Worship. How do you worship the living God? What does God require of our worship? These are the important questions in the religious world. It remains a question, also, in the Church. Well, how shall we worship? In the book of John, chapter 4, verses 20-26, we read about a woman who put this question to Jesus, and we hear His answer:
“Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. 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” (who is called Christ). “When He comes, He will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.”
A family was on a European vacation. They were to go to a great cathedral on a given day. The parents told their son that they were going to “the house of God “ and that he should be very quiet. They went in and found a seat near the rear of the cathedral. Most of the people there seemed to be like them — tourists.
The mother whispered to their son, “See the chancel with the decorative sacramental screen. It is absolutely beautiful.” Then, in another moment, the father said to the mother, “Did you see those magnificent stain glass windows? Twelfth century, I believe.” She nodded her head. They went on like this for some time. Then the clergy entered, and the choir and the organ piped out a tremendous note, and the service began. It was about then that the little boy appeared quite confused. He leaned into his parents and whispered a question only a child could ask: “Mom, Dad, I see the preacher, I see the choir, I hear the organ . . . but exactly where is God? “
The little boy’s questions is a good one. It is possible, you know, to focus on worship and never really come to truly worship God. Perhaps, like the little boy, you have been in churches where there are prayers and singing and nice buildings and lots of music, but you missed the presence of God in your life. You couldn’t explain it, but you just knew. Something was missing, and you left thinking to yourself, “Where is God in the worship service?”
The context for Jesus’ teaching on worship in the book of John is a Samaritan woman who has met the Lord at the well. In that meeting, Jesus shows her true condition—sin. So, like any squirming sinner under the conviction of God, she changes the subject. And she starts to talk about the “worship wars” of her day. Today, people argue about traditional versus contemporary worship style, or liturgy versus spontaneous form, about instruments or no instruments, and so forth. I have read and studied and listened to many people talk to me about worship. But, I must say that much of it sounds like this woman at the well. Much of it misses the point of the worship Jesus was talking about.
In fact, Jesus here teaches on a vibrant, “spirit and truth” worship, and He even uses the phrase “true worshipers,” indicating that there is a true worship and a false worship.
The great Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs wrote a book called Gospel Worship, and that is certainly a name for the worship Jesus was describing. In the last century, A.W. Tozer wrote about this kind of worship being the “Missing Jewel” of the Evangelical church. All of us would agree that a worship service that focuses on anything other than the presence of Jesus Christ is most definitely a Missing Jewel that we cannot afford to lose. But, some years ago I came across a quote of John Stott’s in which he referred to this sort of worship as “Living Worship.” Living Worship is genuine heart-felt posture of the soul, which moves beyond questions of mere form to expecting an encounter with the Living God.
In John 4, Jesus teaches about “Living Worship.” And this passage reveals four defining features of Living Worship.
1. Living Worship is not about a prop, but a Person.
In verse 20 we read: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.”
Jesus then responds to her by telling her that a day is coming, and now is, when true worshipers will not worry about locating a mountain, but locating a Person. And I think we may say that our first point on Living Worship could be that “Living Worship is not about a prop, but a Person.”
The Samaritan woman seems to be using worship as a diversion in order to avoid the person of Jesus. Arguing about worship is nothing new. In Jesus’ day, it went on as well. The Samaritans believed that true worship had to happen on Mount Gerizim, which is where Abraham and Jacob had built altars (see Genesis 12.7; 33.20; Deuteronomy 27.46). The Jews didn’t like that restriction, and so when the Samaritans built a temple on Mount Gerizim in 400 BC, the Jews destroyed it in 128 BC. Today we hope that a guitarist won’t go over and sabotage the organist, but you can see that worship wars are nothing new. And neither is the tactic of arguing about worship rather than worshiping in spirit and in truth.
The writer to the Hebrews wrote of living worship when he penned: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels” (12:22).
Living worship is not concerned with mountains or cities. Mount Zion is the place of God wherever God’s people are gathered. The City of God is no longer just Jerusalem, it is the place of God’s habitation, and He inhabits the praises of His people.
Campbell Morgan preached,
“Worship … is not a question of locality . . . It is not a question of intellect merely. To worship, men must get down to the deepest thing in their personality, spirit and truth. There must be honesty; there must be reality — by tearing off the mask and compelling you to face your own life.”1
This is the Gospel principle of worship. Worship is not about a prop, but the Person of Christ.
Worship has principles and elements and expressions. Most of the time, like this woman, we don’t talk about the principles and elements; we talk about the expression of worship. A key principle is that our worship should be centered in the Person of Jesus, not in some prop or lack thereof. It is not on a mountain, not in Jerusalem, but in the hearts of people who confess Jesus as Lord. Jesus didn’t let this woman off of the hook by getting bogged down in this or that way of worship. He led her to the principle of worship. Jesus will not let you off of the hook by talking about worship expressions only. He is always pointing us to the principle of worship: the Lord Himself. Jesus Christ is our Worship.
