Worshiping in Spirit and in Truth

Every model of church, in order to be biblically legitimate, must seek to focus men and women’s hearts on God and His truth as revealed in scripture. The Old Testament, for example, is rich and extremely detailed in describing worship–the worship of God’s people. God’s instructions leave nothing to the imagination–He describes what is proper and worship and He tells us in no uncertain terms how He will be worshiped. As the account of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10 shows us, God is deadly serious about proper worship.

The entire Old Testament system of worship established at least five important things (no particular order):

  1. A context in which Christ’s death on the cross would have its intended substitutionary and penal meaning.
  2. The Holiness of God in dealing with sin.
  3. Who God is.
  4. The Law to point out where and how man fails to live up to a Holy God.
  5. A central place of worship where God’s people would go to worship, especially on festival occasions.

In Jesus’ time, the Jews still made their pilgrimages to the Temple for Passover and the other pilgrimage festivals (Pentecost took place during a pilgrimage festival, by the way). But, as we will see, the entire concept of biblical worship was about to change.

In John 4, we see Jesus’ mission to a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. While worship is not the main point of this passage, this passage reveals much about New Testament worship.

During the conversation between the woman and Jesus, she asks if it is right to worship on Mt. Gerizim (as the Samaritans did) or is it right to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem (as the Jews did). The Samaritans were remnants of the now defunct Northern Kingdom of Israel who had been forced to interbreed with the Assyrians who conquered them in 722 BC. The Samaritan people rejected all of the Old Testament, except for the Pentateuch. So, they tried to keep the Old Testament Law but they worshiped on Mt. Gerizim (which, in fact, broke Old Testament Law because it was not the authorized place). The woman’s question brings a shocking response from Jesus. He answered:

John 4:21-24 (ESV)
Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on 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 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. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

Jesus’ response is a two-pronged answer. Jesus says the Samaritan way of worship is simply wrong. He says they worship what they do not know while the Jews worship what they know. The idea is the Samaritans have been worshiping wrongly because they have not been worshiping in accordance with the entirety of God’s revelation. By holding only to the Pentateuch, the Samaritans rejected the Prophets and by doing so engaged in worship which was not in accord with God’s full (to that point) revelation of Himself.

Secondly, Jesus’ response tells us the forms of worship seen since the inception of the Covenant will soon end. As was mentioned before, Jewish worship included several “pilgrimage feasts” (like Passover) and these feasts required being in Jerusalem for the purpose of performing the acts of worship, just as God had prescribed. Jesus now says that is all going to end—the old order (the forms) will be done away with, in favor of a new order.

Worship in Spirit: We must go to Christ Himself as our place of worship

The idea of worship “in Spirit and Truth” is related to these two developments. To worship in “Spirit” means that there is no physical place or platform in which to worship. The new order will not have a geographical center or specific, required forms. The new order will have a spiritual center and that spiritual center is Christ Himself.

While the John passage does not explicitly state Jesus to be the center of new order worship, we know this is the case from other New Testament passages:

Matthew 12:6, 8 (ESV)
I tell you, something greater than the temple is here…For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath

John 2:19-21 (ESV)
Jesus answered they, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body.

The passage in Matthew shows Jesus taking the title “Lord of the Sabbath” which suggests He is speaking of Himself when He says, “Something greater than the temple is here.” The John passage is more explicit. In this passage, Jesus unequivocally equates states Himself to be the Temple.

Because Jesus Himself is the new temple we see there is not a geographical location for our worship. We do not need to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem or any other locale to worship. We make our pilgrimage to Christ Himself. Jesus is intentionally turning the meaning of worship away from a central, geographical style and He is showing the true essence of worship to be a matter of the heart—true worship has at its core a personal and spiritual experience with Jesus Himself. No longer is worship performing outward rituals. True worship is now inward.

Worship in Truth: We must constantly and consistently seek to have our concept of God defined by scripture alone.

To worship in truth means that we worship the one, true, and living God. We do not worship a god of our imagination or a partially biblical god. True worship has, at its center, a proper vision and understanding of God—a vision we can only get from the Bible, God’s own self-revelation.

In saying the new order worship must be “in truth,” Jesus shows there is no such thing as compartmentalized worship. True worship is based in a true concept of God as revealed in scripture and the outward acts are null and void if the inward concept of God is wrong. Also, in order to be valid, outward worship must flow from the heart—a heart committed to the God of the Bible and His Christ.

From other passages, we see the heart is the issue. In see Matthew 15:18-20, we see Jesus telling Peter that it is what comes out of the heart that is, by nature, defiling. Jesus is discussing the fruit of an unregenerate life. One can assume, then, that a regenerate heart will produce good fruit. A heart rightly related to God will produce proper worship. Only a person who has been truly regenerated by the Holy Spirit and saved by the blood of Christ can offer acceptable worship. By definition, true Christian worship is offered only by believers with a proper, biblical concept of God.

We must plan our worship services with God, not man, as our “Audience.”

Today, many pastors and worship leaders commit a grave error in their worship planning by seeking to draw people into their service by their choices of music or the “style” of church. Certainly the Bible allows for all types of music to be used and the Bible allows for different “forms” of worship. However, what the Bible does not allow for is man being the subject of the worship service.

As was stated earlier, every model of church, in order to be biblically legitimate, must seek to focus men and women’s hearts on God and His truth as revealed in scripture. If worshipers and worship leaders fail to see the significance of having our hearts focused on God and having our attitudes right, biblically speaking, we will inevitably commit the same sinful error as the Samaritan woman. We must take great pains to avoid that error so that we do not have irrelevant and invalidated worship.

Note: John Piper has heavily influenced my thoughts on this matter. His writings on the same matters can be found in: John Piper, Let the Nations be Glad, 215-230 and John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, 3rd ed. (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2003),

1 Comment

Filed under Biblical Theology, Worship

One response to “Worshiping in Spirit and in Truth

  1. tc

    Good stuff! At my church, I’m surveying each book of the Bible and we got to Leviticus and it was important for me to emphasize the worship of a holy God.

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