Worship in spirit and in truth

Notes of the sermon at the opening of the Synod of Eastern Australia 12 May 2008 by Dr Rowland S. Ward, Retiring Moderator.

John 4:24 is a familiar text: “God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.” Yet although this text is described by one writer as “the most important teaching on worship in the entire New Testament” it is difficult to find an entirely satisfying explanation of it in the commentaries. Even books on worship seem to pass over it very lightly. This may be because it is assumed that the text is merely stating that worship must agree with God’s nature, but in my judgement this is only to touch the surface. I’d like therefore to explore this passage in some detail.

1. The context in John’s Gospel

After the Prologue of John 1:1-18 we have incidents over seven days that can be summarised this way.
Day 1 testimony of John the baptiser (1:19-28)
Day 2 ‘the next day (v.29) second testimony of John: Jesus described as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and has the one endowed by the Spirit who will in fact baptise with the Holy Spirit (1:33).
Day 3 ‘the next day’ (v.35) third testimony of John: disciples follow Jesus as the Messiah.
Day 4 ‘the next day’ (v.43) Jesus calls Philip and Nathanael who calls Jesus ‘the King of Israel’. Nathaniel is told that in future he will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man (1:51), so Jesus will be the means of communication between heaven and earth.
Day 7 ‘on the third day’ (2:1) there was a wedding in Cana. Given the event as the climax of a series of incidents over seven days, we can recognise the glory of Jesus shown on this occasion incudes the fact that he is the host of the ultimate wedding banquet of which the original creation Sabbath spoke, and that the promised age of the new covenant that supersedes the old covenant is at hand.

Jesus then commences his ministry with the cleansing of the temple at Passover time and the saying about himself as the true temple (2:12-22). So Jesus looks beyond the era of temple worship, and feasts like Passover. Communication between God and humanity will be through Jesus as a result of his death and resurrection, and not through the temple of stone that represented the presence of God among his people, and the sacrifices that spoke of purification.

Then in John 3 we have a religious leader named Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night and receiving instruction about the necessity of being born from above by the Spirit, since earthly things cannot bring what is necessary for entry into the kingdom of God. When we come to John 4 we have Jesus striking up a conversation with an unnamed Samaritan women at midday. There are intended contrasts with the Nicodemus incident here, and the two narratives are linked by specific testimony concerning Jesus as the one sent from God to whom God has given the Spirit without limit (3:34).

All this background must inform our understanding of the case of the Samaritan woman.

2. The cultural context

The Samaritans were descended from Israelites who had intermarried with their Assyrian conquerors in the 8th century BC. They revered the books of Moses with its references to a prophet like Moses, but rejected the prophets who of course spoke of the coming Messianic King from David’s line. The Jews had destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt Gerizim in 128BC, and the Samaritans had retaliated by defiling the temple with human bones one dark night several years before Jesus’ birth.

That Jesus should initiate a conversation with the Samaritan women, and be ready to drink from what she provides is itself quite revolutionary. A Jewish man would not talk to a woman – even his own wife – in public, and would not share vessels with Samaritans, but Jesus does both. He crosses the social and religious divide and the bitter hostility of centuries. In his conversation is brings the woman to realisation of both her need and his ability to meet that need. The saying of Ephrem the Syrian (306-73) is well known: “the woman sees a thirsty man, then a Jew, then a Rabbi, then a prophet, finally the Messiah. She tries to get the upper hand over the thirsty man, she disliked the Jew, she heckled the Rabbi, she was swept off her feet by the prophet, she adored the Christ.”

3. The worshippers the Father seeks

Without tracing each step suggested by Ephrem, I want to concentrate on the woman’s statement in verse 20 and Jesus’ response. She said: ‘Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Like Nicodemus she was thinking on the earthly plane. The question for her was the competing claims of Jerusalem and Mt Gerazim as centres of worship on earth. Where is the right place to worship? That is her question. Jesus responds, ‘Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.’ Jesus is saying that neither Gerizim or Jerusalem will be the place of worship. He hints at the theme which comes out of the cleansing of the temple incident in John 2: Jesus himself in his death and resurrection replaces the temple. He goes on, ‘You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.’ He here affirms that the promises of God come to fulfilment through Jewish history not Samaritan history. Jesus adds, ‘Yet an hour is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.’ Yes, Jewish history is coming to a climax in Jesus. The last days have come and the promised fulfilment is at hand. The temporary institutions of Israel are to be superseded in order that we may draw near as children to a father. The Father is seeking those who worship in spirit and in truth.

It should be obvious by now that Jesus is not saying that from now on God is looking for heart-felt worship, for it has always been true that a broken and a contrite heart he will not despise (Psalm 51:17). Similarly, nor is he talking about God being near to all who call upon him wherever they are. Rather, he is speaking of the location of worship and access to the presence of God. Worship at Mt Gerizim was unlawful and worship at Jerusalem temporary. The unlawful was always unlawful – ‘you don’t know what you worship’ – for ‘salvation is from the Jews’. What was represented in the Jewish tabernacle/temple was temporary but is now fulfilled in Jesus. Consequently there is no salvation except in the way God has appointed.

