December 18, 2017

Worship According to Jesus

Kevin Schaal

American worship is as fad-oriented as present American society. The slickly marketed, highenergy, fast-moving approach to worship, so popular in the 1980s and `90s, is giving way to the calmer, highly sensory, Montessori-style worship of the Emergent Church movement. The problem with all these worship styles—even traditional forms—is that worship and church leaders are more interested in staying in touch with people than staying in touch with God. After all, worship, by its very nature, is about God, not about us. Planning worship forms around the worshippers is much like giving my wife a power saw for her birthday. I like it, I will enjoy giving it, but it’s not what she asked for and is certainly not what she wants.

If we want to understand the type of worship that God desires we need to find out what Jesus said about worship.

Jesus’ Teaching on Worship in John 4:19–26

Jesus went to Samaria with a purpose. The Samaritans represented the vestiges of the Israelites who remained in the land of Israel during the Babylonian exile. They had intermarried with the occupying nations and were considered half-breeds and outcasts by the Jews who returned from the exile. They had continued the Samaritan form of worship begun by Jereboam when he rebelled against Reheboam after Solomon’s death. When Jereboam rebelled, he changed the place where Israel worshipped. For political and practical purposes, he made Samaria the new place of worship for the Northern Kingdom. Jesus sat next to an historical site—Jacob’s well—built by the patriarch, a common ancestor to both Jews and Samaritans.

As Jesus waited for the disciples to return from the city with food, a woman of the city came to draw water. It was the wrong time of day for women to draw water. She was a social outcast because of her many sins.[1] When Jesus began to talk with the lady, she was at first startled, then intrigued by His words. But when the conversation got uncomfortably personal, she quickly switched the subject to an issue that had been a flashpoint of conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans—worship. “The Samaritan woman diverted the conversation from her own troubled domestic life to the theology of worship. She gave our Lord opportunity to express words that rivet our attention and rock our assumptions.”[2]

Nature of the Question

With her question she drew from our Lord one of the most significant statements on worship found in Scripture. Of this passage, Hodges says,

Her expectation was not disappointed. She had raised the subject of worship, and the Savior’s reply was as pregnant a statement on this theme as had ever escaped the lips of man. Indeed, once He had uttered it, it would be impossible thereafter for any man intelligently to ponder this theme without returning to consider those priceless words. As an utterance on worship they were timeless and absolutely definitive.[3]

She brought up a contradiction between the Samaritan teachings on worship and the Jewish teachings. She wanted to know which was the proper place of worship— Samaria, where her fathers told her, or on the temple mount in Jerusalem. Whether or not her question was sincere is beside the point. It is Jesus’ answer that astounds.

Jesus’ Answer

Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know no what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:21–24).

True worship is not bound by location. Jereboam’s sin was not one of simply changing worship locations, but of rebellion. The Jews worshipped all over the wilderness in a moveable tabernacle. So the argument of here or there is moot. It is not an issue of location but of heart. But what is worship from the heart? The heresy of the Samaritans was that they selectively incorporated Judaism into their worship. “The heresy of Samaritanism—the practice of picking out what we like to worship and rejecting what we do not like—is widespread.”[4]

True worship must be intelligent. Jesus said, “Ye worship ye know not what” (John 4:22). In this area the Jews were right. They had an understanding of the true God. The Samaritans had lost the doctrine that provided the foundation for true worship.

The Samaritans worshipped in ignorance, He said. There was one sense in which that was factually true. The Samaritans accepted only the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. They rejected all the rest of the Old Testament. They had therefore rejected all the great messages of the prophets and all the supreme devotion of the Psalms. They had a truncated religion because they had a truncated Bible; they had rejected the knowledge that was open to them and that they might have had. Further, the Jewish Rabbis had always shared the Samaritans with a merely superstitious worship of the true God. They always said that the Samaritan worship was founded not on love and knowledge, but on ignorance and fear.[5]

They had no concept of who God was or what they were doing when they worshipped. Jesus pointed out that the problem with the Samaritans was that they did not know what they worshipped. This was clear in the Old Testament when Israel fell so quickly into golden calf worship after Jereboam (1 Kings 12:28–33).

Ritual becomes empty without meaning or understanding. One great danger of present-day worship is the use of forms without understanding. That is why constant preaching and teaching is an essential part of worship. Churchgoers sing the same hymn for years, memorize the words after years of repetition, yet have no concept of its meaning. In the market church setting, the sentimentality and lack of doctrinal content in worship music and practice leaves little of cognitive substance with the worshipper beyond the worship experience.

True worship is spiritual. Jesus said that worshippers must worship “in spirit” (John 4:23). God is a spiritual being, not a physical being. Worship is where man seeks to come before God, into His presence. It does not seek to lower God to man’s presence. Worship must be performed with the spiritual part of man. The idea of the word “spirit” in this verse is not the Holy Spirit. It is the spirit of the man that is worshipping. Worship is not simply an outward form or exercise. Martin interprets this verse, “worship in spirit and reality.”[6] The concept of the word “truth” has to do with genuineness of heart rather than the revealed truth of Scripture. It has been already demonstrated that didactic truth is essential to proper worship, but so is genuineness of heart. Jesus is not saying that worship does not include the physical, but rather, worship that is not in genuineness of spirit, is not worship at all. Bodily actions or words without heart do not count for worship.

