The Place of Worship
“Jesus said to [the Samaritan woman], ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… . But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him’ ” (vv. 21–23).- John 4:20–23
Animal sacrifices constituted a major part of old covenant worship, and the place where these sacrifices could be offered was highly regulated by God. Following the settlement of Israel in the Promised Land, the Israelites were supposed to seek the Lord for the place they were to bring their burnt offerings and sacrifices (Deut. 12:5–7), and God revealed to David that the temple and altar were to be built in Jerusalem (1 Chron. 21:1–22:1). After the construction of the temple, anyone who offered sacrifices at other places violated the Lord’s will, and the books of 1 and 2 Kings frequently condemn kings who built altars elsewhere even if they were altars to the God of Israel.
This establishment of a central sanctuary for sacrifice does not mean the old covenant saints could not worship God at all outside of Jerusalem. Jesus’ participation in the synagogue services in Nazareth, for example, shows us that God approved of the singing, prayers, instruction, and other acts of worship conducted at those local meeting places (Luke 4:16–27). Still, Jerusalem remained the only place where the Jews could lawfully offer sacrifices to God.
Under the new covenant, things have changed. No longer is there one sanctuary to which all believers are obliged to go for worshiping the Lord. Since Jesus has fulfilled the temple and its sacrificial system (Heb. 9–10), there is no need for a central place of worship. Jesus told the Samaritan woman that a day was coming when people would worship not in Jerusalem nor on Mount Gerizim but elsewhere and that such worship would be acceptable as long as it was conducted in spirit and truth (John 4:20–23). Of course, people were supposed to worship God in spirit and truth under the old covenant, but worshiping in truth then meant offering animal sacrifices only in Jerusalem.
In any case, today there is no single location where all Christians must go for corporate worship. Duly established churches may meet for worship in homes, in movie theaters, in school lunchrooms, on the seashore, or in any other location. That is not to say that creating dedicated sanctuaries for worship is prohibited. There is, in fact, great wisdom in building sanctuaries of beauty where the church can gather to worship God, and church sanctuaries at their best help us focus our hearts and minds on the Lord in worship. But they are not absolutely required. True worship happens wherever we praise God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).
Some Christians frown on the practice of building sanctuaries for worship. Yet while church buildings are not required, worship is, and a designated place for worship enables people to be more conscious of God’s presence and their need to revere Him. Because worship is so important, we should support our churches as they endeavor to create spaces where we can worship God in spirit, truth, and beauty.
Passages for Further Study