The Inner Essence of Worship

PDI Celebration East Conference | Indiana, Pennsylvania

I am a Christian Hedonist, and therefore, it’s no sacrifice to be here. I come for my annual PDI bath. I come to learn, and absorb, and grow, and would probably come if I couldn’t speak here just to have lunch with CJ again because he’s a pastor to me, though he’s younger than I am believe it or not. It doesn’t have anything to do with hair; it has everything to do with basketball. So he pastors me with his good heart, and not many pastors would do that for me. I thank you for letting him minister to me in that way. So thank you so much, C.J., for another invitation. I know significant this event is in the life of the PDI churches, and therefore, for me to be here is really quite astonishing to me. I thank you for it.

I don’t know how many of you have heard of F. F. Bruce. He was quite a notable New Testament scholar in Britain. He passed away a few years ago, and was probably the premier evangelical New Testament scholar for decades in Britain, and was part of the resurgence of evangelicals coming to experience the life of the mind in a very powerful way in these recent decades. Frankly, now that he’s gone, I’m not afraid to say — because it will go straight to him and be sorted out by the Lord, rather than being filtered to him through hearsay — that I found his writing dreadfully boring. He was just so dry, and so wonderfully helpful in some ways, and uninspiring in other ways. So if you wanted to figure out some grammatical-historical background of something, go to F.F. Bruce, and get help, and then go to some of the fire to have your heart moved.

I always wondered why that was. Why? Then I read his autobiography, and I found out why, at least a part of why, because there was a sentence in there that just jolted me. I think he was tracing it to his British roots of sedate, quiet, understated ways. He said, “I do not incline to speak in public or write in public about the thing that I cherish the most.” And you have to understand the difference between F.F. Bruce and me at this point. I do not incline to speak in public or to write about anything but what I cherish most. I never have understood that sentence. Why would you want to speak about anything else, except to make a living maybe, I suppose.

All About God

So I come to you, pondering, knowing that C.J. is going to tell me what to do anyway, what I should talk to you about. So he calls me up on the phone and puts it through his sieve, and I do what he tells me to do. But he did let me choose this one. I want to talk about worship, or really, I want to talk about God, and the way we are designed to respond to him in worship. God is absolute reality. He was here before the world was here, or you were here or the galaxies were here, or the universe was here. God was here always, and he is absolute reality. You are derivative reality; you are not as real as God is real.

Some people say, “If you can touch it or feel it or smell it, it’s real — more real than if you can’t touch it and smell it and feel it.” Well, that’s crazy. That’s absolutely ridiculous because God created those things. They are derivatively real, and God is absolutely real. He is the most ultimate reality in the universe. He matters more than anything else matters. Then the question arises, “If that’s absolute reality, if he’s the ultimate value in the universe, if he is the end of all things, the beginning of all thing, and all things are from him and through him and to him, then what are we about?”

The answer is: He made us to show that about him. He made us to magnify him. He made us to reflect him, and reveal him. And the question then becomes — and this is the ultimate question in the universe — How do you do that? You exist for God. You exist to display God, and magnify God, and echo the excellency of God in the universe. That’s why everything exists. Jon Bloom, my assistant, and I were on our way from Pittsburgh to this conference. Now we started down this road. It was dark. Jon was talking away, and I was looking at this moon. And I just butted in, apologized, and said, “Look at that moon.”

Now, there’s a reason why that moon was out last night. And the reason is God. The moon is all about God. Full moons are about God. Yellowish-tinged, orangeish, Pennsylvania moons are about God. That’s what they’re about, and you’re about God. So the question as you’re driving from Pittsburgh is: “How will I respond Godwardly? How will I do this?” It’s all about God.

So this morning, I want to talk about worship. I don’t have in mind mainly corporate services like this one, though I do have that in mind — just not mainly. You’ll find out why I don’t have that in mind mainly by the first half of this message because I’m going to argue that one of the most remarkable things about the New Testament is that it is stunningly indifferent to praise and form when it comes to worship. I mean, it is stunningly indifferently. Oh, how it must trouble certain professors of worship, especially those who are eager to maintain longstanding liturgical traditions, that they are so hard to find in the New Testament.

