Monday, September 24, 2012

True Worship (John 4:19-26)



Worship is a popular subject today for Christians. This semester, I’m teaching a class on worship in our Association’s Seminary Extension program. The number of books and resources on worship is astounding. There are an increasing number of worship conferences and seminars and workshops. We have created a lucrative industry of “worship music,” and churches are divided, killed, and born on the basis of worship styles. We’ve become accustomed to talking about “worship wars.” Yet, for all of the heated discussion on issues of worship in our day, it still seems that we are largely missing the point. Most of the time, when we talk about worship, we are focused on things like music, style, and setting. Those things are largely issues of personal preference. Too much emphasis on these matters makes worship about us rather than God. It makes worship about what we receive rather than what we give; about what we observe rather than what we offer.

A. W. Tozer, writing around the middle of the twentieth century, addresses almost prophetically a reality that exists in our day perhaps more than in any other era of Christian history. He says, “Worship acceptable to God is the missing crown jewel in evangelical Christianity. … It certainly is true that hardly anything is missing from our churches these days—except the most important thing. We are missing the genuine and sacred offering of ourselves and our worship to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[1] You see, worship is ultimately not a matter of style but of substance, not so much what we do as how, why, and for Whom we do what we do. As one modern writer has said, “Worship matters. It matters to God because He is the one ultimately worthy of all worship. It matters to us because worshiping God is the reason for which we were created.”[2]

In our text today, the Lord Jesus is having a conversation with a Samaritan woman beside of Jacob’s well. As we observed last week, the conversation began with a discussion about water and quickly turned to spiritual matters as Jesus offered her living water that would satisfy her thirst for God forever. In verses 16-18, Jesus surprised and startled her with His complete knowledge of her sinful past. Seeing that she has private audience with One whom she perceives to be a prophet, and perhaps to divert the focus away from her sins, she changes the subject to issues regarding worship. And it is in the course of this conversation that Jesus indicates that there is such a thing as true worship, and therefore such a thing as false worship. There is the worship of false gods. There is the worship of the true God in false ways. But true worship is the worship of the one true God in the way that He accepts and seeks after. As Jesus reveals the heart of true worship, we find that the Father is not seeking after the things that we tend to obsess about in worship. In this profound revelation of true worship, there is no mention of music, media, lighting, furnishings, or rituals. It is not that those things are altogether unimportant, only that they are not ultimately important. They are not what the Father is seeking. If we want to know what true worship is, what it is that the Father is seeking, we need to do as the Samaritan woman has done, and bring our question to Jesus and allow Him to define and shape our worship. So, what are the marks of true worship? Let’s discover them here in the text.

I. True worship is not traditional, but relational.

Why are you a Christian, worshiping today in a Southern Baptist Church? For some of you, it is all you have ever known. You were raised this way, taught to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ from an early age, and brought up on Baptist convictions and practices. Others, like myself and many others of you, you were not raised this way. You and I came to a point in life when our traditional beliefs were challenged and we made a decision to trust in the Lord Jesus, and perhaps at that time or some time later, for any number of reasons (some good, some not so good), we found our way into in Baptist life. It is only natural for us to form some of our beliefs and practices by way of “inheritance.” And it is also to be expected that those beliefs and practices will be challenged in life. When our inherited beliefs are challenged, we have a choice to make. We will either cling to our traditions, reject them outright, or modify them in some way to assimilate the new information we have received. That is a universal reality for all human beings.

The Samaritan woman in our text recognized and experienced the reality of this. She says to Jesus, “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain.” That mountain was Mount Gerazim in Samaria. The fathers to whom she refers are her Samaritan ancestors. As the biracial offspring of Assyrians and Jews following the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom in the eighth century BC, the Samaritans were despised by those who considered themselves to be “purebred” Jews. Not only were there ethnic differences between the two, there were religious ones as well. The Samaritans believed in the authority of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Pentateuch or Books of Moses, but they did not accept the authority of the remainder of the Hebrew Bible. Based on their reverence of the Pentateuch, they believed that Mount Gerazim was the most holy place, owing to the fact that just below it, in Shechem, Abraham had constructed his first altar after entering the land of promise. In the Samaritan version of the Pentateuch, Mount Gerazim had been specified by name in Moses as the place where they were to worship, though that information is not found in the original Hebrew Pentateuch.[3] During the fifth century before Christ, a Samaritan temple had been erected on Mount Gerazim. Though it had been destroyed by Jews around 129 BC, the ruins of it may have been visible even from the very spot where the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman was taking place.

