by Al Maxey

Issue #112 ------- March 14, 2004
It is one thing to show a man
that he is in error, and another
to put him in possession of truth.

John Locke (1632-1704)
Essay Concerning Human Understanding

The Nature of True Worship
An Examination of John 4:19-24

A new reader to these Reflections, who lives in the great state of Colorado, recently made the following appeal -- "Dear Bro. Maxey, Letting go of patternism and a legalistic background is not an overnight process. However, in trying to explain my recent enlightenment with those whom I have known for years, I am still faced with their use of John 4:24. This is one of the hallmarks of all forms of legalism. As you know, many state that we must worship God in the way that is "acceptable" to Him so that we can go to Heaven when this life is over. You may have already written something that specifically addresses the theology behind this passage. If not, will you please?! It would most assuredly be of benefit to me as I study and reflect. Thank you!"

There are many who seem confused by the relationship between worship and salvation. Some seem to believe that the latter is maintained by the precise, patternistic performance of the former. In other words, to "stay saved" we must make sure that our "worship service" is "according to the pattern," which means the right number of songs, right number of cups, right color of grape juice, right texture of communion bread, right songs (approved song writers, sung without accompaniment), no clapping, no singing during communion, properly placed prayers, and on and on and on ad infinitum. This is what constitutes worship "in spirit and truth" ... or, so we are informed by those who define "in spirit and truth" as the legislative parameters regulating the "acts of worship" which occur in a Sunday morning "worship service." Frankly, I believe these people have completely missed the point Jesus was making that day to the Samaritan woman. In so doing, they perpetuate the very thing from which He sought to free us! In Christ Jesus we have been set free; we are liberated from legalistic legislation with respect to our worshipful expression. Worship is not confined to a particular place at a particular time and to particular prescribed patterns. We are no longer bound by such, as they were under LAW. I would encourage the readers to examine my article Worship Reformation (Reflections #33), which was originally published in IMAGE Magazine (volume 10, number 1, July/August, 1994, p. 31-33).

Some today seem to regard as a hideous heresy the notion that our worship can be, and indeed is, expressed in virtually all areas of our daily lives. They would limit worship to only five specific acts, performed precisely according to "pattern," and only on Sunday, and only in a "worship service." That is a false view of worship! The best definition of "worship" that I have come across is the following -- "Worship is the expression of the adoration of one's heart." In the OT writings, there are four different Hebrew words utilized to express the concept of worship (shachah, segad, abad, atsab), and these are used to convey the idea a total of 117 times. In the NT writings, there are twelve different Greek terms employed (occurring a total of 80 times with respect to teaching on "worship") -- proskuneo, proskunetes, sebomai, sebazomai, eusebeo, sebasma, theosebes, latreuo, neokoros, doxa, therapeuo, threskeia. Many truths can be gleaned from the study of these biblical words, but the concept that worship is primarily attitude expressed in action is clearly seen throughout. It is also important to note, in any such study of worship, that it is not so much the act of worship with which our God is ultimately concerned, but rather the attitude (heart) of the one performing that act (1 Samuel 15:22; Psalm 40:6-8; Jeremiah 7:22-23; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:7-8; Malachi 1:8-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

During God's dispensation of grace, of which you and I are now a part, our worshipful expression has been liberated from legislative determination. Jesus nailed such limiting decrees to the cross and freed us to show forth our worship unto the Father with a newfound, heartfelt liberty. A legal system of rigid regulation of every aspect of our devotion to God has been forever terminated. We are free!!

Jesus spoke clearly of this "time of reformation" (Hebrews 9:10) during His earthly ministry --- perhaps nowhere as plainly as in a conversation with a Samaritan woman at Jacob's well in the city of Sychar. When this nameless woman, who had come to draw water, perceived Jesus to be a prophet of God, she immediately shared with Him a concern that was heavy on her heart and that reflected the legalistic mind-set of many of her contemporaries with respect to worship: "Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship" (John 4:20). The Jews and Samaritans had different concepts of what was appropriate and acceptable in worship. Their practices varied, as did their theology. This woman was essentially asking, "Whose set of regulations constitutes the legal norm?" Rather than taking sides in a legislative debate, Jesus transcended the issue by directing this woman's focus away from systematic regulation and to spiritual reformation. "Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall you worship the Father ..... But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:21, 23-24).

The "hour" of which Jesus spoke is the "time of reformation." It would be a dispensation of grace in which "regulations of divine worship" would be made obsolete. No longer would one's expressions of worship be judged worthy or unworthy by specifics of a systematized religion or the tedious tenets of traditionalism. At the time of reformation --- under the new order of the New Covenant --- which Jesus indicated to this woman was at that time appearing, all worshipful expressions of the devotion of men's hearts would be spiritually, not legalistically, rendered and received.

