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Worship is a Matter of Who, Not How

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“The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” [1]

Christians have been fighting “worship wars” for decades, perhaps even for centuries. This continuing war arises from the assumption that everyone should like the style that I like. If we don’t fight over music, we will fight over some other aspect of our liturgy (yes, evangelicals have liturgies). It has been truthfully said that it is easier to change one’s theology than to change their liturgy. Move an anthem or change the benediction or alter the form of the message, and it is certain to cause acute distress for some within the congregation. If we don’t fight over music or liturgy, we will squabble over dress.

This continuing conflict arises from something far more nefarious than our likes or dislikes. James presses hard on the painful source of our war, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” [JAMES 4:1-3].

Earlier in the brief missive bearing his name, James wrote, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water” [JAMES 3:5-12].

I want to think the best of those who worship in the congregation I pastor. I know and you know that selfishness is indefensible. So, I assume that worshippers actually believe they are acting in the best interest of everyone when they defend or condemn some particular practise in what is called “worship.” What is needed is for us to discover, or at least remember, what truly matters.

PEOPLE WILL WORSHIP — Mankind is incurably religious. We will worship! What we worship is not so readily defined. I wish I could say that professing Christians worship the Son of God. I fear that I could be proven wrong were I to make such a contention, however. Many people worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator [see ROMANS 1:24, 25]. They surrender to their own desires, worshipping the sexual experience, worshipping the acquisition of things that are destined for dust, worshipping power or position or pleasure, worshipping, in short, almost anything other than God.

That people would worship their own passions is a dreadful condition; however, I suggest that an even more reprehensible situation occurs when people who profess to know God worship the experience of worshipping. Tragically, multitudes of professing Christians appear to be worshipping an experience rather than worshipping the God they claim to love. Let me explain that charge by referring to something that John Boquist, a pastor in Virginia, wrote. He writes of the period when he was courting his wife. His account is a parable of worship in the modern context. Brother Boquist writes, “My wife, Yvonne and I were separated by about 600 miles in the year before we wed. I had moved to Virginia to minister in a church and she was in Ohio completing her college degree. We couldn't talk on the phone or write enough letters to satisfy our longing to be together. On rare occasions one of us travelled the 600 or so miles to see the other.

“Every time we travelled, the trip was a little different. Sometimes the trip was made on a gleaming jet plane. Other times we drove, be it my ‘69 Chevy or her family’s Buick. One time, she and her brother made the trip from Ohio to Virginia in a 20-year-old Ford pickup with floorboard air conditioning. Every time they stopped for gas, they added at least a quart of oil.

“Anytime one of us travelled, seeing the beloved was all that mattered. The way we got there—the vehicle—was almost irrelevant.”

He concludes that account with this insightful statement, “Worship is the vehicle in which the church, the bride of Christ, travels to see her beloved. We must care more about where we are going than how we are to go.” [2]

What must our Master think when believers say things like, “I can’t worship with that sort of music?” I have served in churches where people attempted to hijack the services by demanding certain instrumentation, by demanding particular styles of music, by insisting on a particular colour of carpeting! Let me say quite clearly that if our worship can be stymied by changing how we worship, we must question how much we love Him. I suggest that far too many of the professed people of God worship the experience rather than the Master.

In the worship wars of the churches, the battle lines are drawn dividing into the traditionalist camp and the contemporary camp. The traditionalist camp argues that churches must honour the wisdom of the past, refusing to compromise on such vital aspects as instrumentation, rhythm and style or they will dishonour God. The use of an overhead projector will mean the end of music as we know it, and introduce discord and chaos into the service. The contemporary camp argues that without changing the music style and adopting a hymnody that is marked by syncopated rhythms and repetitious choruses, we will never attract younger people. Each is saying, “I have preferences and my preferences are better than your preferences.” Tragically, the positions marked out reveal a people who worship worship; the activity is more important than the One worshipped.

I pastored a congregation on one occasion that was growing rapidly. New people were coming and the building was filled. I recommended a course that would permit us to move into a larger building that would permit continued growth. A woman in that congregation almost cried as she charged me with gross insensitivity. “He wants to throw all these new believers out into the street just so he can preach in a larger building.” Her arguments swayed the congregation as one after another of the older members clung to the old building because “God had blessed the building so greatly” in the past. Would it surprise you to know that that particular congregation has passed by the opportunity to move the Kingdom forward; they are moving toward death.

