An All-Too-Common Misunderstanding
Wherever I’ve traveled—whether it be Australia, South Africa, India, the UK, Latin America, or somewhere in the United States—I’ve found that worship is almost universally understood to mean singing with a congregation or the music associated with it.
Pastors make sure the worship doesn’t go too long to leave enough time for the sermon. Worship leaders try to set a worshipful mood as church members straggle in to worship. We listen to worship albums and go to worship concerts. We attend worship conferences and buy worship t-shirts. Young musicians aspire to use their talents in worship bands and maybe become worship artists someday.
While undeniable benefits have come from the worship music explosion, it’s easy to misunderstand the relationship between biblical worship and music.
Music can be a part of worship, but it was never meant to be the heart of it.
In his conversation with the woman at the well, Jesus described the kind of worshiper God is seeking:
But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. (John 4:23)
Jesus isn’t limiting our worship to a time of singing, or even a meeting. In fact, that’s one of the things he wants to set straight. The woman thought the choice of where to worship was between Mt. Gerizim, where the Samaritan temple was located, and the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Jesus offers another option.
He doesn’t say that place doesn’t matter, but that there’s a new place. That place is in Jesus himself, the one who is the Truth (John 14:6). He is the new temple in which people from every nation can now approach God to give him the honor he is due (Mark 14:58; John 2:18-22). He is now our means of access and the one who makes our worship acceptable to God (Hebrews 10:19-22; 1 Peter 2:4-5).
When we believe Jesus died as our substitute on the cross, receiving God’s wrath against our sins to purchase our forgiveness and adoption into his family, we can be confident not only that our worship is accepted, but that everything we do can be an act of worship.
To expand that point, here are some further implications of Jesus’s words to the woman at the well.
1. Worship is not primarily about giving to God, but receiving.
Worship isn’t something we begin. It’s existed from all eternity as the three persons of the Triune God have enjoyed perfect communion from eternity. Worship is God inviting us into that relationship. We do not approach God based on our own choice or ability. It takes God to worship God. Not only does God draw us and enable us to appreciate his beauty and authority, he also reveals himself to us in his Word.
2. Worship is exalting God with my entire life, not just my singing.
Worship isn’t primarily about an experience, mood, or atmosphere. It’s about making much of the authority, goodness, and holiness of God as seen in Jesus Christ. I can do that while I’m eating, drinking, driving, studying, talking, working, or playing. Any time, really.
3. Worship is meant to be a community activity.
Inside or outside of a meeting, worship involves not only our relationship with God but also our relationships with those he has reconciled to himself through the blood of Christ. If worship is now in and through Christ, I am inextricably linked to everyone else in the family. They’re not a hindrance to my worship; rather, they’re an essential part of it.
We worship God together whether we want to or not.
4. Worship is an encounter with the living God.
God’s presence has always been a defining characteristic of God’s people. As Christians, we should be keenly aware of God’s promise to be with us and to be active among us. And we should long for the day when God will reveal himself fully to us in heaven.
5. Worship in this life is only a foretaste of what is to come.
While worship in the new heavens and new earth will certainly include singing, it will be much more than merely singing. Every activity will be carried out for one purpose: to magnify the glory and grace of God. Reflecting on that reality should only motivate us to greater godliness, greater gratitude, and greater joy today.
In summary, yes, music is a part of worship. But let’s not miss the grander and more glorious vision of worship God has graciously given us in Jesus Christ.