John’s Gospel: 4:20-23 (“Our fathers worshiped on this mountain”)

(John 4:20 ESV)  20 “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”

Then she goes straight to theology. She’s found a prophet, and rather than asking for the eternal life he’s offering (v. 14 is quite plain), she wants to talk about how best to worship God. (She would fit in well with many of us today.)

Jesus is happy with the change of subject, but as was so often the case, he uses her question to answer a better, deeper question.

(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.”

We Christians miss a critical point here. “Worship” is proskuneo. After the Temple was built, the Old Testament only speaks of Jews engaging in proskuneo of God in Jerusalem, on Mt. Zion, at the Temple of Solomon.

(2Ch 32:12 ESV) 12 Has not this same Hezekiah taken away his high places and his altars and commanded Judah and Jerusalem, “Before one altar you shall worship, and on it you shall burn your sacrifices”?

(Zec 14:17 ESV) And if any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, there will be no rain on them.

Jesus deliberately uses a word that speaks of the worship at the Temple. And he insists that, for now, worship is only permitted at the Temple and not Mt. Gerizim. But, he says, that is about to change.

The worship of God at the Temple primarily involved sacrifice of animals and other kinds of food — oil, wine, flour, etc. There was a choir of Levites, but there is no evidence that the worshipers sang along. There were instruments played by the Levites, as well, but there was nothing truly comparable to congregational singing or preaching.

[Notice that many of our preachers would argue that singing and playing instruments without the congregation singing along is necessarily "mere entertainment" and not worship. God seems to disagree. Of course, anything can be reduced to mere entertainment. I've heard sermons that were little more than stand up routines. I've heard prayers that were led to build up the reputation of the man leading. Anything can be abused. Jesus made that very point earlier in the John when he cleansed the Temple -- but he didn't reject the Temple because it was subject to abuse!]

When a peace or fellowship offering was made, those who made the offering ate of the sacrifice — symbolically with God. It was in many respects similar to communion (but that’s a deeper subject than we have time for). And the Jewish people paid a Temple tax to provide funds for the Temple and to care for widows, orphans, and other poor among the tribes.

Of course, people also went to the Temple to pray. The Temple was a place where God had a very special, a very intense presence. It had courts provided for prayer. It was considered a “house of prayer,” but Jews could and did pray at many other places. The Temple was just the best place to pray. It was the only place to worship.

To really get Jesus’ point, you have to imagine “worship” as referring especially to dragging a very unhappy sheep or bull through the narrow, crowded streets of Jerusalem, up the very tall steps leading to the Temple, to the priest, to offer that animal’s life to Jehovah God to express thanks for his blessings or to ask for forgiveness. That’s the primary sense of proskuneo in the sense that the word was used when Jesus was speaking.

Sacrifice was often voluntary. There were also sorts of mandatory sacrifices, of course, but the Jews often sacrificed voluntarily to express their love, their gratitude, and their devotion to God. This is was not merely mechanical ritual. Well, it likely was for some, but it would be a mistake to miss the real heart for worship many Jews had.

Read the Psalms, if you doubt me.

(Psa 132:7 ESV)  “Let us go to his dwelling place; let us worship at his footstool!”

(Psa 5:7 ESV)  7 But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you.

(Psa 122:1-4 ESV) I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”  2 Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem!  3 Jerusalem– built as a city that is bound firmly together,  4 to which the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD.

Jesus explained that worship — proskuneo — was only proper in Jerusalem, that is, at the Temple. But the rules would soon change —

(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.”

“The hour is coming, and is now here” means “it’s about to happen.”

“True worshipers” is in contrast to, of course, false worshipers. The false worshipers are presently the Samaritans, but that is about to change — a lot.

“Spirit” in v. 23 is surely a reference to the Holy Spirit, even though it’s not capitalized in the ESV. The most recent version of the NIV translates,

(John 4:23 NIV) Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.

You see, Jesus says “spirit and in truth” twice, and in between, he says, “God is spirit.” Obviously, by “spirit” he means the substance of the Godhead, that is, the nature of God in heaven.

Plainly, he is not saying “worship with the right heart” because he is not saying “God is with the right heart.” He speaking of the essential nature of the Godhead.

Moreover, he just spent the last several verses speaking to the woman about the Holy Spirit. Chapter 3 was all about the Holy Spirit. Chapter 1 tells us about John’s promise that the Messiah will baptize with the Spirit. The following chapters deal with miracles done by Jesus (by the Spirit given without measure, of course), and then chapter 7 includes Jesus’ announcement that he will bring Living Water. The context insists that Jesus be speaking of the Holy Spirit, and so the NIV got it right.

This fits well with such passages as —

(Phi 3:3 ESV)  3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh–

But Philippians had not yet been written when Jesus was speaking in Sychar. He was more likely thinking of such passages as —

(Eze 36:26-27 NIV)  26 “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”

(Eze 39:29 NIV)  29 “I will no longer hide my face from them, for I will pour out my Spirit on the people of Israel, declares the Sovereign LORD.”

Not to mention Ezekiel 37 and the valley of dry bones, which we considered earlier. You see, it’s by the Spirit that we are transformed from dead, dry bones to a living, powerful army of God. It’s by the Spirit that our hearts are softened to submit to God. And those who worship God must do so with hearts softened and transformed by God’s Spirit.

No longer is it about rules, rituals, a  place, buildings, and treasuries. It’s about the heart.

(Isa 44:3-5 NIV) 3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.  4 They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams.  5 Some will say, ‘I belong to the LORD'; others will call themselves by the name of Jacob; still others will write on their hand, ‘The LORD’s,’ and will take the name Israel.

What is worship in Spirit? It’s worship that springs up like grass in the meadow after God pours his Living Water on the dry, thirsty ground.

You have to have a little poetry in your soul to understand Isaiah.

(Psa 51:11-12, 15-171 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.  12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. … 15 Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise.  16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.  17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.

What is worship in Spirit? Worship that comes from a broken and contrite heart — a heart softened by the Spirit as rain softens the ground and brings spring grass. Got it?

What are the rules? Well, who said there were rules? Jesus contrasts the old rules about a particular location — a rule that effectively cast the Samaritans from God’s presence because they were taught to worship on the wrong mountain — to the kind of worship promised by the Prophets.

It’s about having hearts circumcised by the Spirit, as we studied last summer regarding Galatians. It’s about God’s transforming work to make us like Jesus — to change us into his image — by the Spirit.

As we gaze on Jesus, we become more like. We become like what we worship. And therefore, we must worship in truth.

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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