Worship is not just a distant theological concept. The more it becomes real to me, the more I am captivated by the reality of God's sovereignty. I have found that the clearer I am about worship, the more clearly I see God as King. The more I see God ruling from His throne, sovereign over all things, the more stunned and grateful I am for the work of the cross of Christ allowing me to draw near in worship.
In other words, the more I worship God, the better I understand His lordship and his kingdom, and the better I understand his kingdom—the more deeply I can worship. I am convinced that a proper understanding of worship is dependent upon understanding the reign of God and His kingdom advancing on the earth.
Through the obedient faith of Abraham, God established a relationship with the people of Israel. In complete contrast to the gods of other nations, the one true God demonstrated His rule through supernatural intervention. He set Israel free from their captivity in Egypt and He went behind and before them in pillar and cloud to show that He was personally involved in their lives. He set them apart as a worshiping state, an example and a light to all other nations.
The King of Heaven is not one to be taken lightly or ignored. He came with thunder, lightning, fire and earthquakes (Exod. 19:16-18). All nations took notice of this nation whose God was not dumb, deaf or blind, but who ruled in the midst of His people (Pss. 80:1; 99:1).
The songs of Moses and Miriam (Exod. 15:1-21) unlocked a cascade of worship. Rhythm, dancing and song centered on the majesty and rule of a God who displayed such power. Shining like a jewel at the heart of the Old Testament, the Psalter is a collection of worship, celebration, intercession and lament. It praises God's rulership over all peoples and the work of His hands, and it expresses worship that will continue into eternity.
Clap your hands, all you nations;
shout to God with cries of joy.
How awesome is the Lord Most High,
the great King over all the earth!
He subdued nations under us,
peoples under our feet.
He chose our inheritance for us,
the pride of Jacob, whom he loved.
God has ascended amid shouts of joy,
the Lord amid the sounding of trumpets.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
sing praises to our King, sing praises.
For God is the King of all the earth;
sing to him a psalm of praise.
God reigns over the nations;
God is seated on his holy throne.
The nobles of the nations assemble
as the people of the God of Abraham,
for the kings of the earth belong to God;
he is greatly exalted (Ps. 47).
A Different Kind of Worship
This adulation was not just a pious, corporate response to God’s majesty. The psalmists were personally engaged in worship as they submitted to the King.
Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God (Ps. 5:2).
You are my King and my God (Ps. 44:4).
Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
O Lord Almighty, my King and my God (Ps. 84:3).
I will exalt you, my God the King;
I will praise your name for ever and ever (Ps. 145:1).
This central notion of a God who is both a personal protector and a majestic King would continue all through the written law, history and prophecy of the Jewish nation, which we now know as the Old Testament.
In the presence of this King, mortals are undone. Isaiah catches a glimpse of the King on His throne and his response was to cry out "Woe to me! … I am ruined!" (Isa. 6:5). Ezekiel had "visions of God" and he fell on his face in submission before the Lord and his glory (Ezek. 1:1,28). Daniel, as well, saw God seated upon a throne, and he saw something else:
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like the son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into His presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed (Dan. 7:13-14).
The Messiah King
"One like the son of man" steps forward into the picture to approach the Ancient of Days. He is led into the presence of God. The sovereign ruler of the universe, the King on his throne, entrusts His kingdom into the hands of another, this Son of Man. God gives over the execution of His reign to this Messiah.
This is not some bargain made between the gods. It is the love expression within the Godhead itself, and the delight of a Father to a Son. Now not only is the Father King to be worshiped; now all must bow to kiss the Son and worship Him, for He too is King.
The One enthroned in heaven laughs, ...
saying, "I have installed my King
on Zion, my holy hill."
... He said to me, "You are my Son;
today I have become your Father.
Ask of me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.
You will rule them with an iron scepter,
you will dash them to pieces like pottery."
Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son, lest he be angry
and you be destroyed in your way,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him (Ps. 2:4-12).
He too is King, and this understanding allows us to grasp the impact and controversy of Jesus stepping into history proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1:15). All those heard this statement would have known that He was heralding the arrival of that which the prophets had promised and the nation longed to see.
Under the oppression of Roman rule, the expectations of a Messianic breakthrough were running high. The Jews knew that to be under God's sovereign rule would mean freedom from the Romans. They would be released from the oppression of natural rulers and their evil, and freed from Satan himself and the sin, destruction and death that the kingdom of darkness breeds. It was into this atmosphere of revelation and expectation that Jesus came, not just as a herald, but also as the King dwelling among His subjects.
