Worshipping in Spirit and Truth

13th February 2000

First preached at NFI Walworth


[...] 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 4:23-24

In just twenty minutes, I don't intend to touch on the meaning of the word ``worship'' that includes our whole lives (in the sense of Romans 12:1, ``offer your bodies as living sacrifices.''), important as that is.

Instead, we will concentrate on worship in the sense of the singing, praying etc. that we do in set-aside times, whether on Sunday mornings, in smaller meetings, or alone. The context shows that this is what Jesus was referring to when he told the woman at the well the God is seeking those who will worship in spirit and truth.

What did Jesus mean by that statement?

Worship is primarily a response to God - to his character and to his deeds. (In fact everything we do in relation to God is a response: all initiative lies with him, which is why Jesus came ``to seek and to save'' the lost.)

In order to respond to God's character and deeds, we need to see them and understand them. This is why both Spirit and truth are absolutely necessary for us to worship God as he deserves: they are the twin routes to giving us an understanding of God that we can respond to.

1. Worship in Spirit

Firstly, the Holy Spirit himself speaks to us directly, showing us that God is in us, as John says:

[...] this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.
- 1 John 3:24

I do not believe that this verse is talking about the Spirit giving us the ability to understand doctrine (although we will discuss that later); this is about ``gut knowledge'' - the sure and certain fact that God is in us, which the Holy Spirit makes clear to our spirit.

Paul says something very similar: that the Holy Spirit assures us that we have become sons (meaning sons or daughters, obviously) of God:

[...] you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ``Abba, Father''. The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children.
- Romans 8:15-16

In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul develops in much more detail the theme that there is some things that only the Holy Spirit can show us:

[...] as it is written:
``No eye has seen,
         no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived
         what God has prepared for those who love him'' -
but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit [...] no-one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.
- 1 Corinthians 2:9-14

This is among the most misquoted and misunderstood passages in the bible. The first part is often read alone, with the intention of conveying that that what God has prepared is too wonderful to grasp; but Paul's intent in writing it was to show that what the mind can't grasp, the spirit can - aided by the Holy Spirit. Spirit speaks to spirit, bypassing the mind because it fundamentally can't understand some spiritual truth: it's ``spiritually discerned.''

2. Worship in Truth

But this is not to say that the Holy Spirit isn't interested in our minds! While there is some truth that can only be understood by the Holy Spirit's direct illumination, nevertheless the bible encourages us to ``sing praises to him with understanding'' (Psalm 47:7, King James Version) and much of the book of Proverbs and the epic Psalm 119 consist of exhortations to develop understanding.

In fact, one of the Holy Spirit's jobs is to teach us (that is, to increase our understanding):

[...] the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
- John 14:26

The ``and remind you'' part of this verse is very important: one of the crucial things that the Holy Spirit does is to bring our minds back to doctrine that we already know (for example, the unconditional nature of God's forgiveness), and bring it alive again. In fact, one of the Holy Spirit's titles is ``the Spirit of truth'', and we are promised that he ``will guide [us] into all truth'' (John 16:13).

Digression: It's funny how the Holy Spirit and doctrine are sometimes seen as opposites, or as rivals for our attention, so that a recent Westminster Chapel conference was called ``The Spirit and the Word'', as though to suggest that this is an innovative juxtaposition. Maybe what people are thinking of is the verse in Galatians, which says that ``the letter kills but the spirit gives life'', but the ``letter'' here refers to the Old Testament law, not to the understanding of doctrine. In fact the ``sword of the Spirit'' is ``the word of God'' (Ephesians 6:17). One of the good things about New Frontiers is an uncompromising emphasis in its teaching on both the Holy Spirit and the bible.

Grasping doctrine - that is, understanding facts about God - is one of the great spurs to worship. This is why so often the calls to worship in the Old Testament are accompanied by statements about God, to which the reader is supposed to respond:

Come, let us bow down in worship,
         let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;
for he is our God
         and we are the people of his pasture,
         the flock under his care.
- Psalm 95:6-7

It is because he is our Maker and our God, and because we are his people, the flock under his care, that we can worship him. Here's a more complete example:

[...] great is the LORD and most worthy of praise;
         he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the nations are idols,
         but the LORD made the heavens.
Splendour and majesty are before him;
         strength and joy in his dwelling-place.
Ascribe to the LORD, O families of nations,
         ascribe to the LORD glory and strength,
         ascribe to the LORD the glory due to his name.
Bring an offering and come before him;
         worship the LORD in the splendour of his holiness.
- 1 Chronicles 16:25-29

You can find your own examples very very easily - the Old Testament is full of this sort of thing.

3. Application

The application of all this is pretty obvious: we need more of the Holy Spirit, and more Truth! Because this conclusion comes from basic biblical principles, it applies equally to worship on Sunday mornings, in cells, and alone.

I would like to address the issue of the Holy Spirit in cells specifically, though.

One of the fundamental problems with the various small groups I've been in over the years is that there is rarely any real expectation of the Holy Spirit's moving in cell meetings; and consequently, little or no time made for him. If cells are to be useful in reaching out to non-Christians, it will surely be because visitors see that God is there, rather than because they're friendly groups where people seem to sort of like each other, more or less. My conviction is that worthwhile cells are cells where the Holy Spirit is given time and space to work in people; where he's expected to work; and where we don't fill the program up with our own ideas just to be on the safe side (``What if he doesn't turn up?''.)

When the Holy Spirit is present, our groups will grow immeasurably in worship, but also in other areas such as the development of individuals' character (the fruit of the Spirit) and the potential of bible studies to make a real difference to people's attitudes, thinking and behaviour.

Web Address

These notes are available on the internet at http://www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/worship.html
Feedback to <mike@miketaylor.org.uk> is welcome!