The two words in Greek are proskuneō, which is used fifty-five times, and sebō, which is used fourteen times.
We have a clue to which one should be used by Christians today in recognizing which biblical writer used each. Almost all of the thirteen uses of sebō are in Luke’s Gospel and Acts. Almost all of the fifty-five proskuneō uses are John’s Gospel and Book of Revelation.
Who were the audiences these inspired writers were appealing to? The proskuneō word appears when John was addressing new Christians and then even persecuted Christians later in the decades of the second half of the first century. Luke used sebō first in his Gospel, and then in his Revelation, which he wrote forty years later.
Luke was addressing Theophilus, who we think was a Roman official sympathetic to the Christian movement. Luke was Paul’s protégé. For both, mission outreach beyond the Christ movement was their highest purpose. To do so, they wrote the word for worship used by non-Christian pagans in order to reduce the barrier for those who perhaps would join the movement. The goal of Paul and Luke was to attract pagans to the Christ movement by showing them this movement was accessible to them, too. Later the pagans who joined the movement would learn the Christian vocabulary.
Recognizing how pagans worshipped their gods will help us appreciate Paul’s subtlety that his protégé Luke also used. Greeks and Romans worshipped the numerous gods of ancient mythology to get their attention and satisfy them. The Greek sebō in Latin gives us reverence, to feel awe and to respect someone. The pagans also used repeated rituals, long processions by people in special garments, and burning fragrances to accomplish their goal of satisfying their gods so they would not do harm worshipper’s farming, artisan efforts, and especially their armies.
The great appeal of this Christ movement was that people did not have to fear the biblical God, who wants to heal and rescue them from their problems. In contrast to fearing a Greek or Roman god, being healed and saved by the biblical God was a great relief. No wonder the Christ movement continually attracted new participants over the early centuries.
What did Christians do in their relationship with the biblical God? As opposed to elevating pagan gods out of fear, they bowed down in submission to the God who cared for them. To make that point strongly the Gospel writers used the tautology of bowing down and sebō (bowing down) before God. In English, they bowed down and worshipped him.
What does the distinction between these two biblical words for worship mean for the worship practices Christians are doing today? Worship planners of a Christian service will want to give plenty of opportunities to show their submission before God. This can be done easily in singing submission songs, using phrases like loving God, praising him, and not being able to live well without him.
Words that come from the heart are important so that rituals that can be learned by rote don’t work well in truly Christian worship. Not standing at attention but moving, as you would with friends, can be an added practice, including bringing coffee. Participants will want to help other worshipers experience this worship of the Christian God any way they can, like explaining to newcomers what is going on. It will never be wrong in Christian worship to greet and be friendly to others. Not to want to do so can be seen as unChristian.
Many church denominations went through worship wars in recent decades. That could have been avoided had leaders been more aware of how the two words for worship are used in the New Testament. I think that one of those words will drop from church vocabulary as older Christians pass on.
One result of sin in our world is lonely, empty, hopeless lives. The remedy is a biblical world view centered on a loving God who through redemption by his Son frees us from enslavement to our basic sinful, self-centered lives. God’s Spirit works in believers to produce higher levels of love, joy, hope and peace. Congregations, where this is happening, will do well in the religious marketplace.