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"In Spirit and in Truth."

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Second in a brief series on corporate worship


This morning, we continue our series on corporate worship and our guiding question remains, what is worship that honors God?  When we gather for corporate worship, what characterizes God-honoring worship?  This morning, we want to continue to find Biblical answers to that question and today we turn to the fourth chapter of John’s gospel.  The story is familiar to many of us and we will be looking at only one aspect of it in any detail.  Jesus is travelling to his home region of Galilee from Judea where he had been ministering.  That takes him through Samaria.  While in Samaria, he grows weary and at about noon he takes a rest in a town called Sychar.  As he is sitting Jacob’s well, a Samaritan woman comes to the well to draw some water and Jesus engages her in conversation.  He reveals himself to her as the source of living water that, if you drink it, you will never thirst again. 

After the woman asks Jesus to give her this living water, he responds saying, “…Go, call your husband, and come here."  17The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband';  18for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true."  19The woman said to him, "Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.  20Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship."  21Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.  22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  23But 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.  24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." 

Jesus supernaturally reveals very personal details about this woman’s life and she acknowledges the fact that God is at work in Jesus as a prophet.  She then asks him a theological question.  This may be a smokescreen to try to get Jesus off the uncomfortable subject of her current living arrangement.  More likely, this question about “where God has ordained his people to worship him” is a very important question for a Samaritan and Jesus is perhaps the first Jew she trusts to actually give her God’s perspective on it.  Before we can understand what Jesus means here in his answer to her in verses 20-24, we need to get a glimpse of the very unique context within which he is speaking to this Samaritan woman.  This moment is unique because salvation history was, during the earthly life of Jesus, in the midst of a cosmic transition.  The page will soon be turned to open a new era that would bring with it a whole new way of understanding worship.  A new world is coming, but this woman asks Jesus this question about worship with her feet squarely anchored in the old world. As a Samaritan, she was thoroughly misled about the “where” of Old Covenant worship and she had no clue that a new day was dawning that would thoroughly alter the Old Covenant ideas about corporate worship.

A bit of history is in order here.  The Samaritans began existing as a group, distinct from the Jews, after the Assyrians captured the city of Samaria and brought them back to Assyria in 721 BC.  Some time after that, they were brought back to Samaria—no one knows when.  Around that time, they separated themselves from the Jews by building a separate temple to Yahweh on Mount Gerizim.  Although the Jews did not officially excommunicate the Samaritans until 300 years after Christ, there were significant differences in their theology.  First and most importantly, they claimed only the first five books of the Bible—the Pentateuch, to be their Scripture.  That means that anything commanded by God, or any teaching or event that happened after the death of Moses was irrelevant to them.  That meant that they did not recognize that God had, subsequent to Moses’ death, directed that his temple be built in Jerusalem.  From just the first five books of the Old Testament, the Samaritans for several reasons came to understand that the temple should be located on Mount Gerizim.  They wrongly built their temple there and it was destroyed about 100 years after this conversation recorded in John chapter four.[1]

          That explains why the woman asks this question about the appropriate location of the temple, but it doesn’t explain Jesus’ ambiguous answer in verse 24, “God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  What does that mean?  Many people think (and this is accurate as far as it goes) that Jesus is saying that worship that honors God is not about a place, but is about worshipping God with your spirit or heart, and with your mind or truth.  Worship should not be just with your heart or just with your mind, both head and heart are needed  It must be spirit—our hearts and passions fueled by the Holy Spirit, but our worship must also express truth—that is, it must reflect what the Scripture has to say about God.  That understanding of God honoring worship, as we saw last week, is indisputable.

