John 4:20-26 NET
20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you people say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You people worship what you do not know. We worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But a time is coming – and now is here – when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers. 24 God is spirit, and the people who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (the one called Christ); “whenever he comes, he will tell us everything.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I, the one speaking to you, am he.”
During the month of October, we have been looking at the subject of worship. It was important for us to go back to the Old Testament because that is where the Holy Spirit began teaching God’s people about worship.
In our study of 1 Chronicles 16, we found out that worship was God’s idea, and that we can honor and appreciate people, but only God deserves our worship.
In our study of 2 Kings 21, we found that worship can be corrupted by inviting other gods into our worship, and by picking up practices of other religions and world-views and trying to worship our God the way they worship their gods.
There is a lot more that we can learn from the Old Testament about worship, so some day we are going to come back to it. But for now, we are going to focus on some New Testament passages.
You might remember that a few months ago, I asked the LORD to tell me what he wanted me to focus on in my preaching here in Piney Grove. I believe he answered that prayer. He told me to focus on the commands of Christ.
It makes sense to focus on the commands of Christ because when our Lord gave us his Great Commission, he told us to teach the nations to obey everything he has commanded (Matthew 28:20).
I wanted to do that systematically. The Bible says that “every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). I believe that every means every. So I don’t want to just stay in the familiar territory of the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament, because there is some useful teaching on Christ’s commands in the Old Testament.
So, what I decided to do was reread the Gospels, and every time I encountered something that Jesus commanded, I would write that down on the list. Each of those commands would become a topic, and my plan is to preach a series of sermons on each topic. I would start each series in the Old Testament, and conclude in the New Testament. Doing it that way might take a long time, but that’s alright. I’m not going anywhere.
So, that’s why we have rested today at John chapter 4. It is here that Jesus has his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. Here we learn that…
Worship is not the same thing as worship traditions (20).
This woman at the well understood something about worship, and it was something significant. She knew that worship was something that people fight over. She recognized that when you get a Jewish person and a Samaritan person in the same room, you don’t bring up the subject of worship.
She told Jesus that her ancestors have the tradition of viewing Mount Gerazim as a place of deep spiritual significance. She knew from the Old Testament that Mount Gerazim was where the blessings of the covenant were pronounced by the Israelites in Moses’ time. I don’t know how she – herself showed reverence for that mountain, but she probably had some traditional way of doing that.
I remember when I was living in the Philippines, the people there had lots of religious traditions. One of my favorites that I noticed is that some Jeepney drivers had a set of rosary beads hanging from their rear-view mirror. Whenever they passed a cathedral, they would reach out and touch those beads. Now, those drivers may have been alcoholics. They may have cursed like sailors. They almost always drove recklessly like crazy people. But if you wanted to get in a fight, say something about those beads.
In the church today, we have not outgrown the passion for defending our traditions when it comes to worship. Everybody has their own favorite kind of worship music and their favorite style of worship. Some are comfortable with the worship style they grew up with, while others want to do something new.
I’m not here to convince you that your favorite way of worshiping is wrong. I don’t have a style of worship that I recommend for everyone. I would recommend for all of us that we don’t get hung up on a particular style of worship.
My reason for this is how Jesus responded to this woman’s statement about tradition and worship. He told her that the Jews had a very good reason for focusing their worship at Jerusalem. But then he told her something important about the relationship between traditions and worship.
Traditions change, but worship should not (21).
Jesus told her that a time would soon come when it did not matter which mountain you were near. It would not matter which region you were from, or living in. Both the Samaritans and the Jews would be worshiping God based on something else besides tradition.
Both cultures had learned that three keys to proper worship were “location, location, location.” But both cultures would be transformed by something that would put an end to that kind of thinking. That something that both cultures would be exposed to was the gospel.
It took time for that to happen. The disciples were just learning the gospel from Jesus himself. Yet, they could not understand why Jesus had chosen to go through Samaria, instead of avoiding it.
Notice also what happened when the disciples came back from their trip into town to buy supplies. John records that they “were shocked because he was speaking with a woman” (4:27). The Jewish Rabbis had taught that it is better to burn the Law than teach it to a woman. That was tradition. They had taught that even a husband should not talk with his wife about the Bible and that such a practice could wind up sending them both to hell. That was tradition. This was particularly true in public. The Rabbis taught that a man should not greet a woman in a public place, not even his own wife. That was tradition.
Jesus comes along and blows that tradition out of the water. He is God’s Messiah, and our example. The God of the Bible created both Adam and Eve in his own image and blessed them both with minds capable of learning from him and following his commands. His word to children was “Listen, my child, to the instruction from your father, and do not forsake the teaching from your mother” (Proverbs 1:8).
But then Jesus went on to explain another thing about worship that both the Jews and the Samaritans were going to have to learn.
Worship has to be sincere, and traditions can hinder that (23-24).
He said “a time is coming – and now is here – when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers. God is spirit, and the people who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Jesus said that the Father is looking for a certain kind of worshiper. This kind of worshiper is not going to be so easily identified. You will not just be able to go to Mount Gerazim and find him. You might not even find any in Jerusalem.
No, Jesus says the evidence of a true worshiper is that the worship is “in spirit and truth.” But what does that mean?
The only explanation Jesus gives is that he says that God is spirit. What does that mean in this context? In the previous chapter, John had recorded Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.
Jesus told Nicodemus that “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). If I were to show you a family photo with myself, Penny, and our three daughters, you would see a physical resemblance. Flesh gives birth to similar flesh.
But Jesus told Nicodemus that a person cannot enter the kingdom unless he is born of the Spirit. He said “The wind blows wherever it will, and you hear the sound it makes, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). One thing you might not know is that in the original of that verse, the word for wind and the word spirit is the same Greek word.
Spirit is like the wind. It is real, but you cannot see it. It is not tangible. You can only see its effect on tangible things. So, someone who is worshiping in Spirit takes on the characteristics of God’s Holy Spirit. Those characteristics cannot be explained by that person’s fleshly heritage. They will have nothing to do with where that person is from in the flesh – Gerazim, Jerusalem – it does not matter. What matters is the Holy Spirit is the source of the worship.
Those worshipers worship in truth. This is the easiest statement in the whole text to explain. It speaks of authenticity. A hypocrite might go to Gerazim, and act like a worshiper. He might go to Jerusalem and act like a worshiper. The traditions can actually hinder true worship.
But here is something else John mentioned in chapter 3:
“Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light, so that their deeds will not be exposed. But the one who practices the truth comes to the light, so that it may be plainly evident that his deeds have been done in God” (John 3:19-21).
So, to worship in truth is to allow the light of Jesus’ presence to expose your falsehood, and replace it with his truth. That is authentic worship. It does not pretend to approach God on one’s own merit. It allows the light/truth to change you on the inside. It is giving up my control and allowing God to be sovereign – even over how I worship him.
LORD, we want to worship you – your way. Expose the darkness of our own traditions and fleshly choices. Teach us how to let go and let your Holy Spirit move us where you want us to go.