What Does It Mean to Worship in ‘Spirit and in Truth’?

Each year, the Christian world sees two Easter Sundays, each occasionally overlapping with Jewish Passover. But in Israel-Palestine a small community of worshipers celebrates their Passover a month behind everyone else. And after 3,000 years, they still sacrifice goats for it. They call themselves Shomronim, an ancient nation whose name reflects their view of themselves as “preservers” of the earliest Israelite customs nearly lost by exile. You probably know them as Samaritans.

Enjoying this article? Read more from The Biblical Mind.

Yep, they’re still around. A marginalized, microscopic community living quietly on Mount Gerizim next to modern-day Nablus. This year, I attended their sacrificial Passover feast and watched the ancient practice of killing, bloodletting, and burning goats for God. Afterward I spoke with a young man there—he was bloodstained, drunk, and distraught—who told me he feels burdened in his heart. He hates killing these animals every year. “But I must find the strength to do this,” he said, “because I know it is for God.”

Did God accept his sacrifice?

We shouldn’t be too quick to say no, at least not until we can articulate why. The whole testimony of scripture shows a bizarre variety of practices that God accepted as worship, and at the same time it makes clear that not everything we offer is accepted. For thousands of years, there were boundaries of space, time, office, and manner set around acceptable worship. For Christians, these boundaries were redrawn in the shadow of the same mountain where I met this young Samaritan. There, Jesus foretold a coming day where God would call people to worship Him not in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim, but rather in Spirit and Truth.

How Do We Get In on This?

So the new parameters for worship are set. Great. But how do we get in on these two realities: Spirit and Truth? It’s probably not the kind of in that we first think of. Jesus draws a significant parallel between this pair of realities and the two holy mountains of two peoples. Jesus says, “You will not worship the Father on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (a reference to mount Moriah, where the Temple was located), but “on Spirit and Truth.” Notice my shift from “in” to “on” here. It’s an ambiguity from the same preposition used all three times in both Greek and Aramaic (the language this conversation was most likely held in) and imperative for seeing how we relate to these realities.

When proper worship is offered in the Bible (after Moses), God is said to commune with His people through it (Ps 22:3). He sets the place, and we bring the stuff. So to hold up Jesus’ parallel language to holy mountains here, we can’t think of “Spirit and Truth” as the things that we bring to the table. They aren’t our offerings to God; they’re more like the (metaphoric) “grounds” on which we meet Him.

But how can we know that we’re standing on the same grounds that Jesus had in mind here? My estimation is that a lot of what we do today is set firmly on different grounds. If we don’t think of “Spirit” and “Truth” the way Jesus did, then we’ll all too confidently declare our worship legitimate and be none the wiser when God rejects it. Luckily for us, though, neither “Spirit” nor “Truth” is uttered in a vacuum. In fact, they’re uttered twice, each with its own clue to its meaning. (Spoiler: they’re not substitutes for “passion” and “factual accuracy.”)

The first utterance is a promise: “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him.” If the Father seeks true worshipers, we ought to start with “truth” as it appears in the rest of John’s gospel.

My Truth, Your Truth . . . What is John’s ‘Truth’?

The concept of “truth” (Greek ἀλήθεια alētheia) is a major theme in the Gospel of John, and it’s more than factual accuracy or personal authenticity. A person can be authentic in his wickedness, yet still not be “true” in John’s sense. We see this clearly in Jesus’ prior use of the word with Nicodemus: “For whoever does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does the truth comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (3:20–21). “Truth” here is directly contrasted with “wicked things” from the previous verse, and it’s inseparably tied to God. So a “true worshiper” (i.e., one who worships “in truth”) is more than a factually informed or personally authentic one; it is one who practices truth itself in the way that God commends.

Jesus claims to epitomize this in himself in John 7:18, saying, “The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one [Jesus] who seeks the glory of the one who sent him [the Father] is true, and in him there is no falsehood.” Jesus’s good works—here, his teachings in the Temple—are paired with his desire to glorify the Father. But it’s not his desire to glorify the Father that makes him true; it’s the trueness of the Father that verifies Jesus also as true. We hear this just moments later when Jesus concludes, “He who sent me is true and him you do not know. I know him, for I come from him, and he sent me” (7:28–29).

For the corollary of this, note how Jesus uses “truth” to describe the devil: “He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of himself, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (8:44). Again here, truth is more than factual accuracy or consistency. There’s something righteous about it. The devil may be consistent with his own character in lying, but to say “there is no truth in him” doesn’t mean he’s some kind of robot programmed never to say anything verifiable; his intention to deceive defines his very being as something wicked and thus untrustworthy: untrue.

