[This is the second of three articles on the subject of worship. If you haven’t already done so, please get yourself a pen and paper and write down what you understand “worship” to mean. Don’t consult a dictionary. Just write down whatever comes to mind first. Set the paper aside for comparison purposes once you reach the end of this article.]
In our previous discussion, we saw how formalized worship is generally portrayed in a negative light in the Christian Scriptures. There is a reason for this. For men to govern others within a religious framework, they must formalize worship and then confine the practice of that worship within structures where they can exercise supervision. By these means, men have time and again accomplished government which stands in opposition to God’s. History supplies us with abundant evidence that religiously, “man has dominated man to his harm.” (Ec 8:9 NWT)
How uplifting it was for us to learn that Christ came to change all that. He revealed to the Samaritan woman that no longer would a dedicated structure or holy place be required to worship God in a manner pleasing to Him. Instead, the individual would bring what was needed by being filled with spirit and truth. Jesus then added the inspiring thought that his Father was actually looking for such ones to worship him. (John 4:23)
However, there are still important questions to answer. For instance, what exactly is worship? Does it involve doing something specific, like bowing down or burning incense or chanting verse? Or is it just a state of mind?
Sebó, the Word of Reverence and Adoration
The Greek word sebó (σέβομαι) [i] appears ten times in the Christian Scriptures—once in Matthew, once in Mark, and the remaining eight times in the book of Acts. It is the second of four distinct Greek words which modern Bible translations render “worship”.
The following excerpts are all taken from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, 2013 Edition. The English words used to render sebó are in boldface font.
“It is in vain that they keep worshipping me, for they teach commands of men as doctrines.’”” (Mt 15:9)
“It is in vain that they keep worshipping me, for they teach commands of men as doctrines.’” (Mr 7:7)
“So after the synagogue assembly was dismissed, many of the Jews and the proselytes who worshipped God followed Paul and Bar′na·bas, who, as they spoke to them, urged them to remain in the undeserved kindness of God.” (Ac 13:43)
“But the Jews incited the prominent women who were God-fearing and the principal men of the city, and they stirred up persecution against Paul and Bar′na·bas and threw them outside their boundaries.” (Ac 13:50)
“And a woman named Lyd′i·a, a seller of purple from the city of Thy·a·ti′ra and a worshipper of God, was listening, and Jehovah opened her heart wide to pay attention to the things Paul was saying.” (Ac 16:14)
“As a result, some of them became believers and associated themselves with Paul and Silas, and so did a great multitude of the Greeks who worshipped God, along with quite a few of the principal women.” (Ac 17:4)
“So he began to reason in the synagogue with the Jews and the other people who worshipped God and every day in the marketplace with those who happened to be on hand.” (Ac 17:17)
“So he transferred from there and went into the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshipper of God, whose house adjoined the synagogue.” (Ac 18:7)
“saying: “This man is persuading people to worship God in a way contrary to the law.”” (Ac 18:13)
For the reader’s convenience, I’m providing these references should you wish to paste them into a Bible search engine (E.g., Bible Gateway) so as to see how other translations render sebó. (Mt 15:9; Mark 7:7; Acts 13:43,50; 16:14; 17:4,17; 18:7,13; 29:27)
Strong’s Concordance defines sebó as “I reverence, worship, adore.” NAS Exhaustive Concordance gives us simply: “to worship”.
The verb itself doesn’t depict action. In none of the ten occurrences is it possible to deduce exactly how the individuals mentioned are engaging in worship. The definition from Strong’s does not indicate action either. To reverence God and to adore God both speak about a feeling or an attitude. I can sit in my living room and adore God without actually doing anything. Of course, it can be argued that true adoration of God, or of anyone for that matter, must eventually manifest itself in some form of action, but what form that action should take is not specified in any of these verses.
A number of Bible translations render sebó as “devout”. Again, that speaks of a mental disposition more than any specific action.
A person who is devout, who reveres God, whose love of God reaches the level of adoration, is a person who is recognizable as godly. His worship characterizes his life. He talks the talk and walks the walk. His fervent desire is to be like his God. So everything he does in life is guided by the self-examining thought, “Would this please my God?”
