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In our previous discussion of worship, we observed that the “problem of worship” in our time is misstated. What we call the “problem of worship” is actually the twin problems of sin and unbelief - problems which, according to the teachings of Scripture, are related; and so may be described as one problem - the problem of sin.
These are not the terms which we would expect those who are apart from Christ to think in, but this is the way Christians have viewed the problem both Scripturally and historically. We remember, for example, that the friction between Cain and Abel was caused by Cain’s determination to worship God in his own way rather than in the manner that was acceptable to God (cf. Isaiah 53:6, 65:2, 3).1
In the previous article we also explored common assumptions that could, without our realizing it, keep us from worshipping God in an acceptable manner. In this article we will explore some important characteristics of worship that is truly acceptable to God.
In this discussion we will pair various characteristics with specific Scripture passages. These verses are not offered as “proof-texts” but as representative of Scriptures that support our belief in a specific characteristic. They are provided as “windows” into the teachings of Scripture - as “starters” from which to explore this concept in the Scriptures - each being broadly supported by the teachings of Scripture.
Some of these terms and their related concepts have received a great deal of ridicule from unbelievers. While we can often learn from our critics, and should renounce superficial understandings and caricatures of true Biblical teaching, our goal is to worship in a manner acceptable to God; not in a manner acceptable to unbelievers.
There is a noteworthy precedent in this regard. For our attitude towards Christian worship is, in reality, the same as our attitude towards Jesus Christ Himself. In the Gospels we read that Jesus quoted Psalm 118:22, 23, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner stone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10, Luke 20:17, cf. 1 Peter 2:6-8, Isaiah 8:14). Isaiah wrote, “. . . thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone. A costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be disturbed” (Isaiah 28:16, cf. Romans 9:30-33). Like Christ, true worship is a stumbling block for those who mock, but a sure blessing for those who love the Lord (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23, 2:6-15, 2 Corinthians 2:14-16, 5:16, Proverbs 4:18, 19).
It almost goes without saying that no one is in a better position to define Christian worship than Jesus Christ - almost. Given the contemporary disposition to “feel” rather than to see truth, there is a widespread tendency to be comfortable with whatever seems right. The teachings of Christ bring a needed correction to false thinking in this area, because they define the difference between “what worship is to me” and “what worship means to God;” for God is, in the words of Scripture, “Him with whom we have to do” (Hebrews 4:13). It follows, then, that the words of Jesus concerning God and worship should be greatly revered and carefully interpreted.
Though we shouldn’t take a few words and act as if that is all that Jesus or Scripture says about God and the true worship of God, it is nonetheless true that the words of Jesus recorded in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel provide one of the most important statements about God and worship found in the entire Bible.
The linking of a great Truth about God with a great Truth about worship indicates another important Truth, that our worship, as indeed all of life, is always controlled by the God we worship. Any misunderstanding about worship is truly linked with a misunderstanding about God. Therefore, Jesus presents Truth about God in order to convey His teaching about worship. In His explanation Jesus says,
“. . . true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshippers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.” John 4:23, 24Let’s consider what these words mean.
The grammar of verse 24 indicates that the correct translation is “God is Spirit,” not “God is a Spirit.”2 Commenting on the words “God is Spirit” in the original Greek, Henry Alford wrote that this statement is, “the great Truth of Judaism, whereby the Jews were distinguished from the idolatrous people around them.”3
It is for this reason that worship is spiritual, because God, who is spirit, created man a spiritual as well as a physical, material being (cf. Hebrews 12:9). And it is on the basis that man is a spiritual being that God and man can have fellowship. Spiritual worship, therefore, is worship that involves a person’s inner being. Thus, it is not just a matter of outward form. For example, because it is spiritual in nature, it is not limited to any one place, but can take place wherever someone is - if, and it is a very significant if - that person is truly in fellowship with God.
The words “spirit and truth” do not describe two different Truths about worship linked together, but two different aspects of true worship. It is spiritual, involving the innermost person, the innermost self; and it is also Truthful, not false - not a sham - not just an outward display by someone acting a part. Falseness in worship is not spiritual, and worship that is not spiritual is not true.
