Who defines worship? The obvious answer is God through His written Word, but there is no explicit definition of worship in the Scriptures. However, the English-speaking world has already defined the word “worship” for itself, and there are some quite different definitions between Christians. When examining the definitions of the words for worship in the Scriptures along with the English definition of worship, this issue begins to resolve. Hopefully, this study will reconcile biblical Greek to modern English, and end needless division over related issues.
To be able to reach a correct understanding of worship and to define worship according to the Scriptures, the starting point is a scriptural study of the Greek words that are closest to the common understanding of the English “worship.” The Greek words translated worship must be compared to the standard definition of worship. In the Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Vine presents the six Greek words that are the closest to the concept of worship established in the New Testament. In Everett Ferguson’s work, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, Dr. Everett Ferguson presents these same six Greek words. Again, a complete search for the Greek words behind the word “worship” throughout all the most prominent English translations present these same six Greek words. Before addressing the distinctions between these Greek words, note the English definition of worship according to three of the most prominent and respected English dictionaries, the Oxford Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.
The Oxford Dictionary states that worship is, “n. 1a homage or reverence paid to a deity. b acts, rites, or ceremonies of worship. 2 adoration or devotion (worship of wealth)… v. 1 tr. adore as divine; honor with religious rites. 2 tr. idolize. 3 intr. attend public service.” Look at the American Heritage Dictionary, which says,
n. The reverent love and devotion accorded a deity, an idol, or a sacred object. The ceremonies, prayers, or other religious forms by which this love is expressed. Ardent devotion; adoration. often Worship Chiefly British Used as a form of address for magistrates, mayors, and certain other dignitaries: Your Worship. v. wor•shiped or wor•shipped, wor•ship•ing or wor•ship•ping, wor•ships v.tr. To honor and love as a deity. To regard with ardent or adoring esteem or devotion. See Synonyms at revere. v. intr. To participate in religious rites of worship. To perform an act of worship. [Middle English worshipe, worthiness, honor, from Old English weorthscipe : weorth, worth; see worth1 + -scipe, -ship.]
Also notice Merriam-Webster’s definition,
n. 1 chiefly British : a person of importance — used as a title for various officials (as magistrates and some mayors) 2 : reverence offered [to] a divine being or supernatural power; also : an act of expressing such reverence 3 : a form of religious practice with its creed and ritual 4 : extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem v. 1 : to honor or reverence as a divine being or supernatural power 2 : to regard with great or extravagant respect, honor, or devotion intransitive senses : to perform or take part in worship or an act of worship
Apparently from these dictionaries, worship is to honor, revere, and venerate the divine and, or the noble person, and that the act of worship consists of rituals, offering gifts and, or simple acts of humility and reverence like prostrating oneself as is common in the Scriptures. How do the Biblical Greek words line up?
This study defines each of the six Greek words by each word’s use in the Scriptures and confirmed by five other sources consisting of: Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, George Ricker Berry’s Greek-English Lexicon to the New Testament, Arndt and Gingrich’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, and Barclay M. Newman Jr.’s A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament. After defining each word, Everett Ferguson’s definition of each word will also be presented to affirm the definitions already given. Lastly, this study presents a final comparison of each Greek word with the English definition of “worship”.
1) Proskuneo is the most prominent word for “worship” in the Scriptures. Of the six Greek words for worship, this word is the closest in representing worship in English. Supported by the lexical sources above, the most precise and consistent definition of this term is to worship or to prostrate. Though this simple definition seems obvious, the other following definitions of the other terms will differ. The act of proskuneo consists of homage directed to the divine and, or noble, and worshipers show this homage by tokens of reverence and, or by prostrating oneself. This word is never used as a synonym for any meetings or assemblies in the Scriptures. Out of the fifty-nine appearances of this word in the New Testament Scriptures, proskuneo is only mentioned once in reference to an assembly in 1 Corinthians 14:25 where God’s Word convicts an outsider who worships God. Notice that this word never refers to a meeting or the acts thereof with exception of 1 Corinthians 14:25. Only by necessary inference is proskuneo understood as a part of Christian assemblies. The worshiper may worship toward the divine, God, including sacrificial and temple worship in passages such as John 4:20, 12:20; Acts 8:27, 24:11; and Revelation 11:1. Otherwise, the worshiper may honor human authority. This is clear in Matthew 27:29 where Roman soldiers mock Jesus as the king of the Jews by the act of proskuneo. This use is also present in Mark 10:17 when a man worshiped Him as a teacher by the act of proskuneo.
