The Worship of God in the Four Gospels

John Murray

It could be assumed that the four Gospels would not provide much teaching relevant to the worship that is permanent in the church of God. The four Gospels are concerned to a large extent with what antedated the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ and their story does not extend to the event of Pentecost. It was by these pivotal events that the typical and ceremonial institution was abrogated as to its observance and it might be thought that the worship reflected on in the four Gospels would be the worship of the ceremonial economy as distinct from the worship of the New Testament. There are two observations respecting this assumption. First, it should be borne in mind that there is much in the worship of the Old Testament that bears upon the worship that abides. Many considerations establish a basic identity in the worship of both Testaments. Examples will appear in the course of this study. Second, the assumption is soon shown to be erroneous when the four Gospels are examined. There is a wealth of material directly pertinent to what is basic and essential in the worship of God and therefore indispensable in the worship the New Testament prescribes. This material may be set forth under several appropriate divisions.

I. The Worship of God
(Matt. 4:10; Luke 4:8, 24:53; John 4:23-24, 9:31)

A. According to Scripture the primary principle of worship is that God alone is to be worshipped. It was our Lord himself who gave unambiguous witness to this principle and exemplified it in the ordeal of his temptation: “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve” (Matt. 4:10; Luke 4:8).

1. The test is a quotation (Deut. 6:13). This, at the outset, advises us that the worship of the Old Testament in its essential features is never to be set in antithesis to the worship of the New. There is basic identity and our Lord did not need to state anything new in this respect but to reassert what the Old Testament had emphatically required. This fact of identity is implicit in the principle itself. Since God is one (cf. Deut. 6:4) and God alone is to be worshipped, there could not be any basic discrepancy and so, in respect of essence, the Old Testament is regulative for the worship of the New. To this our Lord himself accords his authority and sanction.

2. The principle lies close to the first commandment, and the correlation implies that worship as to its specific character partakes of the exclusiveness that belongs to God. The absolute distinctness and transcendence of God are to be expressed and verified by that which belongs to him alone, namely, worship. And the rendering to any creature the worship due to God amounts to a denial of that glory which is distinctively and uniquely his. This indictment applies not only to that which is ostensibly worship of the creature but also to that which gives to any creature a deference that amounts to worship. It is in this respect that the first principle of worship may be violated by us and the idolatry of heart and practice exposed.

B. No text in Scripture is more significant for the worship of God than John 4:23-24: “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth: for such doth the Father seek to be his worshippers. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” This passage merits a dissertation. Only brief comment can be given now and the points of leading significance mentioned.

1. Our Lord is specific in emphasizing the worship of the Father. This indicates that the worship of God must be characterized by the particularity that exists in the Godhead. Worship must be offered in recognition of the Trinitarian distinctions and to each person of the Godhead in accordance with his distinguishing properties and functions, especially as these are expressed in the economy of salvation. The accent in this passage falls upon the necessity of worship “in spirit and truth.” But this requirement cannot be fulfilled if the truth that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit does not determine the character of our worship.

2. “God is spirit.” Like other propositions, “God is light” (I John 1:5), “God is love” (I John 4:8, 16), “our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29), this one specifies the nature of God. The thought is not that he is a spirit and belongs to the classification “spirits.” He is spirit essentially and uniquely and this prescribes the nature of the worship to be rendered to him: it must be “in spirit and truth.”

We may not dismiss offhand the view that “spirit” in this case refers to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit and truth are brought into such correlation in the teaching of our Lord in this Gospel (14:17, 15:26, 16:13, cf. I John 4:6, 5:6) that it would be easy to interpret the coordination in John 4:23-24 in these terms and regard Jesus’ intent to be tantamount to “in the Spirit of truth.” We may not, however, insist on this interpretation. It is probably that “spirit” refers to the human spirit (cf. Matt. 5:3; Luke 1:47; John 13:21; Acts 17:16; Rom. 1:9, 8:16b; I Cor. 2:11, 7:34; II Cor. 7:1; I Thess. 5:23) and that the intensive and internal quality of true worship is expressed. “Truth” is coordinated with “spirit” to express the reality that must characterize worship in contrast with make-believe and hypocrisy. Truth also points to reality in contrast with type and shadow. Inwardness and reality are required by the nature of God as spirit and from the correlative that God is truth. These qualities of worship are indicated also in “true worshippers” (verse 23). The “true” finds its antonym not so much in what is false, though this is not wholly absent, but in what falls short of the reality which, in the exercise of worship, corresponds with the reality of God’s being as spirit and truth. It is, therefore, apparent how dependent we are upon the Holy Spirit as the author of “Spiritual sacrifice” when we offer to God the worship that is acceptable. “It is the Spirit that giveth life; the flesh profiteth nothing” (John 6:63).

