Corporate Worship’s Essence: Spiritual Response

Scott Aniol

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One of the clearest ways you can determine someone’s fundamental theology of worship is to ask them the following question: “How do you know that you have worshiped?” If our goal in worship is to commune with God, how do we know we have accomplished our goal? How do we know we have worshiped?

Embodied Expressions of Corporate Worship

As physical beings, much of what we do in corporate worship is embodied. In Colossians 3, we find a command to sing—the Greek word translated as “singing” literally means “make a melody with the vocal cords.” That may seem obvious, but some Christians in times past have argued that this passage refers to singing internally, not externally. No, we are supposed to sing with our voices in corporate worship. We cannot teach and admonish one another with singing unless we use our physical voices to do so. Likewise, Paul says in Ephesians 5:19, “addressing one another”—you can’t do that with internal singing—“in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” The word singing there is the same as in Colossians 3, but he also adds the word translated as “making melody,” which literally means “to pluck a stringed instrument.” So, clearly, the music of our corporate worship is a physical, audible expression.

We also necessarily use our bodies in other ways in corporate worship, don’t we? To let the Word of Christ richly dwell within us, as Paul commands in Colossians 3, we must use our eyes and voices to physically read the Scriptures. We use our ears to listen as others speak and sing. We even use our mouths and fingers as we eat and drink at the Lord’s Table. We cannot worship God corporately according to his instructions without the use of our bodies.

We cannot worship God corporately according to his instructions without the use of our bodies.

Indeed, the Bible teaches that the human body is good. God created the body and, therefore, by nature the body is good. Furthermore, Jesus Christ took on a human body at his incarnation, and he will have that body for the rest of eternity. Jesus died bodily, and he was raised bodily from that death. He ascended bodily into heaven, and one day he will return to the earth in his body. Job affirmed, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25). The Bible teaches that God, through Christ, has saved our souls, but he has also saved our bodies (1 Thess. 5:23).

Some Christians in the first couple centuries of the church adopted a Platonic philosophy that believed the body to be inherently evil. This resulted in what is known as the Gnostic heresy, which denied that Jesus Christ really had a physical body or that he rose bodily from the grave. Gnosticism also taught that we must try to completely free ourselves from our bodies by denying our bodies what we need to survive physically and instead attempt to become one with God’s spiritual essence. This heresy is specifically what Paul was addressing in Colossians as well as in other letters, such as in 1 Timothy when he said that Jesus “was manifested in the flesh” (3:16) and that “everything created by God is good” (4:4). And John explicitly condemned Gnosticism when he said, “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” (2 John 1:7). Orthodox theologians continued to fight against this heresy until it was officially condemned in the fourth century. The body was created by God, Christ took on human flesh, and therefore the body is good, and our corporate worship is embodied worship.

This embodied reality of corporate worship is one reason that we must physically meet together. We cannot sing to one another without physically being together. The New Testament frequently emphasizes the importance of meeting together. John said in 2 John 1:12, “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete,” and he wrote similarly in 3 John. Paul stressed several times to the believers in Rome his desire to be there with them, so that he might enjoy their company and be refreshed together with them (Rom. 15:23–24, 32). He longed to physically gather with the believers in the church at Thessalonica, saying that he “endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face” (1 Thess. 2:17), and he urged Timothy to be diligent to come to him quickly (2 Tim. 4:9). Paul recognized the importance of physically being together for fellowship.

And so, the author of Hebrews commanded, “Do not neglect to meet together.” It’s why passages about corporate worship in the New Testament frequently emphasize the physical gathering of corporate worship. In 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, Paul repeats the idea multiple times: “when you come together” (11:17), “when you come together as a church” (11:18), “when you come together” (11:20), “when you come together to eat” (11:33), “when you come together” (11:34), “when you come together” (14:26). Corporate worship assumes the necessity of a physical gathering where we do physical things. “Where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20).

Spiritual Essence of Corporate Worship

Yet that very statement leads us to the primary point of this essay. Jesus said that where two or three are physically gathered in his name, there he is among them, but is Jesus physically in the midst of us when we gather? No, not since he ascended into heaven. Stephen saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God the Father (Acts 7:56). Colossians 3:1 says that Christ is “seated [bodily] at the right hand of God.” So, if Jesus is bodily in heaven, and we are gathered bodily here on earth, how can he be in the midst of us?

Notice how the verse opens: “If then you have been raised with Christ.” The first point to recognize here is that all who are united with Christ are also seated with him in heaven. Verse 3 alludes to this reality: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Paul says it even more explicitly in Ephesians 2:6 when he states that God has “raised us up with [Christ] and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Christ is seated in heaven, and since we are in him, we are with him there. Remember what Paul says a few verses later in Ephesians 2:18: “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” We have access to the Father because, in one Spirit through Christ, we are actually there in the presence of God in heaven.

