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The Bible's Word for Worship

By Renée Griffith | Posted In Studying the Bible

The American author David Foster Wallace declared, “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”* What is worship? Some refer to the musical portion of church as the “worship service.” You may have read through the Bible and seen the word worship appear numerous times in the Old and New Testaments. It may bring you mental images of an ancient culture’s rituals to please a deity. But what was it biblically speaking, and what is it today?

The word most often translated as worship in Greek is proskuneo—pros (“toward”) and kuneo (“to kiss”), describing the action of people literally bowing down to kiss the ground below a leader. An Old Testament equivalent of this word is found in Ezekiel 46:2 (hishtachavah), and it meant that people would prostrate themselves, or bow with their whole body, before a leader.

The people of many ancient civilizations and empires—Israelites, Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, and Romans—all bowed before their spiritual, military, and political leaders this way. This was a word that Old and New Testament audiences saw playing out in daily life.

It’s not just God calling for or receiving proskuneo in the New Testament. In Luke 4:7, the devil tried to get Jesus to worship him. In Acts 7:43, Stephen mentioned the prophet Amos’s condemnation of Israel’s wayward worship of human-made images—idols. And in Acts 10:25, Cornelius dropped to his knees to worship Peter in response to Peter’s delivery of God’s good news. Peter’s reaction here tells us a lot: after pulling Cornelius off the ground, Peter said his humanity is the reason he shouldn’t be worshipped. The Bible makes it clear that while people can worship anything they choose, it’s only God who should receive worship.

To bow the knee and kiss the ground was and still is the highest form of respect and submission in some cultures. It’s not frequently seen in Western cultures so it can be harder for us to wrap our minds around. Today we may demonstrate our highest devotion in different ways: often, we show devotion through where and how we spend our resources, such as time, money, and emotional energy.

The idea here is that worship is not restricted to a church service, an ancient ritual, or a list of songs. It is an act, or series of actions, demonstrating your highest devotion. What do you live for? That is what you worship.

The word proskuneo is used more in the last book of the Bible (Revelation) than in any other book. As a book dealing with the future, it deals with people’s eternal destination. Worship is ultimately connected to where we spend eternity: are we worshipping the Person who will lead us to eternal life or are we worshipping a person, place, thing or idea that will leave us eternally separated from that life? Everyone worships. Remember that you get to choose what the object of your worship will be.

*Quoted from David Foster Wallace, “This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life,” Gambier, Ohio, Kenyon College 2005.