Primacy of Worship
John Piper begins his book “Let the Nations be Glad” with probably one of the most salient insights I think I’ve ever encountered. It’s one of those ideas that makes complete sense when you hear it and you wonder how you never thought of it before. These are his words:
“Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever.”
I remember reading that and being blown away at how primary worship was in the life of the Christian. I was already convinced that glorifying God was the ultimate purpose for the Christian—the Scriptures are clear that the reason we are created and the reason we exist is to glorify God. But I, like many other people, had thought that missions, evangelism, and serving were the main ways that we glorified God. Worship hadn’t crossed my mind as something that was ultimate, only something that was a stepping stone to something ultimate.
And that’s the main distinction between all of those other things and worship. Missions, like Piper said, exists because worship doesn’t. There are countless people in this world that do not worship God, and the reason we go and we tell them about the reconciling power of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ is so that they will redirect their worship to God, who alone is worthy of our praise. So missions, serving, evangelism, attending church, reading our Bible, praying, fasting, giving, etc., all of these are means to the greater end of worship. And Scripture commands this of us as well in Ephesians 1:12:
God’s purpose is that we who trust in Christ might bring praise and glory to God.
If today you are here and you trust in Christ, then your ultimate concern is to bring Him praise and glory. Your ultimate concern is to worship the Lord.
Now, my concern today, and what I hope to address in this sermon, is that we don’t have a full, comprehensive understanding of worship as the Bible understands it. I’m afraid that we’ve let the culture define for us what worship us more than the Scriptures and because of that there are some misunderstandings we have that prevent us from fulfilling the purpose of worshiping God that we’ve all been given.
So what we’re going to do is look at a passage of Scripture where the Lord Jesus Himself speaks about what worship is, we’ll unpack that, we’ll pull together a working definition of what worship is, then we’ll address three things that unnecessarily prevent us from engaging in worship.
So with that understanding, let’s turn to John 4:19-25 to try and understand a little bit more about worship and what it is.
EXEGESIS OF THE TEXT
The Nature of Worship
So before we dive in a little background about what’s going on here. Jesus is passing through Samaria, gets a little tired and stops at a well that he sees along the way. As he’s there he encounters a Samaritan woman and begins speaking with her and has a pretty interesting conversation with her, I’ll let you read that another time. But at one point Jesus asks her to go and fetch her husband and bring him to the well. She responds and says “I have no husband.” And speaking prophetically to the woman, Jesus tells her, “I know you don’t have a husband. In fact, you’ve had 5 husbands in your lifetime, and the man that you’re with right now isn’t even your husband.” And that’s where we’l pick up in verse 19:
The woman said to him, Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. [She was undoubtedly amazed at his insight into her personal life. But she quickly tries to change the conversation—look what she says next.] Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”
Now remember Jesus was a Jewish man. And this woman is a Samaritan. Something to remember is that in Jesus’ culture, Jews and Samaritans despised one another. Jews were literally instructed to go out of their way to avoid Samaritans as even interacting with them would make a jew unclean. One of the reasons why there was such tension between the Jews and the Samaritans was actually religious differences.
Remarkably, Samaritans believed themselves to be God’s chosen people, just like the Jews believed. One of the main differences, though, was that while the Jews understood the entire Old Testament to be inspired by God, the same 39 books of the Old Testament that we have today, the Samaritans only held to the Pentateuch, or the Torah, which is the first 5 books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
This led to some major doctrinal and theological disagreements between the two groups and they both considered the other heretical and blasphemous. One of the major points of disagreement was surrounding the location of where corporate worship services should be held. Now remember at this time, corporate worship of God was very structured, very liturgical, and very rigid. You didn’t deviate from how the Scriptures instructed you to worship God. And corporate worship was also relegated and confined to specific locations. The Jews believed that the Scriptures commanded worship of God to be done in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, while the Samaritans believed that worship of God was to be carried out in Shechem on Mount Gerizim. This is what the woman was talking about when she told Jesus “our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is where people ought to worship.” She was drawing attention to the age long debate between the two.
But Jesus isn’t having it. He’s not concerned with getting into debates about the location of worship, He’s more concerned with clarifying the nature of worship. Look how he responds in verse 21:
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.
