The Inner Essence of Worship

Crossway Community Church | Surrey, British Columbia


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

I consider myself a privileged friend of Sovereign Grace Ministries, and now Crossway Community Church. That’s not a small thing for me. I value those kinds of relationships very much. They have gone deep with me, so if there’s been any benefit from me, know it has gone the other way, to me, as well — and in fact, increasingly so.

We’re reading a book that has emerged out of Sovereign Grace Ministries in our pastoral care group — we call them small groups. And it’s having a deep effect on us as a little pastor cluster, so it’s quite an honor to be a part of this worship service. And for all the guests, thank you so much for coming.

The Flow of Worship

I’m going to talk about worship and what the inner essence of it is, with a view to the kind of God that would require it, expect it, and what it says about him. And with a view to how it would affect your lives and your corporate gatherings, as well as your individual walks. So that’s the plan. Let me begin with some surprising — at least they were to me — facts about the way worship changes as you move from the Old Testament to the New Testament.

In the Old Testament, the most common word for “worship,” havah, used 171 times, is translated in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX), 164 of those 171 times, as proskuneo. I only mention that because that’s the main word for worship then, in the Old Testament, and as the New Testament was being written in Greek, with that being the main word at its disposal to use for worship, there are some amazing statistics.

It is common in the four Gospels (used 26 times). It’s common in the book of Revelation (used 21 times). It doesn’t occur in the Epistles — except once in 1 Corinthians 14:25, where a person comes into the church and falls down because they are prophesied over, and then a couple of times in Hebrews, quoting the Old Testament. In other words, in this earthly life, there’s this use of the word “worship.” And in the heavenly life, as you have elders and angels falling down before him, it’s also used. And in the middle, where we live, it’s not there. Here’s a take on that. The word, at its root, means “to bow down” to reverence and express admiration and adoration, but fundamentally, it is a physical act of falling down before somebody.

“Worship is showing the worth of Christ.”

While Jesus was on the earth, people did just that. They ran to him and fell down. It’s used that way regularly. In heaven, in the book of Revelation, that’s what they do. The 24 elders fall down, and the angels fall down, because he is there physically so you can do this physical thing in his presence. Now he’s not here physically. When Jesus left, he had set things up in a way that worship has taken on a less formal, less physical, less localized in spatial dimension, and has gone penetratingly inside human beings for its essence.

Authentically, it was always there. I’m not saying that in the Old Testament there was an authentic inner experience of God in worship. I’m saying Jesus, during his lifetime, began to do things and say things in a way that began to strip worship of its localized, physical, geographic, external prominence and drove it in.

Christianity’s Peculiarity: No Geographic Center

Let’s see an example of how he was doing this during his life. He met this woman who’d been married five times at the well in Samaria. He was boring into her heart, on the search for a worshiper, I believe. And she raised the question about where one should worship: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship” (John 4:20). She’s setting up a controversy — this mountain or that mountain. Now, what would Jesus do there? He’s got a choice between two places.

And so, “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). He’s not even going to go there. He continues: “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).

So how did he answer her? “You want me to respond to this mountain versus that mountain? I’ll tell you my response. In neither mountain, rather in spirit and truth.” See the category shift — the shift in the whole conversation from geography to spirit and truth? And that’s what he does. Throughout his earthly life, he’s making those changes.

Jesus also said this. “Something greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 12:6). What did he mean by that? “Me! Here it is.” Amazing. “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up” (John 2:19). “You want a place to worship? From now on, everywhere on planet earth. I’m the place.”

Christianity, among major religions, has zero geographic center. There is no Mecca. There is no Jerusalem. Not even Wheaton, Illinois or Colorado Springs. There is no geographic center. There’s one center and his name is Jesus. “I am the temple. I am the sacrifice. I am the priesthood. I am the holy of holies.”

What Is the Essence of Worship?

The whole New Testament begins now to do what Jesus began to do and unpack worship in terms of an inner experience of the living Christ who loved us, gave himself for us, rose from the dead, and called us to experience something in relation to him fundamentally and essentially. And then you read the New Testament looking for, “How do we do this? Should we do guitars, keyboards, and drums, or organs and choirs? How should we do this?”

And guess what? There’s nothing in the New Testament about that. Why? Because it’s a missionary handbook for the nations. And they do it differently everywhere. This is so unbelievably cultural. It’s just perfect for this audience and totally would not work in China, at least in some villages in China. The New Testament is silent on this.

