Small group Bible study curriculum with lessons by:
Scott Aniol, Tom Ascol, Voddie Baucham, Josh Buice, Costi Hinn, Phil Johnson,
Steven Lawson, John MacArthur, Laramie Minga, Matthew Sikes, Paul Washer, James White
Main Point: Spirit-led worship focuses on the glory of Christ.
Main Passage: John 16:4–15
Memory: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (Jn 16:13–14)
Most Christians would define worship as an expression of adoration or reverence toward the Triune God, he who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But in practice, worship today is often directed elsewhere than to God. Worshipers are often unsure of what to sing, how to express themselves, or on whom the focus really is. In a “selfie culture,” obsessed with our own perfection and how people perceive us, worship tends to be focused somewhere God never intended.
Unfortunately, many Christians today claim to worship God, but in reality they desire the emphasis and the focus to be on themselves. They may sing about God and his glory, but their songs are largely pleasantries, a means to their own end. Often this self-focused worship manifests itself in extreme emotionalism, minimizing truth, and even disorder. Even worse, some Christians today attribute the resulting worship to the Holy Spirit.
And so the question for us as believers is this: What does Spirit-led worship look like in a self-centered age? How are we to worship God with all of our being at a time when even in broader Evangelical churches it seems that people are more interested in themselves than in God?
The Bible teaches that there is true and false worship; not all worship is acceptable to God. Therefore, the call for us is to ensure that we are Spirit-led, Spirit-filled, God-honoring worshipers of the true high and mighty God. The glory of God must be the focus, not us and our preferences. God’s holiness calls us to worship with reverence and order, never a casual spirit or one of chaos. God commands worship that is rooted in both spirit and truth.
And we have not been left without a helper—the Holy Spirit is dwelling within all true believers, building, protecting, teaching, and guiding. He will accomplish his work through us for the glory of God. With this in mind, what will characterize spirit-led worship in a self-centered age?
Spirit-Led Worship is Controlled by the Holy Spirit (Jn 16:4–7)
But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5 But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. 7 Nevertheless, 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.
Before Christ ascended into heaven, he promised that he would send his Spirit. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would be our helper, and the New Testament explains in several places how the Spirit helps us. One central aspect of the Spirit’s work is that he makes our worship possible. Christians come to enjoy communion with God through the person and work of Jesus Christ, but this happens “in one Spirit” (Eph 2:18).
Later in Ephesians, Paul explains what will characterize worship led by the Holy Spirit:
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph 5:18–20)
In contrast to drunkenness, which is out of control, Paul wants believers under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
Pagan worship is out of control; pagan worship glorifies self. One of the most picturesque examples of this contrast between true and pagan worship is found in Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal in the northern kingdom during the reign of Ahab (1 Kgs 18:20–40). Their acts of worship were characterized by loud, ecstatic cries, incessant dancing around the altar, and self-mutilation. All of this physical activity was an attempt to work up the worshipers into an ecstatic state in order to get the god’s attention and persuade him to act on their behalf. And, of course, no one answered. But in biblical worship, God has already acted on the behalf of the worshiper. In fact, it is God’s acts that provide the means for a sinner to draw near to him, and thus it is God who invites those who come with a true heart in full assurance of faith to draw near to communion with him (Heb 10:22).
Therefore, biblical worship is not an attempt to get God’s attention, call the Spirit down, or lead worshipers into God’s presence; rather, biblical worship is a response to the work that God has already done on behalf of the redeemed worshiper, and through Spirit-controlled worship, believers further grow in their knowledge and love for the Lord.
Paul addresses this aspect of Spirit-led worship in 1 Corinthians 14. Apparently, Christians in the church at Corinth had similar expectations about the Holy Spirit’s work in worship being extraordinary experience as contemporary Christians do. Yet Paul corrects their expectation by emphasizing that even if the Holy Spirit works in extraordinary ways in worship, like with tongues or prophecy, “God is not a God of confusion”—in other words, disorder—“but of peace” (v. 33). Paul’s argument here appears to be that even within a context of expecting the Holy Spirit to work in miraculous ways, whereas confusion and disorder are evidences that he is not working.
