Worship is sacrifice. Just ask the people who lived 4000 years ago. Back then, life was completely different. Not only were there no cars or computers, there were no churches or synagogues.

In that day, if you wanted to worship one of the gods, you’d take something that you valued – a bull or pig – you’d stack some rocks up and build an altar. Then, you’d place that animal on the altar, you’d slaughter it, and you would burn it. And you would watch as the smoke from that dead animal rose into the heavens, all the while hoping that whatever god you were worshiping would receive that sacrifice and respond accordingly. This was the way worship worked 4000 years ago. You offered a sacrifice that was worthy of the god you were worshiping.

Abraham: A Man Called Out of Idolatry

This was the world that Abraham lived in. A world that was filled with idols and dozens of gods, each ruling over a particular patch of land. And so, when the one true God called Abraham and promised him that he would make him a nation and use him to bless the world, he was leading Abraham in a direction that was totally different from Abraham’s contemporaries. He was leading Abraham away from the idea that there were many gods and toward the idea that there is only one God, and his name is Yahweh. And what’s more, he was leading Abraham to a more robust understanding of worship. Yes, worship is sacrifice. But it runs deeper than merely putting an animal on a pile of rocks and having a barbecue.

The first time the word ‘worship’ appears in Scripture, it’s in one of its most uncomfortable stories. Though it’s a story that makes us squirm, it tells us a great deal about true worship.

Abraham’s Test of Faith

One day God speaks to Abraham, “Go to the place I will show you and offer your son Isaac as a burnt offering.” Scripture doesn’t give us details on Abraham’s response. Instead, it simply says that he took his son, some fire and wood, and a knife, and he headed to a place called Moriah. There, he built an altar, bound his son, and raised his knife to offer him as a sacrifice to God.

Now, when we read this, we can’t help but wonder, “How could Abraham do such a thing? And how could God ask for it?” For us, the shocking thing about this story is that God would ask Abraham for the life of his son. But that’s not what was shocking in this story for Abraham and the people who lived in Abraham’s time.

The Culture of Abraham’s Day

 In Abraham’s day countless children were slaughtered by their parents to satisfy the pagan gods. It was such a common practice that it’s condemned several times in Scripture. And beyond that, there’s archeological evidence from around the world that points to this sad truth. So, the surprising thing for those in Abraham’s day would not have been that his God required the life of his child.

The Lesson of Abraham’s Faith

For them, the surprising thing would have been that, as Abraham raised his knife, God stopped him from taking the life of his son. And instead, Abraham’s God provided an alternative offering. Abraham’s God, the true God, put an end to child sacrifice and let Abraham know that there is a greater sacrifice to make – a sacrifice of your will and your desire and your hopes and your dreams. A willingness to follow God no matter where it leads. This is true sacrifice; this is true worship.

The author of the book of Hebrews tells us that Abraham had such faith in God that he knew and believed that even if he took the life of his son Isaac, God could still fulfill the promises he had made Abraham through Isaac by raising him from the dead. Abraham trusted God. He had faith. And he walked in that faith. He staked his life and future and everything on that faith. This was the greater worship that God desired from Abraham.

Worship from Romans 12

And this is the kind of worship that the apostle Paul talks about in his letter to the Romans. In the 12 chapter of that letter, he writes:

“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.” (Romans 12:1-8 NASB)

Paul Calls Believers to True Worship

Paul has spent much of his letter to the Romans arguing that the way into God’s presence and family is through the same kind of faith that Abraham showed at Mount Moriah. He argues that we don’t join God by following a list of rules or holding tightly to a series of specific doctrines. Instead, we become part of God’s kingdom through faith. The same faith that Abraham had.

And so, as he begins chapter twelve, he writes, “therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” In essence, he’s saying, “true worship is sacrifice.” But it’s not the sacrifice of your best bull or the sacrifice of your firstborn child. It’s the sacrifice of your self.

True Worship Involves Our Whole Self

This is why he describes this worshipful sacrifice as a presentation of your “body.” Now, keep in mind, Paul is not talking about your body in distinction from your mind or soul. When Paul says to present your body as a sacrifice, he is describing your whole self. Everything about you is contained within or attached to your body.

So, Paul is encouraging us to understand worship as something that encompasses everything we are – from our voices and our words, to our actions to our attitudes to the way that we use our time and money, to our role as parents or children or brothers or sisters or friends. When we offer our bodies as a sacrifice we offer our whole selves to God. We put our dreams and our expectations and our hopes and our desires and everything else on the altar and we say, “God this is yours. How can I use it in a way that honors you?”