What conclusion can we draw from this? We can conclude that outward ceremonies and places dedicated to worship do not, in themselves, make activities truly worshipful. This is not, and should not, be taken as a statement that public worship isn’t legitimate worship, that there should not be buildings dedicated to worship, or that all ceremonies are illegitimate forms of worship. Jesus Himself said, “where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). Jesus participated in public worship, and after His death, the apostles He commanded to found His church - who knew His mind better than anyone else - brought people together in regular public worship (cf. Luke 4:16, Hebrews 10:25). However, it does mean that Christians can worship wherever they are, regardless of circumstances (cf. Acts 16:22-25).
There is another important Truth that can be derived from Jesus’ words in John 4; and that is that the world can be divided into those who worship God in an acceptable manner and those who do not. Others may not wish to recognize such a division between people, but in John 4 we see that Jesus found it important to communicate that God the Father does. He seeks out those who worship in spirit and Truth to be His own.
One, very legitimate and Scriptural way to view the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that it is a call to come out of the world to true worship (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:1-7:1). An important way to understand this Scripturally is to consider the role of the Exodus in relation to the work of God through Christ.
The Hebrews were slaves in Ancient Egypt. To deliver them, God brought about the Passover, which included the sacrifice of a lamb and the painting of their doorposts with the blood of the paschal (Passover) lamb. When God saw the blood, He “passed over” their houses and did not take their first-born son. This judgment delivered the Hebrews, who were immediately led from Egypt to Mount Sinai to worship God. They were not led directly to the Promised Land, Israel, to worship. This is important: redemption came before worship, and worship came before inheritance of the blessings God promised to them.
But the people had their own way of looking at things, and refused to bow to God’s will. They had evil in their hearts. While Moses was on the mountain speaking with God face-to-face, the people at the base of the mountain, with the help of Aaron, were making a golden calf and offering perverted worship. Just prior to this, God inspired great fear in them - so that they did not want to accompany Moses to the presence of God. The worship they chose for themselves was different from the worship they owed to God. It was pleasurable, natural feeling, and fun - closer to a party than anything else. By engaging in it they took the place that was intended for blessing and life and made it, instead, into a curse - a place of death. We can note, in passing, that this is, at least in broad strokes, very similar to the way the Corinthians later corrupted their observance of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34; noting 28-31).
We are completely justified in seeing a relationship between the events of the Exodus and the redemption offered to us through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 5:7, 10:11). This is partly because in both cases the same God is providing deliverance; and partly because in the Exodus God laid a foundation for us to understand the future work of Jesus Christ. So, while there are certainly differences, there are many parallels between the redemption of the Old (Mosaic) Covenant and the redemption of the New Covenant - certainly more than we shall have the time to detail here - but similarities easily observed by any student of Scripture. Geerhardus Vos wrote,
“. . . we must remember that the history of Israel was shaped by God intentionally so as to mirror all important situations befalling the people of God in all subsequent ages. When Jehovah appeals to the redemption from Egypt as a motive for obedience, He appeals to something that has its spiritual analogy in the life of all believers. The historical adjustment does not detract from the universal application, but subserves it.”4
In each case, Old or New Covenant, the journey starts with a group of individuals serving themselves, but ends with a people united by God with the common goal of serving God. The Exodus marked the defining moment when Israel not only became a nation, it became a nation separated unto God and to the service of God. Like the Israelites of Moses’ time, we are led from the slavery of sin to redemption in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God offered on our behalf, so that the blood of Jesus causes God to “pass over” punishment for our sins. We are then led to the service of God, the first part of which is worship. Only after coming to God in worship may we come to the inheritance God has for us. If, like those who chose to worship the golden calf, we offer a perverted worship to God, catering to our whims rather than to God’s commandments, we turn blessing and life into a curse and death, and die in our spiritual wilderness rather than entering the “promised land” - the inheritance of eternal blessing God offers to us through Jesus Christ. Read 1 Peter 1:1-2:10 with all of this in mind, and you will find all of these truths; and, in verse 2:9, you will find the same words that are given to the Israelites in Exodus 19:6 applied to the Church of Jesus Christ. Notice, too, the sprinkling of 1 Peter 1:2 in relation to the sprinkling of Exodus 24:1-8. The multiple relationships between the account of the Exodus and 1 Peter is not an accident!