2. Living Worship is set in Living History.
We can locate a second definition of Living Worship when we read: “You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). Here we see that “Living Worship is set in Living History.”
“Living History” refers to worship that occurs in the context of real life events, which happen under the direction of God. We cannot worship outside the Story of what God is doing in history.
Jesus was telling her that true worship is not accepted just because it is motivational, or makes the worshipper feel religious, or anything of the sort. Jesus is telling her that true worship, a living worship, is set in the history of God’s redemption. There must be clear, objective truths tied to worship. God is sovereign. God created us. Man fell into sin and rebellion and misery and is on his way to eternal punishment and separation from God, unless something is done. Something was done, and God Himself initiated it. God came down and took upon Himself flesh and became Man in order to save Man. Jesus will reveal Himself as that God-Man.
We cannot worship God appropriately unless our worship is set in that historical-redemptive context. It doesn’t matter how good it makes you feel, how motivated you are, Living Worship is tied to a Living History of God’s Plan of Salvation, centered in Christ.
Dr. Bryan Chapell, the President of Covenant Seminary, says that worship must be a week-to-week re-telling of the Gospel story. I think his statement is reflective of what the Bible is teaching us:
“Remember His covenant forever, The word, which He commanded, for a thousand generations, The covenant, which He made with Abraham, And His oath to Isaac, And confirmed it to Jacob for a statute, To Israel for an everlasting covenant” (1 Chronicles 16:15-17).
Beloved, our worship should be a week-to-week renewal of the covenant in our lives. Each Lord’s Day, we should come before the Lord and not leave until we have thanked Him and praised Him for His salvation wrought in Jesus Christ.
3. Living Worship requires a Living Faith.
In verses 23 and 24, Jesus speaks of true worship as being in “spirit and truth.” Focus on spiritual worship, first. In other words, “Living Worship requires a Living Faith.”
Not only does spirit speak of the fact that our worship is not bound by props and buildings and such, but it shows that only those who are filled with God’s Spirit can relate to God in Worship, for God is a Spirit. To have this Spiritual Worship, this Living Worship, you need a Living Faith.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2 an important passage for this consideration: “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). You cannot worship aright unless the Spirit of God has moved upon you, and you have repented and received Jesus Christ by faith. Only then can you relate to God in worship.
Are are going through worship and doing it quite nicely? In other words, you sing on key and know the words and so forth, but, if your spirit is not transformed by Christ, then your worship is not Living Worship, but dead. God will not accept worship from a person who is not coming to Him in the Name of Christ.
Today is the day for you to move from pretentious worship to Living Worship by yielding your life to Christ.
4. Living Worship must be based on the Living Word.
Now in verse 23, the Lord teaches us to worship not only in spirit, but also in truth. This leads us to see the fourth feature of a true worship, a living worship, that “Living Worship must be based on the Living Word.”
Worship should be grounded in the Word of God. There is much talk about worship today, about preferences and what I like and what you like and so forth. But, we err if we do not begin by asking not “What do I like?” but “What does God require?” Again, expressions vary, and we have seen that the argument need not rest there, but we should move to ask, “How Biblical is our worship?” Is it filled with Scripture? God’s Word is Truth, and this must be the basis for worship.
Worship also involves healing. How can this be? Worship is healing because Truth—the Truth of God’s Word and His Spirit bring that Word to broken hearts—really heals. There should be sufficient Scripture in our Worship services to bring about needed healing in God’s people gathered. God’s Word is Truth and the Truth will set you free, so we should expect healing to come from every part of our worship services.
5. Living Worship leads to a Living Lord.
In verses 25 and 26, “‘The woman said to Him, I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When He comes, He will tell us all things.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am He.’”
Here, then, is the fifth and final distinguishing feature of Living Worship: “Living Worship leads to a Living Lord.”
Jesus’ teaching on worship leads to His revelation of Himself as the Son of God. Worship that is alive always does. This revelation, which comes after teaching on worship, leads not only to this woman’s salvation, but also to revival and reformation in Sychar. Living Worship is all about a Living Lord.
Once I was attending worship at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., then pastored by Dr. Craig Barnes. I was touched as Dr. Barnes related his philosophy of ministry concerning their children’s worship. I was told that parents who want their children to attend the “Children in Worship” ministry are assured that each child will begin to learn about the worship service, preparing each child to participate with understanding in public worship. But, at the end of each such service, the children’s director and volunteers invite the children to gather their belongings and sit in a leader’s lap. The leader then whispers to each child, “The Lord loves you.” Dr. Barnes said that it was his dream that every child would grow to be a worshiper who heard the whisper of God’s love in each service.
