It is an important question.
I think many of us understand that it is not just found in the musical sing-along time of a Sunday morning church service, but at the same time we rarely use the term outside of that context. We talk about worship and quote John 4:23 all of the time and yet somehow we can’t get past the idea that worship is found solely in music and singing. It could be like what Dave Ramsey said about saving money – we always talk about it, but never actually do it! Or we get philosophical about it, but fail to understand or execute its application to our budget.
What we, as Christians, do not want to do, is to be able to talk about worship and where it is found in the Bible and then never actually do it, which presupposes we are doing it correctly, so it is accepted by God. That’s the bigger concern.
The Greek word for worship that we often see translated in the Bible is proskuneo. This word is very direct in its practical application in that it means to prostrate, bow, or kneel in profound reverence. It even means to kiss the hand “towards” someone. It is a physical action that shows submission, obedience and vulnerability.
We can read many passages in the Bible, like in Revelation, where people “fell on their faces and worshiped God” (11:16), or “fell down and worshiped God” (19:4), or when an overwhelmed John fell at the feet of the angel in worship and was rebuked and told to “worship God” (19:10 & 22:9).
This same word, proskuneo, was also used to describe the leper that came to Jesus in Matthew 8:2 when he “bowed down before Him”. Or when the synagogue official in Matthew 9:18 came to Jesus and “bowed down before Him,” asking Jesus to bring his dead daughter back to life. It was a sign of reverent and humble submission.
Even more telling is when Jesus explained in Matthew 18 how the Kingdom of Heaven was like the king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When one of the slaves had no means to repay him, the king ordered that he and his whole family be sold along with all his possessions in order to be paid back. At this the slave “fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’”
When the Bible talks about worship it is talking about the literal act of bowing down with our face to the ground in reverence, fear, humility and submission before God. This would be the actual “act” of worship, or the physical posture of worship.
It is no wonder, then, that Paul had to specify to the New Testament believers in Rome what their spiritual act of worship was, or what it was that demonstrated in their hearts that they were in fact bowing down to the holy and awesome God in humility and submission and not the world any longer. He says in 12:1, “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.”
So, what is the spiritual act of this falling down before God in worship? Offering our bodies as living sacrifices to Him. This is something the readers understood since the Jews, via the priests, were always offering sacrifices on their altars for different things, be it sin offerings, praise offerings, etc. Now with Jesus acting as the final atonement for sin, being the perfectly sinless Lamb of God, the people had no need for these physical sacrifices anymore. Christ was sufficient! Now they were to offer themselves to God in obedience to God, since it was by God’s mercy that they had been forgiven.
Now, take notice that it also says to be “holy and acceptable” to God.
This echoes what the author of the Book of Hebrews said in 12:28-29, “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
Acceptable worship is only found where there is reverence and awe for Holy God – a consuming fire! When anyone bows down before God with no reverence, no awe, no adoration or submission, then they are not worshiping God acceptably. They are only showing outward signs of compliance and are in fact an offense to God. Proverbs 21:27 says, “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination; how much more when he brings it with evil intent.” It is the Judas Kiss being perpetuated throughout the ages when we say we worship God, yet do not live obediently to Him in every area of our lives, dealing with sin when it is present. May this never be for us! To come back to Romans 12, we must not be conformed to the world.
One phrase in particular that brings all of these thoughts together was said by David first in 1 Chronicles 16 in an exaltation of praise and worship to God for the safe delivery of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem from the Philistines. His song is absolutely beautiful and shines brightly from a heart that sought God and His glory. In verses 28-30, specifically, we see an important indicator to acceptable worship:
Right away we see everything we just talked about in Romans and Hebrews. Holiness is to be evident in our heart and lives before God. Our spiritual worship, after all, is to be holy and acceptable as we offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God. Additionally, the word “tremble” found here in David’s song indicates having a fear of God. Fear is a word you get when you combine “reverence” and “awe” – the very things outlined in our Hebrews 12 passage as being necessary for acceptable worship.
But there’s even more to this one line in particular: “Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.”
It’s time to open this storm door and step down into the depths of this verse that will reveal even more to how worship is properly offered, thus being truly acceptable before our consuming fire – Holy, Almighty God.
Some theologians would translate this verse to say, “Worship the Lord because of the splendor of His holiness.” While I don’t believe that is the intent of meaning of this phrase in particular, this certainly is a most crucial reason to worship our Lord and there is plenty of evidence in Scripture where we can read of God’s holiness and the command to worship him as such.
David had a magnificent ability to talk about God’s holiness and majesty, especially in the form of songs we find in the Psalms. He was fully convinced and convicted that we must worship God because of His holiness.
Psalm 99 lays out some clear reasons for the believer to worship their God. A condensed look at verses 1-3 reveals: the Lord reigns; He is enthroned upon the cherubim; He is great in Zion; He is exalted; Holy is He!
