"Worship in Spirit and Truth"
WORD OF ENCOURAGEMENT
"WORSHIP IN SPIRIT AND TRUTH"-
REFORMED AND ALWAYS REFORMING
REV. CHARLES R. BIGGS
Are you Reformed in your worship? Are you Reformed and always reforming in your worship? Do you truly know what it means to worship Jesus in spirit and in truth?
In the Reformation, the people of God learned that it was not enough to merely be "Reformed" in name, but that the Church must also be "Reformed" in theology and in principle. That meant that for a congregation to call itself "Reformed" required the constant need to be consistently, ceaselessly, constantly, and carefully "REFORMING" as the people of God and returning to Scripture for answers to every question and to fully know how to be the Church of the living God (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Since we are approaching the Lordâ€™s Days when we celebrate Jesusâ€™ entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) as well as Christâ€™s glorious resurrection from the dead (Easter), it is worthwhile to remind ourselves as Christians to practice this continuous reforming, by looking once again at what the Scriptures teach us about true worship.
I realize that this can be such a controversial topic, but it must and should be continually be addressed. Just because it can be controversial and even a divisive, we still should seek by God's grace to understand what true worship is according to the Scriptures. (And if you are interested in an article that discusses traditional and contemporary worship, this is not the one! You may find insight into which worship â€œstyleâ€ is best, but this is not a study on styles necessarily!).
There is no better place to begin to consider Jesusâ€™ heart and mind on true worship than in John 4:20-24 in his dialogue with the sinful, Samaritan woman. There are a few points I would like to make from observing this text and these are by no means the last words on the subject, just a small attempt at understanding what this means for us as the people of God who call ourselves "Reformed".
In the context of John chapter 4, the sinful Samaritan woman has asked Jesus about the two mountains, and where is the correct place for worship (John 4:20).
First of all Jesus corrects her assumption that the Samaritans have been rightly worshipping God on Mt. Gerazim. He tells her that "salvation is from the Jews" (4:22). Jesus does not mean that all Jews will be saved (it is the Apostle John's purpose ironically to show the rejection of Jesus by the majority of the Jews and his acceptance by Samaritans in this passage and through the remainder of chapter 4).
Jesus basically tells the sinful Samaritan woman that since I am here in your midst, the Kingdom is with you, and things are changing right before your very eyes (there is a progression and shift in redemptive-history with Jesusâ€™ coming). Therefore, to merely think about a physical location of worship, and to consider the way things have been, is not enough to consider. In fact, he says to her, "you worship what you do not know; we (meaning the Jews, including Himself) worship what we do knowâ€.
Jesus tells her the time is coming, and is now here, where God's true worshippers will worship Him in spirit and truth. For God is seeking these kind of worshippers (John 4:23).
Let us look at a few considerations from this passage that can inform the way we worship the living God as Reformed Christians.
Worship is Christ-Centered
First of all, it is important to note that true worship is always Christ-Centered. Jesus is the Beginning and End, the Alpha and Omega of our salvation, but also of our worship. Jesus is the reason why we can truly worship the living God in the first place. He is the only Mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5), and thus the only way to the true worship of God (John 14:6). Truly, no man comes to the Father, either for salvation, or for worship apart from Jesus Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
What Jesus is ultimately revealing to and graciously offering the sinful Samaritan woman is what he wants to reveal and to graciously offer to us today: Worship that is Christ-Centered.
Jesus is telling the woman in these verses in John 4 to get your eyes off the mountains (a local, geographical place), even the so-called traditions of your Fathers, and get your eyes, worship and focus on me. Here Jesus is physically present, not merely to discuss past theological debates about a legitimate mountain on which to worship, but he is here in the flesh to draw the sinful womanâ€™s, (as well as our) attention to Himself alone!
How do you define and describe a â€œgoodâ€ worship service?
Recently, I have been thinking that when people in general describe certain congregations that they visit, they speak of what made them happy, met their felt needs, or how the worship satisfied them- -apart from any mention of Who was preached, how He was preached, and what they learned from the preaching of the Word (of course you may hear how long the sermon was, but not much mention of the content).
What it seems like from this general observation is that in our time, it appears that most visitors to worship services are evaluating the service primarily on the style of worship and the feelings gained from it, over and above the priority of Who is preached, how He is preached, and what He tells His people to do. Notice in your own experience when speaking with other evangelical Christians these days if they even mention what was preached, or if they merely focus on the style of the worship and how it either appealed, or rather did not appeal to them.
