I’ve written on John 4:23-24 several times. It’s a critical passage in understanding the New Testament’s doctrine of worship — and much, much more. And it’s one of those passages that is almost always misunderstood because we come to looking for answers to the wrong questions.
(Joh 4:21-24 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. 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.”
In many denominations, especially those who teach the Regulative Principle, the passage is explained as a contrast between the Jews and Samaritans. The Jews have the truth (meeting in the right location according to the right rules) but lack the spirit (have hard hearts). The Samaritans lack the truth (once worshiped on Mt. Gerezim) but have the right spirit (have tender hearts anxious to worship). Jesus, it is argued, therefore wants use to have both the right rules and the right hearts. (And the rules will be found by applying CENI and the Regulative Principle).However, nothing here criticizes the heart of the Jews. Indeed, while Jesus often confronts the Jewish leaders, he doesn’t condemn the entire nation as hard hearted. After all, John’s Gospel tells of many Jews who came to Jesus with tender hearts — just not all.
Nor does Jesus commend the hearts of the Samaritans in the passage, and he only criticizes their worship in the wrong location. You see, under Ezra and Nehemiah, the Samaritans had been excluded from the Temple, and under the Maccabees, the Jews had destroyed the alternative temple built by the Samaritans on Mt. Gerezim. (It’s really hard to criticize their failure to go to the Temple when they weren’t permitted there.)
And, as we’ll see, the context clearly points us toward different meanings for “Spirit” and for “truth.”
Background: Jesus the Temple
For a while now, New Testament scholars have been becoming increasingly convinced that Jesus saw himself as coming in judgment on the Temple and as its replacement.
N. T. Wright explains how this is true –
“The Temple was a true signpost to God’s future.”
“Jesus … offered the reality to which the Temple had been pointing.”
For a deeper discussion of this subject, see Jesus the Temple by Nicholas Perrin.
And this helps us better understand such statements from Jesus as —
(Mat 12:5-6 ESV) 5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.
(Joh 2:18-19 ESV) 18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
Background: The church is the temple
We are, I’m sure, familiar with the passages where the apostles refer to the church as temple. There are many, such as —
(1Co 3:10-17 ESV) 10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw – 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. 16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
In an extensive metaphor, Paul describes the Corinthian congregation as a temple of the Holy Spirit under construction. Like the Temple in Jerusalem, the temple can be made of gold, silver, precious stones, or lesser materials (as in the case of Nehemiah’s temple).
And like God’s Temple in Jerusalem, this temple can be destroyed — and such a destruction would be a dreadful sin against God.
Later, Paul uses the same typology to make another point to the Corinthians –
(2Co 6:16 NAS) 16 Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I will dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”
Peter offers the same typology –
(1Pe 2:4-5 NAS) 4 And coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God, 5 you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
Thus, we repeatedly see a congregation characterized as a temple for the Holy Spirit as well as a place for church members to offer “spiritual sacrifices.”
On a shallow reading, it would seem contradictory to describe both Jesus and the church as the new temple, but the church is the body of Christ. The church and Jesus are joined —
(Eph 4:15-16 ESV) 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Thinking ahead a bit
What is distinctive about the Temple to Jesus and the Samaritan woman? Well, it’s where you go to worship, to proskuneo. Indeed, the word for “worship” used by Jesus is the word used by the Jews to refer uniquely to worship at the Temple.
The Jews would never, ever have spoken of worshipping in the synagogue or even at home. They might go to the synagogue to pray or study the Torah, but worship was an event that could only occur in Jerusalem.
The worship of God at the Temple primarily involved sacrifice of animals and other kinds of food — oil, wine, flour, etc. And so 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 when Jesus was speaking.
And so, in the mind of any First Century Jew or Samaritan, to worship meant to sacrifice. It’s not about going through rites and rituals to appease an angry god. That’s paganism. It’s about sacrificing out of gratitude for the goodness of God, and so any interpretation of Jesus’ words that leaves out sacrifice has to be wrong.
On the other hand, we know that Jesus fulfilled the obligation to offer atonement sacrifices to God. But what we forget (because we don’t study our Torahs) is that the Jews also offered voluntary sacrifices — peace or thanks offerings. And these involved the worshiper eating from the sacrifice, symbolically with God.
And so Jesus’ atonement sacrifice doesn’t end the need to sacrifice, just the need to sacrifice to obtain forgiveness. That’s already done and accomplished.
(Rom 12:1 ESV) I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Do you see how neatly it all ties together? We sacrifice ourselves, everything we are, in gratitude to God, not to buy salvation but in appreciation for the salvation we’ve already received.
Thus, the church, as the body of Christ, is the place where we give ourselves away to God. Here are some other comparisons to the Temple in Jerusalem —
* We entered the presence of God in the church, because the fullness of the Godhead dwells within the church, just as the Jews approached the presence of God at the Temple.
* We must be cleansed to enter the church, not just by baptismal waters but also by the Spirit, because the body of Christ can only be made up of members who are sinless, just the Jews had to wash in a mikveh before entering the Temple.
* The church has a mission to show the glory of God to the world, just as the Temple once did.
* But most importantly, the church is where we offer sacrifice, ourselves, just as the Temple once was that place for the Jews.
Now, notice that “church” does not mean “assembly.” All these things are true of the church whether or not we’re gathered to sing and listen to sermons. It’s a 24/7 kind of thing.
This is not to say that we can’t worship during the assembly, just that the word “worship” on the lips of Jesus and his apostles is not a reference specifically to the assembly — it’s a reference to dying to self.
(Heb 13:16 NIV) 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
[to be continued]