October 29, 2013

Biblical Studies

Worship is an important concept in the Bible. In fact, it is such an important concept that the Bible consistently presents it as one of the key factors that separate God’s true followers from the rest of humanity.1 For this reason it is important for Christians to understand what true worship is. We tend to focus on the external manifestations of worship: what we can hear, see, and feel; so issues around worship style naturally tend to form the focus of much of the understanding of worship for many people. However, what did the apostle Paul understand the heart of worship to be?

In Romans 12:1 Paul exhorts believers: “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.”2 The Greek phrase translated as “spiritual worship” is a difficult phrase to translate into English. The King James Version translates this as “reasonable service.” Both of these translations are reasonable attempts. Douglas Moo suggests that it could also be translated as “true worship.”3 In reality, that is what this passage is dealing with.

In Romans 12:1-3 Paul uses a cluster of words that his readers would immediately have associated with worship. This marks the passage as one of Paul’s most in-depth discussions of worship. James Dunn notes that “the opening of Romans 12 makes a stunning impact. For Paul deliberately evokes the language of the sacrificial cult.”4 

Literal or Metaphorical?14 1 5

Many scholars have interpreted Paul’s language in Romans 12:1 as merely being metaphorical.5 However, Paul was not merely describing the appropriate mental and spiritual attitudes that should accompany worship; nor was he simply drawing spiritual lessons—Paul was creating something new. As Dunn observes: “For most of their contemporaries a religious association without cult center, without priests, without sacrifices, must have seemed a plain contradiction in terms, even an absurdity.”6 Yet Paul’s “use of language shows that he was deliberately breaking with the typical understanding of a religious community dependent on cult center, office of priest, and act of ritual sacrifice.”7

For Paul, all work on behalf of the gospel was priestly ministry for all believers.8 Although the Temple ministry had been limited to a special order of priests, the gospel ministry was a privilege and a responsibility for all believers. The concept of sacrificial worship is central to Paul’s thought, although the process and the nature of the offering are now understood differently.9

Paul continues his argument in Romans 12 and defines what it means to worship as a Christian. He argues that true worship does not necessarily mean substituting the Jewish Temple cult with something else. Paul does not criticize the priesthood or the Temple, and he does not condemn the rituals of the Temple. We may even say that he views the Temple cult positively in the sense that it “supplies a model for Christian forms.”10 However, this does not mean that Paul saw the Temple cult itself as the appropriate form of worship for the believers in the churches he established. Paul uses the concepts of the Temple cult to redefine what it means to worship as a Christian.

Romans 12 and Paul’s Idea of Worship

Romans 12:1 has been described as “the hinge between the doctrinal and ethical portions of Romans.”11 The chapter is carefully constructed,12 and, from a thematic and structural viewpoint, verses 3-8 are closely related to verses 1, 2. Indeed, verses 3-8 are an amplification of the “living sacrifice” (the worship) that is appropriate as a response to divine grace. Trying to understand what Paul is saying in these verses helps us to understand better what worship is all about.

It is significant that John Ziesler notes that verse 9 is the focus of the entire passage, so that “the exhortation to love is the centre point of the whole passage; its centrality has been implicit since v. 1, and what now follows can naturally be seen as love’s outworking both within the Christian community (vv. 9-13) and beyond its boundaries (vv. 14-21).”13 In this regard Romans 12:5-8 should be seen as a summary of what Paul had written earlier in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts in his First Epistle to the Corinthians is a description of the practical outworking of Paul’s understanding of worship. Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12-14 are closely connected, and what Paul wrote in Romans 12 should be understood in the context of what he had earlier written in 1 Corinthians 12-14.

Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12-14

The instructions that Paul gives to the church at Corinth are, in Paul’s words, for “when you come together” (1 Cor. 14:26), and they are clearly instructions that have to do with how the church should worship. Paul’s idea of worship in 1 Corinthians 12-14 is based on the notion of the church as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-19). Similarly, when Paul discusses worship in Romans 12, he again grounds it in the concept of the body of Christ, reminding the believers in Rome that “as in one body we have many members,and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (verses 4, 5).

