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Worship: its purpose

February 1999 | by Andrew Fountain

Last month we looked at the nature of worship and praise: what worship is. Now we come to the central issue, namely the purpose of praise and worship. If we are to worship God in a way that pleases him, we must know why we do it. It is my belief that the overarching purpose of worship and praise is to proclaim God and bring honour to him as a response to what he has done for us.

Proclaiming God

This statement needs some elaboration. It is not the normal definition of worship found in text books, but I believe that it has two great advantages. Firstly, it is derived from the Bible and, secondly, it provides us with a standard for judging whether a particular form of worship is pleasing to God or not. But first I must show that what I have stated is, indeed, the biblical purpose for worship.

Why has God saved us? One catechism answers that question by saying, ‘To glorify God and enjoy Him forever’. God says in Isaiah 43:21: ‘This people I have formed for myself’, and then he explains his purpose: ‘They shall declare my praise’. God has saved us to glorify him, and we glorify him by declaring his praise.

First of all, praise declares God himself, that is, what he is like in his glorious person and divine attributes. Deuteronomy 32:3 reads: ‘Ascribe greatness to our God’. Three times in Ephesians 1 we read that God has saved his people ‘that they should be to the praise of his glory’ or ‘the glory of his grace’ (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14). God’s attributes of glory and grace are here the focus of praise. And notice that it is not only verbal praise that is in view, but redeemed lives that show how great he is and so bring honour to God. Peter sums it up: ‘You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, his own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (1 Peter 2:9).

Proclaiming God’s work

Our very existence, then, is to bring honour to God for what he is in himself. But praise is also equated in many Scriptures with a declaration of God’s works. Consider Psalm 9:1 and notice what David says here about praise. ‘I will praise you O Lord, with my whole heart. I will tell of your marvellous works’. To praise God is to ‘tell of his works’. Praise involves recounting, declaring, and proclaiming God’s great works. In verse 11, the psalmist encourages other people to join in, saying, ‘Sing praises to the Lord who dwells in Zion! Declare his deeds, among the people’. David is asking people to tell others what God has done.

In another Psalm we read: ‘O that men would give thanks to the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men! Let them sacrifice the sacrifices of thanksgiving, and declare his works with rejoicing’ (Psalm 107:21-22). Here we see that the sacrifice that God requires is a sacrifice of thanksgiving, namely, a public declaration of what he has done for us. That is an example of a declaration of God and his works in public worship.

What are God’s works?

This brings in another very important aspect – if worship is proclamation, what is the theme of our proclamation? It is chiefly salvation, the person of our Lord Jesus Christ and what he has done for us.

Of course, God is worthy to be praised for all his works, including the works of creation and providence which underlie our very existence. The Bible does not neglect these works in its praise to God. Thus in Revelation, the twenty-four elders ‘fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever … saying: “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power; for you created all things, and by your will they exist and were created”‘ (Revelation 4:11).

Redemption

Nevertheless, the major theme of praise and worship in Scripture, apart from God himself, is his work of redemption. For example, instructing people about praise and worship, the psalmist exhorts: ‘Sing to the Lord, all the earth; proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his wonders among all the peoples’ (I Chronicles 16:23-24).

This theme of proclaiming the salvation God has wrought for his people runs right through the Old Testament. But it does not, of course, stop there. It also continues in the New Testament. When Paul explains the purpose of the breaking of bread he says, ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26). Even this ordinance is designed to proclaim, publicly, what Christ has done for us and to declare him.

Probably the clearest verse of all is one I have already cited, that is, 1 Peter 2:9. This verse not only emphasises that God himself is to be proclaimed by our praise, but that he is to be praised above all for our salvation. Christ’s followers are, says Peter, ‘a royal priesthood’ chosen and appointed to ‘proclaim the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’. Hopefully, this will remove any remaining doubts about the view of worship that I have presented.

The purpose of worship and praise, therefore, is to proclaim God, and him as the Saviour of his people. This, I believe, is the essence of worship. This is the golden rule, the yardstick of acceptable worship.

Misconceptions regarding worship

Having considered the true purpose of praise and worship, it may be helpful to point out some common mistakes people make in thinking about these activities. My intention is not to be negative, but to emphasise how a biblical understanding of this matter can protect us from errors and allow us the freedom to worship in a way that truly honours God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ.

Some define worship as being totally ‘vertical’ between the individual and God. This attitude can produce services of worship where no one is interested in a visitor or enquirer coming in from the outside, or concerned about how the service appears to other people. When we are worshipping God in private, of course, our worship is directly between ourselves and God. But the Scriptures tell us clearly that when we gather for worship, the purpose is to praise God publicly, proclaiming publicly both what he is and what he has done.

Man-centred worship

Others make the opposite error and define worship as something that is completely horizontal. They say that worship is just an opportunity to have a good time together, something we enjoy as we have fellowship with other believers. The result is a man-centred ‘happy hour’, a service in which God, if present at all, is a mere spectator.

The answer is not to try to strike a happy medium between vertical and horizontal. Both ways of looking at it are unbiblical. In genuine worship, God’s redeemed people respond to him for what he has done for them, but they do so in the form of a public declaration.

Legalism in worship

There is one other error that deserves comment. The Old Testament has very detailed regulations for the worship of God, and we know that God was displeased when they departed from these regulations in the smallest detail. Some have used this as an argument for trying to derive similar detailed rules from the New Testament, seeking the same kind of ‘discipline’ in these days.

The difficulty is that we simply are not given those kind of detailed rules in the New Testament. This approach misses a vital and fundamental principle; we are living in the age of the Spirit.

Paul tells us in Galatians that, in Old Testament times, people were like children, under rules and regulations. But the law by which they worshipped was our tutor to bring us to Christ. Now we have the Spirit, argues the apostle, we are no longer under such a tutor. We live in an age of maturity where God has given us the Spirit in our hearts to guide us (Galatians 3:24 – 4:7).

In Old Testament times, the Israelites did not have the Spirit in that special way in which he came at Pentecost, and they were totally dependent on the external regulations given by Moses. But now there is a new freedom to worship God ‘in Spirit and in truth’ (John 4:23). We have the Spirit, and we worship as he guides us. We read: ‘This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’ (Jeremiah 31:31).

Worship and evangelism

A legalistic concept of worship also misses the point of worship, even in the Old Testament. The reason for such detailed regulations was that they were the means by which God was declared to the unbelieving world.

When people from other nations such as the Assyrians, the Babylonians or the Egyptians wanted to know what God was like, they looked at the worship of Israel. Evangelism in the Old Testament was thus through the symbols of their worship and sacrificial system (just as evangelism today is through preaching Christ, the one represented by the Old Testament symbols). Everything had to be kept pure and exactly as God wanted, so that his message would not be corrupted. In other words, their system of worship had a very special purpose in those times. It would have been wrong for them to have invented new symbols, just as it would be wrong for us today to add our own ideas to the Bible or pervert the gospel of Christ.

The logic of this view is that every act of worship is also an act of evangelism. For if in our worship we are engaged in proclaiming God and his work of salvation through Jesus Christ, is this not also evangelism? When Paul preached to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, was he not both declaring God as Saviour, and evangelising the lost? At least, this gives us food for thought about the profound relationship that exists between worship and the proclamation of the gospel.