What does it mean to ‘worship in Spirit and in Truth’? Pastor Daphne Lau explores.
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and His worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:19-24)
This dialogue contains the longest conversation Jesus ever had with anyone in the Bible and interestingly enough, it was with a woman, a Samaritan harlot. And the topic? Worship. I find it really intriguing that Jesus chose to reveal the Father’s heart on worship to her.
But isn’t it just like Jesus to jolt us out of our spiritual slumber, making us pay attention to what He has to say? Isn’t it just like Jesus to reach out to the outcasts, the ones deemed the least worthy and make true worshipers out of them? The Father makes known to Jesus that He is seeking true worshipers. Jesus, doing the Father’s will, seeks them out and shows what it really means to worship in “Spirit and in Truth.”
The woman is shell-shocked and in an attempt to avoid conviction, tries to engage Jesus in a debate about where worship should be held—“So tell me, why is it that you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place of worship, while we Samaritans claim it is here at Mount Gerizim, where our ancestors worshiped?” (John 4:20, NLT) This was completely irrational, but totally something anyone would do when confronted with their sin—escape!
Notice Jesus doesn’t continue talking about her promiscuous lifestyle. I believe He raised that just to get her attention. Now that He had it, He continued with His mission—to turn her into a true worshiper. He responds, “Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem.” (John 4:21, NLT)
By saying this, Jesus teaches that authentic worship isn’t about going to a specific place and performing an outward action. Jesus also says this, quoting Isaiah, in Matthew 15:8: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Jesus is saying the heart must be engaged for genuine worship to take place. It’s not important where the worship takes place. External actions do not make worship authentic.
He then proceeds to shock her again: “You Samaritans know very little about the one you worship, while we Jews know all about him, for salvation comes through the Jews.” (John 4:22, NLT).
Now let’s refresh our memory about who the Samaritans were. They were the Northern Jewish Kingdom’s remnants, who had intermarried with foreigners. They erected their own worship place separate from the rest of the Jews, at Mt Gerizim. They also rejected all of the Old Testament except their version of the Torah. As a result, the Samaritans had an incomplete knowledge of God and hence, their worship was deficient.
Jesus was telling her that it was very important to know who we worship—the one true God. Jesus was slowly directing her understanding of worship from the “where” to the” how” and “whom”, meaning that worship should be from the heart and based on a proper knowledge of God.
Jesus then says, “But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship Him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23-24, NLT)
“Pneuma” is the Greek word used for spirit in this passage. It is the same word used in passages where the human spirit and the Holy Spirit are referred to. This corresponds with the “how” and the “whom” of worship. To me, to worship the Father in Spirit has a two-fold meaning. Firstly, worship must come from our spirit, from the depths of who we are, engaging all our emotions, not just an external display of worship actions. Secondly, to ‘worship in spirit’ refers to worshiping with our spirit that has been ignited and made alive by the Holy Spirit. “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” (John 3:6) It is our spirit responding to God’s spirit in worship. John Piper writes, “True worship comes only from spirits made alive and sensitive by the quickening of the Spirit of God.” (Desiring God, 82)
It is interesting to note that Jesus adds the adjective ‘true’ before ‘worshipers’. The Webster’s English dictionary defines true as “real, genuine, consistent, steadfast, loyal, and legitimate”. This means that there are worshipers who are not genuine. Jeff Deyo describes them as “worshiping the songs or the music instead of the One who created music, exalting the pastor instead of the One who fashioned and called him, adoring the feel-good experience of being part of a church community of passionate people instead of Christ Himself…lots of people go to church, but are they true worshipers?” (The Lost Art of Pure Worship, p112 -113). God detests false worshipers. We see it in Amos 5:21-24.
The Greek word for truth comes from related words that mean ‘true’, ‘not concealing anything’, and ‘to be true’ (in doctrine). Hence to worship in truth means to do so in sincerity, based on a true perception and knowledge of God. “The hour is coming, and is now here…” (John 4:23) tells us that this truth centers around Jesus who is the Truth (John 14:6).
True worship comes when there is a revelation of who Jesus is. After realizing who Jesus really was, the woman left her water jar behind (symbolizing her leaving her old life) and became a worshiper, a true worshiper.
In this exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, we learn that God isn’t concerned with where the worshiper has been or who the worshiper is. Anyone is welcomed to be a true worshiper. They become one when they have a true encounter with Jesus.
Worship is a lifestyle. Gerrit Gustafson sums it up well: “Worship is the act and attitude of wholeheartedly giving yourself to the Lord—spirit, soul, mind and body.” (The Adventure of Worship, p28)
External actions are not the essence. It doesn’t matter whether we raise our hands or not, sing the latest songs or an age-old hymn, or how conducive the environment is. What matters most is what we do with our hearts and minds. God is looking for true worshipers—genuine, authentic disciples who will follow Him all the way, engaging both the head and the heart in worship. To Him, the heart of worship really, is the heart.
About Pastor Daphne Lau
Pastor Daphne resigned from her teaching profession in 1998 to answer God’s call to full-time ministry. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s Degree in Church Music from North Central University in Minnesota, USA. There, she pioneered the music ministry at All Nations Christian Assembly.