Our language belies what we know to be truth, or at best, it puts on display our inner conflict over what we actually believe.
Very often, while in a public assembly with other believers (usually at church), someone up front will say something along the lines of, “Let’s continue to worship.” The fact that it is said at all reveals the unspoken belief of many in the room that what we were or are doing right now is not worship, but something other than worship. We were worshiping at one time, stopped worshiping to do this other thing, and now “Let’s continue to worship.”
And what happens next? You know it as surely as I do. The one who said that strikes a chord on the guitar, or the piano, because in our minds, worship is inseparably tied to music and singing. We even refer to this musician as “the Worship Leader,” while we would never think to refer to the one praying, or to the one speaking, or the one tithing as leading worship. Praying is praying, preaching is preaching/teaching, tithing is giving, and singing is worship. Intellectually, you and I know this to be untrue, but again, our language belies what we know to be truth, or at best, it puts on display our inner conflict over what we actually believe.
Walk prudently when you go to the house of God; and draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they do evil. – Ecclesiastes 5:1, NKJV
Wrestling With the Worship Question
The fact that we are so conflicted in our speech is illustrative of the reality that answering the question, “What is worship,” is not a simple matter. The quote above from Ecclesiastes gives emphasis to the importance of our doing so, lest we be offering God “the sacrifice of fools” in our attempts to worship. How tragic that one would be attempting to worship the divine, but doing evil instead.
I believe one of the more profound statements in all of scripture on the subject of worship fell from the lips of Jesus when he spoke with the woman at the well as recorded in John 4. The theological undercurrents of the encounter between Jesus and this woman are astonishing, and space does not grant us a full treatment of that today, but suffice it to say that in this interaction, Jesus is doing three things that no other self-respecting male Jew of his time would have done. He is speaking with a woman. He is speaking with a Samaritan. He is speaking with a Samaritan woman who is shacked-up with a man to whom she is not married. And it is to this woman that Jesus utters the defining statement on worship.
The more deeply Jesus and the unnamed woman drove their conversation, the more clearly the woman began to grasp that she was not talking to any ordinary male Jew. This was a deeply religious man – one with some pretty keen insights, and a transparency she was not used to seeing in Jewish men. So, as the conversation pressed forward, she decided to toss out a point of contention between the Samaritans and the Jews – what is the proper location for worshiping God?
The woman put her question like this: “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship” (John 4:20, NASB) In response, Jesus informed the woman that, very soon, location would be irrelevant to pure worship. And then he gave her the jewel!
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father … 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.” – John 4:21, 23-24, NASB
True Worshipers Are Being Sought After
Are you feeling disconnected from God? Are you looking for God and just cannot seem to find him? I would exhort you to stop looking for God and to start worshiping him. If you do that, you won’t need to look for God because God will find you. God is seeking worshipers, but not just any worshipers. He is looking for very specific worshipers – those who worship him in spirit and truth. Since those are the worshipers God is seeking, those are the worshipers we should be.
Theologian A.W. Pink wrote in his book Exposition of the Gospel of John that there are three “musts” in John’s gospel. We must be born again (3:7). The Son of Man must be lifted up (3:14). And here, true worshipers must worship in spirit and truth” (4:24). So, whatever this worship is, we would do well to figure it out and latch onto it.
One last thing that jumps out at me from Jesus’ statement is that, if there are true worshipers, by definition that means that there are false worshipers. We got a hint of that from the Ecclesiastes quote where we saw the worship of fools who think they are worshiping but are actually doing evil. We don’t want to go there. Furthermore, if true worshipers worship in spirit and truth, then false worship must be confined to body and falsehood. It is something worth pondering.
True Worshipers Worship in Spirit and Truth
Though I walk in a physical body, I am a spiritual being. I carry my spirit within me.
Years ago, when asked “What is my spirit?” I heard a man say, “Your spirit is whatever doesn’t show up at the funeral.” I am created in the image of God, and God is spirit, and those who worship him must do so in spirit and truth. In some sense, then, true worship is going to involve my spirit seeking after the Spirit of God, to pursue God from the inside out, rather than with outside activities and trappings.
Not only is worship a matter of spirit, it is an issue of truth.
When I was a seminary student, it was emphasized to me that this “truth” was a call for doctrinal accuracy. At the time I bought that explanation because I simply did not know any better. Over time, however, I have come to understand that doctrine has little to do with what Jesus is saying here beyond the fact that what he is saying here is his doctrine on worship.
Truth here is αληθεια (aleitheia). Aleathia is truth in the sense that it is what what is real. It is genuine. From that definition, we are closer to what Jesus is calling for if we read his statement as, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and sincerity.” Insincere worship accomplishes nothing. It is an act of vanity – emptiness.
Jesus spoke to the uselessness of external activity without an engaged heart.
This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me
– Matthew 15:8-9a
Thus, worship is an inside-out affair. It flows from the heart to the hands. Lifted hands from a dead heart is empty exercise, but a heart on fire that cannot help but thrust hands heavenward is a beautiful thing. It is my heart, or my spirit that brings life to my worship.
Matthew Henry said it like this, “The way of worship which Christ has instituted is rational and intellectual, and refined from those external rites and ceremonies with which the Old-Testament worship was both clouded and clogged.” It is my inner being invigorated by overwhelming adoration of the divine.
The call for sincerity in our worship is not a new thing. The largest book in the Bible, the Psalms, is one of the most impactful records of worship in all literature. And there we read this:
Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being,
And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom. – Psalm 51:6, NASB
Take the challenge this week to free your heart, your “innermost being,” to be unencumbered by external matters, and from that free heart, pour yourself into worship of your Creator God. Be abounding in awe, love, and adoration.
Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. – Hebrews 10:22, NASB