What is Worship?

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Based on a Bible Study by Dr Scott Aniol
Given at Providence Baptist Chapel Bedford – March 2022

What are we really doing when we gather for worship? This is a vital question we must answer from the Word of God. A question answered in many ways by different believers and churches (consider Hillsong, Bethel, Vineyard, Jesus Culture, Elevation churches across the world today and their diverse forms of worship). Why such a variety?


  • Some believe the main purpose we gather to worship is to attract unbelievers
  • For others the purpose might be spiritual revival
  • For some we gather for fellowship and to experience a sense of community
  • Others see the goal being to express praise to the Lord for all that He is and has done
  • Others want some sort of emotional experience
  • Some simply see worship as a duty to perform or a ritual

What does the Word of God identify as the central goal of our worship?  Ephesians 21:11-22 beautifully pictures God’s intent. It helps us to understand what we should be doing as we gather. In Paul’s letter, he describes the nature of the gospel. People that come to faith in Jesus Christ, from Jewish or Gentile (non-Jew) backgrounds are brought near to God and into communion with Him. They are then being built into a habitation for God and being changed into a holy temple to the Lord. Why does Paul use this metaphor, a temple, to describe the church? The temple metaphor is not coincidental.


The gathered New Testament church is the dwelling place for the Spirit of God today, in the same way that Israel’s temple was God’s dwelling place in the Old Testament economy. The Bible also teaches that we as individual Christians are a temple of the Holy Spirit, but in Ephesians 2 the focus is on the collective church. Notice what Paul says in 2:21 “in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto a holy temple in the Lord”.


This description of the gathered church is not unique to Ephesians 2. Paul says something similar in 1 Corinthians 3:19 “we are God’s temple”. We note that in Ephesians 2 and 1 Corinthians 3 the pronouns are plural. He’s talking about Christ’s church (see also 2 Corinthians 6:16). Peter says something similar in 1 Peter 2:25. Each of these texts describe the gathered church as a spiritual house, as a holy temple unto the Lord.


So why do these New Testament authors all use the image of a temple to picture the gathered church? What happens in a temple? In this living temple, built by the Spirit of God and indwelt by Him, worship takes place. Worship is not a duty to perform out of obedience for God. It is not simply expressing our hearts in praise to the Lord or having an emotional experience.  

A Hillsong Church Service in Los Angeles

The Old Testament temple was first called a tabernacle, then later the Lord called it His sanctuary. He told Moses in Exodus 25 “let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell in their midst.” This communicated the idea of something consecrated and set apart to protect the holiness of God from the uncleanness of everyday life.  No uncleansed or uncircumcised person could enter the holy sanctuary. He gave crystal clear, specific instructions for how His sanctuary was to be built, cared for and what was required before a person entered. All the elements had to be regularly cleansed by the priests and sinful worshipers must offer sacrifices of atonement before entering. God specifically commands this in Leviticus 19:30 “you shall reverence my sanctuary; I am the Lord.”


The idea of set-apartness is at the core of what the sanctuary was. It is then extended to the church, as God’s living temple. Ephesians 2:21 calls the church a holy temple in the Lord; 1 Timothy 3:15 then establishes a particular way to behave in the church because it is set apart. The assembled church, as Christ’s temple and as His sanctuary, requires a unique kind of behaviour, different from all other behaviours of life.  As individual Christians we are the temple of the Holy Spirit and must behave in ways that are holy and pleasing to the Lord.


As the gathered church, in a special and distinct way, the sanctuary is to be the place where God’s presence is known, and His people behave differently. It is vital that what we do in the church, is regulated only by God’s clear instructions in His Word.  The worship that takes place when we come together is not about a building or place. It is about His gathered people, the holy temple of God.


