The Inner Essence of Worship

Last week, the main point was that the New Testament reveals a stunning silence about the outward place and forms of worship and a radical intensification of worship as an inner, Godward experience of the heart manifest in everyday life. The silence about outward forms is obvious in the fact that the gathered life of the church is never called “worship” in the New Testament. And the main Old Testament word for worship (proskuneo) is virtually absent from the New Testament letters.

The intensification of worship as an inner, Godward experience of the heart is seen in the words of Jesus that the hour is coming and now is when worship will not be located in Samaria or Jerusalem, but will be “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:21–23). Inner spiritual reality replaces geographic locality. And we see it again in Matthew 15:8–9 when Jesus says, “This people honors me with their lips but their heart is far from me. In vain do they worship me.” Worship that does not come from the heart is vain, empty. It is not authentic worship. It is no worship. You can see it also in Romans 12:1, where Paul says that Christians should present our bodies to God in daily obedience to his will as a “spiritual service of worship.”

So I concluded that the essence of worship is not external, localized acts, but inner, Godward experience that comes out not primarily in church services (though they are important) but primarily in daily expressions of allegiance to God — in your sex life, in the way you handle your money, or keep your marriage vows, or speak up for Christ.

What Experience Magnifies God?

Now today I simply want to identify what the essence of that inner experience is which we call worship. If it is not essentially an outward act, but an experience of the heart, what is that experience?

“Worship is all about reflecting the worth or value of God.”

Now I take it as a given that worship, whether an inner act of the heart, or an outward act of the body, or of the congregation collectively, is a magnifying of God. That is, it is an act that shows how magnificent God is. It is an act that reveals or expresses how great and glorious he is. Worship is all about reflecting the worth or value of God.

So the question we are asking this morning is: What inner experience of the heart does that? If the essence of worship is not mere outward form, but inner, Godward experience, what experience reveals and expresses how great and glorious God is? To answer that question we go to Philippians 1:20–21.

Notice from verse 20 what Paul’s mission in life is. He says it is “my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted [the key word, “magnified” — shown to be great and glorious] in my body, whether by life or by death.” So what Paul is saying is that his earnest hope and passion is that what he does with his body, whether in life or death, will always be worship. In life and death, his mission is to magnify Christ — to show that Christ is magnificent, to exalt Christ, and demonstrate that he is great. That’s plain from verse 20: “that Christ shall be exalted in my body, whether by life or death.”

Exalting Christ by Life and by Death

So the question now becomes: Does Paul tell us what kind of inner experience exalts Christ in this way? Does he reveal the essence of worship? The answer is that he does, and he does so in the next verse (verse 21) by the way it is connected to verse 20.

Notice the reference to “life” and “death” in verse 20: “that Christ shall be exalted in my body, whether by life or death.” And then notice the link-up with the corresponding words “live” and “die” in the next verse: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” So “life” and “death” in verse 20 correspond to “live” and “die” in verse 21. And the connection between the two verses is that verse 21 shows the basis for how living and dying can exalt or magnify Christ. Verse 21 begins with “for” or “because.” My expectation and hope is that Christ will be exalted whether by my life or my death, for (because) to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Verse 21 describes the inner experience that exalts Christ and is the essence of worship. To see this, let’s take each pair separately, starting with “death” in verse 20 and “die” in verse 21. Boil down the verse to read: My expectation and hope is that Christ will be exalted in my body by death, for to me to die is gain. Christ will be exalted in my dying, if my dying is for my gain. Do you see it? The inner experience that magnifies Christ in dying is to experience death as gain.

Why is that? Verse 23 shows why dying is gain for Paul (and for you if you are a Christian): “My desire is to depart [that is, to die] and be with Christ for that is much better.” That is what death does: it takes us into more intimacy with Christ. We depart and we are with Christ, and that, Paul says, is gain. And when you experience death this way, Paul says, you exalt Christ. Experiencing Christ as gain in your dying magnifies Christ. It is the essence of worship in the hour of death.

Cherishing Christ as Gain

This means that we can now say that the inner essence of worship is cherishing Christ as gain — indeed as more gain than all that life can offer — family, career, retirement, fame, food, friends. The essence of worship is experiencing Christ as gain. Or to use words that we love to use around here: it is savoring Christ, treasuring Christ, being satisfied with Christ. This is the inner essence of worship. Because, Paul says, experiencing Christ as gain in death is the way he is exalted in death.

If you have ever wondered where I get the slogan: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him,” this is the place. Christ is magnified in my death, when in my death I am satisfied with him — when I experience death as gain because I gain him. Or another way to say it is that the essence of praising Christ is prizing Christ. Christ will be praised in my death, if in my death he is prized above life. The inner essence of worship is prizing Christ. Cherishing him, treasuring him, being satisfied with him.

Now to confirm this, focus with me on the other pair of words. Verse 20: “My expectation is that Christ be exalted in my life.” Verse 21: “For to me to live is Christ.” So the reason Paul gives for why Christ is exalted, or worshiped, in his life is that for him “to live is Christ.” What does that mean?

The Surpassing Value of Knowing Christ My Lord

Philippians 3:8 gives the answer. There Paul says, “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ.”

