Christ Clarifies Worship

Controversy over worship styles is escalating. The sides are identified as “traditionalists” and “contemporaries.” Each side claims to champion the cause of true worship. Consider the following quotes from representatives of each camp. Andy Park, acclaimed worship leader and contemporary Christian musician, in a ChristianityToday.com exclusive titled, “Defining Worship” writes:

There are many different legitimate musical styles you can use in worship music— everything from classical to rock, from black gospel traditions to liturgical traditions. I think there are strengths in each of those traditions. Some of my favorite moments come when instruments are playing gently and most of what you hear is the congregation singing. On the other hand it’s fine to rock out; the Bible is full of exuberant joy in worship. Both extremes, the quiet and the loud, have their place. We’re emotional beings, and we need to worship with all of our emotions from quiet to raucous celebration. I love to see the youth jump around and go crazy. And I love seeing people be quiet as they listen to God. And I love everything in between. There’s good in all of it.

Dan Lucarini on page 51 of his book, Why I Left the Contemporary Christian Music Movement, writes:

I fear that in the vast majority of Contemporary churches (and also some traditional churches), our worship practices have strayed far away from the true biblical heart of worship because we have failed to base our practices firmly on the Word of God and instead built the foundation on the needs of man. Why should we fear this? Because how can could we possibly expect God to accept our worship and bless us, if we define worship in any other fashion than what His Word requires. Were humans given a choice of how to worship God? . . . Would God be angry if we use ourselves as the measure of how to worship Him rather than His Word?

To resolve this controversy we must turn to God’s Word. The fourth chapter of John’s gospel records Jesus’ interview with the woman of Sychar at Jacob’s well. She stands in stark contrast to Nicodemus of chapter three. She is not a Jew. She did not come seeking Christ. She is spiritually ignorant and morally bankrupt. Yet, to this simple, sinful, Samaritan woman was given the clearest presentation on the essence of true worship.

As His conversation progressed, Jesus fully disclosed the sinful past of this woman. This display of supernatural insight led her to conclude that she was addressing no ordinary man. She was willing to own that He was a prophet. Quickly she plied Him for His opinion on the worship controversy between the Samaritans and the Jews. “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship” (4:20). In Jesus’ response we find three points of clarification regarding worship.

It’s “How,” not “Where.”
Instead of resolving the debate, Jesus shows how irrelevant the discussion over the place of worship really was, “Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father” (4:21). The coming “hour” that would negate the importance of the place of worship is a reference to the dispensation of the gospel. Through the person and work of Christ, men would enjoy immediate access to the Father at any time. Jesus summarized this truth with these words, “But the hour cometh and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (4:23). Notice that true worship is identified as spiritual worship. It will help us to understand what it means to “worship in spirit” by contrasting it with three types of false worship.

Lifeless Worship
Millions assemble in church buildings across our nation every Lord’s Day. If asked, they would affirm that they were involved in worshiping God. However, Christ’s qualification of a true worshiper is one who worships in spirit. A prerequisite for spiritual worship is possession of spiritual life. No one can offer acceptable worship to god until he has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit. The majority of church-goers fail in their worship efforts because they lack the spiritual life essential to true worship.

In door-to-door calling one meets so many people who are uncertain about how a sinner can be made fit for heaven. Yet, these same individuals are perfectly content to stay in their church where they are not being taught the truth of salvation; and they are convinced that they are worshiping the Lord week after week. What a terrible shock it will be to these folks when they discover, eternally too late, the difference between lifeless worship and true worship.

Heartless Worship
The nation of Israel was rebuked time and again by God through His prophets for its heartless worship. “The people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heat far from me” (Isaiah 29:13). In Isaiah’s opening chapter, we read how God protested the worship of His people, even the very sacrifices He commanded to be offered. Their worship was not from the heart. They went through all the correct motions of worship, all the while their hearts were unclean because of sin. God’s corrective to His people was, “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil” (Isaiah 1:16).

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were masters of this style of worship. They were marked by a spirit of pride, the desire to be seen of men in their worship. Notably absent in these worshipers was a genuine sense of gratitude and thankfulness to God. Their prayers of “thanks” are represented by the words recorded in Luke 18:11, “God I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.” They knew nothing of the sacrifices the psalmist mentions in Psalm 51:17, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”

God’s people must guard against substituting ritual for reality. Our heart cannot be divided between love for God and love for self and still offer acceptable worship. When our concern is primarily with maintaining an appearance of spirituality in church we can be sure that we are failing to offer spiritual worship. Our praise and prayers are nothing more than hypocrisy. Only with a humble, repentant heart can we reclaim our true worship.

