Jesus said, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
First, notice that according to Jesus our worship is to be directed toward God. We are to worship Him. Only Deity is worthy of worship. Men are unworthy of worship. Cornelius knew that Peter had been sent by God to tell him the Word of God through which (if obeyed) he and his household would be saved (Acts 11:14). When Cornelius first saw the apostle Peter he “fell down at his feet, and worshiped him”(Acts 10:25). Peter was a great man, an apostle of Christ; but Peter made it clear that men were unworthy of worship. “But Peter took him up, saying, Stand up; I myself also am a man” (Acts 10:26). Twice (Rev. 19:10; 22:9) it is stated that John, the apostle, when beholding the glories of heaven fell down to worship at the feet of an angel. He was forbidden to do so. He was told, “Worship God.” When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, He stated, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and him only shalt thou serve” (Matt. 4:10).
Second, observe that man is the one whose responsibility it is to worship God. In the previous verse Jesus had stated, “…for the Father seeketh such to worship him” (John 4:23). Clearly God desires worship from man. The primary purpose of man is to glorify God. “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou has created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created” (Rev. 4:11). “By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name” (Heb. 13:5).
Third, this worship must be “in spirit” for it to be accepted by God. God demands that our worship be offered from the heart sincerely. God rejects worship that is not sincere. Jesus described some who offered such worship to God. He stated, “This people draweth nigh to me with their mouth and honoreth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matt. 15:8). Scripture speaks of those who are acceptable to God as “them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22). Worship is to be sincere expressions of praise and adoration of God which come from the genuine thoughts and intents of the heart.
Fourth, sincerity is not all that is necessary to make worship acceptable to God. Acceptable worship must be “in truth.” Truth is God’s Word (John 17:17). Our worship must be according to God’s instructions. When man injects his own ideas into worship, his worship becomes worthless. “But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9).
There are certain acts of worship that God has approved. All other acts are thereby condemned by God for worship. Prayer is worship (Acts 2:42; Jas. 4:8; 5:16)), singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” is worship (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), preaching God’s Word is worship (Acts 2:42; 20:7); giving financially of our means on the first day of the week is worship (1 Cor. 16:2), and partaking of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week is worship (Acts 20:7). It should be clearly observed that acceptable worship (i.e. acceptable to God) is not everything that man might want to do and call it worship. Acceptable worship follows the parameters set forth by God in His Word. God determines what acceptable worship is. He has revealed to us in His Word what acceptable worship is. Everything else is not acceptable worship.
Regardless of what man may call it, the playing of mechanical instruments of music is not worship because God has not authorized it. Even if man suggests that burning incense is worship, it is not worship because God has not authorized it. Man might suggest that everything that man wants to do is worship if his heart is sincere. God’s Word tells us that this is not so.
Some might suggest that all that man does is worship to God, but according to God’s Word this is not the case. Doing righteous acts are service to God, but “good works” are not worship. Dedicating one’s life to God is right, good and proper; but Christian living is never spoken of in the New Testament as worship. If all of life is worship, then worship is possible without the person realizing that he is worshiping. The person’s heart, according to this view, at the time may not even recognize that worship is taking place. How can such worship be “in spirit”? Such is absurd! God has authorized only five acts of worship. Those are the acts that are engaged in when worship takes place; worship only occurs when one or more of these acts are done.
Fifth, only two of those five acts are restricted in time. God has specified when we are to take the Lord’s Supper–the first day of the week. God has specified when we are to give financially to support the work of the church (local congregation)–the first day of the week. With God’s approval we can engage in these acts of worship only on the first day of the week (i.e. the first day of every week). We can worship God through singing (psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs), praying and the preaching of His Word at any time. If God has regulated these acts in some way, then we must follow those regulations when we engage in that action. For example, God has given us guidelines for prayer (i.e. addressed to the Father, in the name of Jesus, etc.). Prayer must be offered according to those instructions of God wherever and whenever we pray.
Worship is an activity on the part of man to praise God and to reverence Him and His Word. Worship is according to God’s pattern if it is acceptable to Him. Almost from the beginning of man’s presence on this earth, man has tried to ignore God’s Word, do his “own thing” and call it worship expecting God to be pleased. A study of the New Testament and a review of the cases of Cain and Nadab and Abihu ought to cause us to know that what we offer to God in worship is not always acceptable to Him just because we think what He has not authorized is okay, or better.