The Lord’s conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4 is worth pondering, for it one of the most important passages in Scripture about Christian worship. At the start, the Lord is thought of as just “a Jew” (v9) but by the end He has been made known as the Messiah (see v26, 29). Thus, the true worship of God must always be accompanied with a right view of Christ. Notice too that before anything is said on how God is to be approached, the moral state of the woman is addressed, and the gift of the Holy Spirit as a fountain of water springing up into eternal life is introduced (see vs. 14, 17-18). Why? Because these are necessary precursors to entering the holiest. Let us spend some time considering what the Lord here teaches about worship, not with a view to academic advancement, but in order that God is praised and reverenced in a deeper and more intelligent way.
Worship in Truth
It is not long into the conversation between the Lord and the Samaritan woman that she perceived that He was a prophet, and she turns to a subject on which He, being a Jewish man of God, could not fail to have an opinion: “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain, and ye say that in Jerusalem is the place where one must worship” (John 4: 20). The Lord’s responds as a Jew and His answer is blunt: “Ye worship ye know not what; we worship what we know, for salvation is of the Jews” (v22, my emphasis). This rejection of the Samaritan religion was not because of a lack of sincerity or piety in its adherents, but because it was not based on truth. At the same time, the Lord vindicated the claim of Jerusalem for, whatever might be said of Judaism in that day, it remained worship in truth, since to Israel had been entrusted “the oracles of God” (Rom. 3: 2). Judaism had been founded on divine revelation, but Samaritanism grew out of a false premise, and a false priesthood (see 2 Kings 17: 27). It was not worship in truth, even though it had borrowed elements of truth.
God does not change, and approach to God has always been based on divine revelation. It is not based on tradition, theology, published ‘ministry’, “our fathers” (John 4: 20) or anything other than the Word of God. Abel offered “by faith” (Heb. 11: 4, my emphasis), implying that God had spoken, while Cain offered according to his own thoughts. Again, under the Mosaic system, Jehovah was explicit that “in this manner shall Aaron come into the sanctuary” (Lev. 16: 3, my emphasis). Significantly, this is said immediately “after the death of the two sons of Aaron” (v1) who had “presented strange fire before Jehovah, which he had not commanded them” (Lev. 10: 1). The priests of Israel served “the representation and shadow of heavenly things”, and the tabernacle was set up exactly “according to the pattern” which was shown to Moses “in the mountain” (Heb. 8: 5). This implies that the antitype of that service (that is, those who now “worship by [the] Spirit of God”—Phil. 3: 3) also conforms to divine revelation, and that Christians are not free to do as they see fit.
However, while God must always be approached according to divine revelation, what may be right at one time may be wrong at another. Thus, while it was wrong for Cain to draw near to God with the fruits of the ground, the children of Israel were later instructed to present their basket of the first of the fruit of the ground (see Deut. 26: 1-11). Again, before the giving of the Law, the patriarchs acted as priests, sacrificing at the altars they erected, and no one location was regarded as their sanctuary. After the giving of the Law, God directed the worship of His people to “the place which Jehovah your God will choose out of all your tribes to set his name there” (Deut. 12: 5). Hence, quoting ‘chapter and verse’ can be spiritually unintelligent–for what might be worship in truth for the Jew might not be worship in truth for the Christian.
This was a very real issue for the first Christians, for many were Jews and knew that Judaism had been founded on divine revelation. However, they also knew that the nation had crucified Christ, and then compounded its sin by rejecting the testimony of His resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God. Consequently, the Jews who believed on the Lord Jesus were to go forth to Christ “without the camp” of Judaism, “bearing his reproach” (Heb. 13: 13). But how were they to go forth? As exiles carrying with them all that they had once valued—their worship, ritual, priesthood, and sanctuary? No, for “no one puts new wine into old skins” (Mark 2: 22). However difficult it was to shake off their old religious associations, they were to go forth to meet the Lord, and learn what He now had to say to them. It is not an intelligent faith therefore that copies whatever is found in the OT, for even truth may be misused to the detriment of Christianity. The Galatian error, for example, fatally undermined the Gospel, even though it had a seemingly unassailable basis in the Word of God. Perhaps a more pertinent example in the context of worship is priesthood. Here the Jews could point to God's revelation as the warrant for Aaron and his successors to discharge the duties of their office, but in Christianity a different priest has arisen of another order. Therefore, “the priesthood being changed, there takes place of necessity a change of law also” (Heb. 7: 12, my emphasis). What is the force of this? It signifies that Christ, being both “Apostle and High Priest” (Heb. 3: 1) of the Christian confession has delivered “a better hope by which we draw nigh to God” (Heb. 7: 19). Thus unlike in Judaism, all Christians are priests, able “to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2: 5) and, unlike in Judaism, Christians are not strangers in the sanctuary having “boldness for entering into the [holy of] holies by the blood of Jesus, the new and living way which he has dedicated for us through the veil” (Heb. 10: 19).