The principle “in spirit and truth” bears directly upon the content of worship. If worship must be consonant with the nature of God, it must be in accord with what God has revealed himself to be and regulated as to content and mode by the revelation God has given in holy Scripture. The sanction enunciated (“in spirit and truth”) excludes all human invention and imagination and warns us against the offence and peril of offering strange fire unto the Lord. No principle more than this inculcates jealousy to ascertain that what we offer has the warrant of divine authority.

3. The words, “for such doth the Father seek to be his worshippers” (verse 23) allude to the requirement of worship “in spirit and truth,” implicit in the preceding clause and expressly stated in verse 24. So they accentuate the demand for true worship. But what needs to be observed by way of distinction in this instance is the grace betokened. Again the reference to the Father is to be appreciated. Nothing less than access to the throne of the Father’s grace and to the holy of holies of the Father’s presence is contemplated. And the accent falls upon the assurance that worshippers of the kind stated are sought for by the Father.

It is not merely that they may enter the sanctuary to offer worship but that the Father has delight in this service. In response to the Father’s delight our worship ought to be one of delight and confidence. Language fails to measure up to the benignity of the Father’s good pleasure and to the joy of entering into his courts.

We thus see that in Jesus’ own teaching on this occasion we find a series of principles that are most basic and central in relation to God’s worship.

II. The Worship of Jesus

When we keep in view our Lord’s own explicit witness that God alone is to be worshipped, the worship of Jesus in the record of the Gospels constitutes one of the most astounding features of Gospel history. The visit of the wise men to Jerusalem on the occasion of Jesus’ birth is illustrative of the ways in which the history connected with the begetting, conception, and birth of Christ is charged with the unprecedented. Of particular relevance to our present interest is the fact that when they found the child Jesus “they fell down and worshipped him” (Matt. 2:11; cf. 2:2). All the circumstances associated with this incident combine to show that the worship was of that character exemplified in subsequent instances throughout the life of Jesus upon earth. That the infant Jesus should have elicited worship is evidence of the incomparably supernatural and the recognition of this on the part of the wise men.

It is not necessary to discuss all the cases in which worship has been accorded to Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. There are numerous instances in a great diversity of situations (cf. Matt. 8:12, 9:18, 14:33, 15:25, 20:20, 28:9 and 17; Mark 5:6, 11:9-10; Luke 18:37-38, 24:52; John 9:38, 12:13). Suffice it to observe the implications.

1. In contrast with other instances in which worship had been reproved and rejected (cf. Acts 10:25-26; Rev. 22:8-9), Jesus never declined the worship proffered nor did he reprove it as incompatible with the worship due to God alone. Two examples of acceptance and commendation point up the difference in his case (Matt. 15:25 and 28; John 20:28-29). But not only is there acceptance; our Lord expressly provides the reason.

The Father, he says, “hath committed all judgment to the Son, that all should honor the Son as they honor the Father. He that honoreth not the Son honoreth not the Father that sent him” (John 5:22-23). As will be noted, it is the dignity belonging to him as the Son that not only grounds the propriety of worship but also demands the same.

2. The astounding feature of the worship of Jesus is that his human identity did not interfere with the offering to him of the worship due to God alone. The only explanation of this is the recognition that he was more than man, that is, of his divine identity. How in numerous cases in the days of his flesh this recognition had been formed in the consciousness of his worshippers it is not our purpose now to discuss or investigate. But with varying degrees of awareness there must have entered into their consciousness the implications of the witness borne to him. In this connection it should be observed that his identity as the Son of God is of paramount importance. The import of his divine Sonship is no less than equality with God and Godhood (cf. John 5:17-18, 10:22). Matt. 14:33 is a noteworthy example of the relation that the intradivine Sonship sustains to worship: “And these who were in the boat worshipped him saying: Verily of God thou art Son.”

