Worship According to the Word

Worship According to the Word

Written by O. Palmer Robertson |
Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Worship according to the Word makes a huge difference in the life of every church. This difference will be clearly seen in the health of the church and its impact on the world. May the God of all grace enable his people to experience the fullness of his blessing as they gather for proper, biblical worship in every corner of each country throughout the world.

Be sure you make it according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.
(Exodus 25:40; 26:30; Hebrews 8:5)


A certain worship service lasted for three hours. An estimated 1000 people were in attendance. During that lengthy service, no Scripture was read, no prayers for the congregation were offered, no confession of sin was made. There was no congregational singing, no preaching of a sermon, no celebration of the sacraments.

You may ask, “So what did they do for three hours?”

They had a group dancing on “stage” for 45 minutes; they received various offerings for 45 minutes; they climaxed the service with everyone coming forward and repeating over and over, “I am healed! I am healed! I am healed!” The pastor assured them that this repetitive statement constituted a “prophetic saying.” If they believed as they chanted, they would be healed.

What was the effect of this worship service on the people? In terms of experiencing the presence of God in worship, the effect was absolutely nil. Nothing happened. Certainly nothing happened positively. Negatively, worse than nothing happened.

Remember David and the ark? Remember Uzzah and his well-meant intervention? David intended to provide a model for dedicated worship before the people. Because the ark of the covenant symbolized God’s throne on earth, he determined to bring the ark to a position of prominence in Jerusalem next to his own throne. But on the way, well-meaning Uzzah steadied the ark when the oxen stumbled, and God struck Uzzah dead (2 Samuel 6:6–7).

Why? Why did the Lord take this drastic action?

Because their approach to a holy God contradicted the Lord’s own revealed way for worship, that’s why. Rather than having the Levites alone transport the ark on their shoulders by its permanently positioned carrying poles, they presumed their imaginative ways could excel the way God himself had determined for his worship (Exodus 25:10–15; Numbers 4:15; cf. 1 Chronicles 15:15). Though well-meaning, they forgot the precise directive given by God through Moses concerning worship at the time of the building of the tabernacle in the wilderness: “Be sure you make it according to the pattern shown you on the mountain” (Exodus 25:40; 26:30; cf. Hebrews 8:5).

But may we not expect greater tolerance from God when his ordained way of worship is not so perfectly respected today? After all, are not we frail human creatures now living under the greater grace of the new covenant era?

In response, should it not be noted that many more people died for worship-abuse among church members in Corinth than the single man Uzzah at the time of David’s abortive bringing up the Ark? According to the Apostle Paul, “That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep in death” (1 Corinthians 11:30).

Because of improper worship practices, Paul reports that many people in the Corinthian church had gotten sick, and a number had died.

In the words of the sons of the reformers,

The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture (Westminster Confession of Faith xxi, i).

So this matter of worship is a vital part of human life in relation to the Creator of heaven and earth that must not be treated lightly. As these biblical incidents indicate, proper worship is a life-and-death matter. It brings constant refreshment for life when done properly. But worship wrongly practiced removes life from the misdirected worshipper, no matter how devoted he may be. Absolutely critical is the consistent practice of true worship according to the Word by every individual and every congregation of professing believers.

So consider seven elements for worship prescribed by the Word. As often as possible, all seven of these elements should be present in every worship service. These seven biblical elements of worship are:

  1. Singing
  2. Reading Scripture
  3. Prayer
  4. Public Testimony and Profession of Faith
  5. Preaching
  6. The Sacraments
  7. Offerings

Scriptural directions for each of these worship elements deserve specific attention.

1. Singing

Not just any singing. By the models of Scripture, singing should be congregational, substantial, and edifying.

(1) Firstly, proper singing in worship should be congregational. See that six-foot elder standing with his arms folded and his lips firmly set? By determination he never sings a note. He’s in church every Sunday, but his worship is deficient. See that clammed-up congregation? They have forfeited their right and their obligation to praise the Lord by worship in song. They’re letting the choir and the worship team do all the singing. So they fail to offer the sacrifice of praise to God that they owe.

