Only now are we ready to understand John 4 —
(John 4:19-20 ESV) 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”
According to Josephus, under the Maccabees, when the Jews threw off the rule of the Seleucids and gained independence for the first time since Nebuchadnezzar, the Jews invaded Samaria and destroyed the Samaritan temple at Gerizim. This is surely one reason the Samaritans hated the Jews.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that the woman asks Jesus whether God should be worshiped only at Jerusalem. After all, the Jews destroyed the temple complex at Gerizim to enforce the rule that God may only be worshiped in Jerusalem.
(John 4:21-22 ESV) 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.”
Jesus declares that things are about to change. Worship (proskuneo) will no longer be limited to a particular location. However, Jesus reinforces the correctness of the Jewish interpretation, but in a sly way. After all, yes, salvation is from the Jews, but that’s because Jesus is from the Jews. And no one knows God better than Jesus!
The Samaritan woman was talking to the Savior — salvation personified — but she didn’t know him. Not yet.
(John 4:23-24 ESV) 23 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. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Although salvation is from the Jews, the Father is seeking worshipers — obviously not just the Jews. Indeed, no longer will worshipers be defined by race or nationality. Rather, the test of who is a true worshiper is whether that person worships “in spirit and truth.”
Now, many people (not just those in the Churches of Christ) have interpreted “spirit” to mean “good attitude” and “truth” to mean “right rules.” But this is clearly bad exegesis. Very bad indeed.
First, the argument is that the Jews had the right rules and a bad hearts, while the Samaritans had great hearts and the wrong rules. Jesus says no such thing, and Jesus commends some Jews’ hearts — such as the widow who gave her mite to the Temple. Jesus condemns the Pharisees and the political leaders, but not Jews in general. Jesus nowhere suggests that the Samaritans have the right heart. The argument reads the prejudices of history into the text, which is a huge mistake.
Second, Jesus inserts “God is spirit” for a purpose. He’s not teaching a lesson on the nature of God so much as on the nature of worship. To worship God we must become like God (a recurring theme you’ll notice). How do we become like God? Well, by worshiping “in spirit” in the same sense that “God is spirit.” “Spirit” in this context is the nature of God’s substance. He’s not physical but spirit.
So how does a physical being become spirit? Well, Jesus had just said,
(John 4:13-14 ESV) 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
“Living water” is the indwelling Holy Spirit. John makes certain we don’t miss this later in the Gospel —
(John 7:37-39 ESV) 37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
And, of course, in chapter 3 John had just related the story of Jesus and Nicodemus (“born of water and Spirit”), and earlier John had quoted John the Baptist —
(John 1:33 ESV) 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’
The indwelling Spirit is a major theme of the first several chapters of John. “Spirit” is a reference to the Holy Spirit. Only by being baptized in and indwelled by the Spirit can we worship “in Spirit.”
(Eze 37:1-14 ESV) The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2 And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD.” 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them.
9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.”
True worship is only for those made alive by the Spirit. Dry bones can’t worship.
And so, what is “truth”? As long-time readers will recall, I posted a brief series on this question a while back —
The short answer is that Jesus is the truth, Jesus teaches the truth, and Jesus lived the truth. The truth is the gospel as embodied in Jesus.
(John 14:6 ESV) 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Therefore, the test of true worship is no longer where you worship or whether you are a Jew, but whether you’ve received the Spirit and the gospel of Jesus. Indeed, worship in Spirit and in truth is to follow the example of Jesus of sacrificial living and service — because the truth is the truth about Jesus and the Spirit leads us to Jesus.
It’s not just that we worship Jesus as Lord, but that we live as Jesus lived.
(Mat 16:24-25 ESV) 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
(Mat 20:26-28 ESV) 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
(John 13:14-15 ESV) 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.
(Eph 5:1-2 ESV) Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
(Col 3:12-13 ESV) 12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
(1Pe 2:21 ESV) 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.
(1Jo 3:16-18 ESV) 16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
How are we to be returned to the image of God? Well, by imitating God. And what is God like? Well, just like Jesus. And how do we imitate Jesus? Through self-sacrifice, service, and submission. By generosity and forgiveness and mercy. Jesus is the Way.
What, then, is true worship? To be like Jesus. How can you worship “in truth” and not be like the truth? And the Spirit, who testifies about Jesus, works in us to make us like Jesus. What can it mean to be “in Spirit” except to submit to the Spirit’s work within us?
Worship, therefore, is all about Jesus — because Christianity is all about Jesus.