On this basis, Paul provides clear principles for order in a worship service, fully consistent with the Holy Spirit’s giving of miraculous gifts. “Only two or at most three” people may speak in tongues in any given service, “and each in turn” (v. 27). If there is no one to interpret the tongues, “let each of them keep silent” (v. 28). Only two or three prophets should speak, others should weigh what is said (v. 29), and they should do so one at a time (v. 30). Far from expecting the Holy Spirit to sweep through the congregation, causing worshipers to be overcome with his presence, “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (v. 32). Far from quenching the Holy Spirit, order within corporate worship is exactly how the Holy Spirit works, desiring that “all may learn and all be encouraged” (v. 31). Thus in corporate worship, exactly because of how the Holy Spirit of God works and the purpose of corporate worship to form disciple-worshipers who will properly bring glory to God, “all things should be done decently and in order” (v. 40).
There are some Christians who think that you have not yet had the Spirit-filled, Spirit-empowered worship experience until you manifest it in extraordinary ways, and they will defend their emotionalism and their chaos saying, “Don’t you dare put God in a box. Don’t quench the Spirit.” In reality, they are divorcing the Spirit and the Word, as if Christ is trying to bind the Holy Spirit to the Word, and the Spirit is just trying to break free and express himself. This is a mockery of the unity between the persons of the Trinity. The Spirit and the Word are never divorced. Notably, the Holy Spirit’s work of “filling” a believer (Eph 5:19) is paralleled in Paul’s writings with the Word of Christ “richly dwelling” within a Christian (Col 3:16). Thus, believers should expect that the Holy Spirit will work today primarily through his Word, and he will never act contrary to his Word. Spirit-led expressions of worship are never divorced from the Word of God.
|Think About It|
|1. What do you typically think of when you hear “Spirit-led worship”?|
2. What are fundamental differences between Spirit-led worship and pagan worship?
3. How should an understanding of the essential relationship between Word and Spirit affect how we worship?
Spirit-led Worship Focuses on the Holiness of God
Next, Spirit-led worship focuses on the holiness of God. When the Spirit ushered John into the heavenly temple, John beheld the Lord seated on his throne surrounded by angels singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty” (Rev 4:2, 8).
What more do we need than that picture of God? He is so holy—so worthy—that he made his own seraphim with wings just to cover their eyes and their feet so they would not melt in the presence of his explosive glory (Isa 6:2). How dare we offer him anything but reverence in our worship? He is a holy God. When the Bible gives us a glimpse of God, it is not about us; it is about him and his majesty. It is not about even what he can do; it is about who he is.
|Meetings with God in Scripture|
Moses “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exod 3:5)
Joshua “And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” (Josh 5:15)
Paul “And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’” (Acts 9:4)
John “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.” (Rev 1:17)
Do we focus on God and his holiness in our worship? Are our lyrics in the songs that we love, the service we render, and even our prayers marked with adoration for the holiness of God?
So many songs today talk about what God can do, and what he can do is indeed wonderful. Praise God. But what about who he is? He is good. Whether you are experiencing the mountain peaks of blessing or the valleys of trial, he is steadfast, he is loving, and he is everlasting. He is before all things. All things are for him, to him, through him, and because of him. We should certainly praise God for what he can do, but if he never did anything else but be who he is, that is enough.
Often worship expressions that are focused exclusively on what God does for us tend to direct our attention not to him, but to us. An abundance of worship songs use expressions more fitting for secular love songs than those directed to a holy God. But we do not come to worship to hear more about ourselves; we need more of him.
Honor him. Worship him. Bow to him. Revere him. Fear him. We must learn to recognize the difference between music and worship mostly about us and that which truly adorns who God is, his character, his power, and his glory.
|Think About It|
|1. Do you think Christians today regularly acknowledge the holiness of God? Why do you think this is the case?|
2. Are your prayers and praise more often about what God can do for you or who he is? Why do you think this is the case?
3. How should a deep recognition of God’s holiness affect our worship?
Spirit-led Worship Admits the Sinner that You Are (Jn 16:8–11)
And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
Spirit-led worship also admits the sinner that you are. True worship gives us a right view of the holiness of God, as both Isaiah and John experienced. And the Spirit who leads us to witness the holiness of God will then convict us of sin. Like Isaiah, instead of arrogantly making worship about us, the Spirit leads us to humbly declare that we are unworthy before a holy God. Everything gets put in perspective because of God’s holiness. We then say, “I see who you are, and I now know who I am, and therefore I know what I need: it is you.” God is fine without us, but we will never be fine without him. He is holy without us; we will never be holy without him. He is and will forever be glorified without us; we will never be glorified without him. He doesn’t need us; we need him.