Then in the second half of the message, having shown you that the New Testament is both stunningly indifferent to place and form, and radically oriented and intensified on an inner experience, I want to get out what that is, because that will transform corporate dimensions, and it will make all of life worship. That’s what we’ve got to see: we’ve got to figure out how this, all this here, is integrally connected with how you treat your wife, and husband, and friend, and roommate tomorrow morning, or later on when all the buzz is gone. Worship is about how you talk in the kitchen.

New Testament Worship

There is an amazing fact about the word worship in the Bible. The most common word for worship in the Old Testament is hishtahawa in Hebrew, and its varied forms. It’s used 171 times, I think, and it basically means bow down. So that song we were singing is a good translation of the primary word for worship. It is translated in the Greek Old Testament with proskuneo 164 of those 171 times.

Words for Worship

So when you ask where in the New Testament is a dominant word for worship (the New Testament is written in Greek), you would expect then to find that the Greek New Testament would pick up on the major word for worship from the Old Testament and milk it for all its worth. You’ll find some remarkable statistics when you do a New Testament word study regarding this word proskuneo for worship. Here are a few facts:

  • That word is used 26 times in the Gospels.
  • It’s used 21 times in the Book of Revelation.
  • And it is virtually absent from all the Epistles.

That’s odd. That’s really odd. The primary word for worship, bow down, is prevalent in the Gospels where the incarnate Son of God is walking around, visibly and approachably, and it is prevalent in the Book of Revelation where the visible Son of God has taken his place upon the thrown and is visible and approachable by the twenty-four elders, who do a lot of bowing down, and it is virtually absent from the Epistles where he is not here visibly, physically, and approachably.

What then do we make of that? What do we do with that? What you find, remarkably, in the New Testament is that there is so little explicit corporate advice on how to do worship, how to do corporate worship. Let me just highlight a few:

  • 1 Corinthians 14:23, “the whole church comes together.” It’s not called worship in chapters 12–14 of 1 Corinthians.
  • Acts 2:46, “attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes.” It’s not called worship.
  • Hebrews 10:25, “don’t neglect the assembling of yourselves together.” It’s not called worship.

The gathering of the church is never called worship in the New Testament — ever. This is very strange, since that’s our primary use of it, and it’s never used that way in the New Testament.

New Temple

I think there is a reason for this absence of proskuneō or the major word for worship in the Epistles, and I think it has to do with what Jesus did to the word and the reality. What Jesus did when he came on the scene was torpedo some of the localized, physical, outward dimensions of this concept of proskuneō, or bow down, or worship.

For example, in Mark 11:17, when he takes the whip, weaves it, and drives out the sellers from his Father’s house, what would you expect him to say? What he says is: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” So the one thing he chooses to focus on where all the sacrifices were made, and all the priestly activity was performed, is prayer: this is a house of prayer.

In Matthew 12:6, when the temple comes in to view, Jesus says, “Something greater than the temple is here” — me, namely.” Similarly in John 2:19: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Now what you hear happening in the words of Jesus in that kind of talk is a radical undermining of localized, physical, outward forms of worship. It got him killed, and it got Stephen killed. One thing got Stephen killed: this temple will be destroyed, and in three days he will build it again. That’s what got Stephen killed. It was a radical word about the undoing of Old Testament worship forms, and the reestablishing of all worship in one place: Jesus. Where is Jesus today? Physically in heaven, and anywhere you are pleased to meet him by the Holy Spirit. That’s very radical, very threatening to those whose worship is fixed on a temple or fixed on a form and a location. That’s what Jesus was doing as he lived.

Not on This Mountain

The primary place where he did it was in John 4. You’re familiar with this text. Let me read verse John 4:20 for you.