A whisper of love is God’s idea of worship. And our worship is either is dry and dead, and you leave without the whisper of God’s love, or it is a Living Worship, which invites you to come to Your Lord and to hear His whisper: “I who speak to you am He.”
May you be led to know Him in this way! May this message lead you to see that Jesus is Lord and invites you to know Him. May you hear His whisper this very day.
In God’s Word, nothing is more important than worship, and in the Bible, worship is not a noun. Worship is a verb. In Jesus’ teaching, God will not allow us merely to talk about worship, or think about worship, or study about worship, or argue about worship styles or props. He is calling us to worship Him in spirit and in truth. He is calling us to a Living Worship, an invitation to be transformed by His grace. From this passage, we have seen that Living Worship:
1. Is not about a prop but about a Person,
2. Is set in Living History,
3. Requires a Living Faith,
4. Is based on the Living Word, and
5. Leads to a Living Lord.
Where does worship fit in our lives?
Evelyn Underhill, a brilliant professor and writer on worship at Oxford earlier in the twentieth century, wrote in her book Worship:
“There is a sense in which we may think of the whole life of the universe, seen and unseen, conscious and unconscious, as an act of worship, glorifying its Origin, Sustainer and End.2
I think she is right. The Bible says that the very heavens declare the glory of God. Isaiah wrote of that day when the earth and its inhabitants will break out in worship in a Paradise Regained:
“For you shall go out with joy, And be led out with peace; The mountains and the hills Shall break forth into singing before you, And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12).
The Shorter Catechism states, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
Clearly, the worship of God is a priority for the believer. But we will never prioritize worship, or for that matter truly come to love worship, until our hearts are changed, until we come to experience His love and see that worship is the response of love.
This is what happened to a young woman who was sent away from her mother at a very young age. The little girl’s mother had been burned severely and had to give up the child as an infant. The little girl was placed in the home of the mother’s sister who lived in another part of the country. The mother had to go through operation after operation and was finally placed in a home. The girl grew up and one day found where her mother was. She went to her. Her aunt who had reared her had shown her pictures of her mother as a beautiful young woman. The girl so looked forward to seeing her mother. She was so nervous the day she entered the convalescent home and was led to the room. The nurse tried to warn her, but the girl was so excited, she couldn’t get through to her. She walked in, and the woman in the room was in a wheelchair with her back to her. Then, she turned around. The girl screamed. She had never seen such a face. Distorted and scarred, barely recognizable as a human face, much less the portrait she had seen, the young woman ran from the room in tears. A nurse followed her and found her in a lounge weeping. The nurse told her the story of how when the young woman was an infant, there was a fire and the girl had been trapped in her room sleeping. But the mother risked her own life, going through the flames and the smoke to rescue the baby. She got the baby to safety, but was herself trapped by a fallen, burning piece of the roof. The burns were so terrible that even after so many surgeries, there was little more to do. The nurse told the girl, “Those wounds are wounds of love for you.” The young woman recognized her hard heart, repented of it, and ran to embrace this woman who had saved her.
This story is a picture of Christ’s love for you. You may have a picture of worship in your mind. That picture may be of stained glass windows and Prayer Book language flowing forth with rich choral anthems. Or the picture you are holding may be of a projector screen with cool, contemporary strains pulsating from a praise and worship band. “Do we worship on this mountain or in Jerusalem?” Both of those are expressions of worship, not the principle of worship. And the pictures of worship we often carry around with us cannot tell the story of worship. The true image of worship is a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, bearing your sins on a Roman cross, on a forsaken hill where criminals go to die.
Until you come to see Jesus Christ as Your Savior, who died for you and who rose again from the dead, and until you believe that the One who loved you to death and back again is here today, you will not worship in spirit and in truth. Until you come to worship and say with Evelyn Underhill, “I come to seek God because I need Him. I come to adore His splendor and fling myself and all that I have at His feet,”3 you have not truly come to worship.
But, when hardened hearts are broken by His wounds of love, they are free to worship in spirit and in truth.
This is Living Worship.
Do you attend worship? Or do you worship?
1 G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to John (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, n.d.), 76.
2 Evelyn Underhill, Worship, p. 1.
- On the Preparation of the Pastoral Prayer (michaelmilton.org)
- Rekindling the flame (Jeremy Walker) (reformation21.org)
- When God Comes Down (Isaiah 64) (michaelmilton.org)
- On the Occassion of the Baptism of Infants: A Letter to Pastors-to-Be (michaelmilton.org)
- Beyond Contemporary: Making Worship Accessible (theaquilareport.com)
- Gospel Coalition Panel: Churches Called to Lay Down Youth Culture Idolatry in Worship (theaquilareport.com)