What Does The Term “Worship” Really Mean?

by William J. Stewart

A myriad of writers through the years have penned much literature on the topic of worship. If one were to compile all the “worship is” statements obtainable, an exhaustive volume would no doubt be the result. And so we might inquire, “Why, after all the effort put forth by men and women through the years do we yet again embark on a discussion about the meaning of worship?” Quite simply, it is good to be reminded of the things which we already know, and perhaps to be made aware of some things we have not known.. The more we study and learn about the worship which our God is due, the greater our appreciation and more devoted our service will be.

It has been said, “The instinct to worship is hardly less strong than the instinct to eat.”1 And again, “if he would, man cannot live all to this world. If not religious, he will be superstitious. If he worship not the true God, he will have his idols.”2 We cannot choose to not worship. God’s will is that we worship Him, but if we do not, inevitably someone or something else will be the object of our adoration. Worship is a primary tendency of humanity, built into our very nature.

Karl Barth, a twentieth century Protestant theologian wrote, “Christian worship is the most momentous, the most urgent, the most glorious action that can take place in human life.”3 Given the magnitude of such a statement, we should expect all men to joyfully render praise before our God, but it is not so. Some “did not like to retain God in their knowledge” (Romans 1:28), and thus walk in wickedness and futility, worshiping things created rather than the Creator. However, for those who are determined to be faithful servants of the LORD, we should heighten our understanding of worship, that it might be altogether momentous, urgent and glorious.

The word most commonly translated as worship from the Old Testament is the Hebrew shachah, meaning to “prostrate (espec. Reflex. In homage to royalty or God); – bow (self) down, crouch, fall down (flat), humbly beseech, do (make) obeisance, do reverence, make to stoop, worship.”4 This is the word used by Abraham when he and Isaac set out to sacrifice to the LORD (Genesis 22:5).

In the New Testament, the most commonly used word to speak of worship is the Greek proskuneo. Thayer remarks of proskuneo, “to kiss the hand to (towards) one, in token of reverence; hence among the Orientals, esp. the Persians, to fall upon the knees and touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound reverence; in the N.T. by kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one) or make obeisance, whether in order to express respect or make supplication.”5 Of proskuneo and four less used words which are also translated from Greek to English as worship, Vine observes, “broadly it may be regarded as the direct acknowledgment to God, of His nature, attributes, ways and claims, whether by the outgoing of the heart in praise and thanksgiving or by deed done in such acknowledgement.”6

Worship involves both attitude and action. It is not enough to have a spirit of adoration toward God without doing that which He has proclaimed to be acceptable and appropriate in worship to Him (Luke 6:46). Neither is it sufficient to supply the outward service which God has enjoined upon us, but to do so with emptiness of heart (Matthew 19:16-22; cf. Matthew 6:19-21). Both the correct attitude and action are necessary.

Our perception of worship should not be too limited. The Psalmist wrote, “Seven times a day I praise You, because of Your righteous judgment” (Psalm 119:164). Clement of Alexandria, a late second century teacher and apologist, having quoted this, went on to speak of Christian worship as that which is “not in a specified place, or selected temple, or at certain festivals and on appointed days, but during his whole life … persuaded that God is altogether on every side present, we cultivate our fields, praising; we sail the sea hymning” He continues, “His sacrifices are prayers, and praises, and readings in the Scripture before meals, and psalms and hymns during meals and before bed, and prayers also again during night. By these he unites himself to the divine choir, from continual recollection, engaged in contemplation which has everlasting remembrance.”7

Worship is far more than an activity which we engage in on Sunday morning for an hour or two while the saints are assembled. Worship is not about where we are (John 4:21), but who we are (John 4:23-24) and what we are doing (Acts 2:43; James 5:13; Psalm 145:1-2; 146:1-2). David spoke of the LORD, “Thus I will bless You while I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name. My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness, and my mouth shall praise You with joyful lips. When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches” (Psalm 63:4-6). If we only worship the Lord at scheduled assembly times, we have misunderstood the nature of worship. Paul taught those at Athens, “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands” (Acts 17:24). Why then should we, like the heathen, confine our worship to a particular location or time, as though God were nothing more than an idol? As much as our God is ever present (Psalm 139:7-10), we should feel compelled to worship Him anywhere and anytime.

We need to be cautioned of an alternate extreme. One writer articulates well a movement which is underway: “God wants our lives to be a seamless cord of worship. God wants our worship to be a way of life.”8 Certainly we ought to worship God daily, but that doesn’t make everything aspect of life worship. After citing a number of excellent examples, one brother in Christ affirms, “It may be said that all worship is serving God, but not everything that we do in serving God is worship.”9 It is an important distinction. We are called to be “..a living sacrifice…not to be conformed to this world, but be transformed” (Romans 12:1). Righteous living brings glory to God, but a righteous life is not a form of worship. It is our “reasonable service” before God. Bondservants are commanded to serve their masters “heartily, as to the Lord (Colossians 3:23). The fear of God (v 22) and promise of reward from Him (v 24) certainly embolden us to work as best we can, but again, this is not worship. It is another aspect of our faithful service before God and man.

What a privilege it is to worship the true God of heaven, the One who has both created us and to this day sustains May we with thankful hearts, in confidence through Jesus our Lord approach before Him often, rendering acceptable worship. “Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name” (Hebrews 13:15).


  1. Thompson, Dorothy, wisdomquotes.com
  2. Parker, Theodore, Critical and Miscellaneous Writings: Essay I, A Lesson for the Day
  3. Barth, Karl, Nelson’s Illustrations
  4. Strong, James H., Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance: Complete & Unabridged
  5. Thayer, Joseph H. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament
  6. Vine, W.E., Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words
  7. Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book VII, Ch. VII
  8. Giglio, Louie, The Air I Breath: Worship As A Way Of Life
  9. Jamerson, Frank, “Worship In Spirit And Truth”, God So Loved: Studies In The Gospel of John
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