What temperature should you keep the church building? Ask ten people and you will get eleven different answers. Something similar happens when you ask, “What does it mean to worship in spirit and truth?”
Some soberly respond, “We must have Biblical authority for all we do in worship.” Others emotionally quiver, “We must be sincere and passionate in worship.” Both responses are true and desperately needed!
However, some thrilling results appear when we wrestle with the way Jesus used the phrase with a sinful, Samaritan woman by a well (John 4:1-26).
Jesus asked her for some water and offered her eternal life in return. Jesus exposed her need for life and His ability to give it with a simple request, “Go call your husband.” The insightful invitation ripped open a long and painful scar to reveal a life assassinated by sin. Her mind was turned toward God. So she asked the stranger a question about worship. Jesus replied,
“The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23)
Jesus seems to put his finger on two traits of true worshipers. They worship “in spirit” and “truth.” A common way to understand these terms is to interpret them contextually (always a good idea!)
“Truth” in Context
A glance backward in the conversation provides a possible explanation to what Jesus meant by “truth.” The woman asked Jesus a question about the place where God ought to be worshiped. “On this mountain” she asked, “or in Jerusalem?” (John 4:20).
The confusion resulted from the brevity of the Samaritan’s Bible. It contained only the first five books of the Law (Gen.-Duet.), which say nothing about Jerusalem being the place of worship. However, Deuteronomy identifies Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim as the place where God renewed His covenant with Israel (Deut. 11-12, 227-28). So, the Samaritans believed only “this mountain” had divine approval as the place of worship (likely Mt. Gerizim).
The Samaritans’ reasoning was wrong. Their rejection of Israel’s role in salvation caused them to discard divine history and engage in false worship (John 4:22). In contrast, true worshipers accept and obey all God’s instructions without prejudice. Therefore, “truth” in this context can refer to the authority of divine revelation (John 5:33; 8:45; 15:26).
However, Jesus did not start a class on Biblical interpretation with the shattered woman. Instead He moved her toward God’s intention. She was concerned about the place of worship, but the place would soon be different (John 4:21). God’s place of worship would not be at shrines or temples, but in people (4:20-21 “place”, to 4:23 “people”). The prior places of worship point to a people, who through Christ, become a temple in which God is worshiped (Eph. 2:21-22; 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19-20; 2 Cor. 6:16; 1 Pet. 2:5). True worship is more than being at the right place, it is about being the right person.
Therefore, in context, “truth” can have the meaning of “real.” The Father is seeking people to worship Him in the real way He always desired, not in places, but in forgiven, sanctified hearts.
“Spirit” in Context
The meaning of worshiping “in spirit,” seems to be explained by what follows. Worship must be in spirit, because God is spirit (John 4:24). God’s nature determines the nature of our worship.
God is not physical, thus bound to places like mountains and buildings. He is spirit. In addition, God gave us a “spirit” which lives beyond the physical and perceives ethics and eternity. Since God is spirit and we are spirits, then worship to God can ignite in any place, because it takes place in the spirit.
Upon reflection it is possible Jesus is not identifying two aspects of true worship, but one. The preposition “in” modifies both “spirit and truth,” and the context reveals both words carry a similar message. The Father is seeking people who will worship Him, not just in a place, but in their spirits.
“Spirit and Truth” in the Larger Context
The meaning of “spirit and truth” is deepened by looking at the larger context of John 3-4. John presents two accounts that are mirror images.
One is a conversation with a man named Nicodemus; the other with an unnamed woman.
He was educated; she was ignorant.
He was morally upright; she was sinful.
He searched Jesus out; she wanted to send Jesus away.
He was a Jew; she was a Samaritan.
They were worlds apart, but they had the same desperate need. They needed the eternal life only Jesus can give.
Jesus answered their need with a couplet. “Water and Spirit” are necessary to enter the kingdom, He said to Nicodemus (John 3:5). “Spirit and truth” are necessary for true worshipers, He said to the woman (John 4:23).
Jesus didn’t offer two different solutions, but one. Fellowship with God demands a total transformation of a person’s heart. A new, forgiven heart was necessary for a pious Pharisee to enter God’s kingdom. A new, repentant heart was necessary for a sinful Samaritan to become God’s sanctuary. The two accounts envision the restoration of the kingdom and the temple not in a place, but a transformed people (compare Ezek. 39:25-48:35).
It is often observed that Ezekiel 36 and 37 lay behind Jesus’ teaching about “water and spirit” in John 3. Ezekiel predicted a time when God would revive His people through the washing of water and the enlivening of His Spirit that they might walk in His statutes (Ezek. 36:25-27; 37:3-6).
What happens next in Ezekiel’s prophecy can expand our appreciation for the companion accounts of John 3-4.
God has His pictorial prophet collect two sticks. On one he writes, “For Judah.” On the other he writes, “For Joseph.” The sticks represent a kingdom divided by sin. Then Ezekiel grasps the sticks together and proclaims God will make them one nation “on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all” (Ezek. 37:22).
“Judah” and “Joseph” describe the totality of God’s people (Jer. 31:31; Gal. 3:7,29; Rom. 2:28-29, 9:6-8). God promises to make His fractured people one, reign over them as king and set His “sanctuary in their midst forevermore” (Ezek. 37:26).
The Gospel of John shows Jesus weaving together these broken nations. He holds in His hand a religious Jew and a rebellious Samaritan and declares them “one” in His kingdom (John 3:5) and makes them His sanctuary (John 4:23).
John gives the man the title, “ruler of the Jews” (Jew, “from Judah”), then he identifies the woman as, “from Samaria” (Samaria, synonym for “Israel,” “Ephraim” (Joseph’s child) in Biblical history). Jesus is fulfilling Ezekiel’s prediction. The two divided by sin are bound together in Christ.
This gives a prophetic, as well as a historic, reason for John’s statement, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9). The two had no agreement until Jesus came. Then they became one.
The gospel makes the same gracious offer to all humanity! But beware. Accepting the invitation requires becoming totally new. Accept the new life only Jesus can give and walk in His ways wherever they lead. These are true worshipers.
“Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Cor. 16:14)
What “True Worship” Looks Like?
Flashing lights, pounding beats, ornate buildings, pulsating crowds, these are the pictures of “worship” in our culture. Yet, the gospel of John presents a very different picture of true worship in the life of a sinful Samaritan lady. After a conversation with Jesus (worship begins with divine instruction!), she has this response,
28 So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:28–29)
The Woman Left. She left behind the mundane for the most important. To be true worshipers most of us need to drop lesser pursuits and put Christ first. Life is set up for “going to the well,” but true worshipers make knowing God, serving God, sharing the truth of God their priority. What are you willing to leave behind?
The Woman Confessed. “He told me all that I ever did” (John 4:29). The town knew what kind of woman she was, now she confessed it. Jesus knew it, she wasn’t going to hide it. True worshipers confess their sins and need for Jesus. Are you a true worshiper?
The Woman Shared. Earlier when Jesus said, “Go get your husband and share the good news with him,” she refused to have one. But now, she goes and shares the truth about Jesus with her whole town. They come to believe that Jesus is “indeed the Savior of the World” (John 4:42). True worshipers don’t have to be begged to share their faith. They are constantly talking about what they’ve learned about Jesus. Are you a true worshiper?