Synthesizing an essential definition of worship is a perennial problem. Many have tried, several have given us very helpful definitions, yet few are fully satisfactory. Part of the problem is trying to develop an understanding of worship that encompasses the essence of worship regardless of religion but that also incorporates a particularly biblical/Christian flavor as well.
One way to narrow in on a good understanding of worship is to trace the idea of worship through the storyline of Scripture, which is what I intend to do over the next few weeks.
Creation provides the foundation for understanding not only the nature of God and mankind, but also the essence of their relationship in worship. God, the sovereign Initiator, publicly revealed himself through what he made. The creation itself displays his nature and glory (Ps 10:1; Rom 1:20–23), but he revealed himself in a unique way by creating Adam and Eve in his own image (Gen 1:26–27). Thus God’s self-revelation provides the fundamental basis for worship.
Yet God created Adam and Even not simply to be a revelation of himself; he created them in order to nurture a relationship with them, to dwell with them in perfect communion. In order to do this, God created the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:8) as a sanctuary in which he could walk with Adam and Eve (cf. Gen 3:8).1 Man’s purpose in this sanctuary was to “work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). Hebrew scholars note that the underlying terms in this statement mean far more than a gardener’s task, a fact which the absence of thorns and weeds at this juncture in human history makes clear. For example, Alan Ross notes that the first verb, avid, is “used frequently for spiritual service, specifically serving the LORD (Deut 4:19) and for the duties of the Levites (see Num 3:7–8; 4:23–24, 26).”2 Likewise with the second verb, shamar, “its religious use is that of observing spiritual duties or keeping the commandments (Lev 18:5).”3 With this in mind, Ross observes,
In places where these two verbs are found together, they often refer to the duties of the Levites (cf. Num 3:7–8; 8:26; 18:5–6), keeping the laws of God (especially in the sanctuary service) and offering spiritual service in the form of the sacrifices and all the related duties—serving the LORD, safeguarding his commands, and guarding the sanctuary from the intrusion of anything profane or evil.”4
Thus basic ideas about the nature and function of what would later become formal, corporate worship were established in the Creation event: God reveals himself through his creation and places Adam and Eve in the sanctuary of the garden where he dwells with them and walks with them in communion as they serve him and keep his commandments. This relationship between God and man does not exist somehow for its own sake, but rather it brings glory to the Creator (Isaiah 43:6–7). As the image-bearers walk with him and obey his commands, they evidence a complete satisfaction and trust in him, thus giving him ultimate praise.
Adam and Eve’s fall into sin—their disobedience of God’s commandments—was essentially failure to express complete dependence and satisfaction in their Creator and bring him glory,5 and thus it was a failure to worship him acceptably. This broke the communion they enjoyed with God and propelled them out from the sanctuary of his presence. After they sinned, and they heard God walking in the garden, “the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God” (Gen 3:8)—they recognized their unworthiness to walk with him. Their sin created a separation between them and their Creator, and they were forced to leave the sanctuary (Gen 3:23–24), never again able to draw near to the presence of God. Yet before God drove them from the garden, he initiated a solution to the broken communion. First, he enacted a covenant with them wherein he promised redemption (Gen 3:15). Then, he pictured that redemption through atonement by slaying an animal and covering Adam and Eve’s guilt with its skin (Gen 3:21). This atonement restored the broken relationship and once again enabled communion with God, although now limited. Timothy M. Pierce provides a helpful explanation of how “atonement” is directly connected to restoring communion with God:
The English word “atonement” originated in the sixteenth century. It was not borrowed from another language, but was created in order to express an idea for which no word existed. The combination of the words “at-one-ment” expressed the idea of reconciliation whereby not just agreement was achieved, but essential unity was acquired.6
Thus in the Creation/Fall event each of the essential elements of worship appear in seed form: (1) God reveals himself and initiates a relationship with his people; (2) God forms the boundaries of the relationship with his commandments; (3) the nature of worship consists in this relationship of communion between man and his Creator; (4) this worship takes place in the sanctuary of God’s presence; (5) failure to obey the commandments of God prohibits communion with him; (6) God provides atonement whereby man is once again enabled to walk in communion with him.
Next time, we’ll see how these essential building blocks are developed later in the Old Testament.
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.