Then 4 & 5: He loves justice; He’s established equity; He’s executed justice and righteousness; Holy is He!
Finally, verses 8 & 9: He is a forgiving God; He is an avenger of wrongdoing; The Lord our God is holy!
Twice in this chapter we are told, “Exalt the Lord our God; worship at his footstool [and holy mountain]; for the Lord our God is Holy!”
David cannot be clearer: Worship God because He is holy! Drop the gavel. Close the book. Done.
It is no wonder that some theologians take “worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness” to mean we are to worship the Lord because of His holiness, because that is, in fact, a true statement, but given the context of David’s song in 1 Chronicles 16, David is exhorting us to be something God has always wanted us to be – holy.
All over the Old Testament, God is seen telling the people of Israel to “be holy for I am holy.” His reason for taking the people out of Egypt was to bring the nation of Israel to a consecrated place to serve and worship Him as a holy people, since God is a holy God (Ex. 7:16; 8:1; 9:1).
“I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” –Lev. 11:45
“You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.” –Lev. 20:26
The Apostle Peter drove this home in 1 Peter 1 in his own explanation of the mandate to be holy and not to be a part of the world’s sinful lifestyles. He wrote, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (vv. 14-16).
This is reminiscent of what Paul said in Romans 12:1-2, again, “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. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Acceptable worship always comes around to the requirement to be holy. That is what defines a Christian. We are holy because God is holy. Indeed, we are holy because God made us holy by His mercies and by His grace.
It just so happens that a portion of David’s song in 1 Chronicles 16 is also re-recorded in Psalm 96, which is what we will use to understand the context of worshiping the Lord in the splendor of holiness. It helps if we break this short Psalm down into four segments:
1) Verses 1-3 are instructions to the worshiper
2) Verses 4-6 are reasons for why we ought to worship God
3) Verses 7-10 are more instructions to the worshiper
4) Verses 11-13 is a personal expression of praise and worship from David
Knowing this, we can then see our phrase in question is found in Segment 3, the second set of instructions for the worshiper. We are told here to “ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!” This is recognizing God as having all glory and strength and then attributing it to him as such. That’s what ascribing means- To attribute something to someone.
David also tells us to “bring an offering and come into his courts!” In David’s day, this could well be an actual offering on the altar, or perhaps even an offering of a sacrifice of praise (Ps. 116:17). This would be fitting with Hebrews 13:15 for us today, “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” It is, after all, what David is doing in these Psalms- acknowledging His name and attributing to Him glory and strength.
Then, in verse nine, we see, “worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.”
This verse can actually be read as, “worship the Lord in the splendor of holy attire.”
This is where our study reaches a new level of amazing. You will see what I mean. That key understanding to the translation, in that it can be read as “holy attire”, brings us to a deeper understanding of historical, transcendental worship – that is, worship that is historically consistent and transcends all times, from the OT days to us now.
David is instructing the worshiper to worship in something. What? Splendor. How do you get this splendor and what is it? You get it by being holy, but this not of yourselves, or for yourselves. It too, is the gracious work of God for the glory of God. As Paul told the Philippians, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” This is right after he tells them to keep being obedient to God. When we continue to obey God’s laws, we will become more like Christ, which means He is making us more and more holy as He is holy.
God is holy and full of splendor, so we ought to worship in the splendor that is found in holiness! Just as an obedient sacrifice offered on the altar in the OT was a pleasing aroma to God (Ex. 8:21; 29:18,25,41; Lev. 1:9,13,17, etc.), so is the obedient, holy heart on the altar of our lives to God, or in the living sacrifice we offer ourselves as.
The prophet Samuel sternly corrected the disobedient King Saul’s shallow understanding of pleasing and acceptable worship when he said, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22).
The helpful understanding we get from the “holy attire” in the Psalm 96 parallel is found from cover to cover in the Bible. The splendor of holy attire was taken very seriously by God, and consequently by the Israelites, when God first laid out the guidelines for acceptable worship in Exodus 28 & 29.
These chapters give elaborate detail to the process that the priests must go through to not only offer an acceptable sacrifice, but consecrate themselves as well. Chapter 28 speaks specifically to the garments of the priests. Verses 2-3 says, “You shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. You shall speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him for my priesthood.”
The exact articles of clothing and the details required for them are then laid out in detail and Moses is constantly told they are to be executed with skillful precision (vv. 3, 6, 8, 15, 27 & 28).
With all of this said, we get to chapter 29, which outlines in detail how the priests are to be consecrated for service to God. There is about a week long process involved in this consecration. Let’s look at verse 21, though. It reads, “Then you shall take part of the blood that is on the altar, and of the anointing oil, and sprinkle it on Aaron and his garments, and on his sons’ garments with him[…]”
This last line is key…
“[…]He and his garments shall be holy, and his sons and his sons’ garments with him.”
