What is worship?

Cover, A Christian Guide to Spirituality

The twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created. (Rev 4:10–11)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

If a spiritual discipline points us to God, then worship is the prince of the spiritual disciplines. In fact, we were made for worship (Calhoun 2005, 25).

Unfortunately, the Bible’s first picture of worship also pictures improper worship. Cain brought God some fruit; Abel slaughtered the first born of his flock and brought God the fat portions. God honored Abel’s sacrifice, but not Cain’s (Gen 4:3–5). Improper worship is like inviting your supervisor to your house and serving leftovers at dinner—you may not get fired, but it degrades the relationship.

One of the first deacons of the church, Stephen, was arrested in Jerusalem and was arraigned before the Sanhedrin. There, he accused them of limiting the access to God at the temple, of killing the prophets, of betraying and murdering Christ, and, therefore, of not keeping the law. Improper worship—limiting access to God—was Stephen’s first charge. For this and other things, they took Stephen out and stoned him (Acts 7:48–58).

Stephen’s complaint was not about altar sacrifices. When the Israelite people lived in Egypt, they needed to go into the wilderness to offer sacrifices, in part, because they sacrificed animals that were sacred to the Egyptians (Exod 8:26). The point of the sacrifice was to demonstrate loyalty to God by forsaking the typical idols of the day (Lev 17:7) [1]. However, over time the sacrifices lost their meaning, became routine, or, worse, started to look like divine bribes—improper worship [2]. Echoing the Prophet Isaiah (Isa 1:16), King David writes: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps 51:17) The content of worship, not its form, is what makes worship proper or improver.

An important picture of proper worship is given in Revelation 4:10-11 where the twenty-four elders cast their crowns before the throne of God. In heaven, the elders are casting down crowns given them by God, yet they still humbly lay them down (e.g. Rev 2:10). On earth, a crown is a symbol (an idol) of our vanity—a conspicuous display of personal wealth, power, and authority; it does not have to be a golden tiara! When I cast my crowns at the feet of the king of kings, I am surrendering all my idols—money, power, and authority—to God. On earth as it is in heaven this is the ultimate act of worship.

How do we then properly lay our crowns before the Lord?

Proper worship is an idol crashing event [3]. In worship we demonstrate our loyalty to God by surrendering to God the idols that most typically capture our hearts—our money, our power, and our authority. For some, it will mean writing checks; for others it may be donating time; for still others it may be simply to show up at worship clean and sober. For most of us, it means bringing along our families. For all of us, it means joining in God’s praises. Worship is a smorgasbord of praise.

When we look beyond our pride and idols to God, we cast down our crowns and truly worship.

[1] For more discussion, see: (Hahn 2009, 150).

[2] For example, the Prophet Isaiah (Isa 1:13) writes: “bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.” Likewise, the prophet Malachi writes: “When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil?” (Mal 1:8)

[3] The prophet Mohammed (1934, 21.51–.66) wrote that Abraham’s father was an idol-maker. One day when his father was away, Abraham smashed all but the biggest idol in his shop. When his father returned and confronted him, Abraham told his father to ask the remaining idol what happened. His father replied—you know that idols cannot speak. To which Abraham responded—then why do you worship anything but the living God?


Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg. 2005. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books.

Hahn, Scott W. 2009. Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

What is worship?

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com


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