A small child learns rapidly from its mother what is meant by the word must. When she says ‘You must …’ the child knows that must does not mean might, should, could or ought. It realises that choice is not involved, that there is no alternative to what is demanded, and that must means what is essential and mandatory. The child knows that this word brooks no discussion, allows no argument and prohibits any protests. The path is clear and the matter has to end. Sadly, many Christians lack the intelligence of a little child. They think that when God says must, some measure of choice is allowed, some liberty is condoned and some freedom is permitted. However, God always means what He says and says what He means. Thus when God’s Word says must it means MUST. This is a simple lesson, but one of paramount importance.
Now this word must occurs several times in the Gospel of John, but I would like to consider just three of these occasions, and link them together. The first is in John 3: 14, 15, the second in John 3: 7, and the third in John 4: 24. However, before I go any further, I need to point out that while the words used in English translations of these verses may vary, there is absolutely no variation in the original Greek. The word in each case is dei which means it is necessary or must.
The first Scripture tells us that “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus must (dei) the Son of man be lifted up, that every one who believes on him may [not perish, but] have life eternal” (John 3: 14, 15). The second Scripture says “Do not wonder that I said to thee, It is needful (dei) that ye should be born anew” (John 3: 7). The third Scriptures declares that “God [is] a spirit; and they who worship him must (dei) worship [him] in spirit and truth” (John 4: 24). In all three cases, these are the words of the Son of God. Reading each quotation in context the reader will see that the first must is in relation to the Son, the second in relation to the Holy Spirit and the third in relation to the Father. Each of these three musts are of equal force and of equal importance. They each refer to what is absolutely essential.
No true Christian would question the force of the first must in John 3: 14, 15. It refers to the death of Christ on the cross: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus must the Son of man be lifted up”. There was no other way to secure our eternal blessing: Christ had to die. Even though the words were spoken to Israel’s teacher (see v10), the Lord speaks of Himself as Son of man—a title that links Him universally with all men—rather than as Son of David (which would link Him with Israel). The death of Christ was absolutely essential for man’s eternal blessing, whether Jew or Gentile. No believer would even think to challenge the force of the word must in this passage.
My second Scripture may command universal lip service among Christians, but in reality there are many who indirectly question its simple force. It is not just that God had to do a work for me by Christ but that it was equally essential that He had to do a work in me by the Holy Spirit. I was not just lost but dead (see Eph. 2: 1). Thus my unconverted state was so appalling that although Christ had died for me, I just would not believe. The reader will note that the word in John 3: 7 is ye and not thou and carries emphasis: “It is needful that ye should be born anew”. Nicodemus came to the Lord as Israel’s representative. Now if Israel needed to be born again as a nation (hence the word is ye and not thou), then what of the Gentiles who were strangers to the covenants of promise?
The truth of new birth is problematic for those who believe that it is within man’s natural capability to have faith in the work of Christ. Note that chapter three of John is introduced by the last three verses of chapter two. The words “many believed on his name, beholding his signs which he wrought” (v23) is a prime example of a ‘faith’ which has its seat in man’s natural capability. They saw and thus they believed. What was its worth? The reason is given in the following verses. “But Jesus himself did not trust himself to them, because he knew all [men], and that he had not need that any should testify of man, for himself knew what was in man” (vs 24, 25). In contrast to this ‘faith’ of the many, chapter three begins with “But there was a man …” (v1).
All believers would acknowledge that real faith is essential, knowing that without faith it is impossible to please God (see Heb. 11: 6). But where does faith, if real, and of divine value, have its seat? Is it in what is born of the flesh or what is born of the spirit (see John 3: 6)? Rom. 7: 18 tells me “in my flesh, good does not dwell” and so faith cannot reside there! Again, as “that which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3: 6), and thus cannot change, faith must spring from spirit and not flesh, from the divine nature (see 2 Pet. 1: 4) and not human nature. How is that divine nature acquired? How do we become children of God? By birth, new birth: “to those that believe on his name; who have been born, not of blood, nor of flesh’s will, nor of man’s will, but of God” (John 1: 13). Hence as faith finds its origin in the new nature, new birth must precede faith. Without new birth, faith is absent. Thus new birth is absolutely essential: “It is needful (dei) that ye should be born anew” (John 3: 7). It is one of the great musts of Scripture. It is through the work of the Holy Spirit that a new, divine nature is acquired in which there can be no change. For if “that which is born of the flesh is flesh”, it is equally true that “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3: 6).
This brings us to my third Scripture. Sadly, over this verse, I expect that it will have to be recorded of my readers that “there was a division among them” (John 9: 16). This is because while man will often bow to what is essential for his own good, as in the former two musts, it is often a different matter when it comes to what is due to God in the final must (see Luke 17: 11–19 for an explicit example of this). However, if you allow that little word must to have its full force in connection with the work of Christ on the Cross for you, and in relation to the work of the Holy Spirit in you, then you have to give it the same meaning and force in regard to the worship of God.
Let us look at the Scripture containing my third must and, as ever, we must note the setting. The Lord had turned his back on Judaea (see John 4: 3) and was in the shadow of Samaria’s mountain when the conversation with the woman at the well took place. She says “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain, and ye say that in Jerusalem is the place where one must worship” (John 4: 20, and another example of dei). Tradition and place are in her thoughts. They dominate the thoughts too of many today in connection with worship. How much of so–called ‘worship’ is steeped in tradition, where what is done in the present is determined by what was done in the past! Again, not only do places such as Rome, Canterbury and York loom large in the religious mind as distinct and special, but even material buildings, whether grandiose cathedrals or lowly chapels are often identified with worship. Is it not an assumption with many that worship can only take place in a ‘place of worship’—a place sanctified by man? Indeed, it is regarded as normal for people to speak of buildings as ‘places of worship’.
