Trying to define worship is a little like defining love or hope. An attempt to do so could go on forever. But I’ll try to keep it as short as possible.

Put simply, worship is declaring the greatness of someone or something.

It is the act of giving up your own glory to make sure everyone knows that the thing being worshiped is pretty awesome.

To put it even more succinctly, worship is bowing down to lift up.

In Christian circles, worship has also morphed to mean a certain type of music. It’s on the radio and fills the the musical portion of our church services. While music is a vehicle by which many people worship – and rightly so – it’s not worship in its totality. Let’s not call a slice the whole pizza.

The act of worship can be just about anything that honors God. As the apostle Paul says in Romans 12:1, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (NIV)

Again in 1 Corinthians 10:31 he says, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (NIV) I like the fact that eating can be worship.

So how else does the Bible define worship? Keep reading.

A Definition of Worship from the Bible

The first time the word  “worship” appears in the King James Version is Gen 22:5 when Abraham told his servants he would go worship on the mountain with Isaac.

The Hebrew word the patriarch uses is shachah meaning to bow down.

But the Hebrew word actually appears prior to this first translational occurance.  The real first appearance of shachah is in Gen 18:2.

In this passage, God appears to Abraham in the desert as three persons. Abraham recognized his God. In this instance the King James translates the word more literally. It says Abraham “ran to meet them and welcomed them, bowing low to the ground.”

So bowing down seems to be the appropriate action when meeting with the Creator. Bowing and kneeling – “sucking carpet” as my senior pastor says – are certainly appropriate responses to God’s presence.

If I can continue with this word study, another aspect of worship appears in Genesis 4:3-4. This verse says Cain and Abel brought their offering – Hebrew word “minchah” – to the Lord. This word means gift, offering, present, tribute, sacrifice.

The word is used about 40 times in Leviticus when it describes how to sacrifice and bring offering to God.

So according to our quick OT study, here’s another worship definition: bowing down in homage and laying down/giving up something you care about to honor God.

(Side note: maybe Cain’s offering wasn’t important to him. It was no sacrifice to give up, so God didn’t accept it.)

You might be thinking, I’m not a big OT person. What does the NT say about worship?

Well, almost exactly the same thing. The OT and NT are part of the same book, you know.

Matthew 2:2 is the first time “worship” appears in the KJV New Testament. The wise men had told Herod they had come to worship – “proskyneō” – the new King.

The NT is in Greek, not Hebrew. This Greek word according to Strong’s lexicon means “to fall upon the knees and touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound reverence”. Sounds a lot like the meaning of Hebrew word in the OT.

Here are some other instances in the NT where this word shows up:

  • When Satan offers Jesus the world if Jesus worships him (Luke 4:8)
  • When the disciples worship Jesus after he and Peter water-walk on the Sea of Galilee. (Mat 14:33)
  • When lepers and grieving family members ask Jesus to heal incurable diseases and raise the dead. (Matthew 8:2; Matthew 9:18)
  • As the soldiers beat Jesus, they bow down, mockingly. (Mar 15:19)

Certainly bowing down to worship is a thread pulled through the fabric of both the old and new testaments.

How did Jesus Define Worship?

What is true worship? John 4:20-24 is possibly Jesus’ most direct definition of worship in the Bible.

It could be the most well-known scripture on worship, yet it leaves many readers saying, “huh?” I’ll try to unpack it.

Jesus says, “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.” (NKJV)

But what does it mean to worship in spirit and truth?

Let’s tackle each word separately.

Worshiping in Spirit

Jesus says that God is a Spirit, so we should worship him in spirit. (John 4:24)

I’m going to go Greek on you again. The English word spirit corresponds with the Greek word pneuma which literally means a gentle blast of wind. Certainly, Christ isn’t referring to wind.

He’s speaking of an invisible force, like the wind, namely the spirit of God or Holy Spirit. In other words, God can be everywhere and do all sorts of things all around you and even when you don’t directly perceive him.

The same word is used to describe man’s spirit: his essence, separate from the body, that determines his will, actions, and decisions. We are created in God’s image, so it’s no surprise we have a spirit too. For the moment, our spirit is confined to an enclosure. God’s is not.

Let’s come back to Earth for a minute. So we have a spirit and God is a spirit. So how do we worship him in spirit?

Worshiping God in spirit, I believe, means connecting with God on a non-physical level. Worship should not be about rituals, traditions, a physical building, or the order in which a church service flows. Neither does worship need to consist of rehearsed prayers or songs, individual or corporate. These can be vehicles of worship, but in the end, unnecessary.

Worship should be equally possible in a prison or megachurch.

No external force whatsoever can restrain worship in the spirit.

It’s wholehearted, unfettered adoration from within, in response to God’s presence.

A good biblical example of pure worship comes from 2 Samuel 6 when David danced with all his might with leaping and dancing as he brought the Ark of the Covenant into the city. His wife even ridiculed him for his exuberant displays. This is worship in the spirit. Heartfelt, unscripted, unhindered, grateful connection with God.

Worshiping in Truth

There are no surprises when examining the word Truth in the Greek. It means just what it does in English: That which is true.

Worshiping in truth is in lock-step with worshiping in spirit. There should be no facades, faking it, ulterior motives. When you peel back a layer of an onion, you find more onion. A true worshiper, likewise, will be consistent all the way through.

I love that Jesus says God is seeking out these true worshipers. It’s exciting that God pursues you if you worship him in spirit and in truth.

Defining Worship is No Easy Task

This attempt at defining one word has turned out to be quite a tour de force. If you’ve managed to read the whole thing, you are definitely wanting to be a true worshiper for which I applaud you.

Do you have anything to add to the article? I’d love to hear your comments in the section below.

Also, I’d love it if you would sign up for my worship newsletter. Click here to sign up now. I’ll keep you up to date with the latest worship songs and tools for worship leaders.

Sign Up For Worship Resources

Get free worship advice, new worship song suggestions, and more. Enter your email below.

photo: Eva Rinaldi