Likewise in addressing the meaning of proskuneo, Everett Ferguson affirmed that,
The most common word for worship was proskyneo (“to kiss the hand toward”, “to do obeisance”, “to prostrate oneself”). It had the most specific content of the words to worship: to bow or fall down before an object of veneration. Since it could be done before a human being of higher rank from whom a benefit was desired, its frequent occurrences in the Gospels in reference to Jesus do not necessarily indicate acceptance of his divinity or messianic status by those who approached him in this way (more ambiguous in Matt. 8:2 and 9:18 than in 28:9, 17; note the mocking used in Mark 15:19). From the specific act came a general usage for “worship” or “acts of reverence” (John 12:20; Rev. 14:7). It could be directed toward human beings (Acts 10:25, in this case rejected), the idols of paganism (Acts 7:43), the devil or his agents (Matt. 4:9; Rev. 13:4), angels (Rev. 22:8, but rejected), or the true God (Rev. 7:11). Only in 1 Corinthians 14:25 is the term used in reference to a church meeting, and here it is done by an “outsider”.
Now how does the English definition of worship hold up in comparison to proskuneo? “Worship” actually holds up very close to that of proskuneo and this Greek word is the closest to the general English meaning of “worship.” Both “worship” and proskuneo refer to reverence in a broad sense while at the same time both are able to encompass religious ritual acts of service like sacrificial offerings. On top of this, both terms are used to refer to honor and reverence presented to people who are consider of a higher position and deserving honor. There is one difference between these terms. Proskuneo is never used to represent any religious assembly though the English word “worship” is used that way today. Though by necessary inference, proskuneo does certainly include praise, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, listening to teaching, and benevolent giving that occur in Christian assemblies. Christian assemblies are never referred to as “worship” in the Bible.
2) Aided by the lexical sources mentioned before, latreuo means precisely to serve in a priestly and, or sacrificial manner. The noun form latreia is also sacrificial and priestly in sacrificial service to God. Notice that this word is never used in reference to any New Testament Christian meeting. Many resist the idea that this word even comes close to the concept of worship, so not to support the doctrine that “all of life is worship”, which is a doctrine derived from an inconsistent understanding of this worship by offering oneself as a living sacrifice to God in Romans 12:1. As numerous uses of latreuo affirm throughout the New Testament, latreuo does very much refer to a specific manner of worship, and whether this fact supports the “all of life is worship” doctrine is another issue separate from the study of this particular word.
Translators of the most popular English translations of the Scriptures translate latreuo as “worship” at least three times or more instead of as “sacrificial service.”
- KJV – Acts 7:42, 24:14; Phil 3:3; Heb 10:2
- NKJV – Acts 7:42, 24:14; Phil 3:3; Heb 10:2
- ASV 1901 – Luke 2:37; Phil 3:3; Heb 9:9
- NASV – Rom 12:1; Phil 3:3; Heb 9:1, 6, 9, 10:2
- NIV – Luke 2:37; Acts 7:7; 42, 24:14; Rom 9:4, 12:1; Phil 3:3; Heb 9:1, 9, 10:2, 12:18
- NRSV – Luke 2:37; John 16:2; Acts 7:7, 42, 24:14, 26:7, 27:23; Rom 9:4, 12:1; Phil 3:3; 2 Tim 1:3; Heb 8:5, 9:1, 6, 9, 14, 10:2, 12:28; Rev 7:15, 22:3
- ESV – Luke 2:37; Acts 7:7, 42, 24:14, 26:7, 27:23; Rom 9:4, 12:1; Phil 3:3; Heb 9:1, 9, 10:2, 12:28; Rev 22:3
Also recognize that Hugo McCord’s translation translated latreuo as “worship” in Acts 7:42, Hebrews 9:9, and 10:2. Therefore, latreuo does not mean simply “to serve.” Those who would continue to affirm this idea stand against not only overwhelming scriptural evidence that supports the definition of “sacrificial service,” but they also stand against the many translators of these translations presented above.
By a thorough examination of the uses of this word show that in every instant throughout the New Testament Scriptures, latreuo is the second closest word in definition to worship. In the Scriptures, latreuo is continuously used in reference to religious rituals, and in every single use of the word, worshipers direct their service toward God or something considered a god or divine. The most precise and consistent definition of this word is “sacrificial service.”
