A Reflection on Praise and Worship
It is not uncommon to hear the words praise and worship used in tandem and even interchangeably, but do they really mean the same thing? On one level they may seem the same, but there are significant differences. There are many Hebrew and Greek words for both praise and worship as translated into English. The most prevalent Greek word for praise indicates esteem and honor, a recognition of God’s glory. The word that is used most often for worship has the meaning of bowing down, paying homage or prostrating oneself before God.
A major difference is that one can praise God without fundamentally changing position, but to worship God signifies a change of priorities and allegiances. Jesus quoted Isaiah: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’” Matthew 15:8–9 (NIV). They said all of the right things, but it had not resulted in a change of heart. What we truly worship is recognized by what is most important to us. It is not necessarily about the amount of time spent, but rather how willing we are to displace or reprioritize what we say is important to us when other interests present themselves.
One of the most important discourses on the subject of worship occurs in John 4:4-26 when Jesus has an encounter with a Samaritan woman at the well outside of the village. She was there at this time of day in an effort to avoid uncomfortable encounters perhaps because she was ashamed she or ostracized because of her many failed relationships. As Jesus begins his conversation with her, she begins to realize that there is something different and special about him. In a manner, she praises him by saying, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.” They proceed to have a conversation regarding the proper location of worship and Jesus reveals the true worshipers are those “who worship in spirit and in truth.” The woman responds by saying, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Jesus then reveals to her, “I, the one speaking to you – I am he.”
Until this point in her life, this woman prioritized her life around her shame and rejection. She bowed to her shame. Likely, she spent many hours prostrating herself before her shame. In essence, she worshiped her shame, not in a good sense, but because everything in her life was ordered around her shame. When Jesus came and spoke words of life to her, she changed her allegiance and her priorities. She was now bowing her heart and paying homage to Jesus and she was able to go into the village and tell them about a man who had changed her life because shame and rejection no longer held her in its grasp. It was her willingness to go into town and tell people about Jesus that demonstrates a change in who she worshiped.
It is certainly good to sing praises unto God and expressions of worship by word or song are good, it is the transformation of priorities and allegiances; it is the bowing of our hearts and lives in alignment with God which is the greatest demonstration of “worshiping in Spirit and in truth.” Another example of why worship is transformative was given to us by Paul. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” Romans 12:1 (NIV). A true expression of worship comes when we offer ourselves to God without reservation. “Come, let us worship and bow down. Let us kneel before the LORD our maker, for he is our God. We are the people he watches over, the flock under his care. If only you would listen to his voice today!” Psalm 95:6–7 (NLT)