Truth: Exploring a Worship Essential, Part One

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John 4:24 KJV
God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

John 8:31-32 KJV
If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

 Let’s Talk about Jesus

(Old Time Worship Chorus)
Let’s talk about Jesus–He’s my Rock. He’s my Rock.
Let’s talk about Jesus–He’s my Rock!
He’s always there beside me to cheer me and to guide me.
He’s my Sword. He’s my Shield. He’s My Rock


What is Truth?

Truth and Jesus
Pilate asked the right question when he held court early that morning as the religious leaders thrust Jesus into his life. Perhaps more than any other single line in the Governor’s dialogue, this question lingers all these centuries later. Believers believe all sorts of things. Deep thinkers ruminate on hard questions. Debaters choose sides and go into verbal combat with each other.  Legislative bodies legislate and courts deliberate. Scientists carefully observe phenomena and faithfully report their observations then repeat their experiments. Investigators examine the evidence and detectives seek more evidence for them to examine.  Writers watch the world and report what they think might be true. Members of the press are divided; some seek truth while others seek influence.  On and on we could go.  Pilate’s court was supposed to be a court of law, Roman law, dedicated to the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace.  This was limited freedom as long as the conquered territories did not threaten Roman rule.  To the polytheistic Roman mind local gods were no problem.  What was a few more added to the mix?  But the Jews were a problem with their ONE GOD and their rumored Messiah who they claimed to be their King.  Into this swirl of beliefs and power structures came this strange man named Jesus, betrayed by a friend, arrested by His leaders, and delivered in chains to the Roman governor for justice they could not administer—the death penalty.  Rome was skilled at this.  But what was the truth? Who was this man?  Did He deserve to die?  Before Pilate washed his hands, he plunged his mind beneath the convenient waters of ancient relativism.  He would compose the truth he needed at that moment.

Truth and Worship
A long time before that night of injustice, Jesus’ words to the Woman-at-the-Samaritan-Well expressed the heart of the New Testament on worship—truth, and its faithful companion, spirit.  The earthly ministry of Jesus made the transition from the Old to the New Covenant.  Symbols under the Old Covenant would become realities under the New Covenant.

  • Animal sacrifices would become spiritual sacrifices.
  • The worship patterns of the Wilderness Tabernacle and the Temples that followed would become spiritual patterns of worship, enabling the believer’s journey as we come before the presence of the Lord through the Gates of Thanksgiving, into the Courts of Praise, and deeper into the Holy Place of prayer and presence in the light of the Holy Spirit’s lampstand, to arrive in the Holy of Holies where spiritual transformation takes place.
  • The Old Covenant schedule for worship, locked into specific times and places, would be replaced by worship in Spirit and Truth, a worship calendar and location even more portable than Moses’ Tabernacle. Why? Because in the coming centuries, New Covenant worship in spirit and truth must enable worship in every “tribe and tongue and nation” in all the world. Worship in Spirit and Truth has done and is doing that.
  • The occasional, task-oriented ministry of the Holy Spirit on a prophet or a king, would become the indwelling ministry of the Spirit in every believer in Jesus. How? Because of Calvary! “He has been with you, and He shall be in you,” said Jesus at the Last Supper.  What a difference!

It is no wonder Jesus said to the woman, “The time is coming and now is.”  He was and is ‘the Messenger of the Covenant” described by the prophet Malachi, and He had “suddenly come to His Temple.” At that well in Samaria, Jesus described this amazing transition in our access to the Almighty.  The Good News of Jesus’ atoning death and victorious resurrection is that the veil in the Temple has been torn away!

  • We no longer need to approach God through an anointed, exalted priesthood—we are Holy Priests who are also Royal Priests, meaning that we are called to serve in the courts of the King![1]
  • Because Jesus shed His innocent blood, we who were guilty before God now stand before Him in the Righteousness of Christ as if we had never sinned!
  • Instead of animals slain on altars, our sacrifices are living sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving and Jesus finds them worthy to be His dwelling place and the very throne of His majestic Kingdom.[2]

These amazing concepts are more than words, they are truths, promises of God that transcend time and space. They work!  It happens!  The sincere worship of God’s people in every land in every epoch of history has become His dwelling and ruling place—Heavenly Zion come to earth!

