In this passage we find our Lord instructing us concerning worship, “the Christian’s highest occupation,” to borrow a definition from the title of A. P. Gibb’s classic work on the subject.1
Given the fact that we gather for worship each Lord’s Day morning, we do well to ask ourselves, “What does it mean to worship in spirit and truth?” (v. 24)
Various versions of the Bible translate these words in slightly different ways. While all of them can be instructive, I have found the following to be most helpful. “God is Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits…” (The Message). Sir Edward Denny writes:
To Calvary, Lord, in spirit now our grateful souls repair,
To dwell upon Thy dying love and taste its sweetness there.
Worship is first and foremost an exercise of the spirit rather than that of the body. One may be bodily present at the Lord’s Supper, but the spirit may be elsewhere, preoccupied with thoughts and concerns far removed from worship.
The spirit may even be dormant. Thus, we sing, “Awake, my soul, to joyful lays and sing thy great Redeemer’s praise.”2 Or again, “Come Thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace.”3 Yet again, “Rise, my soul, behold tis Jesus, Jesus fills thy wondering eyes.”4 True worship sees with the eye of the spirit rather than that of the body. “Heart and soul, we bow before Thee, glorious now beyond the skies.”5
The apostle Paul describing a past experience says, “whether in the body, or out of the body,” is perhaps apropos (2 Cor. 12:3). Caught up to the third heaven, he experienced something truly inexplicable. The apostle John had to have experienced something similar when, “being in the spirit6 on the Lord’s Day” he heard “a great voice as of a trumpet” (Rev. 1:10). Admittedly, these were unique experiences, unlikely to be repeated, but they are most suggestive.
Among the early Brethren, there must have been those who experienced something similar. How else could they have written the hymns they did? Robert C. Chapman wrote:
Oh, my Savior crucified, near Thy cross would I abide,
Gazing with adoring eye on Thy dying agony.
James G. Deck as well:
Lamb of God! Our souls adore Thee
while upon Thy face we gaze;
There the Father’s love and glory
shine in all their brightest rays.
The phenomenon was by no means limited to the Brethren. Isaac Watts in his great hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” wrote:
See, from His head, His hands, His feet,
sorrow, and love flow mingled down;
Did e’re such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Also, Elizabeth C. Clephane composed:
Upon the cross of Jesus, mine eye at times can see.
The very dying form of One Who suffered there for me.
Finally, Joseph Addison penned:
When all thy mercies, O my God, my rising soul surveys,
Transported with the view, I’m lost in wonder, love, and praise.
The hymnwriter, F. W. Faber, by no means an evangelical, using different terminology but pointing in the same direction wrote, “Only to sit and think of God, oh what a joy it is.” Here again it is an exercise of the spirit. And how might one go about doing this? A homey illustration might help. Picture yourself enjoying a piece of hard rock candy, rolling it over and over in your mouth. In the same way, you might fix attention on a key thought from a hymn, prayer, or passage of God’s Word, turning it over and over in your mind.
I often wonder how well we worship; how good we are at truly worshipping. Much of the evangelical church today knows little about true worship, praise perhaps, but not worship. Even though they may call it a worship service, their songs all too often betray them, being self-centered and unreflective.
Even in his day, A. W. Tozer (1870-1963) remarked that “to great sections of the church the art of worship has been lost entirely, and in its place has come that strange and foreign thing called the ‘program.’”7 But worship is not something that can be programmed. It is of the spirit and is spontaneous.
We do well to follow the example of the apostle Paul who said, “I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also. I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.” (1 Cor. 14:15)
May our Lord help us do just that as we gather around His table each Lord’s Day morning. God is seeking worshippers who will worship Him in spirit and truth.
1 Alfred P. Gibbs, Worship the Christian’s Highest Occupation
2 Samuel Medley, 1738-1799
3 Robert Robertson, 1735-1790
4 Joseph Denham Smith, 1817-1899
5 Richard Holden
6 “Spirit” could refer either to the Holy Spirit or the human spirit. In either case John was in “a state of spiritual exaltation best described as a trance” (R. H. Mounce, Revelation [NICNT], p. 75
7 Boice, J. Montgomery, Psalms 42–106: An Expositional Commentary, Baker Books, p. 775