Why Do We Worship at All?
I’ve heard from several people who have gone to the Ark Encounter, and they have raved about how magnificent it is. Seeing such makes the Bible come alive in the minds of those who attend, and while I haven’t gone to see it myself, I would dare say that beholding such a spectacle leaves one with a sense of completed joy. Would they go again? Many have said that they would. To see something only hitherto read about brought to life is like reading a good book—good books, if they are truly good, are worth reading again and again.
When I was teaching Bible classes at Foundation Christian Academy a few years ago, we studied portions of Acts. When we came to Acts 17 when Paul went to Athens, I wanted to make the Bible come alive for those middle schoolers. We watched a video pertaining to the city itself and even took a field trip to the Parthenon in Nashville, TN. When we stepped into the inner sanctum, we beheld the idol Athena and Nike in her hand. Looking over the artistry which endeavored to capture what the ancient Athenians and even Paul might have seen was remarkable. The details of Athena’s shield told a story worth hearing if not seeing.
I have visited the Parthenon several times, and enjoy going each time because I appreciate what it is. Being a student of classics and Bible, seeing something from the ancient world, in reality, makes it alive to me and leaves me with a sense of fulfillment each time I go. For this reason, I believe, as Dostoevsky once wrote, that beauty can save the world. Art, one source among many in beauty, can point us to the divine. Perhaps, for this reason, my favorite artist is Sandro Botticelli who painted many religious paintings in Renaissance Italy. However, his Birth of Venus is my favorite. There’s a beauty in his work that leaves us with a sense of fulfillment and points the admirer to God.
Why do humans worship at all? I contend that, as John Piper offered, it’s to complete our joy. Piper himself derived his conclusion from C. S. Lewis’ book, Reflections on the Psalms. Lewis offers this:
When I first began to draw near to belief in God and even for some time after it had been given me, I found a stumbling block in the demand so clamorously made by all religious people that we should “praise” God; still more in the suggestion that God Himself demanded it. We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand.
The Psalmist in Psalm 29:1–2 is addressing not mortals, but angels. They invoke the angels to “Give unto Yahweh.” While the NKJV translates the Hebrew “O you mighty ones,” the literal designation reads, “O sons of God,” a sobriquet often used of angels. We might not contend that celestial beings might be required to pay obeisance to deity, but why mortals? We, like they, are created by God. Lewis offers this insight, “It is in the process of being worshiped that God communicates his presence to men.” When we think of worship, we often think of what we give or offer to God. Rather, we should see it as God giving Himself to us by what we do in worship. Allow me to explain.
In the heathen rites, sacrifice was to invoke favors or beg protection. This isn’t so much the case when it comes to the Jewish religion of old, because one term we often encounter is “atonement.” Atonement is better thought of by its cognate form translated as “reconciliation.” We are, therefore, reconciled to God by sacrifice. They were not invoking God’s favor or begging His protection, they were reconciling themselves to Him by sacrifice, especially the blood offered (Lev. 17:11). Jesus’ blood has reconciled us, and in His atoning work, we now stand as reconciled no longer offering or needing sacrifice.
I believe we see humanity attempting to reconcile to God as far back as after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Once Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness, they sewed fig leaves together as a covering. Humanity has always attempted to approach God on their own terms, but we must approach Him on His terms, not ours. Therefore, despite humanity’s best effort at covering their shame (sin), God made for them garments of flesh which required sacrifice and shed blood (Gen. 3:21). Even afterward, God regarded Abel’s offering while not regarding Cain’s—the former of which was an offering of the firstborn of his flock (Gen. 4:4–5). What truly reconciles us to God, what atones for our sins, is the shedding of blood. Life for life, and for us Christians, Jesus’ sacrifice was the ultimate act reconciliation:
Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:18–19)
We worship to be joined back to God, but since Christ has accomplished the perfect reconciliation, why do we now worship still? It’s to complete our joy. All enjoyment overflows into praise. When our children have something exciting happen, they want to tell us about it. Same with our friends and spouses. Whatever is admired is praised to some degree. Have you been at a sporting game and not cheered? Have you been at a concert and not clapped or stood in ovation? Have you not gushed over meeting someone you admire—a celebrity, author, or an expert in your field of interest? We become excited and express our excitement, and we have a sense of fulfillment such as attending the Ark Encounter or walking through the Parthenon. Ancient worship was about reconciling, but Christ has reconciled us to God. Our worship now is the celebration of that reconciliation. We ought to be awed by God, and because of such, we express it in praise and adoration. We celebrate, and our joy is completed.