This description of the temple not only carries the weight of it being the sanctuary of God, but also helps us recognise another clear description of the temple. In the Old Testament several passages called it the house of God and His dwelling place. Many passages use the same language to describe the temple e.g., 2 Chronicles 3:3: “Solomon built the house of God”.  The temple is where God dwells with His people. Jacob called the place where he met with God Bethel, which means ‘house of God’. A house is a place where you meet with someone, dwell with them, and where you fellowship with them. This emphasises that not only was Israel’s temple a sanctuary it was also a dwelling place for God. A place where they met with him.


Unsurprisingly the New Testament also refers to the church as God’s house e.g. 1 Timothy 3:15 calls the church “the household of God”. In Galatians 6:10 Paul calls it “the household of faith” and in Hebrews 10:21 “the house of God”. It’s why in Hebrews 10:25 “we must not forsake the assembling of ourselves together”. The Lord Jesus also told His disciples in Matthew 18:20, when teaching of the nature of the church and discipline, when the church gathers “where two or three are gathered in his name there Christ is in their midst”. Before Paul calls the church God’s holy temple, he says we are fellow citizens with the saints and of the household of God, being built together for a habitation of God.


Therefore, these three principles establish the nature of what the gathered church is:

  1. We are a holy set apart people, a dwelling place for God;
  2. We gather as the church and as God’s temple; and
  3. We gather to meet with God for communion and fellowship.

However, a problem emerges if the church is God’s temple, the dwelling place of God, and God’s holy sanctuary. How can sinners enter?  Ephesians 2 addresses this issue. Paul connects the condition of unbelievers with the uncircumcised in the Old Testament, who were unable to enter Israel’s sanctuary. He contrasts them with those who are “nigh”. This is a term he used to indicate those who are able into enter the sanctuary as opposed to those who are far off and cannot enter. But in 2:13 he says: “in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ”.  This is the language of the gospel, where we find forgiveness of sin, and come near to God, able to enter His presence, and His sanctuary. Christ came and preached peace to you who were far off and to them that were nigh.