In like manner in study and affirming these truths, Everett Ferguson finds,
Another common word for worship in the Greek world was latreuo (“to perform religious service,” “to carry out cultic duties”; noun latreia). It is used in the New Testament for pagan worship (Acts 7:42; Rom. 1:25), but properly belongs to God alone (Matt. 4:10). The word most often designates Jewish worship (Acts 7:7; 26:7; Rom. 9:4; Heb. 8:5; 9:1, 6, 9; 10:2; 13:10). That worship included fasting and prayers in Luke 2:37. A metaphorical use of the word occurs in John 16:2. Paul used the word to describe his service to God in Romans 1:9 (another instance of his use of cultic language for his service to the gospel; cf. 1 Tim. 1:3; Acts 24:14; 27:23). Christian worship is contrasted to Jewish in Phil. 3:3 (connected with the Spirit and with Jesus) and Hebrews 13:10 (referring to the sacrifice of Jesus). Christian worship is described by this word in Hebrews 9:14 and 12:28, as is the heavenly worship in Revelation 7:15 and 22:3. Latreia for Christians is no longer the temple sacrifices but the rational offering of their bodies as living sacrifices in doing the will of God (Rom. 12:1-2).
Does the English definition of worship match up to that of latreuo? From the study above, one can conclude that latreuo is much narrower in definition than that of the English definition of worship and that latreuo does not line up in meaning as much as proskuneo does. The common English definition of worship is broader than sacrificial and priestly services, latreia. “Worship” is broader sacrificial and temple worship, and worship may include prostrating oneself in honor and other acts of reverence such as doing good unto others. Notice that latreuo is also never used to refer to any assembly like proskuneo. By inference upon Scripture, latreuo does occur in Christian assemblies as much as Christians are priests who worship by their spiritual offerings (1 Pet 2:5). Therefore, latreuo is a kind of worship, but latreuo is not completely synonymous with the term “worship.”
3) Backed by the lexical sources of this study, the word now to consider is leitourgeo in the verb form and in noun form leitourgia. Leitourgeo means specifically to minister in an official manner. In the Scriptures, this word refers to public civil acts of service that can include priestly and religious services in a theocratic nation like that of Israel. In the New Testament, the term also refers to the ministry of Christians as they act in their office of being spiritual priests thus relating to the new spiritual sacrifices according to the New Testament. This term also works well in supporting the theocratic kingdom of the New Testament, the Church, where one may officially minister on behalf of the kingdom under the divine kingship of Christ.
Everett Ferguson’s statement is that,
The English word “liturgy” is derived from the Greek leitourgia (verb leitourgeo), a word referring to public service (cf. Rom. 13:6), but used in Jewish and Christian literature of the early Christian era predominantly for religious service (see p.224 on Rom. 15:16). The broader sense of non-cultic service may be illustrated by 2 Corinthians 9:12 and Romans 15:27, the contribution for the needs of the saints, but even here there may be a metaphorical use of the sacrificial meaning (as in Phil. 2:17, cf. 2:30). The common use of the word in the New Testament, reflecting the Greek Old Testament, is for the Jewish temple service (Luke 1:23; Heb. 9:21; 10:11), and thus it is used also for Jesus’ priestly ministry (Heb. 8:2, 6). Paul uses this family of words for his preaching ministry (Rom. 15:16), and this fact along with usage in early extra-canonical Christian literature, may give the meaning of “preaching” or specifically “prophesying,” for the only usage of the word in the New Testament in the context of a Christian meeting, Acts 13:2.
From an examination of this word, leitourgeo is a term that is broader in definition than proskuneo, latreuo, and the English definition of worship. This word refers to public civil acts of service, and more particularly, it can refer to sacrificial services. Leitourgeo contrasts the English definition of worship that does not consist of such public and civic services. Clearly, the services of this type can include or exclude all together the actions of proskuneo and latreuo. This word would better be translated “to minister” and not “to worship.”
4) The lexical sources of this study support the word threiskeia as meaning religion. Though this student disagrees, the lexical sources also affirm that another definition of threiskeia is “worship.” Threiskeia is not synonymous with worship because it has no verb form. There are six occurrences of this term in five verses of the New Testament Scriptures. See, threiskeia like proskuneo, latreuo, and leitourgeo is never used to refer to any assembly. This author minutely disagrees with the lexical sources above and Dr. Ferguson’s affirmation below regarding threiskeia. This author finds that the word “religion” meets threiskeia’s definition the best in every single occurrence of the word in Scripture while the lexical aids and Dr. Ferguson do not show a preference between these terms. “Religion” can be affirmed as the best word for threiskeia by the truth that the word “religion” and “religious” function like threiskeia as a noun and adjective only. Note that both “religion” and threiskeia do not have a verb form unlike “worship.” “Worship” refers to an action while threiskeia and “religion” refer to a belief system. Observe Acts 26:5 and notice how the use of the word “worship” does not agree with the text: “the straightest sect of our worship”; as opposed to: “the straightest sect of our religion.” With the statements above, this author believes that his more precise definition is soundly established beyond dispute.