Jeremiah confronted a similar condition in the last days of Judah. God commanded His servant to say, “Stand in the gate of the LORD’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD’” [JEREMIAH 7:2-4]. There was scant difference between worshipping the building and worshipping the act of worship, they sinned against God.

God’s ancient people were condemned because they worshipped worship rather than worshipping the True and Living God. In this, they were not unlike many of the churches of this day. Through His prophet, God charged Israel with worshipping worship.

“Cry aloud; do not hold back;

lift up your voice like a trumpet;

declare to my people their transgression,

to the house of Jacob their sins.

Yet they seek me daily

and delight to know my ways,

as if they were a nation that did righteousness

and did not forsake the judgment of their God;

they ask of me righteous judgments;

they delight to draw near to God.

‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?

Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’

Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,

and oppress all your workers.

Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight

and to hit with a wicked fist.

Fasting like yours this day

will not make your voice to be heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose,

a day for a person to humble himself?

Is it to bow down his head like a reed,

and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?

Will you call this a fast,

and a day acceptable to the LORD?”

[ISAIAH 58:1-5]

Through Amos, God had charged, “Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god—your images that you made for yourselves” [AMOS 5:25, 26]. You will remember that Stephen reminded the religious leaders of Israel that they were worshipping worship when he cited this charge that Amos had brought [see ACTS 7:42, 43].

What is easily forgotten is that God had spoken quite pointedly about how the act of worship disgusted Him. He refused to accept what the people were offering because they forgot Who they were worshipping and focused on how they worshipped. Their actions were reprehensible, disgusting, repugnant.

“I hate, I despise your feasts,

and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,

I will not accept them;

and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,

I will not look upon them.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

to the melody of your harps I will not listen.”

[AMOS 5:21-23]

Listen to the Master as He confronted worship of worship in Israel. “Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.’ He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, “Honor your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.” But you say, “If anyone tells his father or his mother, ‘What you would have gained from me is given to God,’ he need not honor his father.” So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

‘“This people honors me with their lips,

but their heart is far from me;

in vain do they worship me,

teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”’”

[MATTHEW 15:1-9]

To ensure that these “worshippers” did not miss what He was saying, Mark adds that Jesus said, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” [MARK 7:8].

There is a point when worshippers depart from true worship and degenerate into mere tradition; and not all tradition is hoary with age—some is new and novel in our estimate. Regardless of the antiquity of our worship traditions, we need to ask whether we are merely going through the motions or whether we are actually meeting with the True and Living God.

TRUE WORSHIPPERS WILL WORSHIP IN SPIRIT AND TRUTH — Worship that is true is a matter of Whom we worship; how we worship is secondary. Jesus initiated a conversation with the Samaritan woman. She thought that she could counter His call with an intellectual, albeit safe, argument. “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship” [JOHN 4:20]. Jesus redirects her attention, focusing on what is essential—Whom do you worship? “The true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him” [JOHN 4:23].

Was that conversation to take place today, the woman might well say something like, “You people have contemporary worship, we have traditional. Who is correct?” We argue, “Your service is noisy and lively; ours is quiet, contemplative and dignified. Who is correct?” Our default position is that what we do is correct, while all else is wrong. In hardening our positions, we ignore the vital aspect of worship—Who is worshipped? Do we actually meet the One we worship? Or are we consoling ourselves in the act itself?

Jesus stopped this woman short by pointing to a neglected truth, “True worship meets God Who is truth!” All our actions are futile if we fail to meet the True and Living God. Worship is ascribing worth to the one or to the thing that is revered. Thus, when we say we worship God, it means that we recognise Him as worthy to be honoured. If our worship is focused on how we worship rather than being focused on Him, we cannot say we have worshipped. Worship of God recognises who He is and what He is like.

Jesus testifies that “God is spirit”; therefore, “those who worship Him must worship in spirit.” That is, they must recognise that it is not in technique, but in meeting spirit to Spirit that one worships. It is fascinating to note the response of those who meet God throughout the pages of the Word of God. Though they may have initially thought to perform a rite or a ritual, their plans were upset and they found themselves in awe.

