Worship in the Bible: What is Biblical Worship?

by John Bergsma December 12, 2018 0 Comments




 

Find this entire presentation here: Can't We Just Talk?  Why Worship Needs More than Preaching

The question is what is biblical worship?  In my personal experience, I've gone through different stages, different attitudes about what really constituted biblical worship.  As was mentioned, I grew up in a Dutch Calvinist home.  Sometimes people ask, “what's Dutch Calvinism?”  It is kind of like Presbyterianism, only everybody's Dutch.  So think Presbyterians with wooden shoes and windmills and there you go.  That is kind of how I was raised, that kind of tradition.

Let's get back into Scripture and let's start at the beginning and work our way forward and just look at what Scripture says about worship. What is the biblical background for worship?  Okay, I should have put a little blank for this, but the Hebrew word for worship is a fun one to say.  It's hishtachavah.  Let’s see if you can say that with me.  Hishtachavah, and it’s havah, you have to scrape the back of your throat there. That's one way of transliterating it into English characters.  This word has two meanings.  Sometimes it just means bow down, it is just a synonym for bow down, and other times it has a fuller sense, what we would translate as worship.

It is very interesting...you go into the Old Testament and you look for the first occurrence of this word when it's not just a synonym for bow down...So a couple references early on in Genesis where it just means “bow down,” but the first time it means worship in the full sense is actually in a very significant part of Scripture.  This is Genesis 22, we read here:

Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.”

Now some of you know what this passage is all about, Genesis 22, one of the most significant chapters in the Bible that every Christian should have, as it were, engraved on your heart, Genesis 22.  Genesis 22 is what Jews called the aqedah.  You see, you have to get your money’s worth out of this conference.  If you go back home to your parish and you don’t know any fancy words…”  "What did you go to that conference for?” “We learned about hishtachavah at the aqedah.” So anyway, that is the aqedah.  The aqedah means “the binding,” the binding of Isaac. This is the passage were Isaac is bound, we know the story.  God commands Abraham to go to a mountain which the Lord will show him, and at that mountain Abraham was supposed to take his only begotten son, Isaac, up on to the mountaintop and there sacrifice him to the Lord. 

So Abraham obeys this and he takes his young men with him and they travel three days to this mountain -- it is later identified as Mount Moriah where the Temple would be built by Solomon -- and they leave the young men at the base of the mountain and Abraham and Isaac walk together up the mountain.  Isaac is carrying the wood of the sacrifice on his back as Abraham carries the fire and the knife.  And of course, as they are walking up Isaac noticed something.  “We are going to do a sacrifice.  Where is the lamb?  Dad, we forgot the lamb.  Dad, I have a question.  What is going on here?  We have the fire, we have the…we really forgot something important here.”  Then Abraham responds to Isaac's question with a very significant phrase, he says:

“God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

That is what is says in Genesis 22.  That is a powerful phrase.  There is a very good translation of it in the RSV-CE.  This the second edition, a translation of the Bible that I recommend you have.  “The Lord will provide himself a lamb”…because that translation into English gets almost exactly the ambiguity of the Hebrew and the Greek as well.  In both the Hebrew and the Greek this passage in the Old Testament has two senses, "the Lord will provide himself a lamb."  It could mean either 1) God himself is going to go out and get a lamb for us for the sacrifice at the top of the mountain or 2) God will provide himself as a lamb for the sacrifice.  And both senses are true.  One sense is going to be fulfilled in Genesis 22.  The secondary sense is going to wait for a fuller fulfillment about 2000 or more years later.

So anyway, Abraham and Isaac go up to the top of the mountain.  Notice in this passage in Genesis 22, Isaac is the one who carries the wood, which indicates he's the stronger of the two, which indicates he's reached young manhood.  Sometimes we see pictures of this event and Isaac is a little  five year old and he is strapped down at the altar and Abraham has the knife and it seems awful that he is going to kill his little kid.  No, Isaac is a teenager by now, stronger than his father.  He's the one who carries the wood.  The logical conclusion to be drawn from that is that if Isaac wanted to overpower his father or simply flee he could have, and so it's unanimous in the Jewish tradition, in the rabbinic tradition, that Isaac was a willing participant in this event.  It was a death he freely accepted.  Ever heard those words before? 

So what is the meaning of this event?  We have the father offering his only begotten son on the wood on the top of this mountain.  We know what is going on here, John 3:16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…”

The apostle John uses a word there in John 3:16 that is used three times in Genesis 22.  In Hebrew it is the work yachid, it means “the one and only.”  Outside of Genesis 22 this word is extremely rare in the rest of the Old Testament.  So when John says “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son” or “his only begotten son”, when he uses that phrase only begotten he is clearly alluding to Genesis 22 and picking up the image of Isaac and saying Jesus is like a new Isaac, who is willingly accepting a sacrifice at the top of a mountain.

Okay, so what is going on in Genesis 22?  Genesis 22 is the Calvary of the Old Testament.  It is the most striking icon of the event that will lead to the salvation of the whole human race that is to come through Christ on Calvary.  Calvary was not even very far physically from the site of Mount Moriah in Genesis 22 — Mount Moriah being the place where the Temple would later be built.  In the rabbinic tradition they were well aware of the fact that the Temple was built on the site on which Isaac had nearly been offered on the mount.  The rabbis asked themselves a question, where do the animal sacrifices that we offer in the Temple, where do they get their effectiveness, their efficacy?  There are passages in the Old Testament itself that say that animals don't take away sin, that the blood of animals is not what God really wants. 

So in the rabbinic tradition they asked, if we have these Psalms that say that animal sacrifices are not the ultimate answer, then what is the meaning of these sacrifices that we offer in the Temple?  And do you know what the conclusion is that the rabbis came to?  They said, you know what, these animal sacrifices in the Temple are offered on the same place were Isaac once freely accepted a potential death in offering himself to God.  What these animal sacrifices then are is re-presentations of that one efficacious, freely accepted sacrifice of our ancestor when he gave himself freely on the mountaintop and they just kind of draw their power from that one event.  What does that sound like?  It sounds like Eucharistic theology doesn't it.  The one sacrifice.



John Bergsma
John Bergsma

Author