Our fathers worshiped on this mountain [in Samaria], but you [Jews] say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship. (John 4:20)

So she’s raising this issue of Samaria or Jerusalem: “Tell me how to worship. Tell me the right place and the right form.” And the word she’s using is proskuneō. Jesus said to her,

Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. (John 4:21)

Now you can hear immediately the loosening of the tree from the place. He’s going to pick this tree up. “You want me to say something about Samaria. You want me to say something about Jerusalem and the localization of worship and its proper place, and I tell you, the hour is coming, indeed, the hour now is, when neither in this place nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” Now here’s what he goes on to say to clarify:

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23–24)

Now, to hear the real radical force of “in spirit and truth,” you need to hear it “not in Samaria, but in truth,” “not in Jerusalem, but in spirit.” In other words, the categories are shifted. It’s not in Samaria, but in Gaithersburg or Minneapolis. It’s not in Samaria, but in truth; and not in Jerusalem, but in spirit. So those two words now become the hallmark over authentic worship in the name of Jesus.

Worship in Truth

And “in truth,” I believe, means that all worship should be informed by true views of who God is, which elevates theology tremendously in the life of an authentic church. One of the reasons I’m willing to say yes to the invitation to be with you is because of the value you put upon theology such that a man will stand before a worshiping group like this and say with all the gall imaginable in the twentieth century that he hopes every one of you people will read John Owen before you die. Such a leader will get me to go almost anywhere because John Owen is one who, for the most part, got God right, and got the Christian life right — though he wrote with difficulty or maybe he didn’t write with difficulty, but just to make it difficult for us. But it’s worth every minute of it.

“In truth” means, first, that worship will be driven by right views of God. Secondly, it means that the shape and the form and the attitude of worship will be in conformity with a balanced understanding of reality, a true view of reality. The whole church has things to learn from each other in this regard. PDI has a good handle on great reality. And there are proper correspondences between the dynamic in this room and the beauty and the joy of that reality.

You do need to understand that there are also probably other aspects of reality that might appropriately elicit other forms of response besides the one we enjoyed for that hour together in worship, lest you become insulated and presumptuous or ethnocentric in your form. You need to be broad; your hearts need to be big enough. If you came to my church, we wouldn’t do it just like this. If you came to a church down the street, they wouldn’t do it like this, and I just want you to be careful. This is a little pastoral, fatherly exhortation that you love what you have — love what you have — and that you do not cluck your tongue at those who may not have that, but have something different, because there just may be dimensions to the infiniteness of God that call forth other kinds of emotional responses that are different, not contrary.

One of the wonderful things is when you can bring what you have to give as a gift to the body at large, so that we’re all enriched by one another’s apprehension of God’s glory. So, those are the two things with regard to truth.

Worship in Spirit

“In spirit” means, I believe, means that the Holy Spirit is the essential energizer, and empowerer, guide, and helper in this event. This is a supernatural reality. Christianity and worship are supernatural, or they’re fake. So the Holy Spirit must come. He must inhabit. He must empower, indwell, fill, release, enable, or it’s all going to be a sham.

Also, I think it means (there’s a big squabble amongst scholars over whether means only what I just said or also what I am about to say; I think it’s both) that the Holy Spirit moves through the mind into that inner reality called the human spirit, which needs to be touched, needs to be awakened, and that’s why worship has some of the most dramatic effects upon us: because the Holy Spirit wants it to be done by him, by Spirit; but also in spirit, that He’s in our spirit, as well as by His Spirit, so that He comes down, and we awaken, and we open, and when worship is happening, all that truth is abounding in our lyrics, and the shape of the service, and all that Holy Spirit power, and all that opening of the human broken soul, is opening to God, and he is filling.

So in spirit and in truth is undermining, radically, localization and formalization of worship. I was just thinking as I looked at our bulletin yesterday, “I wonder if we’re just hung on responsive readings right now.” We’re pretty good at responsive readings. Do you ever do responsive readings? I felt like this could be a pride thing, right? “Hey, we’re getting good at responsive readings.” What I mean by good is there’s life, energy, power, not just going through the motions. Our people almost shout during responsive readings. They are so into the glory of what’s there. But I thought: we don’t need to do these every Sunday. I’m always wondering, Are we getting locked in here to that particular flow? So when I say undermining localization and formalization, I mean all forms: your form, my form, Episcopal form, Presbyterian form, Methodist, Catholic — whatever the forms are.

