In John 4:21-23, Jesus said, in effect, that under the New Covenant, worship would not be conducted in a place like the mountain where the Samaritans worshipped nor in Jerusalem where the Jews worshipped. But, in contrast, worship would be "in spirit and truth", removed from a "place" setting. Under the New Covenant, worship was going to be different. It would no longer be characterized by the prescribed priestly sacrificial "acts". It would be different, even as the New Covenant was to be different from the Old Covenant with its meticulous patterns. Instead, it would be a more excellent way. It would be "in spirit and truth".
Yes, there is sufficient information in the New Testament for us to know what Jesus meant when He made this very profound statement. We shall examine this information shortly. But, can you imagine the impact that this statement must have had on the self-righteous Jews and the Samaritans who were also worshipping according to their handed down traditions? Jesus is telling them that their kind of worship is inadequate and that it was to be replaced. I suspect that this bitter pill did not go down easy. And neither will it go down easy in today's religious world. When sacred cows are challenged, now as then, their owners rise up to wage holy war on the challengers.
There seems to be an effort on the part of some churches to pattern their "worship services" after the sacrificial, priestly worship of the Old Testament. This results in the structured and regimented, spectator type "worship services" so common in many Sunday church assemblies. This poses several questions: Were "worship services", as we know them, ever conducted by the early Christians? Is there evidence anywhere that early Christians "went to church" to worship? Is there reference anywhere to prescribed "acts" of worship? Did Jesus intend for there to be five prescribed church "acts" of worship? Are these "five acts" the "worship in spirit and truth" to which Jesus was referring in John 4?
Am I trying to say that praying, singing, eating the Lord's Supper, having spiritual discourses, and giving are not "worship in spirit and truth"? Certainly not. I am, however, saying that Jesus did not have specific "acts" of worship in mind (as the so-called five acts) when He made the statement. He was speaking in a much more general sense.
That Christians assembled is not questioned. They met. They assembled. This is acknowledged. And Paul, by the Spirit, admonished them to "forsake not the assembling of themselves together". God saw a need for His children to get together and He provided for it. But, it is the kind and purpose of these assemblies that is under examination here. Is this where the "worship in spirit and truth" that Jesus mentioned takes place? In their assemblies they sang, they prayed, they encouraged one another to love and good works, they ate meals, they ate the Lord’s Supper, and participated in the performance of certain spiritual gifts. They discussed problems in view of carrying each others' burdens. On some occasions, they engaged in spiritual discourses. On other occasions, they took up collections for support of evangelists and for the needy. But, is this what our Lord was referring when He said, "worship in spirit and truth"?
Today's church rulers must maintain their hold on their subjects in order to keep the money coming in that is necessary to support the system with its paid, pulpit ministers and ornate, barely used cathedrals. This hold demands attendance at their church "services". They maintain that it is at these church "services" where worship in spirit and truth takes place. The rulers make every effort to convince their subjects that if they do not attend at least one of the Sunday "services", and observe the five, church prescribed, acts of worship, they have not worshipped in spirit and truth. It is tremendously significant that "giving to the church" is one of the necessary five acts.
Now, let us focus in on the question that is the title of this article. What is the worship in spirit and truth to which Jesus referred in John 3:21-23? Let the Bible speak! Paul, by the Spirit, answers the question so beautifully in Romans 12:1-2: "So, brothers, with God's tender feelings, I beg you to offer your bodies as a living, holy sacrifice to God. THIS IS TRUE WORSHIP FROM YOU. Don't act like people of this world. Instead, be changed inside by letting your mind be made new again. Then you can determine what is good, pleasing, and perfect – what God wants". Can we handle this? Or, are our preconceived, regimented notions about "worship services" too rooted to let the light of God's Word come in?
Please note that in this passage no mention is made of compulsory attendance at any denominated church "worship service". "Assembling" with other Christians is stretched out of context by church rulers to mean "attendance at the church worship services". The passage states very clearly that true worship is: "OFFERING YOUR BODIES AS LIVING SACRIFICES". Now, if one cannot worship in spirit and truth without attending a church "worship service", isn't it reasonable that such information would have been included in this passage, since this passage tells what true worship is?
The assemblies that I read about in the New Testament were not the structured, regimented "worship services" that are conducted by denominated, institutionalized churches of today. Instead, they were participatory. They actually involved the participants in building up one another. In fact, if you consider the contextual setting of John 3:21-23, it is perfectly clear that the worship in spirit and truth, to which Jesus referred, would NOT be offered up at a place. Today's religious rulers say otherwise. Whom shall we believe?
The absolute truth of the entire matter is that the kind of worship (service) that our God desires of us is the offering of ourselves up as living sacrifices. This is, indeed, worship in spirit and truth. And, in this very same vein of thought, isn't it interesting that James, by the Spirit, explaining what true religion is (James 1:27) made no mention of a regimented "worship service" as conducted by denominated churches. But rather, he referred to things that Christians do in the daily courses of their lives, such as "to care for widows and orphans and to keep themselves unspotted from the world".
True worship is not the Sunday observance of religious rituals. It is the everyday, every hour, every minute obedience to God's will. It is allowing Christ to live in us. AMEN. Please consider these thoughts. I believe them to be true to the Word.