Updated: Jan 4, 2020
This week’s Bible word is the Greek verb proskuneo. The word appears 3 times in the gospel of the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord (Lectionary year A), Matthew 2:1-12. Some wise men come to Jerusalem from the east and they ask where the infant King of Jews is, so that they can “do him homage” (Mt 2:2). And they succeed in that intention, when they find the child Jesus and “did him homage” (Mt 2:11). This phrase “do [or pay] homage” is used in the Jerusalem Bible and the New Revised Standard Version to translate the Greek verb proskuneo; other translations use the word “worship”.
The verb proskuneo seems to derive from 2 root words: pros (meaning “towards”) and kuneo, which is “kiss”. It alludes to a practice of submission or worship in parts of the Ancient World: on Persian and Egyptian reliefs, worshippers are represented with outstretched hand throwing a kiss to (pros-) a ruler or a deity, or bowing down before them. This practice was mostly opposed by the Greeks, who considered such "proskynesis" an honour for gods alone.
In the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the verb proskuneo is used to translate various Hebrew verbs, including the words for "bow", "kiss", "serve" and "worship". Though God is the object of this reverence in around ¾ of the references, some instances are directed to false Gods, and some to God’s representatives or on some occasions to a human superior (e.g. Ruth to Boaz in Ruth 2:10).
For proskuneo directed towards God, one example is the psalm for the Solemnity of the Epiphany (Year A), Psalm 72: “All nations shall fall prostrate before You, O Lord” (Ps 72:11). Here, the Hebrew word for “fall prostrate”, shachah, is translated in the LXX by a form of the Greek verb proskuneo.
However, in the New Testament, proskuneo refers almost exclusively to a divine object.
In the gospels:
We’ve already seen how the wise men pay homage to the infant Jesus in Mt 2.
This use of proskuneo, early in Matthew’s gospel, is mirrored towards the end of the gospel, when first the women and later the disciples react, in their post-resurrection encounters with Jesus (Mt 28:9, 28:17), by worshipping Him (the form of the Greek verb is prosekunēsan).
The disciples had already worshipped Jesus (described using the same Greek verb prosekunēsan), when Jesus had calmed the storm, close to the midpoint of Matthew’s gospel (Mt 14:33).
The verb proskuneo seems to be more favoured by Matthew than the other 2 Synoptics: he uses it 13 times, compared to 3 instances in Luke, and only 2 in Mark. Matthew uses proskuneo several times to describe an approach to Jesus, or the response to Him, by a number of people who come to Jesus to request healing or some other favour (Mt 8:2, 9:18, 15:25, 20:20). And in at least 2 cases, Matthew seems to use this verb where the parallel passages in Mark do not: - Matthew uses proskuneo in Mt 15:25 to describe the approach of the Canaanite woman, where the parallel in Mark (Mk 7:25) uses a different Greek verb; - Matthew adds the verb proskuneo to the approach of the mother of James and John in Mt 20:20 where Mark does not have any similar verb, stating simply that James and John “came forward to him” (Mk 10:35). It is therefore possible that Matthew is using proskuneo to imply these people’s recognition of Jesus’s divinity; it is at the least, a recognition of Jesus’s special status.
The use of proskuneo for those who are healed by Jesus is not unique to Matthew:
in John’s gospel, the man born blind worships Jesus after Jesus reveals who He is (Jn 9:38);
in Mk 5:6, even the demon-possessed man recognises Jesus and falls down before Him (prosekunēsen) before acknowledging Him as Son of God.
Note that Jesus does not refuse such worship, when others offer it to Him – another suggestion that the evangelists are portraying Jesus as divine.
It is significant that in contrast, servants of God in the New Testament refuse to accept, when others offer to proskuneo before them:
The Apostle Peter does not allow Cornelius to proskuneo before him, in Acts 10:25-26;
This refusal of human servants of the Lord, to be worshipped, reminds us that proskuneo worship can be misdirected to the wrong target, or be offered for the wrong reasons:
In the book of Revelation, the 24 occurrences of proskuneo are divided, between worship of God in roughly half of them (Rev 4:10, 5:14, 7:11, 11:16, 14:7, 15:4, 19:4, 19:10, 22:9) and, on the other hand, half of the instances are about inappropriate worship of demons and infernal creatures, including the dragon and the beast (Rev 9:20, 13:4 (twice), 13:8, 13:12, 13:15, 14:9, 14:11, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4).
In the gospel passage used on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, King Herod falsely claims that he wants to proskuneo the child whom the wise men are seeking (Mt 2:8) – but we know him to be a liar, concerned only with preserving his own power.
In the Temptation of Christ (Mt 4:9-10), the word proskuneo is used (in both Matthew’s account and in Luke’s) by both the Tempter and by Christ: Satan tempts Jesus to fall at his feet and worship him, but Jesus makes it clear, quoting Deuteronomy 6:13, that worship is to be given to God alone.
So, we have seen how, in the Synoptic gospels, proskuneo mostly describes a physical action, sometimes coupled with falling at someone’s feet, to indicate submission or worship. The Fourth Gospel’s use of the verb proskuneo, is more concerned with the nature of worship itself. 10 of the 12 instances of the word in John’s gospel are in one short section of John 4 (Jn 4:20‑24), the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well:
The woman raises the topic of worship by saying how the Samaritans worship (the word is prosekunēsan) on the mountain, whereas the Jews worship in the Temple.
Jesus answers that true worshippers (the proskunētēs) are not bound by a particular place, because they will worship “in spirit and truth”.
Jesus is directing us not just towards physical posture in worship, but teaching us that the most important part of worship is how our hearts are directed. As the poet George Herbert observed “But above all, the heart must bear the longest part”, in his poem Antiphon, 1.
What does all of this mean for us?
1. First, we must remember that proskuneo belongs to God alone. We have a binary choice: to worship God and serve Him alone; otherwise, we follow false Gods. We see in the scripture passages that proskuneo comes from an understanding of Who God is. Once we have that understanding, our worship must follow. This is what Jesus means by worship “in spirit and truth”; it is, as He says to the woman at the well, because “we worship what we know” (Jn 4:22).
2. Second, proskuneo should indicate an attitude of submission to the Lord. Do we acknowledge God as our Master, as a greater power – or do we slip carelessly into treating Him as an equal, or still worse, as someone to Whom we give our attention only when we want to? Do we put our trust in Him solely, or do we rely on other things: possessions, power, friends?
3. Finally, proskuneo is both an external, physical posture and also an internal attitude. And perhaps this is where the Greek word reveals more than the modern connotations of our English word “worship”. Because “worship in spirit and truth” is more than just saying or singing words, much more than just showing up at church, or adopting an attitude of external respect which is not accompanied by internal love and reverence. To be sincere, to worship "in spirit and in truth", proskuneo requires understanding of Who it is we worship, and why. And once we “worship what we know” (Jn 4:22), the physical postures of worship can complement our inner worship, and be “in spirit and in truth”, whether we are kneeling, extending the hands in prayer, or when the priest or deacon show their complete submission when they prostrate themselves before the altar on Good Friday, and also at their own ordination.
It is no surprise that Jesus quotes Deuteronomy chapter 6 to the Tempter, insisting that proskuneo belongs to God alone. For it is in Deuteronomy chapter 6 that we encounter the great command Shema Israel: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deut 6:4-5). The word proskuneo reminds us to worship God with our whole selves: heart, body and soul.