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Jesus’ disciples didn’t follow the legalistic worship traditions of the religious leaders. As a result, the leaders complained to Jesus, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders”? (Matt 15:2)
Jesus’ response must have surprised them: So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. (Matt 15:6-9)
Later, a religious expert in the Scriptures tried to trick Jesus with this question, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus’ answer does not refer to laws regarding how people should worship or even to the ten commandments. Instead, he answers by saying:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22: 37-40).
Jesus’ responses show us that true worship is not about our outward behavior but the inward motivation of our heart.
Earlier we examined the biblical perspective by answering the question “What should we do in worship?” Then we looked at the cultural perspective answering the question “How should we do these things in worship?”
But if we only think of worship in terms of outward religious practices, we miss the most important thing–worshiping God with our whole heart. In Scripture the heart describes the core inner life of a person. The heart includes our understanding, affections, and decisions. Worship that is wholehearted engages all three.
Wholehearted worship involves deep understanding. God calls us to worship him by engaging our minds. Jesus commands us: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37).
One way we love God is by loving the truth about God found in his Word. The Apostle Paul describes those who are perishing as those who “refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Thess 2:10). The Psalmist teaches that God’s law reflects the character of God himself and is sufficient to make us wise and train us in righteousness. (Ps 19:7-8, 2 Tim 3:15-17)
Therefore, in the first century, Sabbath worship in the Jewish synagogue included a public reading from the Law and the Prophets followed by a word of encouragement for the people. It wasn’t enough for the people to hear the Scriptures read, they also needed someone to help them understand the Scriptures. This is why, in Acts 13, the leaders asked Paul to give them a “word of encouragement” following the public reading of Scripture (Acts 13:15-16a).
After standing up, Paul delivered a sermon showing in the Old Testament Scriptures the good news that Jesus is the promised Seed, the long-awaited Son of David, and the Savior of both Jews and Gentiles. (Acts 13:16b-41)
Paul understands the need to engage and renew people’s minds with God’s Word in worship. Therefore, he writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2a). He also says, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).
To renew our minds, we must “hear the word of the Lord” (Acts 13:44), and this requires that “the word of God be spoken” to us (Acts 13:46a). This is because “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17).
Since Paul could not give his personal “word of encouragement” following the reading of Scripture in all the churches, his letters were later distributed to them for public reading (1 Thess 5:27, Col 4:16, 2 Pet 3:15-16). At the end of his life, Paul issues a solemn, final challenge to Timothy, his son in the faith, to preach the word:
“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus … preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Tim 4:1-4)
God calls us to worship him by engaging our minds as we receive the preaching of the word in worship.
Wholehearted worship involves more than engaging our minds with God’s word. It also engages our heart affections. Jesus commands us: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37). Notice how the Psalmist describes his worship experience:
• “I pour out my soul.” (Ps 42:4)
• “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” (Ps 25:1)
• “My soul, makes its boast in the Lord.” (Ps 34:2)
The Psalmist doesn’t tell us to understand or believe the Lord is good, but to “taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps 34:8) Scripture instructs us to “delight in the Lord” (Ps 37:4). The Bible portrays our heart affections as more than mere emotions. Affections are our underlying core motivations that compel us toward something or someone.
Examples in Scripture of pouring out our soul and worshiping God with the fullness of our affections include expressing the whole range of human emotions from ecstatic joy to agonizing lament.
• “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28b-29).
• “Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy” (Ps 126:2).
• “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Ps 2:11).
• “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16, 10:19, 13:6).
• “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is 6:5).
• “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’” (Luke 5:8).
Our affections and emotions are not an end in themselves, but should be aimed toward the Triune God for who he is and what he does in his acts of creation and redemption in Christ. With this aim in mind, it can be biblical and honoring to God to use the emotional power of words in worship liturgy, including prayers, preaching, and hymns, to help move people away from idols and help them set their affections and emotions on God.
God calls us to worship him by engaging our whole being, including our mind, our affections, and our behaviors. So wholehearted worship involves not only deep understanding and profound affections but also intentional behaviors.
Following his exposition of the gospel in the first eleven chapters of Romans, Paul exhorts his readers: “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” (Rom 12:1).
In Romans 12:1 Paul refers to our physical bodies, not our souls. In the next verse, Romans 12:2, he refers to our minds. How does our body become a living sacrifice and our spiritual worship? By reflecting our behaviors rooted in the renewal of our minds and hearts by the mercies of God found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul describes some of these behaviors in the rest of Romans 12, including using our gifts to love and serve others in the body of Christ.
Since God creates us with souls and bodies, and because Christ redeems not only our souls but also our bodies at the final resurrection, Christianity is a physical religion. Correcting those who think of Christianity as primarily spiritual and not physical, C. S. Lewis writes:
Our new life is spread not only by purely mental acts like belief, but by bodily acts like baptism and Holy Communion. It is not merely the spreading of an idea … God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why he uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.
Therefore, biblical worship engages not only our souls but also our bodies. In fact if we don’t engage our bodies in worship, our souls cannot be engaged as God designs. This is why Scripture describes many physical acts in worship, including:
• Praying out loud (Acts 4:23-31)
• Eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11)
• Singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (1 Cor 14:26, Eph 5:)
• Falling on your face (Gen 17:3, Neh 8:6, Ezek 1:28, Rev 4:9-10, 5:8, 14)
• Shouting (Ps 71:23, 81:1)
• Bowing down (Exod 34:8, Ps 5:7, Is 66:23, Zeph 2:11)
• Clapping (Ps 47:1, 98:8)
• Dancing (2 Sam 6:14, Ps 149:3, 150:4)
• Raising hands (Ps 28:2, 63:3-4, 68:31, 88:9, 119:48, 134:2, 141:2, 143:6, 1 Tim. 2:8)
• Offering gifts (1 Cor. 16:1, Phil. 4:18)
• Encouraging one another (1 Cor 14, Heb. 10:25, Rom. 16:16, 1 Cor 16:20)
God calls us to love and worship him with our whole being, and that must include our bodies.
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