Defining Worship

The word ‘worship’ is a difficult word to define. Our English word comes from the Old English which was originally ‘worthship’ which means to ascribe worth to something or recognize something as worthy. We worship that which we consider to be worthy. All human beings are worshipers. The question is not whether we worship or not, but rather who or what do we worship.

There are a number of words translated into English as ‘worship’ in our Bible. Examining the nuance of meanings of the original words helps clarify what biblical worship really is.

The most frequently used word in the Old Testament for worship is the Hebrew word shachah. It is used 81 times and denotes action, bowing down to do homage.

The most common word translated as worship in the New Testament is the Greek word proskuneo which literally means “to kiss toward.” It is used 51 times and was a symbolic act touching the hand to the lip and extending it in reverence toward the person being honored.

Another important Greek word for worship which is found 26 times in the New Testament is the word lateuo which refers to service rendered. When you put all these biblical ideas together you find that worship involves both attitudes (awe, respect, reverence) and actions (bowing, praising, serving).

I like how Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe put it when he defined worship as: “The believer’s response of all that he is – mind, emotions, will, and body – to all that God is and says and does.” In other words, worship is the response of our whole being to God’s whole being.

In order to worship, we must see God in His glory. Then we must respond appropriately. It’s not hard! It is the natural response to God’s glory. For example, in Revelation 1 John didn’t have to think about how to apply his vision of the resurrected, glorified Christ to his life. He fell at his feet like a dead man! Likewise, Isaiah, when he saw the Lord in Isaiah 6, said, “Woe is me for I am undone.” Every time the prophet Ezekiel saw God, he fell on his face. When the angel of the LORD appeared to Manoah to announce the birth of his son Samson, he said, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.” (Judges 13:22). Job, too, responded similarly, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6). When one encounters the living God, there is always a response of fear, awe, reverence and repentance.

It is important to note that worship is a response. We do not initiate worship, we simply respond to God’s revelation of Himself. The pattern of worship in Scripture is always God’s revelation of Himself first, then human response to that revelation. The good news is that God has revealed himself to us in both the Word he has inspired and the world he has made. So let me encourage you to worship this week, not just on Sunday but every day as you respond to the glory of God as seen in creation and in Scripture.

“And Can It Be”: A Theological and Devotional Analysis

Today is the 224th anniversary of the great hymn-writer Charles Wesley’s death. In honor of this day I have decided to repost my analysis of one of my favorite of his hymns.

Originally titled “Free Grace,” this hymn is one of several hymns by Charles Wesley that is still widely sung in the present day.  Although we do not know exactly when “And Can It Be” was written, it is usually associated with a very early period linked with the Charles Wesley’s conversion. (1) Regardless of when it was written, the song clearly describes the experience of conversion and the wonder of one who is still amazed “That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”.  Tyson points out the repeated use of “for me” in this hymn as evidence of the impact of the reading of Martin Luther’s Galatians commentary. (2)

1. And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Wesley is clearly amazed at the extravagant grace of God evident in his own salvation.  He is amazed that the One whom his own sins had caused his death would have offered his life up for him.  Wesley puts himself into the place of the angry crowd that cried out “Crucify Him!” and whom Peter indicted on the Day of Pentecost of having crucified and killed by their hands (Acts 2:23).  This thought causes Wesley to cry out “Amazing love!” and question in the words on which the modern title to the hymn is based: “How can it be, That Thou my God, shouldst die for me?”  Wesley’s attribution of death to God is at first a shocking statement.  He wished it to be so.  It is doubtful that Wesley was himself espousing a patripassianism in these words.  Instead, he wishes those who sing this hymn to understand the amazing love of God that resulted in the death of the Son of God, the God-man, Jesus Christ.  This expression, as used by Wesley, is thoroughly orthodox as it reflects the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures of Jesus.  What is said of one nature can be said of the other since the two natures are united in one hypostasis or person.  Scripture also speaks this way of the death of Jesus when Acts 20:28 records the apostle Paul exhorting the Ephesian elders “to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”  Here, the blood of God refers to the blood of Jesus, the God-man.

2. ’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
Let angel minds inquire no more.

Again in stanza two, Wesley probes the depths of the mystery of the death of the Son of God for us.  Here Wesley juxtaposes immortality and death.  These two obviously do not belong together, but Wesley places them together to emphasize the “mystery” of the atonement.  The depth of this mystery is highlighted by Wesley’s speculative description of angelic attempts to understand the “depths of love divine.”  This is no doubt a reflection upon 1 Peter 1:12 which describes the gospel as “good news . . . into which angels long to look.”  Wesley is content to put an end to the speculation with the declaration that it is simply a mystery of mercy.