Jacob lay down to sleep and God interrupted his sleep. The Lord stood above a stairway leading into the heavens. Jacob knew it was the Lord who stood above the angels, for He identified Himself as the LORD. “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.” Though the Word states that Jacob was dreaming, he was awed, even terrified. Jacob awoke and exclaimed, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” [GENESIS 28:10-17].

After receiving instructions from the Angel of the LORD, the angel observed quietly as Manoah brought an offering of a young goat and a grain offering. The offering was presented on a rock to the Lord, the One who works wonders. As the offering began to burn, the Angel of the LORD ascended in the flame, and Manoah’s response was terror and awe [see JUDGES 13:2-22].

When the Ark of the LORD was brought into the Temple as Solomon dedicated that structure to God’s service, God revealed His glory and His presence filled the Temple. Listen to the impact of His revelation. “When the priests came out of the Holy Place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD” [1 KINGS 8:10, 11; cf. 2 CHRONICLES 5:13, 14].

When the Master was transfigured before the wondering eyes of Peter and James and John, they were dumbstruck. Peter began to sputter some nonsense about building tabernacles for Moses and Elijah and Jesus. He did this because, “he did not know what to say, for they were terrified” [MARK 9:6].

When John turned and saw the Risen Lord of Glory standing in the midst of the churches, he “fell at His feet as though dead” [REVELATION 1:17].

Just as the universal sign of someone who is choking is hands crossed and clutching at the throat, so the universal sign of one who meets the True and Living God is terror. The common position of those to whom God reveals Himself is falling prostrate and trembling. The surest evidence that modern Christians know little of worshipping God in spirit and in truth is that we are not terrified! We are casual about worship, approaching incautiously and addressing the Creator in rude, familiar terms. Few of us can remember the last time we approached the House of God with a sense of dread or awe because we knew we would meet Him who reigns over all life.

True worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth. We will realise that what we do is of less value than who we meet. All our efforts are futile if we fail to meet the Son of God. We can resemble people suffering Saint Vitus dance as we flail about in an attempt to “worship,” or we can sit stiff and rigid as we wait on the Lord; but if we do not meet Him, our efforts will be worthless; we will be frustrated and utterly disappointed after all our efforts.

What should be evident is that God is true, and if we truly worship, it must be in truth. God’s Word is true, and if we will know what pleases God it will be revealed through His Word. There is great emphasis on how people feel today. Let me speak quite clearly on this matter, how we feel about what we call worship is immaterial; our feelings will deceive us. What matters is whether we have met Him who is God. When we meet Him, there will be no guesswork involved. No one has to consult an analytical dictionary to determine if she met the Lord God. All who met Him worshipped spontaneously. And if they uttered error, He immediately corrected them.

Worship which is based on the feelings of fallible man or worship that appeals solely or even primarily to the emotions, differs only in degree from what the prophets of Baal presented to their god as worship. You recall that they prayed frantically and frenetically; they danced and pleaded, but their god was silent. The Word states, “They yelled louder and, in accordance with their prescribed ritual, mutilated themselves with swords and spears until their bodies were covered with blood. Throughout the afternoon they were in an ecstatic frenzy, but there was no sound, no answer, and no response” [1 KINGS 18:28, 29 NET BIBLE]. The actions could easily describe some of our services among evangelicals. There is noise and emotion, but there is no connection with God who is true.

Those who speak the truth prophetically are seldom welcomed by wayward people. I am humbled by the faithfulness of God’s Prophet, Jeremiah. “‘Thus says the LORD: Stand in the court of the LORD’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah that come to worship in the house of the LORD all the words that I command you to speak to them; do not hold back a word. It may be they will listen, and every one turn from his evil way, that I may relent of the disaster that I intend to do to them because of their evil deeds. You shall say to them, “Thus says the LORD: If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you, and to listen to the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently, though you have not listened, then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth.”

“The priests and the prophets and all the people heard Jeremiah speaking these words in the house of the LORD. And when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, ‘You shall die! Why have you prophesied in the name of the LORD, saying, “This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant”?’ And all the people gathered around Jeremiah in the house of the LORD.

