Greek Words for Worship
Continuing with our theme on the Hebrew words for worship, let’s look at the three Greek words used in the New Testament for “worship”. Just as five of the Hebrew words had nothing to do with music, none of the Greek words refer to music either. The Hebrew words for worship primarily focused on the way the Israelites postured themselves before God: kneeling, bowing, raising of hands, falling prostrate, etc. God looks at the heart of a man; our worship must begin with our internal intimacy with God. The Israelites moved away from this intimacy, and their animal sacrifices became a ritual, just “going through the motions”. See how God reacts in Isaiah:
“The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the LORD.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.”
Our physical expression of worship through posture should be an outward expression of the inner posture of our heart. Worship is sacramental in nature, an outward and visible expression of an inward and spiritual revelation. God reveals His goodness to us – our hearts are filled with thanksgiving, and we raise our hands externally. God reveals his majesty to us – our hearts are filled with awe and wonder, and we bow in adoration. God reveals His might to us – our hearts are filled with humility, and we fall prostrate before the altar.
In contrast to the Hebrew study from last week, the three Greek words for “worship” have less to do with the way we posture ourselves before God. These words focus more on reverence and service.
The most common word in the New Testament for “worship” is Proskuneo (προσκυνέω – pros-kü-ne’-ō). This word occurs 60 times in the New Testament, 57 of which are in the four gospels, Acts, and Revelation (the other three instances occur in 1 Corinthians 14, Hebrews 1, and Hebrews 11). It originally carried with it the idea of subjects falling down to kiss the ground before a king or kiss their feet. The literal definition means “to kiss, like a dog licking his master’s hand, to fawn or crouch to, homage (do reverence to, adore): worship.”
1) to kiss the hand, in token of reverence
2) among the Orientals, especuially the Persians, to fall upon the knees and touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound reverence
3) in the New Testament by kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one) or make obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication – used of homage shown to men and beings of superior rank, i.e.: to the Jewish high priests, to God, to Christ, to heavenly beings, and also to demons.
- Matthew 4:10 – Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'”
- Matthew 8:2 – A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
- Mark 5:6 – When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him.
- Luke 24:50-53 – When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
- John 4:23 – Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.
- Revelation 5:14 – The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
The second most common word for “worship” in the New Testament is Latreuo (λατρεύω – lä-tryü’-ō), which appears 21 times. It means “to render religious service of homage.” It is commonly translated as the word “serve” when referring to serving God.
1) to serve for hire
2) to serve, minister to, either to the gods or men and used alike of slaves and freemen
a) in the NT, to render religious service or homage, to worship
b) to perform sacred services, to offer gifts, to worship God in the observance of the rites instituted for his worship
- Luke 4:8 – Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'”
- Acts 26:7 – This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. King Agrippa, it is because of this hope that these Jews are accusing me.
- Romans 1:9 – God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times.
- 2 Timothy 1:3 – I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers.
- Hebrews 12:28 – Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe. (Note: KJV translates this passage as “serve” instead of “worship”)
- Revelation 7:15 – Therefore, “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.”
The third and last Greek word for “worship” in the New Testament is Sebo (σέβω – se’-bō). This word is used 10 times, 8 of which appear in Acts. It means “to reverence” or “to hold in awe.” It is often translated as an English adjective, such as “devout”, “God-fearing”, or “religious”.
- Mark 7:6-7 – [Jesus] replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘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.'”
- Acts 13:43 – When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.
- Acts 13:49-50 – The word of the Lord spread through the whole region. But the Jewish leaders incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region.
- Acts 17:16-17 – While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.
- Acts 18:12-13 – While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews of Corinth made a united attack on Paul and brought him to the place of judgment. “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.”
About the Author
Kevin Cook is a 4th year student at Asbury Theological Seminary and an Aspirant for Ordination in the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA). After graduating, Kevin hopes to plant a contemporary three-streams Anglican Church. He and his wife Nicole attend Wilmore Anglican Church in Kentucky.
Kevin holds a Bachelor of Arts in Music and a Master of Business Administration from Florida State University. Kevin enjoys playing music and leading worship, reading fiction and spiritual classics, drinking coffee, and spending time with family and friends.
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