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Spiritual Worship

In John chapter 4, the Bible records a very interesting encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. This encounter is interesting for several reasons, and different people draw different lessons from that meeting. However, one of the most important principles which Jesus outlined to the woman is often overlooked. We find it expressed in the following words:

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 4:23-24)

Notice the emphasis on “true worshipers,” because there are true worshipers and there are false worshipers. The true worshipers worship the father in spirit and in truth, and in fact the father is seeking for those kinds of people to worship him. Jesus goes on to explain why those who worship God must worship him in spirit and in truth. It is because, “God is a spirit.” In other words, those who worship God in the acceptable way are those who understand the true nature of God and worship him on that basis.

Physical vs Spiritual

The woman had suggested to Jesus that the mountain on which they were standing was a place which was special to God. According to her, that mountain was the place where Israel had worshiped in ancient times, but now the Jews had changed the location and were worshiping in Jerusalem. Her question was, “where is the true place of worship?” She was focused on sacred places, and more to the point, her worship was focused on physical things. This was the way they worshiped in those times.

Now Jesus declared that the time had arrived when those who truly worshiped God would no longer worship in that way. “God is a spirit,” that is the point! We worship in spirit because God is a spirit, so if our worship is focused on physical things, we are really implying that God is physical. We are suggesting that God is a person like ourselves, and the consequence is that we will relate to God as a physical being, with the limitations of the physical.

In former times, during the Old Testament, people were excused for relating to God in this way. Those whom he claimed as his people were spiritual children, their understanding of God was very limited and they could be forgiven for thinking that God lived in the most holy place of the temple, and that he was confined to a box called the ark of the covenant. They had to focus their worship on Jerusalem and had to bring their sacrifices to a certain place. God adjusted to this kind of thinking because the people were spiritually immature.

One of the problems we face today is that people think of “spiritual,” as simply meaning, “invisible,” but not much more. They believe that God has the same attributes as those things which exist in the physical world, the only difference being that he is invisible.

A Proper concept of God

The main point Jesus was making was that we need to consider who God really is. The question is, what kind of concept do we have of him? The kind of concept we have of a person will decide how we relate to that person. We have heard people say, “you need to treat me with more respect!” But we all know that the demand for respect, will not produce respect. It is when a person’s concept of you changes that a person’s attitude towards you will change.

So Jesus is focusing on the concept that we have of God, and he is saying that those who worship God need to understand the nature of God, the kind of being that he really is. This makes it clear that we need to be careful how we think of spiritual things, and not try to be too literal in equating them with physical things. Essentially what Jesus was saying is, “you can’t continue to limit God in the way you have been limiting God. In thinking that God dwells in this place or that place, you have been thinking of God as though he’s a person like yourself, and consequently you have been dealing with God as though he’s little more than an extraordinary human being.”

God is looking for a different kind of person to worship him, he is looking for the person who understands and sees him the way he really is. This is a very important truth and it is one of the key things which Jesus came to reveal.

But how do we divorce ourselves from the physical, in terms of the way we worship God? Is there not the need to have places set aside for worship, to dress in a modest way, to show reverence when you come to the place of worship, to display outward forms which show that we acknowledge God’s presence? Yes, these things are necessary. However, they are necessary simply for the benefit of people, not for the benefit of God. They show people what our attitude is towards God. Is it necessary to wear clothing for God’s benefit? Is he not with us when we are having a bath? Is it not appropriate to pray and worship even when we are naked? The answer is, yes, of course! However, since we live in a physical world where everyone judges by what he can see and hear, as Christians we cater to these things and we demonstrate respect and reverence for God by outward forms. The word of God tells us that whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do, we should do all to the glory of God. However, we recognize that this is not for God’s sake, for God far exceeds anything that is physical, and he cannot be limited by these things.

Rudiments of the World

So we understand that while we live in the world, and we still function in the world, our religion is not of this world. In the way we worship God we need to rise above the elements of this world, and learn to worship God in spirit. So there must be a distinction between the things we do as a part of the physical life here on this earth, and the way we relate to God. There has to be a definite and clear difference between both things.

