A Sensible Approach to Christian Truth


What Jesus Christ Said About Worship

"The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" This is the first preaching of Jesus recorded in the gospels (Mark 1:15), and it establishes the theme for his entire ministry. All that Jesus did and said, from his first teaching in Galilee through his resurrection and ascension, focuses on the reality of God: his rule and power in all aspects of our lives, and his fatherly concern for his people.

Jesus' fellowship with the Father was such that he could say, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30), and Paul could later proclaim, "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:19). Jesus taught that love, or faithfulness, to God is our highest calling. Asked which of the Law's commandments was the greatest, he quoted Moses: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" (Deuteronomy 6:5; Mark 12:30).

It is no wonder, then, that Jesus was a consistent worshiper, not only through his life of prayer in the presence of the Father, but also through his participation in the formal worship of his Jewish community. He attended festivals in Jerusalem (John 5:1; 7:37) and took his place regularly in the Sabbath assembly of the synagogue (Luke 4:16). Public as well as private worship was important to Jesus, and he had some pointed and specific things to say to his followers about it. And when, after his resurrection, the young church began to assemble regularly, his teaching and example gave shape to the worship of the new community. We will look at what Jesus said in the following areas: his pattern for prayer, his attitude toward the place of worship, his institution of sacramental actions, and his focus on genuine worship.

A Pattern for Public Prayer

When Jesus' disciples asked him how they should pray, he told them, "This is how you should pray," and taught them what we know as the "Lord's Prayer" or "Our Father" (Matt. 6:9-13). Many churches include this prayer as a regular part of worship. Historically it has been used especially in association with Holy Communion, perhaps because of the words "Give us today our daily bread."

While it is good to pray this prayer just as Jesus taught it, he gave it as a model for us to follow in all our praying. Following Jesus' pattern, our prayers should include:

  • Praise and adoration toward God
  • Submission to his will
  • Expression of our dependence on him for all our needs
  • Confession of our sin and recognition of the conditions necessary to receive God's forgiveness
  • Petition to be protected from evil forces and from severe testing
  • Ascription of glory to God.

The doxology which concludes the prayer is not found in the oldest New Testament manuscripts, and may have been added later from David's prayer in 1 Chronicles 29:11. Nevertheless, it is thoroughly in the spirit of Jesus' prayer and an appropriate part of the pattern he gave us.

The Place of Worship

Jesus' retort to his adversaries on the matter of taking oaths reveals his attitude toward the place of worship. The Pharisees said that to swear by the temple was not as binding as to swear by the gold of the temple, and to swear by the altar had less validity than to swear by the gift offered on it. Of course, Jesus was not in favor of taking oaths; his view was that we should speak a truthful "yes" or "no" at all times (Matt. 5:37). Nevertheless, his response to the Pharisees suggests how he felt about the temple: "Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? . . . Which is greater, the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?" (Matthew 23:17, 19).

Perhaps we believe that our worship is more important than the place where we worship. Is not a place of worship only as good as the commitment people make there — the "offering" we place on the "altar"? Strangely, this was not Jesus' view, but that of the Pharisees! Jesus reminds us that our commitment is validated by the context in which we make it.

Commitment in itself, apart from a framework of meaning symbolized by its setting in worship, is useless and even dangerous. Our culture stresses personal sincerity and dedication, but sometimes forgets that these things can cause great harm when misdirected toward trivial or evil causes. It is the altar which sanctifies our offering, making it holy to God and useful for his work, and not the other way around. It seems Jesus would have us pay more attention to the total worship setting of our community, and rather less attention to statements we are trying to make about ourselves through our worship.

Jesus stood in the biblical tradition which recognizes that certain geographic spots have a sacred quality, as places where God has made himself known in a special way. When he spoke of Jerusalem as "the city of the Great King" (Matthew 5:35) he was quoting Psalm 48:2. This and other biblical passages celebrate Jerusalem as the sanctuary which Moses had proclaimed to Israel, "the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for a dwelling" (Deuteronomy 12:5). The New Testament reinterprets this picture of Jerusalem in a new sense. Jerusalem is not simply a geographic spot, but is a symbol of God's dwelling with his people wherever they may be (Hebrews 12:22-24; Revelation 3:12; 21:2-4). And God's temple is the body of his people (1 Cor. 3:16-17). Nevertheless, these expressions are anchored in Jesus' respect for one sacred place — the temple in Jerusalem. The purity of the earthly place of worship was important to him, or he would not have taken the drastic action of cleansing the temple (Matt. 21:12-13; John 2:16-16). Quoting Isaiah, Jesus proclaimed the word of the Lord: "My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations" (Mark 11:17; Isa. 56:7). The place of worship must not be an institution that exploits people's desire to worship for other purposes, but one which facilitates a free and open approach to God.

Jesus expressed his view of the sanctity of the altar in his words about gifts and offerings (Matthew 5:23-24). When bringing a gift for the work of God, we are to do so in reconciliation with our "brother," a biblical term which refers not to every human being but to those who are members of our own spiritual community. Our offering, whether of praise, service or substance, is not an "offering in righteousness" (Malachi 3:3) if something we have done has broken the covenant bond with our fellow Christian. We are to leave our gift at the altar, perhaps as a pledge of our reconciliation, and return to offer it once we have straightened matters out. In all of this, we see that for Jesus the physical setting of our worship goes hand in hand with our personal attitude. Both are important in God's eyes.