Jesus is in the business of finding, the Father is seeking in this room and elsewhere, people who worship in spirit and in truth. So, I think Jesus took the word proskuneō, and he just blasted it. He just blasted it, so that the whole idea of the Old Testament localization on the tabernacle, localization on the priesthood, localization on the sacrifices, localization on those wonderful robes and tassels, just gets blown out of the water.

Living Sacrifice

So when you get to the Epistles, you don’t find a new form being put in the place of the old one that Jesus blew away. You can test this by taking the second most common word for worship, not proskuneō in Greek, but latreuō, the verb or latreia. That one is used over 90 times in the Old Testament, usually translating service — meaning, worship service like Exodus 23:24: “You shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them.”

Now what does Paul do, for example, with that word for worship? The word latreuō in the Old Testament was a formal event by which you engaged in worship either of the true God or false gods through tabernacle activities. What does Paul do with it now that Jesus undermines, it seems, the localization and formalization of worship? Here’s what he does with it: he takes it and he uses it for all that he does. I’ll give you three examples.

Romans 1:9 says, “God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son.” So every time Paul hits the marketplace or goes up on an acropolis or goes out by a river at Philippi and opens his mouth and declares Christ, he says, “I am latreuō — I am worshiping.” Then he uses the phrase “in my spirit.” Something’s got to be going on inside of me while I’m talking to these people like Lydia by the river or otherwise, I’m not really latreuō. I’m not really worshiping.

He applies it to the whole church when he says in Philippians 3:3, “We are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” So there again, he’s driving it in: no confidence in the flesh. Apart from the Spirit of God, all these instruments are flesh. Apart from the Spirit of God, this tongue right here, that’s just flesh. All these motions with my arms and all this mental work that’s putting sentences together here — sheer flesh, unless the Spirit of God is on it and in it. He says that’s worship when that happens: when the Spirit moves on that.

Then the most radical one of all: Romans 12:1, which I’ll come back to in a minute. You know this: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

“Present your bodies as holy sacrifices.” Where are the sacrifices? Where are the sacrifices of the Old Testament, Paul? Where is the worship? He says, “Your bodies, your sweaty bodies, are living sacrifices acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. The translations are all over the place, but that’s the word latreia — your spiritual worship, your service of worship. So in the epistles, I think the reason you don’t have proskuneō except one time when the man in 1 Corinthians 14 falls down on his face because some prophetic word broke his heart — he’s down. He’s on his face. That’s the only place in Paul that it’s used. The reason it’s that rare is because Jesus transmuted the meaning of it away.

Worship for All Peoples

He said, “That localized, formalized thing is not possible in this age where Christ has come, and he has ascended into heaven, and he intends for his worship to be done in every culture: Chinese music, Japanese music, Indonesian music, Papua New Guinea music. You’re not going to transport this worship service to Peking, although you might to Tokyo.

I remember one time a very good friend of mine who went to Japan as a missionary and just today he aches, I ache, I hope you ache for the nation of Japan. What potential for the kingdom among those people. The church is so small, and so weak. He walked downtown in Tokyo. Here you have in my Baptist denomination maybe 100–150 churches. They are so sedate, and so quiet, and formal. What’s going on in downtown Tokyo? You’ve got a building that’s about twenty stories tall and with lasers they’ve got the projection of a rock band on the side of the building. You have the whole sound. I mean, the whole city filled with a hundred thousand teenagers. The band and all of the lasers are on this building ten times as big a screen as this room. The music, of course, is as loud as a thunderstorm. My friend Greg said, “I’m not going to reach that generation with this worship service. It’s not going to happen.” So you might take this one to Tokyo. But probably not to Ukarumpa, New Guinea. They don’t have any electricity. You can’t do this kind of worship without electricity. The reason there is no precise, detailed instruction for how to do worship in the New Testament is because it’s a missionary book. It’s a missionary book; it means to get all the peoples included.

