I admit it. My understanding of worship is a bit of pet peeve. It bothers me that many people mistakenly think that singing with gusto is worship. That raising your hands is worship. That listening to a sermon is worship. That swaying to the music is worship.
Biblical worship is none of those things. Now we might say that those things can reflect a worshipful attitude. We might call that spiritual worship if one’s heart is right. But the heart of Biblical worship is different.
Our church reading program came to Mark 15-16. While reading I came to a familiar verse: “The soldiers…twisted a crown of thorns, put it on his head, and began to salute Him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews.’ Then they struck Him on the head with a reed and spat on Him; and bowing the knee, they worshiped Him. And when they had mocked Him, they…put His own clothes on Him, and led Him out to crucify Him” (Mark 15:17-20, emphasis added).
Did you see what Mark calls worship? Worship is bowing one’s knee before another person, or before an idol. In this case the worship of the soldier is mocking worship. But it is still called worship.
Lest you think this is an isolated experience, consider other Biblical texts dealing with worship.
In Gen 24:26, “the man [Abraham’s servant] bowed down his head and worshiped the Lord.”
In Gen 24:52, “when Abraham’s servant heard their words…he worshiped the Lord, bowing himself to the earth.”
Bowing one’s head is an act of worship in some OT texts (e.g., Exod 4:31; 12:27).
Bowing the knee to an idol or God is worship (e.g., 1 Kings 18:42; Isa 45:23; Matt 27:29; Mark 15:19; Rom 11:4; 14:11; Eph 3:14; Phil 2:10).
Often falling before God or an idol is called worship (e.g., Josh 5:14; Isa 44:15, 17; Dan 3:5, 6, 7, 10, 11; Matt 2:11; Matt 4:9; Acts 10:25; 1 Cor 14:25; Rev 4:10; 5:14; 7:11; 11:16; 19:4, 10).
Anyone who bowed down to the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar made was worshiping it (Dan 3:5-11). The wise men fell down and worshiped the infant Jesus (Matt 2:11). Satan promised Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if He would fall down and worship him (Matt 4:9). Cornelius fell down at Peter’s feet and worshiped him (Acts 10:25). When an unbeliever hears the secrets of his heart revealed, Paul says, “falling down on his face, he will worship God” (1 Cor 14:25). The twenty-four elders (angels, I believe) repeatedly (see Rev 4:9) “fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him…” (Rev 4:10; see also Rev 5:14; 7:11; 11:16; 19:4). The Apostle John fell at the feet of an angel “to worship him” (Rev 19:10), but the angel told him to get up and only worship God.
I’m not suggesting that you can only worship if you bow your head, bow your knee, or fall prostrate on the ground. What I am suggesting that it is the heart of Biblical worship. Now if a person is doing that in his heart, it is accurate to call that worship in a spiritual sense (cf. Rom 12:1). But simply singing with gusto is not necessarily bowing the knee before God spiritually. Simply sitting in a worship service is not worship unless you are spiritually prostrate before the Lord and His Word.
But if you simply bow the knee to an idol, you are worshiping it, whether your heart is connected or not. If you bow before God, you are worshiping Him.
In the old days, churches would have people kneel during prayer. I remember that at First Baptist Dallas around 1980 when I was an intern there. We had kneeling rails that could be put down so that people could kneel during prayer.
When I was on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ, I was moved by the kneeling one of my supporter families did often. Sharon and I stayed with them many times and each time we would be kneeling in prayer with them one or more times a day. I found it very moving—or worshipful.
One day every knee shall bow before our Lord and Savior (Isa 45:23; Rom 14:11; see also Phil 2:10). That is worship. At the Great White Throne every unbeliever of all time will bow the knee before the Lord Jesus. They will all worship Him before they are cast into the lake of fire.
So, give some thoughts to bowing your head, kneeling, and even prostrating yourself to God in your private life (and in church). That is worship.
But in addition, I’m suggesting that every time you sing or raise your hands or listen to God’s Word being taught, you should spiritually bow your heart before the Lord. It is possible to go through the motions of worship without actually worshiping God.
All worship grows from the person who bows before God, whether literally or spiritually or both.