Worship as the Center of the Christian Life

“Liturgical theology” is theology that recognizes the importance of worship in the process of understanding God’s nature and will, and of developing an ethical system that is faithful to God’s values. Though knowledge of Scripture is vital as well, it is in a faithful response to the great commandment to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength that Scripture opens up to our understanding and becomes a catalyst for our heartfelt obedience to its Author. The following article is a first attempt to articulate this view biblically.

Theology assumes the existence of God, but the nature of that identity is the essential question. Who or what is God the Creator? What kind of God is this who has created humans, and what is His intention for this creation that bears the marks of divine attributes (i.e., we are created in His image)? What does the fact of our being created mean to us; i.e., what meaning does that give our lives and what duties does that fact place upon us as “created ones”? If God is personal and relational, as the biblical text suggests, and therefore desirous of relationship with those whom He has created, then won’t these created ones find their highest purpose in knowing and relating primarily and appropriately to their Creator, most particularly in worship (the direct connection to and experience of God’s divine presence)? If these are the right questions to ask, then the answers to them will direct us to look at worship as the highest aspiration of true theology.

There is one passage in the New Testament, John 4:19-24 (NRSV), that guides us to a particularly affirmative answer to these questions, and to the centrality of worship as both an existential reality and an ethical duty. Jesus is speaking to the Samaritan woman who, immediately after she believes him to be a prophet, questions him about where worship ought to take place. This shows the weight of the geographical considerations concerning worship that were common at the time.

John 4:19-24
(19) The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.
(20) Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
(21) Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.
(22) You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.
(23) But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.
(24) God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

The woman’s concern was for the proper place to worship, a concern that had been reinforced for years by the command for male Jews to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the communal feast days. The Samaritans had mixed the forms of pagan worship on the “high places” with the worship of Yahweh, which explains why she asked if true worship ought to be done on a mountain. But Jesus quickly changes the focus from the where question to the why, who, and how of worship. He boldly asserts the ignorance of the Samaritan people as to who and what they worshiped, and then strongly affirms the Jewish experience and their relationship to the true God who saves. Jesus argues that salvation is a proper ground for worship: “for salvation is from the Jews.” This not only addresses a reason to worship but also implies whom one ought to worship, for the Jews were identified with the God who delivers and saves, as opposed to pagan deities who were notoriously silent (i.e. “idol”). It is good to remember how God, through Moses, spoke of the reason for His intervention in their deliverance from Egypt by saying: “Let my son go that he may worship me” (Exod. 4:23).

In the next breath Jesus introduces a new idea, which “is coming and is now.” In a proleptic manner (speaking of the future as if it were present), Jesus makes reference to a major change in the relationship between God and mankind—something that would even result in a change in the way humans would worship. It would no longer be based on geographical or ethnic factors, but worship would be “in spirit and truth.” It would also not be by bowing and scraping to an authoritarian cosmic Monarch who demands total obedience from his subjects. Interestingly, a number of the words denoting worship in the Bible (like Gk proskuneo) do emphasize bowing, as one would bow to a monarch. However, angels sent to represent God often tell humans to “fear not and stand up.” One word for worship implies “grovel like a dog,” which does not sound like something the writer of Hebrews 4:16 would agree with:

Hebrews 4:16
Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

It would appear from these and other New Testament texts that God is not glorified by those whose worship is marked with outward signs of humility but who are still inwardly unchanged. This is at least one reason why John 4:24 says that “those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” In addition to the idea that there has come a new order of worship, there is now also a strong ethical aspect added to it: they must worship this way if they are to be faithful to receive what God has provided and intended for worship.

What it means to worship “in spirit and truth” must bear some relationship to the woman’s question of whether worship ought to be in either Jerusalem or on the mountain. That is, it must speak in some sense of the locus of worship, even if it is not a “place,” per se. We can see some indications of what that place might be by understanding the purpose of the Old Testament Tabernacle and the Temple, which were physical structures that portended the coming and presence of the Messiah. Their dimensions, appointments, and structures pointed to various elements of the Messiah’s coming, and it was in these structures that the presence of God was living between the wings of the cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant. What we can see if we read between the lines is that the Tabernacle and the Temple were symbols of the Messiah, who would be the true and everlasting “place” where the Almighty dwells. 2 Corinthians 5:19 says that God was “in Christ,” reconciling the world to Himself. That is, the eternal God was present in the life of the Man from Galilee, helping him to be the sinless sacrifice that the world needed him to be in order to pay the price for sin.

To worship God “in spirit and in truth” is thus the same as to worship God “in Christ,” for Jesus Christ is the spirit (2 Cor. 3:17) and the logos in the flesh (John 1:14). Also, Paul says “the truth is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:21). Further, the Body of Christ is spoken of as a “Temple,” and as “a dwelling place for God” through the spirit (Eph. 2:21 & 22). Christ, and the symbols pointing to him all indicate the locus of worship as being in the high priest of our profession (Heb. 3:1).

The passage in John thus reveals something existentially important about God—that He is “spirit”—and an ethical corollary that God must therefore be worshiped “in spirit” and “by spirit” because God was providing through Jesus the “living waters” of His spirit. The Greek preposition in the dative case contains a semantic range that allows for both a locus (“in”) and a means, agency or instrumentality (“by”). Thus, God provided the spirit on the Day of Pentecost, on which day the Church was born and humans were first empowered to be able to worship in a manner that was both spiritual and true.

Regarding the spirituality of the new way of worship, Paul says, “If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays” (1 Cor. 14:14). He speaks of speaking in tongues as a way to “pray with the spirit,” “sing praise with the spirit” (1 Cor. 14:15), “say a blessing with the spirit” (1 Cor. 14:16) and “give thanks well enough” (1 Cor. 14:17).

