT by kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one) or make obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication. Used of homage shown to men and beings of superior rank."

Obviously we can see that worship includes an act of reverence (bowing down), and does not include acting irreverently or dishonorably, or lifting oneself above the One being worshipped (whether physically, or in one’s own estimation, or through social estimation).

 Lift high the cross by showing, through attitude and action, God's glory and holiness.
Lift high the cross by showing, through attitude and action, God's glory and holiness.

The Action and Attitude of Worship

Many instances of worship in the Bible can be seen in actual physical acts. Mary anointing Christ was a profound example of giving honor to God through a deed of generosity and personal sacrifice. However, worship sometimes occurs when a person is simply obeying a command God gave him. Abraham worshipped God through obeying when God commanded Him to sacrifice of his son.

As we will see below, Jesus directed the Samaritan woman to the spiritual side of worship, not to a specific place where actions and sacrifices could be performed. He said God was seeking worship from those who would worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). This may mean that the definition of worship must include the non-physical aspect of worship as well. In my definition this is represented as “attitude.”

Thus we see that worship requires both acts of honor and an attitude of honor. If one were to act in a way that seems to honor without having the desire to honor, the act would be hypocrisy, and could not be called worship.

And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. (Matthew 6:5)

In contrast, if someone was to say he has a desire to honor, but did not obey God, serve Him, or discipline his body into subjection to God, it could not be called worship either. A heartfelt desire to honor will always grow into the act of honor, as it is dead without the action.

Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:17)

The Spirit and Truth of Worship

A discussion of John 4:20-24 is essential to understanding the operational definition of worship, in which a Samaritan woman questions Jesus about where to worship, and Jesus responds with how to worship:

She said, “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.” (John 4:20-24)

John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible describes worship in “spirit and in truth” as this:

In spirit… with their souls or spirits, with their whole hearts engaged therein; and by, and under the influence and assistance of the Spirit of God, without whom men cannot perform worship, neither prayer, praise, preaching, or hearing, aright.

In truth; in opposition to hypocrisy, with true hearts, in the singleness, sincerity, and integrity of their souls… and according to the word of truth, the Gospel of salvation; and in Christ, who is the truth, the true tabernacle, in, and through whom access is had to God, prayer is made to him, and every part of religious worship with acceptance.

Adam Clarke’s Commentary explains further:

As all creatures were made by him, so all owe him obedience and reverence; but, to be acceptable to this infinite Spirit, the worship must be of a spiritual nature-must spring from the heart, through the influence of the Holy Ghost: and it must be in TRUTH, not only in sincerity, but performed according to that Divine revelation which he has given men of himself. A man worships God in spirit, when, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, he brings all his affections, appetites, and desires to the throne of God; and he worships him in truth, when every purpose and passion of his heart, and when every act of his religious worship, is guided and regulated by the word of God.

In summary, worshiping in “spirit and in truth” seems to mean that worship should be done with souls or spirits, hearts and minds, attitude and will, as well as through the truth of the Word of God.

Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Proskuneo before Him.
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Proskuneo before Him.

The Purpose of Worship

In the book of Leviticus, after Nadab and Abihu offered profane fire before the Lord, Moses reminded Aaron what God had commanded concerning worship:

Then Moses spoke to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke, saying:

“By those who come near Me

I must be regarded as holy;

And before all the people

I must be glorified.” (Leviticus 10:3)

We come near God when we worship Him. But He will not consider it worship if we don't regard Him as holy, "for our God is a consuming fire." He will not consider it worship if we do not seek to glorify Him before all people.

Other verses addressing worship also include both God’s glory and holiness:

Give unto the Lord the glory due to His name;

Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. (Psalm 29:2)

Give to the Lord the glory due His name;

Bring an offering, and come before Him.

Oh, worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness! (1Chronicles 16:29)

These are revealing statements about the basic purpose of worship. The people who worship must regard God as holy: He is set apart, pure, undefiled and unable to look upon sin; and before all people He must be glorified.

© 2009 Jane Grey


The Greek word for worship is literally a reverential act of honor: bowing down. Old and New Testament saints exhibited this honor in different actions and attitudes of adoration, submission, and obedience. Jesus commands that we use the spiritual, emotional, and mental aspect of worship as well as the physical, when He commanded that we worship in spirit and in truth.

God also has laid out the purpose of worship: it is glorifying Him before all people, and knowing that He is holy when we approach Him. Do we do worship God as He has desired from the beginning of time? I will leave that for you to prayerfully and studiously discern.


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