In Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” the lovestruck knight Arcita is banished from the dukedom of Theseus, but he sneaks back in and disguises himself as a servant in the household of Emily, the woman he longs to be with. Arcita gains such a reputation throughout the dukedom as a noble person that Theseus’ advisors recommend promoting him from servant to squire. In Chaucer’s fourteenth-century words, the advisors tell Theseus to “put him in worshipful service.”
“Worshipful service” is Middle English for something like “noble employment” or “honorable work”–a job fit for someone of good social standing and virtue. This archaic meaning of “worshipful” reminds us that in Middle English, “worship” could still mean “dignity,” “honor,” or “reputation.” These meanings were related to the root of the word “worship,” which is still partially visible today–it was the Old English “weorth,” meaning “worth.” In its earliest days, “weorthscipe” was literally “worthness,” the appropriate treatment of something or someone of worth. The meaning of “dignity” for “worship” lasted at least until Shakespeare’s time, when “your worship” could be used as a polite term of address, like “your majesty,” as in this line from The Merry Wives of Windsor: “Will’t please your worship to come in, sir?”
Chaucer’s word “worshipful” reminds us that worthiness is a key concept, in etymology and in practice, when it comes to worship. We might even try to speak Middle English for a moment and ask ourselves: is our worship “worshipful?” Does it bring God honor–does it, we might say, enhance God’s reputation? This is not to ask whether our worship is dignified–solemn, showy, or sophisticated. But in an era in which therapeutic and marketable models for worship have gained so much popularity and influence–suggesting that worship must please the people rather than God–it may reorient us to ask: is our worship fit for the King?
The root word of “worship” can also help remind us what worship is meant to be. Worship, or “worth-ship,” is an act of affirming God’s worth–not boosting God’s self-esteem, not mere deference or flattery, and not appeasement. But worship is, fundamentally, a declaration that God is worthy. Worship declares how inherently worthy God is to be praised, to be confessed to, to be preached about, to be served.
This is what the elders around the throne in Revelation 5 model for us as they sing, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Worthy. Following their lead, we not only sing “God is great,” but also “God is worthy.” We not only lift God up, we affirm the high place in which God already and inherently is. We act in a way that is appropriate toward someone of infinite worth. As Psalm 96 says, “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due [God’s] name.”
Worshiping God by affirming God’s worthiness flies in the face of the Fall. In the Fall, humans got hung up on our “selfworth.” We wanted the status God had. We failed to perceive our proper place in the created order, and so we threw that order out of alignment.
In the first chapter of the Bible, Adam and Eve say to God, “We are worthy.” In the last chapter of the Bible, the elders say to God, “You are worthy.” God is back in God’s appropriate place, we are in ours, and the cosmos is right again. In a way, our public worship each week is an exercise in this eternal act of putting God in God’s proper place. Michael Lindvall describes worship as “weekly practice at not being God.”
The roots of the English word “worship,” then, have something to teach us about what worship means, and may shed some light on the practice of “worship” today.
In a way, our public worship each week is an exercise in this eternal act of putting God in God’s proper place. Michael Lindvall describes worship as ‘weekly practice at not being God.’ And yet, the English word “worship” is woefully limited. Its use over and over again in the Bible–over 100 times in most translations–disguises the fact that it is doing the work of multiple words in the original biblical languages. “The English language is impaired when it comes to worship,” writes John Witvliet. “We have one word to refer to at least three distinct meanings.”
One meaning of “worship”–and perhaps the one we associate most immediately with the word–is “praise,” “adoration,” or “homage.”
When Psalm 99 says, “Extol the Lord our God; worship at [God’s] footstool,” the Hebrew word for worship comes from the root wood hawah, which can also mean “bow down.” The Greek translation is proskuneo, and this is the most common Greek verb for “worship” in the New Testament. It is the word Jesus uses in John 4 when he tells the woman at the well, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
This strict sense of praise, associated with bowing down before God in adoration, is how many hear the word “worship” today–when people say “worship music,” for instance, they usually mean a praise song, rather than, say, a song of confession or lament. “Worship leaders,” similarly, often means the lead musicians for praise songs.
A second meaning of “worship” is also intuitive to us: worship as a public ritual, a ceremonial gathering. This is what we mean when we say “morning worship,” or when we serve on a “worship committee,” helping to plan the weekly ritual of worship in a congregation.
The verbs that come closest to this meaning in the Greek New Testament are sebomai and other words with a “seb-” root, which tend to mean “to revere,” “to be pious,” or “to be religious.”
These “seb-” words were not popular among the Greek New Testament writers, as we will see in a moment. And in fact, this ritual or ceremonial sense of “worship” may be among its least popular meanings to us today. When worship is merely an empty act of going through the motions week after week, it has little meaning and vibrancy. It is all rite. As that theologian Garrison Keillor once said, “Going to church no more makes you a Christian than standing in a garage makes you a car.”
Still, we shouldn’t be too zealous in our contempt for the ritual aspect of worship. Sometimes, we need the discipline of routine to get us into worship even when we may not want to be there.
As John Witvliet says, we like to have inspiring moments in worship, but as with a romantic relationship or a musical instrument, it is often our good habits that lead to memorable moments. He points out that the ministry of the apostles in Acts is anchored in liturgical events, as they attend temple prayer, baptize new believers, and break bread together. Witvliet also notes that when the prophets declare God’s disapproval of ritual–as in Amos 5, when God says, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies”–the aim is not to throw out the assemblies altogether, but to restore them to vibrancy.