However, the new worship is not merely worship in truth but:
Worship in Spirit and Truth
In John 4: 22, the Lord upheld the claim of Judaism and rejected Samaritanism as false. However, the Lord did not leave things there. In v23, He speaks of a time in which the true worshippers would not be found in either of the rival ritualistic systems, for then worship would be offered not only in truth, but in spirit for “[the] hour is coming and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth”. Samaria had always been rejected, but Judaism, despite being based on truth, was also from here on rejected, and worship in spirit and truth was now required if one was to be in any sense a true worshipper. Why in “spirit”? Because “God [is] a spirit”, hence “they who worship him must worship [him] in spirit and truth” (v24, my emphasis). Ritualistic religion is now unacceptable, whether ancient or modern, overt or subtle, for there is a spontaneity in worship that is truly spiritual that cannot be confined within the bounds of human regulation. The language used in describing the spirit of sonship hints at this: “for ye have not received a spirit of bondage again for fear, but ye have received a spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Rom. 8: 15)—where the word for cry has the sense of cry out (compare Gal. 4: 6 where the Spirit cries out). This is very different from the learned behaviour that masquerades as the leading of the Spirit, and where everyone knows from long experience what to say and when to say it.
Let us not, however, run away with the idea that all we need is ‘worship in spirit’ and that we can forget the Bible. The Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of truth” (John 14: 17) and it is not possible to have worship in spirit that is not also worship in truth. Truly spiritual worship connects with God because it is according to His Word. If it is not in ‘truth’, however much an appearance it may have of being in ‘spirit’, then there is no reason to believe that God will look on our offering any more than He did on Cain’s. So, what exactly is this ‘truth’—what does the NT outside of John 4 teach about worship? As already noted, the first Christians were Jews, and would, as such, be well acquainted with the intricate detail in the Mosaic Law concerning how God was to be approached. God had laid everything out, and the path of the worshipper was simply to follow the prescribed ritual. We can hardly appreciate the shock to the Jewish mind when in transferring his allegiance to Christianity, he found that while it had its own set of oracles, these contained so little in the way of explicit instruction on how the service of God was to be continued. However, while the NT is not an exhaustive rule book in the sense that Leviticus was to the Jew, it nonetheless clearly outlines the parameters and scope of spiritual worship. For example, we cannot claim to be worshipping in spirit if we ignore the truth of 1 Cor. 14: 34: “let [your] women be silent in the assemblies”. Nevertheless, if the NT contained a detailed account (whether by precept or example) of how worship was to be conducted then the unspiritual would simply follow it in a ritualistic way in the belief that they were honouring God. The relative silence on these things is therefore deliberate. However, we are not left totally bereft of objective facts. The new and living way of approaching God (in contrast to the Mosaic system) is dedicated “for us through the veil, that is, his flesh” (Heb. 10: 20). Hence, we are to approach God on the basis of the death of Christ and in practical terms it follows that it is in the contemplation of that death we are freshly led into the worship of the Father and the Son. If we are characterised by eating at the altar (see Heb. 13: 10), then worship in the holy place inevitably follows. That is why the Lord’s Supper (though it is never explicitly presented as a ‘worship’ meeting) is foundational to collective Christian praise and worship (I say ‘collective’ because while we can worship individually—see John 9: 38; 20: 28; Heb. 11: 21—there is also the worship of God’s house, whose house we are—see Eph. 2: 21; Heb. 3: 6; 1 Pet. 2: 5). Of course, any kind of ‘meeting’ of saints is open to abuse and disorder, as the Corinthians sadly proved (see 1 Cor. 11: 21; 14: 23 etc.), and so the checks introduced by Paul of participation “one by one” (v31) and with consideration of others, can justly be applied to all such occasions including those for worship.
We also know how God is to be addressed, even though the NT records not one prayer or hymn from a ‘worship meeting’. In Rom. 1: 25, Paul speaks of those who “served the creature more than him who had created [it], who is blessed for ever. Amen”. In chapter 9, (referring to Israel), he says “of whom, as according to flesh, [is] the Christ, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen” (v5). In chapter 11 we have “O depth of riches both of [the] wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable his judgments, and untraceable his ways! For who has known [the] mind of [the] Lord, or who has been his counsellor? or who has first given to him, and it shall be rendered to him? For of him, and through him, and for him [are] all things: to him be glory for ever. Amen” (vs. 33-36). In none of these Scriptures is God directly addressed, but the words clearly instruct us on the subject matter and the form of address with which we might approach Him.
