“Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.” (4:20–26)
Having been convicted of her sin and need for forgiveness, and having repented and agreed with Jesus’ indictment, the woman wondered where she should go to meet God and seek His grace and salvation. Since Jesus was obviously a prophet of God, she reasoned that He would know, so she said, “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Her comment highlighted one of the major points of contention between Jews and Samaritans. Both believed that under the old covenant God directed His people to worship Him in a specific location (cf. Deut. 12:5; 16:2; 26:2). The Samaritans, accepting only the Pentateuch as canonical, chose Mount Gerizim. It was at nearby Shechem that Abraham first built an altar to God (Gen. 12:6–7), and it was from Mount Gerizim that the Israelites proclaimed the blessings of obedience to God’s commandments (Deut. 11:29). The Jews, accepting the complete Old Testament canon, recognized that God had chosen Jerusalem as the place where He was to be worshiped (2 Chron. 6:6; cf. Pss. 48:1–2; 78:68–69; 132:13).
Jesus’ unexpected reply was that the issue would soon be irrelevant. In the near future, true worship would take place neither in this mountain (Gerizim) nor in Jerusalem. During the Jewish revolt against Rome a few decades later (a.d. 70), the temple at Jerusalem would be destroyed, and thousands of Samaritans would be slaughtered on Mount Gerizim. More significantly, the new covenant renders all external ceremonies and rituals, whether Jewish or Samaritan, obsolete.
However, at the time of Jesus’ dialogue with the woman, the Jews were right and the Samaritans wrong since the new covenant had not yet been initiated. Thus Jesus said, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” Because they rejected most of the Old Testament, the Samaritans lacked the full revelation that it contained. There is a twofold sense in which salvation is from the Jews; first, the revelation of salvation came first to them and then to the rest of the world (Rom. 3:1–2; 9:3–5); and, second, the source of salvation—namely, the Messiah—was Himself a Jew (Rom. 9:5).
Jesus’ point was that, under the new covenant, the place of worship will not be an issue, but rather the nature of worship. “An hour is coming,” Jesus informed the woman, ‘and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” Spirit does not refer to the Holy Spirit but the human spirit. Worship must be internal, not external conformity to ceremonies and rituals. It must be from the heart. Truth calls for this heart worship to be consistent with what Scripture teaches and centered on the incarnate Word. The worship of neither the Samaritans nor the Jews could be characterized as being in spirit and truth, even though the Jews had a more complete understanding of the truth. Both groups focused on external factors. They conformed outwardly to regulations, observed rituals, and offered sacrifices. But the time had arrived, since the Messiah had come, when true worshipers would no longer be identified by where they worshiped. True worshipers are those who worship the Father in spirit and truth. Paul calls them “the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3). It is such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers by sovereignly drawing them to Himself (6:44, 65).
The phrase God is spirit is the classic biblical definition of the nature of God. Despite the heretical teaching of false cults, God is not an exalted man (Num. 23:19), “for a spirit does not have flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39). He is “the invisible God” (Col. 1:15; cf. 1 Tim. 1:17; Heb. 11:27), who “dwells in unapproachable light [cf. Ps. 104:2], whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16; cf. Ex. 33:20; John 1:18; 6:46). Had He not revealed Himself in Scripture and in Jesus Christ, God would be utterly incomprehensible.
Because God is spirit, those who would truly worship Him must worship in spirit and truth. True worship does not consist of mere outward conformity to religious standards and duties (Isa. 29:13; 48:1; Jer. 12:1–2; Matt. 15:7–9), but emanates from the inner spirit. It must also be consistent with the truth God has revealed about Himself in His Word. The extremes of dead orthodoxy (truth and no spirit) and zealous heterodoxy (spirit and no truth) must be avoided.
Still unable to fully comprehend what Jesus was telling her, the woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” She was still confused, but expressed her hope that one day the Messiah (whose coming the Samaritans also anticipated, based on Deut. 18:18) would clarify all of these vexing religious questions.
