I’ve come across the claim that “worship” in the NT is either a) unique or b) ubiquitous. That is to say, some people claim that only Jesus is worshipped in the NT, while others claim that many people are worshipped in the NT.
Both claims are flawed in that they seek to absolutize the evidence into a clear principle rather than following where the evidence leads. In the OT there are several instances of worship (basically bowing) being offered to humans as a sign of respect, yet the NT authors reframed the term to make it an action that is exclusively offered to God an Jesus in the positive sense, an offered to others in a negative (idolatrous) sense. So let’s look at worship (προσκυνέω) in the NT.
(note on methodology: We will concern ourselves only with occurrences of προσκυνέω, which may leave other occurrences of worship out of the mix, but is also an objective criterion for studying how the term was used formally.)
Usage by Author
We find the word 60x in the NT, divided thusly:
34x (57%) in the Gospels and Acts (Mt 13, Mk 2, Lk 3, Jn 12, Acts 4)
1x (2%) in the Pauline Epistles
24x (40%) in Revelation
2x (3%) in Hebrews
If we group John’s Gospel with Revelation, the usage by John accounts for 60% of the occurrences. Even if we consider the two texts to have different authors, it is worth noting that Revelation by far has the highest frequency of use, followed by John and Matthew. Mark, Luke, Paul, and Hebrews barely use the term. The 7 Catholic Epistles never use the term.
Usage by Object
To what or whom was the worship directed in the NT?
In Paul (1 Cor. 14:25) the object is God.
In Hebrews the first object of worship is the Son (1:6, citing Dt. 32:43)
“Rejoice, ye heavens, with him, and let all the angels of God worship him; rejoice ye Gentiles, with his people, and let all the sons of God strengthen themselves in him; for he will avenge the blood of his sons, and he will render vengeance, and recompense justice to his enemies, and will reward them that hate him; and the Lord shall purge the land of his people.” (Brenton)
The second object is unidentified (11:21, citing Gen. 37:31)
“And he said, Swear to me; and he swore to him. And Israel did reverence, leaning on the top of his staff.” (Brenton).
In Mark the object is Jesus (2x, 100%), in both cases before the Resurrection.
In Matthew the objects are Jesus (11x, 85%), Satan (1x, 8%), and God (1x, 8%). The latter 2 are mentioned in the same passage (the temptation narrative), and only 2 of the 11 times that Jesus is the object of worship are post-Resurrection.
In Luke we have the same 2 instances from the temptation narrative that Matthew recounts, 1 for Satan and 1 for God. The only other instance is directed towards Jesus post-Resurrection.
In Acts we have 2 occurrences of worshipping (God) in Jerusalem/Temple, a mention of idol worship, and Peter being worshipped.
In John we have 11 references to worship of God (10 of which are in chapter 4), and 1 of worship of Jesus.
In Revelation the first object of (future) worship are the readers in Philadelphia (3:9)
” behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.”
Primarily God is worshipped (10x, 42%), and the beast/image/dragon/demons are worshipped 11x (46%). An angel is worshipped 2x (8%), and in both cases the one worshipping (the author) was corrected by the angel for such behavior.
Overall in the NT, we see this breakdown of objects of worship:
God (27x, 45%)
Jesus (16x, 27%)
Satan/Beast/Demons/Idols (14x, 23%)
An Angel (2x, 3%)
Peter (1x, 2%)
A few remarks are in order.
First, positive worship accounts for 72% of occurrences, applied only to God and Jesus, while negative worship accounts for the other 28%.
The implication is that only God and Jesus are to be worshipped, according to NT usage. However, it should be added to this that Jesus is worshipped after the Resurrection only 3x, and the remaining 13x occur from his birth to his ministry. We cannot, therefore, conclude that Jesus was only to be worshipped as the triumphant resurrected Christ. His worship was instituted when he was an infant (Mt. 2 with the visit of the Magi).
We can also add that this does not mean that the resurrected Christ was worshipped with any frequency in the NT. Although the Gospel narratives have only a short account of Jesus post-Resurrection, we do not find in the writings of Paul, Hebrews, James, Peter, and Jude any mention of worshipping Jesus, God, or any other entity. They are silent on the issue, which indicates that when Jesus was worshipped post-Resurrection, it was not a new development in the NT trajectories, but a continuation of the worship that Jesus received throughout his life.
The depiction of Jesus being worshipped is largely confined to the Gospel narratives, and accounts for 23% of the total usages in the NT, and 48% of the usages in the Gospels (with God coming in a close second place at 45%).
Outside of the Gospels only Hebrews speaks of worshipping Jesus (referenced as the Son of God), and the author does so through the application of Deuteronomic song (referencing God himself as YHWH and El) to Jesus. We can ad to this that the words were said to have been spoken (or sung) to the Israelites by Moses and Jesus the son of Nun (Dt. 32:44). The author of Hebrews clearly identified the Son of God as YHWH/El, and not simply as a son of God (since the song reads “let all the sons of God strengthen themselves in him.”)
We can conclude that worship in the NT is confined exclusively to Jesus and God. Other beings are worshipped (Satan, Peter, the Beast, idols, an angel) but theses occurrences are portrayed as negative. Only Jesus and his Father, God, are the proper objects of worship according to the NT authors.
Thanks for reading!