The Tabernacle in the Wilderness

Ephesians 2:18 is a beautiful test. “For through him, that is through Christ, we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father”. This is the central message of the gospel. We sinners who were far off now have access to the presence of God, through faith in the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ. The gospel and the church’s worship are connected.  See Paul’s logic: we sinners were once far off, unable to draw near to the sanctuary of God’s presence, but now through Christ in the Spirit we have access, we can draw near. We are no longer strangers and foreigners but fellow citizens with the saints and of the household of God. There’s the phrase again, signifying the place of meeting with God is in His temple, His dwelling place. The emphasis in Ephesians 2 is even more than having access to the actual presence of God. The goal of the worship is to enable us to draw nigh unto God and into His presence, in His house, in His temple, where we are then able to have open and free fellowship and communion with God. That’s the nature of what we’re doing when we gather for worship. Hebrews 10:19 “having therefore brethren boldness to enter into the holiest, by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way with which he hath consecrated for us through the veil that is to say his flesh and having an high priest over the house of God let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith”.  The author deliberately uses Old Testament worship language to describe the nature of the gospel. Because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and because He is our high priest, we can draw near to God and fellowship with Him. The goal of the gospel is to form a temple where God’s people meet with Him. This is only possible through the sacrificial atonement of Christ. The primary purpose when we gather for worship is to fellowship with God through Christ’s sacrifice. This understanding of our purpose has very significant implications when we come together to worship as His church.
  1. Worship is primarily for believers
Corporate worship is for believers, those whose sins have been forgiven and been given access into the presence of God. Those who can draw near to God are members of the household of God and are part of the temple.  Only believers can truly commune with God. This doesn’t mean we forbid unbelievers from gathering with us. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14 that believers gathering to meet with God is profoundly evangelistic. Unbelievers see that we are meeting with God and when the Holy Spirit works in their hearts, they will acknowledge “The Lord is among you”. When unbelievers come, they come as witnesses, to hear and be exposed to the gospel. They don’t come to participate in worship because they are not in the presence of God, unable yet to gain access into His presence. Perhaps even more relevant in our present age, we must never design corporate worship based on what unbelieving people want. We are not to take a poll of unbelievers and say what do you want the church to be like. No more than what took place in Israel’s temple was based on what the uncircumcised pagans wanted. No, corporate worship is for believers to meet with God, according to the instructions that He has given to us in His Holy Word.
  1. Worship is relational
Based on this imagery, corporate worship is also relational. We don’t gather simply to go through a series of rituals. We meet to cultivate, nurture, and grow our relationship with God. This is the emphasis of Ephesians 2. The whole passage is a description of God building a temple, by His Spirit, and it expresses these realities in relational terms. The gospel that results in this temple is not just a legal transaction, or a ticket to heaven. It is a reconciliation of our relationship with God. We gain access to God, through Christ. We are then welcomed into His presence. When we gather, we come to develop and grow that relationship that we now have through Christ.
  1. Worship is formational
Corporate worship is also meant to be formational, for the edification of our souls, even as believers who have access to God through Christ are members of God’s household. We are members of His living temple, even though we freely admit that our relationship with God is not perfect. It is still growing, maturing, and deepening. We must continually work to cultivate and mature a closer relationship with God. We allow His Word to correct us and to sanctify how we approach and respond to Him. We are to do this through personal bible study and prayer, but corporate worship is also given to help to mature our relationship with God. The Word of God is inspired scripture and “profitable for teaching and correcting us and reproving us and instructing us in righteousness”. It is the gospel that continues to sanctify us.  Paul teaches in Titus 2:11-12 that the grace of God is the saving grace that shows salvation to all people.  The gospel of grace also commands us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and to live soberly and righteously in this present age.  The gospel that saves is also the gospel that sanctifies. The gospel that reconciled us to God, enabling us to draw nigh unto God, is also the same gospel that continues to grow and cultivate our relationship with God. The gospel must be prevalent in our corporate worship. When we gather for corporate worship, we are renewing ourselves in the gospel.
  1. Worship is covenant renewal
Historically Christians often referred to corporate worship as “covenant renewal”. A way for believers to renew their covenant with God. We are to renew our covenant promises regularly. The image of a marriage perfectly depicts this, as a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and His church.  A man and a woman commit to one another on their wedding day, in a way akin to our salvation. God makes a commitment to save us, out of His great love. We make a commitment to love and serve Him. Baptism (and Church Membership) are like our wedding vows where we formalise that covenant relationship in the presence of witnesses. Once the two are married that doesn’t change until death parts. But the relationship between a husband and wife rises and falls over time. Many things can harm that relationship and many things can rekindle it. Your personal devotional time with the Lord each day, your reading of the scriptures and prayer is like a husband and wife having a conversation with one another. It’s very important to renew and grow that relationship.  Some married couples renew their wedding vows from time to time, repeat the same vows to one another. Those vows don’t get them married again but by repeating them they help to remind and renew their love for each other. In a very similar way, corporate worship is like renewing our gospel vows to Christ. Corporate worship renews our vows and assures us of pardon through the sacrifice of Christ. When we come together for worship, we come to reform our hearts and renew our relationship with God.  The hymns chosen, prayers prayed, and scriptures read should all help to express worship to the Lord absolutely, but also to form our hearts, to grow our hearts, to mature our hearts. Everything about the service is meant to edify, to form, to convict, to comfort, but in all cases to grow our relationship with God.   Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-chief of G3 Ministries and Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary. He is a teacher of culture, worship, aesthetics, and church ministry philosophy, he lectures around the country in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. He holds a masters degree in Theological Studies, a masters degree in Aesthetics (NIU), and a PhD in Worship Ministry. #worship #worshipwars #adoration #bedford #churchmusic #worshipsongs #reformedworship #music #hymns #psalms #worshippers #trueworship #worshipleader #bedfordchurches #bedfordchapel

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