The story reached its powerful, dramatic climax in Jesus’ reply, “I who speak to you am He.” He had avoided such a forthright declaration to the Jewish people (cf. Matt. 16:20), because of the crassly political and militaristic expectations they had for the Messiah; they hoped for someone who would lead a revolt to throw off the yoke of the hated Romans (cf. John 6:15). The faith of this Samaritan woman, on the other hand, was not obstructed by such self-styled misconceptions (as her response in v. 29 indicates). The word He is not in the original text. Our Lord actually said, “I who speak to you am.” Here is another one of the “I am” statements that are so common in this gospel (cf. 8:58). Twenty-three times our Lord says, “I am,” and seven times adds rich metaphors (cf. 6:35, 41, 48, 51; 8:12; 10:7, 9, 11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1, 5).
Jesus’ words must have rocked the woman to the core of her being. The man who just a few minutes earlier had made a simple request for a drink of water now claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah. Unlike Nicodemus, she knew nothing of any signs and miracles Jesus had performed. But merely because of what He knew about her the woman did not doubt the veracity of His claim. That was great, God-given trust. Indeed, she went and proclaimed it in her village, a fact that strongly suggests that she had genuinely come to saving faith.
Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well illustrates three nonnegotiable truths about salvation. First, salvation comes only to those who recognize their desperate need for spiritual life they do not have. Living water will be received only by those who realize that they are spiritually thirsty. Second, salvation comes only to those who confess and repent of their sin and desire forgiveness. Before this promiscuous woman could embrace the Savior, she had to acknowledge the full weight of her iniquity. And, third, salvation comes only to those who embrace Jesus Christ as their Messiah and sin bearer. After all, salvation is found in no one else (cf. 14:6; Acts 4:12).
How to Worship God
“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
Christian worship is the most momentous, the most urgent, the most glorious action that can take place in human life.”
These words by the noted Swiss theologian Karl Barth undoubtedly find an echo in the hearts of all who truly know God and earnestly desire to serve him, regardless of their opinion of Barth’s theology. But in spite of the obvious truth that the worship of God is an important and even urgent imperative for Christians, it is a sad fact that in our day much that passes for worship is not worship at all, and many who sincerely desire to worship do not always know how to go about it or where to begin. “What is worship anyway?” some ask. “Who can worship? Where can one worship? How does one worship?” ask others.
One Bible student has written: “Thanks to our splendid Bible societies and to other effective agencies for the dissemination of the Word, there are today many millions of people who hold ‘right opinions,’ probably more than ever before in the history of the church. Yet I wonder if there was ever a time when true spiritual worship was at a lower ebb. To great sections of the church the art of worship has been lost entirely, and in its place has come that strange and foreign thing called the ‘program.’ This word has been borrowed from the stage and applied with sad wisdom to the type of public service which now passes for worship among us.”
Are these words true, even in part? Are the questions I have just repeated genuine? If so, there is an answer for them all in the words of Jesus. Jesus said, “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23–24).
Worship is Essential
Before we begin to look at these words in detail, however, we must first of all see that worship itself is an important subject and that these are important verses for dealing with it.
There are several ways of showing this. For instance, in Philippians 3:3 the apostle Paul speaks of worship as one of the three great marks that reveal the presence of the new nature within the Christian. He writes: “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.” Most Christians would quickly acknowledge the last of these points. It is a question of holding to the true gospel. Many would also think highly of the second point, for joy is important. It is a mark of the Spirit, according to the fifth chapter of Galatians. I strongly suspect, however, that not many think of the worship of God as a mark of the presence of the new nature within. Yet in this verse it is included along with the other essentials.
