Summary: We worship God in spirit when the Holy Spirit burns away our impurities and washes us clean.

First Presbyterian Church

Wichita Falls, Texas

February 27, 2011


The Glory Due His Name: Part 3

Isaac Butterworth

John 4:21a, 23-24 (NIV)

‘Jesus declared..., “...A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”’

What does it mean to worship God in spirit? It would be wrong for us to give the impression that it is simply ‘spirited’ worship, that all we’re talking about when we talk about worshiping God in spirit is emotional display. Emotions are tricky and often unreliable, and, given the right circumstances, they can be worked up. People can be made to do all sorts of things as the result of compelling rhetoric by someone like Hitler or by the iconic presence of a rock star. So, I think we would be wrong to equate what Jesus calls worship in spirit with mere emotion.

At the same time, I do not want you to hear me saying that emotion has no place in the worship of God. Deep feeling rightly attends our devotion to Christ. ‘Peace I leave with you,’ Jesus says; ‘my peace I give to you.... Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid’ (John 14:27). In exchange for the emotions of turmoil and fear, Jesus gives us peace, a settled feeling of confidence and well-being. And this is a gift of the Holy Spirit. The same with joy. In another place, Jesus said, ‘I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete’ (John 15:11). And, of course, there is the book of Philippians, which is replete with the word ‘joy,’ so much so that it is often called ‘the epistle of joy.’ ‘Rejoice in the Lord always,’ Paul writes therein. ‘I will say it again: Rejoice!’ (Phil. 4:4). And in Galatians, where he names the ‘fruit of the Spirit,’ he includes joy and peace (Gal. 5:22).

We are emotional beings, and it is unlikely that we would check our emotions at the door when we enter the sanctuary. Our great forebear in the faith, John Calvin, chose as his personal emblem a hand extending upward to God and in that hand a heart aflame. And beneath the image he inscribed the words, ‘My heart I offer to you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.’

Worship in spirit cannot be reduced to emotion, but neither must we exclude emotion. We talk much about ‘order’ in the Presbyterian church, but, when we’re at our best, ‘ardor’ is just as much a part of our way of life.

Today, I want to talk about worshiping God in spirit by using the two images suggested in the passages we have read from the Bible: fire and water. The Holy Spirit is associated with both these elements in the pages of Scripture. In Matthew, chapter 3, we hear John the Baptist preaching to the multitudes in the wilderness, and he says to them, ‘I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ (v. 11). And what we are to understand there is not that the Holy Spirit and fire are two different realities. They are not; they are one and the same.

Likewise, in John, chapter 3, Jesus says to Nicodemus, ‘No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and Spirit’ (v. 5). Again, we are not to understand water and the Spirit to be two different entities but, rather, one and the same. This becomes clear when you read elsewhere in John’s Gospel, where Jesus says, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him’ (vv. 37f.). And John immediately explains Jesus’ words this way: ‘By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive’ (v. 39).

So, the Holy Spirit is presented to us in Scripture in the image of fire and also in the image of water. If we are to know how to worship God in spirit, we need to explore both these images.


Let’s consider first the Spirit as fire. Fire, of course, burns, and when we worship God in spirit, there is unquestionably a burning.

The prophet Malachi tells us an intriguing fact about the people of his day. He says they ‘wearied the Lord’ (Mal. 2:17). Think about that for a moment. What would it take to ‘weary the Lord,’ to become an annoyance to God? God himself tells us.

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