In an unlikely encounter with an immoral Samaritan woman, our Lord Jesus uttered one of most important statements ever made about worship. In John’s deeply moving account of Jesus’ meeting with the woman at the well, after Jesus uncovers her hidden sin and shame, she asks Him about a worship matter of long dispute between Jews and Samaritans — and of great importance to them both: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:20–26).
Jesus’ answer thunders with points of significance regarding the momentous transition that He Himself was bringing about in the history of redemption through His own life, ministry, death and resurrection; but it also speaks specifically to the theology of Christian worship.
First, Jesus’ great statement that we must “worship in spirit and truth” has implications for every aspect of biblical worship. The Bible indicates that worship is both a specific activity and a way of life. Worship, as an activity, has at least three aspects in the Bible (public worship, family worship, and private worship) alongside all-of-life worship.
Public worship occurs when the people of God assemble for the express purpose of giving to the Lord the glory due His name and enjoying the joy of His promised special presence with His own people. This kind of worship is sometimes called “corporate worship” (because the body, or corpus, of Christ, that is, the Church, is collectively involved in this encounter with God), and sometimes it is called “gathered,” “assembled,” or “congregational” worship. This important aspect of worship is featured in both the Old and New Testaments. While Psalm 100:2 and Hebrews 10:25 speak of “coming before the Lord” and “assembling together” they are both addressing public worship.
Family worship is led by fathers, or other heads of families, with a view to establishing God-centered homes, promoting worship in all of life in all the members of the household, and in preparation for public worship. The Bible makes clear the importance of family worship (Ex. 12:3; Deut. 6:6–8; Josh. 24:15).
Private worship (which is sometimes called “secret worship” or “personal worship”) is taught and modeled throughout Scripture, especially by Jesus, Daniel, David, and Peter. Jesus gave specific instructions to His disciples about it in Matthew 6:6, and He exemplified it in Mark 1:35 and Luke 5:16. David spoke of it Psalm 5:3. Daniel spoke of it in Daniel 6:10, and Peter spoke of it in Acts 10:9.
Worship in all of life is stressed in both the Old and New Testaments and is behind the Shorter Catechism’s assertion that “man’s chief purpose is to glorify God.” In Jonah 1:9, when the prophet Jonah described himself as one who reverenced God, he wasn’t speaking of something he did exclusively on Saturdays, but he was characterizing his whole manner of life. Paul, too, says we are to glorify God in everything we do (1 Cor. 10:31), and this is what we mean by all-of-life worship.
Second, Jesus’ great statement that we must “worship in spirit and truth” means that we must glorify God (in public, family, private, and all of life) in accordance with God’s own nature and truth. This means at least two things: First, we must realize that God is Spirit, and, hence, He is not tied to one location for our worship. Second, we must worship according to the truth of Jesus’ person and work, for He is the truth (John 1:14; 14:6) and, thus, the only way whereby we may truly worship God. In other words, Jesus is Himself “the truth” according to which we must worship. He is the very incarnation of God (John 1:14), the embodiment of the Father’s character (John 14:6), and the fullest revelation of God’s nature and plan (John 1:18; Heb. 1:1–3). Thus, to worship in truth means to worship in accordance with the truth of and about Jesus — that He is the Son of God, the Messiah, and the only Savior of sinners.
So, for starters, when we say that we are to “worship in spirit and in truth,” we are saying that in public, family, private, and all of life we are to glorify and enjoy God — which are the two parts of all worship. Second, we are to worship God in light of who He is (and since He is Spirit we must worship in spirit, or in accordance with the reality that He is Spirit). Third, we must worship God in accordance with His revelation (that is, carefully adhering to the directions of His Word). Fourth, we must worship God in complete dependence upon, and trust in, Jesus Himself (who is the truth in the flesh).