In Sprit and in Truth

Several years ago, one of the elders from my local church family took it upon himself to begin meeting with the worship team at 8:00 every Sunday morning for a brief devotional to help prepare them for their part in that morning’s activities. It is his habit to start every devotional time by reminding the team that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth,” referencing John 4:24.

The statement found in John 4:24 was made to a Samaritan woman who encountered Jesus at Jacob’s well. It is, I believe, the most profound statement on worship made in the entire Bible, and it was made not to a great rabbi, or a king, or a governor, or the High Priest. No, it was made to a woman, a woman of Samaria, a woman who was shacked up with a guy. This reality tells us much about the heart of Jesus.

“Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 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. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
– John 4:20-24, ESV

God is Spirit

The opening line of the quote above quotes the unnamed woman as pressing Jesus on the issue of the proper location for worship. Long before this encounter, a contentious division arose between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Samaritans were not considered “pure bloods” by the Jews, as their population arose out of the Assyrian captivity and interbreeding of Jews and Assyrians.

One result of this animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans was that the Samaritans were unable to worship in the temple at Jerusalem. So, naturally, they built a temple of their own atop Mount Gerizim, the ruins of which remain to this day. Just one of many contentious debates between Samaritans and Jews revolved around the proper location of worship.

To say that God is spirit emphasizes that, apart from the incarnation of Christ, God does not have a physical body, thus the time was coming when “true worshipers” would understand that physical location in worship is irrelevant. We do not need to go to where God is to worship him because God is everywhere.

The apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae speaks of “the invisible God,”1 Similarly, Paul writes to Timothy in Ephesus, calling God, “the King eternal, immortal, invisible.”2 As spirit, God transcends dimension. He is able (by our understanding) to exist in all places at the same time, a concept referred to as “omnipresence.”

Worship in Spirit

Jesus said that true worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth, and further stated that God is seeking such worshippers. Since God is spirit and unseen, it follows that worship “in spirit” is that which is unseen. Consider Jesus’ teaching about a prayer closet.

But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
– Matthew 5:6, ESV

Consider the focus of the following statements from Jesus.

Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
– Matthew 6:2, ESV

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
– Matthew 6:5, ESV

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
– Matthew 6:16, ESV

What is missing in each instance above? Spirit!

While we do sing, and we do fast, and we do pray, the core—the focus of our worship is not tied to outward appearances and activities. Instead, the focus is related to our inner spirit, true repentance, to internal sanctification, to what is unseen but truly transformational. Our worship is expressed to, and to be “seen” by, God alone.

God is spirit, so as we worship him, our worship will match God’s reality. True worship is in spirit rather than in tradition, ritual, or location. Our practice in worship must align with the object of our worship. Thus, what matters is not the place of our worship, but the mind and heart applied to that worship.

Worship in Truth

The entirety of my early years as a Christ-follower, I heard and read the concept of “worshipping in truth” presented as correctness in doctrine. I still see and hear that teaching today. Without a doubt, pure doctrine is important. The apostle Paul exhorts Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely.”3 But I am fully persuaded that is not what Jesus intends here.

When Jesus told the woman of Samaria that true worshippers will worship in “truth,” he used the term ἀλήθεια (aleithia). This is not a reference to correctness of doctrine but rather a reality in the heart or the spirit. A better rendering might be “true worshippers will worship in spirit and in sincerity.” Jesus had no tolerance for hypocrisy or dramatic sanctimony.

When we worship God in aleithia, we do so from a position of authenticity and sincerity, with a pure heart and pure motives. Jesus has no interest in superficial adoration. He is looking for what the apostle Paul called “incorruptible love.”4

The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
– 1 Timothy 1:5, ESV

Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in [aleithia].
– 1 John 3:18, ESV [bracketed mine]

The renowned 18th-century American pastor and theologian, Jonathan Edwards said, “I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth.”

When we worship in spirit and in sincerity, we will be approaching that state wherein we love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength.5

Blessings upon you, my friends.

Victoriously in Christ!

– damon
X – @DamonJGray
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1. Colossians 1:15
2. 1 Timothy 1:17
3. 1 Timothy 4:16
4. Ephesians 6:24
5. Mark 12:30

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Damon J. Gray

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