This is a reality, and yet we also recognize that it is not yet a physical reality. Our bodies are still here on earth, while we really are seated with Christ in the heavenly places. What this reveals is the important spiritual essence of our relationship with God through Christ. As Paul says, we have access in one Spirit. The Spirit of God is the agent who makes this possible because it is a spiritual reality.

This is also part of what Jesus meant in John 4 when he said that God is seeking those who will “worship the Father in spirit and truth” (v. 23). Since “God is spirit” (v. 24) and does not have a body like man, true worship takes place in its essence in the Spirit, which is why it is essential that the Holy Spirit dwell within the NT temple—the church—in the same way he dwelt in the temple of the Old Testament. Back then, worship was limited to that physical, Spirit-indwelt temple, but “the hour . . . is now here” (v. 23) that worship takes place wherever two or three Spirit-indwelt believers gather together, for there Christ is “in the midst of them.”

While physical expressions are absolutely good and necessary aspects of what we do when we gather for corporate worship, the essence of what we are doing is fundamentally spiritual.

While physical expressions are absolutely good and necessary aspects of what we do when we gather for corporate worship, the essence of what we are doing is fundamentally spiritual. When we gather, we are doing things physically here on earth, in this place, with one another, but because we are united with  Christ, we are actually in God’s presence spiritually in heaven. We are communing with God through Christ when we worship, but we do so in the Spirit; our communion with God is not something that we physically experience or feel—our communion with God is essentially spiritual.

This is why Paul says in Colossians 3 that we must “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (vv. 1–2). The word translated “mind” here is a word that refers to more than just thinking; it refers to the inner seat of spiritual activity. That’s why the KJV translates this as “set your affection on things above.” That nature of our fellowship with God is spiritual in its essence, and so our central focus should not be on things that are on earth, but rather, our inner spirits must be set on the true reality of things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God, where we who are in him really are in his presence spiritually.

Everything we do physically here on earth as God’s temple is a participation with the true worship taking place in the true temple of heaven. The implication then, is that the essence of our communion with God is not physical, but spiritual. We can see this in how Paul discusses singing in Colossians 3. He commands us to verbally sing—to literally make melody with our vocal cords—but the singing itself is not really the essence of our communion with God. Notice how he identifies the essence of what we are doing at the end of verse 16: “with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Remember, Paul had commanded at the beginning of the chapter to set our hearts on things that are above, and now he is saying that our physical, verbal singing is an expression of our hearts to God. The physical singing flows out of the essence of our worship—hearts directed toward God. He says something similar in Ephesians 5:19: “singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” The physical act of singing alone is not worship; our physical vocal and instrumental music is to be an expression of the true essence of our worship—hearts directed toward the Lord.

It is important that we recognize the proper function of our physical expressions of worship and the fundamental spiritual essence of worship. The physical expressions themselves are never the essence of our communion with God; plenty of people do the physical stuff without truly worshiping. Rather, the physical aspects of worship should be an expression of the spiritual responses of our hearts toward God in the true heavenly temple. We cannot be satisfied with just going through the motions, assuming if we sing and pray and read the Bible and listen to a sermon, we have communed with God. No, the essence of true communion with God is in our hearts, hearts set on things above.

The problem is, physical human beings naturally tend toward defining the essence of our communion with God in physical terms. We know that the Bible teaches that we are seated in the heavens with Christ, we know that we are God’s temple, we know that we have access to the presence of God through Christ in the Spirit, but we want physical proof of these biblical realities. We want to be able to “feel” God’s presence; we want to tangibly experience communion with God. And so, when we’re asked how we know that we’ve worshiped, we want to be able to say something like “I felt God. I experienced his presence.”

But here’s what we need to remember: while we truly are in God’s presence through Christ, it is in the Spirit, and it is not yet a physical reality. It will one day be a physical reality. Paul references this in Colossians 3:4 when he says, “When Christ who is your life appears [bodily], then you also will appear [bodily] with him in glory.” But that time has not yet come. We are already there spiritually, but not yet bodily.

Worship by Faith, not Sight

The spiritual essence of worship is why faith is necessary for communion with God in this already/not yet condition. Hebrews 10:22 says, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” Faith is the means by which we are able to draw near to communion with God through Christ, though we do not yet experience that communion in physical ways. The author of Hebrews defines faith in chapter 11 as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (v. 1). We need faith as we draw near to communion with God because, even though we know we have access to the presence of God in the real temple of heaven, we cannot see it; we cannot see God or feel God or experience God with any of our physical senses. Our communion with God is at its essence spiritual. And so, we come with assurance and conviction that when we draw near through Christ, we are actually in the presence of God even though we have no tangible, physical proof. When we’re asked how we know we’ve worshiped, we ought to answer: “I know I’ve worshiped because I drew near to God, through Christ, with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith.” Our assurance that we’ve worshiped is not based on anything physical; it’s not based on simply doing our duty, nor is it based on any kind of feeling or experience.