True worship must be focused upon God. “True worshippers shall worship the Father” (John 4:23). The nature of worship is dictated by the nature of God. It is not a place or a process that is most important, it is a person. As soon as worship makes celebrities of the worshippers, it ceases to be worship. Jesus moves the emphasis from men and places it upon God. There is, then, a danger, even in this study. If a simple process is delineated whereby a church can “improve” its worship, the focus can easily shift to a process of worship. Worship is and must be person oriented, and that person must be God.

God is actively seeking worshippers. “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him” (John 4:23). This is the prime motivation for winning souls: they become true worshippers of God and finally bring glory to God. Any other reason is a secondary benefit. God is now desiring His children to worship Him, and that they reproduce themselves in others who will worship Him in truth.

True worship is made complete in Christ. “The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things. Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he” (John 4:25, 26). The woman could not understand completely. She looked to the Messiah to understand. When Christ revealed Himself as Messiah, she responded with faith. There is a mystery about God that can be revealed only in Jesus. The fact of Christ’s deity allows us to worship Christ and still be worshipping God.

Jesus’ Teaching on Worship in Matthew 12:1–8

Another passage that reveals significant teaching of Christ on worship is found in Matthew 12:1–8.

At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day. But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests? Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless? But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple. But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.

Jesus’ disciples walked through a field on the Sabbath and picked grain and ate it. The narrow strips between fields of grain were considered a right-of-way for travelers. Also, according to Jewish law the disciples were correct in taking grain to eat. “There is no suggestion that the disciples were stealing. The Law expressly laid it down that the hungry traveler was entitled to do just what the disciples were doing, so long as he only used his hands to pluck the ears of corn, and did not use a sickle”[7] (Deut. 23:25). But it was the Sabbath Day. “Harvesting” on the Sabbath violated one of the many Sabbath laws of the Jews. The Pharisees caught the problem and were critical.

Laws of worship were not made to be completely inflexible. When David and his men were hungry (starving), they ate the priests’ food and were not condemned, even though the law did not allow it. David was called a man after God’s own heart. David did not consider it sin. Technically, the priests violated the law by performing their temple duties on the Sabbath. Jesus says this to point out the ridiculous nature of their argument. “Human need must take precedence of all other claims. The claims of worship, the claims of ritual, the claims of liturgy are important but prior to any of them is the claim of human need.”[8] Worship is meant to be reasonable. It should not place burdens upon people too great to bear. It is meant to draw the heart toward God, not make the worshipper physically miserable. While worship forms must not be subject to every human whim and fad, they should not rule over legitimate human need.

God is greater than the practice of worship. There is some debate as to what Christ meant by the words “Son of man” in verse eight. Some would see “Son of man” as a reference of Christ to Himself. Jesus is saying that He rules the Sabbath and may do with it as He pleases. Others say that Jesus is using “[son] of man” as a reference to men in general. Thus He would be saying that human need overrides the importance of the Sabbath. Because of Christ’s primary use of the term and the following context, the former is the most likely interpretation.

The practice of worshipping had become more important to the Jews than God Himself. The source of inflexibility in worship is selfishness. The Pharisees would save their sheep if it was in trouble on the Sabbath and not consider it sin. The motivation was obviously personal wealth and well-being. The Pharisees considered it illegal to heal on the Sabbath because this was work. They placed the value of a sheep above the value of a man. The reason was that the healing of a man did not serve their own self-interest. The Pharisees were so self-centered and absorbed with meaningless ritual that they missed the fact that the Messiah, the Lord of the Sabbath, was in their presence. They worshipped worship.

Jesus referred to an Old Testament passage to drive home His argument about the nature of worship. Hosea 6:6 demonstrates that in the Old Testament, God was more concerned about a man’s relationship with God than his practice of worship ritual. Jesus used the Old Testament that the Pharisees reverenced to teach the error of their practice.

We who consider ourselves Bible-believers ought to regularly examine our worship practices to see whether they conform to the teaching of Christ. Changes happen subtly, and it’s easy to miss them, especially as churches get larger, more diverse, and more talented. Do we worship our worship style, our talented performers, the worshippers themselves, or the God who ought to be the focus of worship? Is He pleased with what He sees in our congregational gatherings? Is God pleased with what He saw in your church last Sunday?


Kevin Schaal is pastor of Northwest Valley Baptist Church in Glendale, Arizona and Chairman of the Board of the FBFI.

(Originally published in FrontLine • November / December 2005. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Barclay, William, The Gospel According to John, Vol. 1 (Westminster Press: 1975), 148. []
  2. Allan and Borror, Worship: Rediscovering the Missing Jewel (Multnomah Press: 1982), 32. []
  3. Hodges, Zane, The Hungry Inherit (Multnomah: 1980), 18. []
  4. Tozer, A. W., Whatever Happened to Worship (Christian Publications: 1985), 42. []
  5. Barclay, 159. []
  6. Martin, Ralph P., The Worship of God (Eerdman’s: 1982), 173. []
  7. Barclay, 21. []
  8. Ibid., 24. []


Although Proclaim & Defend is the blog of the FBFI, the articles we post are not an expression of the views of the FBFI as a whole, they are the views of the author under whose name they are published. The FBFI speaks either through position statements by its board or through its president. Here at Proclaim & Defend, we publish articles as matters of interest or edification to the wider world of fundamentalist Baptists and any others who might be interested.

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