Let us look at what Paul says in Colossians 2:20-23:

Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh. (Col 2:20-23)

What is the meaning of this word, “rudiments?” defines it in the following way:

a. the elements or first principles of a subject:

b. a mere beginning, first slight appearance, or undeveloped or imperfect form of something:

What God gave to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, was the beginning stages of his religion. It was the undeveloped, imperfect form of the salvation which was to appear with the coming of Christ. That rudimentary form consisted of rules, and ordinances, and rituals which dealt with the very basic principles of God’s truth. They were of this world because they had to do with practices which all involved physical things of this world. The sacrifices consisted of animals, birds, grains, oil – all from this world. The sanctuary was made of products of this world, the ministry of the priest represented the offering of things of this world, the holy places were of this world. Everything involving that system of worship had to do with this world, and they were simply the beginning things, the rudimentary phase of the true system of worship that God really wanted to give his people.

Now Paul says, “you are dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world.” In other words these things have no effect on you, you do not respond to them. This is what it means to be dead to something; a dead person does not respond to anything. So Paul asks the question, “why then are you subject to ordinances, as though you are living in the world?” Notice that he takes it for granted that we understand that we do not live nor function in this world. He gives us specific examples of what he’s talking about, “touch not, taste not, handle not.” He is obviously referring to the many instructions in the law which forbade eating certain foods, and touching certain things at certain times. He says that these are all things which perish after they are used. In other words these things are not eternal, these things are not spiritual, so how can they affect us who live in the spiritual realms, whose worship is spiritual? Jesus said the same thing when he stated that, nothing which goes into a man’s body can defile him (Mark 7:15). He was expressing the same principle.

Of course we understand that Jesus is not addressing the issue of what is good for health. He is speaking of how we worship God, he is speaking of how these things affect us in terms of our religion. He is not saying that it is okay for us to take poison, to smoke cigarettes, to drink alcohol, or even to eat any kind of animal that exists! Again we see he is making a distinction between how we function as physical persons, and how we worship God. So the point is if we make the things that we eat and drink a matter of religion, then our religion is not in spirit and in truth. However we balance this by saying, that we still acknowledge that our bodies are physical, and we do what is necessary to keep them in the best possible health. Whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we do all to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).

But Paul is saying that as far as our religion is concerned what we touch, taste, and handle cannot affect us, so why are we still subject to these religious rituals as though we are still involved in this physical, earth-based religion? It should be clearly understood that for us Christians, the entire structure of our religion has to be taken out of the principles which govern religion and life in this world.

Kingdom Theology

The idea that we still are involved in the old, earth-based, physical religion, is the kind of misunderstanding which makes many Christians today believe that physical Israel is still specially favored by God. This is the kind of thinking which leads to what is called, “Kingdom Theology,” the belief that we are to establish the kingdom of God here on earth, through human endeavor and political means. It is this kind of misunderstanding which leads many Christians to support the nation of Israel, regardless of what they do. They believe that the statement in the Old Testament still stands, where God said that he would bless whoever blesses Israel, and they apply this to physical Palestine and the physical Jews. This demonstrates a dreadful misunderstanding of the Scriptures, and illustrates why it is so important to understand the principle of worshiping in spirit and truth.

This is one of the greatest hindrances that we have in our Christian walk. Our religion is earthbound, and severely hampered because there is too much of physical worship involved. Jesus said that the servant does not understand what his master is doing, but he says that he does not call us servants, he calls us friends. His friends understand his purposes and live and worship in harmony with those principles.

Practical Implications

So in our relationship to the things of God, we must emphasize and experience spiritual worship, we must experience truth, or reality, not the illustrations of truth. Let us see how this affects us in a very practical way.

