During the 33 years that I was preaching regularly in the worship services of Bethlehem Baptist Church, I resisted with all my might any reference to the one half of the service as worship, and the other half as preaching or teaching.
No! I insisted that the way we talk about it be the way it is. In the one part of the service, we worship through song and prayer and confession and affirmation; and in the other part of the service, we worship through preaching and hearing preaching. It is all worship.
Which meant that the aim of my exposition in the sermon for those 33 years of preaching was in that moment of preaching to fuel in myself worship — to awaken worship, to experience worship — and at the same time draw my people into the experience of worship over the word — in response to the reality shining out of the word.
Preaching’s Highest Priority
The aim of preaching was only secondarily that marriages might hold together, or that our people might be honest and just in all their business dealings, or that they might witness with boldness to unbelievers, or that they might pray with fervor, or that they might give themselves to the cause of global missions, or that they might be generous so that the church budget can be met, and all the ministries carried out. If any of those things ever became the primary goal of my preaching, I believed I had ceased to preach biblically.
“My primary task, week in and week out, was to handle the Scriptures in such a way that I laid open the reality of God.”
And, of course, I longed for and prayed for the health of their marriages and their honesty in business, and their boldness in witness, and their fervor in prayer, and their zeal for missions, and their radical wartime lifestyles and sacrificial generosity. All of that is essential to the Christian life. But many pastors are so burdened by the urgency of these precious, practical things, that they subtly — or blatantly — make those things the primary aim of their preaching. And I think that is deadly.
I think all of those things — and the thousand other beautiful, practical fruit of biblical truth — flourish in the soil of worship. So, my primary task, week in and week out, was to handle the Scriptures in such a way that I laid open the reality of God and his work in Christ and in the human soul and in the world, so that hearts — first mine and then the people’s — might be enflamed with worship. Heart’s aflame with worship of God, kindled by a sight of the glory of God through the word of God — that’s the soil in which all God-glorifying, Christ-exalting, Spirit-dependent fruit of righteousness grows. And if it doesn’t grow there, it’s probably not Christian fruit at all.
Reality Demands a Response
So, what I want to persuade you of is that biblical preaching — the kind that Paul commands in 2 Timothy 4:2 — is worship. Or to say it more fully: preaching is expository worship. Or the phrase that I like to use for biblical preaching: expository exultation.
- The text is opened so that the true meaning — the author’s intention in these words and clauses — and the reality communicated through that meaning, can be seen for what it is; that’s exposition.
- And as it is opened, the preacher is responding to it — with his mind and his heart and his body — in a way that signals its proportionate worth and beauty; that’s exultation.
What I mean by the preacher’s signaling the proportionate worth and beauty of the reality behind the text is that the preacher’s response — with his heart and mind and body — should be fitting, suitable, proportional to the kind of reality seen through the text. So, for example, if the reality in the text is heavy the preacher is not lighthearted. If the reality in the text is sweet he’s not sour or dull. If the reality in the text is tender, he’s not harsh. If the reality is harsh, he is not tender. If the reality in the text is glorious the preacher is in awe.
And believe me, brothers, this can’t be faked. Spiritual people can tell if you are an actor playing an emotional role. Unspiritual people — you can fool them. But not real Christians, who have the Holy Spirit.
If every truth in the text elicits from the preacher the same pitch, the same tone, the same spiritual intensity, or if majestic realties find him in the same casual, chatty mode he uses for the illustration about his dog, or if the tender embrace of the prodigal by the Father finds him in a hard, condemning tone, the preacher is just not in touch with reality — and his people know it. Many of them are so used to that kind of preaching, they have lost a sense of how tragic it is and assume it’s normal.
So, here’s where we’re going. First, I will try to define what the inner essence of worship is. Then I will make try to show why biblical preaching not only aims at this worship in every message, but also is this worship in every message.
The Inner Essence of Worship
Let’s define the inner essence of what worship is. The reason I focus on the “inner essence of worship” is that the New Testament, unlike the Old Testament, is stunningly silent on the external specifics of what corporate worship should look like.
To Every Culture
I think the reason for this is so that the New Testament will be a relevant book of faith and life for all the cultures of the world. Old Testament Judaism was mainly a come-and-see religion. And New Testament Christianity is mainly a go-and-tell religion. And that means we are to take God’s word and incarnate it in every culture. So, there are hundreds of cultural outworkings of the inner essence of worship that are not prescribed in the New Testament.
