Course: Essentials of Worship
Lecture: Principle 1
With that as sort of background, some misconceptions, some basic terms, let’s turn to a number of key biblical principles concerning the practice of worship. I would like to present a number of these and I will number them as we go. After we have walked through the principles, in a future session, a later point here in our discussion, we will consider some implications from these principles for the practice of worship in the church today.
Principle #1: Worship always involves revelation and response.
A. Definition of Worship
All worship involves these two things in a dynamic relationship, revelation and response. To say that more fully, worship is initiated by God, who graciously reveals Himself to us and we respond in faithful ways. So, worship is the revelation of a gracious God, the initiator of the worship experience, and the faithful response of grateful and obedient worshipers. Worship always involves revelation and response.
If we go back to the definition that we offered a moment ago for worship, saying worship is bowing all that we are before all that God is, that definition itself has built into it this idea of revelation and response. So, bowing down is our response. Bowing down what, part of us? No, bowing down all that we are. That is our faithful response to all that God is as He has revealed Himself to us — His person, His deeds, His will for our lives. All that God has revealed to us we must faithfully respond to.
So, perhaps another way to define worship would be to say, worship is our faithful response to God’s gracious revelation. These are definitions of worship that are, of course, a little bit idealized. This is what worship ought to be, not necessarily a description of where we are in our present experiences of worship, but where we ought to be, faithfully responding to God’s gracious revelation, bowing all that we are before all that God is.
B. Key Texts
To illustrate the idea of revelation and response as fundamental to worship, let’s consider some key Bible texts. Let me introduce us to three of these.
1. Deuteronomy 6:4-5
First there is Deuteronomy 6:4-5, very famous verses. Deuteronomy 6:4, of course, is often called the Shema, from the Hebrew; the first word in that Hebrew sentence in Deuteronomy 4 is the Hebrew imperative shema’ – “Listen,” shema’ yisra’el adonai ‘elohe’nu adonai ‘echad. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one, the Lord is one.”
In Deuteronomy 6:4 we have, in many respects, the most fundamental revelation about God in all the Bible. Certainly in the Hebrew Bible, this is understood to be a basic revelation about the one true God. He is the Lord, He is one, He is one.
Immediately following upon the heels of that profound revelation comes this imperative in Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength.” Revelation and response, see how these work together.
If the revelation is true that there is one God, and He is Yahweh, then the response that fits that revelation, the response that is faithful and appropriate to that revelation, is that all that we have — heart, soul, strength, mind — all that we are must be directed toward Him in love. Revelation and response is very clear in Deuteronomy 6:4-5.
2. Romans 12:1
This is very clear also in the New Testament passage, Romans 12:1 — one of the most important New Testament verses addressing the issue of worship and very familiar to us in the church. Paul pleads with his readers in Romans 12:1 by saying, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercies, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God; this is your spiritual (or reasonable) act of worship.” Therefore, in view of God’s mercies, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God.
So, here we see that Paul is putting before the reader’s eyes this revelation of God’s mercy. Now where has that been illustrated? Perhaps, especially, from what has just preceded in Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11, but, I think actually the entire first eleven chapters of the Book of Romans. Romans 1-11 are all an unfolding of God’s profound mercy toward us. He builds the argument that Jews and Gentiles alike are under the guilt of sin and under the condemnation that comes from that guilt.
But, then he goes on to say that God has offered to both Jews and Gentiles a marvelous salvation in Jesus Christ. In view of that great mercy, he says, turning to the practical parts of the letter, chapter 12 and beyond, that has been showered upon us and revealed to us in Jesus, here is our response — offer our bodies, your bodies, living sacrifices, holy, acceptable to God. This is real, true, spiritual worship. Revelation and response, very clearly portrayed.
3. Isaiah 6:1-8
When we think of revelation and response, there is no passage that is more helpful than Isaiah 6. In Isaiah 6:1-8 we have an amazing worship encounter between the prophet and God. In this worship encounter we see the principles of revelation and response very clearly on display.
Let me read the account for us, Isaiah 6:1-8:
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling out to one another: ’Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and the thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
“’Woe to me!’ I cried. ’I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.’
“Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ’See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’
“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ’Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ’Here am I. Send me!’” Amen.
In this Isaiah passage we see the call of Isaiah and the commission of Isaiah to be a prophet, but we also see this principle of revelation and response. Of particular help to us here is that we see several aspects of revelation from God to Isaiah and then several features of Isaiah’s response as God reveals Himself.
A. REVELATION (HOLINESS OF GOD) AND RESPONSE (“WOE IS ME!” — SINFULNESS OF MAN)
In the story, the first thing that is revealed to Isaiah, we could say, is God’s holiness. To be holy is to be set apart. That is the literal meaning of the term. God is set apart clearly in at least two ways here is Isaiah 6.
First, He is set apart in that He is literally high and lifted up, as Isaiah beholds Him. Secondly, and critically, He is set apart from all that is evil, sinful, unclean, and impure and Isaiah experiences the revelation of God’s holiness.
Note that this holiness is revealed to him in multiple ways and there are many senses involved. He sees the holiness of God. “I saw the Lord high and exalted on his throne, and the train of his robe filling the temple. And I saw these seraphs, these strange angelic creatures all around him, I saw his holiness.”
Then he says, “I heard his holiness, it was declared to me. ’Holy, holy, holy,’ the loud cry comes from the seraphs, ’is the Lord God Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’” A sound so loud that Isaiah eventually feels the holiness of God, because at the sound of their voices, the seraphim, it says the doorposts and the threshold shook and the temple was filled with smoke. So Isaiah has a multi-sensory experience of the holiness of God, a powerful experience.
And notice his response. How does Isaiah respond to this holiness that has been revealed to him? Verse 5 captures it for us. “Woe to me, I am ruined! I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” That is Isaiah’s response to the holiness of God and it is a response that is obviously a perfect response; it’s the right response. Woe to me! If that is who God is then I am in a heap of trouble; I am in big trouble.
In the light of such a holy, awesome, pure, good God I see myself for what I am — a sinner, unclean and those I live among are sinful themselves and unclean as well. I have seen Him; how can I go on; how can I live? If the story ended there, it would be an amazing story and a tragic story. If that is who God is, then we are all in a heap of trouble.
B. REVELATION (MERCY IN ACTION; GOD ACTS ON BEHALF OF THE SINNER) AND RESPONSE (HUMBLY RECEIVES THE MERCY OF GOD)
But notice, in the story God graciously reveals more of Himself. And I would say that the next thing that He reveals is His mercy. Yes, He is holy and yes, Isaiah is right to say that, “Woe is me; I am in trouble in the light of such a holy God.” But God is not only holy; He is merciful and very striking is the way in which this mercy is revealed.
Unlike the holiness of God that was experienced by sight and sound and feeling, there is not simply a proclamation here of the mercies of God. Isaiah experiences the mercy of God in a different way. God Himself acts in mercy toward the sinner, Isaiah.
Here is Isaiah in a state of despair about his sin in the sight of a holy God and God takes the initiative once again to act and intervene on behalf of the sinner. Verse 6, “One of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth and said, ’See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for.’”
Here it is, action and proclamation paired together, marvelous, saving action followed by a proclamation, so that Isaiah knows what it is that has happened to him. This is very meaningful for us as Christians, of course, because we can think about the fact that, in our state of sinful despair in the sight of a holy God, God did not simply tell us that we were in despair or speak to us from His throne about our despair. God descended from the throne, became flesh for us, intervened on behalf of sinners, took our place on the cross and saved us. Then the Gospel was proclaimed to us, so that we understood what had happened in Christ. This is what happens to Isaiah; saving action followed by proclamation.
Notice how Isaiah has responded to God’s revelation of mercy. It is not in the text explicitly, but we see it very plainly as we read between the lines. God extends saving grace to Isaiah, the sinner, cleansing him and Isaiah humbly receives. It is very evident that Isaiah receives this intervention on his behalf, when God sends the angelic being to touch his lips, Isaiah receives it.
