When the Samaritian woman perceived that Jesus was a prophet she brought up the subject of worship. "Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship" (Jn. 4:20).
The conflict between the Samaritians who worshiped in Mount Gerizim and the Jews who worshiped in Jerusalem was foremost in Her mind. Perhaps she thought she had Jesus in a bind on the subject. Perhaps He would be tolerant of all worship. He was not. Jesus said, "You worship that which you do not know; we worship that which we know...." The Lord had ordained worship at the temple in Jerusalem. That, according to Jesus, made worship there acceptable. But worship in Mount Gerizim was not acceptable.
The time would come, according to Jesus, when worship even in Jerusalem would not be acceptable. "God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (Jn. 4:24). Worship in spirit is spiritual worship which one offers in his/her spirit to God (Rom. 1:9). Worship in truth is that which is offered in genuineness to the Lord.
The worship of ancient Israel was often not acceptable to the Lord even though they went through the form of what He had commanded. "I have had enough of burnt offerings of ramsÖ. I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats" (Isa. 1:11; cf. Amos 5:22). The ritualistic formalism of Israel made their "worship" unacceptable. But there were individuals who offered that which was acceptable (Ps. 19:14).
Pitching another side of meat on the altar did not make worship acceptable to God. It was necessary for the heart of man and his daily conduct to be right with the Lord (cf. Mt. 5:23-24).
The saints at Corinth failed in their public worship. All the sincerity in the world would not make it right for a Corinthian man to approach God with his head covered (1 Cor. 11). Good intentions would not make their abuse of the Lord's supper acceptable. The assembly in which everyone spoke at the same time was not pleasing to the Lord. Paul said, "But let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner" (1 Cor. 14:40). The day of spiritual gifts has passed but the principles learned from these texts in 1 Corinthians are certainly applicable in our assemblies today.
The Lord is worthy. We must avoid self-made religion (Col. 2:23) and ritualistic formalism and offer service that is well pleasing to Him.
I have watched our brotherhood through thirty years of preaching. We have weathered many issues, most of which no longer matter to a majority. Twenty years ago an older preacher told me the next issue was church autonomy. First, we must identify the real issue, for if we ask the wrong questions, we will likely get the wrong answers. For this article, the issue is worship.
Consider three aspects of worship.
Consider two questions. A few years ago I attended a gospel meeting. The speaker addressed several contemporary issues before offering the invitation. In the front of the Bible I was carrying that night is written this question, "Did he preach the Gospel?" The inclusion of preaching in worship is a reminder that worship ó whether in song, prayer, communing, preaching, sharing, or some other activity ó is ultimately a declaration of God.
Through the years I have seen many visitors attend our assemblies. I have heard many comments from visitors, but one I remember ó I was looking for a church where God is present. "Is God present?" When you worship Sunday, will God be there? The question is haunting. The beginning point is a proper foundation. As we humbly consider our own undoneness, the wonder of the body of Christ united in its frailty, and the presence of God among us despite our sinfulness, let us recommit to declaring the good news of Godís presence in our lives in such a way that those who come among us will say, "God is really among you" (1 Cor. 14:25).
Worship is defined by the Holman Bible Dictionary as: "Human response to the perceived presence of the divine, a presence which transcends normal human activity." I like that definition. It expresses well what worship is, and it helps us talk about the challenges of doing it. After all, worship isn't just a "thing" we talk about and about which we write articles. Worship in the end is a thing we do, and quite often do together.
As an object of study and discussion, it is something that "transcends normal human activity". Yet when we bring it to life we do it through well, "normal human activity". We talk, we sing, we read, we eat. I suggest that one very problematic word in this rhetoric is the word "normal." That seems like such an objective, stable standard to use. And it is easy for me to think that way of course because, after all, I am normal. Is the challenge clear to you yet? Not only are we called to do something that transcends normal human activity using only normal human activity, but the basic unit of measurement (normal) varies wildly with every active human. Each of us defines normal by looking in the mirror and reading our autobiography.
Wasn't it this issue at the core of the "diversion at the well" (John 4)? Remember how Jesus diverted that conversation again to a profound lesson on worship? The woman's question reworded could be, "which high place lets us transcend normal human activity"? And if you will allow me to reword Jesus' answer using the same vernacular, He says, "transcendent worship will not be found on the high places any more, but at the low places, the very low places of normal human activity". It will happen through song, sermon and simple servanthood. He doesn't use those words. He says worship will happen in Spirit and in Truth with a real focus on the worshippers. I submit that these two terms define once and for all that which is "normal". They define God, and God defines Normal. When you worship Him, really worship Him, you activate that normal part of you that is made in His image. And it is not an image on a high place. "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us." (2 Cor 4:6-7)
In your search for worship consider the child singing, "Jesus Loves Me" while jumping rope. Consider the old Sister who doesn't even know her own grandson any more, but can quote the entire 23rd Psalm from memory. Is worship a normal activity for you? Is your treasure in a jar of clay, or only a building of brick? Do you sing hymns in the car or only in the congregation? Do you study at home or only in the church house? Do you pray without ceasing, or only when others are seeing? Is worship a normal part of your life? There are basically two goals of worship. The first is to "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" To adore God in worship is primary, but the "living sacrifice" of service to others is a key part of this thing too. Paul tells us to "speak to one another" when we sing and make music in our hearts to the Lord, and to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph. 5:19-21). That means in corporate worship I must consider what may be "normal" for others, but always keep God (Spirit & Truth) the primary focus. I find it very appropriate and helpful to inject the wisdom of James here. He said, "it is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God" (Acts 15:19). Our worship should be sensitive to what is "normal" for each other, so that we make it easy for anyone to turn to God. Then we will likely experience something powerful, a human response in God's presence which transcends normal human activity.