For this reason, truth is an irreplaceable element of public worship. 
We do not proclaim theories but proven facts. We do not traffic in legends but actual historical events relevant to this moment and not relegated to the past. We testify to our own stories, true stories of Jesus and the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.  We have not been deceived—we have been delivered!  Truth—God’s truth and our truth—is the essence of our worship. In this essay, we will explore this worship essential.

There are many kinds of truths and they constitute the form and content of public worship. Some of these categories of truth lie at the surface of worship and are easily analyzed and measured.  Other truths lie deeper in the hearts of worshipers and their leaders and can exert powerful emotions in the lives of the People of God. These must be examined in the light of scripture in the method recommended by Paul: “Prove all things; hold fast to that which is good.”[3] There are emotional, personal truths and there are traditional truths as well as cultural innovations that bring us contemporary truths.  My purpose is to organize these types of worship truths and examine them in the light of scripture.

Truth then and Now
Why is this necessary?  Public worship is an amazing mixture of eternal truths expressed in terms of temporary culture.  The truths of the Bible are changeless, and the expressions of culture are constantly changing.  The forces of culture and personal preferences act upon worshipers without our permission since we are all products of the culture in which we exist and have our being.  The power of God’s truths acts upon each of us as we open our hearts to the Holy Spirit.  We must seek them out. We must constantly seek the heart of God and the face of God in prayer and Bible study.  When the ideas of our culture and the truth of God contradict each other, the wise choice is to adjust our personal preferences to the will of God as it is revealed to us in His Word and by His Spirit.  Because the forces of culture are so strong and so present with us, this is a constant process.  I dealt with this in chapter six of my book, Worship that Pleases God, the Passion and Reason of True Worship.

In chapter one we dealt with the imposition of culture and personality on the worship experience. This happens without effort on our part.  With effort (obedience to Scripture),we can develop a worship practice that pleases God and at the same time reflects the unique   characteristics of our culture and personality.  The same is true concerning our motivation to worship.  Without effort on our part, base motivations, personal needs, and public pressures shape our worship practice. Our passion will be spent on these things. It is natural for us to impose our motivations, good and bad, upon our worship. It is supernatural for us to worship God from a pure heart, free from selfish motivations.  It is here, in the area of motivation that we need the Refiner’s Fire and the Launderer’s Soap.  God’s peace will never come to a church riddled with self-interest.

Stephen Phifer
Worship that Pleases God, Chapter Six, Purity in Public Worship–Corporate Peace with God

For this reason, one of the principles of the Protestant Reformation is Semper Reformanda!, “Always Reforming.”  What does that mean?  It means we must constantly be vigilant to maintain the multi-dimensional truth of our worship at all levels, those readily seen and those hidden in the hearts of the worshipers and their leaders.  Because the influence of culture is so strong and omnipresent, no single generation ever completes the work of worship renewal. The next generation must seek out the heart of God and test their worship culture against the unchanging revelation of God. “From generation to generation” the work must go on. What work is that?  The work of proving all things and holding fast to what is good.

The Gospel Truth

The Jesus Story
At the heart of all the truth we must express in worship is the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.  My mentor, Dr. Robert E. Webber, introduced me to the term, “metanarrative.”  Every religion and every philosophy of life is based on a metanarrative, a grand story that expresses the core beliefs of that mode of living.  The metanarrative expresses these essential beliefs:

  • Who God is,
  • How the universe came to be,
  • The nature of mankind, and
  • What happens when people die.

When our secular humanist friends try to live by their espoused atheism they are merely attempting to live by their accepted metanarrative:

  • There is no god and no absolute truth, no right or wrong.
  • The universe is a huge random accident.
  • Mankind is just another animal.
  • There is no afterlife.

