“But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.” John 4:23
What does it mean to worship in the Spirit? Paul echoes these words of Jesus in Philippians 3:3 when he says, "for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh." What is the role of the Holy Spirit in worship? As those charged with the sober responsibility of leading the body of Christ into worship, how do we rightly honor His person and work?
The night before the crucifixion Jesus had gathered His closest companions to Him so that He could pray for them and share His heart with them one final time before His death. In the midst of this holy night we find one of the most shocking statements in the entire New Testament. Judas had departed, the company of disciples had left the upper room, and little time remained before the agony of the Garden would begin the unthinkable sequence of events that would culminate at Golgotha. Soon the hands of Jesus would be shackled and He would be taken from them, as He had tried to warn so many times. His friends - still so immature and fearful - would be left with the daunting task of leading all of His followers and establishing the foundation of the church. The prospect of Jesus, the Lord of glory and the sinless Son of David, leaving them seemed devastating and disastrous for the small, fledgling band of those who loved Him. And then He said it.
"It is to your advantage that I go away." What? Advantage? How could losing Jesus mean gain for the disciples? What could possibly be better than God with us, actually dwelling among us? (Matt. 1:23, John 1:14) The reason was so simple, so beautiful, so stunning. God in us. For the disciples, the only thing that could surpass the indescribable privilege of those years spent walking alongside Jesus would be having Him actually live within them through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Give heed to these words of Jesus in their larger context:
“I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you...If anyone loves Me, he will keep my word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him...But now I am going to Him who sent Me; and none of you asks Me, ‘Where are You going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you...But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you.” John 14:16–18, 23; 16:5-7, 12-14
The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the chief glory of the New Covenant. Just as Jesus said, the Holy Spirit had been with the people of God but through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus men would be joined to God and have Him dwell within. Why is this truth so vital to worship? Our first thought might be to link the indwelling with holiness. The Holy Spirit in us helps to make us holy. This is so wonderfully true, and it is also true that apart from sanctification and a life of walking in the Spirit we cannot be vibrant worshipers. Yet the work of the Spirit consistently emphasized as paramount in the New Covenant is knowledge. Yes, knowledge. Jesus said that the Helper would guide us into all truth and disclose to our hearts the riches of His glory (cf. Eph. 3:8). The climax of the main prophecy of the New Covenant found in Jeremiah is that the law will be written on the hearts of the people and "they will all know Me." (Jer. 31:31-34) Paul says that the Spirit searches out "the depths of God" and that we have received "not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God." (1 Cor. 2:10-12).
Worship or prayer, whether spoken or sung, is always and ever a response to a Person. Stemming from this recognition that worship and prayer are both personally and relationally oriented is the conclusion that the authenticity and vitality of worship in a community directly corresponds to the accuracy and depth of its knowledge of God. The ‘problem’ of worship in modern Church is not the wrong worship pastor, a bad sound system, an incapable band, the question of traditional or contemporary, or any other question of form. The problem is that shallow knowledge will never produce deep expressions of worship. Personal or corporate devotion will simply never ascend beyond the knowledge of the Person to whom we are devoted. Where the vision of that Person is dim, obscure, or marginalized, true adoration will be rare and fervent cries of intercession scarce. Yet where Christ is treasured and exalted in the hearts of the people, worship and prayer alike will have both their impetus and their staying power.
Thus, to worship "in the Spirit" means, in part, to worship with the knowledge of God at the forefront because the Holy Spirit loves to make God known. This is why Jesus adds "and truth" and Paul says "and glory in Christ Jesus" in the passages above. As worship leaders we need to cultivate the knowledge of God in our own lives through the revelatory power of the indwelling Spirit, and actively invite the ministry of the Holy Spirit in corporate settings so that He can move among the people and put the splendor of Jesus on display. When we recognize that the height of our times of worship are directly related to the depth of the knowledge of the One we praise, then we make ourselves desperately dependent on the Holy Spirit to come and do what only He can do.