If God were to speak to us in an audible voice or if we were to visibly see his form, it would be easy to keep our attention on him throughout the day. Prayer would be effortless and our minds would never drift to other topics while we were talking to him. But the truth is, we find ourselves distracted a thousand times during the day. We are far more aware of the physical than the spiritual, because God does not show himself to our physical eyes, not do we hear his voice audibly as Moses and others did.

The faculties of seeing and hearing are things which relate to our physical senses, to the senses of the flesh. Unfortunately this is where we are accustomed to functioning, we know very little about the spiritual realm and in our relationship to God, this is how we try to interact with him. But Jesus made it clear that God has introduced another way, a better way, the way of spirit, which is the way of truth. Those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth!

So is it possible that God is speaking constantly in the spiritual realm, and we simply are not hearing because we don’t know how to listen, we don’t know how to function in that realm? .

From this perspective the words of Paul seem to take on greater meaning:

walk in the spirit and you shall not fulfill the desires of the flesh. (Gal. 5:16)

If we live in the spirit let us also walk in the spirit. (Gal. 5:25).

His Living Presence

The truth is, if I simply obey because of a sense of duty I am basically operating on my own. It is the same as being under the law, doing what needs to be done simply because the rules say so. It is very difficult to live the Christian life in this way, in fact the apostle Paul tells us that it is impossible to live the Christian life if we operate by this method. If we live by the law, we will always fail. It makes a great difference when we’re walking with the Lord. When the Lord is with me and I hear his voice, I recognize that he is not only with me, but dwelling in me, obedience becomes an easy, pleasurable beautiful thing. I am not responding to a set of impersonal rules, I am hearing from him personally and responding to him, my Lord, my Friend, my Brother.

God understands our need for his presence and this is why, throughout the Bible, God’s emphasis has been on the living reality of his presence. He demonstrated his presence in Old Testament times in a physical building, in a particular apartment, and from time to time there were visible outward manifestations which revealed that he was with Israel. In Exodus 25:8 he told Moses,

let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Ex. 25:8)

Paul translates this in the New Testament and he says, “God has said I will dwell in them and walk in them.” (2 Cor. 6:16). He emphasizes that our bodies are the temples of the living God. God could not make it any more plain, that he and his son literally live in his people. In the new covenant he has given us the thing that we need most of all.

As Jesus was about to return to heaven, his final promise to his disciples was, “lo I am with you alway even unto the end of the world (Matt. 28:20).” He assured them, “I will give you another comforter that he may abide with you forever.” But most thrilling of all is his statement, “he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you (John 14:17).”

The Main Point

The main point is this; to worship God in spirit and in truth means to be aware of God’s spiritual nature, it means to recognize that since God is spirit, we do not need to go to particular places to find his presence, but that as spirit, he is always with us, at all times and in all places. We are never alone. As a consequence of this understanding we realize that Jesus himself is always literally present with us. Service for God is an experience which is full of joy and excitement because actually, it is not service for God, it is service with God.

We may argue about the issue of righteousness by faith versus righteousness by works, but essentially what makes the difference is this particular question; am I doing this with God or am I doing this for God? The truth is that even if I have the help of Christ, even if I have the power of Christ it is going to be a very difficult thing to do the works of Christ if He is not personally with me. In fact, according to Jesus himself, it will be impossible. It is he who said, “without me ye can do nothing (John 15;5).” We need the help of Christ, the strength of Christ, but most importantly of all, we need Christ himself.

Those who live with a sense of his presence are always the strongest, the most successful and victorious in the conflict against sin. But it’s not just the life of Christ in me, but Christ himself with me and in me. That is what makes the great difference.


There is one other important reality which we recognize when we understand the truth of the literal presence of the Lord, and it is the reality that he is always speaking with us, always communicating. We often do not hear what he is saying, but nevertheless, he is always communicating.

What would be the point of having a Comforter living with me forever, one who promises to live in me, one who promises to manifest himself to me, if he does not communicate with me? Those promises would be just empty words and in reality, I would not really have a Comforter. Yet Jesus promised that the presence of the Comforter would be even better than his own presence in the flesh.