          Our worship must not be limited to an intellectual processing of the Biblical facts about God.  Neither must worship be purely emotional; as if being excited or stirred up about a fuzzy, ill-defined God honors him.  Jesus teaches us in John’s gospel that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth who will lead us into all truth. That means that he will never move anyone emotionally—he will never stir anyone’s passion for God--on the basis of false beliefs about God.  For instance, if you go to a church that believes that God exists to enrich you financially and provide for you expensive cars and expensive homes—that’s God’s purpose.  If in that church people are jubilantly praising God in response to that understanding of God, I guarantee you the Holy Spirit has nothing to do with the jubilance being expressed.  At best, it’s the flesh.  The reason is--because the Spirit of Truth is not going to give his joy to help people exult in God when what is being exulted in about God is patently untrue.  The worship in that instance may be very “spirited” or impassioned, but the Holy Spirit isn’t inspiring it because he’s the Spirit of truth.  Likewise, the Spirit is not the One stirring you to impassioned worship if you are singing songs with lyrics that are patently unbiblical.  There are more than a few popular choruses and hymns that we and many churches will not sing as a church because, as popular as they may be, the words are simply not theologically sound—they’re not true.  On the other hand however, a person may be a walking theological dictionary about God who can declare with perfect accuracy the great truths about God in the Bible. But if he does so with no more passion than you would expect from someone reading the phone book; that is not God-honoring, Holy-Spirit attended worship either.  And the sad fact is that in many theologically precise churches, there are seemingly a lot of phone-book readers when it comes to worship!  They tend to find encouragement in some churches like that.

          The Puritans said it this way—in our worship of God—in our relationship with God there must be both light and heat.  There must be light—the light of truth about God that pierces the darkness of our ignorance and wrong thinking about God.  But where there is light, there must also be heat—passion, fervor, the exercise of our affections, as we heard last week from Jonathan Edwards.  When Jesus says, we must worship the Father in spirit and in truth, that light and heat dynamic is certainly consistent with what Jesus is talking about here in John chapter four.  But I don’t think that understanding, while consistent, is sufficient in light of the context.  When you look at both the larger Biblical context and the closer context within John’s gospel, I find two broad truths about what it is to worship God in spirit and truth. Don Carson in a book he has edited called “Worship by the Book” has been very helpful to me here in thinking this through.

          First, to worship in spirit and truth under the New Covenant is to expand corporate worship beyond the limits of the restrictive Jewish religious traditions and practices.  One of the striking differences you easily notice between worship in the Old Testament and worship in the New Testament is this:  in the Old Testament, you have chapter after chapter in the Law dedicated to precisely instructing Israel how to worship God corporately.  By contrast, in the New Testament, there is very little teaching that prescribes people how to worship.  That’s a radical break from the Old Testament.  For instance, there are 40 chapters in the book of Exodus.  Of those 40 chapters, about 13 are devoted to a very elaborate, intensely detailed directions for the set up and usage of the tabernacle and its attendant worship accessories—the bronze basin, the altars, the lampstands, the Ark of the Covenant and all the rest.  This teaching is separated into two distinct sections in Exodus, the first running from chapter 25-31.  The second section goes from chapters 35-40 and much of the second section is a word for word, verbatim repetition of the earlier section.  Its one thing to repeat a key phrase or word, but to essentially repeat entire chapters!  Beloved, that’s at least in part an emphasis on how to worship.  We also see heavily prescribed directives about worship in the many, many verses the Old Testament gives regarding the various sacrifices that are to be offered—the guilt offering, sin offering, peace offering, sacrifice of atonement and the like.  The Law gives painstakingly explicit instructions as to how those are to be offered with severe consequences promised for wavering from those instructions. 

          In addition to that, you also have numerous Old Testament texts that give directives related to the temple in some way.  As Jesus hinted at to the woman at the well, God had clearly made his will known as to where the temple was going to be and it was in Jerusalem. There was one (count them, one) acceptable location for the temple--Jerusalem.  Much space is given to prescribing how the temple would be constructed—complete with a list of building materials—there is a detailed report of how it was dedicated by King Solomon. The temple, like the tabernacle represented for the Jews both God’s ongoing presence with him and his rule over them.  He not only had a place to dwell among them, in that place was a throne upon which he manifested himself—the Ark of the Covenant.  It would be very hard to over-emphasize the centrality of the temple to the Jews.  In fact, one reason the Jews believed they would never be exiled for their sin was because God would never separate them from the temple.  For many Jews, when the temple was finally destroyed, it was like God being destroyed. Then, finally there’s the lengthy sections of Old Testament Scripture devoted to teaching on the various annual festivals, with prescribed instructions for how to worship during them.  The Passover, Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, the Tabernacles and Ingathering are all explained in great detail.