Let me show you that I’m not off the wall by quoting John Calvin and Martin Luther. I gave this quote a few years ago at a Reformed conference and absolutely stunned all those Presbyterians. They had no idea this was in Calvin’s Institutes. Let me read it to you.

[The Master] did not will in outward discipline and ceremonies to prescribe in detail what we ought to do (because he foresaw that this depended on the state of the times, and he did not deem one form suitable for all ages) . . . Because he has taught nothing specifically, and because these things are not necessary to salvation, and for the upbuilding of the church ought to be variously accommodated to the customs of each nation and age, it will be fitting (as the advantage of the church will require) to change and abrogate traditional practices and to establish new ones. Indeed, I admit that we ought not to charge into innovation rashly, suddenly, for insufficient cause. But love will best judge what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe. (Institutes, 4.10.30)

Can you believe John Calvin said that? The father of the Presbyterian church? Let me read you Luther now. You’ll love Luther. He’s more like you.

The worship of God . . . should be free at table, in private rooms, downstairs, upstairs, at home, abroad, in all places, by all people, at all times. Whoever tells you anything else is lying as badly as the pope and the devil himself. (What Luther Says, 1,546)

Well, Luther repented many, many times, on his deathbed especially. I do mean that. I lectured on Luther a few years ago at our pastors conference, and he did some horrible things. He was very antisemitic. I was asked, “How can he be a Christian in view some of the things he said?” My only answer was the answer I could give for David, who raped Bathsheba and killed her husband. The answer is: “He really repented well. His life was woven together with an explosive temper, a foul mouth, and a broken heart for all of his sins.” So if you’re plagued like Luther with some wonderful personality traits that constantly get out of hand, be a good repenter, and your marriage will probably stay together, and your kids will probably make it through.

The Inner Essence of Worship

Now let me ask this question, and this is probably the most important thing: If what we’ve seen in the New Testament is true — that there’s a stunning indifference to form, an undermining of formalization and localization, and its place a radical intensification on the inner experience of spirit and truth — I want to know: What is the inner essence of that experience? So that’s the last thing I want to grapple with you for a few minutes about: What is the inner essence of that experience?

The reason I ask about the inner essence is not because I don’t think there ought to be outward expressions like music, and like singing, and like services. But rather all those things are void and vain, like Jesus said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:8–9). I don’t want this to be vain or my service to be vain or my preaching to be vain, so I have to ask: What’s the heart Jesus is talking about. What is the inner essence of worship?

Christ in Life and Death

I fasten onto one of those greatest of all sentences of the apostle, when he showed his heart and what his life was about, and I believe what our lives should be about — namely, magnifying God or Christ. I’m working with this assumption. I take it that whatever this inner experience, the essence of worship, is, it is what magnifies Christ or what shows Christ to be great. I take it as a given that the point of worship is to show Christ to be worthy, to show Christ to be great, to show God to be magnificent. That’s what worship is: it demonstrates the greatness and the glory and the magnificence of God in Christ.

It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. (Philippians 1:20)

Now I regard that as a statement that says, “My life and my death are all about worship — that is, they are all about how to magnify Christ.” That’s what worship is. Whether it’s in a service here or in a service out there or in the quietness of your bedroom, it is about making much of Christ and magnifying Christ and showing him to be great. So I want to ask Paul, “Paul, I hear you saying this that your aim in life and in death is that Christ be magnified, that your life be worship, that your death be worship. Would you reveal to me, would you show to me, what’s the essence of that? What’s the essence of it?” Paul’s answer is: “I will. Read the next verse.” So, let’s read the next verse, and see how it’s connected with verse 20.

