Another way of making this point about worship being essential is to note that there are three great “musts” in John’s gospel. The first occurs in chapter 3, verse 7, where Jesus said, “Ye must be born again.” The second is in verse 14 of the same chapter. “Even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” The verses we are studying give us the third “must,” for they say that all who worship God “must worship him in spirit and in truth.” In other words these three doctrines–the necessity for the new birth, the necessity of Christ’s death, and the necessity of true worship–belong together.
Well then, to get back to our first question: What is worship? Part of the answer is to be seen in the fact that if you and I had been living in England during the days of the early formation of the English language, between the period of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, we would not have used the word “worship” at all. We would have said “worth-ship,” and we would have meant that in worshiping God we were assigning to God His true worth. Linguistically speaking, you see, this is the same thing as “praising” God or “glorifying” His name. But now if we should ask the two most important questions that follow from that definition, namely, “What is God’s true worth?” and “How do we become aware of His true worth?” we are immediately brought to the heart of Christ’s words to the Samaritan woman, which I read earlier. For Jesus said that those who acknowledge God’s true worth must do so “in spirit and in truth.” In other words, we must do so “in truth,” because truth has to do with what His nature is. And we must do so “in spirit” because only spiritually can we apprehend His worth.
Now let me explain that a bit further. Many persons have been led astray in thinking that when Jesus spoke of “spirit” in this verse, he was referring to the Holy Spirit. I do not believe that that is the case here. There is a sense, of course, in which we only come to worship God after the Holy Spirit has been at work in our hearts, moving us to do so. But in this verse Jesus was not speaking of that. He was speaking of spirit generally, without the definite article; not the Holy Spirit, but spirit. And so he was teaching that in the age which He would inaugurate by His death and resurrection, the place of worship would not matter. For a person would not worship merely by being in the right place and doing certain right things. He would worship in his spirit which, you see, could be anywhere.
I believe that I can make this even clearer by placing it in the context of the three parts of man’s nature. Man is a trinity. He has a body, a soul, and a spirit. And so Jesus was saying that nothing is true worship of God except what takes place in man’s spirit. Many people worship with the body or they think they worship with the body. They consider themselves to have worshiped if they have been in the right place doing the right things at the right time. The woman at the well thought this meant being either at the temple in Jerusalem, which the Jews said, or on Mount Gerizim at the Samaritans’ temple, which the Samaritan rulers said. In other words, she recognized that there might be a difference. It might be Jerusalem or Gerizim, but she thought that worship meant being in one place or the other.
In our day, the reference would be to people who think they have worshiped God simply because they have occupied a seat in a church on Sunday morning, or sung a hymn, or lit a candle, or crossed themselves, or knelt in the aisle. Jesus said that is not worship. Oh, these customs may be vehicles for real worship. In some cases they may also hinder it. But they are not worship in themselves. Therefore, we must not confuse worship with the particular things that we do on Sunday morning.