It doesn’t tell us whether to worship in a building or under a tree, with two songs or ten songs, with or without worship leaders, with or without instruments — let alone which ones — with singing before or after or in the middle of preaching, in a thirty-minute service or a five-hour service, sitting or standing, with babies present or not, with pulpits or not, with banners or not, with men and women on the same side or separate, with casual clothes or formal, with a set order and flow or a different one each time, with congregational prayer or only from leaders, and on and on.
Worship by the Book
Worship in the New Testament is radically oriented on the experience of the heart, and is freed from specified forms and places. Jesus set the trajectory when he said to the woman at the well in John 4:21–23:
Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. . . . The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.
You see the shift in categories: worship will not take place only in this mountain or in Jerusalem, but (shift in categories) in spirit and in truth. Spirit and truth replace mountains and cities. So, the external, formal, geographical dimension of worship diminishes and the inner essence of worship is foregrounded. To many people’s surprise John Calvin put it like this:
[The Master] did not will in outward discipline and ceremonies to prescribe in detail what we ought to do (because he foresaw that this depended on the state of the times, and he did not deem one form suitable for all ages) . . . Because he has taught nothing specifically, and because these things are not necessary to salvation, and for the upbuilding of the church ought to be variously accommodated to the customs of each nation and age, it will be fitting (as the advantage of the church will require) to change and abrogate traditional practices and to establish new ones. Indeed, I admit that we ought not to charge into innovation rashly, suddenly, for insufficient cause. But love will best judge what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe. (Institutes, 4.10.30)
And Martin Luther, as you might expect, put it like this:
The worship of God . . . should be free at table, in private rooms, downstairs, upstairs, at home, abroad, in all places, by all people, at all times. Whoever tells you anything else is lying as badly as the pope and the devil himself. (What Luther Says, 1546)
What Happens in the Heart?
In my effort to define worship biblically for Christians, I am not focusing on the external, but asking: What is the inner essence of it? What happens in the heart when the heart is worshiping? Of course, God intends for there to be outward acts of worship — spoken prayers and songs and affirmations of faith and so on. And of course, Paul says in Romans 12:1 that our entire bodily life of obedience is to be “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
“Worship in the New Testament is radically oriented on the experience of the heart.”
The Pharisees did many external acts of worship, but Jesus said that inside there were dead men’s bones and hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matthew 23:27–28).
Whether by Life or Death
zThe text that has crystalized the inner essence of worship for me most helpfully is Philippians 1:20–23. I’m going to streamline the argument here so we can get to preaching, but I hope it will be compelling. Paul says,
It is my eager expectation and hope that . . . Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.
Christ Be Worshiped
Now I am assuming that worshipping Christ is virtually the same as magnifying Christ. So, this is really a text about Paul’s eager expectation and hope that Christ be worshiped in or through his body in life and death. Then he gives the basis for how his death would magnify Christ — or be an act of worship.
For to me . . . to die is gain.
And then he explains in verse 23 that the reason death would be gain for him is that death means departing and being with Christ, which he says is far better.
Magnified in Death
So here’s his argument: My dying will be a magnifying — an honoring of Christ, a worshiping of Christ — if in my dying I experience Christ as a treasure that is more satisfying than everything I am leaving behind. That’s what “gain” means. Death is gain because I get Christ.
But that’s only true if I experience Christ as a treasure that is more valuable, more satisfying to my soul, than everything I am losing in death. That is what turns my death into an act of worship — because the inner experience of my heart is to value him, treasure him, cherish him as more satisfying than everything I lose in death. That is what makes death worship.
And this is confirmed if we see how Paul later unpacked the other half of verse 21, “to live is Christ.” He said in Philippians 3:8,
I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.
So, death is “gain” because it brings us closer to Christ who is a more satisfying treasure than everything we lose in death. And life is Christ because, even before death, Paul had already resolved to count everything as loss compared already to the surpassing value of knowing Christ.
Experience the Treasure
So here’s my conclusion about worship: Experiencing Christ as a more satisfying treasure than everything we lose in death, and everything we have in life, is the inner essence of worship. That heart-experience of being satisfied with Christ — and all that God is for us in him — is the inner reality and essence of what Paul called magnifying Christ in life and death.