1 Kings 12:28-33 tells of the sad choice made by the first king of Israel, Jereboam, to change the worship of God that had been given to Moses by God. Jereboam introduced two golden calves to be worshipped as Jehovah; he changed the place of worship from Jerusalem to Dan and Bethel; he changed the priesthood from the sons of Levi to the lowest of the people, and he added a new feast to be celebrated. It is perhaps this form of worship that the woman of Samaria alluded to in John 4:20 when she discussed worship with Jesus. The Samaritans were the descendants of the colonists brought in by the Assyrians after the kingdom of Israel had been deported. According to 2 Kings 17:27, the Assyrians brought a priest from the kingdom of Israel to teach the ancestors of the Samaritans the worship of God. Even though the Samaritans inherited a religion that worshipped the one true God, it was a form of worship that was based on the way man wanted to worship God and not the way God intended man to worship Him.
This gives the background for the response Jesus made to this woman of Samaria (John 4:24): "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." The fact that God is a spirit should have an affect on our worship of Him.
I. The Person of Our Worship
When you think of idolatry, what scenes come to your mind? Do you see natives bowing down to cruel-faced statues? Animals and humans being sacrificed before an altar? What about Jereboam's new religion? Jereboam did not make golden calves to represent some heathen gods. These golden calves were supposed to be Jehovah, the gods that brought Israel out of Egypt. Yet as we shall see this is idolatry too, and perhaps a more dangerous form of idolatry due to the fact that it involves worship of God.
Since God is a spirit, we must learn this important truth - we cannot liken Him to anything we know of in this present world that we live in! This is precisely the point that Isaiah made when he asked "To whom then will ye liken God?" (Isaiah 40:18-20). Paul also raises this issue to the superstitious Athenians on Mars Hill in Acts 17:29. It seems that man is prone to worship God in the likeness of something found in creation (Romans 1:23). When God spoke to the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai, he did not appear in any form to them because He did not want them to worship an image of anything they had seen (Deuteronomy 4:12-19).
Not only is it impossible to liken God to anything, we are commanded not to do so! The second commandment, as given in Exodus 20:4-6, specifically states that we are not to make an image of anything we see in creation and bow down to it. Note that this commandment is not dealing with worshipping other gods (that was dealt with in the first commandment) - it is a commandment concerning our worship of the one true God. Do Christians or those who profess themselves to be Christians disobey this commandment today? What about those who bow down to a crucifix? What about pictures or statues of Christ?
There are two dangers involved in worshipping God in the form of an image.
As Calvin said "to devise any image of God is itself impious; because by this corruption His majesty is adulterated, and He is figured to be other than He is." In Psalm 106:20, God tells us exactly what the children of Israel did when they made the molten calf: "they changed their glory into the similitude of an ox that eateth grass." The glory of God was lowered to that of an ox.
What was the result of the molten calf worship at Mt. Sinai? The children of Israel committed great wickedness (Exodus 32:6, 25). What happens when people think of God as a statue made with human hands and which never speaks?
II. The Place of Our Worship
Thanks to Jereboam, the Samaritan woman was confused about the place where the worship of God should be performed. Jesus had an interesting response to her question - "the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father" (John 4:21).
Since God is a spirit, we need to understand yet another truth: God can be worshipped from anywhere. How many professing Christians have misunderstood this truth? Some obviously believe that God can only be worshipped at church since this is the only time they pray or read their Bibles. Some must believe that church is the place where God is worshipped because they dress differently, behave differently, and think differently when they are there. Not only can we worship God anywhere, but we ought to worship Him everywhere and all the time (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
There are three dangers in thinking that we must worship God in a specific place: 1. Limiting God
A recent advertisement on the internet claimed that for a small fee, your prayers could be beamed into space via satellite where God could hear them better. As a spirit, we should not limit God's ability to receive our worship no matter where we are.
Thinking that God can only be worshipped at church has led many to live a double standard. At church (where they think God is) they live one way, and at home (where they believe God is not) they live another way. For example, if Halloween decorations are wrong in the church, should they be in our homes?
Thinking that God can only be worshipped at church has led many to the wrong idea about the purpose of a church and the reason for coming together. Because they have long associated church with the place to worship, some feel that they can watch a church service at home and accomplish the same thing. They have completely missed Hebrews 10:25 - "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together."
III. The Provision for Our Worship
Jereboam came up with his own way of worshipping God, but he is certainly not alone in this sin. Jesus upbraided the Pharisees saying "in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:9).
Since God is a spirit, we must understand a third truth: We cannot worship God the way that man (the flesh) thinks that God should be worshipped. We must worship God the way God says that we should worship Him. How many churches today worship God based on tradition rather than "thus saith the Lord"?
The danger of worshipping God in man's way is that we are very likely to be incorrect in our worship. Cain came to God with an offering of the fruits of his own labor, but God was certainly not pleased with this. God's way was through the blood of an innocent life. We need to remember Isaiah 55:8, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD."
We should not be like those in Athens whom Paul said worshipped God ignorantly. As Paul wrote in Philippians 3:3, "For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh." When we worship God, we ought to bear in mind that He is a spirit!