What does the New Testament care about? The question I’m asking is this: What is now the inner essence of the things called worship? If the proskuneo was prominent physically as people fell down to Jesus in the Gospels, if the proskuneo is there prominent as people in their glorified state fall down before Jesus in heaven, and the proskuneo is gone here as an external falling down before something. What is it here? I want to know what is the essence of it.

Magnified in Life and Death

Turn to Philippians 1. I believe this is perhaps the clearest opening, displaying, explaining of what that inner essence is. And please, hear my word inner essence to be non-exclusive in its definition of worship. That is, worship is more than what I’m saying. It’s just not less. I want the essence. And as it takes its various forms outwardly in the community, in corporate gatherings, in small groups, and wherever it starts to get out in forms, I want to be sure it’s always this. So, what I care about most at my church, when we choose worship leaders at our church, you don’t audition for voice mainly, you audition for this. Is this experience a reality in their lives? They’re not standing up there and just singing.

Let’s start at Philippians 1:20: “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 [megalunō; magnified] in my body, whether by life or by death.” So Paul is saying the number one prime, central passion, expectation of his life, is that Christ would be honored, magnified, made much of, put on display as beautiful and infinitely valuable in His life and in His death. That’s what verse 20 says.

When he talks about Christ being magnified, he is indicating that’s what worship is. Worship is showing the worth — “worth-ship” — of Christ. So he’s saying there in verse 20, without using the word worship, “My eager expectation and hope, this passion in my life, is that Christ would be worshiped. Christ would be magnified, Christ would be honored, Christ would be exalted, Christ would be shown worthy, valuable, precious, a treasure. That’s what I want my life to do.”

Now the question becomes, then, “Okay, Paul. We got that. What experience inside of you does that? What subjective experience of Christ inside of you would yield corporate worship services, small group prayers, sacrifices, love, daily life that displays his work? What is that inner experience?” And he gives the answer in verse 21. And he shows that it’s the answer by the connecting word “for”:

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. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:20–21)

So this is a ground support, an argument and an explanation of what he just said. “For me to live is Christ and to die His gain.” So verse 21 — “To live is Christ and to die is gain” — explains how Christ is magnified in my living and dying. Now to see that, notice the pairs. You got a pair in verse 20 and a pair in verse 21. In verse 20, you have life and death, and in verse 21, you have to live and to die. So there’s a parallel. And he’s explaining how life and death in verse 20 can magnify Christ by referring to an experience that he has in dying and in living. So what we need to do is take the parallels from death and dying and life and living and see how they work. How is he thinking? That’s what we want — to get inside Paul’s head here as to how it is that in his death, Christ will be magnified.

So this is the way he says it, just leave out the life pair and read it like this: “It is my eager expectation and hope that now, as always, Christ will be magnified in my body. That is in my death, for to die is gain for me.” That’s the argument. “Christ is shown to be magnificent in my dying if I experience my dying as gain.”

“The essence of praising Christ is prizing Christ.”

Now, there’s a premise missing in that argument. It almost works, but it doesn’t work yet. The question arises, “Why is it gain?” Why is it dying gain for you such that when you die that way, Christ is shown to be magnificent? And the missing premise is given in Verse 23: “My desire is to depart [that is, to die] and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Better than what? Well, anything that life offers because you lose everything when you die except what you gain by dying. And what he gains by dying is Christ.

“My desire is to depart ” and not even go to play endless golf, or fish, or climb mountains. “I want Christ. And I get more of Christ when I’m dead, so I want to die.” That’s what he says. Now he doesn’t kill himself — to do so is sin. He says, “To remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (Philippians 1:25). But if he were just choosing for his own private pleasures, he would just die, because that would be gain.

A Satisfied Soul as Worship

So now we have it. What is the inner essence of the experience that makes Christ look magnificent in dying? The inner essence of the experience that makes Christ look magnificent in dying is experiencing dying as tremendous gain, joy, satisfaction.

I have used the phrase, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him” to capture the essence of what makes me tick. If you ever heard that and wondered, “Where’d he get that?” I got it right here. Christ is most magnified in my dying, when I am most satisfied in him in my dying. It’s right there. I didn’t make this up — I just made it rhyme. It’s just all there, and it’s absolutely magnificent. Another way to say it, if you like little slogans, is, “The essence of praising Christ is prizing Christ.” That’s so important. There are so many Christians who have externalized praise so that it really does consist in singing. It doesn’t — it consists in prizing first. And if the prizing isn’t there, the singing makes God hold his nose.

