What is worship? How do we do it? How often should we do it? Are we confusing praise with worship and vice versa?
When we are encouraged by others in our congregations to do something or to believe something in regards to Scripture, we should always be like the Bereans and test everything against Scripture itself (Acts 17:11)... the whole of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17). If a person feels "led by the spirit" to speak, behave, or believe a certain way, they should test that spirit (1 John 4:1) and see whether what that spirit is telling them to do is in agreement or disagreement with Scripture.
Let us take a journey together through Scripture and see what it says about the matter of worship... a "walk in the Word" so to speak. As we take this walk, may we say, believe, and do what is right, be merciful in our speech and actions, and walk humbly with the Lord (Micah 6:8).
Included in this text are references to all verses in Scripture that include references to "worship". If you find a verse that is not referenced and think it should be, please contact the author.
Scriptural quotations are from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted. Bolded text or other emphases in the Scriptural references are the author's.
Modern English Definition
1. treat somebody or something as deity: to treat somebody or something as divine and show respect by engaging in acts of prayer and devotion
2. take part in religious service: to take part in a religious service
3. love somebody deeply: to love, admire, or respect somebody or something greatly and perhaps excessively or unquestioningly1
The first and most common definition is "to treat somebody or something as deity". Is this what Scripture means by "worship"? Let's see what the original languages of Scripture tell us...
In the Tanakh there are three Hebrew words and one Aramaic word interpreted into English as "worship" for the NASB translation.
שׁחה (shachah - Strong's #7812)- a verb which means to prostrate, bow. This word is used in 165 verses.
עבד (abad - Strong's #5647)- a verb which means to work, serve. This word is used in 263 verses.
משׁמרת (mishmereth - Strong's #4931- a verb which means to watch or guard (as a sentry). This word is used in 68 verses.
סגד (Aramaic segid - Strong's #5457)- a verb which means to do homage. This word is used in 11 verses (all in the book of Daniel).
The first time the word shachah [bow down] is used in Scripture describes Avraham at the oaks of Mamre:
When he lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth, and said, "My Lord, if now I have found favor in Your sight, please do not pass Your servant by.
Shachah literally means to prostrate oneself or bow. Here we see that Avraham bowed to three men. This bowing was not to treat these three men as gods but as an expression of honor.
The first time shachah is translated as "worship" is also in regards to Avraham.
Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you."
In this moment we see Avraham not only literally bowing his knee but also bowing and submitting his will in obedience to G-d's command to sacrifice his son.
Avraham says to the men who are with him that he is going to "shachah" on the mountain with his son. Here he is clearly going to honor G-d as Deity by offering up his son: G-d has commanded it. Let's examine this situation more closely.
What was Avraham leaving to do when he said to his servants "Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you."? He was going to shachah (bow down to) G-d but was this simply a "take a knee" moment or was Avraham doing something more?
In this moment we see Avraham not only literally bowing his knee but also bowing and submitting his will in obedience to G-d's command to sacrifice his son. In this passage we see Avraham's example of obeying G-d's commands as worship.
Today we have a similar opportunity to worship G-d by obeying the commandments He has given to us.
The last time shachah is used in Scripture is in reference to Gentiles.
And it will be that whichever of the families of the earth does not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, there will be no rain on them.
This verse describes the millennial kingdom of the Messiah. Whichever families do not go up to Jerusalem to [bow down? treat the King as Deity?] will not receive rain. This instance could mean either or both behaviors.
The first time the word abad [work] is used is in the Creation narrative:
Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate [work] the ground.
We see a few verses later that Adam's first job was to work the ground in the Garden:
Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate [work] it and keep it.
And He said, "Certainly I will be with you, and this shall be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain."
This verse literally says "you shall serve [abad] G-d at this mountain".
The last time ahad is found in the Tanakh is in a Messianic prophecy found in Malachi chapter 3:
Then those who feared the LORD spoke to one another, and the LORD gave attention and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the LORD and who esteem His name. "They will be Mine," says the LORD of hosts, "on the day that I prepare My own possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him." So you will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him.