In short, his worship isn’t about performing a ritual of any kind. His worship is his very way of life.
Nevertheless, the capacity for self-delusion that is part of the fallen flesh requires us to be careful. It is possible to render sebó (reverent, adoring devotion or worship) to the wrong God. Jesus condemned the worship (sebó) of the scribes, Pharisees and priests, because they taught commands of men as coming from God. Thus they misrepresented God and failed to imitate him. The God they were imitating was Satan.
“Jesus said to them:“If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I have not come of my own initiative, but that One sent me. 43 Why do you not understand what I am saying? Because you cannot listen to my word. 44 You are from your father the Devil, and you wish to do the desires of your father.” (John 8:42-44 NWT)
Latreuó, the Word of Servitude
In the previous article, we learned that formalized worship (thréskeia) is viewed negatively and has proven to be a means for humans to engage in worship that is not approved by God. However, it is entirely correct to revere, adore and be devoted to the true God, expressing this attitude by our way of life and demeanor in all things. This worship of God is encompassed by the Greek word, sebó.
Yet two Greek words remain. Both are translated as worship in many modern Bible versions, though other words are also used to convey the nuance of meaning each word carries. The two remaining words are proskuneó and latreuó.
We will start with latreuó but it is worthy of note that both words appear together in a pivotal verse that describes an incident in which the fate of humanity hung in the balance.
“Again the Devil took him along to an unusually high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him: “All these things I will give you if you fall down and do an act of worship [proskuneó] to me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him: “Go away, Satan! For it is written: ‘It is Jehovah your God you must worship [proskuneó], and it is to him alone you must render sacred service [latreuó].’”” (Mt 4:8-10 NWT)
Latreuó is usually rendered as “sacred service” in the NWT, which is fine as its basic meaning according to Strong’s Concordance is: ‘to serve, especially God, perhaps simply, to worship’. Most other translations render it as “serve” when it refers to service to God, but in some cases it is translated as “worship”.
For example, Paul in answering the charge of apostasy made by his opposers said, “But this I confess to you, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship [latreuó] I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets:” (Acts 24:14 American King James Version) However, the American Standard Version renders this same passage, “…so serve [latreuó] I the God of our fathers…”
The Greek word latreuó is used at Acts 7:7 to describe the reason why Jehovah God called his people out of Egypt.
“But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship [latreuó] me in this place.’” (Acts 7:7 NIV)
“And the nation to whom they shall be in bondage will I judge, said God: and after that shall they come forth, and serve [latreuó] me in this place.” (Acts 7:7 KJB)
From this we can see that service is an important component of worship. When you serve someone, you do what they want you to do. You become subservient to them, putting their needs and wishes, above your own. Still, it is relative. Both a waiter and a slave serve, yet their roles are hardly equal.
When referring to service rendered to God, latreuó, takes on a special character. Service to God is absolute. Abraham was asked to serve up his son in a sacrifice to God and he complied, stopped only by divine intervention. (Ge 22:1-14)
Unlike sebó, latreuó is all about doing something. When the God you latreuó (serve) is Jehovah, things go well. However, rarely have men served Jehovah throughout history.
“So God turned and handed them over to render sacred service to the army of heaven. . .” (Ac 7:42)
“even those who exchanged the truth of God for the lie and venerated and rendered sacred service to the creation rather than the One who created” (Ro 1:25)
I was once asked what the difference was between slavery for God or any other form of slavery. The answer: Slaving for God makes men free.
One would think we have all we need now to understand worship, but there is one more word, and this is the one that causes Jehovah’s Witnesses in particularly, so much controversy.
Proskuneó, a Word of Submission
What Satan wanted Jesus to do in exchange for becoming the ruler of the world was a single act of worship, proskuneó. What would that have consisted of?
Proskuneó is a compound word.
