Summary: Central to worship is the “us” and “Him,” not the place and means.
God is seeking worshippers in spirit and truth. That does not mean that God seeks to make worshippers, as if there were people not worshipping whom he hopes to change. The issue is not whether we will worship, but whom and how.
John Calvin (a pastor in the 1600s) described the human heart as an “idol factory.” God made us to worship. Sin does not make us non-worshippers; it makes us worship something other than the living God and in a self-pleasing way.
The Apostle Paul said the same. Our problem is not really atheism – refusing to acknowledge God. It is worshipping the creature rather than the Creator. And that explains how we can profess the faith, participate in Sunday service, and go through the motions, while having hearts far from God. An idolatrous heart belongs not only to those who deny God; it can belong to those who do their duty without delight. These issues are central to John 4.19-26. [Read John 4.19-26. Pray.]
“Where do you go to church?” For many people that question (or one like it) is a central issue in their relationship with God. Those exact words may not be used. Instead, we worry: “Is it high church or low? Is there a set liturgy or free-flowing praise? Does the pastor wear a robe or an open collar? Is there an organ or drums? Do we read prayers or pray spontaneously? Do you sing hymns or choruses?”
Those questions may be akin to asking: “Where do you worship?” Please do not misunderstand – I am not dismissing those concerns out of hand. But a careful consideration of this text must make us ask whether they are of first importance. Here, Jesus moves the Samaritan woman from consideration of peripheral issues to dwelling on what is vital.
Many of you are passionate about the corporate worship service. We should be – worship is the major issue in all of life. We cannot escape it – we are made for worship as we are made to breathe air. Without it we die.
John Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth, 11: “In one sense, worship is the whole point of everything. It is the purpose of history, the goal of the whole Christian story. Worship is not one segment of the Christian life among others. Worship is the entire Christian life, seen as a priestly offering to God. And when we meet together as a church, our time of worship is not merely a preliminary to something else; rather, it is the whole point of our existence as the body of Christ.”
So because of the centrality of worship, Christians ought to be passionate about the topic. Yet as fire can hurt more than the light from it helps, so our passions must be carefully controlled – not simply to burn for our preferences, but to light the way to the Living God. It is perfectly good to have preferences; but we must distinguish them from the unalterable principles. This text focuses on those.
Before looking at the specifics, however, please note that Jesus assumes we know what it is to worship; he does not define the topic. But we do well to make sure we are clear. Obviously, we seek to honor God at church. Worship then, can be defined as “giving praise and thanksgiving to God through faith in Jesus Christ.”
But listen to this event. Does this describe worship? “Rays of late afternoon sun gild the hushed sanctuary filled with hundreds of expectant devotees. From the vaulted ceiling a camera pans the scene. Holding their breath as one, the congregation watches the mitered priest walk down the aisle, slowly approaching the chancel. His brightly colored vestments add to the joyful ambiance. There is not a cough nor a whisper as he kneels on the lush carpet seeking divine blessing for the offering. Moments of prayerful waiting follow. The bishop stands and grips his scepter, all eyes fasten on the calm figure. All ears tune to the awaited word. Then the tap of his staff is followed by a deeper silence. The flock in unison gazes at the pure chalice. Then a grand oratorio of praise explodes. He raises his scepter and approaches the altar. One voice, then another and another exult, ‘That is his third birdie today!’”
One definition of worship is giving praise to God through faith in Jesus Christ. But the basic and literal meaning of the word, “worship” (in the Bible) is “bowing or prostrating oneself or kissing the feet.” But from that, any honor or reverence given can be called worship. Thus we can “worship” the true God or false gods. We can “worship” the Creator, or our own creaturely preferences. We can “worship” God the Son, or we can make our own sons’ and daughters’ practical gods which rule our lives. Worship in its broadest sense is giving honor and praise. Thus, everyone worships – to whom will we give our devotion? That is the first question which must be answered.