Thursday, June 23, 2011

On Making Molehills out of Mountains

On Making Molehills out of Mountains

(Dr. Sweeting’s Style)

Recently the Aquila Report published an article by Dr. Don Sweeting in which he argues that God is not much concerned with worship style. He undergirds his assertion with an appeal to the John 4 conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Printed below is his appeal to John 4.

I believe that Dr. Sweeting is correct in stating the Jesus declares that his coming means that the earthly geographical location of worship will no longer be important. Jesus is the Temple, and he is the “location” of all true worship.

But, I believe Dr. Sweeting’s assertion that the woman wants to talk about “style” (which mountain) and, that Jesus does not care about style, and so won’t pursue the topic, because style (which mountain) does not matter, is mistaken. It is mistaken because it is based on a misunderstanding of how Jesus took and responded to the woman’s question.

Dr. Sweeting:

But my biggest reason for saying that God is less concerned with style than we are comes from John 4.   

In that chapter Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman.  She was shocked that he, being a Jew, would even talk with her.  Jesus then asked her for a drink but then shifted the topic of conversation to living water and eternal life.   When he addressed her multiple marriages, she changed the subject to talk about style of worship.  She said, “our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”  She was focused on mountains, and Jesus made it really clear that these were incidentals, not the main thing.

Mt. Gerizim or Mt. Moriah did not matter anymore.  So he said, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming whey you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…..a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth., for they are the kinds of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4.21-24)

She wants to talk about mountains, and in that way is much like us.  He wants to talk about the heart of the matter.  Christ’s coming into the world means that worship is no longer identified with a location, because the Son, the true temple of God is here.

When Jesus spoke of the woman’s marital history and present domestic arrangement, the woman realized that he could know these things only by supernatural knowledge. That led her to say, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.” If Jesus were a prophet, then he might be able to answer a nagging question about worship – which mountain, Gerizim or Zion? And, so she says, “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”

It is tempting to think this woman is trying to divert the conversation away from an uncomfortable subject to a trivial one. Maybe she is doing something such as a person, when confronted by the claims of Christ, who says, “Don’t you Presbyterians believe in predestination?”

But Jesus took her question seriously. He could have brought her back to the topic of her lifestyle, but he did not. The woman’s question at its root was a question about worship. That is why Jesus accepted her question and pursued the topic.

He began to talk with her about worship, because there is no more important subject. Worship is about who your God is. Who your God is determines what you will do with your life and where you will spend eternity.

The question about worship the woman asked had to do with the right place to worship. The location of worship might seem trivial to us. But, in the time leading up to the coming of Jesus it was critical. Moses had told the people that God would appoint the place of worship and that worship could be offered there only (Dt. 12: 1-14). The reasons for this rule were: (1) to proclaim the exclusivity of the LORD as God, (2) to preserve the purity of God’s worship, (3) to promote the unity of God’s people. Israel should be one people worshiping one God at the one place and in the one way he accepted.

When David became king of the unified Israel God chose Mt. Zion in Jerusalem as the place where the temple would be built by Solomon (2 Sam. 7:12, 13; 1 Chron.22:6-11, 2 Chron. 6:10). However, the Samaritans accepted only the first five books of the Old Testament as authoritative. Moses said that there would be one place, but he did not designate that place. So, from their Bible, there was nothing to contradict the claim that Mt. Gerizim, the mountain from which the covenant blessings had been pronounced on Israel (Dt. 27:12) was the place. Their temple they had built there had been destroyed by a Jewish leader, but they continued to worship there.

If Jesus were a prophet, perhaps the prophet Moses had promised God would raise up (Dt. 18-15-18), then he might resolve the conflict. She said to Jesus, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you (Jews) say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”

Jesus will end up telling her that his coming changes everything and that issue of location will soon be irrelevant. But that does not mean the issue is unimportant. In fact the question about which mountain is one of huge importance.

Tied to the question of “Where?” are the questions, “Who is the true God?” and “How does he want to be worshiped?” That’s what Jesus means by “You (Samaritans) worship what you do not know; we (Jews) worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.”

God had revealed himself to and made a covenant with Israel. He had spoken to them through all the OT prophets. The Jews had the revelation of the true God who was working out his saving purposes through Israel. Jesus had come in fulfillment of God’s promises to accomplish salvation for God’s people.