These are just some thoughts from my pastoral observations, but oftentimes I hear many speaking not so much about the Christ of worship, as they do about themselves and what they got out of the worship.
We should remember as a "Reforming" people, that Christ, His Word, His Way, His Will, His Worship (as best as we can understand it) is to be central in our lives. What we desire and pray for as "Reforming" people is a worship that is primarily about Christ and His presence among us as He walks among our congregations today (Revelation 2-3).
What we hear, what we do, what we think, and even what we ultimately feel in our worship, should always be in light of Jesus and what we have heard proclaimed biblically and passionately from the pulpit each Lord's Day.
Worship is not primarily about us, but it is about God alone.
I find it strange that we mix up what rightly belongs to God and what is given by God for the benefit of man. For instance, Jesus tells us that God has given to us the Christian Sabbath for us. It is for our benefit: "Man is not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man". However, you will never find Jesus saying that "Man is not made for the worship, but the worship for man."
Yet in principle this is how some of us practically behave! We have been given the Christian Sabbath to worship the living God in a Christ-centered way because it is for our good. Yet we have not been given worship ultimately for our own good (although only good things can come from it; cf. Rom. 8:28ff).
Yet we turn this around on its head like everything else sinful man attempts to do by his own whims and when not submitted to the Word. We tend to break the Christian Sabbath, taking away what is rightly ours and for our own good (then wonder why we are such a tired, unfulfilled and busy people), and we want the worship for ourselves.
Now we don't say it that way, we say we want the worship to be fulfilling to us. But when we start out with a focus on ourselves and our own desires when we are in search of the worship of God with other Christians, we inevitably will end up only finding what suits ourselves and our own selfish desires and wants! May it never be, by God's grace.
We need to understand that it takes more than goosebumps or goosepimples standing up on the back of our necks to determine whether we are truly worshipping the living God in spirit and truth!
May we repent of this kind of thinking and turn once again to Christ by asking our Lord and Savior how we can more appropriately (biblically!) worship him, seeking to worship the Lord Jesus Christ for what He has done for us in obtaining our salvation, and thanking him gratefully by our worship, whether we feel anything for ourselves or not. May we offer ourselves to the Lord God through the Lord Jesus as we long to hear Jesus' Word, Way, Will, and Worship!
Worship is Christ-Commanded
Jesus commands us to worship him in a certain way lest we end up in our own sinfulness worshipping something, or someone other than God!
Notice what Jesus says to the sinful Samaritan woman when comparing the faulty worship tradition of the Samaritans with the Jews in verse 22: "You (plural, meaning all of the Samaritans) worship what you do not know". Jesus uses a relative pronoun: "what you do not know" rather than a personal pronoun "who you do not know". When our worship is not Christ-centered and we approach God the Father by His Spirit through Our Mediator, we worship something other than God.
It is interesting to note that whenever men seek out, even with the noble traditions of their Fathers, yet without submitting entirely to the Scriptures concerning worship, they end up at the end of the day worshipping something (or someone!!) other than the True and Living God.
In Paul's sermon at the Areopagus, while Paul was in Athens, Greece, he notices the same tendency with all men tainted by sin. When men try to worship with mere general revelation, apart from the special revelation of God in the Holy Scriptures, they end up worshipping something (or someone!!) they do not know.
Acts 17:22-23: "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To the unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you."
The Apostle Paul goes on to instruct them according to the Scriptures how God has clearly manifested Himself to them and ultimately in the revelation of Jesus Christ, the One Who can give all of those Who believe access to the God in Whom we all live, move and have our being (Acts 17:24-32).
But we should remember that even with the privilege of special revelation, and being taught in the Holy Scriptures how we must worship God, we still find a way to worship falsely rather than completely obediently. John Calvin, in his commentary on this passage from John 4 says this:
"...We are not to essay anything in religion rashly or unthinkingly. For unless there is knowledge present, it is not God that we worship but a spectre or ghost. Hence all so-called good intentions are struck by a thunderbolt, which tells us that men can do nothing but err when they are guided by their own opinion without the Word or command of God....the Samaritans took the example of the fathers as a precedent; the Jews were grounded on the commandment of God."
We must recall that Israel had Godâ€™s special revelation (Romans 9:1-6), but one of their first formal worship services (if not their first formal service!) after their redemption from Egypt, while Moses was up on the mountain getting the commandments of God, was at worst a heretical, idolatrous worship service to ultimately an "unknown god" (Exodus 32). At the very best, it was a worship perhaps directed to the true God, but not in the way He has commanded them.