Many of us have experienced the reality that we feel much closer to the Lord in times of prayer. As we talk to him, it seems that we can almost physically touch him. In such moments it is easy to abide in him and the difficulties of life do not seem so overwhelming. The problem is that many times, as soon as we leave the place of prayer the sense of his presence departs. We go back to “normal” life and the struggle to believe and to abide returns. Why is this so? the problem is that we have not learned to communicate with the Lord in “spirit and in truth.”

Our lives revolve around the things which are physical. We receive information by what we see and hear – through our five senses. This is how we interact with reality and this is how it has been from the moment we were born. What would be the consequence if the Lord were to speak with us in an audible voice or if he were to appear to us? Immediately our entire outlook would change. After the fright had worn off, we would be instantly attentive to hear what he had to say, to see how he would direct us and it is certain that we would be very careful to do what he tells us to do. The truth is, most of us would like Jesus to communicate with us in this tangible, physical way, but this is not going to happen except under very unusual circumstances.

Jesus already told us, “the hour is coming and now is, when the true worshipers will worship in spirit and in truth.” God is looking for those worshipers who will come to him on the basis of the truth about himself, not those who try to bring God down to their level of the physical! I realize that this applies also in the area of prayer and communion. Will God come down to the level of the physical in his communication with me? Do I need to hear an audible voice in order for God to communicate with me? Will he return to the system which he declares is past? The answer is no. True spiritual worship means to relate to God in keeping with the truth about who he is. He is always with us and he does not interact with us in the physical realm, but in the spiritual.

So our need is to learn to discern his voice as he speaks. It is not that he is not speaking, that is impossible. We ask God for guidance and direction all the time, we ask him questions, yet it seems that there is no answer! Is that reasonable? Why should a Father who loves me and wants to be with me, keep silent and unresponsive when I try to get information and guidance from him? Does that make sense? Why does it seem that I am more anxious to learn his will than he is to reveal that will to me?

The answer to these questions is that God and Jesus are always speaking to us, all the time. They are speaking of their love, they are instructing us, comforting us, giving us what we need, but the issue is that we are not hearing! And why don’t we hear? It is because we have not learned how to worship God in spirit and in truth! We are still focused on the physical, seeking God’s interaction through the five senses, when that is not his method. Our great need is to learn to communicate in the spiritual realm. We need to learn to hear his voice when he speaks to our spirits from within.

This is why many times those who are seeking to know God’s will have to deliberately shut themselves off from the physical distractions of the world for a time. They stop eating, stop meeting people, stop working. They isolate themselves in a quiet place for a while and seek to hear the Lord’s counsel. It is not that he was not always speaking to them, but it is that they could not hear. The physical distractions blind them and make them deaf to the spiritual world and so they cannot hear when the Lord speaks. The time spent alone with God does not cause him to speak more loudly, but it enables us to tune in to the spiritual senses and to hear the Lord’s voice more distinctly.

We all need to be trained to hear when the Lord speaks. We have all seen those children who do not hear when their parents speak to them. Their parents may call to them, even shout at them, but the voice has no effect. It is just as if the wind is blowing. They have learned that they do not need to pay attention to that voice and so their minds have tuned it out. This is what has happened to us with respect to the voice of God. A lifetime of ignoring it has made us deaf to it and we cannot recognize when he speaks, we cannot distinguish the difference between his voice and the voice of our own imagination. Over and over I have had people come to me with this question; “how do I know whether it is God talking with me or simply my own thoughts directing me and telling me what to do?”

My counsel is this: If we begin to face each day and each moment with the expectation that God will direct us, we will begin listening for his counsel. We should begin by first submitting to him in the things which we already know to be his will, but as we train ourselves to focus on him and on his presence, we will begin to hear what he is saying more clearly. We will begin to hear his messages of love, his directions even in things which are not necessarily of a moral nature. We will feel the presence of a friend who sticks closer than a brother and our lives will become simply the extension of his own life.

(Source: David Clayton, from Restoration Ministry)

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