A theology of worship is a doctrine concerning the worship of God; a biblical theology of worship bases its teaching on what the Bible alone says. Just as a biblical soteriology is based on the Bible’s overall teaching concerning salvation, a biblical theology of worship is based on the Bible’s overall teaching concerning the worship and adoration of God.
Having a biblical theology of worship is important. Not everything that is called “worship” is actually worship, a lesson learned in the very beginning: both Cain and Abel brought sacrifices to the Lord, but “the Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor” (Genesis 4:4–5). What was Cain’s problem (besides jealousy, stubbornness, and murderous rage)? He lacked a proper theology of worship. Cain brought an unacceptable sacrifice to the Lord and demanded that the Lord be pleased.
The church that does not operate under the biblical theology of worship is in danger of failing to give God glory and failing to offer worship that is pleasing to Him. Worship is as misunderstood a doctrine as any other within the church. Contrary to popular belief, worship does not begin and end with the singing portion of our church services. Worship is also not limited to bowing in reverence before God. To begin with, worship is determined by God Himself, not by our sincerity, pious feelings, or musical skill.
Hebrews 12:28 says we must “serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (NKJV). The Greek word translated “serve” here is a form of a Greek word for worship and is used 21 times in the New Testament in the contexts of service and worship. Another form of the word worship is the Greek word therapeuo—from which we get the English word therapy—and this is most often translated “heal” in reference to the healing of others. In the New Testament, this word is seen in many passages involving Jesus’ healings.
Other Greek words translated “worship” are proskuneó, meaning “paying homage” (1 Corinthians 14:25); sebázomai, meaning “to render religious honor” (Romans 1:25); and sébomai, meaning “to revere or adore” (Acts 16:14). We see a form of the word sébomai used by Jesus in reference to vain, hypocritical worship of God (Matthew 15:9), implying that sometimes what we call “worship of God” is something else entirely.
A biblical theology of worship is concerned with the true worship of God. True biblical worship must be reverent (Hebrews 12:28). We must understand who is being worshiped. God is holy, just, perfect, powerful, loving, etc. We are sinners saved by grace coming before a holy God on the basis of our Redeemer. There is no room for pride in adoration (see Luke 18:9–14). Also, worship must be “in truth,” that is, our worship must be properly informed (John 4:24). Unless we have accurate knowledge of the God we worship, there is no worshiping in truth. Those who wish to worship biblically must worship God as He is revealed in Scripture. Unbiblical views of God must be rejected.
A biblical theology of worship recognizes that worship involves more than externals. God sees the heart: “These people come . . . honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (Isaiah 29:13). Worship is not about ritual or artistry, although ritual and art can be valid expressions of worship. Worship is not about expressing ourselves, although David’s “dancing before the LORD with all his might” was an act of true worship (2 Samuel 6:14). Worship is not about music, although music is often used by worshipers. True worship is about God. We reverence and honor and adore Him, not simply because of what He does for us but for who He is.
A biblical theology of worship will result in worship that produces a change of heart. The worshiper will have an ever greater desire to love and obey the Lord. Worship and service go hand in hand; worship of God should propel us into greater obedience. Jesus said those who love Him will keep His commandments (John 14:15). If we say we love and worship Him, but do not obey Him, our worship is worthless.
A biblical theology of worship leads to the conviction that worship is a lifestyle, not a moment in time (see 1 Corinthians 10:31). Our lives are to be dedicated to the worship and service of God. Worship is to be more than a temporary, experience-oriented activity on Sunday, after which we revert to a “normal” life the rest of the week. True worship is constant, inner praise to the God of Scripture, expressed in prayer, in song, in service, in giving, and in living.