“(For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)” Acts 17:21
Truly, there is nothing new under the sun, but each generation seemingly discovers things never heard or seen before. Whether it’s clothing, music, food, sports, entertainment, language, politics, or philosophy; the latest fad always receives a great deal of attention. People can’t wait to jump on the bandwagon. If a person is creative enough, they can really impress by starting their own bandwagon. And social media feeds our craving to announce to everyone the latest and greatest before anyone else. It makes us feel special: more in tune, more noble, more intelligent, more caring, more innovative, more in-depth, and on and on. The appetite is insatiable. To create or postulate something that no one else has ever thought about, or to promote something that very few have discovered, is exciting to say the least, especially to the ego.
Don’t get me wrong. Innovation is admirable. New things aren’t all bad and all new things aren’t bad. The need to stay ahead of the game is obvious in many areas of life. And it is certainly beneficial where efficiency is being improved or where insufficiencies are being corrected. Continual advances in technology in practically every arena prove to be needful, useful, profitable, and sometimes just plain fun. How much easier life has become because of ‘new’ things in manufacturing, electronics, transportation, and communication. What a debt of gratitude we owe to those innovative minds that have helped raise our standard of living and brought us the many modern conveniences we enjoy.
But what about our Christianity? What about the Bible? Is innovation the answer to what appears to be an ongoing falling away from the faith? Do we need new interpretations of the Bible, and new ideas regarding worship? Have profound truths been hidden for centuries but only recently discovered? Are we just now uncovering teachings and gifts intended for the church since its infancy but unknown until now? It is becoming more apparent every day: a large segment of Christianity has fallen prey to the same mindset that was rampant in ancient Athens – the temptation of being the first to know and the first to tell some new thing. We have allowed ourselves to be captivated by an approach to ‘worship’ and ‘evangelism’ that is much better suited for the business world. The marketing strategies and measures of success that motivate business leaders are dependent on being the first, the best, the loudest, the brightest, the most exciting, and the most memorable. Such is what we are seeing develop in modern Christianity. Athenian Christianity: dependency on innovation to attract people, leading to the continual evolution of doctrine and practice, with no apparent concern about imitating the world.
We have reached the point of basically ignoring the words of Jesus in John 4; at least half of them anyway: “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.” (v.23-24) What we are seeing in modern Christianity, it seems, is an emphasis on the ‘spirit’ part, but not much regard for the ‘truth’ part. And even then, there seems to be much confusion about what Jesus means when he exhorts us to worship God in “spirit”. It is evident that we have confused spirit with emotion. Our emotions certainly can be stirred when we worship. Perhaps we should expect our emotions to be stirred at least occasionally, maybe even often, when we worship. But emotion is not the basis of our worship; neither is it the determining factor on whether we have truly engaged in worship or not.
Emotions are deceiving. They are not consistent within any individual and certainly not consistent among individuals. Emotional experiences have become the driving force behind the modern worship movement, and truth is quickly and easily overshadowed. Emotions are not self-sustaining, so whatever stirs our emotions and produces a positive experience, we must have more and more of it to keep our emotions running high. We have to become more innovative and more exciting than the last time to keep the ‘spiritual’ adrenalin going. However, if truth accompanies spirit, then God is pleased, whether our emotions are stirred or not. If truth accompanies spirit, and our emotions are stirred, then we find ourselves wanting more and more of what pleases God. Pleasing God then becomes our motivation rather than stirring or attempting to satisfy our emotions.
So, what did Jesus mean when he exhorted us to worship God in “spirit”? A word study would be helpful; perhaps a Greek lexicon; do some cross references, etc. But here is the gist of it. God is a Spirit; that much is plain. What do we know about God? God is a Being with countless attributes, many of which we can barely scratch the surface of understanding. Truly, His ways and His thoughts are infinitely higher than ours. But He has revealed to us a great deal about Himself through His written word, and He calls on us to seek to know Him according to that revelation. He tells us His word is sufficient; a furnisher through and through, so anything that enters our minds about God must be filtered through His word and must harmonize with His written revelation. If our mind conjures up something about God not in harmony with His word, then we have a false idea rooted in emotion, feelings, personal preferences, or some other misleading or deceptive force.
