What would you consider essential to worship? What is truly necessary if true worship is to occur? Is it a certain style of preaching? Is it a certain type of music? Is it a sense of reverence and awe? Is it a sense of excitement and praise? Of course it is important to be intentional and thoughtful about our preaching and singing in worship. And it is important that we respond in appropriate ways as we worship. But Jesus points us to something deeper at the heart of worship.
In John 4, in the midst of a conversation at the well with a woman from Samaria, Jesus revealed the essence of true worship. He said in verses 23–24:
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 (John 4:23-24).
In these verses Jesus teaches us two essential truths about worship. Those who worship God must worship Him in spirit and in truth. These are not two different or distinct ways of worshipping God, but two essential parts of the same worship.
If we are to participate rightly in worship, we must worship in spirit.
Our worship must be heart-felt and alive in the power of Holy Spirit. In order for us to worship in spirit, we need the Spirit of God to seek us out and make us alive. God must first come and draw us to Himself, awaken us, quicken us, and enable us to come. As the Holy Spirit indwells us and enlivens our spirit, we see Christ as precious—we see our great need to be in Him, clothed in His righteousness alone—and we are able to worship God in spirit.
If we are to participate rightly in worship, we must worship in truth.
Our worship must be saturated with God’s Word and offered in submission to God’s Word. In order for us to worship in truth, we must pursue God and know God as He has revealed Himself to us in His Word. John begins His gospel pointing us to the Word.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:1-5).
If we are to worship in truth, we must have Christ. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus said of Himself:
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).
God gives us Christ, who is truth, and His Word. His Word is truth (John 17:17). It is through the Word of God that we know Christ and know the gospel, as the Spirit of God illumines the Word in our hearts and gives us understanding of truth.
God would have us worship Him in spirit and in truth. This is the essence of true worship. God is seeking those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth. We see this in both the Old and New Testaments.
In Isaiah 66 the prophet delivered the truth that Jesus was teaching in John 4: God cannot be confined to one place. He cannot be contained in a temple of stone.
Thus says the LORD: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD (Isaiah 66:1-2a).
But notice where God’s presence does abide:
But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word (Isaiah 66:2b).
God looks upon those who are humble and contrite in spirit (worship in spirit) and who tremble at His Word (worship in truth).
Worship in spirit and in truth described the worship of the early church:
And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31).
They were filled with the Holy Spirit (worship in spirit) and they spoke God’s Word with boldness (worship in truth).
Worship in spirit and truth framed Paul’s instruction for music in the church in the parallel passages in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 that speak of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs:
Worship in Spirit:
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart (Ephesians 5:18-19).
Worship in Truth:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16).
“God is spirit and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.” This has significant implications for us as we worship God today. As we plan worship, and lead worship, and participate in worship, there are two things we must do that are most essential:
- We must saturate our services with the Word of God. We must read it and preach it and pray it and sing it. We must obey it and follow its instructions as we order our services of worship.
- And we must pray for the presence and power of the Spirit. We need God’s Spirit to enliven our spirits and illumine His Word if we are to hear and understand and respond rightly to His Word.
May God grant us hearts that are sensitive to the presence of His Spirt and submissive to His truth as it is proclaimed whenever we gather in His name to worship.
We confess, without Your grace,
Vain our efforts in this place.
You must come and warm and stir,
For true worship to occur.
For Your Word, O Lord, we yearn;
Empty, let it not return.
Come, accomplish all Your will—
Draw, convict, give life and fill.
(from “Lord, We Come to Hear Your Word” – Ken Puls)
(Scripture quotations are from the Holy BIble, English Standard Version (ESV) ©2001 by Crossway)