“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me” (Matthew 15:8–9). In vain. Forbid it, God, please, I’m a pastor! Forbid that I would preach in vain, or sing in vain, or counsel in vain. And you can. This could all be in vain, God sees whether it’s not or is by seeing right to their hearts. The heart is either prizing Christ so that’s what’s coming out is not vain, or he’s not prizing Christ, so what’s coming out is vain.

The inner essence of worship is, in my death, I will experience Christ as gain. I leave wife, children, and dreams of retirement. Maybe, at age 21, I dreamed of marriage and anything else that the next 50 years was to hold. And I’m going home with leukemia at age 21. How do you make Christ look good at that moment? I’m talking about a fellow named Zach. And he made Christ look beautiful by calling death sweet names. That is what his father wrote me. He called death sweet names near the end.

Here’s another little sloganeering way to say it: “Worshiping Christ above all is wanting him above all.” This is radical because doing the stuff like preaching or singing is easy. Feeling with authentic desire that Christ is more of a treasure than an iPad is hard. At least for some people it is. Or more desire than family, or more than strange love here. More desire than help, more desire than finishing the career, more to be desired than anything — supremely valuable in your inner experience is impossible. This is a work of divine regenerating, sanctified grace, which puts us on our faces, crying out to God over and over. O God, make yourself real to me, make yourself precious to me.

Set Yourself on a Quest for Satisfaction

Do you get up in the morning and pray Psalm 90:14? “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” Why did the psalmist pray that? Because he didn’t feel it when he woke up, that’s why. And you don’t either most of the time. So get real and get on the quest! The aim of this sermon is just to get you on the right quest. Not to externalize the singing, saying, “I got to get a better voice, I got to get my fingers working here better. I got to get my drums better, I got to get my preaching better.” That’s not the quest.

The quest is, “Satisfy me in the morning with your steadfast love. Make me like the deer that pants after the water brook. Wean me off of pornography. Wean me off of my love affair with the praise of man. Wean me off of my craving need to be approved by others. O God, rescue this idolatrous heart and make yourself supremely valuable.”

That’s the quest for worship. Oh, may God work it in you. It’s a miracle. You got to get serious about this. It won’t happen accidentally. You get on a road. We talk at Bethlehem about going hard after God on Sunday morning and now I hope it’s clear to my people. “What do you mean going hard after God? Going hard to work for God?” No, going hard — drink God, eat God, savor God, be satisfied in God.

To Live Is Christ

What about the life pair? We skipped right over that. Verse 20 again: “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 . . . by life . . . For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” So now how does he explain that Christ will be exalted in his living when he gets up in the mornings, when he goes to bed? His living, how will Christ be shown to be magnificent, supremely valuable in his heart by his living? Not his dying, but his living? And he says, “For me to live is Christ.” But what does he mean by that?

Here’s the way he unpacks “for me to live is Christ.” Philippians 3:8: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” now — not in the hospital room only just before I die, but now — for whom “I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Notice the word gain showing up again? Only this time, it’s not to die is gain. It is gain now. Christ is his gain now. To live is Christ means experiencing Christ as gain now.

“To live is Christ means experiencing Christ as gain now.”

So you walk through the airport this afternoon and get on the plane, and there are these values commending themselves and you open up a typical airplane magazine and it’s shooting clearly at one lifestyle, constantly telling you, “You need this. You need this kind of chair. You need this kind of exercise equipment.” These are really attractive. To live is Christ means you look at those, you say, “Sort of. Not really. Not compared to Christ. Right now, on this plane, when I get off the plane, when I go home, Christ is supremely valuable.”

Settle Your Satisfaction — Now

Now, I’ve just laid the foundation for a few implications that we’ll draw out. The inner essence of worship, I’m arguing, is prizing Christ, being satisfied with Christ, treasuring Christ — that’s the kind of language we use around our church. I feel the absolute necessity of this kind of language, this affectional language of prizing and satisfaction and delighting and enjoying and experiencing pleasure and being satisfied and treasuring and cherishing. That cluster of words are designed to keep people on the hook until they’re really saved.

Television is not viewed the same. Internet is not viewed the same. Money is not viewed the same. Family is not viewed the same because inside there has been a revolution of valuing and cherishing and treasuring and enjoying and being pleased and being satisfied — it’s all changed. And we’re not in bondage anymore to the cravings of the world and we’re ready to die. What an amazing liberty comes to radical things. Students: dream a radical dream. Don’t dream an ordinary dream and fit into the American or Canadian culture and just vanish in insignificance as you get rich, fat, lazy, and scared to death when you die. Don’t go there. Go here, it’s got to happen. Do it now, settle it now. Who is your value? Who is the inner satisfying treasure of your heart? “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). That’s Christianity.

