Worship: In Spirit and truth

prostrationIt’s been commonplace for centuries to argue that the Samaritans had the right spirit but lacked the truth — because they insisted on worshiping God on Mt. Gerizim, having been excluded from the Temple by the Jews.

(In fact, under the Maccabees, the Jews had destroyed the temple on Mt. Gerizim, so that the Samaritans of Jesus’s day had to worship at the ruins of their temple — one more reason the Samaritans hated the Jews.)

We then argue that the Jews had the truth — worshiping in the right place according to the right rules — but lacked the right “spirit” because they had a legalistic attitude.

This interpretation ignores both the history of the situation and the immediate literary context. After all, the Samaritans rejected all the Old Testament other than the five books of Law — Genesis through Deuteronomy. How is this a right spirit?

And how was Jewish worship “in truth” when the Temple authorities had been corrupted by the Romans and money — so much so that the Essenes preferred to live in the desert rather than offer sacrifices at a Temple where the high priest was not a descendant of Zadok and where the Temple itself was built by Herod, the detested “king of the Jews,” who was an Edomite rather than a descendant of David.

While Jesus roundly condemned the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders, he didn’t condemn all Jews as having a bad, hypocritical attitude. It’s hard to say that the Jews as a nation lack a good “spirit.”

Much more importantly, Jesus had just finished a discourse on “living water,” which was about the coming Holy Spirit — as he plainly declares in —

(Joh 7:37-39 ESV)  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. 

John makes it very clear that “living water” refers to the Spirit soon to be outpoured with the coming of the Kingdom at Pentecost. Jesus has been discussing the Spirit with the woman at the well.

Jesus then says, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Joh 4:24 ESV). “God is spirit” uses “spirit” in the sense of the substance of God himself. Hence, here, “spirit” does not mean “attitude” or “heart” but the nature of God. Therefore, “spirit” means “Spirit.” To worship in “spirit and truth” is to worship in “Spirit and truth” because the subject of the conversation is the Holy Spirit. We must worship in — within — the substance of God. We must be in his Spirit.

The prophets spoke of a time when worship would no longer be focused on a single, central sanctuary, when the earth would be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. The Apocalypse concludes with a vision of the consummated kingdom, the new Jerusalem, in which there is no temple to be found, ‘because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple’ (Rev. 21:22). The fulfilment of that vision has not yet arrived in its fullness. Even so, Jesus insists, through his own mission the hour was dawning when the principal ingredients of that vision would be set in operation, a foretaste of the consummation to come. ‘God is spirit, and his worshippers must (Gk. dei, here the divine “must”) worship him in spirit and truth.’

D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 226.

[T]he reader will understand that, with Jesus’ resurrection, judgment has been passed on the Temple, and that Jesus himself is now the place where, and the means by which, the father’s presence and forgiving love are to be known. This is the meaning, too, of Jesus’ comment to the woman of Samaria, that the hour is coming when true worshippers will not need a particular geographical location, because they will worship the father in spirit and truth (4:20–24).

N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 671–672.

“Truth” in John refers to the gospel, the truth that is Jesus, that Jesus teaches, and that is about Jesus.

(Joh 5:32-33 ESV) 32 There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true.  33 You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. 

(Joh 8:31-32 ESV) So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples,  32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

(Joh 14:6-7 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.  7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 

(Joh 18:37 ESV)  37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world– to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 

To worship “in spirit and truth” is to worship “in Spirit and truth” is to worship “in Spirit and the gospel.” That is, no longer is the question whether you’re on Mt. Zion or Mt. Gerizim, or following the Samaritan Torah or the Jewish Law and the Prophets. No, the question is whether you have received the outpoured Spirit — whether God dwells in you — not the Temple — through the Spirit. Whether you are part of the body of Jesus — the new Temple. Whether you’ve been built by God into a temple for worship, in which his glorious Shekinah dwells through the Spirit. Whether you bear the marks of the church of the Messiah — love and unity given and modeled by Jesus.

You see, it all fits together and makes perfect sense … if you’re willing to think in scriptural categories.