3. He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!

In the third stanza, Wesley explores the kenosis or “self-emptying” of Christ in the incarnation.  The amazing love of God is seen in that it caused the Son to leave “His Father’s throne above.”  This demonstrates the freeness and infinite nature of His grace.  Philippians 2:5-8 seems to be the Scriptural backdrop for this stanza.  These verses describe the depths to which the Son has descended in the incarnation.  Wesley reveals an understanding of the meaning of the Greek underlying the language of Philippians 2:7 in the Authorized Version.  The phrase “made himself of no reputation” translates the Greek ekenosen which literally means “he emptied himself” (see the HCSB which translates it this way).  Wesley evidently understands this for he says that the Son “Emptied Himself of all but love” in the incarnation.  The climax of the incarnation, however, is seen in the hymn (as in Philippians 2:8) in Christ’s death on the cross.  He “bled for Adam’s helpless race.”  Again, the hymnist is forced to confess that the mercy of God alone is the source of this amazing love.  The personal nature of the evangelism of the Wesleys is seen in the use of “me” throughout the hymn.  That Christ died “for me” is repeated three times in the first stanza, and in this third stanza the mercy of God is said to have “found out me!” twice.  The personal emphasis is even more evident in stanzas 4-6.

4. Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

In stanzas 4-6, Wesley seems to offer his own testimony from his experience of conversion.  This has caused many scholars to conclude that this hymn was written soon after Wesley’s conversion.  It is important to note that although the language is profoundly personal, it also deeply biblical and theological.  Wesley’s view of his pre-conversion state was that of an “imprisoned spirit” bound by both sin and nature.  Wesley draws on the imagery of a prisoner bound by chains in a dungeon.  This is an apt image of the state of mankind as described in Ephesians 2:1-3.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience– among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (ESV)

This picture of mankind as dead in “trespasses and sins” and “by nature children of wrath” could be the source for Wesley’s “fast bound in sin and nature’s might.”  Giving credence to this theory is the next line where Wesley introduces “a quickening ray” emitted from the eye of God which caused Wesley to awaken from his slumber of sin and death.  The language of quickening or “making alive” is present in the Authorized Version of Ephesians 2:1 and 4. “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; . . . Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ.”  The quickening of the sinner resulted in a dungeon now inflamed with light, chains being broken, and a free heart.  Wesley’s response to the quickening work of God was to rise up and follow the Christ who is the subject of this hymn.  This combination of the biblical images of life, light, freedom from sin, and freedom of heart testify of a profound understanding of the transformation that takes place at regeneration.

5. Still the small inward voice I hear,
That whispers all my sins forgiven;
Still the atoning blood is near,
That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.

Before Wesley’s conversion, he longed for assurance of forgiveness.  This longed for assurance has now come in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  There may be an allusion to the inward witness of the Spirit in 1 John 5:10, but is largely an experiential reality which Wesley expresses here.  The “small inward voice . . . whispers all my sins forgiven.”  Though deeply experiential, the basis for this experience is the objective work of Christ on the cross.  It was Jesus’ “atoning blood” which “quenched the wrath of hostile heaven.”  This vivid imagery of the death of Christ satisfying the wrath of a holy God is seen in the Scripture’s use of the word “propitiation” in Romans 3:25, 1 John 2:2, and 1 John 4:10.  The word “propitiation” means “to satisfy wrath.”  Christ on the cross propitiated a holy God on our behalf.

6. No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Wesley begins his final stanza with words which reflect a familiarity with Romans 8:1 “There is therefore now no condemnation for them which are in Christ Jesus.”  These hope-filled words provide an opportunity for reflection upon the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification.  The reason that the believer need not fear God’s condemnation is that we are united to Jesus Christ through faith “Jesus, and all in Him, is mine.”  This includes His righteousness, as Wesley specifies that the now alive sinner is “clothed in righteousness divine.”  This evokes biblical imagery from Genesis 3 when God provided coats of skin to cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve to Joshua the High Priest with dirty clothes for whom God provided a change of raiment in Zechariah 3.  These words also reflect a careful reading of 2 Corinthians 5:21 which states, “For he [God] hath made him [Jesus] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”  It is on the basis of this clothing with the righteousness of Christ that we are enabled to approach “th’eternal throne” boldly.  Also alluded to here is the work of Jesus, our Great High Priest, in Hebrews 4:16 which allows the author to exhort his readers:  “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”  Wesley closes the hymn with the phrase “through Christ my own.”  This is an apt summary of the hymn’s teaching and of Wesley’s theology.  All our blessings are “through Christ” (the objective work of Christ) and they are by faith “my own” (the experiential possession).  Because of its rich doctrinal and devotional quality, it is no wonder that this hymn has stood the test of time and remains a favorite by congregations in the 21st Century.  The enduring relevance of this hymn was brought home to me in recent years at the Together for the Gospel conferences (2008 and 2010) when a crowd of 4,000 plus mostly men under the age of 40 sang this hymn with deep affection at the top of their longs.  Tears streamed down men’s faces and arms were uplifted as they sang of the amazing love of God as seen in the death of Christ for their sins.