Here is Ferguson’s understanding of the term,
Thraskeia was another word for “religious service” or “cult,” the external expressions of worship. It refers to Judaism in Acts 26:5 and the worship of angels in Colossians 2:18. Its only application to Christianity in the New Testament occurs in James 1:26-27, where true religion is defined in terms of good deeds and conduct. In contrast to “worthless religion,” which does not control the tongue, “pure and undefiled religion” is care for widows and orphans and keeping oneself unstained by the world. How does “worship” and threiskeia match up? The English definition of “worship” only matches to thraskeia in the way that “worship” refers to the term “religion”. “Religion” is broader in definition than “worship”. This is because the word “religion” entirely encompasses a belief system consisting doctrine and practice while “worship” may be expressed only as broad as the practice of a religion.
5) Sebomai means to venerate. From the text, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, Ferguson affirmed,
Sebomai and cognates meant “to worship” in the sense of show reverence and respect for one. It was used for the worship of the pagan deity Artemis (Acts 19:27; cf. Rom. 1:25 for worshipping the creature rather than the Creator). Matthew 15:9 and Mark 7:7 (quoting Isa. 29:13) use the word for vain worship of God. The participle is used for Gentiles who reverenced the God of the Jews (several times in Acts – e.g., 13:43, 50; 17:4, 17). The only express reference to Christian worship is Acts 18:13, where the Jews charged Paul with teaching “people to worship God in ways…contrary to the law.”
Sebomai mostly encompasses the English definition of “worship”, though there are no passages that present sebomai to consist of the act of prostrating oneself while the words “worship” and proskuneo do. Evidently, the term “worship” is closer in definition to proskuneo than sebomai. The term “venerate” is as synonymous in meaning to sebomai as “worship” is to proskuneo.
6) Eusebeo means to show respect. According to 1 Timothy 2:2, 2 Timothy 3:12, and Titus 2:12, this term is often times used to command reverent and pious living. Everett Ferguson also affirms,
Eusebeia – a general word for religion, piety, or devotion – could also refer to worship. In Greco-Roman literature, it almost always refers to cultic activities involving paying proper reverence or adoration. With reference to deity it meant the attitude of dutiful ritual observance and obligation. With reference to human beings (especially the duty to parents) it meant the attitude of respect and loyalty to another person. But, in every case, it referred not just to the attitude (as often do the English words “devotion”, “piety”, and “godliness”) but also the activity by which the attitude was expressed.
The Apostle Paul used this verb for the common Greek senses of pagan worship in Acts 17:23, and he used the term for fulfilling obligations to members of one’s family in 1 Timothy 5:4. Though this word is usually translated “worship” in one passage, Acts 17:23; the Scriptures do not support this term as synonymous with “worship.” Though eusebeo may refer to worship in some contexts, so does the word for faith, pistos; yet no one concludes that the word pistos has the same meaning as worship. There is one occurrence in the Scriptures of this word that abruptly shows that eusebeo is not synonymous with “worship.” In 1 Timothy 5:4, Christians are “to practice piety” toward their family. The passage states, “but if any widow has children or grandchildren, they must first learn to practice piety in regard to their own family and to make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God.” Certainly, no one who is aware of the context can conclude that the phrase “to practice piety” should be translated “to worship” or this would mean that children are to worship their parents by caring for them in their old age.
After one examines these words, it is clear that these Greek words are distinct from one another. All the prominent translations of the Scriptures translate these Greek words as “worship” sometimes and not as worship at other times. Note that both literal and dynamic translations of the Scriptures give no indication to readers that translators represent different words by “worship.” This study finds that translators should not render all of these words as “worship.” Translations should note that these words are separate and distinct, so that there is no confusion concerning the meaning of worship. These words can easily be accurately translated into separate and distinctive words and phrases.
In review, the study above reveals that only proskuneo matches “worship” though other words do relate to worship. Worship via proskuneo is to honor, revere, and venerate the divine and, or noble, which consists of sacrificial services, gifts, and a simple act of humility and reverence like prostrating oneself. Does this now mean that whatever act that a Christian recognizes as honor, reverence, and veneration is worship? With worship defined, what is an act of worship? See the article, “Sacrificial Worship and the Biblical Definition of Worship.”
May God bless your studies.