Another way of making this point is to note that there are three great “musts” in John’s Gospel. The first “must” occurs in 3:7, where Jesus says, “you must be born again.” The second “must” is in verse 14 of the same chapter. There Jesus says, “The Son of Man must be lifted up.” The verses we are studying give us the third “must,” for they tell us that all who worship God “must worship in spirit and in truth.” These three great doctrines—the necessity for the new birth, the necessity of Christ’s death, and the necessity of true worship—belong together.
Perhaps it is not even irrelevant to point out that this is the major passage in which John deals with the nature and necessity of worship, for of the thirteen uses of the words “worship” or “worshiper” in John’s Gospel, ten of them occur in this section, and it is only here that worship is actually discussed and defined.
What is worship? Part of the answer is to be seen in the fact that if you and I had been living in England during the days of the early formation of the English language, between the period of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, we would not have used the word “worship” at all. We would have said “worth-ship,” and we would have meant that in worshiping God we were assigning to God his true worth. Philologically speaking, this is the same thing as “praising” God or “glorifying” his name.
If someone should ask the two most important questions that follow from that definition, however—namely, “What is God’s true worth?” and “How do we become aware of it?”—we are immediately brought to the heart of Christ’s words to the Samaritan woman. For Jesus said that those who acknowledge God’s true worth must do so “in spirit and in truth.” In other words, they must do so “in truth” because truth has to do with what his nature is, and they must do so “in spirit” because they can only apprehend it spiritually.
Let me explain that a bit further. Many persons have been led astray in thinking that when Jesus spoke of “spirit” in this verse he was speaking of the Holy Spirit. I do not believe that this is the case. There is a sense, of course, in which we only come to worship God after the Holy Spirit has been at work in our hearts moving us to do so. But in this verse Jesus is not speaking of that. He is speaking of spirit generally (without the definite article), not the Holy Spirit, and he is teaching that in the age he was inaugurating by his death and resurrection the place of worship would not matter, for a man or a woman would not worship merely by being in the right place and doing certain right things. He would worship in his spirit, which could be anywhere.
I can make this even clearer by placing it in the context of the three parts of man’s nature. Man is a trinity. He has a body, soul, and spirit. Jesus is saying that nothing is true worship of God except what takes place in man’s spirit.
Many people worship with the body. This means that they consider themselves to have worshiped if they have been in the right place doing the right things at the right time. In Christ’s day the woman thought this meant being either in Jerusalem, at the temple there, or on Mount Gerezim at the Samaritans’ temple. In our day this would refer to people who think they have worshiped God simply because they have occupied a seat in a church on Sunday morning, or sung a hymn, or lit a candle, or crossed themselves, or knelt in the aisle. Jesus says this is not worship. These customs may be vehicles for worship. In some cases they may also hinder it. But they are not worship in themselves. Therefore, we must not confuse worship with the particular things we do on Sunday morning.
In addition, however, we must not confuse worship with feeling, for worship does not originate with the soul any more than it originates with the body. The soul is the seat of our emotions. It may be the case, and often is, that the emotions are stirred in real worship. At times tears fill the eyes or joy floods the heart. But, unfortunately, it is possible for these things to happen and still no worship to be there. It is possible to be moved by a song or by oratory and yet not come to a genuine awareness of God and a fuller praise of his ways and nature.
True worship occurs only when that part of man, his spirit, which is akin to the divine nature (for God is spirit), actually meets with God and finds itself praising him for his love, wisdom, beauty, truth, holiness, compassion, mercy, grace, power, and all his other attributes. William Barclay has written on this point, “The true, the genuine worship is when man, through his spirit, attains to friendship and intimacy with God. True and genuine worship is not to come to a certain place; it is not to go through a certain ritual or liturgy; it is not even to bring certain gifts. True worship is when the spirit, the immortal and invisible part of man, speaks to and meets with God, who is immortal and invisible.”