I find this response fascinating because essentially what Jesus is saying is that neither the Jews’ opinion nor the Samaritans’ opinion matters at all. He’s basically saying it’s all a silly debate, which was an incredibly revolutionary thing to say because these sites were considered holy by both religions. And minimizing holy traditions was just not something a good Jew did back then. It would warrant charges of blasphemy against you. So Jesus is acting pretty punk rock here, just rebelling against the status quo.
Let’s keep reading:
You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 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.”
And this is the meat of our text today. Just a couple observational nuggets that we can’t spend much time on, but I feel are important. I don’t know maybe I’ll write a blog post or something about them.
First, notice that in this exchange, Jesus minimizes the importance of tradition and heritage in regards to worship. The Samaritan woman said “our fathers worshiped on this mountain.” What she’s saying is that “we’ve always done things this way.” And Jesus shuts that down pretty quickly by saying not to hold on to that too tightly because it’s all going to change. That should have a pretty apparent application to us that I don’t need to explain, I’ll just let the Holy Spirit do that work on you.
Second, notice that Jesus says that God is seeking those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth. Here’s the thing: if you want to invite the activity and presence of God in your life, put yourself in the spotlight by learning what it means to worship in spirit and in truth and then doing that. These are the kind of people that Jesus says God is actively looking for.
Okay that’s a couple little nuggets for you to chew on, but we have to move on. Notice that Jesus says that those who worship in spirit and in truth are “true worshipers.” So if we are going to fully understand what Jesus means, we have to explore what worship is, first of all, then we have to determine what it means to worship in spirit and what it means to worship in truth.
DEFINITION OF WORSHIP
What is Worship?
When we hear the word “worship”, we probably immediately think of singing, music, raising our hands, etc. And that’s certainly a part of it. But look, let’s be honest, there are many of us in this room that don’t like to do that. I had someone tell me one time that their least favorite part of church was the singing. He made sure to tell me that it wasn’t personal, he just didn’t like to sing.
But if that’s all that worship is, then that would mean that there is a large group of people in the church who are hindered in their worship just because they don’t like to worship. But that’s not true. As we’ve seen, we are commanded and created to worship. Worshiping God is the end goal of everything that we do. So we need to rethink what we mean when talk about worship, because, in reality, singing and music is only a very, very small part of what worship is. In fact, it may even be the smallest part.
Romans 12:1-2 helps us understand the broader nature of what worship is:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
So worship understood in this light doesn’t even include singing. It is presenting our bodies, our selves, to God as a holy and living sacrifice. Presenting ourselves to God as a holy sacrifice means that we deny, we sacrifice, our carnal, sinful desires and fight to pursue joy and delight in God and God alone. That’s what it means to present your self as a holy sacrifice to God.
And to present yourself to God as a living sacrifice is to deny—to sacrifice—your own selfish ambitions for your life and to commit yourself to serving God in His mission, to fulfill His purpose for your life over your own. In other words, to live for God. And then verse two adds another layer to all of this, explaining the method by which we can bring our desires and ambitions in line with godliness in such a way that it constitutes as worship:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
This shows the importance of the life of the mind in our worship of God. Our minds need to be transformed and renewed so that we can discern what is appropriate, acceptable, and pleasing to God. We need to think rightly if we are to worship rightly.
So when you take all this together, you see that worship is a holistic activity requiring all of us: our desires, lives, and thoughts; our hearts, our bodies, and our minds. So not liking to sing doesn’t prevent you from being able to worship God, all you need in order to worship God is a heartbeat. If you’ve got that then you’ve got everything you need to worship Him.
What Worship Does to Us
Understanding all of that about what worship is, it will also help us to understand exactly what worship does to us. Because if it requires all of us, then it deeply affects all of who we are.
James K.A. Smith, who has had a very profound impact on me in the way that I understand myself, has also helped me to understand worship. Worship is not only something we do, but worship does something to us, and the effect that worship has on us is especially strong when it becomes a habit. So if you come here to church week after week, or every other week, or once a month or whatever, our practices and habits of worship have a formative effect on us.
He describes two different kinds of habits: thin habits, and thick habits. Thin habits are habits that are less meaningful and impactful, such as combing your hair or pouring your milk in the bowl before you pour your cereal (although I would argue that actually makes you a psychopath). But thick habits are the much more significant and soul shaping habits that we engage in, such as playing video games all day or binge-listening to inflammatory, conspiracy theory laden talk radio all day.
