The New Covenant Enables God’s People to Worship in Spirit & Truth!
By Richard Allen – April 3, 2023
How well I remember seeing a picture in a Christian publication many years ago, showing a funny meme (before we called them memes), where a young priest and his cardinal are standing outside a new and glorious Cathedral. In the caption, the older cardinal was struggling to think of a Bible verse to use for the “dedication sermon” he needed to deliver to dedicate the edifice. The young priest ironically suggests:
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man “ (Acts 17:24).
Ironic, but what makes this passage from Acts all the more startling is that Paul the Apostle uttered these words while standing on “Mars Hill,” that is the “Aeropagus” in Athens, Greece. Being very superstitious, the Greeks had many shrines and temples to every possible god. And just to be sure they didn’t miss some god, they even had: “The Temple to the Unknown God.” Paul’s message to the pagan Greeks is even more telling in that many church denominations seem to have forgotten this, and what Jesus said to the woman at the well in Samaria: “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and in Truth” (John 4:24). Clearly, God does not dwell in temples made with hands! This is a fundamental principle of the New Covenant, a covenant that was instituted by Jesus during the Lord’s Supper, when He stated: “This cup that is poured out for you is the New Covenant in my blood” (Luke 2:20).
Speaking of a New Covenant, the writer of Hebrews, after he tells us that the earthly temple, priesthood, rituals and sacrifices were copies and shadows of the real versions in heaven, calls us to remember that all these “physical props” and structures were tied to the Old Covenant. And, as the writer of Hebrews explains, had serious weaknesses and deficiencies BECAUSE FALLEN PEOPLE COULD NOT KEEP IT. So this covenant needed to be replaced. To make his point, the writer of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah chapter 31 where the prophet declares:
“For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said: ‘The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord. This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, Know the Lord, because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’ By calling this covenant new, he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear” (Hebrews 8:7-13).
Several important truths are revealed in these verses. Truths upon which the Church of Jesus Christ is founded. Truths so serious, that to abandon them is to drop all pretense of being under the New Covenant. To abandon any of these foundational truths is to “return to the Old Covenant” with all the weakness and failures – BECAUSE WE COULD NEVER KEEP IT. Again, I want to be careful here, the problem was not with the Old Covenant, or with God’s Holy Law, theproblem was with us. Fallen men and women “could never please or obey God in the flesh, or from the heart” (Hebrews 11:6). So this New Covenant NEEDED TO BE DRASTICALLY DIFFERENT! The Good News (the gospel), is that the New Covenant was not made for men and women still in the flesh and controlled exclusively by carnal appetites. No, the New Covenant would be for a Spiritual People, born not of the Flesh, but born of the Spirit.
First, the writer of Hebrews confirms that the prophet Jeremiah was speaking of their days, that is the days in which these Hebrew Christians were living, and during their days the Lord had established a New Covenant with the House of Israel and Judah. Furthermore, this New Covenant would not be just for the Jews, but would also include redeemed believers among the Gentiles (Romans 1:16). Second, Jeremiah’s prophecy tells us that this New Covenant is NOT like the covenant God made with their fathers, with all of its rules, ceremonies, and props. This truth is quite important, as his readers had been tempted to return to the obsolete Old Covenant which could never fully cleanse from sin, or make open the way to God. This New Covenant would be different in a critical way: “No longer would God write His Law on Tables of Stone kept in Stone Temples with Physical Altars, Bloody Sacrifices and a Fallen Priesthood.” As weird as it might sound, in His divine counsel God had “planned obsolescence” into the Old Covenant. From the start He clearly purposed that covenant would fail. Again, not because of God, the problem was with us and our sin!
Third, believers under a New Covenant experience God, as He: “Put His laws in their minds, and wrote them on their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10. This is clearly a function of the Holy Spirit in the New Covenant Age! The writer of Hebrews was so impressed with this new writing of the Law that he quotes Jeremiah’s prophecy twice, both here in Hebrews 8:10 and then again in Hebrews 10:16. This is the power of the New Covenant that the Old Covenant did not have, namely, God’s very presence, by His Spirit dwelling within all believers, empowering them to effectively “put sin to death in their mortal bodies” (Romans 6:12; Colossians 3:5). This alone explains how the New Covenant is NOT LIKE THE OLD COVENANT God made with Israel at Sinai. And we really need to understand that this New and Better Covenant is not based on the physical trappings of religion that all fallen men and women, YES, EVEN THE JEWS UNDER THE OLD COVENANT, were subject to: Worship by Location, Race, Gender, Economic Standing or any other trappings that mankind clung to for centuries. Religion FROM THE FLESH is always made up of Physical Props as mentioned above. The ornate Greek Orthodox Cathedral pictured above shows how far from “worship in Spirit and Truth” many denominations have strayed. Sadly, an outward show is attractive to men in the flesh!
Just so you don’t think I’m aesthetically numb, I’ll relate a recent event. I was at a funeral service at a huge church from one of our mainline denominations to show my respects to a friend whose family member had died. While standing in a long line, I had time to look at the architecture, the altar, the stained glass along with generous artwork and statues. The church building’s interior was ornate and quite beautiful. I can honestly say I was genuinely impressed by the adornment of this building, as well as the dress of the priests and other attendants. Speaking purely as a human being who likes shiny and colorful “things,” I was taken aback by the aesthetic beauty of the sights and even the music offered, it was quite beautiful. So some may ask me: “So, what is wrong with that? God has equipped us to enjoy art and beautiful music.” In fact, let me acknowledge that most of the great composers, painters and even sculptors were employed by the Church over the past centuries to craft their greatest works. “Again, what could be wrong with this?”
In response, let me remind us all of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem, the one that Jesus frequented during His earthly ministry. This was an amazingly beautiful edifice, having taken 46 years to construct at great expense to both King Herod and Rome. And yet, Jesus told the woman at the well in Samaria that men and women would no longer worship there in Jerusalem, at Herod’s temple, nor would they worship at any other grand edifice, but “True worshippers would worship in “Spirit and Truth! This was the promise of the New Covenant Age of the Spirit. No longer tied to sparkly sights and sounds meant to impress children and worshippers with “minds set on the flesh” (Romans 8:6). Grown-up worshippers, those “born of the Spirit,” would now enjoy greater freedom and intimacy with God by His Spirit. I also freely admit, that “Worship in Spirit and Truth” is not easy for any of us, SINCE OUR FLESH GETS IN THE WAY. But it is worth the effort to have real fellowship with a Holy God. I also acknowledge that going back to the “sparkly, physically sensual experiences” of Man-Made Religion is hard to resist. No matter where or when you look at man-made religion, “carnal worship” with all its trappings is attractive. But we need to remember that God is NOT pleased with such outward physical worship, He wants to commune with us in the Spirit by the Truth of His word.
As I close, I want to make sure not to overstate what I’m saying. Our church buildings should never be anything other than a “place to meet” with the Living God. To construct and adorn these edifices to look like the Jewish Temple, and dress up our ministers as priests from a by-gone age, is regressive, like going back to childhood. Their esthetic beauty can only attract men and women with carnal appetites. We can and should conduct our Church Services in “decency and order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). Just know that the outward machinations of worship CAN NEVER BE THE REASON WE HAVE ACCESS TO GOD! While having a pleasant and adequate facility is fine, ornate church buildings are not going to bring us closer to God. No, it is only by Faith Alone in God’s Son Alone that we have “fellowship with one another” by the Holy Spirit! Being an Adult Believer does bring with it a high level of responsibility to know God through His Word, and for those who have “tasted and seen that the Lord is good,” He is well worth it! Soli Deo Gloria!