From these, and a dozen other uses like these in John’s gospel, we find “truth” to be inseparable from God. It’s something that characterizes the Father (3:33, 17:3), and something that characterizes us by proximity to Him through both Jesus (cf. 1:9, 14, 17; 6:32, 8:16, 40, 45–46; 14:6, 15:1, 17:17, 19; 18:37) and the Holy Spirit [“of Truth”] (14:17, 15:26, 16:13).

What this tells us about “truth” in worship is that it is not merely good theology or personal authenticity in our behaviors. There is something righteous and relational about it. Truth sets apart believers for God (17:17) and becomes a defining characteristic of those who know Him and behave like Him. This is why Jesus contrasts those who stand in “truth” with those who do not know God—both the Samaritans who worship what they don’t know (4:22) and the Judeans who “know” God but reject Jesus’s teachings (8:55).1The words for “know” here are different. John 4 uses ἐιδώ (usually a more intellectual knowledge) both for not knowing and for knowing what we worship. John 8:55 uses both ἐιδώ and γινώσκω (usually a more intimate, personal knowledge). Jesus says that the disbelieving Judeans have not known (οὐκ ἐγνώκατε) God, but that he himself does know (οἶδω) God. A brief summary of both words in the gospel shows that he uses them interchangeably enough to derive no significant difference in meaning. To worship “in truth,” then, requires—or better yet, promises—that we know God in this holistic way (cf Jeremiah 31:34). Everything else is downstream from that. This knowledge is mediated to us through Jesus’ words of truth (John 17:17) and by the Spirit that he sends (3:34). 

This is taken straight from the mouth of John the Baptist, by the way, just prior to the conversation at Jacob’s Well. John, who was said to have “testified to the truth,” (5:32–33) declares to his own disciples, “Whoever receives his [Jesus’] testimony sets his seal to this: that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure” (3:33–34). The connection shouldn’t be missed. Both “Spirit” and “Truth” are realities attributed to God that mediate the human-divine relationship. And both are given from the Father through Jesus.

Come On, Where’s the Spirit?

So if the Spirit is given by Jesus, then is worshiping “in Spirit” just a hint at that fiery “Holy Spirit” familiar to post-Pentecost Christians? Well, yes and no. Like many of Jesus’ sayings, there’s a valid way to understand him in context, and another equally valid way to understand him in hindsight. Having both readings helps us make sense of both John’s good news writ large and Jesus’ good news for Samaritans.

The second time Jesus utters “in Spirit and Truth,” he says it’s the only way to worship. But he grounds it in a curious fact: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and Truth” (4:24). There is a viable grammatical argument in the Greek text that we could infer “God is [the Holy] Spirit.” But most translations don’t have this, because it’s much more plausible that Jesus isn’t explicitly talking about the third Person of the Trinity here (even if we all see the connection in hindsight). Rather, he’s more directly talking about a characteristic of God the Father, and those who pattern their lives after him. This should remind us of the conversation Jesus just had with Nicodemus about being born of water and spirit in chapter 3: “The wind (Gk. πνεύμα pneuma, “spirit”) blows wherever it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (3:8).

Though English speakers love to describe impassioned emotional states with the word “spirit,” there’s nothing in John’s gospel that implies this direct connection. Whatever he’s trying to say, I assure you that it is not a description of feeling it when we sing. Our emotions may be stirred when we worship, and that’s an incredible benefit to us. But we’ll be missing a deeper teaching about God if that’s all we get from the text here. After all, we’d be hard-pressed to think that “God is spirit” means God is just really in tune with his emotions.

Let’s not slip into a needless material dichotomy either. “Spirit” in this discussion isn’t set up as the opposite of “physical” things. Jesus’ own description in John 3 uses a physical reality (wind) to help us understand something characteristic of God and his people—namely that we can’t figure out all the mechanics of this stuff. It resonates well with the humbling message of Ecclesiastes 11:5: “As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes all things.” Jesus’ example drives home the same point. The wind blows back and forth, and we only see its effects. But we don’t master it, reverse-engineer it, or confine it to our systems. We can simply be born of it, becoming like it in obedience to a God who regularly breaks and redesigns our systems.2Counterintuitive obedience to God is a staple of biblical stories. Abraham leaving his country, trusting that his barren wife will have a child, and trusting that his child will still give him descendants even if he is sacrificed are just a few. Israel being led by a cloud in the wilderness (literally following wind),  Believing His word brings about impossible situations.

In the context of their conversation, then, Jesus is foretelling something radical about the breaking of systems. The Samaritan woman wasn’t asking about where to sing hymns to God, but where to sacrifice in accordance with Torah. It’s important to note that both systems of worship that existed at the time were pretty broken already. The Samaritan Temple had been destroyed by a Jewish High Priest a century prior. The newly rebuilt Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was missing the Ark of the Covenant and under the administration of hopelessly corrupt political elites. So neither group was worshiping in their ideal situation, yet the debate between two non-ideal options persisted. And the debate itself missed the point—like a modern church obsessing over music styles, all the while neglecting to treat their songs like prayer.