These truths then follow: True worship is a unique mark of the people of God, inasmuch as it, of necessity, follows the redemption offered through Jesus Christ that makes one part of the church - the ekklesia - the “called out” ones. God always takes the initiative - inviting the enslaved to be free, providing redemption, requiring faith and obedience, and giving the promise of a future home that will be provided by God Himself, in which God and His people will dwell together in fellowship. What’s more, this people is to be incorporated into God’s redemptive enterprise, offering the same blessing through Divine redemption to all who would accept, “for such people the Father seeks to be His worshippers” (John 4:23), “for those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own . . . they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:14, 16; cf. John 14:1-3, Revelation 21:17).
Having said this, it may seem that true worship comes as a result of man’s effort to be free of sin; a goal to be achieved by man to make himself acceptable to God. Scripture teaches otherwise. Moses failed when he tried to deliver Israel from the oppression of Pharaoh in his own strength (Exodus 2:11-15). Only when he became fully dependent upon God’s direction and strength was he able to lead his people out of slavery. So, too, deliverance from sin must come by the work of God; grace that comes as a response to faith. (John 1:12, 13, 8:31-36, Romans 8:1-11, Ephesians 1:1-2:10, Colossians 1:9-27, Titus 3:5).
The deliverance of God from sin brings about a transformation. This transformation takes someone who is alienated from God by sin (Isaiah 53:6, Ephesians 2:1-3, 11-22), cleanses from sin (Isaiah 6:1-7, 53:1-12, Titus 3:5), and makes a person a “new creature in Christ” (Ephesians 2:1-10, 2 Corinthians 5:14-6:1); one whose pride is to have been forgiven and loved by God (Jeremiah 9:23, 24, 1 Corinthians 1:30, 31, Galatians 6:14, Philippians 3).
This transformation also brings about a new relationship and fellowship with God. Speaking of this, John wrote, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12). This might be interpreted as establishing an elite among the peoples of the world except that this new relationship with God is offered to everyone (Revelation 22:17, 1 Timothy 2:4-7).
The knowledge of God that leads to acceptable worship, then, is not elitist in nature (1Corinthians 1:26-29). It is entirely different from the kind of worship that, for example, Gnostics offer; because it is not dependent upon some mysterious, superior, esoteric knowledge that is available to only a chosen few or through only a certain few. Paul tells us that there is a unique wisdom that only those who are the Lord’s may understand (1 Corinthians 2:6-16). But it differs in that it isn’t attained through incantations or rituals or by a blessing bestowed by any human being; rather, it is available directly through Jesus Christ and His Spirit to all who respond to God’s call to true worship. God promised, “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13, cf. Deuteronomy 4:29). Jesus promised, “. . . seek, and you will find . . .” (Matthew 7:7); and in the original Greek text, “seek” is in the present tense, indicating continued seeking (cf. Luke 11:5-9, 18:1-7).
This must be accompanied by openness to God, however. And it is due to this second aspect that some who set out to seek something other than the true God nevertheless find Him. As God said through Isaiah, “. . . I permitted Myself to be sought by those who did not seek Me. I said, ‘Here am I, here am I,’ to a nation which did not call on My name.” In Isaiah’s time, this passage looked forward to God’s revelation of Himself to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 3:4-7). Commenting on Isaiah 65:1, Dr. John Oswalt writes, “the idea of God’s giving Himself to whoever would respond to his initiative is clearly in the writer’s mind.”5 This is further reinforced by the reference to God’s patience in Isaiah 65:2, “I have spread out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own thoughts . . .” (cf. Romans 11:20, 21).
The invitation to seek God is extended in such verses as Isaiah 45:18-25, 55:1-13, Matthew 11:28-30, and Acts 17:24-31. Examples of those who sought God may be found in the sons of Korah (Psalm 42), Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:21-38), the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:25-39), Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48), and Lydia (Acts 16:14, 15). Examples of those who weren’t looking for God but found Him are the man healed at the pool at Bethesda (John 5:1-17), the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), the jailer in Ephesus (Acts 16:22-34), and Dionysius the Areopagite and Damaris (Acts 17:34).