Using our Bodies to Worship on Sunday

So, true worship puts everything on the table. It holds nothing back. This is why, when we come together, everything that we do during a worship gathering should be an act of worship. When we sing, we worship. When we listen to the Scriptures read and meditate on them and commit to living in line with him, we worship. When the offering plate is passed and we give, we worship. When we stand or raise our hands or say, “amen” or kneel – these are all ways that we use our bodies to worship.

Using our Bodies to Worship During the Week

But worship doesn’t end when the service ends. Since worship is an offering of our bodies to God, it continues as long as we are in bodies. When we wake up on Monday morning and we pray, it’s an act of worship. When we come home from work on Thursday evening, and give God thanks or show our families love, we worship. Worship takes place every time we use our bodies in ways that honor God and proclaim his praises.

But this leads us to a question. How should we use our bodies? What ways of using our bodies honor God?

True Worship Is Alive

First, Paul describes this offering of our bodies as a “living” sacrifice. In Abraham’s day, sacrifice meant death. If you sacrificed a bull, you had to kill it. If you sacrificed a child, you had to take his life. But Paul says, “God is looking for a sacrifice that is alive, not dead.” God wants us to offer our lives as a sacrifice. But this means that we live in ways that put God and others ahead of ourselves. This is why the New Testament authors spend so much time encouraging the church to practice the one another’s – love one another, forgive one another, encourage one another, consider one another before yourselves. In fact, if you keep reading Romans 12, you’ll find that Paul spends the rest of the chapter encouraging believers to serve and love one another.

The Danger of Dividing over Worship

This is what makes the division over worship style and song so spiritually damaging. Just a few verses away from this encouragement to live in spiritual worship, Paul says, “give preference to one another in honor” and “be devoted to one another in brotherly love.” True worship is not about all the preferences that we have. True worship is actually about giving preference to one another. And this isn’t just true of songs or prayers. It’s true of everything. Why? Because worship is sacrifice for the sake of one another and for the sake of God.

In this, Paul helps us understand that worship isn’t just about what we do for a few hours on Sunday morning. Worship is about the way that we live. It is about proclaiming God’s praises through our whole lives – the way that we relate to one another as well as to God.

True Worship is Holy

Second, Paul describes spiritual worship as “holy.” Something that is holy is set apart for a specific use. In the same way that paper plates are ‘set apart’ for picnics and fine china are ‘set apart’ for a formal dinner, we are set apart for God’s use.

Scripture describes God’s people as holy because they have been set apart for his purpose. We belong to him, so we don’t give ourselves over to just anything. True worship calls us again and again to remember that we do not belong to the world but God. Because of this, we live and worship in ways that make him known – that proclaim his praises. Our worship isn’t about us because we don’t even belong to ourselves. This kind of holiness goes to the core of who we are. It’s deeper than what we do on the outside. It’s deeper than the songs that we sing or the prayers that we pray or the words that we speak. It goes into the deepest part of who we are – to our very hearts.

And so, holy worship is worship that flows out of a heart that has been set apart for God and God alone. It’s worship that comes out of a life that is being transformed by the Holy Spirit and that is growing in love and in faith and in hope and in goodness and in peace and in self-control. Holy worship is motivated by holy love for God and others. And because of this, it looks like holy love…

True Holiness is Rooted in Love

This is why Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, interrupt his discussion on worship to remind the Christians in Corinth about what love looks like. Listen to this familiar passage:

“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing. Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-13 NASB)

Paul is reminding them that all of their acts of worship are worthless if they’ve lost the love motivation. You can make every sacrifice in the world – you can even give your body to be burned – but if you’re not motivated by love, then your sacrifice isn’t holy. It’s worthless. Love must become the primary motivating factor in our worship.

True Worship Is Acceptable to God

Only then, will our worship be “acceptable to God.” When we faithfully offer our whole selves to God as a living sacrifice that is set apart for him and motivated by love, our worship will be acceptable to him.

Maybe this would be a better question for us to ask when evaluating our worship. Instead of questioning, “Did I enjoy myself?” or “Did it meet my needs?” Perhaps we should ask ourselves, “Was my worship acceptable to God? Did it honor him? Did it proclaim his praises? Was it motivated by love for him and for others? Did it include my whole body – my whole life?”

Worship is more than gathering in church on a Sunday morning, singing a few songs, and throwing a couple of dollars in the offering plate. Worship is giving your self – your whole self – to God. It’s offering everything that you are to him and asking, “What would you have me do? How would you have me give? Who would you have me love?” True worship may begin on Sunday morning but it continues every other day, as you make Christ the heart of your homes.

So, let every moment of corporate worship be a catalyst for continuing to worship throughout the week. May we ask God in those moments, “How can I worship you on Monday? And Tuesday? And the rest of the week? How can I live as a sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to you? How can I proclaim your praises?”

May we always worship sacrifically – with holy love as our primary motivation.