In our generation, worship is an elusive term. While everyone would agree that worship is more than music and singing, every time the word is used, it is used in reference to music and singing. These words from John 4, that God is Spirit and we must worship Him in spirit and truth, seem both bizarre and out of place. They are bizarre because we simply don’t understand what worship means outside of the context of music and singing, or at least an artistic expression, and they are out of place because in the story of John 4 there doesn’t seem to be a reason that the discussion goes there. We might assume that the woman at the well has been asking this question, and now that a prophet is before her she is going to ask, or it might be that she has resentment against the Jews for their mistreatment of the Samaritans. Either way, this episode has a statement about truth that we must burrow into.
The woman speaks of worshiping on ‘this mountain’, as opposed to Jerusalem. Jesus then says that God is not interested in your location, but rather the character of the worship. In both cases, the worship being described here is sacrifices. Whether you are on ‘this mountain’, or in Jerusalem, the worship that the culture understood was the sacrifices to please and appease God. Yet, Jesus takes the focus away from that, and He tells the woman it isn’t about the sacrifice, nor the system that you subscribe to, but about what the sacrifice itself represents. Just as the Sabbath was not created to rule over man as a law that we must all obey and submit to, so too the sacrifices were not commanded for strict adherence in order to appease God. God is not hungry; He is jealous.
Worship that is in spirit and truth is worship that sees the Throne, and that Jerusalem is not chosen because God says so, but because it is the place of the Throne. One perceives God, and in that perception, the heart responds with praise. This verse captures my attention, because I recognize that often we think of spirit and truth as being opposed to one another, as if intelligence cannot be ‘in faith’. Faith and intelligence do not square off against one another, warring as if they are the flesh and the spirit. No, the spirit goes hand in hand with the truth, and the Holy Spirit is even called the Spirit of Truth. Worshiping in spirit and truth is worshiping God in His own nature, because we have seen God, and we know God, and we love God.
Taking these things seriously, worship is expressed in lifestyle as well as instantaneous and spontaneous expression. Within the first couple centuries, we can find exactly this sort of expression recorded in a few sources:
“They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonored and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum it all up in one word – what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.”1
“They abstain from all impurity in the hope of the recompense that is to come in another world. As for their servants or handmaids or children, they persuade them to become Christians by the love they have for them. And when they become so, they call them without distinction brothers. They do not worship strange gods, and they walk in all humility and kindness, and falsehood is not found among them and they love one another. And when they see the stranger, they bring him to their homes and they rejoice over him as over a true brother for they do not call brothers those who are after the flesh but those who are in the Spirit and in God. And there is among them a man that is poor and needy and if they have not an abundance of necessities, they will fast two or three days that they may supply the needy with his necessary food. And they observe scrupulously the commandment of their Messiah. They live honestly and soberly as the Lord their God commanded them. Every morning and all hours on account of the goodness of God toward them, they render praise and laud Him over their food and their drink; they render Him thanks. And if any righteous person of their number passes away from this world, they rejoice and give thanks to God and they follow his body as though he were moving from one place to another. And when a child is born to them, they praise God, and if again it chances to die in its infancy, they praise God mightily, as for one who has passed through the world without sins. Such is the law of the Christians and such is their conduct.”2
The early church fathers, called the ante nicene fathers, wrote about their lifestyle. It was communal, wrestling together daily with the saints. Whatever cares the world brought, whether from persecution or from the needs of life, they were counted as secondary in importance to the cause of Christ and living the message that He has given us to proclaim. The zeal of these first couple century saints is an indictment to our modern Christianity, in all forms, because we think that by having the same doctrines, or by progressing their thoughts a little further, that we are somehow in the same expression of faith. Our Christianity is utterly anemic in comparison, and even their Christian culture is anemic in comparison to the fervency the apostles and the Lord Jesus Christ have displayed and commanded. Those Jewish saints recorded in Acts had the Bible memorized, if not in its entirety, then certainly in its content and intention. They knew the words, and they lived the words. What Paul says of the Church in Corinth was likewise true of them in respect to Jesus: Ye are our epistles.
My own heart aches for the lack of this apostolic expression in the earth. It isn’t that no one is serious, but that our passion is either misguided or stunted. How is it that fishermen and the sinners were sent out, and within a couple handfuls of years cities were proclaiming, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also”? A single generation had not yet passed, and already their mark was made on the whole of the known world. Metropolises that were devoted to Caesar worship were flipped upside down to becoming epicenters of Jesus worship, and this is the very thing that got the apostles killed. So full of the spirit and truth were they that not a single one died easily, even though not a single one resisted. Their own physical bodies had so much life in them from the Spirit that they simply would not die, and the apostle John himself had to disquiet the rumors that said he would live forever.3 I conclude by asking the question, “Has the expression of worship in your life followed the example that has been laid before us?”
1 The epistle of Diognates A.D. 130
2 From The Apology of Aristides, an outsider view of Christianity being recounted to Emperor Hadrian A.D. 117-38.
3 John 21:22