What is “worship in spirit and truth”?
What is “true worship”? First, true worship is to worship “in spirit” (Vs. 24). The common interpretation of this statement from Jesus is that worship is an internal matter and must be with the proper attitude, or disposition of pleasing God. In his very helpful book on worship, Jimmy Jividen said, “Worshiping ‘in spirit’ refers to the spiritual communion which takes place when our spirit joins with God, who is Spirit” (More Than A Feeling, p. 26). While it is true that one must worship God internally and with the proper disposition, such does not appear to be among the changes that Jesus anticipated of New Testament worship. Worship to God under the old covenant had to be sincerely offered in order to be acceptable to him (Deut. 6:4-6; 10:12-16; Matt. 15:7-8). An example would be that of Abel who, by faith, “offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain” (Heb. 11:4). New Testament worship cannot be any less sincere and still be true worship!
Second, true worship is to worship “in truth.” The common interpretation of this statement is that worship must be as directed by God’s revealed will. As brother Jividen expressed it, “’Truth’ may refer to the God-authorized acts revealed in Scripture” (More Than A Feeling, p. 26). Again, while it is true that the acts of worship in which we engage must have New Testament authority, such does not appear to be among the changes Jesus anticipated of New Testament worship. Old Testament worship had to be according to truth (Deut. 5:32-33; 12:32). A classic example of where an act of worship was not according to divine authority is that of Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1). New Testament worship cannot be any less according to God’s revealed will and still be true worship! (Col. 3:17; Heb. 3:5-6).
Jesus introduces a contrast with his statements in verses 21-22. The question is with what are “spirit” and “truth” contrasted in this context? The context of the passage must shed light on the meaning of these words as Jesus here used them. We use this opportunity to say that denominational churches do not worship “in spirit and in truth,” in any way that you might choose to look at it. Nor, does the new left in the church today fare any better. Although denominational worship is foreign to the context of Jesus’ words (Protestant denominations did not then exist), it is certainly within the application of the Lord’s statements. For example, mechanical instruments of music in New Testament worship are nothing more than a fleshly innovation. In New Testament worship they are neither in spirit nor in truth. Some believe that because mechanical instruments of music in the worship were part of Old Testament worship (2 Chron. 29:25), they must have God’s approval today. For example, in his defense of instrumental music in the worship at the Richland Hills church in Fort Worth, Texas, Rick Atchley made three arguments from the Old Testament (See, The Spiritual Sword [April 2007], pp. 15-22). Worship in spirit and in truth, however, authorizes congregational singing in worship, and that alone (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
In keeping with the thought that Jesus anticipated a change in covenants, it may be that worship “in spirit and in truth” defines the spiritual nature of New Testament worship in contrast to the fleshly character of Old Testament worship. The word “spirit,” for example, has various meanings, depending upon its context. It can denote a non-material being, such as God (Jn. 4:24), or angels (Heb. 1:14). It may refer to a disposition, as it does in Romans 8:15 and II Timothy 1:7. It might denote a person, as in a false teacher (I Jn. 4:1). Sometimes, the word “spirit” is placed in opposition to the “flesh” (Rom. 8:2-4), and the “letter” (II Cor. 3:6). Paul used the word “spirit” to show a contrast between the old covenant and the new covenant (Rom. 7:6; II Cor. 3:4-11). In this case the word “spirit” shows that the gospel is spiritual in contrast to the fleshly character of the Mosaic system (Phil. 3:3-11). When a person believes the gospel of Jesus Christ and receives it into his mind (heart, spirit), he then allows it to lead him into obedience to God. A Christian then, is not guided by the “letter” [Law, or old covenant], but is led by the “spirit” [Gospel, or new covenant]. If one is truly guided by the spirit as opposed to the letter he will see the utter fallacy of trying to defend an Old Testament practice as belonging to New Testament worship.
Also, worship “in truth” could be a contrast between the Law of Moses and the gospel of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:17; 6:14; Heb. 8:2; 9:24). Jesus said, “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17). The old covenant was true in that it was God’s plan through Moses (Heb. 3:5), but the gospel was true in that it was God’s plan through his Son (Heb. 3:6). Also, to worship “in truth” is to approach God through the realities of the new covenant (Heb. 9:1-15), rather than the shadows of the old (Col. 2:16-17; Heb. 8:4-5; 10:1).
How is New Testament truth determined? Truth has been revealed through Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:14, 17). God’s word is truth (Jn. 17:17). Truth is in Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:21). Christ speaks to us today through his word (Heb. 1:1-2). Certain modern practices that some have elected to bring into “contemporary worship” services have absolutely no basis in truth – things like, instrumental music in the worship, females in roles of leadership in the church, drama, dancing, hand clapping, swaying, solos, quartets, choirs and praise teams, just to name a few.