The Samaritans had an incomplete revelation from God (not the whole OT but just the books of Moses), an inadequate understanding of God, and an illegitimate place and form of worship.

Jesus took the side of the Jews in the religious controversy between the Jews and Samaritans. But Jesus also asserts that his coming changes everything, that soon the Jewish temple itself will be obsolete, and that the important thing now is not the location but the way of worship. “But the hour is coming, and is here now, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth... God is spirit and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth.”

True (genuine, real) worshipers worship the true God in spirit and truth. Saying “in spirit and truth” Jesus is not speaking of two distinct things. “Spirit and truth” is governed by one preposition (“in”). It is one concept described in two complementary (nearly synonymous) ways. Both focus on Jesus.

He is “the truth” (John 14:6). He is the truth as contrasted with all that is false and deceptive and with all that is partial and inadequate. He is the truth about God, for he is the embodiment of God. He is truth in contrast with the unreality and falsity of the Samaritan view of God. He is also the truth in contrast with what is incomplete and temporary. He is the full and final revelation of God in contrast with the Jewish OT which was incomplete and preparatory.

To worship “in spirit” is to worship by the help of and through the Holy Spirit whom Jesus gives. He had spoken to the woman of living water he could give her. Later at a feast that included a ceremony in which water was poured out, Jesus proclaimed, “If anyone is thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes me in, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” John tells us, “Now he spoke this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him would receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given” (in his constant and full ministry to all believers) (John 7: 37-39). Paul, described Christians in contrast with unbelieving Jews, as those “who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus…” (Phil. 3: 3). 

Jesus gives us the good news that God the Father is seeking those who will worship him in spirit and truth. He does not need our worship, for he is complete and happy within himself.  But in grace, he sent Jesus to reveal himself to us, and to reconcile us to himself so we can worship him. Together, the Father and Son sent the Spirit to reveal Jesus and to give us hearts to worship.

The woman was not sure what to make of Jesus statement and replied, "I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called the Christ). When he comes; he will tell us all things.” In other words Messiah will settle this question once and for all. And Jesus replies, “I, who speak to you, am he.” He is here, and he just settled it.

Let’s not turn this woman’s mountains into a two molehills. Jesus did not. She has raised mountainous questions: Who is the true God? What is true religion? What is true worship? What worship does God want?

Jesus’ reply that God will accept only worship that is in spirit and truth has something to say about style. Style of worship is not wholly a matter of indifference – of taste, preference, or culture.

The way we worship has a double whammy effect. The way we worship reveals who we think God to be and the worth-ship we ascribe to him right now. At the same time the way we worship exerts an inexorable pull on us. It will ultimately cause our doctrine of God and the value we assign him to conform to the view of him expressed by the worship in which we participate.

Style of worship cannot in the end be detached from theology or heart. Our doctrine of God and our heart relation to God will be expressed in the style of our worship. Yes, even in the content and style of our songs.

1 comment:

Rod said...

It seems that many people read NT controversies - especially regarding the Samaritans - as if they were 20th century controversies.

1) This John 4 passage - In our day, a question about where to worship can be reduced to one of style. "Should we build our new sanctuary on this highway, where we have a lot of exposure but where land is expensive, or on that back road, where we don't get the exposure but where we can get more for our money?" That ignores, as you point out, the redemptive historical context.

2) Many in our day look at the Jews having no dealings with Samaritans in the same way as the Jim Crow laws of the old south. Southern whites have unfounded prejudices against blacks, just like the Jews had unfounded prejudices against Samaritans. However, that again ignores the redemptive historical context. The Samaritans had been guilty of false, syncretizing worship for hundreds of years. The Jews' loathing of them was founded upon that fact, and was thus totally understandable. It was not just a matter of racial prejudice.

3) The Jew/Gentile division is likewise, in our day, equated with racial prejudice. In Scripture, though, God had mandated a separation, through the sign of the covenant (circumcision), for thousands of years. So when that middle wall of partition was broken down, it was much, much more than just overcoming some irrational prejudice - it was overturning thousands of years of history of the way God had worked. As that great biblical theologian Ringo Starr said, "You know it don't come easy."

When we see these issues in redemptive historical context, we see what you have pointed out - that the Samaritan woman's questions really are momentous concerns, and not just attempts to dodge the issue.