By sharp contrast, in the New Testament, you find no such precise prescription for corporate worship.  In the New Testament, corporate worship forms are never explicitly prescribed with that kind of detail.  They are DE-scribed.  We know the elements of corporate worship the church practiced from the New Testament.  Those include things like—the word preached, the offering of prayers, the reading of Scripture, fellowship around common meals that included the Lord’s Supper.  There are offerings for the poor and needy within the church.  There are public professions of faith, people are baptized—the holy kiss is given—praise and prayer are given as are thanksgivings and benedictions.  But those are not prescribed anywhere in the New Testament—only described.

          Another point of discontinuity between the Old and New Testament as it relates to worship is—most of the key the words that were connected to temple worship are given new meanings in the New Testament.  As we saw last week, in the New Testament we don’t offer sacrifices of bulls or lambs, but sacrifices of praise.  Paul says he is being poured out as a “drink offering.”  He says in Philippians 4:18, “... I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”  “Fragrant offerings,” “sacrifices,”--those words in the Old Testament, would have been limited to the context of temple worship.  But in the New Testament, they are expanded to include financial gifts offered in love for one another.  In the New Testament, the temple is not understood as a large stone building in Jerusalem, but a spiritual building made up of people--“living stones …being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  [1 Peter 2:5]  God’s presence is in us now through the Holy Spirit.  And in the New Jerusalem, when we see the fulfillment of the temple theme in the Revelation, John looks out over the heavenly city and says in 21:22, “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”  As we saw last week, in Romans 12:1 in the New Testament, we are called to live in response to the gospel as “living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Do you hear all the Old Testament religious ritual-type language that the New Testament authors unapologetically re-apply to Jesus Christ and the church?

          That fact gives us at least one clear implication about what it is to worship God--New Covenant style--in spirit and truth in a God-honoring way and that is; under the New Covenant, we must not make sacred any external liturgy or form of worship .  To prescribe any outward form or pattern of worship is past history!  There are ways to organize a corporate worship service that include New Testament elements and express a logical flow dictated by the gospel—we respond to the preaching of the gospel with praise, etc…, but we dare not assume one particular service order or liturgy is the most inspired because that kind of prescribed worship is not part of what it is under the New Covenant to worship “in spirit.”  What Jesus is saying is essentially, “The priority with respect to worship that honors God within the New Covenant is not the external, prescriptive how-to’s—it’s a matter of the spirit behind it.”  To put it theologically, “It’s not about keeping a worship law to mandate your behavior, it’s about having a new heart that loves God and unabashedly expresses that love in spirit.”

That means that what we don’t want to do is--read a section of the New Testament describing worship and turn that into prescribing a form of worship.  For instance, in 1 Corinthians chapter 14, where house church worship is described in a section where Paul is rebuking the Corinthians for their lack of intelligibility in public worship and say—THAT description defines New Testament worship. Or, to write a particular service order or liturgy and say THAT defines New Testament worship.  The significant break between the highly prescribed worship of the Old Testament and the mostly DE-scribed worship of the New Testament argues against doing that and when we do that, we are not worshipping “in spirit” as Jesus mandates in John chapter four.  We should feel freedom to change things around at times and for various seasons of the life of our church and that will continue to be done at times here.

          Finally, don’t miss the important truth in verse 23.  Jesus says, “But the hour is coming, and how is here, when the true worshippers will worship the father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.”  Please, notice where the stress lies there.  It’s not on true worship—as if there were one form that were superior to all others.  The stress lies not on worship, but worshippers.  “The Father is seeking such people to worship him.” As we saw last week, the emphasis is on the heart of the person, not the form of the service.  Do you see how this emphasis on the worshippers undercuts the emphasis on worship performance you often hear today in evangelicalism?  Listen to Carson here. He says, “It is disturbingly easy to plot surveys of people, especially young people, drifting from a church…to one with excellent music because, it is alleged, there is “better worship” there….Although there are things that can be done to enhance corporate worship, there is a profound sense in which excellent worship cannot be attained merely by pursuing excellent worship…you cannot find excellent corporate worship until you stop trying to find excellent worship and pursue God himself.”[2]  At least part of the point is--if you are really serious about finding better worship, the search had better begin in your own heart because God isn’t fundamentally seeking after better worship, he is seeking after worshippers and that has to begin on the inside, not with a gifted musician or a skilled praise team or a great sound system.