Serving G-d is worshiping Him.
This is in reference to "G-d fearers": those who love, fear, and honor G-d. This prophecy speaks of a future time when G-d will give attention to those who fear Him and spare them "as a man spares his own son who serves him." In sparing those who fear and serve Him G-d will make it easy to distinguish between the righteous and the wicked.
Here Scripture provides an interesting set of parallels:
- "The righteous" and those who serve [ahad] Him.
- "The wicked" [evil, criminal, law-breaker] and those who do not serve Him.
Considering verse 17, who is "the Son" who serves the Heavenly Father? The only begotten of the Father: the Messiah Yeshua! (John 1:14)
May His Name be blessed!
The word mishmereth can be used in two ways:
- As a verb the word means to watch or guard.
- As a noun the word means a duty, charge, or obligation.
The first time mishmereth is found in Scripture is also in reference to Avraham:
"I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws."
G-d is speaking to Isaac and tells him that, as a consequence of Abraham honoring G-d's duty/charge/obligation, Isaac's descendants will be a source of blessing to all the nations of the earth.
The only time mishmereth is translated as "worship" in the NASB is in the book of Nehemiah.
For they performed the worship of their God and the service of purification, together with the singers and the gatekeepers in accordance with the command of David and of his son Solomon.
This passage speaks of the men who performed the duty of serving in the Temple. These were a group of men who had sanctified themselves to G-d:
Now the rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, the temple servants and all those who had separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the law of God, their wives, their sons and their daughters, all those who had knowledge and understanding, are joining with their kinsmen, their nobles, and are taking on themselves a curse and an oath to walk in God's law, which was given through Moses, God's servant, and to keep and to observe all the commandments of GOD our Lord, and His ordinances and His statutes; and that we will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons.
The last time mishmereth is used in Scripture is in Malachi 3. It is found just before the last time ahad is used:
"Your words have been arrogant against Me," says the LORD. "Yet you say, 'What have we spoken against You?' "You have said, 'It is vain to serve [ahad] God; and what profit is it that we have kept His charge [mishmereth], and that we have walked in mourning before the LORD of hosts? 'So now we call the arrogant blessed; not only are the doers of wickedness built up but they also test God and escape.'"
G-d says it is arrogant to declare that it is vain to serve Him and to keep His charge. Those who declare that "following the Law of Moses is pointless" clearly fall into the trap of this arrogance.
As we saw with the brief study of ahad, serving G-d is worshiping Him... it is not a vain thing.
The Aramaic word, segid, is another word in the Tanakh that the NASB translates as "worship". This word is only used in the book of Daniel.
Segid is used 13 times in 11 verses of Daniel. All of them (except one) are in Daniel chapter 3 associated with the gold idol and the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego.
After Daniel tells king Nebuchadnezzar his dream and its interpretation, the king responds in a surprising way:
Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell on his face and did homage [segid] to Daniel, and gave orders to present to him an offering and fragrant incense.
The king who ruled over the known world falls on his face and "did homage" to Daniel. This is the equivalent of our earlier Hebrew word, shachah: bowing in honor. With the king falling on his face he is doing Daniel a great honor. Was the king treating Daniel as G-d?
He was likely not honoring him as G-d, Himself, but the king does appear to be treating Daniel as a representative of G-d and honored him as such.
The rest of the uses of segid are found in the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. They are thrown into the fiery furnace when they refuse to segid [bow/do homage to/worship] the golden statue that Nebuchadnezzar created:
"There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the administration of the province of Babylon, namely Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego. These men, O king, have disregarded you; they do not serve your gods or worship [segid] the golden image which you have set up."
Here we again see "service" and "worship" connected...
Here we again see "service" and "worship" connected in the accusation against the three Jewish youths.
What is it they refuse to do?
