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Worship's Touchstone

by Judson Cornwall, Th.D.

Jesus said to her, 'Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth' (John 4:21-24).

The compassionate ministry of Jesus took Him into the region of Judea near the Dead Sea, where so many people responded to Him that the Pharisees became alarmed that He baptized more disciples than His cousin John did. Rather than deal with this religious jealousy, and being totally unmoved by being designated the number one minister of His day, Jesus chose to return to the Galilean area with its beautiful Sea of Galilee.

The journey was, of course, on foot, and it took Him through the land of Samaria. About midway in this journey He gave in to His weariness and sat down by Jacob's well near Sychar, while His disciples went on into the city to purchase something to eat. While the disciples were gone, a woman from the city came to draw some water for household use, and Jesus asked her for a drink of water.

This simple request, very common in the East, produced a confrontation that induced confusion and ultimately led to her confession of her unclean marital status. That opened the way for Jesus to give His greatest recorded discourse on worship.

Jesus gave us a standard, a gauge, a touchstone by which to judge the genuineness or the quality of worship. Jesus declared, "The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him'" (John 4:23). This is God's touchstone - His bureau of measurement - to determine the purity of worship.

It is unfortunate that the Church has been willing to allow individuals and sectarian groups to establish their own rules of authenticity for worship. Some measure it by its beauty; others, by its volume; and some, by its length. But Jesus gave us three separate measurements by which to test the validity of any person's worship. He said that (1) all worship must be directed to the Father; (2) true worship will be out of man's spirit; and (3) pure worship will be offered in truth.

Today's Church could be spared much confusion and conflict if she would judge worship by this Divine standard rather than the standard of what is popularly acceptable to the congregation.

The Bench Mark of the Father
In making topographical surveys, a surveyor often puts a mark on a permanent object to serve as an elevation reference. He calls this the "bench mark." From this, the word came to be used for a point of reference for measurement.

Jesus clearly placed His Father as the bench mark of worship. Everything done in worship must measure up to this mark of the Father. The very first point of reference to be checked when seeking to determine the validity of any worship is the object of that worship. If God is not the obvious object, then that worship is false worship, no matter how beautiful, elaborate, or moving it may be.

While this may seem self-evident, it is disturbing to observe the vast amount of public worship that is directed to an object far lower than the bench mark of the Father. Some churches seem to worship worship rather than worship God, and others worship the emotion that worship gives them - they enjoy the "spiritual high" they get in worshipping together.

Other groups don't seem to even have a specific object for their worship. They merely call for a "time of worship," and each individual is allowed to focus his thoughts on whatever he desires. And, of course, there are those groups whose adulation goes to the pastor rather than to God, but this is hero worship, not spiritual worship.

All worship that is not offered to God falls short of the bench mark Jesus set for true worship. No matter how beautiful the method or how pure the motive, unless God is the direct object of worship, it is manifestly false worship.

In declaring that the true worshippers will worship the Father, Jesus was not excluding Himself or the Holy Spirit as objects of our worship. Jesus was never in doubt about His divinity. He allowed people to worship Him, and at His trial He clearly declared that He was the Son of God.

In speaking of Jesus, Paul wrote, "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell" (Colossians 1:15,19). Jesus came to give us a revelation of the Father.

It is likely that we can more comfortably approach the Father through the Son, for we have a visualization of Jesus, but our concept of God is often so nebulous as to prevent the full focusing of our thoughts on Him. Perhaps the best formula for approaching God in both worship and prayer is "Through Him [Jesus] we both have access by one Spirit to the Father" (Ephesians 2:18). It is through Jesus, by the Spirit, unto the Father.

But the bench mark of worship is the object, not the formula, of the worship. Jesus told the woman at the well, "'You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship" (John 4:22).

The woman was arguing the fine point of where to worship - the mountain in Samria or the Temple in Jerusalem - but Jesus reduced the issue to knowing the Person Who was being worshipped. The standard has not changed! The first test of our worship must be "Do you know Whom you are worshipping?" It must be more than tagging God's name to our worship liturgy; it is actually knowing God and worshipping Him out of that knowledge.

