ENGAGING WITH GOD: A Biblical Theology of Worship by David Peterson

Book Review
  • Approximate Time Commitment: 15 minutes

Peterson’s book, ENGAGING WITH GOD: A Biblical Theology of Worship, is designed to take the reader chronologically through the entire Bible, so that the overarching biblical picture of worship will become clear. This book review was written by Hank Griffith of South Suburban Evangelical Free Church in Apple Valley, Minnesota.

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Resource Description

Summary by Trevin Wax:

Dr. David G. Peterson formerly served as the principal at Oak Hill College in London and as lecturer in New Testament at Moore College in Australia. In this book, Peterson tackles the controversial subject of worship by cutting through the rhetoric of the “worship wars” and by bringing his readers back to the biblical teaching that should inform these debates over worship.

Peterson’s book is designed to take the reader chronologically through the entire Bible, so that the overarching biblical picture of worship will become clear. As he walks us through the relevant biblical passages on worship, he seeks to prove that “the worship of the living and true God is essentially an engagement with him on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible.

Peterson avoids the temptation to begin his book on Christian worship by looking at the early church’s methods. He instead traces the roots of Christian worship back to Israel’s patriarchs and then embarks on a journey through the Old Testament history of worship.

In order to understand the Old Testament view of worship, Peterson insists that we must recognize the God of Israel who has made himself known to his people through his word and deeds. The system of worship manifested through the tabernacle and temple acknowledged the living presence of God in the midst of his chosen people. The Jews were required to live in acknowledgement of this presence in everyday life, not only in the religious ceremonies of the temple.

Before turning to the New Testament witness, Peterson analyzes the Hebrew and Greek words used to denote “worship,” and he places them in three broad categories:

  1. worship as homage or grateful submission
  2. worship as service
  3. worship as reverence or respect

Peterson makes the case that these broad categories prove his hypothesis that the biblical idea of worship, or “engagement with God,” actually refers to the whole of a person’s life and not merely the cultic regulations that God requires.

From here, Peterson launches into the New Testament witness to Jesus, and specifically, how Jesus represents the “new temple,” the presence of God. He consults the Gospels of Matthew and John to back up this understanding of God’s presence among his people, pointing to Jesus’ speech about the temple’s destruction in Matthew 24, and John’s description of Jesus attending the Jewish festivals. God has acted significantly within human history, and in the person and work of Jesus Christ, he has accomplished all that the temple intended to do for Israel and the nations.

Peterson shifts to the “new covenant” established by Jesus and writes of Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law of Moses and how his sacrificial death is to be understood within the Jewish concept of Passover. By offering himself as a perfect sacrifice, Jesus fulfills the Old Testament sacrificial system.

The rest of the book sifts through the teaching on worship found in the remaining books of the New Testament. Peterson starts with Acts, by mapping out the steady inclusion of Gentiles within the nascent Christian communities, by describing the worship gatherings that Luke records, and by recording how the early Christian churches saw Jesus as the replacement of the Jewish temple. Peterson does not make the descriptions of early Christian worship binding on all believers today. The principles found in Acts are to remain in practice, but the specific descriptions of worship gatherings may or may not translate equally into every context.

When describing Paul’s teaching on worship, Peterson emphasizes Jesus’ sacrificial death that makes possible the offering up of our lives as living sacrifices. It is because of Jesus’ work on the cross that true worship is possible, and a new kind of service to God can take place through the preaching of the gospel.

Peterson goes into great detail to describe how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament Law by analyzing the theme of worship in Hebrews. The Old Testament themes of worship must now be reinterpreted in light of Christ’s atoning death. Obedience to God in gratitude for what he has done for us in his Son is the sacrifice that God desires.

Peterson closes the book by taking up the theme of worship in Revelation, specifically how worship takes place in the heavenly realm and how our knowledge of this worship must influence our worship today that takes place in anticipation of the future.


My comments:

First of all, I think Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship is an outstanding example of how to do “biblical theology”, in contrast to “systematic theology”, e.g. Wayne Grudem’s tome, Systematic Theology. (In my opinion, both approaches are valuable for different reasons.)