What is the Lord’s response to the words of this woman? “Woman, believe me, [the] hour is coming when ye shall neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem worship the Father” (v21). The Lord looks forward to the present day when both Judea’s city and Samaria’s mountain would be immaterial to worship. Thus in Christianity there is no physical place of worship. Yet most Christians still ask ‘Where do you worship?’! Why? It can only be because Christendom has gone back to Judaism.
The Lord continues and says to the woman “Ye worship ye know not what; we worship what we know, for salvation is of the Jews” (v22). Judaism was a religion established by God with a revelation of the true God, and Jerusalem was the place where His sanctuary was. Samaria’s mountain had no divine sanction. It was the centre of a false religion, a vain copy of Judaism, and a pretence of what was true. The Jew could say “we worship what we know”. Hence for God to be worshipped, He must be known. So why do churches post notices inviting all and sundry to ‘Come and worship with us’? How can a world which knows not God, worship Him whom they know not? Only the believer can worship.
Let us continue with the Lord’s reply to the woman. “But [the] hour is coming and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for also the Father seeks such as his worshippers” (v23). The Lord does not just now say the “hour is coming” but adds “and now is”. Historically Christian worship was then still future but because Israel had already rejected her Messiah (see John 1: 11) it was morally present and the Lord speaks of it as such using the words “and now is”. Note that the phrase “the true worshippers” infers the presence also of false worshippers! Note also, that it does not say that the Father seeks worshippers—God does not need to do that, for there are multitudes of angelic beings who worship Him. What the Father seeks is those who worship “in spirit and truth”. So what does this phrase mean?
Context must never be ignored in interpretation. “In spirit” is in contrast to the formal fleshly legality of Jerusalem and “in truth” is in contrast to the false pretence of Samaria. But there is more. The construction of the phrase “in spirit and truth” in Greek allows the words to be expressed adverbially with the second noun being used to intensify the first. One scholar gives the overall sense as ‘in a truly spiritual manner’. This same Greek construction for “in spirit and in truth” is used in the next verse when the Lord uses that demanding word must.
The Lord says “God [is] a spirit; and they who worship him must worship [him] in spirit and truth” (v24). Thus the manner of worship must be absolutely in keeping with the nature of God: God is spirit and His worship must be truly spiritual. He cannot be worshipped by the flesh, by our natural senses. God is not worshipped as a result of the eyes looking at beautiful icons, stained–glass windows or attractive gothic architecture. He is not worshipped with the ears listening to harmonious choir–singing. He is not worshipped by the sense of touch in fingering beads, nor by the sense of smell in inhaling sweet incense. No, the worship of God must be truly spiritual. Again, no place is left for taste or choice as to what kind of worship we like. There is no room for preference in the matter. The word is must. Much that is offered up to God under the category of worship today is on the level of the strange fire of Nadab and Abihu (see Num. 3: 4). If it was not for the fact that today is one of grace, God would have long since intervened in judgment, (as He did in Israel centuries ago).
Can any reader honestly claim that worship is “in spirit and truth” or truly spiritual when the order, choice of hymns and so on is fixed by one man, days before it is rendered? Is it in “in spirit and truth” or truly spiritual when just one man (or nowadays, sometimes one woman) leads the assembled company? Where is the room left for the One who is the “Spirit of truth” to act (John 15: 26; 16: 13)? The reader will surely see the connection between the phrase “in spirit and truth” and the One who is the “Spirit of truth”. Worship to God must be under the control of the Spirit of God. Men appointing a man to lead them in worship is a abomination to Him.
Again, how many of us have an unwritten, but nonetheless fixed ‘order of service’ when we come together to worship God, and the ‘right’ things are said at the ‘right’ time? Is this worshipping “by [the] Spirit of God” (Phil. 3: 3)? What is prescriptive is generally OT in character and enforced by the same legalistic frame of mind. The NT often speaks of what was “from the beginning” (1 John 2: 7), but the omissions are also significant. For example, why is it that we do not have any description given of an apostle breaking bread? Or why has not a single hymn that was in use in any Christian assembly in NT times been preserved to us? Indeed, why do we not even know the words with which the Lord gave thanks at the institution of His supper? It can only be because our worship must be ‘truly spiritual’.
No leeway is allowed in worship, just as no leeway is permitted in the divine work that secures our eternal blessing. What is mandatory in the former is equally mandatory in the latter. It is not ‘should worship in spirit and truth’, it is not ‘ought to worship in spirit and truth’, it is not ‘might worship in spirit and truth’, it is not ‘could worship in spirit and truth’. No, the word is MUST. “God [is] a spirit; and they who worship him must worship [him] in spirit and truth” (John 4: 24). Let us then be those who desire in every way to walk in accordance with the divine command.
 The Jews had an earthly sanctuary where God was to be worshipped. Thus the Ethiopian eunuch had “come to worship at Jerusalem” (Acts 8: 27). In Christianity, however, we come before God, not in an earthly temple but in the spiritual sanctuary (see Heb. 10: 19: 22). To worship we do not go up to Jerusalem, Rome, or even the ‘meeting room’. It is by the Spirit that we get into the presence of God.
 The believer approaches God “through the veil, that is, his flesh” (Heb. 10: 20; see also Heb. 6: 19, 20). None then are entitled to draw nigh who do not acknowledge His death as the way of entry. Few in Christendom understand this – hence the widespread view that worship is open to all. But how can unbelievers worship when they have no right of access within the veil, having no appreciation for themselves of the death of Christ? The only way they can ‘worship’ is by partaking of outward forms and ceremonies – a worthless delusion, and a delusion the professing Church helps to perpetuate!