The effect of the evidence in the Gospels bearing upon the worship of Jesus is that, in addition to what Jesus taught respecting the worship of the Father, our worship is not true worship if it is not characterized by the worship of our Lord Jesus Christ equally and concurrently with our worship of the Father. The principle already established that the worship of God must take account of the particularity of the persons of the Godhead must apply to the worship of Jesus, and it is in this case that the particularity is peculiarly distinct. The human identity of Jesus must never be absent from our thought of him and so in our worship of him he must ever be conceived of as the God-man. Such a conception is severely excluded in our worship of the Father and of the Holy Spirit. As our Christian faith is constituted by faith in him who is the God-man, so Christian worship consists essentially in the worship of Jesus as the Son of God incarnate, the man Christ Jesus. All of this points up and points to the redemptive conditioning of Christian worship and forcefully reminds us that we worship each person of the Trinity in terms of the distinguishing functions that person performs in the economy of salvation. It would take us too far afield to adduce all the data relevant to this in the teaching of Jesus. Suffice it to mention the prominence given in his own witness to the fact of his being the one sent of the Father and to the place this occupied in the knowledge and faith of him (cf. Matt. 10:30; Luke 4:18 and 43; John 5:36, 6:38, and 17:3, 8, 18, 23).

III. Regulative Principle
(Matt. 15:2-9, 21:12-13; Mark 7:7-9 and 13, 11:15-17; John 2:14-17, 4:23-24)

We have noted already that John 4:23-24 bears directly upon the content of worship, that the requirement ”in spirit and truth” inculcates the necessity of ascertaining that what we offer in worship has the warrant of divine authority. It is significant that what is implicit in John 4:23-24 finds its explicit enunciation in Jesus’ teaching elsewhere. Attention may be focused on Mark 7:7-9 and 13. It is apparent that the emphasis in this passage is placed on the inviolable sanction of the commandment of God in opposition to the tradition of men and vice versa. This is not restricted to the subject of worship in the specific sense. The occasion particularly in view was the subterfuge by which the fifth commandment has been made void. This, however, was but an example, for our Lord adds: “and many such like things ye do” (verse 13).

For our present interest what needs to be observed is that worship comes within the compass of application and it is with reference to worship that the subject is introduced: “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (verse 7; cf. Matt. 15:9, Isa. 29:13). In the discourse that follows we find a sustained antithesis of human prescription to the commandment of God “Leaving the commandment of God ye hold fast the tradition of men. . . . Full well do ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your tradition . . . making void the word of God by your tradition” (verses 8, 9 and 13). The conclusions are express. (1) Worship that is regulated by human prescription is vain; it rejects the commandment of God and makes void his word. (2) Adherence to the commandment of God is mandatory; we may not leave it or depart from it. And this means that we must be constantly directed by the prescription of God’s Word.

The repeated reference to the commandment of God is of paramount importance. It shows that nothing less than this is in our Lord’s esteem the regulative principle of the worship of God. It does not mean that “tradition” as such is to be depreciated. But it does require that any tradition which is not based upon and derived from divine prescription is of human origin and sanction and incurs the condemnation so patent in our Lord’s teaching on this subject. Jesus’ cleansing of the temple illustrates his jealousy for the sanctity of the house of God and the holy zeal with which desecration should be expelled.

IV. Requisites of Worship
(Matt. 5:23-24, 6:1-4, 12:7, 18:20; Mark 12:42-44; Luke 21:2-4)

Acceptable worship requires not only conformity to divine prescription in content and form; the frame of mind on the part of the worshipper must also be taken into account. To this our Lord bears witness and therefore inculcates the necessity of adherence to objective norms, on the one hand, and of subjective attitude, on the other. Worship is directed to God alone. But as in ethics so in worship inter-human relations may never be dismissed as irrelevant. This is the lesson of Matt. 5:23-24: “If therefore thou art offering thy gift at the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” Not only reconciliation with God is indispensable but also reconciliation with our brethren, and the latter is the concrete and practical criterion of our sincerity. “He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen” (I John 4:20).

When our Lord reproved theatrical showmanship (Matt. 6:1-4), he exposed an evil far more prevalent than the demonstrative display to which he expressly refers, the evil of attendance upon the exercises of worship to be seen and have glory of men. The principle underlying Jesus’ reproof is that in worship we come into the holiest of God’s presence and that concern for the notice and praise of men is the contradiction of worshipping the Creator rather than the creature and amounts to idolatry.

