Volume 16, No. 6 (July 2021)
Last month we saw how Jesus, in His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, breaks down geographical barriers (John 4:3-4), ethnic and social barriers (4:5-9), and spiritual barriers (4:10-15).
Now we come to the core of Jesus’ teaching on worship, and see how He breaks down the religious barriers between the Jews and the Samaritans.
JESUS BREAKS DOWN RELIGIOUS BARRIERS
As we read in verses 16-18, Jesus unearths the woman’s complicated marital and relational history.
And then in verse 19:
The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but You say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”
Jesus’ insight into the woman’s marital situation leads her to bring up what is in effect a religious question. She refers to her people’s worship on Mount Gerizim, and the Jews’ worship in the Temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem; and her implied question is: Which is correct? Which group is doing worship in the right way and in the right place? Which mountain is the mountain of true worship?
And as so often happens, Jesus answers a question put to Him in an unexpected and surprising way. This mountain or in Jerusalem? Well, He says, NEITHER:
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” (v. 21)
“The hour is coming” and, in fact in v. 23 He adds “the hour is now here,” when “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.”
Jesus says, in effect, I’m changing the rules. With My coming everything is different.
In verse 23, He says:
“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.”
In verse 23 (and again in verse 24) Jesus says that true worship will be worship “in spirit and truth.” And the word “in” here is the same preposition as in verse 21, making the contrast even more clear: “neither IN this mountain nor IN Jerusalem will you worship the Father,” but rather “IN spirit and truth.”
Jesus seems to be saying, “It is no longer so much a matter of where or when you worship, but HOW you worship, that really matters”: “Those who worship the Father MUST worship in spirit and truth,” Jesus says.
WORSHIP IN SPIRIT
First, let’s consider worship in spirit. The English Standard Version and many other English translations render the word “spirit” in verse 23 and 24 with a small “s,” while other versions capitalize the word. And this is because, two thousand years after the fact, there is still a lot of debate, and no final consensus, on whether Jesus is referring here to the “spirit” of a person (small “s”), that is, to the inner, immaterial part of one’s being; or whether the Holy Spirit is in view (capital “S”).
Now while the Holy Spirit certainly plays a key role in worship (that’s another message), I think Jesus is referring here to the human spirit, and verse 24 seems to support that interpretation: “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” In other words, God is a spiritual, immaterial being, and therefore people will connect with Him primarily on a spiritual, immaterial level.
“Worship in spirit” would then refer to the fact that worship must come from the inside out. It must be sincere and genuine, from the heart.
And here Jesus may well have in mind a contrast with the Jews. You’ll remember how often Jesus criticized the Jewish leaders because of the merely external nature of their worship; how they did it all for outward show. For example, in Matthew 23:27-28, Jesus says:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
And in Matthew 15:7-9:
“You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when He said: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’”
Their worship was in vain, meaningless because it was external only, and not coming from the inside.
God detests lip service; He condemns outward shows of religiosity without genuine and sincere inner devotion; He doesn’t want the letter of the law without its spirit. True worship must begin on the inside, in the heart. That is “worship in spirit.”
WORSHIP IN TRUTH
But Jesus says true worship must not only be “in spirit,” it must also be “in truth.” That is, it must be in accordance with God’s revealed truth; it must be done God’s way; and ultimately that of course means that it must be through Jesus Christ, who Himself is the Truth.
While the concept of “worship in spirit” condemns the external worship of the Jewish leaders, “worship in truth” condemns the worship of the Samaritans. The Samaritans were very sincere, even enthusiastic, in their worship on Mount Gerizim. But they had rejected God’s revelation. They had devised their own form and place of worship and ignored God’s instructions concerning Jerusalem as the place where He was to be worshiped. And so Jesus says about the Samaritans in verse 22, “you worship what you do not know.” For all the Jews’ failings, Jesus says, “We worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” God’s way was through His revealed truth given to the nation of Israel.