That way is ‘in spirit and in truth’ and these two terms must be understood in contrast to what is passing away. Spirit means in the realm of the Spirit rather than in the realm of the material and physical which characterised Old Testament tabernacle/temple worship. Jesus himself is the source of the living water which describes the life-giving Spirit, by whom people are born from above (John 3:6-8). Truth means the reality as contrasted with the shadows of the institutions which God gave through Moses. Compare John 1:17: ‘The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ.’ The law was prescribed by God but it was not the very reality, the truth that is in Jesus (John 14:6; Eph 4:21). Jesus himself was to take the place of the temple (cf. 2:21).

So the saying means that the Father is seeking worshippers who worship in the realm of the Spirit and according to the truth as it is in Jesus. It is still centralised worship, but it is worship which corresponds to the accomplished redemption and the age of the outpoured Spirit in which we live. The expression ‘in Spirit’ or ‘in the Spirit’ reminds us of John’s identical expression ‘in the Spirit’ in reference to the vision he received on the Lord’s Day and at other times (Rev 1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10). John saw things in heavenly places. Paul writes that believers are raised with Christ and seated with him in heavenly places (Eph 2:6). Worship in (the) Spirit is worship that enters by faith into the heavenly realm.

The one who ‘pitched his tent/tabernacled’ among us, has been endowed with the Spirit beyond measure. Just as Jesus by his death and resurrection erects the true temple and provides the means of communication between heaven and earth, so he obtains the life-giving Spirit for us that in faith union with Christ we might be living stones in the spiritual temple.

Jesus reinforces his statement: ‘God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth’. (1) It is not precise enough to say that God is a spiritual being, and so we must worship in ways appropriate to his non-material nature. God is not a spirit among other spirits. In any case worship in sincerity from the heart was always required by God of individuals. (2) The statement may not refer to God’s essence at all but rather the way he relates to us and thus should be read God is Spirit – capital S. It would then serve to emphasise that God relates to us through the Holy Spirit. (3) But perhaps it is enough to say God is spirit (not a spirit) and therefore is not accessible by us except through the Spirit given by Jesus. As the flesh gives birth to flesh and the Spirit to spirit (3:6), so we must worship according to/or in the realm of the Spirit. And to be ‘in the Spirit’ is to see by faith the reality of heavenly things.

4. Some implications

In the Epistle to the Hebrews we have an inspired commentary on the superiority of what has come in Jesus. It is addressed to Jewish Christians who were tempted to return from the simplicity of early Christian worship to the impressive ritual of Judaism. The writer tells us of how revelation has climaxed in Jesus the Son of God, a greater than Moses, a superior High Priest, a mediator of a better covenant. He tells us that the earthly sanctuary has been superseded by a heavenly sanctuary. It is by faith that we enter into heaven itself where Christ is (Heb 10:19ff). We see by faith what is invisible and not seen.

Our worship may seem simple, unadorned, not exciting. But if we have eyes of faith to see it, we come to the true Mount Zion (Heb 12:22), the spiritual Jerusalem (Gal 4:26). The earthly temple has gone but is replaced by the materials of a spiritual house that is more glorious than the former (cf. Haggai 2:7), and is seated with Christ in heavenly places. Jesus Christ is openly pictured before us in the preaching of Christ as crucified (Galatians 3:1). This, and not a physical picture, is the kind of icon of Jesus that is legitimate, as is the visible word of the sacraments given by Christ. It follows that as the location of our worship is in Christ through the Spirit, the emphasis must be on knowing, a knowing which involves head and hands, heart and feet, emotions and will. Hence we have Paul’s constant prayer that ‘the eyes of your heart may be enlightened that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and the incomparably great power for us who believe’ (Eph 1:18).

Worship that requires a building of great magnificence, worship that is a kind of show and display by us, worship that is physical drama and parade, something that makes us feel good in the same way we feel good after a bit of fine music or a powerful movie, is not spiritual worship. Clapping and dancing and great instrumental music is not as such spiritual worship however much it entertains us.

Worship matters to God. He seeks those who will worship in spirit and in truth, who will worship in union with Christ by the Spirit. Do our congregations operate on this level? Perhaps we are clinging merely to particular simple forms of worship without seeing the reality of worship in Spirit and in truth. True worship is in union with Christ by the Spirit, and involves access into the very presence of God through faith. It is worship that enthrals because it centres on Christ and his accomplishment for us. It is worship in the Spirit because we enter by faith into the very courts of heaven. It is worship that enables us to sing with true appreciation as we gather each Lord’s Day – ‘I joyed when to the house of God/ go up they said to me’ (Psalm 122). The very simplicity of worship from a human viewpoint is in fact a pointer to its true glory in access into God’s presence through Christ in the Spirit.

For the house of God today is not in Jerusalem in Palestine, nor is it a crowded room in a poor house in rural China, nor the humble shelter in a refugee camp in north Africa, nor the simple place of worship our fathers built for the convenience of the meeting of the church. The true scene of our worship is heaven itself where Christ is as our great High Priest and Saviour. There is nothing more glorious than this, and the gold encrusted altar of the church of San Jose in Lisbon, or the soaring beauties of St Peter’s in Rome only draw our attention to the physical and earthly, and take us backwards.

A Jewish midrash on Psalm 91 says, ‘He who prays in Jerusalem is as one who prays before the throne of glory; for there is the gate of heaven and the open door to the hearing of prayer.’ It is a perceptive comment. It no longer applies to the Jerusalem in Palestine, but it does apply to the Jerusalem above, and to Jesus Christ, to worship that accesses the very courts of the heavenly temple through our great High Priest.