Jesus is not saying here in John 4:22 that Israel's worship was always exemplary when he says "salvation is from the Jews" or "we worship what we know". He is stating that Israel was the chosen nation through which the Scriptures came that instructed them in their proper worship (even if they did not obediently comply). This is what Jesus means that "salvation is from the Jews" (compare also with Romans 9:1-6).
However, since the "time was coming, and was now here" things were changing and even the Jews who were worshipping at the Temple on the mountain in Jerusalem, that at one time was the correct place of worship, NOW the worship was to be only in and through Jesus Christ and "in spirit and truth". As Jesus showed with regards to the Temple in Jerusalem (see John chapter 2), the glory of God was manifested in flesh and because God was present with Israel in the flesh now, the glory of God was moving out of the Temple with Him!
To prevent all of God's people from worship something, or someone other than the living God revealed in Scripture, we must willingly submit to Christ's command and principles concerning worship. We must realize that in Jesus, and by His Word we are to be directed as to how we are to worship Him.
This should be sought humbly submitting under Jesus' word, realizing one's own worship style preferences and presuppositions, and prayerfully seeking wisdom to do that which is God honoring and obedience in one's congregation!
The "reforming reformation" of worship begins in each congregation with humble and prayerful Christians submitting themselves under the commands of Christ anew and seeking diligently to obey these commands no matter what the cost to the congregation.
Worship is Word-Centered Dialogue with God
Let's look at another way of understanding worship. Worship is a dialogue with God. To worship God in spirit and truth is to worship him rightly in Jesus Christ alone as he has commanded, but it is also in spirit and truth. The term "spirit and truth" focuses our attention on the spiritually truthful, and non-physical aspect of worship. In verse 24, Jesus teaches the Samaritan woman and us that God is Spirit and thus we worship Him in spirit and truth.
We should understand that in the context, Jesus is drawing the sinful Samaritan woman's attention away from the question of "where", meaning physicality or geographical location of worship, because this is passing away and changing now that the "fullness of the times" have come in Jesus. Now Jesus is focusing the woman's attention, as well as ours on the true worship more specifically directed to "Whom".
How does dialogue with God help us to understanding true worship in spirit and truth? We must remember that in order for us rightly to respond to God in worship, we must first be rightly informed of Who God is and What He teaches us in Scripture.
Who God is as Spirit, in all of his character and revealed attributes in the Scriptures, informs us as to how to worship Him. God reveals Himself in the reading, preaching, and singing of the Word of God in our worship. We dialogue, or respond back to God with our praise, prayers, petitions, and obedience to His commandments.
True worship of God is from a heart wholeheartedly captured and informed by God's Word, because of the work of God's Spirit. Thus one of the reasons why "Reforming" congregations have always placed the Word central in worship. That is why in most "Reforming" congregations historically there is a call to worship from Scripture, as well as a scriptural greeting that opens up the worship-dialogue and a benediction from Scripture closing the worship-dialogue in the formal worship service of the congregation.
In "Reforming" worship, God is greeting us with His Word at the beginning and closing with His Word at the end so that our entire worship, as well as our lives would be found in between, identified in the pages of His Story, and living in His light from morning to evening each and every day!
In "Reforming" congregations there is also a great deal of Scripture read from the Old and New Covenants each worship service, in addition to the sermon text. The focus is always on the Word of God because "God speaks", his people listen, and then we respond in obedience in reliance upon the grace of God!
It is tempting in an age of images to forget the Word-Centered quality of worship. Because many of us have been brought up on an abundance of images, it can be challenging and difficult for us to pay attention to what is read and preached through words. It can be challenging for us to be distracted very easily if we are not quickly entertained.
But this is part of our culture that we must also bring under the Lordship of Jesus! We should resist this image-centered tendency with God's help as much as any other cultural or worldly tendency that seeks to cause us to live according to the pattern of this age (Romans 12:1-2).
Seeking after Word-Centered worship is also part of our spiritual act of worship in offering ourselves up as a living sacrifice and renewing of our minds by the Word of God!
We will be unable to rightly worship because we are not rightly informed! Not only informed about Who God is, how to approach Him in Christ, understanding what He has graciously done for us, we will not be able to truly worship God because we will be seeking him in a shallow and uninformed manner, only seeking to satisfy ourselves and our own desires for what we think is real worship revealed through our feelings.
Think about it: If a congregation of Christ's sheep, instead of being Word-Centered and fed primarily on the Word, is being merely fed on a diet of short, catchy praise ditties without much theological content in their worship, then the response from these malnourished sheep will be short, catchy praise ditties without much theological content in response to God in their worship.