Secondly, I resonate with the major thesis of the book that worshipping God acceptably must be approaching or engaging with God in the manner that He makes possible and has revealed in His holy Word

Thirdly, I must say that I was personally blessed by reading this 300 page book. In my opinion Engaging with God is a gold mine on the subject of worship from a biblical viewpoint, beginning with Genesis right on through to Revelation. I greatly appreciate that Peterson wants us to know what God thinks about worship, not what he or some “church growth expert” thinks about it, or how it has been practiced in various traditions over the centuries.

Chapter eight “The Book of Hebrews and the Worship of Jesus” is especially helpful in showing how Christ’s atonement fulfills the forms of worship in the Old Testament. (Peterson has written a whole book on this subject, Hebrews and Perfection, published by Cambridge University Press, 1992, an edited version of his doctoral dissertation written under Professor F.F. Bruce at the University of Manchester.)

Near the beginning of his chapter on Hebrews the author writes:

Hebrews presents the most complete and fully integrated theology of worship in the New Testament. All the important categories of Old Testament thinking on this subject – sanctuary, sacrifice, altar, priesthood, and covenant – are taken up and related to the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Dr. David G. Peterson (DOB 10/28/44) is an Anglican, but obviously from the evangelical wing of that tradition. Engaging with God is scholarly, yet relatively easy to read and understand. Peterson uses Greek and Hebrew terms rather often, but he always explains them. Therefore, not knowing the biblical languages should not keep any thinking believer from profiting from this book.

Even though I learned much from the book it was not like, “Oh! Wow! I never saw that before in the Bible! It was more like, ‘Thanks, Dr. Peterson, for pulling so much together in such a clear and comprehensive study of worship.’” The book caused me to think about worship in the whole my life, as well as personal worship and especially corporate worship.

Let me close with a quote from a practical section of the book. It’s from chapter 7 “Serving God in the Assembly of His People”, in which Peterson digs into the epistles of Paul on worship, then shares some words of application:

The apostle’s teaching calls into question the validity and helpfulness of much contemporary thinking and practice in relation to church services. Mention has been made of the inappropriateness of designating our gatherings primarily to facilitate private communion with God. This can happen in Catholic, evangelical, and charismatic traditions alike.  Paul would urge us to meet in dependency on one another as the vehicles of God’s grace and to view the well-being and strengthening of the whole church as the primary aim of the gathering. There ought to be a real engagement with other believers in the context of mutual ministry, shared prayer and praise, not simply a friendly chat over a cup of coffee after the church!

Again, 1 Corinthians 14 challenges the tendency of many Christian traditions to undervalue spontaneity and variety of input in the congregational gathering. Paul expected that members of the congregation would come with some contributions prepared for the occasion or that individuals might be prompted by the Spirit to offer prayer or praise or some other ministry on the spot. Ephesians 4 certainly indicates the importance of pastor-teachers in the equipment of God’s people for their work of building up the body of Christ, and the pastoral epistles highlight the teaching role of those identified as leaders in the congregation. However as noted previously, there should be some public opportunity for spontaneous and informal ministries as well as for the ordered and the prepared.

It is sometimes said that the size of our gatherings or the physical context makes it impossible to put such New Testament teaching into practice. People who argue this way show little imagination or willingness to reassess their traditions, even though others in the contemporary scene have found helpful solutions to these problems. It may be a matter of finding appropriate spots in the regular pattern of Sunday services where contributions can be made. It may be a matter of rearranging the furniture or encouraging people to gather together differently so that those who contribute can be more easily seen and heard.

Of course, it is equally possible to lose the vertical dimension and consider the congregational meeting as little more than an occasion for fellowship. The balance of Paul’s teaching suggests that we view mutual ministry as the context in which we engage with God. Edification and worship are different sides of the same coin.

A final comment and question to you: In the Epilogue David Peterson even describes how an imaginary church might flesh out some of the Scriptural insights he has shared in the book. This made me think of the church Donna and I have the joy of attending. Like most evangelical churches, ours rightly emphasizes praise/worship music and the preaching of the Word of God during our Sunday worship services, and I appreciate that it is seeking to give more emphasis to prayer than it previously did. However, I believe our church could still grow in mutual edification, which Peterson connects so closely to the very essence of worship. This is happening to some extent in our small groups, but probably not as well in our services. How could we restructure them to make this possible, at least on an occasional basis? What are your suggestions?


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