“You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve!” was Jesus’ vehement reply to the tempter in the wilderness. Our Lord was of course citing the fundamental tenet of the faith, that YHWH alone is worthy of worship, and that he is to be loved with all the heart, soul, mind and strength and there are to be no other gods before him. No created being, human, angel or mythical deity of the imagination is worthy of worship, even the very angels who speak for God and bear his name (Deut 6:13–15; 32:39; Isa 42:8; Rom 1:25; Rev 22:8–9).
So when we find in Scripture the clear directives and examples to worship Jesus Christ because he is worthy of it, there can be no contradiction. This is one of the most powerful testimonies to the Lordship and deity of the Son.
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” comes the refrain from “many creatures” and angels, (Rev 5:11–12) in the very same context as the declaration “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev 4:11). This is only proper, given that when the Son came into the world God commanded, “Let all God’s angels worship him” (Heb 1:6).
But not everyone agrees with God’s directive! Those who do not acknowledge the intrinsic divinity of the Son must explain away these passages by suggesting that Christ has only a “bestowed” divinity — contra the declarations in Isaiah that God will not share his glory with another (Isa 42:8, 48:11). Two other assertions are made; that Christ was only “worshipped” after his exaltation and that the “real” word for worship is not applied to Christ, only to God.
These assertions are readily addressed. Firstly, Scripture teaches that when Christ was raised and returned to the Father’s side, he regained the glory he previously had (John 1:1–2, 14; 6:38–46; 17:5; Phil 2:5–11; Heb 1:1–14; 13:8; 1 John 1:1–2). Secondly, there is clear evidence that Jesus was worshipped during his earthly life prior to his resurrection and exaltation and thirdly, to claim that the word “worship” is not truly applied to Jesus or that the “worship” of Jesus is somehow not the same as the “worship” of God displays a lack of understanding of Greek vocabulary.
When any word is translated into another language, we cannot assume that it will carry the exact range of meanings, no more and no less. The English word “worship” means “to attribute worth,” and is used to translate a range of Hebrew and Greek words, each of which carried different nuances of meaning. In turn, each of these original words may themselves be variably translated into English, into words such as “worship,” “serve,” “bow down.” To define “worship” as one act or ritual is simplistic and wrong. Not only do the original language Scriptures use several different words which could be translated “worship,” the Greek and Hebrew words which can be translated “worship” have different meanings in context and worship can be described without using specific “worship” vocabulary. “Worship” involves more than is encapsulated by any one word. Many activities are involved in worship, such as praise, obeisance, ascription of worth, glorification, service, prayer, honouring, submission, dedication, spiritual sacrifice, etc. When we include these, the instances of “worship” of Jesus and the imperatives to worship him, increase. It is therefore simplistic to assert that because a given word is not applied to Christ, that this means he was not worshipped or is not to be worshipped.
The Scriptural vocabulary of worship is is fundamentally linked to how we can be in right relationship with God, encompassing the whole orientation of our lives. It is certainly not confined to ritual activities, but expresses the covenant relationship established first with Israel and later with the people of the new covenant. As David Peterson (Engaging with God, A biblical theology of worship (Downers Grove: IVP, 1992), 19) explains,
“Acceptable worship under both covenants is a matter of responding to God’s initiative in salvation and revelation, and doing so in the way that he requires.”
Under the old covenant, the prescribed approach to God was through the rituals and moral imperatives of the Law. With the new covenant came the shift; Jesus as High Priest, believers as priests; Jesus’ body the temple, believers as the temple in whom God dwells by his Spirit. The worship language of the Old Testament was reapplied to the worship in Spirit and in truth. We worship God now by means of Christ and this side of his supreme sacrifice we no longer need to participate in the ritual forms of worship that pointed toward it.