Something unique happens when a human being sings. No other activity joins the right brain to the left, the mind to the heart, the body and soul in perfect harmony like singing. That’s why Scripture specifically states, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly with all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). This verse does not necessarily lay down the rule that all singing must follow the wording of the book of Psalms in the Old Testament, though many saints have interpreted it that way. But it does present an unequivocal command that all worshippers are expected to sing.

Many hindrances new and old can stifle the singing of the congregation. Choirs can usurp the role of congregational singing. Indeed, choirs can offer great encouragement to the soul in worship. Uplifting music often elevates a person’s spirit. David organized choirs, wrote music and lyrics, appointed appropriate instrumental accompaniment and developed antiphonal responses (1 Samuel 16:18, 23; 2 Samuel 23:1; Amos 6:5; 1 Chronicles 23:5; 2 Chronicles 29:27, 30; Ezra 3:10; Nehemiah 12:24, 36). Yet as in everything else that is human, proper application tells the tale between blessing and curse. Without realizing it a choir can easily develop into a separate group in the church with its own agenda. Sometimes the greatest of choirs are so great that they stifle any and all singing by the person in the pew, while simultaneously overshadowing the sermon of the day.

Worship teams can encourage a congregation. But they can also overpower the singing of the people so that no voice can be heard but their own. They stand in front of the congregation, blasting with their loudspeakers, electronic keyboards, drums and guitars, while the congregation remains transfixed and numbed into silence. The worship team has practiced throughout the week. Its members are familiar with the words and tunes well before worship begins. So they regularly submerge the meagre effort of the “commoner” to praise the Lord in song.

Why huge amplifiers must magnify the music coming from the keyboard, the drums and the soloists is a great mystery. These amplifiers manufacture so many decibels of sound bites that they seriously threaten deafness to people sitting up front. “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit,” including your bodily capacity to hear (1 Corinthians 6:19)? Furthermore, what’s the use of a member of the congregation singing when he cannot even hear his own voice, much less anybody else’s? A proper worship service will promote full participation of all the people in the singing of the service.

(2) Secondly, proper singing in worship must be substantial. Mindless repetitions of musical phrases, no matter how God-glorifying they may be in themselves, quickly degenerate into vain repetitions. Would you actually stand before a dignitary such as your governor or a member of parliament and say, “Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, praise the Lord” fifty times over without interruption or explanatory comment? How can you expect to communicate with the Almighty God with that kind of repetitive rhetoric? What do you think he is? Is your God nothing more than a parrot who can absorb what you say only when you repeat it a hundred times over?

You may choose to sing hymns and choruses as well as the Psalms. But the Psalms of Scripture set the standard, the model for proper singing in worship. Consider the depth of their sin-confession, the height of their praise, the breadth of their petition for the worldwide spread of the gospel among all peoples, lands and nations. When you can match the psalms in substance and poetic beauty with your singing, then you are singing in a scriptural manner. Allow no lesser substitutes.

(3) Thirdly, proper singing must be edifying. It must build up the saints in their most holy faith. It must take them beyond where they are to higher heights of glorifying God in worship. An old Jewish proverb says, “As a man sings, so is he.” If the church sings only songs capable of being sung by children, it will remain childish in its faith. No wonder the church continues so long in its infancy. It sings like a baby, refusing to savor strong meat in its music. But among the activities of biblical worship is the responsibility to “speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16). By corporate singing each believer must build up others in their faith.

Have you ever seen a man, woman or child sing with such obvious enthusiasm that you instantly experience a great burst of blessing? Right now I can think of several people who bless me whenever I see or hear them sing to the Lord in worship!

