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Worship involves acknowledging God “to be, as He is, the only source of all virtue, justice, holiness, wisdom, truth, power, goodness, mercy, life, and salvation.” And thus, worship is “to ascribe and render to Him the glory of all that is good, to seek all things in Him alone, and in every want to have recourse to Him alone” (John Calvin, from his tract The Necessity of Reforming the Church).


The English word worship derives from the Old English term weorthscipe, which means “worthiness” or “acknowledgment of worth.” It is a fitting term for the Bible’s insistence that God is to be acknowledged as worthy and praised for His character and His mighty works.

Worship is the chief priority of the people of God, and a motivating factor in our Lord’s salvation of a people for Himself. Exodus 3:12 explains that God redeemed His people Israel from Egypt so that they would serve Him on Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai. This service was to involve feasting and sacrifice, which are elements of worship (Ex. 5:1–3). And when the Israelites gathered at Sinai, the Lord announced that He had saved them from slavery in order to make them a kingdom of priests (19:1–6). Since the chief duty of priests is to conduct the worship of God, we see that one of the primary purposes for God’s salvation is to create a people who will worship Him.

The exodus and constitution of Israel as a worshiping community is not the first time we read of worship in the Bible. Actual descriptions of worship go back to Cain and Abel, where Abel offered a pleasing sacrifice to the Lord. Furthermore, the patriarchs worshiped God. They built altars, offered sacrifices, made vows to serve Him, and engaged in other practices later associated with Israel’s regular worship. The exodus and giving of the Mosaic law, however, formalized worship and established its structure under the old covenant.

Old covenant worship centered around the sacrificial system. God’s people offered sacrifices first at the tabernacle. The tabernacle was a portable sanctuary that served as the central place of worship for Israel from the time it was built under Moses until Solomon built the temple as a permanent house of worship. After Solomon built the temple, the tabernacle was no longer used. Israelites had to travel to Jerusalem in order to offer the various sacrifices prescribed in the law of Moses, and adult males were responsible to go up to Jerusalem at least three times a year in order to keep the feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Booths.

The worship structures and rituals for the old covenant people were strictly regulated. God made His presence dwell in the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle and temple, but only the high priest could enter in there, and then only once a year. The description of the tabernacle and temple, with their intricately woven curtains, extensive use of precious metals, and ornate carvings, indicate that beauty was prized in God’s worship then. This means that we should take beauty in worship seriously even today.

Although sacrificial worship could be offered only at the tabernacle and temple under the old covenant, other kinds of worship could be offered throughout the promised land. The Levites lived throughout the territory given to Israel, where they were responsible to teach the law of God. Teaching is an aspect of worship. Biblical evidence for prayers and singing outside the city of Jerusalem, where the temple was built, indicates that these elements of worship occurred through the promised land. For instance, the Psalms of Ascents were sung as the people traveled up to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices.

During the period of the Babylonian exile, the old covenant people, now called Jews, built synagogues where they settled in Babylon and constructed them in the promised land when they returned. In fact, the Jews built synagogues throughout the world wherever they settled. In these synagogues, the people learned the Scriptures, prayed, sang hymns, and collected money to help the poor. The New Testament indicates that Jesus and the Apostles participated in synagogue worship, and the synagogue format and liturgy became a model for the new covenant church.

With the coming of Jesus and the fulfillment of the sacrificial system, many elements of old covenant worship passed away. Worship is no longer offered only in Jerusalem but is offered wherever people call on the one true God in spirit and in truth, approaching Him through Jesus. We do not offer animal sacrifices but offer instead the sacrifice of praise as we sing songs, hymns, and spiritual songs. New covenant worship is centered on Word and sacrament, on the preaching of Scripture and the celebration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Corporate worship of God’s gathered people takes place on the Lord’s Day, but believers can worship God privately throughout the week.

Different theological traditions have structured worship differently, but in general the Reformed tradition seeks to worship only according to Scripture’s commands. Essentially, this means that everything we do in worship should have some biblical warrant, though applying the Bible’s guidance on worship is not always simple. We will not go far wrong, however, if we see worship primarily for God and not for ourselves. Our goal should be to approach Him with reverence and awe, not to create worship experiences geared to entertain or to amuse. Worship conducted decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40), under the authority of called and qualified elders, that includes the sound teaching of Scripture, songs that explore the depth of our Creator and His attributes, heartfelt prayer, and the right administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper is pleasing to God.


Surely the first foundation of righteousness is the worship of God.

John Calvin

Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.8.11

Pleasing God is at the heart of worship. Therefore, our worship must be informed at every point by the Word of God as we seek God’s own instructions for worship that is pleasing to Him.

R.C. Sproul

How Then Should We Worship?

Tabletalk magazine

Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to him alone; not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and, since the fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone.