Who can be properly worshipped?

You might imagine that the subject of worship would be one of the clearest subjects taught in the Bible, it is not. There appears to be some inconsistency between the Old Testament and the New Testament with respect to the usage of the terms most often translated "worship." Even folding in the the evidence from the LXX (the 'Septuagint,' an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament used by early Christians) does not make the matter easy to resolve.

Worship in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament the Hebrew word (ahistahawa) commonly used to mean an 'act of worship, to bow' is, of course, directed to the LORD Yahweh (see 1 Samuel 1:3). It is also clear that worship is to be given only to the True God (Exodus 20:5; 23:24; 34:14; Deuteronomy 5:9; Psalm 81:9). Yet we find that this word is also directed towards humans (e.g..: Genesis 23:7,12; 27:29; 33:3,6,7; 37:7,9,10; 42:6, 43:26,28; 49:8; Exodus 18:7; Ruth 2:10; 1 Samuel [1 Kings LXX] 2:36; 20:41; 24:8; 25:23,41; 2 Samuel [2 Kings LXX] 1:2; 9:6,8; 14:4,22,33; 15:5; 16:4; 18:21,28; 24:20; 1 Kings [3 Kings LXX] 1:16,23; 2 Kings [4 Kings LXX] 2:15; 4:37; 1 Chronicles 29:20). This appears to be a contradiction. If this is only to be rendered to God, how is it appropriate to give it to humans?

In the OT (Old Testament) this Hebrew word refers to the specific act of bowing and the depth of honor must be discovered in the context. It would be acceptable to offer this act to a human where all present understood the meaning to be one of great honor but not the kind of honor and respect that is directed to a Deity. If the context implied that the object of the honor was being viewed even as a lower deity then this would still "cross the line" of appropriateness and become sacrilegious. The key is that the worship could not be given to "a god" (Exodus 34:14). You can honor humans as kings but NOT as gods.

This may explain why there are no examples where an angel is the intended recipient of this action. Angels were known to be spirit entities and could potentially be viewed as some kind of lower deity. If they were offered this act of bowing the intent would at best be ambiguous and at worst false worship.

Some may question this conclusion and point to two possible examples of angel-worship. One is found in Genesis 19:1 where Lot bows to two persons who are described in the commentary as being angels who had earlier visited Abraham (see Genesis 18). From the context though, these two angels were appearing to Lot as ordinary humans needing food and sleep and only later did he discover they were really angels (Genesis 19:2-5,10; Hebrews 13:2). So Lot's initial giving of honor was not directed to persons he imagined were spiritual entities.

Another possibility is found in the account of Genesis 18:2 (this precedes and is connected to the Genesis 19 story) where three persons appear to Abraham who then renders worship to them. From the Genesis 19 account we note that two of the three persons are the two angels who traveled and met Lot. These angels are not God for here they claimed to have been sent by God (Genesis 19:13) thus distinguishing themselves from God (who is apparently the Speaker in Genesis 18:20-22). So it is significant to ponder whether Abraham worshipped all three persons, including the two angels, or whether he worshipped only the primary Speaker who was identified as being the LORD (Yahweh). If he worshipped all three then this would be the one account where angels received worship. But the context does not make it certain one way or the other.

Is it possible that the Speaker was really an angel who spoke as Yahweh only in a representative sense (Genesis 44:10)? First note that Genesis 18:1,9-15 is a logical continuation of Genesis 17:15-22 (where the Speaker makes the initial promise to Abraham for having progeny through Sarah) and the Speaker there is identified as God Almighty (Genesis 17:1-8). This argues against Abraham thinking that the third person was only an angel. A counter response might be that while Abraham may have believed the third person was God Almighty, he was incorrect for no man has seen God at any time (John 1:18; 5:37; Genesis 33:11,20) and therefore that person must have been an angel. In answer though, if the Speaker were an angel, the Speaker claimed to be God, Abraham viewed him as God and Moses as editor records him as being God without any further qualification. If this Speaker is actually an angel, that identity is invisible and no where revealed. The worship was being given to someone he believed was Almighty God.

Thus there is no implication that 'worship' can appropriately, knowingly, unambiguously, go directly to an angel. If such appears to have occurred in Scripture then it is only when that angel's personal identity and nature is unseen, resulting in the entity being viewed as more than an angel, more than simply a representative of God, but as someone identical with God Almighty without any qualification.

Summarizing for the OT, worship is only appropriately given to God. If a human were to appropriately receive such, it would be clear from the context that the recipient was not being viewed as a kind of (lesser) deity but the honor being offered carried a deep respect and deference but clearly without attributing any divine qualities.

Worship in the New Testament

In the NT (New Testament), there are two words used for worship, one emphasized the physical act of bowing (proskuneo), the other emphasized an ongoing religious devotion (latreuo - Hebrews 9:6) and these are fairly synonymous (both are found together in Matthew 4:10 and Luke 4:8). The second term, latreuo, clearly goes only to God in all its occurrences. As for the term proskuneo, although it is used of God (John 4:20-24) there is evidence that has led some to conclude it can appropriately be rendered to angels and humans.

Are there any references where proskuneo is appropriately given to angels?

Let us examine three possible references:

So apparently, like the OT, there are no clear cases of believers giving any form of appropriate worship to angels.

Are there any references where proskuneo is appropriately given to humans as can be found in the OT?

From Acts 10:25,26 it would seem that the answer would necessarily be 'No' (also see Acts 14:12-18). But a few references need to be examined:

While it is possible to turn to the Greek version of the OT (LXX) and see cases where proskuneo is given to humans (corresponding to the Hebrew references mentioned at the beginning of this article in the second paragraph) these examples cannot also be claimed to exemplify NT usage. The LXX was translated in Egypt almost 3 centuries before Christ. It was not an inspired translation of the OT nor was it in the same common language of the Judean Jews of the first century. LXX scholars recognize that it closely follows Hebrew language structure of the Hebrew OT while the NT does not. We can only speculate on why the LXX translators chose proskuneo to translate the Hebrew ahistahawa but whatever the reasons, we cannot transport their choices into the NT and claim that the LXX usage for the Greek word proskuneo (rendered 'worship') is also present in the NT Greek. Just because the LXX translators in Egypt three centuries before chose to use the Greek word proskuneo to describe what some humans received, we cannot therefore assume that the first century NT writers would have used proskuneo to describe similar acts. In other words, although the Hebrew term was used for bowing to humans and for some reason the LXX translators chose proskuneo as its translation it does not logically follow that when proskuneo is used in the NT it necessarily had the same meaning to the inspired NT writers as it did to the LXX translators.

In summary, in the NT there are clear statements against giving proskuneo to humans and angels and no clear NT counter-examples. The argument that because the LXX translates proskuneo for giving honor to humans and therefore that must be how it is used in the NT text, is a weak argument, too weak to overcome the clear statements against doing so.

What of latreuo? Whether in the OT LXX or the NT, it refers to temple service and is never given to men or angels, only to God. Of possible interest is Daniel 7:14 (in the Ralfs edition of the LXX) where it is given to the Messiah, the Son of Man. This would only be an inconsistency in the OT if the translator did not believe the coming Messiah was also God.

Jesus received proskuneo but was he worshiped?

Since Jesus never received latreuo in the NT (but see the above reference to Daniel 7:14 in the LXX) we will examine the occurrences where Jesus received proskuneo. We want to know if the term is ever used like what should be given only to God (Exodus 20:5; 23:24) or is it more like a high honor that is limited, as in the OT LXX examples, where honor is given to a king (2 Samuel 14:4,22,33; 1 Kings 1:16,23)?

Proskuneo appears in the NT 60 times as a compound verb and once as a noun (John 4:23). Just as English verbs have forms to correspond with time and the number of persons performing the action, so too in Greek. In the NT proskuneo appears in a total of 24 different Greek forms (recognized by 24 different spellings). These different spellings do not alter the basic meaning of the word. Below are listed 5 points showing the cases where proskuneo is given to Jesus. The first 4 also show where the same form of the verb is given to God.:

1) In Revelation 19:10; 22:8,9 John improperly renders  proskuneo to an angel and is told that it is appropriate only for God. In Matthew 2:2 the magi wish to give the same to Jesus.
In Matthew 2:11 the magi later finally do render proskuneo to the Christ-child and without any correction, UNlike Revelation 19:10; 22:8,9. So if giving this to an angel is wrong and must only go to God, why was it given to Jesus without correction?

2) Proskuneo is inappropriately given to Peter in Acts 10:25, given to God in Hebrews 11:21 and given to Jesus in Mark 5:6 and John 9:38.
Again a similar question. If giving it to a man is inappropriate, it is clearly given to God, how can it also be given to Jesus with any correction being stated?

3) Proskuneo is given to God (in John 4:20; Revelation 5:14; 7:11; 11:16; 19:4) yet is also given to Jesus (in Matthew 14:33; 28:9,17 and Revelation 5:14 by the context).
Here are some clear examples of proskuneo being given to Jesus in a situation where he is clearly more than an ordinary human and more than an angel (for he has all authority in heaven and earth - Matthew 28:18). Presumably John is present at the events described in Matthew 14:33; 28:9,17. Why was John not corrected for his actions there if Jesus were only a human or an angel yet corrected for his actions at Revelation 19:10; 22:8,9? Revelation 5:13,14 is of special interest for honor and glory and proskuneo is given to both God on the throne and to the Lamb Jesus Christ.