“When the officials of Judah heard these things, they came up from the king’s house to the house of the LORD and took their seat in the entry of the New Gate of the house of the LORD. Then the priests and the prophets said to the officials and to all the people, ‘This man deserves the sentence of death, because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears.’

“Then Jeremiah spoke to all the officials and all the people, saying, ‘The LORD sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the words you have heard. Now therefore mend your ways and your deeds, and obey the voice of the LORD your God, and the LORD will relent of the disaster that he has pronounced against you. But as for me, behold, I am in your hands. Do with me as seems good and right to you. Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you will bring innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the LORD sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears’” [JEREMIAH 26:2-15]. Truthful words are seldom welcomed by wayward people. Yet truth is necessary for worship that is true.

TRUE WORSHIPPERS WILL WORSHIP IN SPIRIT AND TRUTH NOW — “The hour is coming, and is now here,” said Jesus. There should never be an excuse to go to church and fail to meet with the Risen Saviour. If our worship is merely a matter of singing songs, reciting prayers and enduring a talk on some religious theme, we had as well stay home and watch some sitcom. However, if we actually meet God, our lives will be transformed, we will put aside peripheral matters in order to focus on what is truly important—the forgiveness of sin, the transformation of life, the knowledge of the Holy One. Like that woman whom Jesus encountered, we will bring everyone we can bring to meet the One who changed us.

When we are committed to loving God more than we love the way in which we attempt to express that love, we will begin to communicate His love in a way that draws people to Him. So long as we invite people to our worship, we will struggle to find a more entertaining way to worship, a way that speaks to the emotion or a way that speaks to the flesh. We cannot think to honour the Risen Son of God through appeal to the ways of this fallen world.

Unbelievers cannot worship God—they can perform rituals and even speak to the emotions, but they cannot worship. The Wise Man has written:

“The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD,

but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him.”


The LORD God also says that “The thoughts of the wicked are an abomination to the LORD” [PROVERBS 15:26]. Other verses must also be weighed in the context of attempts to worship by the unsaved. Solomon has also written:

“The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination;

how much more when he brings it with evil intent.”

[PROVERBS 21:27]

One final verse from the Sayings of the Wise is this:

“If one turns away his ear from hearing the law,

even his prayer is an abomination.”


Until one is born from above, he cannot worship God. Jesus testified, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” [JOHN 14:6]. When Jesus had spoken these words to the disciples, He stunned them by confronting them in their obtuseness. “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” [JOHN 14:7]. Philip pleaded for the Master to show them the Father, and Jesus responded, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves” [JOHN 14:9-11].

Only when we are made new in Christ can we stand before the Father with clean hands and a pure heart, but we cannot come into His presence until we are forgiven of the sin that has contaminated our lives and which once separated us. Though outsiders cannot worship in truth, they can be drawn to our worship when they witness Christ at work in the midst of His people. Recall the words Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians concerning conviction through worship. “If all prophesy [i.e., speak God’s truth], and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you” [1 CORINTHIANS 14:24, 25]. Outsiders can witness the truth of God among us as they witness our worship offered in truth. When our worship is pleasing to God, it will convict outsiders, drawing them to confession of God’s reality.

Here is what is needed, then—we must reject all techniques, coming together in order to meet God. He has promised, “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” [HEBREWS 11:6].

David challenged Solomon to seek God. These are his words, “Solomon my son, know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the LORD searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will cast you off forever” [1 CHRONICLES 28:9].

God’s promise must surely extend to the Christian who has begun to stray and who has begun to exchange worship for mere technique. God warned His ancient people, and thus He warns us, not to trifle with Him. However, as is always true of God, He tempered the judgement with mercy when He said, “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” [JEREMIAH 29:12-14].

Enough of petty talk that attempts to compel others to do what we do. Instead, let each believer seek God as we unite to worship in spirit and in truth. Let it be our earnest prayer throughout this coming week that God reveal Himself to us as we seek Him in worship. Then, when we gather, the place where we are gathered will be shaken and we will glorify His Name. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] John Boquist, “Worship is a matter of who, not how,” Baptist Press, July 23, 2002,, accessed 31 May 2014

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