A phenomenon that has taken the church world by storm over the last two decades has been the ascension of the worship leader who is some sort of music director cum emotion-arouser. It would seem that no church worth its salt, or certainly no church that wants to be current, will fail to have someone filling such a position. Doubtless, some who have this title do fill this role honorably, reverently, and with a view to glorifying the Lord. But the notion that worship can be or should be led by someone whose abilities revolve around music and crowd arousal seems alien to Scripture. Without doubt, music is an integral part of public worship and equally certain it is that reverencing God often entails strong emotions. But here is what the Lord Jesus told a Samaritan woman whom He met at a well in Sychar: “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Since this is an imperative, we must understand the words before we can obey them. Let’s note three critical points from this one verse.
1. The meaning of the word worship. As is usually the case with the words of a text, the Bible does not define worship as would a dictionary. A lexicon or concordance will explain the interesting origin of the Greek word, which derives from a word meaning “to kiss,” or “to lick,” as a dog would lick a hand, hence, the idea of “fawning,” or “crouching.” The literal meaning of the verb is “to prostrate” oneself, which suggests its meaning in typical usage: “to reverence,” or “to adore.” At the core of worship, then, is self-abasement in conscious honor to God. Many activities—e. g., preaching, praying, singing—may instigate, provoke, and accompany worship. But genuine worship is not, first of all, an external act: it is an attitude of the heart. “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts” is the way Peter expresses a similar truth (I Pet. 3:5). Much that passes for worship in contemporary Christendom is frequently little more than a vain display of self-glorification covered with a transparent veneer of false humility. It is a “broken spirit” and a “contrite heart” that God “will not despise” (Psa. 51:17). As Katie Wilkinson wrote: “May they forget the channel, Seeing only Him.” Worship is Spirit-energized, Christ-centered, and God-focused.
2. The significance of worshipping “in spirit.” We may be helped toward the proper definition and understanding of worship if we consider the two words “spirit” and “truth.” While these words do not provide a technical definition of the word worship, they qualify it to such a degree that we will not go wrong in our attempts to worship God properly. The Lord’s use of this term with the Samaritan woman was not intended to be technical, that is to distinguish from “soul,” or “heart,” or “mind.” Rather, He wished to provoke her with the thought that worship is not about external things (Samaritans worshipped at Mt. Gerizim; Jews worshipped at Jerusalem.) but about internal things: the heart, the mind, the will. Certainly, there was a right place to worship (at that time, Jerusalem). Certainly, there were right or wrong actions to be performed or avoided. But worship begins with that part of a person that can know and fellowship with God. True worship involves a reverential experience of that fellowship: God as sovereign Creator and man as humble creature, and Christ as righteous Savior and man as redeemed sinner.
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