From this contextual analysis three important points may be drawn. First, not all “worship” is acceptable to God. Even though the Samaritans worshiped God, they were ignorant in their worship. It is possible for people today to worship God in ignorance. Second, Old Testament worship, although certainly valid for its time, would no longer be the way to approach God. Jerusalem would no longer be the place. Roman armies would destroy Jerusalem in AD 70, but this would not interfere with worshiping God. Third, Jesus introduced a contrast between the old and the new covenants, and anticipated the approaching “Christian age,” wherein worship to God must be “in spirit and in truth.”
What New Testament Worship Is Not
New Testament worship is not according to our conscience. Conscience is our moral judicial system, but it isn’t our final moral or religious standard. Our conscience must be properly taught. Paul once did many things in opposition to the truth with a good conscience (Acts 26:9). A practice, such as instrumental music in the worship, may lack New Testament authority, and yet people feel perfectly good about it even though it is wrong. Recently, in a sermon, I dealt with the matter of hand clapping in worship. I had to admit, and still do, that I bring some of my personal background into this discussion. It has been my experience to grow up in a time and place where hand clapping had no place in religious exercises. I have always been taught that such things did not belong in the worship. Others have not been so taught. I am quick to add, however, that what I have or have not been taught has no authoritative bearing on this matter. In the same vein some brethren say, “I’m just not comfortable with it.” Their comfort is not authority. On the other hand some admit, “I just don’t see anything wrong with it.” Again, authority is not inherent in what they may think about the matter.
New Testament worship is not according to the “traditions of men.” Traditions are beliefs or practices that have been handed down. Religious traditions are of two traditional sources: apostolic (II Thes. 2:15), and/or human (Matt. 15:3). A tradition may be human in origin, but not change any choice that God has made in worship. For example, the use of songbooks in singing simply expedites the command of God to sing in worship (Col. 3:16). The use of multiple cups in observing the Lord’s Supper simply expedites communion (I Cor. 10:16). On the other hand, a tradition may be of men, and alter entirely a choice God has made in our worship. For example, instrumental music changes God’s choice of music from the heart and voice to something mechanical, in violation of Ephesians 5:19. “Special music” featuring soloists or small groups deviate from corporate singing in worship to a performance setting, in violation of Colossians 3:16. Sprinkling for baptism alters God’s choice of immersion to aspersion, in violation of Colossians 2:12, and related passages.
New Testament worship is not according to culture. The current craze to make worship “culturally relevant” is sadly misguided. The modern vision of “progress” is that women have expanded roles in the worship by preaching and teaching, leading public prayers in mixed assemblies and perceived leadership roles. No one wants to deny women any role that is rightfully theirs to fulfill, but the modern desire to “unshackle” women in religion is an effort to chain them to the cultural mores of our day. On the matter of hand clapping in worship there is the argument that is cultural. Indeed, the entertainment aspect of our popular culture has encroached upon our worship in recent years. In the same vein, some want to say that there is a color divide on this point. Hand clapping, and other means of self-expression, is not unique to any particular race or culture. Yet, if hand clapping has a place in worship it must be because of New Testament authority behind it, not culture. Since it lacks New Testament authority it relies upon culture.
Worship that is “in spirit” comprises the new covenant, as opposed to the “letter” of the old covenant. Worship that is “in truth” also comprises the new covenant in that it consists of that which is substance as opposed to shadow. This defines New Testament worship as including only those actions that have New Testament authority behind them, such as prayer, preaching/teaching, the Lord’s Supper, giving, and congregational singing. Any action that does not have New Testament authority behind it is not worship that is “in spirit and in truth.” It is not, therefore, New Testament worship. Instrumental music in the worship falls within this category.
The approach to New Testament worship that I have taken in this lesson may differ from the typical interpretation that is often offered. Where I feel that the typical interpretation falls short is that it does not properly recognize the contextual meaning of “in spirit and in truth.” We too often attempt to interpret these words in light of their usage in modern discourse rather than the context in which Jesus used them. We do, however, get around to saying that same thing. That is, that New Testament worship can exist only within the boundaries that God has set in the New Testament. God is seeking true worshippers to approach him. We can be sure our worship is what God desires when we are his children reaching up to him in spirit and in truth (Gal. 3:26-27).
Farrar, F. W. (1874), The Life of Christ (London: Cassell Petter & Galpin).
Highers, Alan, “Responding To A Defense Of Instrumental Music,” The Spiritual Sword, Vol. 38, No. 1 (April 2007).
Jividen, Jimmy (1999), More Than A Feeling: Worship That Pleases God (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company).
McGarvey, J. W. (1914), The Fourfold Gospel (Cincinnati: The Standard Publishing Company).
Olbricht, Owen (2003), Worship Life’s Greatest Moments (Delight, AR: Gospel Light Publishing Company).
by Dennis Gulledge