Incidentally, the truth that we are to worship God in spirit also has bearing upon the question of the various types of liturgy used in Christian churches, for it means that, with the exception of liturgical elements that suggest wrong doctrine, there is no liturgy that in itself is either inherently better or worse than another. For any given congregation, one type of service will presumably be more valuable than another. But the decision regarding what that type of service will be ought to be arrived at—not by asking whether one likes emotional or nonemotional hymns, extemporaneous or read prayers, congregational responses or silence—in short, whether one prefers Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, or Quaker services—but by asking how effective the service is in turning the attention of the worshiper away from the service itself to God. In this respect an order of worship is to be evaluated on the same basis that we use to evaluate the preacher.
In thinking through this particular issue I have been helped by the concepts of C. S. Lewis. Lewis was a member of the Church of England and was accustomed to various forms of what we generally call a “liturgical” service. Nevertheless, Lewis did not plead for liturgy. He asked merely for what he called “uniformity,” on the grounds that “novelty” in the worship service at best turns our attention to the novelty but may actually turn it to the one who is enacting the liturgy.
Lewis wrote, “As long as you notice, and have to count the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.” We should pray that God will use any form of church service in which we happen to be participating to that great and essential end.
Worship in Truth
Finally, we need to notice that the true worship of God is a worship not only in spirit but in truth. What does that mean? What does it mean to worship God “in truth”?
First, it means that we must approach God truthfully, that is, honestly or wholeheartedly. That is what Jesus was referring to in a negative way when he said of the people of his day, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. … they worship me in vain” (Matt. 15:8–9). According to Jesus, no worship is true worship unless there is an honesty of heart on the part of the worshiper. We must not pretend to worship. We must worship truthfully, knowing that our hearts are open books before God.
Second, we must worship on the basis of the biblical revelation. This is also implied in the verses I have just quoted. For the verse that begins “They worship me in vain” immediately goes on to condemn those who have substituted “rules taught by men” for the doctrines of Scripture. “Your word is truth,” says the Scripture (John 17:17). So if we are to worship “in truth,” as God commands us to do, our worship must be in accord with the principles and admonitions of this book.
When the Protestant Reformation first took place under Martin Luther in the early sixteenth century and the doctrines and principles of the Word of God, long covered over by the traditions and encrustations of ceremony of the medieval church, again came forth into prominence, there was an immediate elevation of the Word of God in Protestant services. Calvin particularly carried this out with thoroughness, ordering that the altars (long the center of the Latin mass) be removed from the churches and that a pulpit with a Bible upon it be placed in the center of the building. This was not to be on one side of the room, but in the very center, where every line of the architecture would carry the gaze of the worshiper to the Book that alone contains the way of salvation and outlines the principles upon which the church of the living God is to be governed.
Finally, to approach God “in truth” also means that we must approach God Christocentrically. This means “in Christ,” for this is God’s way of approach to him. Jesus himself signified this when he said to his disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). This is a difficult point for many to accept, of course. But it is precisely because of the difficulty that God has taken such pains to teach that this is the way of approach to him. We see this even in the Old Testament in the instructions given to Moses for the design of the Jewish temple.
What was the original tabernacle? It was not an edifice of great beauty or permanence. It had no stained-glass windows, no great arches. It was made of pieces of wood and animal skins. Nevertheless every part of it was significant. The tabernacle taught the way to God. Take that tabernacle with its altar for sacrifice, its laver for cleansing, its Holy Place, and its Holy of Holies, and you have a perfect illustration of how a person must approach God. The altar, which is the first thing we come to, is the cross of Christ. It was given to teach that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins and to direct attention to the Lamb of God who should come to take away the sins of the world. The laver, which comes next, is a picture of cleansing, which Christ also provides when we confess our sins and enter into fellowship with him. The table of shewbread, which was within the Holy Place, speaks of Christ as the bread of life. The altar of incense is a picture of prayer, for we grow by prayer as well as by feeding on Christ in Bible study. Behind the altar of incense was the great veil, dividing the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. This was the veil torn in two at the moment of Christ’s death to demonstrate that his death was the fulfillment of all these figures and the basis of the fullness of approach to the Almighty. Finally, within the Holy of Holies was the ark of the covenant with its mercy seat upon which the high priest placed the blood of the lamb once a year on the Day of Atonement. There, symbolized by the space above the mercy seat, was the presence of God into whose presence we can now come because of the great mercy of God revealed in the death of Christ for us.