God Is Not Served by Your Worship

Now, what are some of the implications? First, what this implies for what God is that God is absolutely self-sufficient and doesn’t need you. Acts 17:25: God is served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” So the God we have is totally self-sufficient. He doesn’t need us at all. And believe me, that is totally good news.

God, therefore, doesn’t need your service. He serves you! The Son of Man didn’t come into the world to be served. You have been trying to serve Jesus? He didn’t come to be served, but to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). This is the best view of God in the universe. We have a God who doesn’t need us and is totally there for us with infinite resources. If I what? If I will count him my Treasure! Of course, if I’m going off and drinking at the cesspool of the world, and then just bringing him in to fill the gaps, he’s not impressed. He does not like that — that dishonors his all sufficiency. But if you just let him be God for you, his eyes roam throughout the whole world seeking to show himself powerful on behalf of those whose hearts is whole toward him.

Getting old is a good thing in the Bible, and I’m enjoying it. Listen to this picture of God, contrasted with the false Gods of Babylon and today.

Bel bows down;
   Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock;
these things you carry are borne
   as burdens on weary beasts. (Isaiah 46:1)

You have the picture? The gods of Babylon have to be carried. This is mockery. He’s mocking them, rightly so. “Oh, you carry your god on a wagon.”

They stoop; they bow down together;
   they cannot save the burden,
   but themselves go into captivity.
Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
   all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from before your birth,
   carried from the womb;
even to your old age I am he,
   and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
   I will carry and will save. (Isaiah 46:2–4)

I want a God like that. I don’t want a God who needs me to carry him. No way. I’m getting old. You young people think you can carry God, but you can’t. In a minute, you’re flat on your back with a broken neck and have to decide with Joni Eareckson Tada whether you’re going to mope the rest of your life, or let him serve you and make something of your broken life. And they’re all broken.

So that’s implication number one: God is all-sufficient and doesn’t need me. Implication number two is that He serves me, and what a great God it is to have him serving me as I trust him. And the last implication is that God’s self-exaltation is love, because he really does pursue worship.

“Jesus didn’t come to be served, but to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Who says that? Jesus. God seeks people to worship him (John 4:23). And you could easily turn God into a megalomaniac, right? “He’s got to be worshiped.” Or, “Poor needy ego God, he’s just got to be worshiped. ‘Please worship me, worship me. Please worship me, because I feel so bad if you don’t worship me.’” That’s a sick person in need of praise. And a lot of people have made God out to be that. Michael Prowse, in the London Financial Times, said that explicitly a few years ago as he was writing a book review.

That’s not the case. The case is this: When God exalts himself and calls for worship, and worship is a being satisfied in him and getting joy from him, the summons to worship is an act of love because you get the benefit. We get the joy, he gets the glory — such a deal. It’s the best of all possible universes — God is exulted, and I’m satisfied in enjoying him because God is most glorified when I am most satisfied in him. So the higher he goes, the higher my happiness goes.

The Pursuit of Joy — Essential, Not Optional

Now let me close by pointing out just a few implications, not for God and what he’s like, but for what you do in worship — corporate worship. The pursuit of joy in God, therefore, is not optional — it’s your highest worship duty. Millions of Christians strive against this statement. Your calling, your duty, your passion in worship, should be the pursuit of your joy — your joy in God. It’s deadly where that is rejected, and I grew up breathing an atmosphere that says, “If you seek your own happiness, you’re doing something morally defective.”

And I’m saying that if you don’t make your supreme passion in corporate worship the pursuit of your joy in God, you destroy worship. So a lot of pastors, I think, are cutting themselves off at the knees if they bark at their people with statements like, “You people always come in here to get, get, get! If you’d just come in here to give once in a while, we’d have some life in this service!” That’s not true. They’re just coming to get the wrong thing, coming to get titillated by a good choir, or a riff, or whatever. That’s not what we’re coming to get. We’re coming to get God. We’re coming to get joy in God. We’re coming to get healed by God. We’re coming to get forgiveness from God. We’re coming for him. “If you don’t show up here and satisfy my soul, I’m going to be addicted to everything in the world. And I’ll become a sinner, and I’ll go to hell. I need you!” That’s what fires worship.