This is where Jesus ends the debate of his day: “The day is coming, and is now here, where neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you [all] worship the Father. You [all] worship what you don’t know . . .” (4:21–22). Notice how he doesn’t declare the Samaritans’ prior worship invalid. He invites them to be like the “true worshipers,” which necessitates following God like the wind beyond the broken system of their forefathers into experiential knowledge of him, and eventually, his Holy Spirit.

We see this prophetically fulfilled in Acts 8, when Philip baptizes many new believers in Samaria. There’s a hangup, though: the Holy Spirit had not yet fallen on any of them (8:16). Concerned by this, the apostles sent Peter and John to pray over the Samaritans, and they in turn received the Holy Spirit (8:17). Reflecting on this experience, and the conversation that Jesus had told him about with a Samaritan woman years prior, we can imagine that John saw a prophetic meaning in these words, which he made sure to include in his Gospel.

Our Worship Today

So was my new Samaritan friend’s sacrifice accepted by God? Jesus tells his new Samaritan friend, “The Father is seeking such people to worship him” (4:24). I can’t say with certainty if my friend offers his sacrifices in Spirit and Truth. More likely he doesn’t, especially if he feels morally stained in offering them. But I can say that God is drawing people to himself (6:44) and has made provision for people to begin worshiping him in this new way.

Again, this doesn’t mean “with high emotions and right facts.” It’s like a mountain or a Temple, the grounds on which we meet God in this age. Some would even draw the parallels between Christ himself being “the Truth” (14:6) to show a Trinitarian relationship here—that Christians approach the Father by mediation of the Holy Spirit and the Son. The whole testimony of the New Testament supports a relationship like this (graciously spelled out twice in Eph 2:18, 22).

This thought ought to add a weightiness to our own worship practices. God is not just the recipient of them, but the foundation and facilitator of them too. We have all the more reason to look seriously at what we’re doing and ask if our behaviors are grounded in the proverbial mountain of God’s Truth (which we ought to practice) and the Spirit that leads us closer to the Father—sometimes beyond our systems.

I can confidently say that over a decade of modern worship ministry, much of what I did and saw in worship was standing firmly on the wrong mountains. Performance, preference, vain emotionalism, tradition, and other priorities like these drive and characterize much of what we do in worship, and they can severely disrupt our footing.

I once ran tech for a large student ministry that insisted on high-energy light shows to accompany tracks-based music. The teams were not led by people (whom the Spirit likes to direct) but by robot voices and mp3s that our musicians and singers essentially did karaoke to. What’s worse: unbeknownst to me, we had several epileptic students who were ushered out of the sanctuary each week because our ministry leaders refused to sacrifice a flashier light show to allow them to participate. The “worship” part of our services was barred from them out of convenience.

Paul had much the same criticism for the church in Corinth. Their so-called “Lord’s Supper” did not take the whole body of believers into account, and as such it was illegitimate (1 Cor 11:29). In fact, even the most “spiritual” and heartfelt practices they engaged in were misguided if they didn’t build up the church. “Since you are eager for the Spirit,” he tells them, “strive to excel in building up the church” (14:12). They all can bring something to the table: a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation, all for mutual edification (14:26).

When we bring these gifts to each other in community, in a sense we’re giving them to God as well (Matt 25:40). It’s not a direct replacement of sin offerings, burnt offerings, scapegoats, and lambs, but it mediates the ever unfolding human-divine relationship within the holy communities where God is said to dwell. Incense, melodies, choral processions, chord progressions, tithes, and much more can all be made legitimate in Spirit and Truth. And being mindful of this helps us mature as worshipers, until we see our offerings manifest as crowns and hear God’s words of acceptance firsthand.

End Notes

1. The words for “know” here are different. John 4 uses ἐιδώ (usually a more intellectual knowledge) both for not knowing and for knowing what we worship. John 8:55 uses both ἐιδώ and γινώσκω (usually a more intimate, personal knowledge). Jesus says that the disbelieving Judeans have not known (οὐκ ἐγνώκατε) God, but that he himself does know (οἶδω) God. A brief summary of both words in the gospel shows that he uses them interchangeably enough to derive no significant difference in meaning.

2. Counterintuitive obedience to God is a staple of biblical stories. Abraham leaving his country, trusting that his barren wife will have a child, and trusting that his child will still give him descendants even if he is sacrificed are just a few. Israel being led by a cloud in the wilderness (literally following wind),  Believing His word brings about impossible situations.

Did you enjoy this article? Check out The Biblical Mind podcast.