But also in that thick category of habits is religious activities, like Bible-reading, church attendance, prayer, and yes, worship. And particularly corporate worship. Think about it. If you spend years and years of your life attending only one flavor of worship service, then those years of exposure to that certain kind of worship are going to produce in you all kinds of ideas about who God is, what the church is, what the Bible is, what kind of music is acceptable or not, what kind of clothing is appropriate in church or not, etc. Either for good or for bad, our worship is forming us and giving shape to what we believe.
And these beliefs are incredibly deep-rooted. Most of us have an affinity for the way we like to worship. And this isn’t something that we just came up with ourselves, it’s been engrained into us by our continual exposure to certain kinds of music, preaching, and fellowship. That’s why changing the music style in a church has the potential to be such a divisive thing because that kind of thing touches on some very deep convictions about what worship is. Our hearts have been formed and shaped to cater to certain kinds of worship and it can be painful and difficult when those presuppositions about how things should be are challenged.
(And let me just say something. To those who don’t like to sing, or to those who aren’t fond of the musical style here, yet you continue to gather with us, thank you. It’s such a powerful example of Christ for all us, who Paul tells us to mimic in Philippians 2 when he tells us to count the needs of others as more important than ourselves. We need you here and we cherish you. Thank you.)
So if worship is such a transformative and powerful method of conforming our hearts, minds, and lives for better or for worse, it’s imperative that we get this right. Which leads us back to our text again.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO WORSHIP IN SPIRIT?
Worshiping in Spirit
Jesus says that true worshipers will worship in spirit. What does it mean to worship in spirit? Now look, there have been whole books written on this and it goes pretty deep, okay? But for our purposes today, we need to understand that worshiping in Spirit is essentially just worshiping in sincerity. If worship is an “all-of-life” activity like we just talked about, then worshiping in spirit means that everything we do we do with sincerity and with all of ourselves. We don’t drift through life half-heartedly, like John Mayer (some of you will get that). We give ourselves to living fully, intentionally, and determined to make much of God in whatever we do. That’s what it means to worship in spirit.
Now that begs the question, though. Is everyone capable of doing this? And the answer is no, we’re not. There’s a pre-requisite to everything we’re talking about today and this statement by Jesus that we must worship in spirit acts as somewhat of a double entendre to clue us into a deeper reality that must be true of us if we are to worship God in spirit. Put simply, we must be spiritual people. And the only way to be spiritual people is to be filled with the Spirit of God. And the only way to be filled with the spirit of God is to repent of your sin, place your trust in Christ, and surrender your life to him.
Paul says in Philippians 3:3 that we “worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” Without the Spirit of God fueling your worship, your worship is fueled by the flesh, and that’s not worship at all. Sam Storms expounds on this in better words than I could come up with. He says,
It is the Holy Spirit who awakens in us an understanding of God’s beauty and splendor and power. It is the Holy Spirit who stirs us to celebrate and rejoice and give thanks. It is the Holy Spirit who opens our eyes to see and savor all that God is for us in Jesus. It is the Holy Spirit who, I hope and pray, orchestrates our services and leads us in corporate praise of God.
In short, worshiping God in spirit necessitates that we are filled with the Spirit of God who motivates us to live all of our lives, whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, to the glory of God.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO WORSHIP IN TRUTH?
Worshiping in Truth
But it’s not just worshiping God in spirit that Jesus mentions, He also gives the requirement that true worship of God that pleases Him is worship that is done in spirit and in truth. What does it mean to worship in truth?
Well this one is a little easier for us to understand because it simply means that our worship of God must be based upon a true understanding of who God is. And we gain a true understanding of who God is primarily through the way He has revealed Himself to us through the Bible.
Here’s something that is true of my own life and has been verified to me by other pastor’s that I’ve spoken to who have counseled people through “dry” seasons of their life: your ability to be enlivened and motivated to worship is directly tied to how much time you spend communing with God in Scripture and in prayer. If you neglect either of those practices, then you won’t experience the fullness of exhilaration that worship brings, and most importantly, you won’t be able to truly worship God in the way that He has commanded us, which is in spirit AND in truth.
And now I want to reiterate to you that BOTH of these qualities, spirit and truth, are necessary for what Jesus says makes our worship true. Again, John Piper helps us understand why:
“Truth without emotion produces dead orthodoxy and a church full . . . of artificial admirers. . . . On the other hand, emotion without truth produces empty frenzy and cultivates shallow people who refuse the discipline of rigorous thought. But true worship comes from people who are deeply emotional and who love deep and sound doctrine. Strong affections for God rooted in truth are the bone and marrow of biblical worship.”