          Second, and most importantly; to worship in spirit and truth under the New Covenant is to worship in a way that keeps Christ at the absolute center.  I see two reasons for this.  First, because as Jesus in his talk with this woman looks into the future of worship after his death and resurrection, he knows that most of those Old Testament religious expressions will be redefined in relationship to him.  He will be at the center of everything.  He knew that God implemented all those Old Testament expressions of worship fundamentally to set the table for him—to prepare for him.  He is the Passover Lamb to which the original pointed.  He is the fulfillment of the major Jewish religious festivals.  He is the true temple of God who tabernacled among his people.  He told the Jewish religious leaders in John 2:19, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." He came as one “greater than the temple” according to Matthew 12:6. When he was crucified, the temple curtain separating the people from the very presence of God was ripped from top to bottom.  There was a new and better way to relate to and worship God.

          The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus replaced the priesthood and the corporate religious traditions associated with the Old Covenant.  He is our Great High Priest who represents us before the Father.  Chapter 10 says, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus,  20by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh,  21and since we have a great priest over the house of God,  22let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”  When you hear Jesus tell people they must worship in spirit and in truth in the context of Old Covenant worship, you begin to understand what D.A. Carson is talking about when he says, “to worship God in spirit and in truth is first and foremost a way of saying that we must worship God by means of Christ.  In him the reality has dawned and the shadows are being swept away.  Christian worship is new covenant worship; it is gospel-inspired worship; it is Christ-centered worship; it is cross-focused worship.”[3]

          A second reason that worshipping Jesus in spirit and truth means that Jesus must be at the center of our worship is found in the context of John’s gospel.  When Jesus says we must worship him “in truth,” that statement is not in a vacuum.  John’s gospel is filled with this theme of truth and we see where chapter four fits within that flow.  The truth or what is true is almost always tied directly to Jesus in John.  Think about how John pictures Jesus.  He is the true vine in chapter 15. He is the true manna in John six. He is the true Shepherd in chapter 10, he is the true temple in chapter two, he is the true Son throughout the book.  He is the way, the truth and the life in John 14. It’s within that context where Jesus repeatedly claims to embody the truth that he says, “those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  To worship God in truth must include a Christ-centered worship.  We worship God through Jesus and because of Jesus. 

What does this mean to us?  Again, if we go to church and, in response to the worship we say, “That was really great worship,” what do we mean by that?  Do we mean that we like the instrumentation of the praise team? Do we mean we like the way the people around us were singing?  Do we mean that the preacher held our attention?  If that is all we mean by “good worship,” we haven’t defined good worship the way Jesus does.  Because in context what he is saying is, “Good worship—worship that honors God is worship that is from the heart of people who deeply love God and worship that is through me and exalts me in ways that align with what the Bible has to say about me.”  We must define good worship the way Jesus does.  In his eyes, good worship is that which is centered on him—is gospel inspired, cross focused and offered by people who are smitten with him—worshippers.

          Do you hear how far the church so often is from this today?  When we define good worship by some prescribed external elements that make it pleasing to us—like a particular form of music or a gifted musician—there must be drums—there must be guitars—there must be a pipe organ -- if that is our understanding of good worship, that is external—that is far closer to an Old Covenant understanding of worship than “in spirit and truth worship” that the New Covenant mandates.  Where are we today?  Are we the kind of worshippers that God seeks after?  Do we have to have the music just right in order for us to feel worshipful?  Do we need a certain worship order to worship or the right place to sit in order to worship?  Preferences are not irrelevant and it is surely easier for us to worship in ways that are more in keeping with our preferences, but as we have seen—if our hearts are right and Christ is at the center, the kind of worshippers that God seeks after will be able to worship.  Hearts aflame with passion for God require very little kerosene to burst ablaze.  Finally, do our hearts soar in worship, not simply because the music stirs us, but because the glorious truths of the gospel are being articulated in the lyric?  Do we say, “Yes!” when a gospel-driven hymn or chorus is sung?  That’s a part of what worship in spirit and in truth is and may God give to us as individuals and as a church the grace to be those “in spirit and truth worshippers” that God seeks after for his glory and for our joy.

[1] The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, VOL. 5, p.245.

[2] Carson, Worship by the Book, p.31

[3] Carson, “Worship by the Book,” p. 37


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