What is Biblical Worship? (Part 3)
Does the Apostle Paul agree with my definition that worship is the celebration of God as Creator and Redeemer, and how does he develop it in light of Jesus Christ? I have chosen the benediction of Ephesians 1:3-14 as a representative summary of Paul's view of the Christian life as a life of worship. C.H. Dodd concluded that Ephesians as a whole represents “the crown of Paulinism,”1 presenting a remarkably rich summary of the gospel and the Christian life. If so, Paul's choice of a traditional Jewish prayer form, the blessing or berekah, at the start of Ephesians is striking.2 Not only does it provide a theological framework for the rest of Ephesians, it allows him to develop his thoughts on biblical theology – indeed, the whole of the Christian life – in the context of worship. It is a celebratory life, rooted in joy and thanksgiving to the Triune God, marking both the individual Christian and the gathered Christian community.3
The subject of the benediction is the story of God the Creator redeeming his creation. It begins before creation with God the Father choosing to bless and adopt us as his children, to make us holy and blameless in his sight and predestine us to eternal glory. It unfolds in creation according to his will and pleasure, as all things are worked out according to the purpose of his will. It is accomplished in Christ, through whose blood we have forgiveness of sins, through whom we have wisdom and understanding, and under whose headship everything in creation will be gathered when the times have reached their fulfillment. The story embraces all things in heaven and on earth, yet it touches local churches who respond to the gospel of salvation and are marked by the promised Holy Spirit.4
This is an unfolding, trinitarian story. The Father devises and works out this story of creation and redemption; Christ the Son accomplishes the work of redemption; the promised Spirit marks and seals those who believe until the day of redemption. Paul does not present the Persons of the Trinity abstractly, but in relation to each other and to the world in keeping with the story line.5 His terms mystery and fulfillment characterize this story as an unfolding revelation of promise and fulfillment, setting the framework for his discussion of the old and new covenants in chapters 2 and 3. While the Father is the center of praise, Christ is the center of the story, with the Spirit placed as the guarantor of salvation.
Celebration is the response desired by God and flowing from us. God blesses us with every spiritual blessing in Christ, lavishing his grace on us with wisdom and understanding, sealing us with his Spirit, to the praise of his glorious grace. We in turn bless the Father, recalling the ways he blessed us, his present comfort, and the hope we have in future blessing. Our Creator has chosen to redeem us, and we respond in joyful celebration.
This worship marks the Christian community, as Paul develops these themes in the rest of Ephesians. As in the old covenant the people of God came to the temple to worship, Christ in the new fashions Jew and Gentile into one living temple in which God dwells.6 When this community gathers, it is not for drunkenness and orgies, but Spirit-filled worship. We “speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in our heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”7 Speaking in worship is not enough – music made in the heart to the Lord gives worship its authenticity, its celebratory nature.8 Worship is celebration of God the Father, in the name of Christ, in the power of the Spirit.9
As in Psalm 40, this worship spills over into all of life. “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children, and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”10 This is the language of worship: as we celebrate the sacrifice of Christ for us, the sacrifice he offered to his Father, so we sacrifice ourselves to God – a fragrant, pleasing offering. This is a conceptual parallel to Paul's famous words in Romans 12:1-2, that we offer ourselves as “living sacrifices” in view of God's mercy, our “spiritual act of worship.” This reverence for Christ leads us to submit to one another, affecting life in local church, marriage, family, and workplace.11
This is tinged with celebration, with joy, as we see throughout Paul's letters. If the content of the Christian life is the story of Christ, participating in his death and resurrection,12 the recurring attitude is joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always – I will say it again: Rejoice!”13 Even in the midst of lament, as in Psalm 42 and 43, we “rejoice in sufferings” because we “rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”14 In a wonderfully reciprocal fashion, God fills us with the joyful presence of his Spirit as we trust in him:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him,
so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.15
Worship for Paul is a celebration as well, a celebration of God the Creator and Redeemer, who has revealed himself through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit as the Triune God.
I feel I have dabbled at best in a profoundly deep topic. I am satisfied with the word celebration, especially the way it orients worship toward joyous remembrance and hope. I was tempted to add something in my definition about the role of the Word of God in worship, but thought it a matter of prolegomena that would cloud the definition. I also considered adding something about the worshipers of God, that the angels of heaven joined the voices of humanity in the song of creation, the unceasing symphony of praise. But then I figured that the worship of God as Creator and Redeemer assumed that creatures and redeemed persons were doing the celebrating, and I opted for simplicity. Above all I debated whether to add some form of the word Trinity – were this a definition of Paul's view of worship, I would have. But given God's progressive revelation of himself in Scripture, I thought a biblical definition of worship should reflect that progression from the old covenant through Jesus Christ and the new. Biblical worship is the celebration of God as Creator and Redeemer.
1C.H. Dodd, “Ephesians,” in Frederic Eiselen and etc, eds., Abingdon Bible Commentary, New edition edition (New York; Cincinnati: Abingdon Press, 1981), 1224-1225.
2This happens in his letters only 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, a blessing for God's deliverance of Paul in Asia.
3While Pauline authorship is disputed, even those who doubt his direct authorship place the book in the Pauline tradition as a representative development of his thought. I do hold to his authorship, following the arguments of Markus Barth, Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 1-3, 1st edition (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday & Co., 1974) and Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2002).
4The thematic development of the benediction is explored in depth by Frank Thielman, Robert Yarbrough, and Robert Stein, Ephesians (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2010), 42–44.
5See the discussion in Daniel I. Block, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship, 46-53.
6Ephesians 2:19-22. See the summary comments in Thielman, Yarbrough, and Stein, Ephesians, 185.
8Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, 712–713.
9Ibid., 362–363. Thielman connects this to Paul's treatment of the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11, a connection worth mentioning but moving beyond the scope of this paper.
10Ephesians 5:1-2. F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, 2nd Revised edition edition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984), 368–369.
11Daniel I. Block, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship, develops this extensively, with chapter four dedicated to daily life as worship and chapter five to family life.
12Romans 6:4; Philippians 3:10-11; Colossians 3:1-4.