What do we know about God? We know He is a rational Being; that is, He is a Being of purpose, principle, and reason. God is also a God of love and pleasure; hate and displeasure; compassion, pity, comfort; chastisement, righteousness, and wrath. We often mistakenly think about some of those attributes as being emotions. But what we might perceive to be a display of emotion by the Lord shouldn’t be compared with the emotions of man. In fact, can it even be truly said that God has emotions? Whatever you want to call those types of attributes, one thing is certain: God is always motivated by purpose, principle, and reason; not emotion. For example, if God manifests love, it cannot be compared with the fickle sensations of man. God’s love is an action and a choice motivated by purpose. When God acts in a compassionate manner, His motivation is to bring about His purpose, and is based on His will. The “spirit” within man, to which Jesus refers, is similar in nature, with respect to purpose and principle and reason. That is, the spirit in man is the source of our reason, our logic, our knowledge. It might be manifest through emotion at times but this spirit of man is not motivated by emotion. God is not motivated by emotions that are stirred by external influences; neither should we think of our spirit in that light. The relationship between God and man is not based on emotions.
So, external factors and forces, which target our emotions, should never be the basis of our worship. This is what we see in many efforts to worship God in modern Christianity. The lights, the sounds, the props, the hype: they all serve to create an environment that first stirs the emotions. Once the emotions are stirred, people are convinced they have engaged in worship, regardless of what else is said, taught, preached, or promoted. Couple this emotional environment with the seemingly endless pursuit of the latest, the newest, the most hip, the most urgent, the most connected, the most desperate… and we have all the makings of the most efficient marketing and advertising strategies found in the business world. We might promote something as having an impact or being a ‘riot’ or being relevant and real, but if we can’t find a basis in Scripture for what we are doing, then it is not something God is pleased with. It is not of the Lord. We might be tempted to gauge the ‘success’ of our efforts by the apparent effects, but when our efforts are working in reverse – from outside in – then our ‘results’ will be misleading. If something looks more like worldly entertainment than reverential worship, we won’t find the basis for it in Scripture.
This brings us to the definition of “truth”. The philosophy of the world promotes the idea (and often smugly declares) that absolute truth is an impossibility. How can a standard exist without some alteration or adaptation as time progresses? Surely we wouldn’t expect a standard that was established centuries ago to still remain intact and continue to be suitable or efficient or even relevant today. While many of us would be reluctant to admit it, modern Christianity has been grossly tainted by such worldly philosophy. Athenian Christianity might promote its ideas as being revolutionary, but they are more accurately described as being evolutionary. Many of us would probably agree on some ‘general’ truths; fundamental doctrines espoused by the Christian world at large down through the centuries. But what about “truth” when it comes to worship?
There is no question as to the subject of this part of the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4. It is undoubtedly worship. Just as Jesus declared to her that the Father seeks those who worship Him in spirit, so too Jesus plainly declared that the Father seeks those who worship Him in truth. As stated earlier, when spirit and truth accompany each other in our efforts to worship, God is pleased; He is sure to find us. Now, we won’t likely find perfection in either area – spirit or truth – but are we not obligated to continually seek a greater understanding of both?
What is truth? An infamous man in Jesus’ day asked the question, and it is a legitimate question. By definition, truth is objective; not subjective. In other words, truth is not subject to change depending on the circumstances. Here is the truth about truth. Truth can only be discovered to a greater and greater degree as we become more and more free from opinion, personal preference, emotion, and all external factors. This includes traditions not specifically taught in Scripture as well as the customs of the prevailing culture. Truth remains truth regardless of our likes, dislikes, preferences, or how we feel we about it. Truth remains in spite of what name we invoke upon our customs and traditions. So, to answer the earlier question – if Jesus declared that the Father seeks those who worship Him in truth, then yes! We are absolutely obligated to worship God in spirit AND in truth. If we are to worship the Father in an acceptable manner, we must worship Him in a way that harmonizes with who He is, as revealed in His word. And there is a reason we never find worship in the New Testament (or OT) associated with or trying to mimic any type of worldly entertainment. It is against the nature of God.
The church of the living God is described as the pillar and ground of the truth. The church: established by Christ, built upon the foundation of the apostles, having Jesus as its corner stone; the bride and body of Christ; the only institution ordained of God to be the repository of His truth here in the world. It matters what we believe. It matters how we worship. And the truth is, we have no right to mix the entertainment world with our worship. The truth is, it is more to our detriment than it is to our benefit. Without fail, the emotional entertainment approach to worship leads to the spotlight being on human beings rather than on Christ and the Father. True, in whatever we do, we should glorify God. Wherever our interests and likes and preferences take us, we should seek to glorify God. But the truth is, God has not given us permission to do whatever we want to do based on our likes and preferences in our efforts to worship Him as the church. The truth is, the Athenian mindset to Christian worship – always seeking the latest and the greatest – is only serving to blur the lines between the world and the church. Is the basis for our form of worship found in God’s word? Or are we living in Athens? There is truth, and there is that which is not true. Let God’s word determine which it is, and avoid Athenian Christianity.