When thinking about worship and Scripture, I have found a biblical-theological approach to be most helpful. Such an approach assumes that Scripture (as canon) tells a Spirit-driven story; that understanding any particular part of that story necessitates understanding its place in the whole; and that you and I have a place in that story.
I take my cues here from the New Testament authors themselves. Explicit “worship” terminology is fairly rare in the NT when compared with the OT, but there are three places in particular where its usage demonstrates a sort of trajectory (to borrow a phrase from one of my professors) along which worship terminology develops as a result of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. I consider these “representative texts” in that I believe they state clearly what is held implicitly throughout the rest of the New Testament.
Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 is well-known. At one point, she says to Jesus: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you people say the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem” (4:19-20). Her statement concisely summarizes what I would call characteristic “old covenant” assumptions about worship, namely that such terminology is primarily associated with times and places. Worship primarily meant activities that took place in the Temple as a proper response of obedience and joy to God’s revelation of himself and his requirements. There are important OT examples of reminders that one’s heart, not the ritual, was always the point (e.g. Isaiah 29:13, Ps. 40:6-8), but it is still the case that most worship terminology is tied to time and place.
Jesus’ reply reveals that after his coming such assumptions do not hold: “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…a time is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth” (21, 23). He answers a question premised on assumptions of time and place with a statement that reveals what we might call “trans-spatial” and “trans-temporal” language. His answer focuses on the qualitative nature of worship and of the worshiper: it is something that has much more to do with who does it and in whose power rather than where or when. The focus is less on discrete actions (though those are not, of course, ruled out) than on the qualities involved that can, in turn, produce many sorts of actions.
In verse 1, Paul exhorts his hearers to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,” and says that this offering of their bodies is their “spiritual act of worship” (sometimes translated “reasonable service”). Interestingly enough, different words we elsewhere translate “worship” or “service” are often closely related, in that priestly service in the Temple was a facilitation of proper worship. And in the next verse Paul urges them to be involved in a process of mind-renewal that results in discerning the will of God. His emphasis in these two verses is on the totality of the physical and the mental as spheres of spiritual growth, and that the processes of such growth – the “offering” of one’s body, which is discipline and the doing of righteousness with one’s body – is in fact worship. It is interesting that he uses worship terminology at this point because the beginning of chapter 12 marks a significant transition in his letter. He has established a number of important themes prior to this and now proceeds to instruct the community in how to in fact live as a community. Verses 1-2 set the theme, and the rest of chapters 12-15 elaborate on this theme by giving many concrete examples of what a community-anchored life of worship looks like. Again, worship terminology is exceedingly useful for Paul here because what was once primarily a cleansing that had to be repeated (actual Temple sacrifices, which were worship) has now been applied to the believers once for all in Christ’s death and resurrection, and this “sanctifies” their whole lives and enables growth in obedience.
This passage marks another significant transition in a sustained argument, and it is in the letter to the Hebrews that the transformation of ‘worship’ terminology as a result of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is made most explicit. Three things are significant about this passage:
First, 12:14-24 is a vivid contrast between “Sinai reality” and “Zion reality”; in other words, the former reality under the old covenant and the new reality (and anticipation of certain future realities) brought about by Christ’s blood and the inauguration of the new covenant. It is intended to be climactic and beautiful and rhetorically stunning.
Second, verse 25 through the end of chapter 12 is a final “warning passage” directed at the letter’s hearers: Don’t refuse the one who is speaking; if the consequences for rejecting God under the former reality were severe, how much more so for those who reject his voice now? And the proper response of those who hear is: “So since we are receiving an unshakeable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe, for our God is indeed a devouring fire” (12:28-29). It is clear from the overall context of the letter that “worship” terminology here serves as convenient shorthand for “a life marked by perseverance and obedience and community faithfulness”. The author has spent much ink prior to this point arguing that various aspects of the old covenant pointed beyond themselves to Christ and find their fulfillment in Christ (most pointedly, the sacrifices and priesthood: Jesus is our final sacrifice and Jesus is our high priest). Our way of using “worship” terminology (“worship service,” “house of worship,” etc.), while not entirely incorrect, artificially limits the new covenant reality of worship that the author seems to assume here (a life of Spirit-enabled obedience and faithfulness).
Third, it is compelling that the author makes the same turn to “practical exhortation” in 13:1ff that Paul made in 12:3ff. Both authors (without discernable dependence on one another but both agreeing in the way they see worship terminology being affected by Christ) exhort their audiences to “worship” and then illustrate that with a whole host of injunctions about faithful community living and obedience.
This has hardly been an exhaustive search of Scripture, but as I mentioned above, I suggest that these passages are representative; they make explicit what is implicit in the rest of the NT, and demonstrate the characteristic way that the NT authors handle OT material, especially material related to worship. In a third and final post I will offer a working definition of “worship” and suggest some practical ways that thinking about worship this way can affect a believer’s spiritual formation.