How is Christian Worship Different from Old Testament Worship?

The Lord’s discussion about worship with the woman of Samaria in John 4 provides significant insight into the distinction of Christian worship from both the divinely instituted Jewish worship and its rivals.

“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” (vv23-24 KJV). Let’s notice each expression and its significance.

A New Era Superseding the Old (“the hour … now is”)

Instead of settling the centuries-old debate between Jews and Samaritans directly, the Lord reveals that a new era has begun, which makes the question of “the right place” redundant.  Every world religion has its sacred places, with associated spiritual history and claims. True Christianity was never intended to be based upon that kind of spirituality. The “right place” has been replaced by the “right person,” and the right rituals have been replaced by the right relationship. This would have been revolutionary for both Jews and Samaritans, let alone for the pagan idol worshippers of the world.

A New People of God (“the true worshippers”)

Anyone who truly fears God is in that measure worshipping God by acknowledging His greatness and character. Yet this passage reveals that acceptable worship must be a response to the full revelation and salvation of God given us in His Son. True worshippers are now acceptable to God through Christ. Therefore, Christians (whether of Jewish, Samaritan, or Gentile background), are now His living temple and His holy and royal priests (1Peter 2:4-10).

A New Relationship with God Through the Son (“worship the Father”)

Jehovah (the Eternal) is His unique name revealed in the Old Testament, used over 6,000 times. “Father” is the unmistakable feature of New Testament revelation. The Lord Jesus spoke so freely of His relationship as Son to the Father, and clearly identified this as the new relationship into which He would bring His disciples. We are conscious of knowing God in this precious relationship – how loved and cared for, how near to the Eternal we are!

A New Heart – Spiritual Devotion, Not Physical Sacrifices (“in spirit”)

God had promised a new covenant in which He would write His law in the hearts of His people, enabling them to truly worship Him, and to serve Him obediently. Ritual cleansing ceremonies and required physical sacrifices are superseded by spiritual devotion and communion of heart to heart, mind to mind, spirit to spirit. This is possible because of a new birth in which we are reconnected to the living God as sons.

A New Revelation of God in the Son (“in truth”)

The Jews claimed to have the truth in the Scriptures committed to them. The Lord Jesus never denied that reality, but rather claimed to be their goal and fulfilment (John 5:39-47). Yet the full revelation of God in and through the Son transcends and supersedes all that had been held as truth before! All truth is derived from Him, and derives its significance from its relation to Himself. This emphasis is also a correction of the Samaritan mixture of truth and error, of which they must repent and leave behind. The true worship of the Father could not be amalgamated with their system of belief and practice. Divisions are dissolved in Christ, but we are united in Him. When we drag something of the old system with us, we re-introduce division and error.

A New Sphere – Spiritual Relationship, Not a Physical Location (“God is Spirit”)

This final phrase reinforces the necessity as well as the suitability of “worship in spirit and in truth.” The very nature of God demands this of us: He is self-existent, eternal Spirit, transcending time and space. Therefore, true worship itself must transcend these physical constraints and limitations. So, approaching Him is moral and spiritual, not physical, and He is to be worshipped continually in our hearts and minds, in thanksgiving and communion, as well as in acts of service that express our devotion to Him and reveal our relationship to Him. Though we are still physically constrained in time and space, we worship in His eternal presence, in the “holiest of all” through our Lord Jesus Christ. One day, the Church will fulfill its true role as Bride and Body of Christ, and Temple of God: the Bride-City, the New Jerusalem! God will be satisfied, and will be worshipped in spirit and in truth – acknowledged and adored in a way that will finally truly correspond to His glory.

The Hebrew epistle further highlights the inherent limitations of the old system of worship and the surpassing superiority of the new way. God’s revelation through prophets, angels, and His faithful servant Moses has been superseded by God speaking to us in His own Son. Limited relationship and restricted access to God, sustained by a system of failing priests and repetitious animal sacrifices, were realities under the old covenant of law.  These limitations have been replaced by a new covenant of grace, secured by Christ’s “one sacrifice for sins forever” (10:12) and His triumphant enthronement at God’s right hand as our great High Priest in the eternal “holy of holies” in heaven itself. The former could only foreshadow the reality fulfilled in Christ (10:1); the permanent remains, the shadow fades.

His conclusions and appeals should resonate in each of our redeemed spirits: we are invited to “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb 10:22). We are to worship as sons on our way to the glory of His eternal presence, and even now are fitted by His grace to enter freely with sincerity and full confidence in our acceptance. We are also to encourage and strengthen one another in “love and good works” (v24) as we assemble together, fulfilling both holy and royal aspects of priesthood. This is also affirmed in Hebrews 13:13-16, beginning with the appeal, “Let us go forth therefore unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach” (KJV). Our public gatherings in His Name express faith and commitment to Him, associating ourselves with Him in His present rejection in the world; this ascends to the Father as sacred incense.

“The Father seeks such to worship Him”: So how will we respond? The inspired writer challenges us to respond with willing hearts and reverent spirits: “Let us have grace, whereby we may serve (or worship) God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Heb 12:28 KJV).