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)

Now the connection between verse 20 and verse 21 is all-important in understanding worship. It’s connected with the little word for, which means because. So let’s translate it and think about that as you read it again:

It is my eager expectation and hope that . . . Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For [or because] to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

Now do you see the parallels between life and death in verse 20 and live and die in 21? Does everybody see that? You’ve got to see that. He does it by picking up on the word life in the word live, and picking up on the word death in the word die and he says (I’m going to paraphrase it), “The way my life will magnify Christ or the way my body will magnify Christ in life is when for me to live is Christ, and the way my body will magnify and worship and show Christ to be great in my death is when my death is gain.”

Now let’s separate those two, the death half from the life half, and analyze them, and think it through. This opened up to me so much of my theology, and I want to show you the biblical grounds of it. So, let’s take the death half first. This is the most radical. It’s amazing.

Magnify Christ in Death

So he says in verse 20: “My expectation and hope is that Christ will be exalted in my body by death, for to me to die is gain.” Now think about that argument: Christ is exalted in my body by death when death is for me gain. The inner experience of worship that magnifies Christ in dying is the experience of dying as gain. Why? Why is Christ magnified in my dying when I count my dying and experience my dying as gain? Why? Why Paul? Ask Paul. This is what you ought to do. Paul, why? He’d answer, “Read on. Read on.”

This is what he always answers because you can’t answer those questions by tuning in to some hotline to heaven. God does not interpret his Scriptures that way. If you think he does, you’ll become a heretic in short order. The gift of prophecy was never designed to interpret Scripture — ever. You’ve been well-taught, I hope. It is not designed to interpret Scripture. Scripture exists to interpret prophecy and govern it. So you don’t come to Paul and say, “What do you mean?” and then go over and say, “Tell me what you mean by that.” You go to the Scriptures and say, “Tell me what he meant. Illumine my mind over the word,” and then you read on and you get to verse 23 and you get your answer: he says as he wrestles with whether to die or not,

My desire is to depart [that is, die] and be with Christ, for that is far better. (see Philippians 1:23)

Now we know why. Let’s go back and fill in the blank. “When I die,” Paul says, “this body will magnify Christ and his value, and his worth, and his glory in my dying, if I experience dying as gain because dying gets more of Christ, which is far better than anything I could have had, had I stayed here.” Just think about that for a minute. Think of words you could use to say that, and you can write all my books. I only have one thing to say in all my books. If you read one, you’ve read them all. Save your money. The essence of worship is wanting. The essence of worshiping Christ is wanting Christ more than you want anything.

So what does death mean? It means the loss of everything but Christ. If you count this event gain, what are you saying about Christ? Everything, he is everything to me — more than my wife, more than my sons and my little Talitha, more than my church, more than my health, more than a long, planned-out productive retirement. If a doctor says, “You have six weeks, John.” Do you collapse into despair because of all you’re going to lose or do you say, “It would be good for my church, I think, if I stayed. I would like to raise Talitha. I think it would be good. I will ask the elders to pray for me that I might be healed. But Lord, if it is appointed at age 53 to come, it will be gain. It will be gain.”

Now in that moment, if I can carry that through, and mean it from my heart, and all the nurses see it, and all the doctors see it, and all of my church sees it, and they feel it, will not Christ be worshiped in that hour? Will he not be shown to be magnificent in that hour? So the essence of praising him is prizing him. Did I say that last year? I should have. Here’s what I did say last year: Christ is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in him. So if you ever wonder, Where did John Piper get that clever little sentence? I got it from Philippians 1:20–21, and the way they’re connected by verse 23. That’s the biblical foundation of my theology.

God is most magnified, glorified, in my dying when I am totally satisfied in him in the hour of my death, and I can let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever. I’m coming home.

Magnifying Christ in Life

Let’s take life half and see if we see the same thing. Take the life half of these two verses. Most of you have some life in front of you — a lot of young people in this room. God be pleased, you may have 50, 60, 70 years. What are you going to do with it? What are you going to do with the rest of it? That’s what this half is about.

