Philip P. Eapen
What did Jesus mean when he said that true worship is “worship in spirit and in truth?” Was Jesus asking his followers to “worship in other tongues?”
The worship of the Living God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is our greatest privilege and our primary duty. Although Christians in general agree on this, disagreements about the manner of worship or its expressions are common. Bible-believing Christians cite Jesus’ teaching that should be worshipped “in spirit and in truth.” What exactly does that mean?
My association is largely with Pentecostal churches, especially with those in or from Kerala. I’ve heard pastors preach from John 4:24
“God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
They consider Jesus’ teaching as an attestation of Pentecostal styles of worship as opposed to worship that follows a liturgy or quieter forms of worship. Whenever they speak of worship “in the spirit,” they refer to glossolalia, speech in unknown languages, as given by the Holy Spirit. They cite Paul’s assertion that a person who prays in an unknown Spirit-given language prays in his spirit. Those who pray in their own language pray with their minds while those who pray in “another tongue” pray in their spirit. They superimpose Paul’s statement on glossolalia (1 Corinthians 14:14) over John 4:23 to synthesise a definition for “worship in spirit and in truth.” Therefore, for most Pentecostals, “worship in spirit” is equivalent to speaking in an unknown language to God, either individually or collectively during a church service.
None of Paul’s injunctions against the loud use of glossolalia in public worship meetings – except with its interpretation for the edification of those gathered – is considered worthy of obedience. Paul’s guidelines for increased private exercise of glossolalia in the place of immature public flaunting of this gift are torpedoed by exhortations to “worship in spirit.”
What did Jesus mean when he said that true worship is “worship in spirit and in truth?” Was Jesus asking his followers to exercise glossolalia?
The Lord Jesus referred to true worship during his conversation with a Samaritan woman. The woman had a past and she was living in sin. When Jesus revealed her secrets, she understood that the man who spoke to her was a “prophet.” She quickly switched the conversation to a debate that existed in that land about worship. “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” Samaritans preferred Mt. Gerizim to the temple at Jerusalem. She wanted to know what this “prophet” thought about this issue.
Jesus’ reply was different from what she expected to hear. She did not succeed in pulling Jesus into a debate over where people should gather to worship God.
Jesus said, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.” John 4:21-24
Firstly, Jesus said that the Samaritans had got it all wrong. The Jews were right. God had revealed himself to the Jews and they were right to worship God at Jerusalem.
Secondly, Jesus took the discussion to a higher plane. He said that the time had come for Jews and Samaritans – or anyone else for that matter – to stop arguing about the right place to find God. God isn’t limited to a place. He is not a part of this material universe. Instead, He is spirit. He transcends time and space. The question that matters is not “Where do you worship?” but rather “Whom do you worship?”
To “worship in spirit and in truth” is to worship the true God sincerely with the realisation that He is omnipresent. The whole world is a sanctuary. Any form of worship that localises God to a particular place is “false” worship.
To “worship in spirit and in truth” is to worship God sincerely with the realisation that He is omnipresent. To “worship in spirit and in truth” is to worship God with a conscious recognition that no place on earth is holier than another. For the true worshipper, the whole world is a sanctuary. He does not recognise any special “holy” label attached to or attributed to places of worship. A true worshipper need not go on a pilgrimage in search of God. As a necessary corollary, we need to say that any form of worship that localises God to a particular place or considers a “place of worship” as holier than other places is “false” worship.
Jesus was also announcing the divine de-recognition of Jerusalem and its temple as a “holy” place. If God is spirit, and if true worship is that which recognises God’s transcendence over time and space, then Jerusalem can no longer be called a “holy” city. God’s name could no longer be tied to one city or to one temple. The Jews acted according to the revelation that they had been given until then. They had got it right, compared to other people who were in the dark, as far as worship was concerned. Salvation was to come from the Jews. Now that the Messiah had come among them, it was time for the Messiah to usher in a new scheme of worship. The Jewish religious economy and the Temple in Jerusalem – the ultimate emblem of their religion – was to be torn down shortly.
Finally, the Messianic age is characterised by the impartation of God’s Holy Spirit upon His people. We have to be born anew (as seen in the previous chapter, John 3) by water and the Spirit, in order to be a part of the Messianic kingdom. Those outside the kingdom are born just by “flesh” while those in the Kingdom are born by the spirit. “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6).
Therefore, when the New Testament contrasts the new Messianic order with the old Jewish order, it uses expressions such as these:
“… for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” – 2 Cor 3:6
“ministry of death” versus “ministry of the Spirit” – 2 Cor 3:7-8
“ministry of condemnation” versus “ministry of righteousness” – 2 Cor 3:9
“… Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” – Gal 3:3
Therefore, when Jesus said that “true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth,” he was referring to the worship of God by those who received the Messiah. They are the ones who are regenerated by the Spirit. True worship is the worship offered by the global church of Jesus Christ. He invited Jews to turn their backs on the old order to welcome the new order.
Without realising this, many Christians think that John 4:24 is about turning our backs on liturgical or quieter forms of worship and about adopting a more lively form of worship marked by “other tongues.” Such a skewed understanding makes many Pentecostals discount the importance of worshipping God through songs, adoration, and praise in one’s own languages. The songs they sing get reduced to mere launching pads for “speaking in other tongues,” which they consider to be “real worship.”
Tongue-speaking is a form of prayer. The one who speaks in a strange tongue in the Spirit talks to God. That is not necessarily worship. Let’s not confuse prayer with worship. Let Christians use glossolalia in their private times of prayer. Even if they are led to burst out in ecstatic speech in other tongues while at church, let them do it quietly. That’s perfectly in sync with Pauline teaching in 1 Corinthians 14:28 - “… if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God.”
The Father seeks true worshippers. Let’s worship God, ascribing to Him all the glory due unto His name. Let our worship arise from the knowledge of God that we get from the Scriptures. Let us worship with the full assurance that we who believe in Jesus Christ are true worshippers.
Originally published in the newspaper ‘Praise The Almighty’ in June 2010.
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Philip Eapen, an environmental scientist by training, devoted his life to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ ever since he realized that the world needs Jesus Christ more than anyone or anything else. Apart from sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, Philip teaches Christians in order to equip them for service. He is supported by donations from readers. Philip is married to Dr. Jessimol and they are blessed with three sons and a daughter.
Date: June 1, 2010