Proskuneō means to prostrate oneself before another, especially a god. The word can be used of bowing before a king or noble, but the Bible usually usually uses the word for prostration before God or an idol.
The literal meaning is to “kiss the hand toward,” but by NT times, the word had come to refer to prostration. (Etymology of a word is not a definition and can be very misleading at times.)
In modern church practice, well, we just don’t do this. (Probably because (a) it’s not the European/American way, (b) the pews don’t leave enough room, and (c) elders are too old and arthritic (I speak of myself here)). In the Eastern parts of the world, this would be taken quite literally.
The Bible often uses proskuneō as synecdoche for “worship.” However, the word always carries the sense of utter submission, as might be shown by prostration.
In the ancient world, one would prostrate himself before a king to shown both trust and submission, as prostration exposes the neck, averts the eyes, and makes one utterly defenseless. It was the symbolic offering of one’s life.
Here is what the Bible says —
(Rev 22:8-9 ESV) I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me, 9 but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.“
In fact, proskuneō is the usual word in Revelation for “worship” and the usual mode of worship is prostration. This gives new color to —
(Joh 4:20-24 ESV) 20 “Our fathers worshiped [proskuneō] on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship [proskuneō].” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship [proskuneō] the Father. 22 You worship [proskuneō] what you do not know; we worship [proskuneō] what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers [proskuneō] will worship [proskuneō] the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship [proskuneō] him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship [proskuneō] him must worship [proskuneō] in spirit and truth.”
That’s a lot of bowing! Why did the Samaritan woman use proskuneō for “worship”? Well, the Samaritans only recognized the Torah as scripture, and the word is used frequently in the Torah of worship of God, especially in the Exodus. When Moses begs Pharaoh to let his people go into the desert to “worship” God, the word is proskuneō.
In fact, in the Torah proskuneō means “worship” more generally, whereas latreuō is used of the service specific to the tabernacle, such as the work of the priests or the actions of worshipers at the tabernacle. It’s only later on, especially in the Psalms and the Prophets, that proskuneō refers to worship at the Temple. And so it makes sense for a Samaritan to prefer proskuneō.
Now, Jesus is happy with her choice of words (because he makes the same choice), meaning Jesus is willing to speak of “worship” in terms that addresses both worship at the Temple and worship more generally — such as going into the desert to worship God. And even with this more broadly defined term, Jesus insists that proskuneō should, for now, only take place in the Jerusalem Temple.
Jesus concludes, however,
(Joh 4:23-24 ESV) 23 “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Notice that proskuneō appears only twice more in John. In John 12:20, it refers to worship at the Temple. And then there’s —
(Joh 9:35-38 ESV) Jesus heard that they had cast him [the man born blind] out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.
Obviously, the healed man did not offer a lamb on the altar. He prostrated himself before Jesus.
John is subtly showing the difference. Worship at the Temple will soon be obsolete. The new worship — in spirit and in truth — is worship such that offered by the man born blind — spontaneous bowing before the Son of Man in worshipful adoration motivated by faith.
It’s not about rules and rituals and regulations. It’s about a heart that responds to the truth — the gospel — despite persecution.
(Joh 9:34 ESV) 34 They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out [of the synagogue].
The Pharisees and Jewish authorities had just expelled this man from his synagogue — depriving him of the right to worship with his family and to read Torah — now that he could finally see! — because he believed in Jesus. To be expelled from the synagogue was a painful punishment for any devout Jew, but all the more so for a man who’d spent his life as a beggar who had now been healed and had a chance to return to society and be self-supporting and to read Torah with his own eyes — but not if his countrymen shunned him.