They refuse to perform a physical act: bow and prostrate themselves.
They could have physically bowed themselves and thought in their hearts: "I know this idol is not a god but I will merely bow to it and save my life." They would have physically been bowing but in their hearts and minds they would not have been committing idolatry. Yet they did not yield even one tiny bit.
This example shows us that the physical act of bowing and prostrating is of greater importance than even our thoughts and is more closely associated with "worship".
Mental or Physical?
Is it idolatry when we physically bow ourselves to get something out from underneath a bed? Are we "worshiping" the bed when we bow down in front of it? What about if we have to bow down to get something from a bottom cabinet in a kitchen? Are we worshiping the kitchen cabinets?
By no means!
Perhaps we can best understand "worship" from these passages above as prostrating or bowing with the intention of acknowledging someone or something as a god. It is the combination of the two together (both physical and mental) that constitute "worship".
The physical act of bowing can be done without performing worship (e.g. searching under a bed).
If hypothetical "Bob" bows while others are bowing to worship something as a god then that implies that "Bob" is in agreement with the claim that the thing is a god. This is why Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego could not (in good conscience) bow before the statue.
How is "worship" used in the Greek Scriptures?
There are only 40 verses in the Apostolic Writings that refer to "worship" but there are several words that are used:
Eusebeo (Strong's #2151): from the Greek words eu and sebo... "well reverent"; to be pious or devout
Threskeia (Strong's #2356): from the Greek word throeo (to wail); ceremonial observance (as in a religious service)
Latreia (Strong's #2999): ministration; service.
Latreuo (Strong's #3000): from the Greek word latris (a hired servant); to minister or serve.
Proskuneo (Strong's #4352): to bow toward and kiss (the hand); to do reverence to. Strong's Dictionary notes this means "to kiss, like a dog licking his master's hand".
Sebasma (Strong's #4574): something adored; an object of devotion
Sebo (Strong's #4576): to revere or to adore
Let's start at the top and the bottom of our list.
Eusebeo is only found twice in Scripture:
"For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.' Therefore what you worship [eusebeo] in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.
Paul tells the men of the Areopagus that they are very religious (verse 22) and tells them what they "worship" [eusebeo] in ignorance he can explain to them. The Greek word eusebeo comes from a combination of two Greek words: eu and sebo. Together they mean "well reverent". The men Paul is addressing are devout and faithful in honoring "an unknown god".
This word is reflects more on their devotion rather than of the object of their devotion.
We learn this from the other instance of eusebeo:
1 Timothy 5:3-4
Honor widows who are widows indeed; but if any widow has children or grandchildren, they must first learn to practice piety [eusebeo] in regard to their own family and to make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God.
Paul teaches Timothy that "if any widow has children or grandchildren, they must first learn to practice eusebeo towards their own family. They should be devoted to their family. They are not worshiping their family... that would be idolatry!
In contrast, Paul speaks of the widowed woman "who gives herself to wanton pleasure" and is dead even whild she lives (1 Timothy 5:6). The widow who is not devoted to her family but is instead focused on her own wanton pleasure is considered dead.
Considering this word in regards to our acknowledgement of G-d as Deity, we should be "well reverent" and devoted to Him rather than an inconstant servant.
This Greek word is used 4 times in Scripture and is most frequently translated as "religion". It comes from a word that means "to wail" as in the loud voice used by leaders during religious services in guiding worshipers.
The first time it is used is in the book of the Acts of the Apostles:
"So then, all Jews know my manner of life from my youth up, which from the beginning was spent among my own nation and at Jerusalem; since they have known about me for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I lived as a Pharisee according to the strictest sect of our religion.
Here Paul is referring to his acts of service towards G-d... his religion.
Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.
Paul admonishes the believers in Colossae that they should let no one defraud them of their prize by delighting in self-abasement and the "worship" of angels (both common practices in Gnosticism).
