The Scriptures present us with not only a broad and narrow sense of worship, but also a vertical and horizontal focus. Our vertical focus in worship is on God and our horizontal focus is on others.
Vertical Focus of Worship
The vertical focus of worship is that it should bring glory to God alone (Soli Deo Gloria). Paul admonishes us, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). So, just as all of life should be to the glory of God alone, so should all of our worship. Robert Rayburn writes, “It is fundamental that we recognize that all true Christian worship must be theocentric, the primary motion and focus of worship are Godward.”
The essence of God-centered worship is the acknowledgement that we no longer see ourselves as the center of our world and recognize that only God rules and reigns there. In worship, we lift our voices to heaven and proclaim: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever” (Rev 5:13b). God alone is the one whom we are to please and honor in worship.
So what is God-honoring worship?
It’s worship that honors the Triune God for who he is and for what he does in creation and redemption. It is worshiping and honoring God the Father as Creator (Ex 15:1-18, Ps 104), God the Son as Redeemer (Heb 7:24-25, 10:1-18, Eph 1:15-23, 3:14-21), and God the Spirit as Restorer of all things lost in fallen humanity and creation (Rom 8:16, Eph 1:13-14).
God-centered worship honors God as our Triune Creator, Redeemer, and Restorer for his love, his justice, his goodness and wisdom. We worship God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We worship God the Son as our Prophet, Priest, King, and Friend because of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, anticipating his coming return to make all things new. And the only way we can worship God the Father and God the Son in this way is by the grace and power of God the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit exalts Christ in our minds, hearts, and lives. We worship God as our Father only because the Holy Spirit awakens us and persuades us that we are his children (Rom 8:16-17). And in those times of worship when our words and understanding fail, the Holy Spirit utters to God our unspoken groanings (Rom 8:26).
Horizontal Focus of Worship
Although worship is primarily vertical and God-centered, there is also a biblical, horizontal focus in worship on God’s magnificent display of grace to us through our redemption in Christ. We please God as we praise and honor him for creating and redeeming us. So there is a horizontal focus to worship that emphasizes ourselves and our fellow worshippers.
Some believe that any human or horizontal focus in worship detracts from its God-centeredness and is therefore unbiblical and inappropriate. They teach that we should be so focused on God in worship, so obsessed with him alone, that we never even think of ourselves or our fellow worshippers. This idea sounds right, and there is truth in it, but it’s not biblical.
Besides the primary purpose of glorifying God, biblical worship also considers the good of God’s people and requires aspects in worship that also promote their instruction (1 Cor 14:3-6), mutual edification (1 Cor 14:12; 26-28), conviction of sin (1 Cor 14:24-25), love (1 Cor 14:1), encouragement (1 Cor 14:3), thanksgiving (1 Cor 14:16), and even their witness to unbelievers (1 Cor 14:16, 23).
People sometimes criticize contemporary worship songs for being too focused on self, on “I” and “me”. They consider such songs narcissistic, the worship of self rather than of God. Although some contemporary worship songs do not honor God because of their preoccupation with the worshiper, this doesn’t mean that using a lot of person pronouns in worship is always wrong.
For example, in the 50 verses of Psalm 18 there are at least 73 forms of the Hebrew first person singular pronoun. It begins:
I love you, O LORD, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
My God is the rock, in whom I take refuge.
He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call on the LORD, who is worthy of praise,
And I am saved from my enemies (Ps 18:1-3).
But this Psalm is God-centered, for it recognizes God as the source of all our strength, deliverance, and refuge. The Psalmist speaks of himself to acknowledge his weakness and his intense need for the Lord. God, as our Covenant Lord, is not only a receiver but also a giver, who takes great pleasure in pouring out his blessings on his people for the sake of his name. In worship, God calls us to give to him honor and to receive from him grace. This is why the worship we offer up to God is also a means of grace flowing down to us. We glorify God as we find our ultimate joy in him as the supreme object of our worship.
In worship, God also means for us to be his instruments through whom he channels his blessings to others. In Colossians 3:16, Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” In this passage, we see both the vertical focus of giving thanks to God, yet we see the horizontal focus of encouraging others.
This horizontal focus of biblical worship even includes unbelievers who may be present in public worship. The Apostle Paul teaches we should have a concern for unbelievers who attend our worship services (1 Cor 14:23-25). Some teach that being sensitive to what unbelievers may think of worship is unbiblical. But it is clear from Paul’s teaching that we are to honor God by making our worship accessible and intelligible to unbelievers. However, in doing so, we must always maintain our primary, vertical focus on God.
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