Thoughtless Worship
The weakness of the thoughtless worshiper is not hypocrisy as in the heartless worshiper. He is simply careless in his approach to God. This type of worshiper is found in large numbers in our fundamental churches. Does the following scenario sound familiar? It is Sunday morning and the alarm clock rings. The sleeper immediately hits the snooze button. Thirty minutes later he leaps out of bed in a panic. He runs through the house waking the family with the cry, “Hurry or we will be late for church!” Some of the family are still dressing as they are herded into the car. The final brushing of hair and tying of belts is completed during a record-breaking run to the church. The family is harried. Their nerves are shot, but they slide into a pew with ten seconds to spare. They join in on the doxology without missing a note. Stephen Charnock in his classic work, The Existence and Attributes of God, expresses the problem this way, “How, therefore, are our hearts prepared to worship? Is our diligence greater to put our hearts in an adoring posture, than our bodies in a decent garb? Or are we content to have a muddy heart, so we may have a dressed carcass?”

Missing from the thoughtless worshiper is a zeal for God’s house, an urgency in prayer, a longing to meet with God. This is a far cry from the worship attitude of the psalmist. “My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed: I will sing and give praise. Awake up, my glory: awake, psaltry and harp: I myself will awake early” (Psalm 57:7, 8). “O God thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land where no water is” (Psalm 63:1). Strange how readily fanaticism is accepted about hobbies or sporting events, yet there is a lack of zeal in our worship of God. We have become so familiar with the pattern of our worship that we become worship robots. The answer is not to add loudness and looseness to our service, but to discipline ourselves to engage our minds every time we come into God’s presence.

Also missing from thoughtless worship is the note of reverence. The Old Testament saint had the lesson of the fear of the Lord indelibly imprinted upon his heart. “That thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful name, the Lord thy God” (Deuteronomy 28:58). “O God, thou art terrible out of thy holy places” (Psalm 68:35). Even the seraphim that fly before the throne of God cover their faces in His presence. Contrast this with what is typically observed in our churches on Sunday mornings. During the prelude the congregation sounds like a magpie convention. The Lord’s people are so busy visiting with friends and family that they forget to quietly prepare their hearts for worship. The passing of notes, pockets of whispering, frequent getting up and down during the service, all point to the lack of reverence in our churches.

Maybe it does not matter to you if your worship is faulty. If your goal is to be a true worshiper of God, it should matter. “The true worshipers shall worship the father in spirit and in truth” (4:23)

It’s “Who,” Not “What”
Jesus’ answer to the Samaritan woman clarified another aspect of worship. “Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews” (4:22). The Old Testament scriptures for the Samaritans ended with the book of Deuteronomy. Think about visiting an art museum to view a masterpiece that is on loan for two weeks. Instead of having this classic work of art displayed openly, you find that three-fourths of the painting is covered with a cloth. The visible one-fourth is lovely, but your appreciation of the work is severely limited. The Samaritans’ understanding of God and His eternal purposes was severely limited. Jesus pointed that out by saying, “Ye worship ye know not what.” The Samaritans knew some things about God, but did not have a very full idea of Him. This was a critical failure because the focus of worship is the Father. The true worshiper is one who seeks to comprehend the true nature of God. As Jesus declared, “God is spirit.” He is not like man. He is not limited to being in one place at a time. He is infinite in His being, He fills all of the universe. He is eternal in His existence. He is omniscient and omnipresent. God’s existence as spirit is essential to His attributes. As Charnock states, “The spirituality of God comes chiefly into consideration in the matter of worship: all His perfections are grounded on this: he could not be infinite, immutable, omniscient, if He were a corporeal being.” Jesus expressed this aspect of worship as worship in truth.

Feel-good services and glorified pep rallies, such as Promise Keepers presents, fall short of this requirement. The jettisoning of doctrine, “breaking down the walls,” in order to establish common ground, disqualifies them from the rank of true worshipers.

Members of fundamental churches at times come under the same disqualification through selective obedience. Certain claims of God upon their lives are ignored while they continue to offer their worship to Him. We must remind ourselves again “the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth.”

It’s God’s Standard, Not Ours
I want to draw your attention to the third clarification Jesus makes regarding the essence of worship. Notice the last phrase in John 4:23, “For the Father seeketh such to worship him.” The standard of acceptable worship is not set by a pastors’ fellowship, a worship committee or any group of men. It is God the Father who has determined what worship is acceptable and what is not. He is so desirous of true worship that He seeks for such men and women. God is not impressed with the recent innovations in worship and market tested techniques that guarantee church growth. Jesus has placed the responsibility for church growth on His own shoulders. What He expects of us is to come before Him in humble, reverent devotion to offer our praise and to bow our hearts before the truth of His Word.

Evaluate Your Offering
Many a father has been showered by his young children with unusual gifts, drawn or made by their little hands. The market value of such gifts is negligible, but their worth to a father is immeasurable, for they are the offerings of loving hearts. Contrast that with the company that sends you its annual Christmas card and a fruit cake. The impersonal nature of the gift is such, that it would matter little to you whether or not you received it.

Let me return to my opening words about “traditionalists” and “contemporaries.” Whereas the contemporary worshiper substitutes an emotional high for real worship, the traditionalist may be equally guilty of substituting empty ritual for true worship. Think about the worship you offer to God. Is it that which meets with the Father’s favor, or did you bring a meaningless offering? Is your goal in worship to please men or God? Jesus clarified for us the only way we can please God in our worship. “The true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth.”

September 2003

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