Paul emphasizes in 1 Corinthians 12:13 the unifying power of the Holy Spirit. It is this Spirit that forms us into one body. This idea is linked to 1 Corinthians 3:16: “Do you not know that youare God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” Here the Greek word for “you” is in the plural; so Paul is referring to the community of believers itself as the temple of God. In Romans 12:1, when Paul appeals to believers to present their bodies to God as a living sacrifice, he is not referring to Christians merely as individuals, but rather as members of the community of believers, as members of the body of Christ, which is the temple of God.

We can here learn two important things. First, while worship is an experience that can be entered into individually, it is never an isolated experience; it is always based on the foundation that we are members of the community of believers in Christ. Second, it also tells us that we primarily engage in worship because we are filled with the Holy Spirit, and not necessarily the other way around.

In Romans 12, having established the importance of being part of the one body, Paul then mentions the importance of the use of our different spiritual gifts (verses 6-8).14 The appropriate use of spiritual gifts lies at the very heart of worship. The reason the “appropriate” use of spiritual gifts is important is that they are to be used in love. For this reason the principle of love is at the heart of both Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12-14. Just as at the center of Romans 12 is the exhortation to “let love be genuine” (verse 9), so too an exhortation to pursue the purity of love (1 Cor. 13) lies at the heart of Paul’s description of worship in 1 Corinthians 12-14. As 1 Corinthians 13 indicates, without love, worship is meaningless.

What Is Worship?

Service, motivated by love, using the spiritual gifts that the Holy Spirit has given to each believer, is at the core of Paul’s understanding of worship. Worship is both active and interactive. This is rather different from the passive idea of worship that some Christians have. Some people think that worship is the act of listening to a sermon, closing the eyes while someone prays, singing in church, and maybe simply attending church. While these things can be part of worship, they are not ultimately what worship is about. Indeed, the New Testament concept of worship goes far beyond what happens in church services. It has to do with presenting our bodies to God to be used by Him to bless and to serve others, both within the body of Christ and also as His representatives in the communities in which we live. This is not the result of worship—it is worship.

While the New Testament emphasizes the importance of the believers gathering together (Heb. 10:25), it does not limit worship to what happens at those gatherings. In Paul’s understanding, worship also has to do with life—wherever we are. Ernst Käsemann expressed it well when he wrote that “Christian worship does not consist of what is practiced at sacred sites, at sacred times, and with sacred acts. . . . It is the offering of bodily existence in an otherwise profane sphere. As something constantly demanded this takes place in daily life.” 15

Ellen White’s understanding of worship agrees with that of Paul. She also defines “true worship” as that which is neither “spasmodic” nor “reserved for special occasions.”16 She writes that “faithful work is more acceptable to God than the most zealous formal worship. True worship consists in working together with Christ. Prayers, exhortations, and talk are cheap fruits, which are frequently tied on; but fruits that are manifested in good works, in caring for the needy, the fatherless, and widows, are genuine, and grow naturally upon a good tree.”17

Perhaps it is time for us as well to embrace an understanding of what true worship really is. The heart of worship is the life submitted to Christ in loving service. This is what it means to truly worship God. n


  1. See Rev. 14:6-12.
  2. Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations in this article are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  3. Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 750.
  4. James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 543.
  5. Maria-Zoe Petropoulou, Animal Sacrifice in Ancient Greek Religion, Judaism, and Christianity, 100 B.C. to A.D. 200 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 240-244. It is important to note that many Roman Catholic theologians take Romans 12:1 literally, as referring to the sacramental offering of the Eucharist; however, it seems better to compare the sacrifices mentioned in Romans 12:1 with the bloodless thanksgiving offerings of the Old Testament than with the burnt and sin offerings that atoned for sin.
  6. Dunn, p. 548.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., p. 546. See also Rom. 15:16.
  9. Ibid., p. 544.
  10. W. D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p. 191.
  11. R. A. Bryant, “Between Text and Sermon: Romans 12:1-8,” Interpretation 58, no. 3 (2004): 287.
  12. Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), p. 323.
  13. John Ziesler, Paul’s Letter to the Romans (London: SCM, 1989), p. 301.
  14. Of course, this is the Reader’s Digest version of the extended discussion in 1 Corinthians 12-14.
  15. Käsemann, p. 329.
  16. Ellen G. White, in Youth’s Instructor, Dec. 31, 1896.
  17. Ellen G. White, in Signs of the Times, Feb. 17, 1887.