Having considered the broader context of John 4:23-24 in the last post, let’s now look at the context in John’s Gospel.
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 preceding chapters of John.
Early in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus offers here “living water,” which 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.
Jesus likely used “living water” to refer to the Spirit because of several Old Testament passages that use language that compares the Spirit to water.
(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.
Jesus inserts “God is spirit” in v. 24 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.
Therefore, “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 agrees, translating,
(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.
What is worship in Spirit?
(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. Doubt me? The next use of “worship” in John is —
(Joh 9:35-38 NIV) 35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him [the blind man healed by Jesus] out [of the synagogue], and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.” 38 Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.
What are the rules? Well, who said there were rules? What did the previously blind man do to worship Jesus? Well, he prostrated himself in obeisance. He gave glory to Jesus. He gave himself up for Jesus. And he did this even though he’d just been disfellowshipped by his synagogue in response to the Pharisees and their doubt of Jesus. He worshipped despite the price of worship.
Did he engage in five acts of worship? Probably not even one, as we count “acts.” And yet he worshiped, not according to the Law — which required sacrifice at the Temple — but in Spirit and in truth — having faith Jesus as Messiah.
And so, what is “truth”? 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.
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?
(2Co 3:17-18 ESV) 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Worship, therefore, is all about Jesus — because Christianity is all about Jesus.
Should we worship in Jerusalem or on Mt. Gerezim? Neither; either; somewhere else. Because the new temple is sitting by the well, promising a Samaritan woman Living Water — the Holy Spirit — offering to make her a part of the temple — to be spiritually joined with Jesus into a new, better, and very different place of sacrifice — where the sacrifices are no longer sheep and goats but people who’ve so committed themselves to God that they can become a part of his new temple, having Jesus as cornerstone.
Because God will only dwell in a cleansed temple, and because Jesus’ new spiritual body on earth must be as sinless as he is, the individuals who become part of this temple have their sins forgiven, so they can tightly joined with the other stones to show the world the glory of God.
Worship is sacrifice. Worship is giving up oneself to Jesus. Worship is falling prostrate on filthy pavement of Jerusalem, to offer obeisance to the Messiah. Worship is so loving Jesus and caring so little about others think that you weep on his dirty feet and then wipe them clean with your hair while the “good” people laugh at you. Worship is leaving family, job, and reputation behind to follow Jesus.
You see, worship is what John’s Gospel is all about — which is why it begins the ministry of Jesus with the cleansing of the Temple. The cleansing of the old Temple shows the need for a new, better temple and new, better kind of worship.
And yet John’s Gospel doesn’t say a word about the assembly — and that’s because we’ve falsely assumed that the assembly steps into the place vacated by the Temple — when the scriptures plainly point us in a different direction.
[to be continued]