We step forward with eyes of New Testament faith. We see Jesus as the full representation of the invisible King, containing all the fullness of God (Col. 1:15-20). Yet just as fully, He is a human being, walking through and facing down every struggle and temptation that humans encounter—without failure.
He is the perfect worshiper, and He shows us how to worship.
Just as God came down and delivered the Israelites from the hands of the Egyptians, Jesus came down to dwell with us and to liberate us from the works of Satan through His death on the cross and His resurrection. Just as God led his children into the Promised Land and established them there, so Jesus leads, establishes and builds a people on the earth who are under his kingdom rule. We live under the headship of Jesus, bowing before Him, full of hope. We know that as His kingdom increases, it will bring healing and deliverance, contentment and victory, and we follow Him as the perfect example of how to live life as worshipers of God who await the fullness of the coming kingdom. We live as citizens of a kingdom that is not bound to this earth, co-heirs with Christ and yet acknowledging that He is our Lord.
... Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father–to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen (Rev. 1:5-6).
To embrace Jesus is to embrace him as King. And though all things are subject to him, we do not yet see all things subject under his feet (Heb. 2:8) and we long for the Day when He will return in full majesty and splendor and usher in the eternal rule and reign of this kingdom. He will let us see Him in all His glory. With all residue of Satan’s dominion forever cleansed from us, we will step into eternal worship, entering into the delight of the Father over the Son as He receives all "… power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise" (Rev. 5:12).
It is here that the journey of worship begins and ends, on our faces before the King of Heaven. He originates worship and He is the sole focus of it. Many benefits come to the ones who humble themselves before Him, but they don't worship God for His benefits. True worshipers don't let worship become a commodity or a means to an end.
It is difficult to not take hold of this gift and use it for oneself. Even the one who led the angelic host in worship, Lucifer, could not resist the pull to use worship for his own ends and was cast out of heaven as a result. The truth is, worship is for God. To lose sight of Him, is to lose worship altogether.
To Give, Not to Get
More and more, I see the pressure in the organized church on those who carry responsibility for leading corporate worship. The worship they lead is supposed to save the lost, grow the church, create a culturally relevant atmosphere, prepare for the message, hold the youth, bring life to the liturgy, provide income through publishing and recording, etc. Worship can, and most often does release these dynamics in the life of community, but we must be careful that we do not lose God in the midst of it all. This can be a tough perspective to maintain in the midst of consumer-oriented cultures that teach us to become part of something in order to get more, rather than to give ourselves freely.
Worship is not about what's in it for me. As I lay my life down before Him, there are no observers. The resulting power of this kind of worship is not at the front in the midst of the worship team, or the choir, or the liturgist, but it is demonstrated among the people. It is here that God dwells. Even though He dwells in the courts of heaven with angels and living creatures in attendance, He condescends, as the King James version puts it, to "inhabit the praise of his people" (Ps. 22:3). Jesus is found in the midst of the congregation singing to the Father (Heb. 2:12), and as we draw near to God, He draws near to us (Jas. 4:8).
As the King draws near, so His kingdom comes. There is no room for idols here. All that is false will be exposed. True worship is not a cold liturgy devoid of power and life-changing implications. The King is here, and His kingdom is come.
At times we may become uncomfortable with this kind of worship encounter. This worship focuses on a God who is in the room. It does not revolve around a distant reality. Mingled with expressions of majesty and awe come declarations that sound awkwardly intimate and personal. Songs are not only about God, but are sung to God. Far from being inappropriate, such displays of adoration are a vital part of being authentic before God. The reality and presence of God is no longer out of reach. The kingdom is at hand and manifest among us.
The worship God is seeking is centered on the King and His kingdom. We must not be ashamed of worship that is authentic, even if it is not "culturally relevant." We must not become insecure in the midst of a society that is hostile toward God and his ways.
The Smell of Death
For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life (2 Cor. 2:15).
When some encounter God through us, they catch the aroma of life. But there will be those to whom our lives of worship before God will be as a death sentence. The honesty and simplicity of our devotion to Christ challenges their whole worldview, and they do not want to face God as King.
Are we sometimes uncomfortable with the smell of death that we carry? Do we think that if we just changed our worship or watered it down or hid it a bit more or packaged it better, then people would come? They may come, but what (and whom) are they are encountering when they come? It would seem that we are in danger of creating a church culture where aesthetics and entertainment become the watermark for a great worship experience, where God is there for our benefit, to meet our personal needs.
But worship is so central to the Church that we must evaluate it from God’s perspective and not our own. If it truly is for Him, then we must learn to recognize God’s desires and what delights Him when we worship. We must allow Him to set the liturgy and call out from us the life of worship that He is seeking.