Such matters as in what mountain or in what building, with how many cups, or with what style of music are all regulatory in nature. Stipulations concerning such matters are attempts, once again, by an element of God's people lacking in spiritual perception, to impose "regulations of divine worship" (Hebrews 9:1 ... a characteristic of Old Covenant worship) upon their brethren, thus limiting by legislation the full and free expression of one's devotion and praise unto God under the New Covenant. The result of such is forfeiture of freedom and a fractured fellowship, with numerous fuming factions engaging in open warfare over matters long since abolished by our Savior at the cross. Having failed to discern the "time of reformation," many brethren continue to struggle over "regulations of divine worship." Involved in endless debates over the "mountain" in which men ought to worship, they have found themselves with little time or inclination to embrace or promote worship which is "in spirit and truth."


A phrase that keeps crying out for our undivided, prayerful attention is: "in spirit and truth" (John 4:23-24). In fact, Jesus uses it twice in that passage. First, it is important to note the grammatical construction of this phrase. "One preposition joins the two nouns and thus makes of the two one idea. ... Thus, 'spirit and truth' form a unit, two halves that belong together in every act of worship" (R.C.H. Lenski, Interpretation of St. John's Gospel, p. 322-323). Taking the two terms as a unit, and thus unifying their focus, we see our Lord's emphasis being upon the inward nature of our worshipful expression, rather than on outward forms involving location and regulated ritual.

Our worship is to be in "spirit" (involving the heart of the individual) and "truth." It is this latter term that has caused the most confusion for some interpreters. The patternists will insist that the word "truth" in this phrase signifies "according to the pattern found in the NT writings." However, when Jesus uttered this phrase the NT writings had not been written. Indeed, it would be decades before a single word was penned. Devoted disciples would be worshipping "in spirit and truth" generations prior to the formation of the NT canon! It was not a legal pattern Jesus had in mind when He uttered those words ... indeed, it was this, He told the Samaritan woman, that was on its way out. The word translated "truth" is aletheia, which, in addition to "truth," can also mean "veracity, sincerity, genuineness." It signifies that which is unfeigned, honest, real; "it discloses the true disposition" of a person (Exegetical Dictionary of the NT, vol. 1, p. 58).

In other words, Jesus is declaring that the worshipers God seeks are not those who are intent upon the outward forms and rituals, but rather those who are genuinely devoted to lives of worshipful expression. Worship is of the heart ("in spirit ..."), and it is genuine, honest, sincere, real, and unfeigned ("... and truth"). This phrase has nothing to do with patternistic worship, but personal worship. David Lipscomb summed it up nicely when he declared that God, being Spirit, "can be pleased with worship only when it comes from the heart" (A Commentary on the Gospel According to John, p. 63). Jesus certainly did not suggest the outward forms were wrong, or that they should be utterly abandoned; rather, He stressed that they no longer were the focus of the Father (and, indeed, never really had been). A time was coming, He said, and now was, when all such outward, external regulatory matters of legal legislation would no longer be bound upon true worshipers. This was a time of reformation (Hebrews 9:1-10) that He was ushering in, a time of grace and freedom during which genuine worship, offered by genuine worshipers, would be from the heart and completely sincere, unfeigned, honest and real. It would not be mindless, heartless repetition of ritual, but daily expressions of sincere hearts in adoration of their God. Such needs no regulation, only opportunity for expression.

Our Lord, that day at the well, uttered one of the most profound truths regarding our approach to God ever uttered, and He did so to a Samaritan woman who had come to draw water. When she departed, she had discovered the source of "living water ... a well of water springing up to eternal life" (John 4:10-14). She also learned that day what God really sought with respect to worship. It was not ritual, it was relationship. With sincere hearts ALL men may approach their Father and express their devotion. Worship would no longer be subject to legalistic, patternistic regulation. A time of reformation had come, ushered in by the Son. It is a time of grace, a time of responsible freedom, a time of substance over shadow. With hearts transformed by His indwelling Spirit, motivated by honest desire, we worship our Father "in spirit..." (from the depths of our hearts) "...and truth" (with unfeigned genuineness and sincerity). "For such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers" (John 4:23).

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in (Unknown):

I just wanted to say that I am a huge fan of your work. It was your in-depth focus on the nature of hell that totally changed my perspective. I was wondering if you have any copies of your book on divorce and remarriage. I know it is on the web site, but that is nowhere near the same as actually having a book. Thanks a bunch!

From a Preacher in Georgia:

Brother Al, The challenge was put forth to find one scripture where a church sent funds to another church. How about the charge which was given to the churches of Galatia and Corinth (1 Corinthians 16:1-2) for funds to be collected, and then sent to Jerusalem/Judea? It was sent to the elders (Acts 11:30). Furthermore, there was no response to the statement that in all the nine passages dealing with benevolence, the only mention of the recipients is saints. Surely there were other people in Jerusalem that were affected by the famine. Why do you suppose Paul only mentioned the saints as recipients?

From a Reader in Texas:

Much has been said herein on the "treasury" and its "Scriptural" usage. Why don't we get to the root of the issue? Truth is there is no Scriptural authority for a congregational treasury. I am not saying it is not OK as an expedient way of paying bills, etc., but 1 Cor. 16:1-2 is not dealing with a cooperative treasury, but an individual's responsibility concerning his income and his benevolent assistance to others. It is taking the passage totally out of context to apply it to collective action. There is no passage anywhere in the NT that authorizes, mentions, or even hints of a collective treasury. I have never found one. Also, some say it is the "Lord's money." If so, what are men doing spending it?