It is true that ritual worship or service according to the prescriptions of the law, expressed in the LXX and New Testament by the latreuo word group, is rarely applied to Christ (but see Acts 13:2), and this is presented by some as an argument against the worship of Christ. However, the ritual or cultic worship of the Levitical priesthood and tabernacle/temple was abolished with the sacrifice of Christ, so it is not surprising that it is not applied directly to him. However, the types expressed in this cultic worship, such as sacrifice, Passover lamb, washing and priesthood find their fulfilment in him. Also, the “one like a son of man,” a descriptor Jesus applies to himself (Mark 14:62) does receive latreuo worship (Dan 7:14).
The word typically translated “worship” as applied to Christ is proskuneo, meaning to bow down or do obeisance. Israel was specifically commanded not to do this to any other god (Exod 34:14) and it is this word which Jesus cites when combating his own temptation in the wilderness: “You shall proskuneo the Lord your God and him only shall you serve (latreuo)” (Matt 4:10, Luke 4:8). In Revelation 22:8–9 the angel forbad John to proskuneo him; he is to proskuneo only God. Another word for serve is douleuo (to serve as a slave) and this is applied to serving God in the Old and New Testaments as well as Christ in the New (e.g. Rom 14:18, Col 3:24).
Phobeo means to fear, sebazomai means reverential worship and threskeia means cultic rites. (Danker, Greek-English Lexicon (BDAG) University of Chicago Press, 2000) The Old Testament clearly establishes the principle that no God other than the Lord, YHWH, is to be worshipped (Ex 34:14 –proskuneo; Deut 6:13, 8:19 – latreuo; 2 Kings 17:35 – proskuneo, phobeo, latreuo; Psa 29:2; Psa 99:5, 9 – proskuneo are a few examples in the LXX). Angels, even though they can represent God, and even speak as God, are not to be worshiped (Col 2:18 – threskeia; Rev 22:8–9 – proskuneo). No created being is worthy of the worship reserved for the Creator alone (Rom 1:25 – sebazomai, latreuo) To worship and serve a created being or thing is idolatry. The verses ascribing worship to Jesus must be read in this context; they testify to Jesus Christ being worthy of worship, and the appropriateness of worshipping him, not only in his current exalted state, but during his earthly ministry, and even before that, as a newborn.
In Matthew 2:2, 11 the Magi proskuneo the infant Jesus. During his ministry, Jesus was worshipped by a leper (Matt 8:2) Jairus (Matt 9:18) a Syro-Phoenician woman (Matt 15:25) Legion (Mark 5:6) the man born blind (John 9:38) and the disciples (Matt 14:33). These are also verses where the word proskuneo is specifically used, the same word Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy in Matthew 4:10 so there is no mistaking the intent. Matthew, writing within a clearly Jewish framework, uses proskuneo of Jesus frequently, culminating in chapter 28 where it is linked with Jesus’ subsequent claim to absolute authority and the instruction to baptise in the three-fold name. Jesus was worshipped following his resurrection, prior to and at the time of his ascension (Matt 28:9, 17; Luke 24:52; both proskuneo).
There are a number of other instances where the word “worship” is not specifically used but the action and/or speech is characteristic of worship (e.g., the woman with the alabaster jar in Matt 26:6–13 or Thomas’ declaration in John 20:28). The angels of God were commanded to proskuneo the firstborn (Jesus) at the time he was brought into the world (Heb 1:6, probably alluding to Psa 97:7, a command to the elohim/angeloi to proskuneo YHWH). The exalted Jesus is also worthy of worship (Phil 2:10, Rev 5:12). Christians are those who “call on the name of the Lord” — used of God in the Old Testament and Jesus Christ in the New. If all this isn’t worship, what is?
To fail to ascribe worship to the Lord Jesus Christ is to fail to acknowledge him as King of Kings and Lord of the Lords, the bearer of the Name which is above every name, to whom every knee must bow and of whom every tongue shall confess his Lordship, to the glory of God the Father. For all must honour the Son, just as the honour the Father. Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father (John 5:23). This honour and honouring, time, timao, belongs to “him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb, forever and ever” (Rev 4:9, 11; 5:12–13; 7:12).