God-Centered Worship

The second implication of saying the inner essence of worship is satisfaction in God is that it makes worship God-centered, radically God-centered. Nothing makes God more supreme, more central, than a gathered people who collectively say, “Money, prestige, leisure, family, job, health, sports, toys, friends are nothing compared to God.” You have a group of people coming together, and they say that out loud and feel that in their hearts, and you’ve got an electric moment of God-centeredness like never before. So the implication of this is that cultivating in yourself and in your church the inner experience of being satisfied in God is the essence of worship, will make worship radically God-centered.

The Goal of Everything

The third implication is that this way of viewing worship, as having this inner essence in being satisfied in God, is that it will preserve worship as an end in itself. I believe worship is the end of the universe — it’s the goal of all things. And it should be now.

Now, I don’t mean services are the goal of all things, I mean the inner experience of having God as our supreme treasure, feeling that, living that, is the end, the goal of all things. There are a lot of pastors and people who make worship a means to an end. 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 righteous, we worship to help marriages stay together, we worship to evangelize the lost, we worship to motivate people to service projects, we worship to create a family feeling in our church, and on and on, turning worship into a means to all these other ends, and thus denying worship as an end in itself.

You can’t say to your wife, “I feel a strong delight in you so that you will make me a nice supper.” Something is wrong with that because she would feel, “You feel a strong delight in me so that I would make you a nice supper. I think you want supper, I think you like supper.” And she’s right, you can’t say it. If your delight doesn’t terminate on her, but makes her a stepping-stone to the thing you want her to do, you haven’t honored her. And if you do that with God, you haven’t honored him.

“We’re going to worship here, raise a lot of money! It’s authentic, it’s real, we’ll get a lot of money.” No, no, no. That doesn’t work. God sees that. You can’t say to your son, “I love playing ball with you so that you’ll happily cut the grass this afternoon.” Can’t say it. “Do you love playing ball with me, or you love me cutting grass?” You can’t say that “love playing ball with me” is a means to cutting the grass and have me feel really honored be your playing ball with me. You get it?

“The pursuit of joy in God is not optional — it’s your highest worship duty.”

So saying with authenticity, “You are my delight. You are my treasure. You’re my supreme value.” Saying that guards you from turning this moment into a means for a thousand good things, but keeping him right there with your heart, terminating on him in joy, not making that joy a means to anything. Now, lest you misunderstand, I believe with all my heart that when you authentically delight in your wife, everything goes better. But if you do it to make everything go better, the delight is compromised.

And the same goes in the church. If God is authentically loved, corporately, and individually and there’s this great sense that he is everything, he’s the end, whatever the crowds are, whatever the money is, he’s everything, then that will have a ripple effect for good everywhere. But if you try to make it a means to all those goods everywhere, it will cease to be pleasing in God’s eyes, and it will cease to be an end in itself.

All We Have Is Christ

Let me close with a summary now. Christ reoriented the thinking about worship in the New Testament, taking the emphasis off of “this mountain or that mountain” into spirit and truth. “And I am the temple, and I am the priesthood, and I am the sacrifice, and I am the reward.” Everything was shifting off of place and form onto Christ.

Second, Paul defines the inner essence of that experience with Christ as gain. “I count it as gain in my life, and gain in my dying. Christ is my treasure. Christ is my satisfaction, Christ is my joy, my delight. My all.” That’s the inner essence of worship.

Third, God is the kind of God, therefore, who seeks to be glorified most in our being most satisfied in him. And that’s the best kind of God you could possibly imagine — that he would seek to exalt his name in your joy in him — all his omnipotence devoted to my everlasting happiness in him.

Fourth, therefore, your vocation should first and foremost be to pursue joy in him above all. Mind you, it’s a dangerous quest. Jesus said things like, “You may have to cut off your hand to do it. You may have to gouge out your eye to do it. You will have to take up your cross and die to many things, which your flesh right now is telling you have to have in order to be happy.” It is not an easy quest, it’s a dangerous quest, and it’ll take some of you, I’m praying for God to do this, to places that they don’t want you to come, and the gospel is needed there, and it will be very costly for you to be there. But you won’t be there without Jesus, and you won’t be there without joy.

And finally, therefore, take up a lifestyle that displays Christ as your supreme treasure. If you really do experience Christ within as a supreme treasure, everything changes. There’s a lifestyle that will begin, it will be sacrificial, and it will be loving. The good of people will rise, and your own security and comforts will go down because Christ is everything to you. Christ is everything. All we have is Christ.