“To live is Christ” means to count everything as loss now in this life in comparison to the value of gaining Christ. Do you see the word “gain” turning up here again in 3:8 just as it did in 1:21? “To live is Christ” means experiencing Christ as gain now, not just in death.

“Christ is praised in death by being prized above life.”

So Paul’s point is that life and death, for a Christian, are acts of worship — they exalt Christ, and magnify him and reveal and express his greatness — when they come from an inner experience of treasuring Christ as gain. Christ is praised in death by being prized above life. And Christ is most glorified in life when we are most satisfied in him even before death.

The authenticating, inner essence of worship is being satisfied with Christ, prizing Christ, cherishing Christ, treasuring Christ. When we say that what we do on Sunday morning is to go hard after God, this is what we mean: we are going hard after satisfaction in God, and going hard after God as our prize, and going hard after God as our treasure, our soul-food, our heart-delight, our spirit’s pleasure. Because we know from Philippians 1:20–21 that treasuring Christ as gain magnifies him, exalts him, worships him.

Implications for Worship

Let me draw out some implications of this for worship.

1. The pursuit of joy in God is our highest duty.

There are millions of Christians who have absorbed a popular ethic that says it is morally defective to seek our happiness, even in God. This is absolutely deadly for authentic worship. To the degree that this ethic flourishes, worship dies. Because the inner essence of worship is satisfaction in God, experiencing God as gain.

Therefore, I say to you that the basic attitude of worship on Sunday morning is not to come with your hands full to give to God, but with your hands empty, to receive from God. And what you receive in worship is God, not entertainment. You ought to come hungry for God. Come saying, “As a deer pants for the flowing springs, so my soul pants for thee, O God.” God is mightily honored when a people know that they will die of hunger and thirst unless they have God.

Recovering the rightness and indispensability of pursuing our satisfaction in God will go a long way to restoring authenticity and power of worship.

2. Worship becomes radically God-centered.

Nothing makes God more supreme and more central than when a people are utterly persuaded that nothing — not money or prestige or leisure or family or job or health or sports or toys or friends — nothing is going to bring satisfaction to their aching hearts besides God. This conviction breeds a people who go hard after God on Sunday morning.

They are not confused about why they are here. They do not see songs and prayers and sermons as mere traditions or mere duties. They see them as means of getting to God or God getting to them for more of his fullness, which they want because God is gain.

If the focus shifts onto our giving to God, one result I have seen again and again is that subtly it is not God that remains at the center but the quality of our giving. Are we singing worthily of the Lord? Are our instrumentalists playing with quality fitting a gift to the Lord? Is the preaching a suitable offering to the Lord? And little by little the focus shifts off the utter indispensability of the Lord himself onto the quality of our performances. And we even start to define excellence and power in worship in terms of the technical distinction of our artistic acts.

Nothing keeps God at the center of worship like the biblical conviction that the essence of worship is deep, heartfelt satisfaction in him, and the conviction that the pursuit of that satisfaction is why we are together.

3. It protects the primacy of worship as an end in itself.

If the essence of worship is satisfaction in God, then worship can’t be done authentically as a means to anything else. You simply can’t say to God, I want to be satisfied in you so that I can have something else. Because that would mean that you are not really satisfied in God but in that something else. And that would dishonor God, not worship him.

But in fact, for thousands of people and pastors, the event of “worship” on Sunday morning is conceived of as a means to accomplish something other than worship. We “worship” to raise money; we “worship” to attract crowds; we “worship” to heal human hurts; we “worship” to recruit workers; we “worship” to improve church morale. We “worship” to give talented musicians an opportunity to fulfill their calling; we “worship” to teach our children the way of righteousness; we “worship” to help marriages stay together; we “worship” to evangelize the lost among us; we “worship” to motivate people for service projects; we “worship” to give our churches a family feeling, etc., etc.

“Genuine affections for God are an end in themselves.”

In all of this, we bear witness that we do not know what true worship is. Genuine affections for God are an end in themselves. I cannot say to my wife: “I feel a strong delight in you — so that you will make me a nice meal.” That is not the way delight works. It terminates on her. It does not have a nice meal in view. I cannot say to my son, “I love playing ball with you — so that you will cut the grass.” If your heart really delights in playing ball with him, that delight cannot be performed as a means to getting him to do something else.

Now I am not denying that authentic worship may have a hundred good effects on the life of the church. It will, just as true affection in marriage makes everything better. My point is that to the degree that we do “worship” for these reasons, to that degree it ceases to be authentic worship. Keeping satisfaction in God at the center guards us against that tragedy.

4. All of life an expression of worship in Romans 12:1.

But for that point, we will wait two weeks, and build a whole sermon around it. In the meantime, a celebration of Thanksgiving is coming next Sunday morning. We don’t meet here, but we meet all together in the great hall at Bethel at 10:00am. Our aim is to magnify God by enjoying him authentically in the presence of as many unbelievers as we can. So would you pray with me that God would reveal to you in these next seven days, as never before, the preciousness of his love and the greatness of his mercy and power and wisdom. Then when we come together he will be duly praised, because he is duly prized. And who knows what God might reveal to those among us, if we really, authentically prize God in their midst. If we really come, saying: “As a deer pants for the flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.”