Gnosticism teaches a dualistic world view in which the universe is divided into two parts: the physical and the spiritual. It teaches that the spiritual (which is good and G-dly) is better than the physical (which is evil and made by "the devil"). We know from Scripture that this is not true since G-d created the heavens, the earth, the sea, and all that is in them (Exodus 20:11).
Gnosticism included the "worship of angels" since they were perfect "spiritual beings". They were adored and honored as the goal of the gnostic's life.
Paul's point here is that we should not perform religious service towards angels. The prophet Samuel made a similar declaration:
1 Samuel 7:3
Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, "If you return to the LORD with all your heart, remove the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your hearts to the LORD and serve Him alone; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines."
We should not serve/worship angels. We should serve G-d alone! The angels themselves reject worship and direct it towards G-d:
Then I fell at his feet to worship him. But he *said to me, "Do not do that; I am a fellow servant of yours and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus; worship God. For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy."
Once again we find bowing and prostrating to be worship.
James, the brother of Yeshua, provides the last two instances of threskeia:
If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man's religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Peter's use of threskeia is consistent with Paul's: religious service/actions in service to G-d.
Peter says a person's service to G-d is worthless if he does not bridle his tongue. Pure and undefiled "service"/worship to G-d is visiting orphans and widows in their distress and keeping oneself unstained by the world.
These two Greek words are clearly related to each other and are again a reflection of "service" towards G-d.
The Greek word letreuo refers to a "minister" and literally comes from a word that means "a hired menial servant".
A letreuo performs latreia [service].
Using a different Greek word, doulos, Paul, Peter, and James all refer to themselves as "bond-servants" of the Messiah.
One passage that provides a good example of these words is found in Romans chapter 12:
Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.
Once again we see the instruction that we are to serve G-d. We are to be His servants... His slaves, who were bought with a price and should not be slaves of men (1 Corinthians 7:23).
Since we are called to be G-d's servants and follow the example of Messiah who came in the form of a bond-servant, how are we to serve Him? Yeshua, himself, provides an answer:
Matthew 24:45-47, 25:23
"Who then is the faithful and sensible slave whom his master put in charge of his household to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. Truly I say to you that he will put him in charge of all his possessions.
"His master said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'
We should consider that there is both the literal food that needs to be given as well as the spiritual food that Messiah had previously spoken about:
Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work."
We should do the will and obey the commandments of Him who has saved us...
As servants we should do the will and obey the commandments of Him who has saved us, redeemed us, and purchased at the cost of the blood of the Son of G-d.
The Last Temptation of Christ
After fasting for forty days and nights (Matthew 4:2) Yeshua is tempted by the devil.
The third and last temptation the devil offers to the Messiah is this:
Again, the devil *took Him to a very high mountain and *showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and he said to Him, "All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship [proskuneo] me."
Here again we see "worship" in the form of physically bowing oneself to the ground. The Greek word proskuneo is used in this verse and (according to Strong's dictionary) has the sense of a dog licking his master's hand.
Yeshua very clearly knew that the devil was not G-d. There was no chance that He could be convinced otherwise.
Messiah could, however, bow Himself before the devil and "lick his hand", so to speak. It was possible that He could take that physical action. Here again we see that the physical act of bowing is central to the concept of worship.
In contrast, Messiah's actual response was to rebuke the devil with words of Torah:
Then Jesus said to him, "Go, Satan! For it is written, 'YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD, AND SERVE HIM ONLY.'" [quoting Deuteronomy 6:13]
In this verse, the words of the Master (using both proskuneo [worship] and latreuo [serve]) conclusively link service and worship.
There are several words used in Scripture that are translated as "worship". These words encapsulate the following concepts regarding our actions towards G-d:
- Service (as in a hired servant)
- Bowing (literal, physical bowing)
- Devotion (dedication in our service to G-d and obedience to His commandments)
Let us close and consider the words of the Apostle Paul to the believers in Philippi:
Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Blessed be He!