Our assurance that we’ve worshiped is not based on anything physical; it’s not based on simply doing our duty, nor is it based on any kind of feeling or experience.

Unfortunately, throughout history, some of God’s people have forgotten this necessity of faith and instead have expected the essence of communion with God to be physical. For example, during the Middle Ages some theologians, rightly understanding that Christian worship is participation with the worship of heaven, nevertheless failed to recognize that this is currently something to be accepted in faith as a spiritual reality rather than a physical experience. Medieval Christians wanted to experience the worship of heaven tangibly here on earth, either expecting that heaven came down to them while they worshiped or that they were led into the heavenly temple through the sacramental ceremonies.

Even today, Christians expect to be able to tangibly feel the manifest presence of God when they worship, through a visible display of his glory, miraculous gifts, or emotional rapture. The goal of music and the “worship leader” is to “usher worshipers” into the presence of God in heaven, or as one author put it, to “bring the congregational worshipers into a corporate awareness of God’s manifest presence.”1Barry Griffing, “Releasing Charismatic Worship,” in Restoring Praise & Worship to the Church (Shippensburg, PA: Revival Press, 1989), 92. This has resulted in a new understanding of the place of music in corporate worship, perhaps best described by Ruth Ann Ashton’s book, God’s Presence through Music, raising the matter of musical style to a level of significance that some contemporary worshipers describe as “musical sacramentality.” Music is now considered a primary means through which people experience God’s presence in worship.

This is a serious misunderstanding of the essence of worship and the role of music in worship. Notice the order of what Paul says in Colossians 3:16. He says first that the Word of Christ should dwell richly within us; we read and hear God’s Word, and God’s Word dwells within our spirits. This is similar to Ephesians 5:18, where he says, “Be filled [by] the Spirit.” Spirit filling and the Word dwelling richly within us are the same thing—the Holy Spirit of God fills us with the Word he inspired. That comes first. Only then do we verbally sing to the Lord as an expression of what the Holy Spirit of God did in our hearts through his Word. Yes, the physical expression of singing is important, but it is a response to the Spirit filling our hearts with his Word, not the way we somehow feel the presence of God. Many Christian worshipers today expect music to do what only the Spirit can do through his Word.

Christian leaders up until the twentieth century universally avoided music in worship that simply worked up intense emotion artificially. They knew that it is too easy to interpret the feelings created by the energy of music as something spiritual; they’re not—emotion created by exciting music is just emotion. It’s not bad, but it’s not the essence of our communion with God and it is certainly not the felt presence of God. Historically, church leaders have insisted that the music we use in corporate worship be filled with the Word of God and composed in such a way that the music does not manipulate our emotions. Rather, the music should modestly give expression to the affections of our hearts that have been created by the Spirit through his Word richly dwelling within us.

Worship That Cannot Be Touched

This emphasis on the spiritual essence of our worship is captured beautifully at the end of Hebrews 12. In Hebrews 12, the author climaxes the book with a vivid description of our goal: drawing near to God for worship. He begins in verse 18 by describing what we Christians have not come to—what may be touched. In other words, Christian worship is not at its essence physical. But then he highlights the far better spiritual reality—we can’t touch our worship because we are worshiping spiritually in heaven:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Heb. 12:22–24)

We are not worshiping physically in heaven yet, but in Christ we are worshiping there spiritually in a very real sense—we “have come to Mount Zion.” With Christ’s coming, God no longer has to condescend and enter the fabric of the physical universe to manifest himself to his people; he can now allow us to ascend into heaven itself to worship him, which is superior to the physical earthly worship of the Old Testament. This is possible because of Jesus’s mediation on behalf of his people (12:24). We can now approach God with full confidence in worship.

This is what is really happening when we draw near to worship God corporately. We come by faith and not by sight since we are not yet there physically; but one day faith will be sight. Now we gather around Christ’s Table to renew our vows, and he is here spiritually, though we cannot see him with physical eyes. One day we will sit at his Table in our physical, glorified bodies, clothed in fine linen, bright and pure, and we will see Christ bodily with our physical eyes. And we will join our physical voices with “the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory’” (Rev. 19:6–7).

Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.

This essay is an excerpt from Biblical Foundations of Corporate Worship (Free Grace Press, 2022).

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1 Barry Griffing, “Releasing Charismatic Worship,” in Restoring Praise & Worship to the Church (Shippensburg, PA: Revival Press, 1989), 92.
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Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. In addition to his role with G3, Scott is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.