In stark contrast, the Judeo-Christian life is lived by this metanarrative:

  • God is the all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful One who has given us His Word.
  • God created the universe for His glory.
  • God created mankind in His own image.
  • We are eternal beings facing judgement in the next life.

Choose any philosophy or religion and the answers to these questions will unveil the story by which the followers of it live.  Everyone lives by faith in the metanarrative they choose to believe.

For this reason, public worship services must be about the Jesus Story.

  • The Old Testament points the way to Jesus with histories, prayers, praises, and prophesies.
  • The Gospels, the Book of Acts, and the Revelation tell the Jesus story.
  • The epistles explain how the early believers lived Christian lives.

The whole Bible is our metanarrative.

Preaching and Public Worship
God has chosen preaching, and its faithful, if less demonstrative cousin teaching, as the primary communication techniques of public worship.[4] Two basic types of preaching are topical and expository. What are the definitions?

  • Topical preaching mines the Scriptures on a particular subject, seeking a broad yet detailed biblical understanding of that issue.
  • Expository preaching takes books of the Bible verse by verse, taking up next time where we left off this time.

Both of these methods are beneficial to the church. The generally accepted rule is: “let scripture interpret scripture.”

One of the dangers facing modern preaching is the well-meaning misuse of topical sermons.  If we are not careful, we will spend more time applying scripture to contemporary living than we do telling the Gospel story.  Ironically, the Gospel can get lost in our topical treatment of the Word.  Every contemporary need can be addressed from somewhere within the Jesus story and in the Old Testament accounts of the heroes and villains of the faith.  The cumulative effect of the exclusive use of topical preaching is the deemphasis of the Jesus Story.

Likewise, there are two basic types of public worship services, and the use of scripture is the primary distinction:

  • Liturgical Worship is where scriptures are prescribed for each day and the preacher chooses from the prescribed passage what he/she will present. Daily scripture passages are also prescribed in what is called the Lectionary with fully half of the year devoted to the Jesus story from Advent to Pentecost.
  • Free Worship is when the leaders must develop their own themes and scripture passages. Usually certain “high and holy” days from the Christian Year are included, Christmas and Easter.  Congregants are on their own for the organization of their private worship.

One of the strengths of basing worship services on the Christian Year and the Lectionary is that the church spends half the year walking through the Jesus Story in daily devotions and in Lord’s Day worship.  A strength of the Free Worship approach is the expectation that the pastor and worship leader will find the “mind of Christ” for each service and season of the year.

The Christian Year
In this light, our annual celebrations of Christian holidays take on a new importance.  The world needs to hear about Jesus’ birth and they near to hear the church singing the songs of the season—they tell the story!  The same is true for the Easter season.  The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection and His promise to return is the hope of the people we are trying to reach with the Gospel! If they come our way on Easter, let’s tell them the whole truth! The story of Pentecost and the whole Book of Acts points us to the power of the Holy Spirit we must possess to fulfill the Great Commission and those two Great Commandments—to love God to love people.  These stories are essential, and they are worthy of framing the Jesus story in our long-term worship planning.

The Table and the Story
Dr. Webber helped me see the Lord’s Table in a new light.  The ancient church celebrated communion every Lord’s Day.  One reason was that when done in the ancient form, “The Great Thanksgiving,”[5] the worship at the Table of the Lord tells the Jesus story in vivid terms.  At the prompting of “Brother Bob,” as he insisted on us calling him, when I was part of the first communion service of my doctoral program, I saw how easily a Communion service done as The Great Thanksgiving and an old-time Pentecostal Altar Service could be combined with great effect.  Maybe I will live long enough to see that happen. Let us now crystallize our thoughts into principles we can live by.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer
© 2022 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

To continue with Part Two

[1] 1 Peter 2:1-10
[2] Psalm 22:3
[3] 1 Thes.5:21 KJV
[4] Mark 16:15 NKJV And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.
Matt 28:19-20 NIV Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

[5] “The Great Thanksgiving” is the meaning of the word Eucharist.

Truth: Exploring a Worship Essential, Part One

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