In other words, as the old saying goes concerning what we eat physically: "You are what you eat". So, it can be applied spiritually here with regards to worship. "We are spiritually what we eat!" Our dialogue in worship will reflect what we are hearing and learning about God and His Christ!
Yet true worship in spirit and truth, must come from the Word of God. God meets His people every Lord's Day, through the ordained minister, who stands in Christ's place, proclaiming not merely jokes, good manners, stories, and his own experiences, but proclaiming the Christ Who saves through the Word God speaks (Heb. 1:1-2).
In an age of images, we must always remember that faith does not come by images, but still comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17).
This doesn't mean we will not have to work at being Word-Centered and Word-Focused people in worship- - we will! It will take a greater amount of grace for us to pay attention to the word read, sung, and preached. We will often be tempted to find the surroundings too hot, too cold, too many children crying, too much work to do when I get home or to the office, too long of a sermon, too many songs to sing, etc.
When all we are truly and really saying if we are honest with ourselves is that it is too hard to listen to God's Word and we don't often find it as interesting as we ought because we've wasted a lot of time not listening, not paying attention, relying merely on images and stories to make the point!
Alright, then! Worship for sinful man saved by grace can be hard work, but not too hard by God's grace! God has given His Word to us, so that His people, saturated by the reading, singing, and hearing of His Word, can appropriately and honestly respond to the living God in praise, prayer, petitions and obedience!
If God has chosen to grow His people by His Word, then why do we seek anything else? If God calls His Only Begotten Son, the Incarnate Word (John 1:14), then why would we want to try and worship Him in any other way than by and through His Word that tells us about the salvation and grace that has been shown to us in Jesus??!!
Worship is wholeheartedly honest and truthful, from the heart when the Word is central and we dialogue with the living God in our worship; this is worship in Spirit and truth that Jesus is speaking of here in John 4.
Think about it! When you are convicted of sin, you respond in true repentance (that's worship in spirit and truth); when you are sad because life is upside down because of sin, you are suffering and you hear God's Word of comfort, you respond with your own sadness to God, but with living hope (that's worship in spirit and truth); when you are feeling rightfully guilty for breaking God's commandments, rather than descending introspectively into shame, you hear that God has sent a Savior who was shamed for you, and you respond in belief all over again, knowing that Jesus truly loves you and is the Savior of your soul (that's worship in spirit and truth).
If Christ is not central in worship, we will be; If Christ's commandments are not heeded with regards to worship, our ideas and traditions will be; if worship is not Word-Centered and understood as a dialogue with God, then we will not be able truly to worship in spirit and truth.
This is not a comprehensive analysis of worship from John 4:20-24 as I said earlier, but hopefully it is a help and a beginning to at least rethink the way you and your congregation do worship now. Would you say your worship is Christ-Centered, Christ-Commanded, and a true Dialogue with God in spirit and truth? I pastorally challenge you to seek the LORD and pray that He would work in and through you to become even more "Reforming" in your worship.
Don't seek to overwhelm others in your congregations with your understanding of true worship. Don't think pridefully you're the only one who understands true worship (because if you think this, you really don't understand because you are probably worshipping God insincerely while looking around you and judging those around you because you know they are wrong). Don't think this kind of biblical reformation and continual reforming can come overnight!
But neither be scared and frightened by men to tell the truth and stand for biblical truth in love! Remember love for others covers a multitude of sins. You can influence people so much more if you first live true worship, teach true worship, love true worship, and make connections with others who have never experienced true worship because they have been so concerned with themselves and their own felt needs!
If you want a comprehensive collection of balanced essays on worshipping God in spirit and truth, you should begin with a book dedicated to the memory, ministry, and work of Dr. James Montgomery Boice. The book is entitled Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship- Celebrating the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice, Edited by Ryken, Thomas, and Duncan III (P&R, 2003). Please purchase this from www.wtsbook.com or www.monergismbooks.com.
Soli Deo Gloria!
For Further Reading
D. A. Carson, 'Gospel According to John'
H. Ridderbos, 'The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary'
L. Morris, 'The Gospel According to John' (NICNT)
J. Calvin, 'Commentary on the Gospel of John'
R. Brown, 'Commentary on the Gospel of St. John'
J. Dennison, Articles on John's Gospel at www.kerux.com
J. Boice, 'Commentary on John's Gospel'
Ryken, Longman III, et al, 'Dictionary of Biblical Imagery'
Ephesians 3:20-21: "Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen."
Pastor Charles R. Biggs
Ketoctin Covenant Presbyterian Church