“Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Throughout the Scriptures, one of the most basic calls on the life of every follower of Jesus is to worship the Lord. We are called, invited, and even commanded to do it. And, each and every week, hundreds of millions of believers gather in church services all over the world to do just that. But if we are not careful, we can begin to develop some thinking about worship because of this repeating pattern of gathering weekly that doesn’t quite align with the fullness of the understanding of worship commended to us in the Scriptures. One of the things I’ve been reading about lately is worship. This morning, let me share some thoughts about it.
Let me start with a statement about these verses right here. From there, I’ll offer some background on worship, and then we’ll come back to explore the statement I’m going to make about it.
What we see here in one of the more remarkable stories from Luke’s record of the early church (which is saying something) is a beautiful example of what happens when we get worship right. Something like this only happens when we have gotten the full picture of worship we receive from the Scriptures correct. Peter and John here were worshiping the Lord. The result of their worship was the transformation of their community and, eventually, the world.
In order for that statement to make sense, we need to understand fully what worship is. When you think about worshiping the Lord, what comes to mind for you? I suspect you conjure up images of groups of people gathered in some kind of a space that has been designated as sacred. In that space they are engaging in various rituals that are often collectively assigned the title “worship.” These include singing first and foremost. From there we might also add things like prayer and responsive readings and giving and preaching. Perhaps to this you might also add elements like baptism and partaking in communion. Go to any worship service anywhere in the world on any given Sunday (or any other day, for that matter) and you will likely encounter some combination of these things. A given worship service may not include all of them in the same, single event, but at least some of them will be present in every worship service without exception.
Think with me a bit further here. What do all of these elements have in common in their relation to God? Rather than leaving you guessing, let me tell you. They all involve some amount of acknowledging and celebrating God’s character. We collectively confess our belief that God is who He has proclaimed Himself to be in the Scriptures and we delight in that with joy and gladness.
Acknowledgement and celebration are integral parts of worship. There should be no question on this fact. They are basic in the various calls to worship we find scattered across the Scriptures. Consider David’s call to worship to the people of Israel after successfully bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem in 1 Chronicles 16. Here is just a selection from that psalm starting in v. 25.
“For the Lord is great and highly praised; he is feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and joy are in his place. Ascribe to the Lord, families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; bring him an offering and come before him. Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; let the whole earth tremble before him. The world is firmly established; it cannot be shaken. Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice, and let them say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns!’ Let the sea and all that fills it resound; let the fields and everything in them exult. Then the trees of the forest will shout for joy before the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his faithful love endures forever. And say, ‘Save us, God of our salvation; gather us and rescue us from the nations so that we may give thanks to your holy name and rejoice in your praise. Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting.'”
This is an incredible expression of praise to the Lord. It is an invitation to not only the nation, but the whole earth – all of creation even – to acknowledge who He is and to celebrate Him for it. Yet there is something missing here. This is not my saying I disagree with David. I think he is absolutely on point in everything he says here. There is much to appreciate and learn from in what David writes about giving praise and thanksgiving to God. But it is incomplete. Prophets like Isaiah eventually had to remind the people of this when they told the people to essentially quit worshiping altogether unless they added one more essential element to their worship. And what was this third element that rounds out worship and makes it something truly worthy of the greatness of our God? Participation.
The call of men like Isaiah was not simply for Israel to acknowledge and celebrate God’s character. They had to also participate in that character in order to demonstrate they truly understood it. Without this third element the first two by themselves were empty, devoid of any real meaning or sincerity. Consider one of the challenges Isaiah gave the people in Isaiah 58 with the practice of fasting being the particular ritual that sparked his ire. “Will the fast I choose be like this: A day for a person to deny himself, to bow his head like a reed, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast and a day acceptable to the Lord?” In other word, if all you are doing is acknowledging and celebrating my character, what’s the point? “Isn’t this the fast I choose: To break the chains of wickedness, to untie the ropes of the yoke, to set the oppressed free, and to tear off every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the poor and homeless into your house, to clothe the naked when you see him, and not to ignore your own flesh and blood?” That is, if you are not participating in God’s character, your worship is empty.
But when I sing and celebrate God’s character, I really feel it! Singing can indeed be an emotional experience. The more people you have together in a room all singing the same thing, the more likely it is to be an emotional experience. The better a show the band puts on as a part of the event, the more emotional it will likely be as well. The feeling you get from a profound experience singing with a group of people in a space you’ve designated as sacred in your mind may be incredible, but if you really think about it, it’s probably not all that different from how you felt at a rock concert with your favorite band. I still remember when I went to Five Iron Frenzy’s final show in Kansas City when I was in college. It was absolutely incredible. I remember even more distinctly when they closed the show with their song Every New Day. I was on my feet, hands in the air, eyes closed, singing at the top of my lungs, with tears streaming down my face. I don’t know that I can remember ever doing something like that in a worship service. But that was a rock concert, not a worship experience. I may have been loudly acknowledging and celebrating God’s character in that moment, but I wasn’t worshiping.
Real worship involves three things: acknowledging, celebrating, and participating in God’s character. If it doesn’t have all three of those elements, it’s not worship. But how are we supposed to participate in God’s character while standing in a room singing and praying with a group of fellow believers? Well, we may not in that very moment, but what we do when we leave there should be a direct result of what we experienced while we were there. That is, we go and do the character of God because we have acknowledged and celebrated it. Then our worship is complete.
This is why I say what Peter and John were doing here in Acts was worship. They had been celebrating and acknowledging God’s character with the Christian community of which they were a part. But they didn’t leave it at that. They went out from there to participate in it. That is, when the change in them became a change in the world, their worship was made complete. That is when the world really took notice (and challenged them over it). That is when the kingdom of God really started to advance.
Now, don’t get me wrong. We can get two out of the three of these down and have a great time in our church gatherings. If we want our worship to really matter, though, we’ve got to get all three right. If we want to be fully the individuals…the church God created us to be, all three are necessary.
So then, do a bit of introspection this morning. If you are someone who would claim to be a worshiper of the God of the Bible, does your worship include this third element? Sure, you acknowledge and celebrate in your church’s worship service, but is there an active participation in God’s character being lived out when you leave that place? When you do that, you will be worshiping. As we journey together into this new year, let us commit to worshiping the Lord as we go. Let us refuse to stop at merely acknowledging and celebrating God’s character. Let us pursue an active participation in who He is so that He receives the glory, His kingdom is advanced, and we are made more fully who He created us to be.