Worship: Watching a Spectacle or Speaking the Truth?
Worship is one of the foremost activities that Christians emphasize. But their worship is primarily thought of in terms of going to a church building, where they sit and watch worship leaders conduct a worship service. Then the quality of that worship is rated in terms of how the leaders did: the sermon was inspiring (or boring); the choir sounded great (or lousy).
This identification of worship with particular holy places where special holy persons predominate is indeed biblical. But it’s the Old Testament where the tabernacle or temple was the holy place, and the priests and Levites were the holy persons leading the way–as the people of Israel watched. In Jesus’ day, Jewish synagogues had multiplied in Israel, and outside Israel. There the scribes and Pharisees sat at the front and taught as the authorities of the law.
When Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman, she raises the question of which holy place is the proper place to worship (Jn. 4:20). Jesus’ response envisions a whole new perspective of what worship entails. Yet often his words about worshiping “in spirit and truth” are interpreted to simply mean being sincere or reverent when you worship (in a holy place).
The word combination of spirit and truth, like Jesus’ words about living water (Jn. 4:10-15), should point us (the readers) to later passages in the Gospel of John that interpret what these mean. In Jn. 7:38-39 Jesus’ living water is interpreted as the Spirit; in Jn. 14-16, the Spirit of truth will be given to the disciples and enable them to speak the truth about Jesus; and sometimes when the Spirit of truth bears witness to Jesus through disciples, they will be kicked out of the synagogue (Jn. 15:26; 16:2). So Jesus is not talking about our own sincere spirit of worship; he is referring to the Spirit of truth, who will speak through disciples of Jesus. The speaking of this truth is what Jesus says is now the true way to worship. It is even happening already, since the Spirit is in Jesus and speaks through him to the Samaritan woman.
While the Spirit could speak through various prophets at various times in the Old Testament, when Jesus comes, the Spirit remains constantly with him (Jn. 1:32-33). Because God has now given the Spirit without measure, Jesus speaks the words of God continually (Jn. 3:34). And everyone who comes to be born from above, to be born of the Spirit, will have the wind/Spirit that blows/breathes in them, producing a sound/voice (Jn. 3:8).
Worship is thus what happens every day when those in whom the Spirit lives and speaks continue to pass on the truth of Jesus. This worship is not just an inner sincere reverence (in a holy place); it involves actions of speaking the truth. And this worship is not just a private conversation with another person; it also includes public conversations, especially as one gathers with other disciples of Jesus–with no holy place needed. (A simple home is sufficient; or an outdoor location is fine).
All of this is why I prefer to gather with other Christians in a home bible study, or in certain Sunday School classes, where participation is encouraged and the teacher is not too talkative. That is where I think this new worship of sharing the truth with one another can happen, much more so than in a formal worship service.