If you have travelled abroad on holiday or for work, you will no doubt have observed a variety of places of worship. Synagogues, mosques, temples, shrines, churches, chapels, cathedrals. Some permanent, some temporary. Some very ancient, some modern. Some ornate and some very simple. And within them, if you have ventured inside, you might have seen Muslims prostrating, Shia’s lamenting, Buddhists meditating, Voodoos dancing, Shintos chanting, Hindus sacrificing, Zoroastrians lighting fires, Jews rocking, Sufis whirling, Shakers… shaking, Catholics kneeling, Mystics contemplating, Pentecostals slaying, and Anglicans doing everything, decently and in order. Colourful, vibrant, diverse. Worship is universal.
And what are we to make of the diversity that exists across the denominations? In some churches they elevate the reserved sacrament, or the host –the communion bread which is displayed as an aid to worship. In some you find side chapels with statues for the adoration of Mary. In others statues for the veneration of the saints. You will see mausoleums to the faithful departed. Often there are memorials marking the fourteen stations of the cross. You will find beautiful stain glass windows and ornate icons of saints or biblical events intended as windows into heaven. There may be candles lit and the smell of incense. In more reformed continental churches, you will find imposing organ pipes celebrating the importance of music, lecterns for the Scriptures and high pulpits demonstrating the primacy of preaching.
What are we to make of all this diversity? What constitutes acceptable worship? Is it presumptuous to embrace one to the exclusion of all others? How do we distinguish between the sacred and the sacrilegious? What criteria may we use to discriminate one from the other? Is it sufficient that our worship be biblical? Because we believe in the progressive revelation of God’s will, as Christ followers, we must accept his instructions on worship as definitive. Please turn with me to John 4 as we ask,
What is True Worship?
1. True worship Debated
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” (John 4:19-20)
We are listening in on a conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman by Jacob’s well. While the disciples had gone off to buy food in Sychar, Jesus engages the woman in a conversation about her spiritual need. She tries to deflect it into debate about worship. The subject is probably one of the most divisive issues among Christians. We have our personal preferences, our child hood memories, early Christian experiences. Its good to debate as long as we have our Bibles open. True worship debated.
2. True Worship Declared
““Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:21-22)
Jesus is very direct. “You worship in ignorance”. The desire to worship is universal, its instinctive because we are created in God’s image. Blaise Pascal observed,
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness… This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
But Jesus insists the desire to worship is not enough. It matters whom we worship and how. What did Jesus mean “salvation is from the Jews”? Authentic worship is rooted in Judaism. We share the common history, revelation and Scriptures. The scriptures reveal the progressive revelation of God’s will. But Jesus insists because of his coming, and what he will accomplish on the cross, worship will change irrevocably. Access to God the Father will no longer only be possible in the Temple, through a sacrifice offered by a mediator. “a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” The Apostle Paul writes to the Colossians about those who resisted this change:
“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17)
In Galatians, Paul explains that the Mosaic instructions about worship were a tutor, to lead us to Jesus.
“So the law was put in charge of us until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.” (Galatians 3:24-25)
This progression is seen most explicitly in Hebrews:
“The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:1-4)
Jesus has inaugurated the era of true worship because what came before was only a temporary shadow, a tutor to instruct people to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. True worship debated. True worship declared.
3. True Worship Defined
“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (John 4:23)
Jesus what is “true” worship? John Risebridger in his book, The Message of Worship, observes, “It is immediately clear that the whole conversation has been leading to this point, for Jesus has revealed himself to the woman precisely as the giver of the Spirit and the revealer of truth.”
In the new era which Jesus inaugurates,
“it will be these two transformational realities, the Spirit of God and the Word of God – that will characterize true worship, not the tired controversies about temples that had long divided the Jewish people from the Samaritans. On reflection we may go further: The entire history of salvation has been leading to this point.” [i]
The writer to Hebrews explains the significance of the atoning work of Christ for our understanding of worship.
“Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this… “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” (Hebrews 10:11-16)
Observe that Jesus has made the Mosaic instructions on worship redundant. They are obsolete because Jesus fulfilled them. He fulfilled the role of Priest (10:11).
He was the ultimate sacrifice (10:12). He is the Cornerstone of the living Temple (10:21, John 2:19; Matthew 12:6, Ephesians 2:19-21).
What difference has the atoning work of Jesus made to the Hebrew understanding of worship? Hebrews goes on,
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:20-25)
As we read the Book of Acts we discover how God’s Spirit came upon his people, and how they literally become God’s temple, and worshipped him where ever they lived.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47)
What then is true worship?
3.1 True Worship is Christ Centred
Because Jesus has offered himself as the ultimate sacrifice for sins, he has broken down the barrier between a holy God and sinful humanity. Because of Jesus, we are invited to “enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way… [and] draw near to God” (Hebrews 10:19, 22). We don’t worship God in general terms but specifically as the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. We worship in His name. That is why our worship must be Christocentric. As Risebridger says, “We are not just theists, we are Christians”[ii]
3.2 True Worship is Scripture Based
The Apostle Paul writes to the Colossians,
“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” (Colossians 3:16)
Again, Risebridger is so right here:
“For me one of the great challenges of corporate worship is putting together services which cohere and make sense, rather than being a disjointed collection of songs are are ‘in’ this month, with a few disconnected prayers and a semi-detached sermon. The worship that the father seeks is neither a feel-good show, nor a mechanical tradition, nor a rehearsing of my personal hobby horses and preferences; it is specifically a response to the truth of Scripture, as it is fulfilled in Jesus. This truth, then, needs to set the agenda for our worship, with the words of Scripture itself shaping and motivating our praise… the worship the Father is seeking is grounded in Christian truth.”
3.3 True Worship is Spirit Led
The expression translated “in the Spirit and in truth” is not describing two different kinds of worship – one ‘in Spirit’ and one ‘in truth’. It refers to a single reality of worship -simultaneously “in Spirit and truth”. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth. There is no tension or dichotomy between word and Spirit. Jesus promised,
“But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.” (John 16:13).
Risebridger again, “Surely his presence is to be welcomed, revered and honoured among us, as we open our lives to respond to the direction of God’s word.
His work of enlightening our minds (1 Corinthians 2:10-16), stirring our affections (Galatians 5:22-23), convicting our hearts (John 16:8-11), assuring us of our adoption (Romans 8:15-16) and satisfying our souls (John 7:37-38) is to be expected, experienced and embraced…
And if we truly believe that the Holy Spirit is present in our worship, should we not anticipate some surprises?”[iii]
True worship then is Christ centered, Bible based and Spirit led. But ‘true worship’ by implication assumes there is such a thing as false worship also. As we have seen there is such a thing as ignorant worship – Jesus said ‘you worship what you do not know”, but there is also clearly false worship. How do we distinguish them apart? Worship that is not Christ centered and is not Spirit led is at best ignorant, says Jesus, but at worst, it is false, presumptuous and unacceptable.
True worship debated, true worship declared and defined.
4. True Worship Demanded
“God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth. The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” (John 4:23-26)
Worship is not about my personal preferences for music, lyrics or instruments. Its not about the style of service, the times of services, the length of services, how many praise songs we sing, whether we wear robes or jeans.
Its not about the frequency of taking communion or the amount of liturgy we use. We must worship God in Spirit and in truth. Everything else is either useful or a hindrance. From John 4, we have discovered what true worship is all about. We have learnt from Jesus when true worship was declared, how true worship is defined and why true worship is demanded. Let us not debate the subject of worship, but deliver it.
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2).
[i] John Risebridger, The Message of Worship, (IVP), p.81.
[ii] Ibid., p.83.
[iii] Ibid., pp.84-85.