From an Elder in Texas:

Al, I have been reading through the Millennial Harbinger on prayer. One of the things that the pioneers in our own particular movement insisted on was all of the congregation saying a hearty "amen" at the conclusion of public prayer. They draw on the OT as well as the passage in 1 Cor. 14. I am persuaded by their argument and wonder why we have lost the practice. It shouldn't be approached as a legalistic requirement, but it seems to me that all of us have a part in such prayers and ought to express ourselves as the amen indicates. Just wonder what you think about this.

Also, I am bothered by the increased incidence of "I" and "my" in our public prayer leading. It seems to me that when we lead the congregation we are spokesmen for them, and should not be uttering our own private prayers for them to listen to. I do not make a big issue about this, but I wonder why we have drifted into such ego insertions in prayers when we are supposed to be leading the community, praying with them and not before them.

From a Reader in West Virginia:

Al, I am sure you are familiar with the history of the Synagogue, which developed during the Babylonian captivity. Many folks today do not realize that traditions which developed during this 6th century B.C. captivity still influence the Churches of Christ and the modern Jewish Synagogue. From what I have read, most scholars don't believe the 1st century disciples used instrumental music. My point is this: I was raised thinking a cappella singing began with the Spirit's outpouring on the Day of Pentecost. It seems to be more likely from my study, however, that the Jewish followers of the Way had been singing a cappella all of their lives in the Synagogue. Therefore, a cappella singing was a Jewish tradition that was carried into the gatherings of the believers in Christ. They retained their Jewish worship traditions; the Synagogue becoming the model for the early Jewish church. There was no reason to develop a new format for the assembly; they continued singing the same Psalms in the same a cappella style they had for centuries. Thus, the first disciples continued the worship styles to which they were accustomed. I would appreciate your comments, if you have the time.

From a Reader in South Carolina:

Al, In your discussion on serving the Lord's Supper at night you said, "If one examines the 'pattern' of the early disciples, as recorded in the NT writings, one will soon see that ALL observance of the Lord's Supper was in the EVENING." Not only was the Lord's Supper in the evening, the "pattern" demonstrates it only being served in an upper room! Some churches will need to get a contractor to add a second story for the Lord's Supper.

From a Reader in Montreal, Canada:

Just a note to say hello to a dear brother in Christ. I'll not load you with questions because your responses to many others adequately serve my needs. Al, I love what you say about baptism, church leadership, musical instruments, etc., but (please correct me if I'm mistaken) you do not hold to a young earth position. Is this correct? Really, it doesn't much matter to me that you don't. I love you as my brother in Christ, and that ain't gonna change! Several years ago a friend gave me a video by someone named Dr. Kent Hovind of Creation Science Evangelism. You've probably heard of him. His website is Since receiving and watching the full DVD series, containing six lessons of about two hours each, I was blown away. Never has someone ever explained dinosaurs, earth's creation, the fall, redemption, the new world order, etc., like this man. He is located in Pensacola, Florida where he also built a dinosaur theme park. I also want to say thank you for the hundredth time for your work. You are an encouragement. Thank you for your love and devotion to God.

From an Elder in Missouri:

I thoroughly enjoyed your Reflections in response to these inquiries. I too think Jesus participated in Hanukkah celebrations and observances. He lived as a contemporary Jewish man during that time and place. For Him not to do so would have been out of character. I agree whole-heartedly with your comments on traditions -- it was not all traditions He condemned, but rather the rigid and often harsh attitudes of those who defended them. This is much like what often happens in the Lord's Body today. I see the communion issues in a similar light -- there are so many traditions that surround its observance in our practice today which, in and of themselves, are harmless (in my opinion). The harm comes when these traditions are put forth as Law.

You mentioned the "sacrament" of the communion. I feel we have made a sacrament out of baptism as well (we have far too many "sacred cows"). I have seen places where only the "minister" could baptize, sometimes even to the point where there was discussion of "rebaptism" by the minister if it was done by someone else. I did some prison work some years back, and baptized a man in prison. There was no baptistery (portable or otherwise), no swimming pool, or any body of water we could access. But they did have a small bathtub used with a portable whirlpool system for physical therapy. After talking to the warden and the director of prisons for that state, I placed the man in the tub and with the help of a guard got him totally immersed. When reporting to the congregation on the new brother in Christ, one man came and said he did not think the baptism was "Scriptural" because I did not go down into the water with him (from Acts 8). At another place, I baptized a young woman and took her confession of faith before we got in the water. One fine elder in that location got on to me and said we would have to do it again and this time do it right and take the confession in the water. In short, we are too focused on the traditions and ways of doing things, often losing sight of the reason it is done and what it accomplishes. Keep up the good work! This kind of open dialogue can only be a healthy thing for the Body.

From a Reader in Florida:

Thanks so very much for alerting me to Leroy Garrett's autobiography. I can not put it down! I have recommended it to many. It is such an encouragement, as his beliefs are the same as I have believed through my study for many years, and sometimes have not been able to share. I had never heard of him before, but am so thankful now for his study and perseverance in promoting unity.

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