It’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.