4) In Matthew 18:26 proskuneo is given to God (by proxy via the King in the parable, see verse 35) yet also given to Jesus (Matthew 8:2; 9:18; 15:25).

5) Proskuneo is given to Jesus (Luke 24:52; Hebrews 1:6; Matthew 2:8; Matthew 20:20).
Here Hebrews 1:6 is significant. ALL angels give proskuneo to the Son. Clearly the recipient is not one of those angels but is above them all (Hebrews 1:4). Also note that the first 2 chapters of Hebrews contrasts the Son with the angels while at the same time compares the Son to God (see Hebrews 2:5). Thus the Son, Jesus, receives this highest honor, proskuneo from all angels, how is this different from Revelation 7:11?

What is implied by these cases where Jesus receives proskuneo?
These situations involving Jesus can be put into these two categories:

1) References where conservative Jews clearly viewed Jesus as more than a mere human yet rendered proskuneo to him.
2) References where persons may not have viewed Jesus as being more than a mere human yet still rendered proskuneo to him. Was this a violation of Jewish ethics?

Let us examine these in detail.

1) References where conservative Jews clearly viewed Jesus as more than a mere human yet rendered proskuneo to him.

From the context of these cited verses proskuneo appears to bestow a high honor like that rendered to God. Would this not imply that these worshipers viewed Jesus in the class of Deity? Recall Revelation 19:10; 22:8,9 where John renders proskuneo but is warned that he had gone too far and instead he should only worship "God." His actions had moved outside of normal traditional boundaries. Then what of those who gave the same to Jesus (Matthew 14:33; 20:20; 28:9,17)? If Jesus were only an incarnated angel, then their actions must have been just as improper, even with relatively 'good' motives. So why were they not corrected as John had been?

If one concludes that these verses do not truly show the highest honor going to Jesus and for some unstated reason fall short of the violation found in Acts 10:25,26, then there are other verses that do show such a high honor Philippians 2:10 and John 5:23 where a kind of honor is given to Jesus that echoes Revelation 19:10; 22:8,9. Yet we never find any correction anywhere in Scripture that limits the kind of honor that is to be given Jesus. Why? One could surmise that all such acts were improper (as in Revelation) with Jesus choosing to be silent on the issue (unlike the angel in Revelation). But this seems inconsistent since there are other examples where Jesus spoke up and corrected persons who acted in ways they had imagined were honoring Jesus but in fact were not (Matthew 3:14,15; 16:22,23). This implies that Jesus receives what is only appropriate for God to receive.

2) References where persons may not have viewed Jesus as being more than a mere human yet still rendered proskuneo to him. Was this a violation of Jewish ethics?

In each case there is nothing to prove that the supplicant viewed Jesus as Deity or as anything more than an imperfect human. Are these therefore examples of proskuneo being given as a limited honor, appropriate for a non-Deity? Possibly, but this is by no means certain, there is another explanation.

In the first reference above it is difficult to say with certainty what proskuneo meant since Herod was a non-Jew trying to deceive other non-Jews. He was pretending. We do not know for certain to what extent he was trying to deceive so that in this one case he may have been pretending to give proskuneo as if to a deity.

As for the other three examples it could be that these references are examples of extreme behavior, that of giving the kind of proskuneo that only goes to a deity. This would normally be outside the bounds of appropriate religious ethics but not as a result of thoughtful worship but rather out of a desperate emotional state, somewhat like John's state of mind in Revelation 19:10; 22:8,9. If this is the case and like John these persons were moved to go beyond what would have been considered appropriate, why were they not corrected as John had been? The answer seems to be that although their behavior was outside of normal behavior when measured from their limited understanding of who Jesus was, it was not really inappropriate for unknown to them Jesus was truly Deity. Thus there would have been no correction as was done in Revelation 19:10; 22:8,9.


In the OT the Bible condemned bowing to other gods (Exodus 34:14). Yet it appears that this same bowing was properly given to humans if it was clear that the recipient was not viewed as a god. Angels never directly received such honor apparently because it could be mistaken as being given to 'a god'.  In the NT the religious usage of the term changes so that humans never appropriately receive this bowing (Greek proskuneo), nor do angels. Yet God and Jesus both receive such and in a context that does not make a distinction between what God is offered from what is offered to Jesus. The key texts are Revelation 19:10; 22:8,9 (compare Matthew 2:2,11), Acts 10:25, Hebrews 11:21 (compare John 9:38), John 4:20, Revelation 5:13,14 (compare Matthew 28:9,17), Hebrews 1:6.