There is no other way to come to God. To come through Christ—the Christ of the altar, laver, shewbread, incense, veil, and mercy seat—is to come in truth. He is the truth. You must come in God’s way and not in any way of human devising.
An Inexhaustible God
The wonder of Christian worship is that when we come to God in the way which he has established, we find him inexhaustible and discover that our desire to know and worship him further is increased. Bernard of Clairvaux was one who knew this. He wrote toward the middle of the twelfth century:
Jesus, thou Joy of loving hearts,
Thou Fount of life, thou Light of men,
From the best bliss that earth imparts
We turn unfilled to thee again.
We taste thee, O thou living Bread,
And long to feast upon thee still;
We drink of thee, the Fountainhead,
And thirst our souls from thee to fill.
When we so come, when we worship in that way, we find ourselves approaching what the compilers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism rightly described as the chief end of man. The catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” It answers, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
“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.” (John 4:23)
The word seeker has come to play a large role in Christianity today. Increasing numbers of churches identify themselves as “seeker-friendly” or “seeker-sensitive.” Their conviction is that people are seeking after God, but that the church has erected barriers of tradition and culture that keep them away. Their remedy is to remove these barriers by presenting a contemporary image to these seekers and offer them a style of worship that appeals to their tastes.
Although we want to remove all false barriers to worship, there are problems with this approach. Most importantly, its main premise flies in the face of the Bible’s teaching. Romans 3:11 declares, “No one seeks for God.” People might be seeking the benefits of a relationship with God—peace, harmony, joy, and freedom from fear—but they are not seeking God himself. Yet God really is what they need, and they will never possess God’s blessings without a saving relationship with him. The main problem with seeker-friendly worship, therefore, is that however popular it might be, it can involve a disastrously effective combination: people come to church not looking for God, and when they arrive God is not there to be found.
If people are not seeking after God, then what hope is there that people will be saved? The answer is that while sinners do not seek God, God is seeking sinners. Jesus explained, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus is still in the world today seeking sinners, through the powerful working of his Holy Spirit. Moreover, God the Father is seeking. Jesus said, “The Father is seeking … people to worship him” (John 4:23). This is the great hope for people today, and why the church must not abandon biblically centered worship for its secular replacement. God is seeking worshipers through Jesus Christ. God is drawing people, and such people, in consequence, are looking for God when they come to church. Therefore, our goal is not to present an appealing worldliness or secular packaging, but to present God biblically in his saving glory so that those whom God is seeking will find him in his church.
Worship in Spirit
How should we worship God? That was the question the Samaritan woman asked Jesus, either to avoid more personal matters or out of a sincere interest. Her question had mainly to do with the right place for worship. Should it be on Mount Gerizim, where the Samaritans worshiped, or on Mount Zion in Jerusalem? Jesus answered that “the important question is not where people worship God but how they worship him.” His coming as the world’s Savior made this all the more true. Jesus’ next statement to the woman is one of the most important about worship in the New Testament: “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.… God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23–24).
The key statement is “in spirit and truth.” First, let us consider worship in spirit. It is clear that Jesus does not refer to the Holy Spirit, since he uses no definite article, but to the human spirit. Our worship of God must not be merely external but spiritual and inward. It has always been the case, in both the Old and New Testaments, that true worship is a matter of the heart and not of mere actions. James Montgomery Boice explains: “[Jesus] is teaching that in the age he was inaugurating by his death and resurrection the place of worship would not matter, for a man or woman would not worship merely by being in the right place and doing certain right things. He would worship in his spirit, which could be anywhere.” Boice elaborates:
Many people worship with the body.… In our day this would refer to people who think they have worshiped God simply because they have occupied a seat in a church on Sunday morning, sung a hymn, or lit a candle, or crossed themselves, or knelt in the aisle. Jesus says this is not worship.
