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New Testament Worship

Category Articles
Date September 24, 2004

It does not take a rocket scientist to know that the way we worship God after Jesus came is drastically altered from the way Israel worshipped God before Jesus came. In other words, NT worship is very different from OT worship.

Jesus describes this change by the phrase "in spirit and truth". John 4:23 says, "But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth."

NT worship is worship that is in spirit and truth. Any other kind of worship today is not true worship. If you want to worship God, you must do so in this way, as verse 24 says: "Those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." So what does this mean?

The context of John 4:20-24

In order to answer that question, we need to take a close look at the context of John 4:20-24. First, notice that the issue being addressed is where true worshippers worship. The Samaritans and Jews had rival temples, one on Mt. Gerizim and one at Jerusalem. Both believed to be right in their place of worship (note 4:20).

Second notice Jesus’ answer with respect to the place of worship. He says in vs. 21 that a time is coming when the place of worship will change. In vs. 22 he notes that the Jews were right in how they worship. The Temple in Jerusalem was God’s house and that was where He was to be worshipped. Now, however, a time is coming when this dispute between Samaritans and Jews will become moot, because soon "true worshipers" will no longer worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. The ‘where’ or ‘place’ of worship is about to change. Instead of worshipping at the physical Temple, true worshipers will worship in spirit and truth.

Third, notice that this change is connected to Jesus’ death, resurrection and glorification. Jesus says "the hour is coming, and now is". The term ‘hour’ when it is unqualified (in this Gospel) always has reference in some fashion to Christ’s passion and glorification. The great change between OT and NT worship hinges on and centers around the person and work of Christ.

Fourth, notice that one reason or ground for worship in spirit and truth is that "God is spirit". We are to worship God in spirit and truth because God is spirit, vs. 24. God is not a spirit but is spirit, i.e. that is his nature. ‘Spirit’ no doubt refers to the fact that God is ‘invisible’ and ‘immaterial’. However, in the OT the term ‘spirit’ generally refers to that which is renovative, creative and life-giving, (cf. John 3:5; 6:63). God is spirit thus means not only that God is invisible and divine but also that he is life and life-giving.

In summary, with respect to where God is to be worshipped, Jesus says that his coming death and exaltation will bring about a great change so that true worshipers will no longer worship in Jerusalem but in spirit and truth for God is spirit.

This discussion of the context helps but does not quite clear up the meaning of the phrase "in spirit and truth." A brief study of the theology of the Temple as revealed in the OT and now in the NT will, however, help us figure out these important words of Christ.

The theology of the temple

The heart of God’s gracious covenant was that God would be our God and that we would be his people. Throughout the Scriptures we read the common refrain: "You shall be my people and I will be your God."

This promise came to expression and realization in the building of the Tabernacle and later the Temple. Lev. 26:11-12 says: "I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people." Ex. 29:46 says that the purpose or goal of redemption from Egypt was so that God might dwell in the Tabernacle that Israel would build.

The Tabernacle/Temple was God’s house (see Ex. 25:8). It was the place where God dwelt, spoke and met with His people. Furthermore, it was the place of atonement by means of sacrifice. Israel needed forgiveness and holiness for God to dwell among them because God is holy, (Lev. 19:1; Josh. 24-19-20).

There were two basic problems and inadequacies with this OT covenant or arrangement. First, the Tabernacle and Temple, with all of their particular ceremonies, were only copies, shadows, pictures, or models of the real Temple. The blueprint Moses gave was according to a pattern (Ex. 25:9). OT scholar John Currid explains, "The word ‘pattern’ almost exclusively refers to an imitation of something that already exists in reality. The tabernacle, then, is modeled upon something else. It is a replica of a celestial archetype-that is, the heavenly sanctuary."

For this reason Micah speaks of God coming down from His holy Temple. And the author of Hebrews says: "The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming, not the realities themselves…[Priests] serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: "See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain."

Second, the people were stiff-necked and hard-hearted. Israel’s history is evidence of this. It was because of their refusal to repent, believe and follow Jehovah that they were cast out of the land and the Temple destroyed.

It is in the midst of this apostasy, removal of God’s presence and consequent destruction of the Temple that God communicates His promises. He vows to put His Spirit in them and to build a new temple by the hand of the Messiah so that God might dwell in the midst of His people and be their God (Ez. 36:27-28; 40ff; Zech. 6:12-13).

As we come to the NT, we learn that Jesus is greater than the temple; that he is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; and that he is the Word who became flesh and dwelt (lit. ‘tabernacled’) among us (Matt. 12:6; John 1:29; 1:14). In John 2:19 Jesus says to his audience that if you destroy this temple that he will raise it up (or build it) in three days. Lest we miss the point, John makes the comment that Jesus was talking about the temple of his body.

Further beneficial NT commentary on Jesus and the Temple is found in the book of Hebrews. There we read: "For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence…The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man (Heb. 9:24; 8:1-2; see also 10:19-21)."

So what does it mean?

Now if we put all the pieces of the puzzle together, we can understand what Jesus means by worshipping in spirit and truth. In the context of where God is to be worshipped, Jesus says that his coming death and exaltation will bring about a great change so that true worshipers will no longer worship in Jerusalem (i.e. at the Temple) but in spirit and truth.

In effect, Jesus is saying that true/genuine worshipers will no longer worship at the copy or model of the real Temple. Rather, they will now worship God at the real or true Temple!

We are to worship God in Jesus who is the temple, the high priest and the sacrifice. Also, he is the one who gives us His Spirit to give us life and make us holy. It is in (the fullness of) the Spirit, who is also called the Spirit of truth, that we are now to worship God. As the NT says elsewhere: Eph. 2:18: "For through [Christ] we both have access by one Spirit to the Father." Phil. 3:3: "For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit." See also Heb. 12:18-24, 28-29.

What is more, because we who believe are in Christ and the Spirit dwells in us, we become the Temple of the living God that Christ is building. Jesus (as the Branch who is to build the Temple) says in Matt. 16:18: "I will build my church." Hence Paul writes to the church in Ephesus: "you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit."

Ed Clowney nicely sums up the meaning of Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman and consequently the distinctiveness of NT worship: "What Jesus declared to the woman was not temple-less worship; it was worship at the true Temple, pitched by God not man. There, God her Father seeks her worship: not on the top of Gerizim, or at the end of the dusty trail to Jerusalem, but at the feet of Jesus. Worship is in spirit, that is, in the Spirit Jesus himself gives, the water that is not from the well. Worship is also in truth: not truth in the abstract, but truth in Jesus, the true revelation of the Father. ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). God’s presence makes us his people; the presence of Jesus constitutes the church as his temple, built of living stones, joined to him as God’s elect Stone (1 Pet. 2:4-6). The church itself is a temple, the house of God, sanctified by the presence of the Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16)."

Therefore, true NT worshipers do not worship God at Mt. Gerizim or Jerusalem. So do not go on a pilgrimage to the Middle East to meet, worship or experience the presence of God. If that is your desire, you need to come to Jesus in faith and he will give you His Spirit, and place you in God’s true temple, thereby granting you direct access to the Father. For true NT worshipers worship the Father in spirit and truth.

Patrick Ramsey

Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church

London, KY

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