“I want,” he says, “for my body to be an occasion for the magnification of Christ in my life, for to me to live is Christ.” Now what does that mean? That’s a sentence that sounds great. We could say it with gusto, but what does the little word is mean? “For me to live is Christ.” What would you mean right now if you said that: for me to live is Christ? Paul, what do you mean? Paul says, “Read on.” Now this time, I think you need to read all the way to chapter 3. So jump over to chapter 3 with me. The reason I’m willing to jump out of the immediate context to chapter 3 is because similar terminology is going to turn up here, some gain terminology is going to turn up here about living for Christ. He is talking about now. You’ve got to count everything as loss when you die. You don’t have any choice: either you don’t count everything loss, or you make a blasphemy out of Jesus when you die — clinging and clinging and clinging and not letting it go for Christ. Here’s he’s not talking about death; he’s talking about life.

I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:8)

So I think he means when he says “to live is Christ” that you imagine yourself at the hour of death — and you shouldn’t really have to imagine too hard because the Bible says, “I am crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20). Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh. You are a bunch of dead people if you’re Christians. You have died; you have died to everything. Galatians 6:14 says, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” You are dead people. This world has no claim on you. You have lost everything.

Now that’s war. How are you going to live that out? You love pizza. You want to watch the NBA playoffs. You love your wives, your husbands, your children, sports, health. This is war, folks. This is war. The spirit lusts against the flesh, and the flesh lost against the spirit, and these are opposed to keep us from wanting and doing what we would. Life is war. These fleshly things make war on our soul, Peter said, and I mean good things. I mean the things that are best of God’s creation war against our allegiance to Jesus Christ. Paul is saying, “If you want Christ to be magnified in your life, worship, the inner experience of your heart must be: it’s rubbish by comparison; it’s rubbish by comparison.

The only way Turkey is going to be evangelized is people who both count life to be Christ and death to be gain — 99.8% Muslim, 9 of the 71 provinces, probably, with a little teeny church, 52 million people hell-bound. So I’m on the crusade to recruit martyrs for world evangelization because it will not happen without them. Worship is the key and the fuel for everything.

Three Points for God-Centered Worship

The New Testament, it seems to me, with Jesus at the center, is stunningly indifferent to form and place. It radically intensifies worship onto an inner heart experience — “With your lips you worship, but your heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8). And now we see from Philippians 3 that the essence of that inner experience is a prizing of Christ, a treasuring of Christ, a delighting of Christ, a loving of Christ, a valuing of Christ above life, and in the face of death, so that if we lose everything but Christ, we gain.

Now what are some practical implications of the inner essence of worship being that kind of radical satisfaction with Jesus?

1. Pursue your own joy in worship.

It means that the pursuit of joy in God for the sake of worship is our highest duty and is not optional. The pursuit of joy is not optional. I stress this, though, for me to stress it is a broken record. I stress it because when it comes to worship, the opposition to this truth is deadly for worship.

If you do not pursue your joy in worship, you can’t worship. Now that’s very controversial to say that in places because so many, many, many pastors and ethical teachers teach, as I said last year, that the essence of virtue, especially the highest virtues like worship is self-renunciation, not self-gratification. If you buy that, how in the world will you pursue satisfaction in Christ, which is the essence and the release of everything that is authentically worshipful. You will not be able to. There will be a clog in your spirit if you are taught that you may not pursue your joy in God. So I say getting this clear is your highest duty. Pursuing your joy is your highest duty because your pursuit of joy and God’s pursuit of glory are not at odds — they are one.

2. Come to worship to receive from God.

Here’s a second implication: if the essence of worship is a satisfaction in God and in Christ, then that will keep worship very God-centered. It will keep worship very God-centered. You see, if the focus of worship shifts to become a giving to God, something very subtly dangerous will happen in your services — namely, a shift will begin to occur onto the quality of your giving: Are we singing worthily to the Lord? Are our instrumentalists playing with a quality fitting a gift to the Lord? Is the preaching a suitable offering to the Lord? Little by little, the focus shifts from the indispensability of the Lord himself to us in our broken inadequacies, onto the quality of our performances for him, and we begin to define the excellence and the power of worship in terms of the technical distinction of the artists and the eloquence of the preacher. That’s the danger of a giving mindset.