We might think that is an obvious response to mercy, but I would say, no, it is not an obvious response to mercy. Any of us who have tried to share the gospel of Jesus with sinners know that not everybody is eager to accept the free gift of mercy, and we have all probably wrestled with ourselves in this area of not always receiving the kindness and grace and mercy of God. The flesh is very resistant. We might think of Simon Peter, when Jesus tried to wash the feet of the Twelve, and his protestations when Jesus tried to wash his feet.
But, here is Isaiah responding again perfectly to the revelation. The first thing that was revealed — God is holy. Isaiah’s response — woe is me. Second, God is revealing His mercy by extending mercy toward him. Isaiah’s response — humble reception of the mercy of God.
C. REVELATION (REVEALS HIS WILL; WORK TO BE DONE) AND RESPONSE (“HERE AM I. SEND ME.” – ROMANS 12:1; LUKE 1:38)
If the story ended here it would be a much happier story, but it would still be incomplete. God reveals yet more.
Verse 8, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ’Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ’Here am I. Send me!’” Now, God reveals that He has work to be done. God has a will that He wants Isaiah to submit to; there is work to be done. In this assembly, Isaiah hears the words, “Whom shall I send, who will go for us?” Isaiah’s response now is the classic response, “Here am I, send me.”
Again, Isaiah is illustrating for us a faithful response to God’s gracious revelation. So, God reveals His will, there is work to be done; whom shall I send is the question. Isaiah’s response — here am I.
When I read the Isaiah story I am struck by the revelation and response pattern. I am struck by the fact that, in this story at least, it seems that when Isaiah responds appropriately to what God has revealed, God reveals even more. God reveals something; Isaiah responds. Based on his response, God reveals more. Isaiah responds again. Based on that response, God reveals more. Isaiah responds again. I see it in the Isaiah story. I do not know that this is a pattern we could find throughout the Scriptures, but it is very suggestive to us here in Isaiah 6.
As I see the story I am also struck by the fact that, at the end of the story, Isaiah 6:8, we have one looking very much like the Romans 12:1 image that Paul has in mind. “In view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God.” Doesn’t that sound just like a description of Isaiah in Isaiah 6? In view of the mercies of God, here is Isaiah thrusting himself into the will of God, “Here am I, send me.” Offering his whole being as a living sacrifice for this God who has graciously intervened on his behalf.
I often wonder why it is that, on Sundays, after the Word has been proclaimed, we do not have more people standing up, jumping on the pew at the end of the service, and shouting out to the Lord, “Here am I, send me.” Why don’t we have that? That should be the normative response of a worshiper — offering our bodies as living sacrifices — “Here am I, send me.”
As I muse on that question, I think, why don’t we look more like Isaiah in chapter 6 verse 8? Perhaps, it is because, unlike Isaiah, we have not been overwhelmed with the depths of the mercies of God. Why have we not been so overwhelmed? Perhaps because, unlike Isaiah, we have not been overwhelmed by the depth of our own sinfulness. Why have we not been overwhelmed by the depths of our own sinfulness? Perhaps it is because, unlike Isaiah, we have not been persuaded, overwhelmed by the awesome holiness of God.
All of this suggests to me that, where the revelation is deficient or unclear, it is likely that the response will also be deficient, fuzzy, unclear. In our worship experiences, we will speak a little bit later about this as we think about worship experiences in the church, one of the obligations for those who design worship is to make sure that there is clearly laid before the people the things that God has revealed about Himself.
In Isaiah, as we see it here, it is things concerning His person, His character, His nature, God is holy, holy, holy. It is things, also, concerning His great, merciful actions on us and, for Christians especially, this means that, “God has demonstrated His love for us in this, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
So, we help to bring before the people clarity of revelation, the character of God, the work of God and then the will of God that there is yet work to be done in this broken world. And, we are called to join ourselves to the ministry of reconciliation, and we proclaim that as well. Where the work of God, the will of God, the person of God are not clearly displayed and put before the people, it should not surprise us that we do not find the kinds of responses that we see in the Isaiah story.
So principle #1 about worship: Every worship encounter is an encounter of revelation and response. God always initiates. Somehow He has revealed Himself to us and our job is to respond as faithfully as we know how.