Rightly understanding worship “in spirit” will help us to sort through some of the heated debates regarding worship today. Some people think a contemporary worship style is more spiritual because it is more likely to include bodily involvement or emotional displays. By spiritual they mean spirited. But we can be physically and emotionally excited without engaging our spirit toward God. On the other side, people think that preserving timeworn practices and church traditions is more spiritual. But one can engage in the most reverent acts, yet not offer himself spiritually to God. What, then, is spiritual worship? Boice answers: “True worship occurs only when that part of man, his spirit, which is akin to the divine nature (for God is spirit), actually meets with God and finds itself praising him for his love, wisdom, beauty, truth, holiness, compassion, mercy, grace, power and all his other attributes.”
One of the greatest examples of worship in spirit took place not in a great cathedral, but in a jail in the Roman city of Philippi. The congregation had only two members, the apostle Paul and his helper Silas. Their preaching had caused a riot, so they were beaten with rods and placed in stocks. We can imagine their conversation, having been exposed to such suffering as a result of faithful ministry. Whatever they said, they decided that the best thing to do was to worship God. Luke tells us, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25). I do not know what kind of singing voices they had, but their hearts made sweet music in heaven. As a result, “there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken” (16:26). If we want to shake our world, an important step is for us to worship God in spirit, with hearts that sincerely praise him with great rejoicing.
Worship in spirit must be sincere and God-directed. Perhaps our greatest problem today is that we come to church worshiping ourselves—wanting mainly to get something out of it for ourselves—instead of worshiping God. An example of this took place in the time of the prophet Zechariah. In an earlier generation, Jerusalem had been destroyed and the people had gone into captivity, all as God’s chastening judgment for their sins. But God had been faithful to his promise to restore a remnant and rebuild the temple on Mount Zion. As this project neared completion, a delegation arrived from nearby Bethel, asking whether they could stop fasting and weeping. A series of fasts had developed during the exile, to mark the occasion of various catastrophes: the start of the siege, the breaching of the city’s walls, the burning of the temple, and the murder of their governor. Now that God had restored them to blessing, they wanted to stop fasting. God answered them, “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted?” (Zech. 7:5). In other words, all along their worship had been for their own benefit. It was not done unto God, for his pleasure and for his glory, out of love for God and trust in him. This is what God cares about. Unless our worship is offered in sincerity to him, God rejects it, saying, “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (Amos 5:21). Despite all the elaborate show of these Jewish fasts, all the loud laments and showy tears, God simply asks, “Was it for me, even me?” He asks the same thing of our worship today.
Worship in spirit must be sincerely offered in praise and thanksgiving to God. A. W. Pink comments, “Worship is a redeemed heart occupied with God, expressing itself in adoration and thanksgiving.” This principle not only condemns all self-centered worship, but also ennobles everything we do that is truly unto God. It means that the mother who toils in the weary labor of raising children, unnoticed and unlauded by the world, if she does it for Christ, with gratitude to God and a desire for his pleasure, has her ministry accepted with God’s highest commendation. The same is true for the man who labors in obscurity, treating people with dignity and working above the call of duty simply unto the Lord. Whenever and wherever God can say, “It was for me,” this is the spiritual worship that he seeks.
Worship in spirit is necessary because only it accords with God’s spiritual nature. “God is spirit,” Jesus said. Therefore, Leon Morris explains, “the worship brought to him must be essentially of a spiritual kind.” Jesus said that we “must” worship in spirit and truth. This is not merely an option, but a requirement for worshiping God. This is the fourth must that we have encountered in John’s Gospel. Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (John 3:7), and “the Son of Man [must] be lifted up” (3:14). This means that worship in spirit can be offered only by those cleansed by Christ’s blood and born again by his Spirit. Now, Jesus adds, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (4:24).
