An intense evangelistic conversation is underway in John 4:19-24. Jesus is bringing the woman at the well near Sychar to understand that he is the Messiah and to trust in him. The Lord has gently but firmly confronted her with her sin and with the emptiness of her life as she sought to fulfill her needs with a long series of relationships. His noting that she has had five husbands and that the man she now has is not her husband has struck a little too close to home. She tries to deflect the conversation with a question about theology and worship: “I can see that you are a prophet.” Is Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim (the sacred area for the Samaritans) the place where we ought to worship?
Although Jesus refuses to be sidetracked from bringing this woman (and many of her neighbors) to faith in him, he does not treat her question as an interruption to be dismissed. Worship is not a secondary issue. The time is coming, and in fact has come, Jesus says, when true worshipers will worship neither on Mount Gerizim nor in Jerusalem.
Jesus does answer her question. Samaritan worship had been corrupted: “you worship what you do not know. Salvation is of the Jews.” The new situation in worship will involve worshiping the Father in spirit and in truth. “God’s people used to have to worship at Jerusalem, but now they can worship anywhere,” is a simplistic summary of what Jesus says, but it is simplistic to the point of error. The primary issue is not location but the nature of worship.
Worship in truth means, at heart, that worship must be biblical. It focuses not on the needs of the worshiper–although we certainly do benefit from worship–but on the God whom we worship. Every element of worship needs to be infused with Scripture. It is to be reverent, joyful, and communal.
Worship in spirit may seem puzzling. It involves more than internalizing worship, in contrast with outward formal ceremonies–the Old Testament prophets had made that point repeatedly. The focus is not on our spirits, but on God as Spirit. Jesus speaks of the time as coming, indeed as already present, when people will worship in Spirit. But God was, is, and always will be Spirit. What is it that makes worship in Spirit something that is introduced with the coming of the Messiah? John’s Gospel gives the answer when Jesus is introduced by John the Baptist as the one on whom the Spirit came, and near the end of the Gospel, John 20:21-23, when Jesus in turn breathes his Spirit on his disciples. The New Testament temple is not made of stone, cedar, and gold, but of living stones, Spirit-filled believers who have faith in Jesus.
“They are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks,” says Jesus. The Father’s seeking is not his searching for people who have learned to worship with the appropriate degree of reverence. Rather, his seeking involved sending his Son to seek the Samaritan woman with her broken history, to seek her neighbors in Sychar, who had a confused, inadequate knowledge of God, to seek the disciples, who were complacently unaware of the mighty harvest God was working in front of them, and to seek you and me, who were lost in the depths of sin. When the Father has sought and found you, when he has drawn you to his Son, then you can and you must worship him in Spirit and in truth!
J. Ligon Duncan, III, writes: “The how of corporate worship is the business of the second commandment, but . . . it is a central concern for the New Testament church as well (John 4; 1 Cor. 11, 14; Col. 2). This is where the regulative principle is manifest most clearly. It is concerned to assure that corporate worship in all its aspects–standard, dynamic, motivation, and goal–is biblical. For the standard to be biblical means that the substance and elements and corporateness of worship are positively in accord with Scripture. For the dynamic to be biblical means that worship is Spirit-gathered, Spirit-dependent, Spirit-engendered, and Spirit-empowered, in accordance with the teaching of Scripture. For the motivation to be biblical means that worship is simultaneously a communal response of gratitude for grace, an expression of passion for God, the fulfillment of what we were made and redeemed for, a joyful engagement in a delightful obedience, and a corporate Christ-provided encounter with the triune God, again in accord with the Bible’s teaching. For the goal to be biblical means that all true corporate worship aims for and is an expression of God’s own glory and contemplates the consummation of the eternal covenant in the church triumphant’s everlasting union and communion with God.”
(“Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, pp. 63-64, © 2003. Pub. by P&R Publishing. Used by permission.)
[In preparation for a message on John 4:19-24]