When Paul addressed the Athenians on Mars' hill, he "stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, 'Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing Him, I proclaim to you" (Acts 17:22-23).

Isn't it likely that we need a few modern Pauls to travel through our churches and introduce the congregations to the God to Whom they build their buildings and express their worship? If we don't know Him, what depth can there possibly be to our worship? Can we satisfactorily extol the unseen, magnify the unknown, or love the unrevealed?

The express purpose for the coming of Jesus was to reveal the Father to us. The more we know Jesus, the more we will know of the Father. Jesus could declare that "'the hour is coming, and now is" because He came to bring us from the unknown god to the true and living God.

God is seeking worshippers of Himself who have received sufficient revelation of Him through Jesus and the Holy Spirit to be able to respond to Him both knowledgeably and emotionally. The Father seeks such worshippers, the Son gives sufficient revelation of the Father, and the Spirit channels the worship responses of those who offer such extravagant respect and devotion to the Godhead to enable their worship to be genuine.

Wherever this operation of God assisting worship is absent, we have good reason to question the genuineness of that worship, for God's Person as both the object of, and assistance to, worship is the bench mark by which worship is judged.

The Touchstone of Spirit
The second test to determine the validity of worship is whether it proceeds from the spirit. When Jesus said that the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit, He left it to us to determine if He meant the human spirit or the Holy Spirit. Qualified interpreters of the Scriptures sustain both views, and perhaps each concept is valid.

The translators of the King James and the New King James Bibles, with many other translators, have used a lowercase "s," indicating their conviction that the thrust of the Greek language used by Jesus indicates that He was referring to the human spirit. If so, Jesus was declaring that the touchstone for testing worship is whether or not it comes from man's spirit.

Some authors have written about the soul-spirit of man. They usually divide the soul from the spirit, assigning emotions and will to the soul, and conscience and God-awareness to the spirit. Leaving the finer division between the soul and spirit for exposition by others, let's accept the premise that Jesus used the word "spirit" in the Old Testament concept of the inner nature of man. This is the part of man that has a conscience, a God-consciousness, a will, and emotions and feelings. It is the nonbiological part of a person - that which sets humanity apart from and above the animal world.

True worshippers respond to God from something higher than instinct or physical passion. We have an intellect that can be inspired to a concept of God. We have a will that can determine that worship is going to be offered, regardless of how we feel. We have emotions that can express themselves to God worshipfully.

The psalmist, in speaking of man, wrote, "You have made him a little lower than the angels, and You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet" (Psalm 8:5-6). Surely such a high creature is capable of high-level response to his Maker.

Perhaps Jesus was saying that a touchstone of worship is that true worship must come from the inner person. The performance of mere outer rituals cannot be classified as worship unless it is a genuine expression of an inner feeling. It is the attitude of the "heart," the predisposition of man's soul, and the yearning of his spirit that makes worship alive enough to please God.

In his book, Whatever Happened to Worship? A.W. Tozer wrote, "The very last thing God desires is to have shallow-minded and worldly Christians bragging on Him." God wants some depth in our worship. He desires some feeling expressed to Him. As vital as words are, God wants a person's spirit in those words if they are to worship Him. As beautiful as singing and instrumental music may be in a worship service, unless they are releasing the spirits of the musicians to God they are but "sounding brass or clanging cymbal" (I Corinthians 13:1).

How much spiritless worship transpires in our churches! The choir sings, the instrumentalists play, the soloists sing, and occasionally the dancers dance, but there is no spirit in it. It lacks even the natural enthusiasm that a ball game can generate. All the while this is going on, the congregation sits as spectators of this soulless presentation and applauds its performers. And we dare call this worship!

When testing the validity of worship, ignore the trappings, the expertise, the beauty, the polish, and even the dedication. The touchstone is man's spirit. Does the worship come from the heart or from the head? Is it the release of inner attitudes or merely the performance of an outer ritual? If a person's soul/spirit is not released toward God, it is not true worship - according to the criterion given to us by Jesus.