In this last instance, the conversions resulted from Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill. In that sermon, Paul told the assembly that God created all mankind, “. . . that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for ‘in Him we live and move and exist,’ . . .” (Acts 17:27, 28). The universal presence of God - or “omnipresence” in theological terms - is, perhaps, the most important reason for Jesus’ teaching in John 4:23, 24 that the people of God may worship Him anywhere, not just in one Tabernacle (or Temple) in one particular place. The spiritual Truth behind the instruction to have only one Tabernacle in one place (later the Temple in Jerusalem) is, therefore, not that God’s presence is localized in only one place (Psalm 139, Jeremiah 23:23, 24, 1 Kings 8:27, 2 Chronicles 2:6), but that there is only one way to approach God: in the Mosaic Covenant through the one Tabernacle and the manner of worship dictated by God to Moses; in the New Covenant, through God’s chosen “Anointed One,” Jesus Christ.
But this is not the only Truth communicated through the symbolism of the Tabernacle. From the very first, the lesson that because God is spiritual His presence cannot be limited to one location was accompanied by another lesson -that God would manifest His presence in a special way to those who committed themselves to Him. This lesson, like the first, is emphasized throughout the Scriptures. This is seen not only in the time of the Exodus when God manifested His presence to His people in dramatic ways (Exodus 26:12, 1 Corinthians 10:1, 2. Deuteronomy 4:7), but also in the Psalms (51:11. 145:18), the Prophets (Isaiah 7:14, Jeremiah 31:31-36, Ezekiel 37:26-28, Zechariah 2:10 ), and in Jesus Christ (Revelation 21:3). Scripture teaches that, although God upholds the entire universe and all that is in it, there is a sense in which we are alienated from God until He, by the work of Jesus Christ and the agency of the Holy Spirit, grants us His presence (John 14:23, 2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:13, Colossians 1:22, James 4:8, 1 John 1:3, 4:16).
Thus Jesus promised, “. . . where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). Paul speaks of the church in terms of a great, living Temple in which the Spirit of God dwells in fellowship with His people; granting them not only the privilege of His presence, but eternal blessings (Ephesians 2:1-22). In his letter to the Colossians, Paul calls “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (1:27); a passage which has some application to the indwelling of Christ in every Christian (Ephesians 3:14-19, Philippians 2:12, 13), but its fullest application in the dwelling of the living God amongst His people; as seen in Revelation 21:3 (cf. Ephesians 3:20, 21); which is why corporate worship (worship with other Christians), which so many see as optional today, is so important a part of Christianity.
If, then, worship begins with the manifestation of the presence of God in and among those He has made His children, we should expect to see the characteristics of God as also characteristic of their worship. The fruit of the Spirit, for example, which Paul defines in Galatians 5:22, 23 as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” will be manifested in the worship of God’s people. That this is enabled and produced by the presence of the living God in and among His people is recognized by Paul two verses later, where Paul challenges the Galatians, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” In this respect we also remember the words of Christ who said, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The fruit here I would understand to be broader than that which Paul refers to in Galatians 5, including conversions from preaching the Gospel. But certainly the fruit of the Spirit referred to by Paul in Galatians 5 is included here.
One caveat, however, must be carefully observed. This does not mean that “signs and wonders” will always accompany the worship of God’s people; even if, from time to time, God does do spectacular works on behalf of His people. This attitude is seen in such passages as Romans 8:23, 24 and Hebrews 11:1, 23-28, 12:1, 2. But it is even more evident from the temptation of Christ as described in Matthew 6:5-7 and Luke 4:9-12, where “putting God to the test” is rejected by Christ on the basis of Deuteronomy 6:16 (cf. Exodus 17:7). It should also be very carefully noted that this is the one temptation that the devil tried to back-up by quoting Scripture! Putting God to the test is trying to make God do what we want Him to do for our benefit - treating God as if we command Him rather than as the One to whom we owe service and obedience. Asking God for great things is not always wrong, and sometimes it is appropriate to ask for them. But demanding things of God is always wrong and is inappropriate to the point of being evil. If Jesus would not succumb to this temptation, neither should we. God is to be worshipped for His own sake, because He is worthy of worship, not as a means to self-serving goals. The submission of Jesus to the will of the Father throughout His ministry is the definitive guide to our behavior in this, as well as other, respects.
