What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about worshipping God? Do you imagine singing your favourite praise songs alongside other believers? Do you picture praying or reading the Bible—or perhaps even listening actively to a faithful sermon? Whatever the case, for most of us, when we think about worshipping God, it involves a small, specific list of activities. Furthermore, we tend to think these expressions of worship all usually happen at church, often requiring the presence of an ordained pastor to lead them.
These suggestions are all good and biblical, but do they tell the whole story? If we take time to think about the who, what and where of worship, how do we actually decide where these boundaries begin and end? More fundamentally, does it even matter?
The Apostle Paul gives Christians an interesting insight to worship in Romans 12:1-2, which helps guide our thinking:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
But what does it mean to be a living sacrifice? How does this relate—if at all—to our weekly gatherings? And what’s the best way to work through the implications of Paul’s view of worship? As overwhelming as these questions may seem, recognising that the Bible is one unfolding story about God’s plan to save his people and reunite them to himself gives us clear direction. We can look back and remember how he first dealt with his people in the beginning, and how Jesus work on the cross has transformed our relationship with him.
With that said, let’s take a few steps back and take in a big-picture view of how God teaches his people to worship throughout the pages of Scripture. The journey might just provide some of the answers we’re searching for.
Special places, special people
The tradition of God’s people meeting together goes back a long way. After delivering them from Egypt, one of the first things God did with Israel was to gather them at Mount Sinai: they assembled as his people to worship him, ready to receive his instruction and learn about the one who saved them (Exod 19-20). Later on in Exodus 24-31, the Bible lays out in vivid detail how the tabernacle was to be constructed. The tabernacle was supposed to be the place where God’s presence would dwell in the midst of his people—the holy place where his priests would conduct the community’s worship. Even later 1 Kings 6, Solomon builds a permanent tabernacle for worshipping God: the temple in Jerusalem. Throughout the year, Israelites would travel to Jerusalem to participate in festivals and pilgrimages, gathering together to worship in God’s name.
Two of the defining features of these gatherings were the Levite priests and their sacrifices. The Levites were the special Israelite tribe that God had set apart to serve as priests. They worshipped God primarily through sacrifices: every day, they would offer the blood of animals both to atone for sin and to thank God. The Levitical system was a messy business: as Hebrews 9:22 observes, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins”. Sin is costly, and God made sure his people were continually reminded of their unholiness and unworthiness to approach him through these sacrifices. Unless they purified themselves of their transgressions, Israel could not come near God.
That said, it’s important to remember that this whole system of worship involving the tabernacle, the temple, the Levites and the sacrifices was only a “copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb 8:5); they pointed to something far greater—something much more excellent (Heb 8:6).
At the coming of Jesus, everything changed. Whereas the Levite priests offered sacrifices in the tabernacle and the temple, Jesus, “high priest of the good things that have come”, entered “the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) … into heaven itself” (Heb 9:11-12, 24; cf. John 2:19-21). Whereas the Levite priests sacrificed goats, calves, bulls and heifers to atone for the sins of the people, Jesus sacrificed himself (Heb 9:12-14). Whereas the Levite priests were consigned to offer these sacrifices over and over again, Jesus offered himself once for all (Heb 9:25-26). Whereas imperfect priests had to atone for the blemishes of their own sins before they could intercede on behalf of others, Jesus was spotless and sinless, and needed no intercessor (Heb 7:26-28). Whereas human priests tended to die and were then replaced, Jesus is eternal: he defeated death and now sits in the heavenly temple, forever interceding on behalf of his people (Heb 7:23-25).
Now that we have such a great high priest who has offered the perfect sacrifice for all time, how should Christians worship God now? Where should we be worshipping him? Furthermore, do we need someone special to conduct our worship for us?
It’s significant that the Bible says that all who believe in Jesus’ name are now members of a royal priesthood who offer spiritual sacrifices to God (1 Pet 2:5). No longer do we come again and again to altars and basins, bringing with us the blood of animals; instead, we offer “spiritual sacrifices” (1 Pet 2:5), living out our lives in thankful service to the one who cleansed us and paid the full price of our sins.
What’s notable about these spiritual sacrifices and acts of worship is that the New Testament never defines them solely by our weekly church gatherings and events lead by ordained ministers. These regular gatherings are, of course, an irreplaceable part of a life lived in worship; after all, Hebrews 10:25 warns us not to neglect meeting together, and Hebrews 13:17 commands deep respect and submission towards our leaders. But Sunday church is not simply gathering for Jewish temple worship in a different building at a different time; its purpose is also for something more.
Having finally been cleansed from our sin once and for all by Jesus’ sacrifice, our bodies are now temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). This is because Jesus’ work of atonement gives us free access to the Father, tearing the dividing curtain in two (Heb 10:19-20; cf Matt 27:51; Eph 2:1-22). God’s presence no longer remains in the temple, separated from us in the holiest place, which we cannot enter; now he dwells in us by his Spirit (1 Cor 3:16, 6:19, 2 Cor 6:16, Rom 8:9-11). Because of this incredible honour, the Apostle Paul commands us to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). Notice that unlike previous sacrifices, which required the death of the one providing atonement, believers are living sacrifices. That makes worship a 24/7 activity in the life of the Christian!
So where do Christians worship?
So where are we to worship God? If Christians are now priests who continually worship God as living sacrifices, what does that mean for church? Well, the New Testament word ekklesia, which we translate “church”, simply means “gathering” or “assembly”. It’s a term that focuses on people, rather than a location or an object. After Paul exhorts us to be living sacrifices in Romans 12:1, his list of practical ways to do this revolves around the members of Christ’s body using their gifts to serve one another—for example, verses 4-8:
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
We read something similar in Ephesians 4:15-16:
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
The church is Christ’s chosen people. It is his body—a body that builds itself up in the Holy Spirit through loving service to one another, bringing the light of the gospel to the unbelieving world and encouraging its members to live for God with zeal as the final day of Jesus’ return draws near. This is what it means to present our bodies as living sacrifices and practise spiritual worship.
So where do we worship God? If we take our lead from Jesus himself, it seems we do it everywhere. Christ’s own ministry reflected a holistic, all-of-life view of worship. He came to do God’s will on earth, and what he modelled for his disciples was a life lived in worship and communion with the Father 24/7. This life was not lived solely in the synagogue; as Jesus worked, rested, ate, slept and engaged with both the faithful and the lost, he did everything to the glory of God.
This is a challenging and wonderful truth, and its implications deserve much more space than this article can afford. What does it look like to offer each moment of our days to God in adoration? What would we do differently to ensure that we worship God in every part of our lives? What would we choose not to do?
As we continue to work these things out, let’s not get weighed down by our shortcomings. Remember: Jesus gave himself as the perfect offering on our behalf precisely because we could never meet God’s standards by our own efforts.
Perhaps you could start by taking advice from one of the most influential evangelistic husband-and-wife teams of our time: Ruth and Billy Graham. They once remarked that they had been deeply inspired by a humble sign hanging over a sink in a simple Scottish family kitchen. The sign read: “Divine service will be conducted here three times daily”. So take each day step by step—starting from your most menial task and moving through your most treasured time with loved ones—and see where Christ-like worship takes you.
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