If you were to ask her, “Why do you worship on Mount Gerazim?” she would likely answer, “Because that is where my father worshiped, and his father before him, and his father before him,” and so on. That is how she had put it to Jesus: “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain.” But perhaps the thought had never occurred to her, or maybe it is this thought that prompted her statement to Jesus: “What if the fathers were wrong?” It is not uncommon to hear someone say in a church, “We’ve always done it this way,” or “We’ve never done it that way before.” But the question that we all need to ask is not what do the forefathers say about this or that, because the forefathers might have been wrong! Don’t hear me saying that tradition is bad. We’ve learned some things from our fathers that are right and true, and those things should be preserved. There is a difference between tradition and traditionalism. Traditions can be good or bad, right or wrong, and it takes biblical and spiritual discernment to know the difference. Traditionalism says that this is how we do it because it is how our fathers did it, and nothing can ever change that. Traditions may be good or bad, but traditionalism is unhealthy because it blinds us to truth that may exist beyond our inherited traditions. There is a more important issue than our forefathers, and Jesus raises that issue here. He says that true worship is not based on the practices the fathers, but is based instead on the will of His Father.

Because our culture has been so strongly influenced over passing centuries by Christianity and the Bible, it is not alarming to us to hear or speak of God as a Father. This was the customary way that Jesus spoke of God, but prior to His coming, hardly anyone ever spoke of God as a Father. In fact, in many belief systems still in existence today, it would be considered blasphemous to speak of God in such a familiar way. But Jesus, as the only begotten Son, could speak of God as His Father in a way that no other person could. Not only that, He also instructed His followers to speak of God as their Father. When His disciples asked Him how they should pray, Jesus said to them, “Pray in this way, ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name ….” Jesus has made a way for human beings who have been separated from God because of their sins to be reconciled to Him and adopted into His family as sons and daughters. John 1:12 says that “as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become the children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” Because of His work of redemption through His life, death, and resurrection, it is now possible for mankind to have a personal relationship with God. He is the Father of those who come to Him through faith in Jesus, and we are His sons and daughters through the grace of adoption. True worship, therefore, is not based on tradition, but on relationship. Those who know Him as Father have access to Him in worship, while the worship of all those who are yet separated from Him in their sins is misguided worship at best; utterly false worship at worst. We are able to worship Him truly because we have this personal relationship, established by Jesus Christ, and are not bound by the traditions of our fathers. We must take all that we have received by tradition back to the Word of God and ask, “Is the way of our fathers consistent with the will and Word of the Father?” If it is, then we can, we should, and we must preserve those traditions with all diligence. But if our earthly fathers’ traditions are contrary to the will and Word of our Heavenly Father, then they must be discarded. Where the Word of the Father does not address our traditions at all, then we must use wisdom and caution in knowing what to preserve and what to discard. There have been many churches over the centuries which have preserved their traditions in exchange for their children. Some things can be changed. Some things must be changed. And still other things must never change. How do we know the difference? We constantly keep the traditions we have received subject to the supreme authority of the will and Word of our Heavenly Father, and render to Him the true worship that He is seeking. True worship is not traditional but relational. We do not worship our fathers, but our Father in heaven.



II. True worship is not geographical, but spiritual.

Have you ever been in a place where you felt like you could not worship the Almighty God? Maybe you’ve been in a place where you felt like you could worship Him in a way you never had. Over the years of my ministry, I’ve had people tell me, “I couldn’t attend another church, because this is the only place where I can worship!” I’ve had others tell me that they were going to leave the church and attend another because they say, “I just can’t worship God here like I can there.” Maybe it is the music, the seating arrangement, the temperature of the sanctuary, the color of the carpet, the presence or absence of stained glass windows or multimedia projectors. Maybe it is the presence of some other person, or the style of preaching, or whatever. But often when we hear things like that, there is a deeper reality at play. It is not so much the place, or the trappings of the style or setting of worship in that place. More often, it is the condition of our hearts and our view of God that is at issue. If the location, or the music, or the preaching, or any other external thing is hindering our worship, perhaps it is because we have elevated our personal tastes and preferences to a place of dangerous idolatry in our hearts, and we feel as if the things we like are necessary to incite us to worship. But, if we truly believe that God is who He says He is in His word, then we have to conclude that He is worthy of our worship at all times, in all places, and under all circumstances! There is no place where He is not, and there is no time or circumstance when He is anything other than ultimately worthy of genuine praise and worship from His people. You can and should worship Him wherever you are, because He is everywhere, and He is always worthy of worship.