So we need both spirit and truth if we are going to worship God rightly. But if there is anything that life in Christ has taught me in almost 10 years of following Him, it’s that there stands so many barriers in our way of fulfilling this requirement. And we’ll briefly discuss two of them.
WHAT PREVENTS US FROM WORSHIPING IN SPIRIT AND TRUTH?
The first thing that will prevent us from worshiping in spirit and in truth is doubt. Doubt about who God is, who Jesus is, who we are, what we’re here for, what this is all about, what God’s plan for our lives is, etc. But, biblically speaking, this doesn’t need to hinder our worship.
Matthew 28:16-17 says this:
“Meanwhile, the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain Jesus had designated. When they saw him, they worshiped Him, but some doubted.”
The disciples, who were eleven at this point, because remember Judas’s guilt of betraying Jesus had led him to commit suicide, had spent three years with Jesus. They’d seen His miracles, they’d performed miracles themselves, they’d seen Him die on the cross, they had even seen Him resurrected and they touched Him and spoke with Him. Yet even still, here they are, after all of this, still battling doubt. Because we are not all-knowing beings like God is, we will doubt. Doubt is a necessary by-product of being human. There will be times where we are not as strong in our faith as we would like to be and it can create a certain kind of apathy in regards to our worship. But just like it didn’t prevent the disciples here, it shouldn’t prevent us from worshiping God.
The best advice that I can give you to help you worship God though doubt and apathy is to simply just persevere and worship anyway. Because think about it: when is faith more pure than when it is practiced when we don’t feel it? And like we talked about earlier, the things we do do something to us. And when we do those things motivated by faith rather than by natural inclinations, then I believe it may be more powerful in our lives.
J.D. Greear helps give some clarity to this idea:
Many of us go to church thinking about how we feel. But worshipping is not a reflection of how we feel; it’s a reflection of what we know to be true and what God has promised in his Word. It’s a declaration of what God is worthy of. Here’s what God often (and graciously) allows to happen: As we declare it, we begin to feel it. Sometimes even the posture of our body will actually guide our heart, which is one reason we are commanded to raise our hands and shout in worship.
When I kneel in prayer, I feel submissive. When I raise my hands, I feel surrendered. When I open my hands, I feel needy. The posture guides the heart. Worship is not a depiction of our feelings, but a declaration of our faith. It’s a defiant declaration that “I am not how I feel. My life is not what circumstances may make it look like it is. What God says is true is true, and I am going to act like it.”
So when you doubt and are confused, let your worship be a discipline, done in faith, and trust that God will shape your heart into a heart that desires Him again.
The other, probably stronger and more relevant hindrance to us, is the issue of sin. When we’ve blown it, when we’ve failed, when we’ve given in to temptation, then sometimes it takes all that we can muster to just walk into these doors. The lingering thoughts of what you’ve done sit at the forefront of your mind as we sing, as you welcome your friends, as you listen to me preach…It can make you feel like a complete hypocrite, like you have no business worshiping God.
I’ve been encouraged by a song, it’s a new hymn, written by Matt Boswell called “Christ the Sure and Steady Anchor.” The second verse of the song says this:
“Christ the sure and steady anchor,
While the tempest rages on;
When temptation claims the battle,
And it seems the night has won.
Deeper still then goes the anchor,
Though I justly stand accused;
I will hold fast to the anchor,
It shall never be removed.”
You may stand here today keenly and deeply aware of your failures. If I were to accuse you of being a screw up, it would land with validity. But let me tell you, every single one of us on the face of this planet stands justly accused of making a complete shipwreck of our lives. If we haven’t completely ruined our lives according to worldly standards, then we have according to heavenly ones. But what the writer of this hymn understood was that even when temptation has claimed the battle, when we’ve given into our sin, when the night has won, when the depravity of our sin feels like it runs so deep and we can’t shake it, that the grace, love, and mercy of Christ run deeper still. That it’s those moments when we don’t need to shy away from Christ, it’s when we need to draw nearer to Him. And a broken and contrite heart He will not turn away.
Listen to the words of the prophet Micah in the seventh chapter of his book. This is Micah chapter 7, verse 9:
I will bear the indignation of the LORD because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon his vindication.