The presence of God during times of worship, even when not manifested in spectacular ways is, nevertheless, real. God manifests Himself not only in the behavior of His people and the Holy Spirit’s witness to their hearts that they are truly His, but also in the community of gathered believers, prayer, the Gospel, the presentation of our tithes and offerings, and the sacraments. Our obedience in gathering for worship, speaking to God, remembering the Gospel aloud, giving, and observing the sacraments is a testimony to the presence of God; whereby God always blesses us, through time, as we obey Him with a glad heart (2 Corinthians 9:7).
Here, once again, we profit by remembering Moses (1 Corinthians 10:1-13). The author of Hebrews observes that Moses was able to endure hardship with the Hebrews as a slave to the Egyptians, “considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward,” and was able to lead the Exodus from Egypt, “not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen” (Hebrews 11:26, 27).6 But while Moses’ life was characterized by faith, and his character was such that it was said the character of the coming Messiah would be like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15, cf. Exodus 32:11-14, 31, 32, Numbers 14:11-19), yet Moses sinned in a way that is important to our discussion here. When told to speak to a rock and command water to come forth, he struck the rock with his staff; showing that his faith, in that specific matter, had subtly shifted to faith in the rod rather than in the power of Spirit of God (Numbers 20:1-13, cf. Exodus 17:1-7, Matthew 4:4, Deuteronomy 8:3).
As part of God’s creation, we tend to be more comfortable with physical things than spiritual realities. But the reality of God’s presence is not tied to any physical thing or phenomena; even spiritual feelings. God is not present because we feel Him, God is; a fact that is reflected by the Name by which He revealed Himself to Israel, Yahweh; which means “I am” (Exodus 3:14, cf. John 8:56-59, 10:31-33).
If not in physical things or feelings, then what is our faith to rest upon? The reality of the resurrection of the crucified Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1f.). As Jesus told Thomas, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (John 20:29, cf. John 17:1-21). -SMD
Note: We will continue this discussion in our next Mid-Watch Report, which will explore “Godly Worship.”
1 The text of Genesis 4:3-15, and later Hebrews 11:4, seems to presuppose a covenant, a commandment of God, or at least an understanding of the worship that was acceptable to God; else Abel’s sacrifice wouldn’t be referred to as one of faith and God wouldn’t have commanded Cain to “do well” and master the temptation to sin. There is an interesting parallel, if you think about it, in that Jesus, who called upon others to give acceptable worship to God, was put to death by those practicing a form of religion they were comfortable with (see, for example, Matthew 5:21-26, 6:1-21, 7:13-29, Mark 11:15-18, John 4:22-24). The common human response to calling people to true worship is anger.
2 For those who want to think about the grammar, John 4:24 begins, pneuma ho theos, literally, in English, “Spirit the God.” The word “spirit” appears first in the sentence, which in Greek indicates an emphasis upon this word. The verb “to be” (estin) is implied, understood; and so is treated as if it were present for purposes of translation into English. The article before “God” and the absence of an article before “spirit” indicate that “God” is the subject of the sentence and “spirit” is the predicate.” The article before “God” also indicates that we aren’t taking about a characteristic about “gods” but a Truth about the only, true God. For this reason, too, putting “the” before “God” in an English translation is inappropriate. “Spirit” is in the nominative case. Thus “spirit” is a predicate nominative, which means that it is qualitatively equivalent to the subject. In other words, God has the quality of being a spiritual being. In some cases the absence of an article before “spirit” would mean that it would be translated “a spirit,” but the grammar makes this translation less suitable for conveying the meaning into English. Compare John 1:1, 2, 1 John 1:5, 4:8. For further reading, see John Henry Bennetch, “John 4:24a: A Greek Study,” Bibliotheca Sacra (the theological journal of Dallas Theological Seminary), vol. 107, #425, January 1950.
3 Henry Alford, Alford’s Greek Testament and Exegetical and Critical Commentary, 7th edition, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980 reprinted from the 1874 edition), 731.
4 Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2000 ), 131.
5 John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 636.
6 See articles on Christian faith at this web site. .
The American Night Watch Mid-Watch Report is an occasional publication of The American Night Watch Christian ministry in support of Scriptural Christianity and Scriptural holiness.
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