The Samaritan woman has presented Jesus with an implied question. The Samaritans say that Mount Gerazim is the place where worship should take place. The Jews say worship should take place in Jerusalem. On Mount Gerazim, worship took place in unbridled enthusiasm; in Jerusalem, worship was characterized more by methodical reserve. She wants Jesus to tell her, “Which one is right?” If I really want to connect with God, to which place should I go? Jesus’ answer is essentially, “None of the above.” Though it was possible to worship God on Mount Gerazim just as well as in Jerusalem, being on Mount Gerazim was no indicator that true worship was taking place. In fact, much of the worship that took place on Mount Gerazim was patently false worship, directed toward a false god, or toward the true God in a false way. And though there was a temple to the one true God in Jerusalem, He never intended that worship could only take place in Jerusalem. In fact, the prophets of Israel, and even the Lord Jesus, had pronounced condemnation upon much of what took place in the name of worship in Jerusalem. You could worship God in Jerusalem, but being in Jerusalem, even being in the Temple courts, was no sure sign that true worship was taking place.

Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that true worship is not geographical but spiritual. He says in verse 21, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” He says, in contrast, in verses 23-24, “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.” In contrast to the location of worship, Jesus speaks of the nature and focus of worship. True worship is directed, not toward the location where it takes place, but toward God the Father as the object and recipient of our worship. He is Spirit, and thus we interact with Him on the spiritual, rather than the temporal or geographical plane. He is not bound by location. On Mars Hill in Athens, the Apostle Paul proclaimed, “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.” He does live in Jerusalem any more than He lives on Mount Gerazim. He does not live at 2432 High Point Road, any more than He lives in Center City Park, or at your house, or in Vermont or in Nepal. He is not confined by space. So, while I truly understand the sentiment behind referring to the church building as “God’s house,” there is a subtle falsehood at work in that statement. Underlying it is the notion that He lives here in a qualitatively different way than He lives at my house or your house or anywhere else, and that is simply not true. Some people refer to the church building as God’s house, as if to suggest that we ought to act in a higher and holier way here than anywhere else. I don’t want to belittle the propriety of Christian conduct in the church building. What I intend to do is to elevate our awareness of His presence at all other places. I don’t mean that you should be less reverent here. I mean that you should conduct yourself more reverently everywhere else. I don’t mean that you should not come here to worship Him. Scripture commands believers to gather together for corporate, public worship. But, this is not the only place where you can or should worship. You should worship Him wherever you are, at all times, and in all circumstances, because He is supremely worthy of that!

Because God is Spirit, true worship is conducted “in spirit,” Jesus says. It is a spiritual transaction that does not take place through the motions and exercises of our outer man. It is not carried out by our coming to a place, or going through certain motions of standing, sitting, kneeling, raising our hands, or any other physical posture. It is possible to be at the “right place,” and go through all the right motions and say all the right words, but still to not engage with God in worship. If true worship is to take place, it must take place within our spirit, in our inner-man, if you will. Because God is Spirit, He is invisible. We cannot see Him, but we can ascertain the effects of His presence and power. And our spirit is also invisible. We cannot measure the sincerity of our worship by the things we can see. But, our internal spiritual interactions with God, if they are truly worship, will have some effect on what we can see. When we encounter God in true worship, we are transformed from the inside out—but never from the outside in. You can be in the right place, dressed in the right way, going through the right motions, and saying the right words, and yet, as Jesus and Isaiah both said, your heart can be far from God. But when you are worshiping God in your spirit, in your inner man, you are engaging in something that transcends the visible, tangible world. You are engaged in true worship. That is the kind of worship the Father is seeking. It’s not geographical; it’s not visible; it’s not tangible. It’s spiritual, in the truest sense of the word. 

III. True worship is not in ignorance but in truth.

In the postmodern, post-Christian era in which we now live, some people say it is impossible to distinguish between truth and falsehood. Many have concluded that all religions have some mixture of truth and error in them, and therefore who can say which is right and which is wrong? In many of the world’s religions, there are some elements of truth. Now, where we find points of commonality between our beliefs and others, what are we to say about them? Are we to say, “They are right here at this one point, so they must be a true religion”? Are we to say, “Since we all have so many commonly held beliefs, all religions must be equally true”? Are we to say, “Since there are so many similarities between world religions, there is no way of knowing which is true and which is false, so it doesn’t matter what we believe as long we are sincere”? None of these responses are compatible with biblical Christianity. The precepts of the Christian faith have been revealed by God in His Word, the Bible, and are therefore true because God is truthful and trustworthy. So, those belief systems which differ from what God has revealed about Himself in His Word are not true. Do they have some truth in them? Often, yes. How do we account for that? It is partly as a result of man being made in God’s image; partly as a result of the general revelation of God that is found in His created world; and partly as a result the old saying, “Even a blind squirrel can find a nut every now and then.”