HELPS Word-studies states that it comes from “prós, “towards” and kyneo, “to kiss“. It refers to the action of kissing the ground when prostrating before a superior; to worship, ready “to fall down/prostate oneself to adore on one’s knees” (DNTT); to “do obeisance” (BAGD)”
[“The basic meaning of 4352 (proskynéō), in the opinion of most scholars, is to kiss. . . . On Egyptian reliefs worshipers are represented with outstretched hand throwing a kiss to (pros-) the deity” (DNTT, 2, 875,876).
4352 (proskyneō) has been (metaphorically) described as “the kissing-ground” between believers (the Bride) and Christ (the heavenly Bridegroom). While this is true, 4352 (proskynéō) suggests the willingness to make all necessary physical gestures of obeisance.]
From this we can see that worship [proskuneó]is an act of submission. It recognizes that the one being worshipped is the superior. For Jesus to perform an act of worship to Satan, he would have had to bow down before him, or lain prostrate. Essentially, kissed the ground. (This throws a new light on the Catholic act of bending the knee or bowing to kiss the ring of the Bishop, Cardinal, or Pope. – 2Th 2:4.)
We need to get the image into our minds of what this word represents. It isn’t simply bowing down. It means kissing the ground; placing your head as low as it can go before the feet of another. Whether you are kneeling or lying prostrate, it is your head that is touching the ground. There is no greater gesture of subservience, is there?
Proskuneó occurs 60 times in the Christian Greek Scriptures. The following links will show you all of them as rendered by the NASB, though once there, you can easily change the version to see alternate renderings.
Jesus told Satan that only God should be worshipped. Worship (Proskuneó ) of God is therefore approved.
“All the angels were standing around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell facedown before the throne and worshipped [proskuneó] God,” (Re 7:11)
Rendering proskuneó to anyone else would be wrong.
“But the rest of the people who were not killed by these plagues did not repent of the works of their hands; they did not stop worshipping [proskuneó] the demons and the idols of gold and silver and copper and stone and wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk.” (Re 9:20)
“And they worshipped [proskuneó] the dragon because it gave the authority to the wild beast, and they worshipped [proskuneó] the wild beast with the words: “Who is like the wild beast, and who can do battle with it?”” (Re 13:4)
Now if you take the following references and paste them into the WT Library program, you’ll see how the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures renders the word throughout its pages.
(Mt 2:2,8,11; 4:9,10; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 18:26; 20:20; 28:9,17; Mark 5:6; 15:19; Luke 4:7,8; 24:52; John 4:20-24; 9:38; 12:20; Acts 7:43; 8:27; 10:25; 24:11; 1 Cor. 14:25; Heb 1:6; 11:21; Rev 3:9; 4:10; 5:14; 7:11; 9:20; 11:1,16; 13:4,8,12,15; 14:7,9,11; 15:4; 16:2; 19:4,10,20; 20:4; 22:8,9)
Why does the NWT render proskuneó as worship when referring to Jehovah, Satan, the demons, even the political governments represented by the wild beast, yet when it refers to Jesus, the translators chose “do obeisance”? Is doing obeisance different from worshipping? Does proskuneó carry two fundamentally different meanings in Koine Greek? When we render proskuneó to Jesus is it different from the proskuneó that we render Jehovah?
This is an important yet delicate question. Important, because understanding worship is pivotal to getting God’s approval. Delicate, because any suggestion that we can worship anyone else but Jehovah is likely to get a knee-jerk reaction from those of us who have experienced years of Organizational indoctrination.
We must not be afraid. Fear exercises a restraint. It is the truth that sets us free, and that truth is found in God’s word. With it we are equipped for every good work. The spiritual man has nothing to fear, for it is he who examines all things. (1Jo 4:18; Joh 8:32; 2Ti 3:16, 17; 1Co 2:15)
With that in mind, we will end here and take up this discussion next week in our final article of this series.
In the meantime, how did your personal definition stack up against what you’ve come to learn thus far about worship?
[i] Throughout this article, I will be using the root word, or in the case of verbs, the infinitive, rather than whatever derivation or conjugation is found in any given verse. I ask the indulgence of any Greek readers and/or scholars who may happen upon these articles. I am taking this literary license solely for the purpose of readability and simplification so as not to detract from the main point being made.