Sacramental Actions

In a broad sense, a sacrament is a symbolic action performed in worship, "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." Christians differ as to which actions are formally considered sacraments. Some groups restrict their number to those Jesus specifically commanded, and therefore refer to them as ordinances of Christ. In the Gospels, Jesus established at least three such sacramental actions: baptism, the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion, and foot washing.

Baptism. John the Baptizer administered a baptism of repentance from sin (Mark 1:4), and Jesus himself was baptized by him. Jesus' baptism, however, was a unique event which proclaimed him as the Son of God. The baptism he ordained his followers to perform was for a different purpose. Appearing to his disciples after the resurrection, Jesus commanded them, "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). From Jesus' "Great Commission" we learn several things about Christian baptism. First, it is a response to the gospel of Christ, the good news of the kingdom of God. Second, it is part of becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ; it is a necessary, not optional, symbol of our entrance into the community of faith. Third, there is a solemnity to baptism, for it is administered formally in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Baptism is not a casual matter.

The Lord's Supper. On the night before his arrest, Jesus celebrated a Passover meal with his disciples, during which he performed a simple Jewish ceremony of blessing. But on this occasion, Jesus filled that ceremony with new meaning. After blessing the Lord he distributed the loaf to his followers, and told them, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." And giving thanks, he passed the cup to them, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me" (1 Corinthians 11:24-25).

Although Jesus' exact words differ as recorded in the various New Testament sources, several things are clear. First, Jesus commanded his followers to "do this"; he expected them to repeat this action, probably not infrequently since it was a customary Jewish ceremony. Second, in "doing this" his disciples would remember him. But the New Testament word means more than mere reminiscence; it has the force of "recalling" so that Jesus becomes present to us in a special way. Third, Jesus compared the symbols with his own being: "this is my body," "this is my blood." It is clear that the bread and wine have an important, even indispensable, connection with Christ's presence in his church, even if Christians interpret this relationship in different ways. Fourth, the ceremony is one of thanksgiving, not self-examination; the focus is not on our unworthiness but on what Jesus is about to accomplish through his death on the cross. The breaking of the bread points to the giving of his body "for you" (Luke 22:19), the cup to the blood he will shed "for many for forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:28).

Foot Washing. For many Christians, foot washing is the "forgotten sacrament." Yet when Jesus washed the disciples' feet (John 13:2-17) he instructed them to follow his example, just as he ordained baptism and the Lord's Supper. This action is a powerful symbol of commitment to one another within the Christian community. Jesus followed it with his "new commandment," saying, "As I have loved you, so you must love one another" (John 13:34). Foot washing is a reminder of our covenant loyalty to the Lord, a loyalty which extends to all others who belong to his family and which expresses itself in acts of humble service.

Worship in Spirit and Truth

In conversation with a woman of Samaria (John 4:21-24), Jesus characterizes both Jewish worship of the time and the worship of the half-Jewish Samaritan sect. The Samaritans, he says, worship in ignorance, for they do not know what they worship. As for the Jews, Jesus says, "we worship what we know." Neither type of worship is adequate, and Jesus implies that worship will soon cease both in Jerusalem, the Jewish sanctuary, and Mount Gerizim, sacred to the Samaritan sect. Taking their place will be a deeper worship "in spirit and truth," for the Father seeks genuine worshipers.

What does it mean to worship "in spirit and truth?" Some Christians have taken Jesus' expression to mean that real worship is invisible and inward. Outward and visible forms of worship, they believe, are of lesser importance. However, it is hard to reconcile this idea with other things Jesus says about worship. Perhaps the problem is a faulty understanding of the biblical meaning of "spirit" and "truth."

In Scripture, the spiritual is not invisible or intangible, as opposed to the tangible and material. "Spirit" refers to the motivation or driving force behind an action; in many contexts, of course, it refers to the Holy Spirit, the power of God at work in a particular human situation. Worship "in spirit" is worship motivated by the life of God in the worshiping community, and his empowerment will manifest itself through visible actions in which all worshipers participate.

And "truth," in the Bible, does not refer to abstract ideas, but has a concrete meaning. It refers to God's dealings with us, and to the way of life he has set out for his people. Truth means reliability, loyalty, integrity, effectiveness — qualities that apply not so much to ideas as to personal relationships. Above all, according to Jesus himself, "truth" is the Word God has spoken to his people (John 17:17). To live in truth is to live by God's promises and commandments, the covenant which binds us in community with our Father.

Worship "in spirit and in truth," then, means worship motivated by the life of God, worship that expresses and reinforces our mutual covenant with God. It can be energetic, visible, using a great variety of expressions which come out of the tradition of the biblical community. While it may have important connections with our individual and inner life, it is an act of the people of God, spirited worship in conformity with scriptural principles.

Christian worship celebrates Christ; in worship, God speaks and acts to make real for us the new life that is ours through his Son. But as we worship together it is important to remember that Jesus also gives us some specific directions for worship, and helps us to think about worship in ways that make it what God wants it to be.