Now, to a growing number of people in the world, the assertion that our belief system is right and everyone else’s is wrong is highly offensive, arrogant, and unthinkable. Often we hear it said that Christians need to be more like Christ, who was always loving and accepting, and just generally nice to people. Jesus, they say, was not so judgmental and narrow minded. I believe that these people have never read the Bible. In His conversation with the Samaritan woman, she presents to Him one of many differences between Samaritan and Jewish worship, as if to ask, “Which one is right, and how can I know the difference?” Jesus’ answer to the woman is essentially, “Your beliefs are wrong.” He says in fact, “You worship what you do not know.” That is a nice way of saying, “You are ignorant.” But He even goes further. In this particular matter of debate between the Jews and Samaritans, Jesus takes a side with the Jews and says, “We worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” Can’t you just see what would break loose in the world if that hit YouTube?

What Jesus is driving at here is the foundational difference between the two religions: it is a matter of revelation. The Samaritans had chosen to adhere to only a portion of what God had revealed—the first five books of the Bible only—and they had a corrupted translation of those books at that. The Jews sincerely regarded those books, but they also believed that God had continued to reveal Himself in the Historical writings, the Poetic writings, and the Prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. In that unfolding revelation, not only had the Lord revealed Jerusalem as the place where His temple was to be located, but He had also revealed a more full picture of Himself, His glorious attributes, and His plan for redemption. Jews and Samaritans alike could find in the Pentateuch the promise of a redeemer for mankind from sin in Genesis 3 and the promise of a prophet greater than Moses in Deuteronomy 18. But the Jews had received the unfolding promises of the offspring of David, the Son of Man, the virgin-born Immanuel, the Suffering Servant who would die for the sins of humanity. This Messiah was to come from the line of Abraham, the line of Judah, and the line of David. Thus, Jesus says, “Salvation is from the Jews.” The Jewish people had been chosen to bring the Savior into the world, as promised in Genesis 12, the seed of Abraham that would bring blessing to all nations.

But even in Jewish worship, so much of which was right, there was this great omission of truth. Their knowledge was incomplete. Paul says in Roman 10 that their zeal for God was an ignorant zeal. So Jesus says, whether Jew or Samaritan, or anyone else, if you would be a true worshiper, you would worship in spirit and in truth. You must know who God is and you must know and experience the truth of the salvation from sin that He would bring to the world through His Messiah. How are you to know this? You find it revealed in God’s Word. That is why the Bible is so central to our worship. We do not worship a book, but we believe that in this book, and only in this book, God has made Himself and His way of salvation known. Only in this book can we know the truth of Jesus, the Messiah. The woman says to Jesus, acknowledging her ignorance, “I know that Messiah is coming; when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” And Jesus responded to her in no uncertain terms: “I who speak to you am He.” He is the Messiah, the God-Man, the redeemer and savior of the world. He has carried our sins to the cross where He died in our place that we might be forgiven; and He has conquered sin and death through His resurrection that we might have life. The written word is our inerrant and authoritative revelation of Christ, the Living Word who became incarnate in human flesh. And it is our sufficient guide to know God, His will, and His work. Thus, if you would truly worship the Father, in a way that He is worthy of and a way that He seeks after, we must draw near to Him through His Word. As we read it, study it, and meditate upon it, we are interacting with God and learning who He is, what He is like, what He has done, and what He requires of us.

If you would know truth, you must know Jesus, because in Him, the truth of God is living and breathing. He is truth. We do not study the written word in order to learn facts. We study it to meet God in Christ. If we have not been led to Christ through the Word, then we have not rightly understood the Word because it points to Him in every portion. We’ve only come into truth if we have met Christ. In John 14:6 Jesus said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” It is true for the lost person seeking to know God; and it is true for the Christian seeking to worship God. No one comes to the Father but through Jesus. He is the truth in human flesh. And we know Him because of the written truth of God’s word. In John 17:17, Jesus prayed that the Father would sanctify His people in the truth, saying, “Thy word is truth.” Your worship will never rise above the level of your confidence in the truthfulness of God’s Word.

True worship, that the Father is seeking, is worship in spirit and truth. It is the worship of the Father, not by tradition but by personal relationship. It is the worship of Him in spirit, not in the particulars of geography or circumstance. And it is the worship of Him in truth – the living truth of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the revealed truth that God has given us in His Word. That is the kind of worship the Father is seeking. What kind of worship are you seeking? If you are seeking a kind of worship that is different from what He is seeking, then you aren’t seeking true worship. And if this is truly what He is seeking, will He find it here? Will He find it you?


[1] A. W. Tozer, Whatever Happened to Worship? (Camp Hill, Penn.: Christian Publications, 1985), 7, 9.
[2] Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2008), 19.
[3] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel and Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970, 1983), 1:108-109.

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