Again, in verse 29, it refers to “the holy garments of Aaron” and how they were to be used by his sons after him, by which they would be ordained and consecrated in as well. No one else in Israel had garments like these that were considered holy by God. They were exclusively for the priests. The focus of the whole sacrificial system was to be done in strict obedience to God’s design, in a holy way. When done according to God’s plan, he considered them consecrated and holy to Him.
The purpose of these priests was to make atonement for the sins of the people and to intercede to God for them in this regard and this was no light matter. They were putting their lives at stake by doing this because if they didn’t do something right, they would die. They had to have the right articles of clothing crafted and then worn in the right way at the right time. If they didn’t, God said they would “bear guilt and die” (Ex. 28:35 & 43). This was pass or fail.
Exodus 30:10 says, “Aaron shall make atonement on [the Altar’s] horns once a year. With the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once in the year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the Lord.”
So we see through all of this that holiness was of utmost importance to God. The priests were to be consecrated and holy, as were their garments, and the altar they offered sacrifices on. He is, after all, the epitome of holiness. He is a consuming fire and He demands holiness from us.
Even a cursory glance at the sacrificial system of the Old Testament will quickly reveal to us the underlying principle and concept of the need for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Every single person that ever lived, with the exception of Jesus of Nazareth, is a sinner. Left to our own devices, we will most assuredly end up in the eternal Hell that Jesus so often warned us about. Before Jesus came to this Earth, it was the same scenario for the Old Testament Jews. They had no way to be right before God without a priest interceding for them by offering sacrifices to God for the atonement of their sin.
Hebrews 9:22 says, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.”
This is why blood was sprinkled on the priests garments – to be made holy, and sprinkled on the altar – to be made holy, and sprinkled on the people – to be made holy. Blood was sprinkled on the tent of meeting and the vessels used in worship as well (vs. 21).
For us, in the post-resurrection world, we have no need for perpetual sacrifices anymore. The blood of Jesus Christ is far greater than any animal and has completely satisfied the requirements for atonement and reconciliation with God forever!
This is so important for us to realize the significant difference between the old covenant and the new covenant brought by Jesus. Even though the priests were consecrated to God and considered holy before God, they were still sinners in need of the very sacrifice they were offering for everyone else.
Hebrews 5: 1-3 says, “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people.”
Jesus came to settle this need for our atonement and He did so with a universal stamp of finality. He is perfect, sinless, holy and He is God. He is the only one who could have possibly fulfilled this spiritual need for mankind.
“And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:9-10).
Then in 10:11-18, “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
Finally, so as not to lose the lesson here that by Christ’s blood we are made holy, verse 21 & 22 says that “since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Emphasis mine).
Now, because of Jesus’s substitutionary atonement for our sins, by faith and repentance of sin, we are sprinkled with His blood so that we are considered imputed with His righteousness, being made holy unto Him.
Now we can worship Him in the splendor of holiness! It’s the only way to worship acceptably.
Now, referring back to 1 Peter and his exhortation to be holy…how is this fleshed out? Is there a connection to the new covenant believer in regards to the “holy attire” that David talked about in 1 Chronicles and in the Psalms? How are these all tied together?
This is where we get closer to the other cover of our Bibles. Look at Revelation 19.
This is beautiful.
In verse six, “Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready…”
As you probably already know, the Bride is the Church, the collective group of the redeemed saints of God – those sprinkled clean by the blood of Jesus Christ.
How has the Church, the Bride of Christ, made herself ready?
Verse 8, “It was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure [emphasis mine]” –
Holiness! Righteousness! The church is adorned by it because of Christ! It is Christ in us who makes us righteous and holy. It is Christ in us that makes us fit for worship. It is Christ in us that gives us the ability to honor God back at all…
Like the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:10 while humbly recognizing his fallen nature, “By the grace of God I am what I am…”
Let’s make no mistake, either… the Church is granted the ability to be righteous and bear righteous deeds in keeping with repentance. We never would have wanted it or asked for it without God’s sovereign call in our lives. We recognize our responsibility in making the decision to repent of sin, but we recognize our inability to do so without His breathing into our spiritual corpse, life – Regeneration.
It is by grace we are saved and by grace that we can worship Him in the splendor of holiness.
Friends, do not think that acceptable worship is something you can manipulate out of an instrument or experience with the right “flow” of a worship service. True worship is found in those who are truly bought by Christ. These are the true worshipers that the Father seeks and saves. True worshipers worship in spirit (with a right heart before God) and in truth (informed by Holy Scripture). You bring your worship, your sacrifice of praise, to the Sunday morning meeting. You are either a worshiper, or you are not.
Worship God! And worship in the splendor of holiness.
All because of Jesus.