So singing is one of the essential elements of Christian, biblical worship. From the song of Moses after the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15) to the song of David at the bringing up of the ark-throne to Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 16; Psalm 96) to the song of the Lamb in Revelation (Revelation 15), God’s people have been a joyously singing community. No other religion can come close to matching it. Christianity at its core is a singing community.

It must never lose that distinctive. The Lord expects to hear us all singing when we come into his presence, for he himself is a singing God. As the prophet declares, “[The Lord] shall rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).

2. Reading Scripture

Reading from the Bible obviously should be a part of every worship service. Yet it hardly ever is given its proper place as a vital part of worship these days. The preacher may read a few verses as his sermon text. But little or no place is given to the pure and purposeful reading of Scripture.

How strange! Here we have God’s inspired Word that contains everything necessary for fullness of life. Yet we give more time and attention in worship to announcements about meetings this coming week than to reading and hearing God’s own words. Does that really make sense?

Listen to these admonitions in the Bible that speak directly to the matter of the public reading of Scripture:

[Moses says]: “You shall read this law before them in their hearing. Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law. Their children, who do not know this law, must hear it and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess” (Deuteronomy 31:11–13).

When he commands that the people regularly read “this law” in their assemblies for worship, Moses refers to the entirety of the book of Deuteronomy. This book of the Bible would take several hours to read. Everyone in their community was required to be present throughout this reading, including men, women, children and aliens. Yet worshippers today would find it difficult to absorb even ten minutes of Scripture reading in a worship service.

A similar admonition recurs at the end of Old Testament history. God’s people are deeply involved in re-instituting their worship practices after seventy years of exile to Babylon:

Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon … in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law (Nehemiah 8:2–3).

Once more the whole congregation of God’s people assemble to hear the reading of the Word of God. Once more this reading involves an extended portion of Scripture, not merely a short selection. Ezra read “from daybreak to noon.” As much as six hours were taken up in nothing more and nothing less than reading the Word of God.

Of course, it would take time for a congregation to become accustomed to listening to Scripture being read for an extended period of time. Instant internet connections, coded text messages, one-line summaries of major news events do not prepare people today for listening attentively to a reading that continues “from daybreak to noon.” But even ten minutes of uninterrupted reading from Scripture in a worship service …? Fifteen minutes …?? Twenty …???

A third admonition directing the church in its reading of Scripture occurs in one of Paul’s letters:

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching (1 Timothy 4:13).

Right alongside “preaching” and “teaching” is the “public reading of Scripture.” Yet regularly in worship the preacher tends to “rush to the sermon,” to move on to the “real thing,” which he regards as his preaching. Indeed, preaching must be viewed as a focal moment in worship. But should not God also have a chance to speak? Reading Scripture (without comment) is the one moment in worship when the Lord has an opportunity to speak for himself. Yet the tendency is to minimize Scripture reading, to “get through it” and move on to what may be regarded as the more important aspects of worship. But what could be more relevant in worship than to have God himself speak directly to his assembled people?

One person memorized the whole gospel of Mark and then regularly recited the book in a single setting. His recitations were so effective that the hearers hardly noted the passage of time. Yet could not this same effect be duplicated in every reading of Scripture, even though on a smaller scale? On one occasion, a Bible teacher read a passage from the gospel of John with such meaningful inflection that no need remained for him to interpret the passage. The word of God spoke for itself.

So read Scripture in worship. Read longer passages. Read with understanding. Practice reading beforehand so you know the points needing emphasis or a change of tone in the voice. Treat the reading of Scripture as one of the most vital portions of every worship service.

3. Prayer

Prayer in worship must be with substance. Prayer in worship is not the time for parroting commonplace phrases that communicate little in terms of meaningful interaction with the Almighty. These prayers in worship should embrace all the essential elements of prayer, including praise, confession, thanksgiving, intercession, and petition. The “five-finger exercise in prayer” may aid a person in being sure all these basic elements are covered. Consider more fully these various elements of proper prayer:3

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