Worship in Truth
What does it mean, then, to worship in truth? The first thing it must require is a right conception of who we worship. The first commandment says: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). This requires us to know who God is: to know what is and is not true about him. If we have false or ignoble thoughts about God, we cannot worship him in truth. Some people think of God as distant and unloving: they cannot worship him in truth. Others think of God as their chummy friend or a “cosmic bellhop” who awaits their summons. They, too, cannot worship God in truth. One of the great problems in worship today is a lack of awareness of God’s holiness. Hebrews 12:28–29 exhorts, “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Kent Hughes observes, “A wrong conception of God is the root of idolatry,” and it is also a cause of all false worship.
Worship in truth requires a right conception of whom we worship, but also of how we are to worship him. It requires right methods that are taught by God’s Word. All through the Bible, we find people worshiping God sincerely but according to their own ideas of worship—and they are rejected by God. The first was Cain, who failed to bring a blood sacrifice for his sins and thus was turned away. Nadab and Abihu brought “unauthorized fire” into the Lord’s house, and they “died before the Lord” (Num. 3:4). Perhaps the most significant example of false worship is the golden calf made by Aaron at the people’s request, while Moses was away on the mountain with God. It is important to know that the name Yahweh was inscribed on the golden calf: this idolatrous feast was offered to “the Lord” (Ex. 32:5). The Israelites sought to worship the true God in a false way, according to their own designs, and God was angered with great fury.
In forbidding idols, the second commandment attacks all unbiblical methods for worship. The first commandment warns against worshiping a false god; the second warns against worshiping the true God falsely. John Calvin explains: “This then is the rule, as to the right worship of God, that men … are only to give ear to God, and to follow what he commands. But when men’s presumption intrudes, so that they devise a new mode of worship, they then depart from the true God, and worship mere idols.… In religion nothing is to be attempted by us, but we are to follow this one law in worshipping God—simply to obey his word.” In Reformed theology, we refer to this as the regulative principle, which states that Scripture is to regulate our worship. Ligon Duncan explains, “There must be scriptural warrant for all we do. That warrant may come in the form of explicit directives, implicit requirements, the general principles of Scripture, positive commands, examples, and things derived from good and necessary consequences.” This principle stems from a humility before God that admits that we are not wise enough or holy enough to safely invent new methods of worship. Realizing this, we worship God only in the way he has taught us; we offer the true God true worship by obeying his Word.
We have an epidemic of golden calves in the church today. People want to worship God according to their own desires and wisdom. Well-meaning evangelists have employed emotional manipulation through altar calls. Today, we see an increasing reliance on drama and even comedy routines in the place of teaching God’s Word. Another rapidly growing secular method is the use of video clips. According to one study, the number of churches using video grew 625 percent from 1999 to 2004, with 29 percent of churches in America now showing video at least once a month. The problem with drama, comedy, and video is not merely that they are new and innovative, but that they are in opposition to the Bible’s teaching about worship. Since the medium always dictates to the message, this shift has led to an emphasis on emotionally appealing stories in the place of proclaimed sacred truth. The fact that the Bible tells us, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), seems not to have slowed this secularizing trend.
How does this happen? The answer is found in the explanation Aaron gave when Moses berated him for allowing the golden calf. Aaron said, “You know the people, that they are set on evil” (Ex. 32:22). In other words, “The people don’t like a biblical approach to worship. They don’t enjoy prayer and Bible reading and serious preaching. They want something more lively, so I gave it to them.” The question, therefore, for churches and pastors today is whether we will worship popularity or whether we will worship God. We will explain our worship practices either by saying, with Aaron, “You know how people are,” or by saying, “We know how God is and what he desires.”