It is right for us to be occupied with “our God and Father; to whom [be] glory to the ages of ages. Amen” (Gal. 1: 5, my emphasis), whose will in delivering out of this present evil world was accomplished by our Lord Jesus Christ. It is “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ … that we should be holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph. 1: 3, 4) and whose great end in view is “[the] praise of [the] glory of his grace” and “[the] praise of his glory” (vs. 6, 12). It is the same God who “shall abundantly supply all your need according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” for “to our God and Father [be] glory to the ages of ages. Amen” (Phil. 4: 19, 20). Furthermore, it is good to contemplate “him that is able to do far exceedingly above all which we ask or think, according to the power which works in us, to him be glory in the assembly in Christ Jesus unto all generations of the age of ages. Amen.” (Eph. 3: 20, 21). It is to this One, “the Father [of our Lord Jesus Christ]”, that Paul could say “I bow my knees” (v14).
We are also surely to be occupied with “the King of the ages, [the] incorruptible, invisible, only God” for to Him belong “honour and glory to the ages of ages. Amen” (1 Tim. 1: 17, my emphasis). He is worthy of it, for He is “the blessed and only Ruler … the King of those that reign, and Lord of those that exercise lordship; who only has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light; whom no man has seen, nor is able to see; to whom [be] honour and eternal might. Amen” (1 Tim. 6: 15, 16).
We are to be occupied with “the God of peace, who brought again from among [the] dead our Lord Jesus … doing in you what is pleasing before him through him through Jesus Christ; to whom [be] glory for the ages of ages. Amen” (Heb. 13: 20, 21, my emphasis). This One is also “the God of all grace” who has called us “to his eternal glory in Christ Jesus” for “to him [be] the glory and the might for the ages of the ages. Amen” (1 Pet. 5: 10, 11, my emphasis). Again, we are to be occupied with “him that is able to keep you without stumbling, and to set [you] with exultation blameless before his glory, to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, [be] glory, majesty, might and authority, from before the whole age, and now, and to all the ages. Amen” (Jude vs. 24, 25, my emphasis).
Finally, we are to be occupied with “our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” for “to him [be] glory both now and to [the] day of eternity. Amen” (2 Pet. 3: 18, my emphasis). This One is “The Lord” who delivered Paul from every wicked work and preserved him for His heavenly kingdom “to whom [be] glory for the ages of ages. Amen” (2 Tim. 4: 18).
If worship is to be “in spirit and truth” (John 4: 23), then that means that even our terminology ought to be in accord with divine revelation. It is revealing to compare the forms of address used in the Scriptures just quoted and those that in common use among Christians, some of which are, sadly, just ‘made up’. A lot of this stems from an unwillingness to accept the fundamental truth that God is to be worshipped according to the character in which He has been revealed. This leads us to the consideration of:
The Worship of the Father
The Samaritan woman spoke of worship, and no doubt the thought in her mind was the Jehovah she thought she was worshipping. In His response, however, the Lord spoke of God in a way that would have sounded novel to her ears, in that “the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for also the Father seeks such as his worshippers” (John 4: 23, my emphasis). She might have been familiar with the concept of Jehovah’s fatherhood of Israel as a people from Exod. 4: 22 but here the worshipper was to know God in the relationship of Father. This is the very kernel of Christianity (which John’s Gospel anticipates throughout). God does not cease to be the Creator or Jehovah but in the present moment (the hour which “now is”—v23), He is to be known to us as Father, and the knowledge of this relationship is to characterise our worship. The Lord had come in His Father’s name (see John 5: 43) and had declared “openly concerning the Father” (John 16: 25). He had revealed the Father (see Matt. 11: 27), for “if ye had known me, ye would have known also my Father, and henceforth ye know him and have seen him” (John 14: 7). In John 17, speaking to His Father, the Lord says “I have manifested thy name to the men whom thou gavest me out of the world … I have made known to them thy name, and will make [it] known; that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them and I in them” (vs. 6, 26). He declared the name of the Father. Thus, when the apostle John says, “No one has seen God at any time”, he follows it up with “the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared [him]” (John 1: 18). All this culminates in the glorious declaration of the Lord’s resurrection morning, “go to my brethren and say to them, I ascend to my Father and your Father, and [to] my God and your God” (John 20: 17).
How we address God in worship is a clear indication of what our understanding of Christianity itself is. It is painful, for example, to hear believers constantly address God as the ‘Almighty’ (a name of God that occurs in the NT only in the book of Revelation, apart from a quotation from the OT in 2 Cor. 6: 18), when the characteristic way in which we address God as Christians should be as Father. Thus, Paul tells us that “to us” (that is, Christians), “[there is] one God, the Father, of whom all things, and we for him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom [are] all things, and we by him” (1 Cor. 8: 6). Does this mean that the Son and the Holy Spirit are not God? Not at all. But what it does mean that the way God has been pleased to reveal Himself is as Father and that we are to respond to Him as Father.
The woman at the well began her conversation with the Lord by thinking of Him as only a Jew and ended with knowing Him as the Christ. She also began with worshipping “ye know not what” (John 4: 22) and ended with an understanding of God as Father. May you and I be as teachable as she was, and may God be glorified and honoured through worship being offered to Him from our hearts that is “in spirit and truth” (v24).