Worship Theology - Article 3

Article By Professor Courtney Rose

What comes to mind when you think of the word “worship”? 

In many of our contexts in the modern church, worship is something only associated with music or perhaps Sunday morning services.  


As worship leaders, there can be great temptation to think of yourself within these terms.  Yet the Scriptures teach us that worship is a multifaceted thing.  There are many ways to worship and to be a person who leads others in worship carries a burden to lead people not just in music, but in worship and partnership with the creator and sustainer of the universe. 

The good news is that while this is a heavy responsibility, God gives grace and meets us where we are.  We don’t have to lead people through the wilderness to reach a mountain where God’s presence is dwelling in order to be considered worship leaders. Today, we have the great gift of simply gathering together as a body and entering the ever-present Spirit of God. We guide people into recognizing God’s generous presence and adore God for who he is and what he does.


The Scriptures teach us that one of the most important moments of worship in the whole Bible narrative takes place at Mt. Sinai.  The events that take place here with God, Moses, and the people of Israel lay the foundation for a theology of worship.  When most people get to this portion of Scripture, they understandably get overwhelmed by the text.  It can get boring because the text is literally a legal document! Yet hidden within the lists and legal codes is something beautiful: A partnership between God and Humanity.


What a mysterious thing this covenant is.  The God of creation pursues a people to remain close to them, provide for them, and fight for them.  All God asks in return is faithfulness and obedience to the laws he provides. In initiating covenant with the Israelite people, he is creating a new thing.  Just as God is the creator of the universe, here too he begins a new work of creation by partnering with humanity.  In the creation accounts of Genesis, God grants responsibility and work to humankind that leads to deeper connection between creator and creation.  At Mt. Sinai, God creates a new nation tasked with specific ways of living that will draw them more deeply into relationship with God and humanity.


The new nation established during the covenant at Mt. Sinai is now called “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Samuel E. Balentine in his book, The Torah’s Vision of Worship, calls Israel a nation with a “vocation.” This vocation often functions opposite to rest of the nations and the world.  Israel is meant to be, look, and act different than others because they’re calling is different.  They are called to be a light to others, and they are called to a deep humility.  

The Israelites are not a nation of kings, they are a nation of servants. The 10 Commandments given in Exodus 20 are the overarching rules they live by. Further, the decalogue has at its heart the command to “keep the sabbath holy.”  In placing this command at the center of the list, God told the Israelites to keep worship at the center of their lives (Exodus 20:8-11). The Israelites in their worship of God and adherence of the Laws have the opportunity to partner with God.  Just as God created the Sabbath, so too humans now have the privilege of partnering with God by maintain the holy day.  God began a work and we carry on with the task of honoring the Sabbath. Balentine also remarks that in the creation account of Genesis, the creation of the Sabbath marked the end of God’s creative acts and ushered in the time of humanity’s partnering work with the creator.  God turns his attention toward humanity to see what they will do with their partnership and all that he has lain before him. 


While Sabbath observance is found at the heart of the decalogue, the other 9 commandments are structured in a way that helps the Israelites understand how they are supposed to relate to God and to others.  The first four commandments teach the Israelites how to love God and remain a moral nation, the remaining six commandments turn the focus onto the world.  The point for the Israelites was that they were to love God first and foremost yet remember that partnership with God meant interacting with the world.  For the Israelites, to love God means that you must learn to love your neighbor. 

In several parts of the Law, loving your neighbor meant working justice in the world. While many of the ordinances handed down to the Israelites are specifically focused on the priesthood, God also places enormous emphasis on the poor and disenfranchised in Israelite society.  The poor, the widow, and the orphan all matter to God and therefore, his covenanted children Israel are to partner with God and to work out their care in the world. 


In the design of creation God put his image into humankind.  We bear his image for the world to see and react to. To be a human is to image God to the world.  In the same way, the Israelites who participated in the covenant were so connected and intertwined with the divine that their actions now imaged God in the world.  Particularly, as they obeyed the Law, the Israelites were simultaneously imaging their creator and covenant partner in the world.  


To be ethical as prescribed by the law and to live a holy life in worship to God and to show that love by living holiness out in the world through addressing the injustice around you. Ballentine says it this way, “They are to love God exclusively (vv 4-8) and they are to manifest this commitment to ‘god by engaging in acts of compassionate justice for all human beings (vv. 9-18).”

With the resurrected Jesus Christ the covenant has been completely fulfilled.  As Christians, we are the New Israel.  We are now the priesthood of believers who are holy and living as servants in God’s Kingdom.  Yet the same partnership God inaugurated with the Israelites remains today; God desires that we image him in the world and live out holy lives in such a way that it extends to bringing justice to all those who matter to God. 


In a world that seems to be ever divided, the Kingdom of God remains paradoxical.  To love God means that you devote your heart and obedience to him while also loving your neighbor so much that you work to bring justice to the world.  There are some who will try to separate the two.  Some will emphasize that we must simply “worship” God, devote ourselves to God, and love God as our primary goal.  To those individuals, justice is viewed as a secondary issue.  We can get off the hook because justice is work out in the world, whereas true worship is simply setting our eyes upon God.  Such understandings of worship are false and are not rooted in the covenantal understanding of worship.  To worship God is to love and obey him and partner with him to work justice in the world. The two cannot be separated.  


Worship is supposed to be central to our lives as the 10 Commandments model. The reality of life is that we can’t spend every moment of our day in a beautiful Sunday service. We have to go out and live our lives.  Yet, we are charged with keeping worship at our core. In the same way, we cannot spend all of our energy working in the world without time to reflect on and adore our covenant partner, God. We need both areas of worship in our lives.


The Salvation Army is in a strange place where both aspects of worship are a part of our identity, yet in many communities and congregations the two forms of worship are almost entirely separate from one another.  This also seems to be contrary to God’s intention for worship. As worship leaders, we must be sensitive to try to reflect and lead worship in both areas.  The good news is that our gracious God is a great teacher, equipper, and provider.  The amazing thing about having God as a covenant partner is that God never fails.  God’s intention in creation, covenant, and restoration is that he desires relationship with his creation.  God initiated the covenant and partnering in building the Kingdom here on earth, he will not abandon you in your efforts.