Jesus’ observations respecting the widow who cast into the treasury two mites (Mark 12:42-44; Luke 21:2-4) advises us that the criterion of devotion is not the amount we contribute to the service of God but the commitment of which our contribution is the measure.

Though Matt. 18:20 has a wider application, the gathering together for worship cannot be excluded from its scope. Two considerations should be observed. (1) The assembly of the saints is the meeting of God with his people (cf. Exod. 29:43-46) and he dwells among them. This meeting and dwelling Jesus applies to his own presence; when he is in the midst, God is there. (2) The minimum of plurality is all that is required. If two come together in Jesus’ name he is always there. To suspend the worship of the church because of meager attendance is to offer insult to the Saviour and shows more concern for meeting with people than meeting with Christ. The implications for worship are patent. “The name of the city from that day shall be, The Lord is there” (Ezek. 48:35). It is of this that Jesus’ word is reminiscent and with his own presence the promise is realized. Wherever there are two there are always three and the third is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ. Where Christ is, the Father and Holy Spirit are (cf. John 17:21-23, 14:16-17). So wherever there are two there are always five — two meeting in Jesus’ name and the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The inestimable grace and privilege need no comment.

V. The Ingredients of Worship

The teaching on this subject comprised in the four Gospels merits discussion far beyond what the limits of this study permit. At the best, comment will be brief and in some instances little more than citation of relevant passages.

A. Prayer. No passage in Scripture is of greater importance on the subject of prayer than is the prayer Jesus taught his disciples (Matt. 6:9-15; Luke 11:2-4). Some salient features may be mentioned. We are advised that, by way of eminence, prayer should be addressed to God the Father. This is not only indicated by the title “Father” in the prayer itself (Matt. 6:9; Luke 11:2) but also by the repeated use of this title in the context (cf. Matt. 6:4, 6, 8, 14, 15). As has been observed above in connection with worship in general, so now we are reminded that prayer must be characterized by the particularity of approach and access required by the differentiation within the Godhead and falls short of its Christian character if it is not directed to God the Father in the marvel of the revelation he comes to sustain to the people of God as their Father in heaven. Paramount in all prayer must be adoration and supreme must be our interest in God’s glory and kingdom. The prayer is that which Jesus taught his disciples. It was not Jesus’ own prayer. John 17:1-26 is the grand example of the latter and the contrasts need to be jealously observed. In prayer to the Father the uniqueness of Jesus’ filial relation must be kept in mind and his exclusion from the address “our Father” always recognized.

Our Lord’s teaching respecting attitude in prayer points up the lessons of faith (cf. Matt. 7:7-11, 17:20; Mark 11:24), perseverance (cf. Luke 18:1 and 9-14; Matt. 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30), watchfulness (cf. Matt 26:40-41; Mark 13:33-35, 14:38; Luke 21:36), forgiving disposition (cf. Matt. 6:14-15; Mark 11:25), contrition (Luke 18:9-14).

B. Fasting. The sequence in which Matt. 6:16-18 occurs indicates that fasting is an exercise of devotion similar to prayer and on occasion conjoined with it. The propriety and acceptableness of fasting as an element of worship are, however, placed beyond doubt by verse 18. It is in the Father’s presence that believers fast and the Father gives the recompense (cf. Luke 2:37). That fasting has its appropriate occasion and should be restricted to such is equally apparent (cf. Mark 2:20; Luke 5:35). Though there is a question as to the text of Matt. 17:21 (cf. Mark 9:29) the thought is no doubt authentic and illustrates the type of circumstance in which the efficacy of prayer is contingent upon the concentration exemplified in fasting.

C. The emphasis placed upon preaching in the activities of the disciples evinces the place it occupies in the worship of the church (cf. Matt. 10:7; Mark 3:14, 5:18 and 20, 6:12; Luke 8:39, 9:2 and 6; John 21:15-17).

D. Singing. (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26). This refers to the paschal hymn comprising the Psalms known as the Hallel.

E. Baptism. (Matt. 28:19-20).

F. The Lord’s Supper. (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:14-20).

G. Scripture Reading. The reading of Scripture was an integral part of the synagogue worship. The instance recorded in Luke 4:16-19 provides an example that would have to be regarded as permanently relevant.

This article is taken from The Biblical Doctrine of Worship, a collection published by Crown and Covenant Publications, 7408 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15208-2531. Reproduced by kind permission.