The third meaning of “worship” in the Bible is the broadest: worship as service, the act of serving obediently in all of life.
In the Old Testament the Hebrew word abad is used for both for “worship” and “work” or “service.” The Greek verbs for this meaning are latreuo and the similar word for “to minister,” leiturgeo, which is the root word of our English word “liturgy.”
One translation of latreuo is to perform a priestly duty, as when Hebrews 9 describes the “regulations of divine worship.”
Worship is not just a matter of regularly paying our dues by attending weekly rituals; it is a soundtrack for the rest of life. But Paul enjoys toying with these priestly connotations as he talks about the priesthood of all believers. Now that the temple curtain has been torn in two, he suggests, our “liturgy,” our “worshipful service,” extends into all areas of our lives, to all of our vocations.
Paul uses priestly puns in Romans 15, when he says God has sent him “to be a minister (leitourgos) of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” His most intriguing play on priestly imagery, three chapters earlier, gives translators fits. In Romans 12, Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
It’s hard to find two translations that agree on what to do with those last two words, the Greek logiken latreian. The NRSV renders them as “spiritual worship” and the NIV “spiritual act of worship,” though both translations have a footnote on “spiritual” that says “or reasonable” (the King James Version had it as “reasonable service”). Paul is clearly indulging the metaphor of priestly sacrifice, and blowing it open, as John Reumann writes in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible: ‘Paul is redefining the heart of Christian worship/religion as voluntary self-sacrifice, and that, he will make clear, is service to one another and to others in the world. No more ‘sacred precincts.'”
As he does so often, Eugene Peterson sheds light on this verse in his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message: “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life–your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life–and place it before God as an offering.”
Now that’s “worshipful service.” And that makes latreuo one of our most powerful and challenging words for “worship.”
Worship is not just a matter of regularly paying our dues by attending weekly rituals; it is “a soundtrack for the rest of life, the words and music and actions of worship inside the sanctuary playing the background as we live our lives outside, in the world,” as Thomas Long writes in Testimony. Long says, “The words of worship are like stones thrown into the pond; they ripple outward in countless concentric circles, finding ever fresh expression in new places in our lives.”
This definition of “worship,” the latreuo definition, might be put this way: “Don’t just sit there, do something!”
The biblical writers’ use of these different words for worship shows some telling creativity–and maybe even some subtle subversive impulses–says Karen Jobes in her appendix on words for “worship” in Moises Silva’s book Biblical Words and Their Meaning.
To Jobes, it is quite telling that the New Testament writers so seldom use those “seb-” words for “being religious”–eusebeo, sebomai, and sebazomai. Never once does eusebeo refer to the worship of God in the New Testament, though it often does in other first-century writings, such as those by the historian Josephus.
Jobes says the biblical writers may have been trying to redefine the way their audience heard words for “worship.” They tend to cast the “seb-” words for “worship” in a negative light: eusebeo is what the Athenians are doing in Acts 17; more horrifically, Jobes says the first-century writer Philo uses eusebeo to refer to child sacrifices offered to pagan gods. sebomai is the word for “worship” when Jesus quotes Isaiah in Mark 7: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me.” As Jobes observes, “The New Testament writers use sebomai always in a negative context to refer to the flawed or inadequate attempts at worship by a spiritually distant people.”
Meanwhile, sebazomai is the most harshly treated word for “worship” in the New Testament: it’s the word Paul uses in Romans 1 to condemn those who “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” This single New Testament instance of the word sebazomai was a lexical dig at Caesar Augustus–“Sebastos” was Greek for “Augustus” (“Revered”) and is a cognate of sebazomai. “The Christians of Rome could not miss this allusion to the imperial cult made by Paul through his lexical choice of the unusual verb form sebazomai,” Jobes contends.
Jobes’s conclusions are speculative, but they remind us that the word “worship” is an inherently muscular, active, and even subversive word. As Walter Bruggemann writes, “The affirmation of Yahweh always contains a polemic against someone else.” Expanding on this theme, John Witvliet writes in A More Profound Alleluia:
“It is important to remember that every act of praise is a strong act of negation as well as affirmation. Every time we sing praise to the triune God, we are asserting our opposition to anything that would attempt to stand in God’s place. Every hymn of praise is a little anti-idolatry campaign … When we sing ‘Praise God, from whom all blessings flow,’ we are also saying ‘Down with the gods from whom no blessings flow.”
Rather than the warped “worshipful service” of those who, in Paul’s words, “worship and serve [a] creature rather than the Creator,” we “worship the Lord your God and serve him only,” as Jesus quotes to Satan in Luke 4.
“Worship and serve” go together; the importance of service in all areas of life does not diminish the need for– much less excuse us from–being present and engaged in our worship rituals. “These two kinds of worship (worship in the broad sense and worship in the liturgical sense) are mutually interdependent. The stronger one is, the stronger the other will be,” Witvliet writes. “We need liturgical events to keep our worship in all of life focused.”
Our worship is praise, it is ritual and it is service. At its most vital, worship is never only praise, merely ritual, or disloyal service. Rather, whether in our public worship or our kingdom work, we live lives of worshipful service.