Now let me put in a parenthesis here that the Lord just mashed down on me at our staff retreat last Monday. Psalm 116:12 says, “What shall I render to the Lord for all of his benefits to me?” Now am I not in a pickle here? Because it seems like he wants you to render something in your worship service — render back. What are you going to render back? John Piper just said, “A rendering back mindset is deadly.” Now listen: David, what do you mean? What’s the answer? Read on. “What shall I render for all of his benefits to me?” Here’s the answer to his question: “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord” (Psalm 116:13).

Now that has two possible meanings: either it’s a toast, which I have no problem with. If your cup is full, toast. Or the cup is empty and you need it to be filled. I think the second is the meaning because the next phrase is “call upon the name of the Lord.” Earlier, verse 4 says, “I called upon the name of the Lord,” and he saved me, and drew me out of all my troubles.” Calling upon the name of the Lord is mainly, “Help!” That’s the most important sentence in worship: “Help! I’m desperately needy for you and you alone! Help me!” So, yes, please, don’t go out of here and say, “John Piper says you can’t give praise, you can’t give thanks, you can’t give honor.” Just be sure that when you use give in that way, you’re getting your meaning from texts like Psalm 116:12, where it says, “What shall I render to the Lord who has given so much to me? I will hold up an empty cup and ask him to give more. That’s what I will give him.”

Now you know why that’s the essence of worship? The giver gets the glory. The giver gets the glory. We get the benefit. He gets the glory. He’s the fountain. I’m thirsty. I’m not going to meet any of his needs. I don’t have anything with which to provide his deficiencies; he has none. The way to glorify God is to come and get, and get, and get, and get, and get, until you are totally satisfied with God.

Then, lest you think I’m preaching health, wealth, and prosperity getting, you show the sufficiency and the satisfaction you have in God by letting everything go and giving your life in Turkey or Wales or Mexico or the United States, and the whole world looks on at your simple, wartime lifestyle and says, “They don’t seem to be living for the same things I’m living for. They must have another treasure in another place.” And they do.

3. Make worship an end in itself.

I really believe for worship to be authentic, it has to be an end in itself. Whether it’s the lived-out worship at the breakfast table, or whether it’s the song worship in this room, it needs to be an end in itself. I think discovering that the essence of it is an inner experience of satisfaction in Jesus is the way to make sure that it’s an end in itself. I can illustrate it for you so simply that you all get it.

I cannot say to my wife, “I love you so much and you bring me so much satisfaction, and I so delight in you that you will make a nice supper for me tonight. I take so much delight in you, I enjoy being with you so much, that you will now make a nice supper for me tonight.” Because if my delight in her is calculated to get her to do something else for me that satisfies my stomach, and I’m telling her it’s my delight in her that gets her to do that for this satisfaction, what’s my God or what’s my delight? It isn’t her. She’s a stepping-stone toward that meal. Or if I say to my son, “I really enjoy playing ball with you in the backyard at playtime, so that you’ll wash the car on Saturday.” Something’s wrong here. “I really enjoy playing ball with you, so that you will wash the car on Saturday.” I think he will compute, “You don’t enjoy playing ball with me; you enjoy clean cars.”

There are millions of Christians and pastors who design worship services to get other things to happen: raise money, get marriages fixed, become more bold in evangelism, help people use their gifts. Suddenly, this event is tactically designed to make everything else happen. There’s a lot of churches that are doing that.

I think God looks down at those moments and says, “Excuse me, you just said, ‘I sing your everlasting love. I sing your praises.’ Are you delighting in me right now, or are trying to raise money? Are you delighting in me or are you working at an esprit de corps in this room? Are you delighting in me, or you want to grow a bigger church? Are you delighting in me? Am I an end, or am I a means to another end that you really love?”

I think if you get the essence of worship right — namely, that it is a satisfaction in Christ, a delighting in Christ that counts death as gain and life as Christ, that will be a wonderful protection to keep that from happening.