WORSHIP IN SPIRIT AND TRUTH
In verses 23 and 24, Jesus emphasizes that to be true worship it MUST be in spirit AND in truth. BOTH are essential.
That is true in our day as well. Eric Alexander, the great Scottish preacher who has spoken from this pulpit before, warns us:
What are the two great enemies of true worship throughout the whole of history? . . . Are they not the errors of Gerizim on the one hand and Jerusalem on the other? Zeal without knowledge, on the one hand, and knowledge without zeal, on the other; sincerity without truth, or truth without heart, in worship.
Eric Alexander, sermon #3 on John 4 (https://www.ericalexander.co.uk/sermons/acceptableworship.php)
Our worship must be in truth, according to God’s revelation in Christ. There are many, many people in our world who are very sincere in their religious beliefs and practices, but don’t know God’s truth and who reject God’s Savior. There’s no question that suicide bombers are sincere and utterly committed to what they consider to be an act of obedience and worship; but of course, once the deed is done they immediately realize how horribly mistaken they have been. Zeal without knowledge; sincerity without truth. That’s not enough.
But neither is truth without spirit. It’s all too common in our day for many individuals and some kinds of churches to adhere to an outward form of Christianity, but one that denies the necessity of inner regeneration and transformation of the heart, and rejects the truth that Christ is the only way of salvation. Knowledge without zeal, outward form without heart devotion, will not result in true worship either. Our worship must be in spirit, genuine and sincere, heartfelt, from the inside out. God wants hearts of worship.
Of course, we don’t have to go that far to recognize the danger of hiding behind a veneer of religiosity, and neglecting an inner life of worship. Before we’re too hard on the Pharisees and scribes of Israel, and other groups today, we need to remember how prone we all are to that.
The late Adrian Rogers warned:
If you are not worshiping God, but you are serving Him (or so you think), you are making a big mistake. To pray without worship is mockery. To sing without worship is sounding brass. To work without worship is an insult to God. To teach without worship is ignorance. To serve without worship is hypocrisy. To witness without worship is perjury.
The Father seeks to commune with you in worship. He is not looking for your money, your glory, or your strength. He is looking for your heart.
WHAT THE FATHER IS SEEKING
Jesus says in verse 23 that “the Father is seeking worshipers.” That’s what God wants first and foremost. Jesus never said, “the Father is seeking missionaries” or “pastors,” or “Christian businessmen and -women.” Jesus said, “the Father is seeking WORSHIPERS.” Elsewhere He said, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all the rest will be added to you.”
And we all need that balance of knowledge and zeal in our personal lives of worship: feeding on the Word daily, and responding in prayer and praise for what the Lord shows us of Himself in His Word. And walking daily through life in the light of God’s truth and with hearts committed to living for His glory, which Romans 12:1 tells us is our “spiritual service of worship.”
And we also need that balance of knowledge and zeal in our corporate worship. That’s why our churches’ weekly services should be saturated with the Word of God, read and sung and prayed and preached. And that is why the services should also invite us to sung expressions of heartfelt praise in response to God’s gracious revelation of Himself through His Word. Zeal and knowledge, heart and head. . . spirit and truth.
WORSHIP IS NOT A WORK
One final note: We must remember that being a worshiper is not something we can do entirely in our own strength. Worship is not a work. Worship is not something we do to gain acceptance from God. We can worship because of God’s gracious initiative, because of what God has done for us through the Lord Jesus Christ—because Jesus tore down the barrier of sin and opened the way into the Father’s presence, and invites us to commune with Him in confidence and assurance. The invitation is to draw near . . . in spirit and in truth.
Please take a few silent moments to reflect on your own walk of worship. Thank the Father for the incredible privilege of drawing near through Christ. Ask Him to help you find that delicate balance between knowledge and zeal.
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain, that is, through His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 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. (Hebrews 10:19-22
(from a sermon preached on May 30, 2021 at First Evangelical Church, Memphis, Tennessee)