This approach to the text is, of course, very foreign to the traditional argument that’s all about finding the right rules and regulations to add to the right attitude — built on the assumption that God is concerned about rules and rituals. In fact, this is a passage arguing exactly the opposite.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to Worship: In Spirit and truth

  1. Great points. I had come to the same conclusions about this passage after reading something from John Mark Hicks on the same verse. However, the last paragraph to me can lead to the wrong sort of thinking. Is Jesus not our rule? Is the Spirit not our regulation?

  2. Dwight says:

    I would argue that the verses that are given:
    John 14:6-7 “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
    Johm 18:37 “Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world– to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
    …do witness for rules and regulations, in that you must go through Jesus, and you must listen to the truth (or doctrine) that came through the Word, Jesus.
    Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” which shows the right attitude and what it results in…keeping the commands of Jesus, as sparse as they were compared to the Law.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Justin asked,

    Is Jesus not our rule? Is the Spirit not our regulation?

    Metaphorically, of course. But the Hebrews writer was thinking in literal terms.

    (Heb 8:5 NIV) They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.”

    (Heb 8:13 NIV) By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.

    (Heb 9:1 NIV) Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary.

    (Heb 9:10 NIV) They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings– external regulations applying until the time of the new order.

    I take 9:1 to be a criticism of the very presence of “regulations for worship” as well as the existence of an “earthly sanctuary” as obsolete and soon to disappear. When used of the Law of Moses, the word translated “regulations” is invariably used in a negative sense in the NT. It’s used 28 times in Deu. It’s a near synonym for a law in the Law of Moses.

    Worship, as lifestyle, is regulated, but not by a book of laws. It’s regulated, as you say, by a person. We are to emulate Jesus. That makes him our regulation, I suppose, but in an ironic sense — that is, not really a law.

    The great danger here is the classic COC syllogism: Jesus authorized the apostles to make rules. Therefore, to follow Jesus we must obey these rules. These rules must be inferred from silences following the dictates of John Calvin’s Regulative PRinciple, which was unheard of prior to the 16th Century. Hence, we have regulations just as legalistic, just as “external” as the Law of Moses. We’ll call it the “Law of Christ.”

    Of course, the Hebrews writer’s contrast is between “external regulations” or “regulations of the body” in contrast with what Jeremiah promised:

    (Heb 8:10 ESV) For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

    Hence, as you say, the Spirit’s leading is being contrasted with laws found in a book. This idea is deeply disturbing to many, but it’s the point being made.

    Consider —

    (Heb 10:15-25 ESV) 15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, 16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” 17 then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” 18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

    We are told that God will write his laws on our hearts and minds again. We look for what those laws are, and the writer only speaks of forgiveness and grace.

    19 ¶ Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

    Then — FINALLY — we get to the part about what WE do. WE draw near “with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” We have faith — and sincerely so. That’s what the law written on our hearts and minds tells us to do. But also …

    23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.

    And we’re to “hold fast” to our confession — another way of saying “faith.”

    24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

    And then AT LAST he tells us to encourage each other to “love and good works.” And to encourage each other so we remain faithful until Jesus returns.

    Love and good works. Faith in Jesus. Hope. Encouragement. Meeting together to pursue these very things.

    All contrasted with “regulations” or “laws.”

  4. Dwight says:

    I guess is is how you take Rom.9:1 and the version-
    (Heb 9:1 NIV) Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary.
    (Heb 9:1 NKJ) Then indeed, even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service and the earthly sanctuary.
    The ordinances weren’t wrong in and of themselves as they were “imposed until the reformation”, so they were Holy and good, but just as fleshly as the Temple itself.
    The rule of regulation is the spirit…fruit of the Spirit and yet the works of the flesh can damn us.
    Not doing good when we know it to be good is a sin, and yet it is a sin that is a conviction of our heart and not just a rule. It shows lack of compassion and mercy, which is what Jesus was all about. Yes, we in the coC often throw down the book on others, while forsaking the best things of the Spirit.

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