David’s perspective after sinning with Bathsheba should help us in this regard. He cries out in Psalm 51:10–17,
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. 11 Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. 15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. 16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
That is the heart of worship the Holy Spirit will form within us as we approach our holy God in worship.
We cannot fully appreciate the grace of God until we’ve come to terms with who he is as a perfect Savior and who we are as pretentious sinners.
Do we love singing about the grace of God though we have not confessed our sins to God? Do we love grace in its cheapest forms because there is no cost for us? Spirit-led worship will cause us to recognize our sinfulness.
|Think About It|
|1. How often is confession of sin a regular part of corporate worship today?|
2. How might intentional recognition of our sinfulness toward God lead to a deeper appreciation of his grace and mercy in Christ?
Have you ever noticed how many psalms are acknowledgement of the psalmist’s sinfulness and a cry to the Lord for mercy?
Spirit-Led Worship Prioritizes Truth (Jn 16:12–13)
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
When Jesus made this statement, he was explaining to his disciples that one of the advantages of the Holy Spirit coming was that he would breathe through their very pens to write God’s revelation. The Holy Spirit gave the apostles special revelation to disclose the nature and character of God, explain God’s requirements, correct sin, and give hope for the future. He gave them the truth necessary to establish Christian doctrine and set the church in order (1 Tim 3:15). Ultimately, he inspired a “prophetic word more fully confirmed” (2 Pet 1:19–21), the canonical Scriptures, given to believers “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16–17). We today do not have the promise of writing new revelation, but we have the Spirit-inspired truth in the final and sufficient Word of God.
Therefore, the Spirit is still leading us into the truth—this is who our God is. In Psalm 25:5, the psalmist writes, “Lead me in your truth and teach me”; Psalm 43:3 says, “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling”; In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, the life”; and in 1 Timothy 4:16, Paul tells Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Time and time again, God leads us by truth and into truth.
Without Spirit-inspired biblical truth, worship easily devolves into purely physical emotionalism. Is it possible today that some Christians have bought into what is claimed to be of heavenly origin but is actually passion rooted in earthly manipulation? Your passions can lie to you. There is no shortage of passion in the church world today, but we must be certain that our heart responses are rooted in truth. This is why we need to carefully consider the Christian music we enjoy, judging everything through the filter of God’s Word, not of how the music feels. What music we choose for worship must be based on the criterion of whether or not it is true compared with Scripture.
|Think About It|
|1. How important is it to recognize the biblical connection between the Spirit and the Word?|
2. What is an example of a worship song that is emotionally engaging but devoid of truth?
3. If biblical truth is the primary criterion we use for every aspect of our worship, how would that change our worship services?
Spirit-Led Worship Declares the Glory of Christ (Jn 16:14)
And finally, this all leads to the fact that Spirit-led worship declares the glory of Christ. He is everything.
He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
The Holy Spirit is God, equal in essence and glory with the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit is worthy to be worshiped; but according to Scripture, the Spirit’s emphasis is on directing the attention to Christ and the glory of God the Father.
This being the case, the Holy Spirit certainly did not come to put the spotlight on us, our preferences, or our feelings; he came to put the spotlight on Christ. That is where all Spirit-led worship begins and ends.
|Think About It|
|1. How would recognizing that the Holy Spirit does not even draw attention to himself affect our worship?|
2. In what ways does the Holy Spirit direct our attention to Jesus Christ?
3. In what ways should Spirit-led corporate worship draw attention to the glory of Christ?
Prayer: Father, help us be those who would pronounce our love for truth. Thank you for your Word and Spirit, which reveal to us your holiness and our unworthiness. But even now you offer the assurance of salvation through Jesus Christ. And so, holy God, our precious Savior and King Jesus Christ, and helper Holy Spirit, please enable us to be true worshipers, those who worship in spirit and in truth. Use us as instruments and witnesses of your glory and goodness in our churches, in our cities, and around the world. We pray and ask this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
For Further Study:
Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John: An Introduction and Commentary. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991.
Cole, Graham A. He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Crossway, 2007.
Ferguson, Sinclair B. The Holy Spirit. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1997. Thiselton, Anthony C. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. NIGTC. Eerdmans, 2000.