The five dimensions of true worship
Biblical Study in the Theology of Worship
What is “worship”?
For most Christians, when we refer to “worship,” we often think of the musical part of the Sunday gathering. Worship is when we sing songs led by a band, right? Well, when we go to Scripture, we end up finding a richer, deeper, and more comprehensive understanding of what worship is. Worship is the complete and continuous response of the children of God to the gracious revelation of God the Father through Jesus Christ by the enabling of the Holy Spirit. When scripture describes the act of worship, it is kind of like trying to frame a beautiful painting. It is a deeply profound experience but it can be described.
And it is important for us to describe it. Why? Because the Bible is filled with warnings against false worship. It is actually quite easy to worship other things instead of God or to worship God in the wrong way (Ex. 20:2-6, 34:14; 2 Kgs. 17; Is. 29:13; Jer. 10:2-5; Mark 7:7; Luke 6:46; Rom. 1:25, 8:7; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Col. 2:18). We do not worship God however we would like to. We worship him in the ways he has revealed for us. And true worship, when described in scripture, seems to have five dimensions (or directions) to it.
1. Inward worship: from the heart
The inward dimension refers to the spiritual and heartfelt manners in which worship is expressed. Ultimately, worship is about our hearts and what we love. Many passages talk about the primacy of loving, adoring, and serving God in our inward being (Ps. 51:17; Ps. 86:12; Is. 29:13; Matt. 22:37; Rom. 2:29). There are grave cautions for those who worship God on the outside but not on the inside. Outward worship is not enough, it must come from the heart. From the very core of our being, we praise the Lord of heaven. This is the inward dimension.
2. Upward worship: to God
The upward dimension refers to the doxological nature of worship. True worship must be directed to the one and only true God. The very purpose of worship is to magnify the greatness of God and worshipping anything else is idolatry (Is. 45:16; Ps. 106:36). Worship must be lifted up to God in such a way that reflects the fullness of his revelation to us. This means worshipping in ways that are pleasing to him and in ways that magnify Christ, the fullest expression of his divine revelation. The purpose of our lives is to glorify God and this is reflected in true worship (Gen. 1:27; Matt. 5:16; 1 Cor. 10:31). This is the upward dimension.
3. Sideward worship: with each other
The sideward dimension is the necessary corporate aspect of true worship. Although worship is personal and inward, it is also connected with the church of God. This involves corporate praise and adoration (Deut. 26:18-19; Ps. 22:23; Is. 43:21) but also involves the fellowship of the gospel community and the edification that comes from it. This edification is the reason for all the elements of the biblical gathering of believers (1 Thess. 5:11; 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4:11-12). Such ministry is enabled by the Holy Spirit and grows us in unity, maturity, and Christlikeness until we see God. So, when we worship together, we are teaching each other, encouraging each other, and discipling each other. There is no biblical category for a Christian who worships in isolation from the people of God. This is the sideward dimension.
4. Outward worship: for the world to see
The outward dimension involves our responsibility in worship to proclaim God’s glory and revelation to the world through our lives. The Great Commission Jesus Christ gave to the church (Matt. 28:18-20) reinforces the Old Testament idea that we are to be a light to the nations for the glory of God (Ps. 96:4; I Chr. 16:24; Is. 49:6). This involves the act of proclaiming the gospel with our words and actions and modeling the transformation of the gospel in our everyday lives. When a dying world sees the living worship of the church of God, it magnifies Christ in such a way that points to the salvation we possess. Worship is a missional enterprise. This is the outward dimension.
5. Forward worship: hoping for eternity
Finally, the forward dimension refers to the hopeful and joyful nature of our worship that anticipates the future reality of our eternal enjoyment of God with his people. Although not often emphasized, the future we look forward to as the people of God is a supreme motivation that should critically impact our worship. We look forward to when Christ will return and the heavenly assembly will be fully and finally revealed. True, complete, and continuous worship will define our eternal existence with God. We will never tire of it, as we bask in the joy of our King. This reality should fuel a greater joy and sustaining hope in our worship as we prepare for and long for that day (Heb. 6:19-20; Titus 1:2; Rev. 19-22). This is the forward dimension.
Worship is the end for which we were created
We could say that worship is our very purpose. We are made to worship God and enjoy him. In fact, sin problems are ultimately worship problems. How much brokenness do we experience as a result of trying to worship other things? When we understand God rightly and worship him truly, we will experience a fulfillment and joy that surpass even the deepest struggles we experience. So, let us not give God mediocre worship. Let us not be content with 1-dimensional praise. Let us (for the glory of God and our joy in him) give God complete and continuous worship for all he is, all he’s done, and all he will do.
Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!