Apparently God has provided a means of worship that flows directly from the gift of holy spirit that Christ received from Him and poured out on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:33). On Pentecost, the disciples began to speak in spirit-energized languages, and these continued to be considered an integral part of communal worship even much later in Corinth. Prophecy is also mentioned as a catalyst to public and private worship in 1 Corinthians 14:25: “…after the secrets of the unbeliever’s heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, ‘God is really among you.’”

The passage in 1 Corinthians concludes with another ethical injunction in the context of proper worship as mandated by the Lord that adds weight to the idea of worship incorporating the manifestations (aka“gifts”) of the spirit:

1 Corinthians 14:37-40
(37) Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.
(38) Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized.
(39) So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues;
(40) but all things should be done decently and in order.

Because Paul encourages the saints there to render their prayer languages into the language of the people present does not mean that there was a prohibition against speaking in these languages at all, and particularly not in private worship. We can see in hindsight that a part of what Jesus was speaking of in John 4:23 was that his followers would speak in new tongues (Mark 16:17) as they were energized by the spirit, and we take this to be a large part of what worshiping “in and by spirit” means. This is also the meaning of Philippians 3:3: “we worship God by the spirit.” Therefore, to forbid these spiritual “energizings” in public worship is to risk being ignored by the Lord in that worship, a pretty awful thing to consider. This is certainly strong language that makes sense only if the “worship in spirit” is something that has a very definite biblical meaning and not a vague idea of “spirit” that is inclusive of any and all manifestations. Decency and order are to mark out spiritual manifestations of the true worship of the true God, and we ignore these commandments at our spiritual peril. If the true God is ignoring our worship, the Adversary will certainly co-opt it for himself.

To worship “in spirit” does not necessarily mean that we cannot employ any physical object in our worship. This was the position of Ulrich Zwingli, the 16th century Swiss reformer, who taught that the bread and wine of communion were not significant in themselves. We can recognize that, while symbols, actual bread and wine are real tangible objects that the Lord gave meaning to when he said that we were to remember his sacrifice whenever we eat and drink.

When we use banners, flags, music, dance, incense or any other physical, sensible thing in worship, this does not mean that we are pagans. The true God is the God of creation and the physical universe, and if the mountains and the trees can clap their hands in praise of God (Isa. 55:12), then God is not offended if physical things are employed in worshiping Him. What God objected to was when humans would create images out of physical objects and worship the objects instead of Him. As long as we are using physical things as a tool, or a reminder of something God has or will do, we are okay. There is a danger, as evidenced by the Gnostics of the first and second centuries, of divorcing the true God from the physical universe and all it reveals about God and our relationship with Him. We should therefore be comfortable with physical elements that support our worship, as long as we are not neglecting the spiritual in the process.

What is it to worship “in truth”? We must look to an earlier assertion in the gospel of John when he writes that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). In Jesus is the true and complete articulation of who and what God truly is. Though God is portrayed as an ethically ambivalent being in the Old Testament, distributing good and evil over all of Creation, Jesus declares that God is all good, all the time, and he demonstrates that goodness. He claims to be always doing his Father’s will, and to be doing the work that his Father commands. Therefore we can assume that whatever he did was also the will of God, unless he was a liar, in which case we can ignore him altogether. But because all he ever did was heal, encourage, and teach people, can we not assume that those things are God’s will? Therefore, Jesus made it possible to worship God as God truly is—all good and not responsible for evil, nor at this time actively visiting punishment and catastrophe on the disobedient.

Is it not encouraging of worship to believe the truth that God is all good, rather than mean-spirited, and coercive? That He is light and in Him is no darkness at all? That He who commands mankind to be upright and righteous is not a hypocrite? It would certainly seem so, although there have always been those who think that the more God’s behavior offends their human sensibilities, the more they can bow in reverence. But Jesus invites his followers to compare his heavenly Father to an earthly father, and to ask if God cannot do good as an earthly father can (Luke 11:13). Conversely, would it not be equally fair to assert that God will not act in a way that if an earthly father behaved similarly he would land in jail? For instance, many Christians believe that God “took home” their loved one who died. This is a euphemistic way of saying that God engineered their death for His own glory. Can we imagine any circumstance in which an earthly father could get away with that? The same is true for all manner of things attributed to God as the controller of all circumstances from terminal diseases to late busses. It seems hard to imagine that such thinking could inspire a more worshipful attitude toward God, but it does seem to work for some.

Another key New Testament passage that connects truth and worship is the following:

Matthew 15:6-9
(6) So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God.
(7) You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
(8) “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;
(9) in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

Jesus cites Isaiah, who attributed the vanity of Israel’s worship to the teaching of “human precepts,” as opposed to divine truth. Therefore, truth is a foundation for both “true worship” and “true worshipers.” This passage contains an important clue as to who true worshipers are: they are those who recognize that God desires “truth in the inward being” (Ps. 51:6). True worshipers have truth, not pretense, on the inside. Their heart draws close to God as the source of light, and they desire to be in the light, and not in the darkness. Returning to John 4:23, we learn that those are the kind of worshipers that the Father seeks. In fact, this is the only passage in the New Testament that indicates what the Father “seeks”—not worship per se, but people who will worship in spirit and truth.

God seeks those who sincerely draw near Him with humility and truth in their inward being, who do not pretend to honor Him while denying it by their actions. For such true worshipers, the form of their worship is quite secondary, and not a condition for the acceptance of their offerings. But when we do seek forms of worship, we should begin by accepting God’s provision of the spiritual “gifts” He provides for worshiping Him, and see how worship “in and by spirit” may direct us to a multiplicity of other forms as the spirit leads. This is a sound foundation for a liturgical theology that respects both spirit and truth.

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