David seemed to understand the need to respond to God with the inner person, for he wrote, "Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits" (Psalm 103:1-2). Perhaps this should be our early prayer when we prepare to worship. Command the inner nature to begin to respond to God with thanksgiving, rejoicing, reverence, and adoration. This is true worship.

The Acid Test of Truth
Still a third test Jesus gave to us so that we can determine the worth of any worship experience is the acid test of truth. "'True worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth,'" Jesus said. Then He added, "'God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth'" (John 4:23-24).

While it is true that Jesus called Himself the Truth, the translators have not capitalized the word "truth" in either verses 23 or 24. It is not likely that the reference is to Jesus. This does no violence to the obvious fact that all worship must have the action of the Holy Spirit and be offered to the Father through Jesus Christ. It is just that this is not the proof text to use for that concept.

What Jesus was emphasizing here is that worship which proceeds to the Father from man's spirit must be truthful. Honesty in communicating with God is an absolute prerequisite for true worship. While this may seem to be prima facie, it apparently is not well understood by many worshippers, for if you listen carefully to worship responses (whether your own or those given by others) you will hear much exaggeration, overstatement, distortion, and out-and-out lying. Even some of the songs we sing as worship responses are more fantasy than fact.

It is not that we come into God's presence to consciously lie to Him, but we often approach God with a desire to tell Him what we think He wants to hear instead of what is honestly in our hearts. We've learned a variety of religious cliches that may once have expressed the feelings of someone somewhere, but they aren't even close to our present inner feelings. Still, we recite them because we feel that they are what God wants to hear. Have we failed to grasp what David paid so great a price to learn: "Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts" (Psalm 51:6)?

Some years ago I knelt in the prayer room of the church I was then pastoring and began my Monday morning prayer time by saying, "Lord, You are wonderful. I love You more than life itself." Inwardly the Spirit rebuked me and said, "You liar. You're mad at God."

That was truth. On the preceding day I felt that God had been very unfair with me in some things that had happened in the Sunday morning service, and I was seething with anger. Caught off guard, I heard myself say, "You're right. I am angry with God, and for good reason." I then went on to explain the reason for my anger, and since I expected Divine judgment to be poured out on me almost immediately, I dragged out all the previous actions of God that had angered me, and aired them.

When I had finished, the Spirit asked, "Is that all?"

"That's all I can think of right now," I answered rather meekly.

"Well, Judson, the Spirit said, "that's the most honest prayer you have prayed so far this year."

I discovered that God would rather have me explode at Him in anger, if that is honestly what is in me, than to pretend to have loving throughts and feelings for Him. As long as I covered my feelings, God could do nothing about them, but when I expressed them, I opened myself for forgiveness, healing, and adjustment of attitude.

If a marriage is going to survive, the husband and wife must learn to speak honestly rather than to hide and repress their feelings. How much more are honesty of heart and transparency of life necessary if we are to maintain a loving relationship with God?

Religion seems to offer us cloaks and masks behind which to hide, but Jesus dares us to come out from behind everything that would conceal the true "us" and come to Him in complete truth. Perhaps the main reason there is so little truth in worship is that so few have found sufficient freedom to deal with truth.

"Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, 'If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free'" (John 8:31-32). We learn the truth by being around the truth. Attention to God's Word will free us to accept what God says about us and to say that back to God in times of worship.

Truth may come out sounding more crude than learned religious phrases, but Jesus said that the acid test for pure worship is truth. God prefers a truthful expression, however, crude it may sound, above the flowery prayer of an untrue heart.

Since worship is far more than mind-set, Jesus taught us that expressions of worship must be directed to the Father from a person's spirit in a truthful manner. This offers the worshipper a high level of release in God's presence.

A chapter from the book Worship as Jesus Taught it, copyright 1987 (out of print) by Judson Cornwall, Th.D., a well known pastor, teacher, and author on the subject of worship.

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