The Many Faces of Worship

My daughter Rebecca is taking a class on the history of worship, and one of her assignments was to do a word study on the word “worship” in order to develop a richer understanding of what worship means. Today’s churches typically use the word “worship” to communicate a time of song-filled praise, but it is so much more. Worship is a lifestyle that is expressed in multiple ways. The English language is more simple than the Hebrew and Greek languages that the Bible was written in. That is part of why we have so many translations of the Bible. The original manuscripts are studied and a translator picks a word that they feel best communicates what the original language was trying to convey. That is why, when we lay different translations side by side, they have the same essential meaning, but may use different verbiage.

Each of the original words for worship in scripture has a slightly different idea behind it. Looking at all the words that were chosen to convey worship, and how these words are used in context, can provide one with a broader understanding of what biblical worship looks like. This assignment brought so much insight, I’d like to share what we learned. All of the scripture is from the NIV translation, and all of the Strong’s Concordance definitions were taken from blueletterbible.org.

Beginning with the New Testament, there are several Greek words that are translated as worship. The Greek word “Latreia” is used in Romans 12:1. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1). Latreia is translated worship and means “ministration of God or divine service.” Romans was written to the church in Rome and Paul was urging them individually and corporately to give their lives, body and all, to God in service. Paul explains that as individuals we are to submit our minds to God’s truth, conduct ourselves according to His will, and to use our gifts to benefit the whole church body.

Similarly, the word Latreuō is translated “serve, worship, do the service.” It can relate to the worship of God or an idol. Latreuō is used by Paul when he gave his testimony during his trial by the governor, Felix. “I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect,” (Acts 24:14). Paul used Latreuō in a broad way to describe who he served, not how he served.

The Greek word Phobeō means to fear. It also is translated to be afraid or “reverence.” “Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: “Fellow Israelites and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me!” (Acts 13:16). If one understands the greatness of God, and His sovereignty, one will have fear or reverence for Him. Worship is theological result and part of reverence. Another example is found in Revelation. He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water” (Revelation 14:7). Many different words are used to put together a picture of how we are to worship God. We are to fear Him and give Him glory.

The Greek word proserchomai, used in Hebrews 10:1 to mean worship, means “to come to, approach, draw near to, to assent to.” “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship” (Hebrews 10:1). Proserchomai is not typically used to describe worship, but this verse describes worship as a drawing near, something believers should do all the days of their lives. James 4:8 tells believers that when they draw near to God, He will draw near to them. The word for drawing near or coming close is different in this passage, but it explains the desire God has for those who worship Him to lean into Him.

In Matthew 2:2, the wise men sought to worship the newborn king of the Jews. They came to proskyneō Jesus. This means to kiss the hand, fall on the knees with the forehead to the ground in reverence, and kneel or prostrate to show respect. This same word is used in Luke 4:7 when Satan told Jesus that if He would worship before him, Satan would give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. Satan wanted Jesus to proskyneō him. In verse 8, Jesus responded, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” We are to worship (proskyneō) the LORD God only.

Sebasma is a Greek word that pertains to something that is adored or worshiped. It is translated to “whatever is religiously honoured, an object of worship.” Sebasma can relate to anything, including inanimate objects. In Acts, Paul talked to the philosophers in Athens, telling them, “For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an alter with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you (Acts 17:23). The Greeks in Athens were worshiping many gods, but Paul wanted them to know the true God, and he found common ground with which to introduce them to the Lord. It was Paul’s desire that all men honor and adore the Lord.

The Greek word sebō means “to revere, to worship.” When Paul was in Corinth, the Jews there brought accusations against him. “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law” (Acts 18:13). The Jews were looking for any way they could find to convict Paul of wrongdoing, going back to the law. Sebō is again used to find fault with the manner of worship when Jesus quoted Isiah the prophet, saying, “They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules” (Matthew 15:9). God wanted their hearts, not strict adherence to a set of rules. This word is used to describe both the worship of an individual as well as a corporate group.

Two more words, Theosebeia and Thrēskeia are Greek words that are translated “worship” in the NIV. Theosebeia means devoutness or godliness. Paul uses this word to reference reverence toward God’s goodness when he said that women should adorn themselves with Godly character. All women of God are to adorn themselves “with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God” (1 Timothy 2:10). Thrēskeia means “religious worship or religious discipline, esp. External, that which consists of ceremonies.” Paul used this word in Colossians, saying, “Do not let anyone who delights in false humanity and the worship of angels disqualify you,” (Colossians 2:18).

The Old Testament was written in the Hebrew language. Šāḥâ is a Hebrew word which means to bow down or depress. This word is translated as worship, to fall down or bow. Šāḥâ worship is used to show reverence. Genesis 22:5 tells how Abraham said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took his son Isaac and prepared an alter where Abraham bowed his will before the Lord, showing reverence by his willingness to sacrifice his son according to the command of the Lord. This word was used corporately because it referred to both Abraham and his son.

Another Hebrew word that is translated in the NIV to say “worship” is ʿāḇaḏ. ʿAḇaḏ means to work or serve. It is used in the following manners:” serve, work, till, do, worshippers, labourers”, and in some miscellaneous applications. This word conveys that worship is service to the Lord. God commanded Moses concerning Pharaoh, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me” (Exodus 8:1). This was to be a corporate act. In 2 Samuel, Absolam told David of a promise he made. “While your servant was living at Geshur in Aram, I made this vow: ‘If the Lord takes me back to Jerusalem, I will worship the Lord in Hebron” (2 Samuel 15:8). This verse is using ʿāḇaḏ for an individual.

The Hebrew word yārē’ is used to relate “fear, revere, be afraid,” and translated “fear, afraid, terrible, terrible thing, dreadful, fearful, terrible acts, and miscellaneous.” When a storm came upon the ship that Jonah was on, his shipmates asked him to tell them about himself. “He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). Jonah identified himself with his people but spoke of himself as an individual who worshiped (feared) the Lord. This is similar to the Greek word sebō. Jonah feared the Lord, but he still ran from what God told him to do. He revered the Lord as Lord but did not worship Him with these actions.

The Hebrew word Pᵊlaḥ means to “to serve, worship, revere, minister for, pay reverence to.” Pᵊlaḥ is only used in the books of Ezra and Daniel, but is only used in Daniel to translate to “worship.” “Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him” (Daniel 7:27). All rulers will worship (serve) God and obey Him!

Sᵊḡiḏ is a Hebrew word meaning, “to prostrate oneself, do homage, worship,” and is also translated “worship.” Nebuchadnezzar praised God because He rescued Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. “They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God” (Daniel 3:28, NIV). They would not bow down to the king’s idol but saved their homage for the true God. Sᵊḡiḏ is similar to the Greek word proskyneō.

Both Greek and Hebrew words, when translated to “worship,” mean that one bows low and pays homage, reveres or fears, and serves God. Looking at all of these words and how they are used in context can provide one with a broader understanding of what biblical worship looks like. Worship includes the who, the why, and the how, and God cares about every aspect. Worship is for Him, to Him, and about Him. All of this brought to mind a song which says, “Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, here I am to say (profess) that you’re my God, You’re altogether lovely, altogether worthy, altogether wonderful to me (praise and adoration). Worship is more than singing. It is a daily emptying of ourselves to lift up the One who is worthy of all we could ever offer, and more.

References New International Version. (n.d.). https://www.biblegateway.com/

Worship (NIV). (n.d.). Blue Letter Bible.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

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