You know what’s funny? Micah wrote this as a song unto the Lord. You will feel the weight of your sin, and that’s a good thing, but cling tight to the Lord, worship Him. He will bring you out to the light, and He will vindicate you, proving that your worship of Him was not in vain.
He Knows Our Frame
So, as you know, we have an entire book of the Bible devoted to the topic of worship. It’s the second longest book in the Bible (bet you didn’t know that; I’ll let you google it). And so over the course of about, I don’t know, three years or something like that, our family would read a Psalm together after dinner every night. And I remember reading a certain line in Psalm 103 that stood out to me and that I’ve pondered for a long time. Here’s what it says:
“For He knows our frame, He remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14).
More than any other line in the Psalms, this truth captures the essence of what the Psalms teach us about the relationship between God and man. The Psalms contain the full spectrum of human emotion and passion poured out before God in song: love, anger, wrath, guilt, repentance, lament, happiness, blessing, cursing, prospering, lacking, fear, hope, peace, praise, adoration, thanksgiving, and any and every other disposition, affliction, or perspective that is felt and contained in the human experience. All of these are expressed to God in unashamed, unabashed, and unfiltered force and candor, yet God has seen fit to inscribe these honest and sometimes seemingly irreverent cries to Him in Holy writ, inscripturated for eternity, to be regarded as sacred utterances for the rest of this age and the age to come. Why? Because “He knows our frame, He remembers that we are dust.”
The Psalms give us a fascinating perspective into what it means to not only worship God, but to commune with Him. That’s what most of the Psalm writers were doing when they offered their songs to God. One would be hard-pressed to read the Psalms—any Psalm, for that matter—and walk away feeling the words to be hollow and empty. That’s because what the Psalmists wrote was real. A commentator named Allen Ross says this: “Many psalms address God directly with their poetic expressions of petition and praise. They reveal all the religious feelings of the faithful—fears, doubts, and tragedies, as well as triumphs, joys, and hopes. The psalmists frequently drew on their experiences for examples of people’s needs and God’s goodness and mercy.” The Psalm writers were not afraid to bring themselves fully to God in their worship of Him. Ross says that everything contained in the Psalms is “the religious feelings of the faithful.” Those who faithfully commune with and enjoy God are not afraid of bearing their souls to Him, whether positively or negatively, because “He knows our frame, He remembers that we are dust.”
Through the Psalms, we learn that we can bring ourselves fully to God without hiding anything. When we bring Him our joy, He rejoices with us. When we bring Him our sorrow, He weeps with us. When we bring Him our anger, He is patient with us. When we cry out for vengeance, He is long-suffering with us.
He understands the dark night of the soul: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). He is aware of our pain and turmoil: “You have kept count of my sorrows; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Psalm 56:8). He is quick to hear our cries of repentance and pleas for forgiveness: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). And despite seeing the worst of us, He will move us to praise, again and again: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:6).
He receives the praise of wicked sinners, He regards it as pleasing to Him, and He cherishes the adoration of His weak, feeble, and frail people. And the Psalms encourage us to bring all of this to Him in worship without holding anything back. “He knows our frame, He remembers that we are dust.”
So as you can see here at the front, we’re about to partake of communion together. If you’ve repented of your sin and placed your faith in Jesus, then this is for you. And this, like singing, like serving, like missions, is just another piece of what it means to worship God. This is part of our corporate, personal, physical, and spiritual worship.
But listen, we all know the struggles we face when we consider this: doubt, pain, our sin. But do you know what this meal represents? Jesus says that this is a display of the new covenant that He has made with us. And this covenant is something that HE initiated, and how trustworthy is the Lord Jesus? “When we are faithless He is faithful”, Paul told Timothy. You may have doubts about all this, you may not understand fully what God is up to in your life, but if Christ has won you to Himself, then He does not doubt you and your place in this. You are free from your doubt.
But you know what this bread represents? The body of Christ that absorbed all of the same pain you have on the cross. The apostle Peter says “He bore our sins in His body on the tree.” All of your pain? He has shared it with you, and just as He offered Himself to God in the midst of His pain, you can too. You are free from your pain.
And if you’re wracked by the guilt and shame of your sin this morning, this cup represents the blood of Jesus that was shed to cover those sins and replace the guilt and shame with honor and dignity. The only condition is that you repent, and if you’ve done that, then you can partake of this meal with holy hands, and clean conscience, and a sincere faith. You are free from your sin.
And all of this means that together, as a family, we can worship God in spirit and in truth.