True worship is first and foremost doxological – at its every heart worship is about giving God the glory (doxa is the Greek word for glory). Worship sings the praises of God. It celebrates the majesty of God. It declares the wonder of who God is. Or perhaps a little more mundanely, we proclaim God’s worth. Indeed, this is the thrust of our English word ‘worship’, which is derived from the Saxon weorthscipe, from which later the word ‘worthship’ came.
In worship the focus is on God. It is not on the choir or the worship group, and most certainly not on the preacher or indeed on any other personality. God is the celebrity, from start to finish of the worship. Let’s therefore ensure that the physical arrangements of our churches reflect that focus upon God. It surely cannot be right for a worship group to be centre stage – God needs to be centre stage. For me one of the glories of Chelmsford Cathedral where I now worship is that there is a huge figure of the Ascended Reigning Christ with pierced hands and welcoming outstretched arms suspended above the nave. Not every church, of course, can afford such a magnificent sculpture – but at the very least could not there be a figure of the Risen Lord portrayed on a screen?
Worship is for God, and for God alone. It is a turning away from self and a gazing upon God in such a matter and adoration and praise, confession and penitence, dedication and commitment are our response. Once the welcome is over, worship proper must begin with God – the God who has revealed himself in Jesus; the God who raised Jesus from the dead, set him at his right hand, and pours out his Holy Spirit upon his church.
This week I am beginning a series of blogs on worship in Paul’s Letters to Timothy. In a series of seven reflections we shall take as our themes Let’s pray for others (1 Tim 2 1-2), Let’s confess the faith (1 Tim 3.16); Let’s read the Scriptures (1 Tim 4.13); Let’s nail our colours to the mast in baptism (1 Tim 6.12); Let’s remember the Risen Jesus around the Table (2 Tim 2.8); and Let’s proclaim Jesus (2 Tim 4.1-2). But today we begin with ‘Let’s worship God’.
Have you noticed that both at the beginning and the end of Paul’s First Letter to Timothy is marked by ‘doxology’ (1 Tim 1.17 and 6.16): the doxologies have been described as “the theological bookends“ which provide a framework for Paul’s instructions to his junior party. There is a further brief doxology in 2 Tim 4.18, However, my focus this week is on the longest of the three: “To the King of all ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Tim 1.17) Or as Eugene Peterson puts it in his paraphrase, The Message:
Deep honour and bright glory to the King of All Time –
One God, Immortal, Invisible, ever and always. Oh, yes
Almost certainly Paul is not ‘ad-libbing’ here. Rather scholars suggest that he is quoting a doxology which Christians probably took over from the worship of the Jewish synagogue. That’s a thought: did you realise that Paul is into liturgy here? Indeed, as we shall discover through this series, Paul in his letters often quotes early Christian hymns, creeds, and confessions of faith.
As it stands by itself, the cry of praise to God is not specifically Christian – there is no reference, for instance, to God’s amazing love in Jesus. But look at the context: there Paul writes of how “the grace of our Lord over-flowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ” (1.14). He quotes the “sure saying” that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”. It is the context which gives added depth to his outburst of praise. In the words of one commentator:
The terms of his praise size up the character of the God who has the capacity to make good on the stunning promise to save sinners for eternal life through Christ Jesus. ( R.W. Wall)
God is described as “King of all ages”. He is beyond all time. He was there before time began and will be there when time is no more As Martin Luther graphically put it, “With one wink of His (God’s) eye He beholds the eyes and crowns of all kings in contempt. They are the kings of the hour.”
Over against others who would have a claim on our lives, God’s superiority is celebrated in three special ways. First God is “immortal”: he is beyond the ravages of decay and death. Secondly, God is “invisible”: he is, said John Stott, “beyond the limits of every horizon”; he is beyond, reason and beyond conception. Thirdly, God is “alone” (Greek: monos) in his splendour: Christians, like Jews, are ‘mono’-theists God has no rivals; he is unique.
It is this amazing God who has provided the world with a “Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1.10). The resurrection is at the heart of the Christian faith. As Christians we do not believe in the immortality of the soul: rather though the victory that God gained over sin and death through his Son, we share in that immortal life which is God’s along to give. I have little doubt that this thought was in Paul’s mind as he celebrated God’s ‘immortality’ in our opening doxology.
To him, therefore, “be honour and glory. Amen”. ‘Amen’ is a Hebrew word with a punch. In Christian worship today ‘Amen’ tends to be little more than a full-stop to a prayer. But,. as Donald Coggan, a former Archbishop of Canterbury makes clear, “Amen is a great word, strong and powerful”! It is a word which enables the worshipper to make it his own. ‘Yes, so be it!’ Indeed, the suggestion has been made that at this point, as the letter was being read out in church, the reader would have paused, to enable the listening congregation then to shout out their own Amen too. So too, when we say ‘Amen’, when we sing our praises, when we proclaim God’s greatness, let us not mumble under our breath, but let us raise our voices and so give God the glory.
Almost three hundred years ago, this doxology became a means of worship for the young Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s great preachers and theologians. For in 1721, as a seventeen-year old, he was pondering these words of Paul. Later he wrote:
As I read the words (1 Tim 1.17) there came into my soul, and as it were diffused throughout it, a sense of the glory of the divine being; a new sense quite different from anything I ever experienced before. Never any words of Scripture seemed to me as these words did. I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be wrapt up to God in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him.
Hopefully in turn we too can make time to ponder and encounter afresh this God whose glory we can never fully declare.