1. John R. Tyson, Assist Me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 49.

2. Ibid.

Three Lessons from the Wise Men

This post is the third in a series of three discussing the account of the worship of the Christ-child by the Magi in Matthew 2:1-12. In the first post, I played mythbuster by exposing three common misconceptions about the wise men. In yesterday’s post, I considered the significance of the three presentations (gifts) made by the wise men. In this concluding post, I would like to draw three points of application.

The Necessity of Special Revelation / Scripture
General revelation could only take the Magi so far. They needed special revelation to actually find the child-king. General revelation is what is revealed to all men everywhere through creation and conscience. Special revelation is the more detailed revelation that is revealed at specific times to specific people. If creation is the primary type of general revelation, then Scripture is the primary type of special revelation. The Wise Men saw something in the stars which led them to search for the Christ, but they only found Him after hearing the words of the prophet Micah that He was to be born in Bethlehem. Similarly all attempts to find God apart from His revealed Word will end in disappointment. But all responses to what is revealed in General Revelation will be rewarded with Special Revelation.

The Folly of Knowledge without Action
We’re so used to this story that the most startling thing about it has lost its edge. Pagans are worshiping the long promised Messiah, instead of the Chief Priests and Scribes who knew of His coming. The religious leaders of the day knew the prophecies of the coming Messiah. They were even able to tell the Wise Men exactly where He was to be born. But there is no indication in Scripture that any of these religious leaders took the 5-6 mile journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to worship the newborn King. It’s important to know the Bible, but failure to act on that knowledge will result in condemnation. There are many who could explain the gospel story, but who have never personally placed their faith in Christ Jesus the Lord. What a tragedy!

The Priority of Worship
But the main application of this text is the priority of worship. Matthew shows us that the child whose birth was recorded in chapter 1 is worthy of worship as the King of the Cosmos. This must be our priority as we prepare to embark upon a new year. How should we then worship? Follow the model of the Magi by worshiping Christ as the ultimate King to whom every knee shall bow, the Great High Priest who has offered one sacrifice for sin forever, and the buried and risen Savior. He is worthy of our worship in 2011 and throughout all eternity! The scene of the wise men is a foreshadow of another scene that the apostle John was privileged to see and he recorded it in Revelation 5:11-14.

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, [12] saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” [13] And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” [14] And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped. (ESV)

The Three Gifts of the Wise Men

In yesterday’s post, I played mythbuster by exposing three common misconceptions about the wise men. In today’s post, I will consider the significance of the three presentations (gifts) made by the wise men.  A final post on Thursday will offer three practical applications that we can learn from the story of the wise men.

The gifts of the wise men are the heart of the story of the wise men and the reason that it is recorded by Matthew in Matthew 2:1-12. Matthew desires to show how the Christ child was recognized and worshiped as a King by pagan astrologers.

The word translated “worship” means to fall down at one’s feet and worship. This is emphasized by the added description that they “fell down.” “Falling they fell at his feet and worshiped Him.” What a scene this must have been! A band of Oriental travelers entering a humble abode and falling flat on their faces at the feet of a toddler in an act of worship. And they brought gifts! This is either the most ridiculous scene in human history or this baby is the God-man, the heir to the throne of David, Christ the Son of the living God! And if this is the case, the Wise Men’s response is the only proper response.

The Wise Men’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were highly significant. These gifts were significant on two levels. First, from the Magi’s perspective these gifts were costly gifts worthy of a great king. They were seeking to honor this one who was born King of the Jews.

But the gifts of the Magi were significant on another level as well. Gold was the metal of kings. Frankincense was a sweet-smelling gum imported from Arabia that was used by priests in temple worship (Lev 2:1, 2, 15-16). Myrrh was a fragrant gum which was used as medicine and as a perfume, as well as to embalm the bodies of the dead. Thus, unbeknownst to the Wise Men each of their gifts meant more than they could have probably understood. These facts moved Bible commentator William Barclay to write:

Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for one that was to die – these were the gifts of the wise men, and, even at the cradle of Christ, they foretold that he was to be the true King, the perfect High Priest, and in the end the supreme Savior of men.

But what an indictment it is upon the religious elite of the day, that the birth of the Jewish Messiah was noted by Gentile foreigners! Where are the scribes? Where are the chief priests? They’re in Herod’s palace seeking favor with the political power from a man who within a few short years will be dead. While at the same moment the King of the entire universe has invaded planet earth. Talk about misplaced priorities!

Excursus: Herod the Great was a crafty and cruel ruler whose paranoia cost many of his own family members their lives. He murdered his favorite wife, her mother, two of her sons, and his own eldest son. The Roman emperor Augustus said it was better to be Herod’s pig hys than his son hyios.