What’s the Big Deal with Worship?

What does gathered worship do?  Sometimes it can make our souls soar.  Other times not so much.  It is easy to understand why non-believers scratch their heads at Christian worship.  If I saw a small group of people awkwardly singing, listening to someone talk about an old book, and sharing a tiny amount of bread and wine, I’d scratch my head too.

As I anticipate returning to Poland for the European Leadership Forum, I am reminded of the sacrifices made by so many during the Communist era.  Russian Baptist pastor, Yuri Sipko, remembers Christians who were sent to prison camps or lost their jobs or their children. “Without being willing to suffer, even die for Christ, it’s just hypocrisy.  It’s just a search for comfort.”  Challenging words, but ponder this thought: “You need to confess him and worship him in such a way that people can see this world is a lie.”

What does gathered worship do?  It declares that this world is a lie.

At the end of Revelation 3, we find that famous verse about Jesus standing at the door and knocking.  He was knocking on the door of the church at Laodicea, but would they open the door and let him in?  They thought they had everything they needed, but actually, they desperately needed Jesus.  As we turn to chapter 4 and John’s great vision from Jesus continues, we find the heavenly door is open for John to come up and participate in the ultimate worship gathering.

In Revelation chapters 4-5, we get to glimpse the ultimate worship gathering, and it reminds us what gathered worship does.  Here are five things that gathered worship does:

1. Worship centres us around God’s throne. (4:1-2)  In worship, we are invited, by Jesus, to gather at the throne of God.  In Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder, he points out how we live in a world that feels like a storm-tossed sea.  We are thrown all over the place by every wind, every wave, every advert, every news story, every problem, and every threat.  But as Christians, we have an anchor that holds us firm, gives us a circumference, and centres us.  God is on the throne, so there can be a constant source of stability in my heart and life. Gathering with God’s people to sing his praise is an anchor point in the frenetic chaos of life.

2. Worship gathers God’s people around his throne. (4:3-11)  In this glorious vision, there is layer upon layer of rich meaning.  The vibrant colours seem to reflect God’s holiness and justice, as well as his life-giving nature as the Creator.  The 24 elders probably represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of the Church (there is debate on all these details, of course).  Perhaps they represent God’s great work through the centuries to reveal his plan and rescue people for himself.  Then there are the four living creatures – a picture of God’s creation (noble, strong, wise, and swift), and some have seen here four glimpses into the person of Jesus Christ.  God’s people, God’s creation, all falling down and worshipping God on the throne.  In worship, we are united together, not only with one another but also with God himself, in the uniquely trinitarian worship we find in the Bible.

3. Worship points us to Christ and his payment. (5:1-7) At the start of chapter 5, John is struck by the disconnect between God’s greatness and the need of humanity.  The sealed scroll, Earth’s title deed, God’s plan of judgment – its existence underlines that no human is worthy to open the seals.  Even apart from the judgment context of Revelation, our gathered worship cannot be satisfied with just lauding God the Creator for his power and majesty.  Christian worship always points us to Christ and his payment.  John turned to see the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and was confronted by the slain Lamb.

4. The Lion/Lamb Redeemer stirs greater songs of worship. (5:8-13)  When God’s people encounter God’s goodness and grace, they sing.  Moses, Miriam, Deborah, David, Mary, Angels, Jesus and the Disciples, Paul and Silas – they all sang.  When we become aware of who he is and what he has done, then we will sing too.  In chapter four, there were two songs to the Creator (4:8, 4:11).  Now the singing swells as more voices join in and more richness is reflected in two songs to the Redeemer (5:9-10, 5:12).  Finally, there is one song to both the Creator and the Redeemer combined (5:13).

5. Worship finishes with a great Amen! – the ultimate reality of God’s person and plan is definitively affirmed!  (5:14)  If you think about it, we humans have a history of saying no to God.  We are all quite adept at saying no.  But Revelation 4-5 underlines that in the end God’s great yes will overcome every one of our noes.  In worship, we are confronted by the reality of God the Creator King on his throne, and of God the Redeeming Lion/Lamb, and we cry out, “Yes!”  When we worship together, we get a pre-taste of what is to come.  “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Gathered worship is like an anchor to both the future, when all our questions will be answered, and to the ultimate reality in the present – that God is on the throne and he has redeemed us.

So what does gathered worship do?  It declares that this world is a lie.  More than that, it centres us around the throne of God – for God is on the throne whatever we may be facing down here.  It gathers God’s people around his throne – for God is worthy of every note of praise that can be uttered by any part of his creation.  It points us to Christ and his payment – for we worship not only in response to the majesty on the throne but also to the scars on that Lamb.  It stirs us to sing greater songs of worship – for God the Creator and our Lion/Lamb Redeemer.  It definitively affirms the ultimate reality of God’s person and plan – for in the end we will cry out our great “Yes!” and “Amen!” to God.

Whether we are gathering in a great crowd at a Christian event, or with a handful of dear saints on a Sunday, let us appreciate the privilege of gathered worship and declare with joy that this world is a lie.


Sipko quote from Live Not By Lies, by Rod Dreher, p185-6.


Growing Worship

Genesis is the book of foundations.  It lays down so many foundational truths on which the rest of the Bible can helpfully build.  For example, consider the life of Abraham.  His is the first extended biographical narrative in the Bible.  His story is about as far removed from our world as can be – geographically, culturally, religiously, technologically – and yet, it all feels so strangely relevant.  This is not surprising; God is a great communicator and knows exactly how to introduce us to the concept of living a life of faith in a God and his good-promise plan.