Worship in truth requires a right conception of God and a biblical approach to worship. Finally, we should note that it requires thought. Kent Hughes argues, “Worship is not a mindless activity. It includes mental interaction with the truth about God.” This does not mean that worship is merely an intellectual experience, with no effect on the emotions, will, and affections. Far from it! But the trajectory of biblical worship is light shining through the mind to warm the heart. It is truth and not sentiment that sets us free (John 8:32). Jesus prayed, “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3). Paul appealed to us to offer God “spiritual worship,” and he explained this by saying, “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). In Hebrews 8:10, God promises, “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts.” God wants his law written on our hearts—Christianity is heart-religion!—but to do this, he first puts it into our minds.
Worship in Christ
The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman concludes with a dramatic exchange that has everything to do with worship: “The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things’ ” (John 4:25). Jesus responded with words that changed her life and that thunder at the heart of all true worship: “Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am he’ ” (4:26).
The Greek text makes clear what is obscured in most English versions: Jesus did not say, “I am he,” but simply, “I am.” We might better render this: “I who speak to you, I am.” This was, of course, the answer given to Moses at the burning bush when he asked God to give his name: “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “I am has sent me to you” ’ ” (Ex. 3:14). This is where we get the name Jehovah or Yahweh—it means “I am” and signifies God’s eternal, self-existent being. The voice that Moses heard from the bush this Samaritan woman now heard from Jesus, and with it came an unveiling of his divine majesty. Leaving her water jar, she ran to tell others, marveling, “Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:28–29).
This says to us that just as Moses came to the burning bush, so also we must come to God in Jesus Christ. Our worship must be in spirit, it must be in truth, and it must be in Christ. Jesus is the true Revealer of God, so we must come to him to find God. It is “through him” that we have “access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18).
This is why Jesus told the woman that true, spiritual worship was being made possible by his coming. Before Jesus came, a Samaritan could not know or worship God without going to Jerusalem and the temple. Even there, only the priests could go inside, and even they could not see God. The priests served before the golden lampstand, the table of showbread, and the altar of incense—all of which were symbols of Christ. The only person who really met with God was the high priest, and on only one day of the year, the Day of Atonement.
The high priest came before the ark of the covenant, which contained the Ten Commandments. The law condemned him and the nation, so God provided what was called the mercy seat. This was a tray where the blood of the sacrifice could be spread, so that God’s wrath was turned aside and the people were restored to his favor. In one of the more important verses in the whole Old Testament, God told Moses, “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat … I will speak with you” (Ex. 25:22). The Greek word for mercy seat is hilasterion; Paul uses this very word for Christ’s atoning work on the cross. He writes, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:23–25, my translation). The word for propitiation is hilasterion. “God set forth Christ Jesus to be the mercy seat, where the blood is offered and where sinners may come to meet with God.”
Because of this, a new answer is given to the Samaritan woman’s question about where to worship. “On this hill or in Jerusalem?” she asked. Jesus answered, “I am.” As Moses was called to the burning bush, Jesus now calls us to himself as the true place of worship. Wherever we are, we may come directly to God through faith in Christ. Have you put your faith in Jesus? Have you admitted your sin, as the high priest did each year on the Day of Atonement, and come to Jesus to be forgiven by his blood, shed for you? Until you come to Jesus as a sinner seeking forgiveness, a rebel offering surrender, and God’s creature come to worship by the one way he has made for us—the blood of Christ—you never can and never will worship in spirit and in truth. You can never know God truly and never experience his spiritual blessings. But if you come to Christ in faith, and come to God through the mercy seat that is his cross, you are free to worship God and be filled with his presence. William Cowper put it this way:
Jesus, where’er your people meet,
there they behold your mercy seat;
Where’er they seek you, you are found,
and ev’ry place is hallowed ground.
God is seeking worshipers, through Jesus Christ, who come in spirit and truth. Those who do come find him their chief delight. He promises, “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.… I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (Heb. 8:10, 12).