I recently revisited the most famous story in the epic biography of Abraham – Genesis 22.  So much had already happened in the preceding chapters.  God had called Abram to give up everything and go to an as-yet-unspecified location.  And then the rollercoaster of Abram’s growing faith takes us through some real highs and surprising lows.  There is the daring battle and rescue of Lot, his nephew, later followed by intercession as Lot’s town faced imminent judgment.  There is the powerful covenant scene in the darkness after the declaration of Abram’s belief in God’s promise.  But there is also the repeated risking of Sarah’s life with foreign kings, not to forget the turmoil created by having a child with Sarah’s maidservant.  Finally, after many years, the child of promise arrives to change the tone of the laughter in the family tent.  Abraham’s story is a rollercoaster of growing and struggling faith in a good God – and so is our story.

Coming to Mt Moriah – After all the ups and downs, we arrive at Genesis 22.  Back in chapter 12, Abraham had been called to go, to leave everything, and to journey to a yet-unspecified location.  Now in chapter 22, he is again called to go to an unknown location and to give up everything.  Before, his life included a whole host of people and the perks of life in sophisticated Ur.  Now, everything was wrapped up in the breathing body of his long-promised son. 

Abraham’s story teaches us that life is not about continual novelty.  God repeats and restates his promise, Abraham repeats the same struggles and sins, and God is repeatedly gracious.  We see God again calling Abraham to give up everything, just like He had asked at the beginning, and also not just like that – this felt much bigger. 

Your life, and mine, is not filled with brand new experiences and lessons.  How often do we despair when we slide back into the same old struggles, and yet how often do we get to marvel at God’s patient kindness in lovingly rescuing us and helping us learn the same lessons at deeper levels?  When the gospel first stirred our hearts, we were called to leave everything and follow him, so why are we surprised if years later we are again called to give up yet more in order to follow him even more closely?  As the years pass, the light of God’s goodness shines deeper into the corners of our lives.

So, the story of Genesis 22 unfolds in a masterpiece of ancient storytelling.  The writer underlines the pain of God’s call as he labours over the identification of the sacrifice in verse 2 – “it is your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love.”  The writer piles verb upon verb in verses 3-4 to give a sense of the progressing action as Abraham obeys God’s call.  The writer slows the progression of the narrative as Abraham’s hand is held high over Isaac, bound on the altar in verse 10.  It really is brilliant storytelling.  Perhaps most telling is what the storyteller omits – specifically, Abraham’s feelings.  We read of his unflinching obedience, but our hearts break as we read it.  Perhaps the writer did not mention Abraham’s feelings because no words could ever describe them adequately?  Perhaps because any empathetic reader would already know better than words could convey?

As we reflect on Genesis 22, here are three thoughts to ponder prayerfully for our journey of faith in God today:

1. Genesis 22 is about worship.

Christianity is a uniquely diverse global worship movement.  Across the globe, every week, millions of people gather to sing in worship to God.  Since singing is so central to our ongoing experience of faith, it is easy to assume that our worship consists entirely in our shared singing.  However, the Bible does not restrict the concept of worship to our shared harmonization of heartfelt truths.  The Bible speaks of worship also in terms like Romans 12:1, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice . . . this is your spiritual act of worship.”  And so perhaps there is no better passage to get us thinking straight about worship than Genesis 22.  Abraham was called not to murder his son, but to make an offering of him to God.  Abraham himself spoke of their plan to “go and worship” (v5). 

Genesis 22 is about worship.  And it makes clear that worship, our expressed response of devotion, adoration and honour to God, involves more than singing.  Abraham was called to leave everything and live for God back in chapter 12.  But now, years later, he is again called to live for God by giving everything to him.  What will it look like for you to worship God today?  Perhaps you look back on your conversion and see a greater fervour in your expression of worship.  But this story does not urge a return to our first love.  It invites us to a more costly, deeply-felt sacrificial offering of our everything to God. Worship means giving God everything.

2. Genesis 22 is about faith.

There is no doubt that this story is the high point of Abraham’s biography as the father of faith.  But what is the nature of that faith?  Notice that in verse 5 he tells his servants that he and the boy will “go worship and come again to you.”  Hebrews 11:17-19 reveals that Abraham had faith that God would raise Isaac from the dead.  After all, he had been born out of the death of Sarah’s womb, so why wouldn’t God be able to do it again?  Also notice that in verse 8 he tells Isaac that “God will provide.”  Abraham could not know exactly what would happen, but he seemed to know exactly who was in charge.  After God provided the ram, Abraham speaks again, naming the place “The LORD will provide” (v14).

The only way you and I can really worship God today, if worship means giving everything to God, is if we have faith that God himself will provide.  Can I give up this relationship that the Spirit of God is calling me to walk away from?  (That is not your marriage, but it could be an unhealthy friendship that threatens your future or present marriage!)  God will provide.  Can I give up this promotion and the security that may come with it in order to live out my spiritual values, even though I need that greater salary?  God will provide.  Can I give sacrificially when I don’t even know how expensive everything will become in the next months?  God will provide.  Worship means giving everything to God, trusting in his giving character.

3. Genesis 22 is about God.

The ultimate worship question is the Mt Moriah question.  If worship is about giving our everything to God, and if that requires faith in God’s giving, then let’s ask the Mt Moriah question.  Who gave up everything on Mt Moriah?  Abraham was willing, but was spared by a God-given sacrifice.  Years later, God himself brought his son, his only son, whom he loved, Jesus, to Mt Moriah.  God was willing, and did not spare his own son, but made him the God-given sacrifice for us.  God really did provide. 

And that brings us to the heart of worship.  It is our expressed response of devotion, adoration and honour to God.  We cannot work it up in ourselves by practice or by determination.  It is a response.  So, we must look to Mt Moriah.  We worship by giving our everything to God, because he first gave his everything for us. 

Worship is so costly.  It cost God everything.