Worship in Spirit and in Truth

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John’s narrative of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman is striking at a number of levels. In the first place, we are told in John 4:4 that “he had to pass through Samaria.” Since Samaria was between Galilee and Judea, this seems to make logistical sense.

But keeping in mind the fact that the intense hostility between the Jews and Samaritans caused many Jews to cross the Jordan River twice rather than pass through Samaria once, makes this verse stand out. Furthermore, we are told in verse 6 that Jesus comes to Jacob’s Well at about the sixth hour (noon) and there finds a Samaritan woman alone at the well drawing water. Later in the narrative we discover that the woman has had five husbands and is presently with a man who is not her husband. John tells us that Jesus, a Jew, went through Samaria and not only had a conversation with a woman (which was bad enough) but a Samaritan woman (which made matters worse), and not merely a Samaritan woman but a Samaritan woman whom other Samaritans were uncomfortable to be around (which was worst of all). This is the setting of our discussion on worship.

The climax of this discussion is seen in verses 23–24: “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.” The first thing to note about Jesus’ words here is His reference to an “hour [that] is coming” and is “now here.” The peculiar phrase no doubt refers to the substance identified in the types and shadows of the Mosaic law. The sacrifices and rituals associated with the Mosaic law, along with the priestly office and functions, pointed to the fulfillment in the coming Messiah. The Samaritans, whose worship was a mixture of Jewish law and pagan influences, maintained messianic expectations just as the Jews did (v. 25). So in saying “the hour is coming” and “is now here,” Jesus is not only indicating the provisional nature of Mosaic worship, He is also announcing its annulment.

Earlier in verse 10, when the woman responds incredulously to Jesus’ request for a drink of water, He says, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” John Calvin suggests that “if you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks” is better understood by replacing “and” with “namely.” Thus, it would read: “If you knew the gift of God, namely, who it is that asks.” This indicates that Jesus is the gift of God.

There are three important things associated with this gift of God in the context of this narrative. In the first place, since Jesus identifies Himself as the anticipated Messiah (v. 26), the giving of “living water” in verse 10 obviously refers to the giving of the Holy Spirit (see 7:37–39).

Second, the contrast between Jesus and Moses is not one of truth versus falsity — Moses as the lawgiver gave what came from God. John says that “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:17). But in keeping with our subject, Moses via the Law gave commandments and rituals that pointed to the coming Messiah. As the substance of the types and shadows of the Mosaic law, Jesus is the truth from which these laws were derived and to which they pointed. He is the gift of God through whom acceptable worship is offered and received by the Father.

Third, the incarnation of Jesus confirmed that the coming hour was indeed at hand. Rather than Samaritans looking to Mount Gerizim or Jews looking to Mount Zion as the place of acceptable worship, those who worship God are to look to the gift of God in whom truth is personified. He is also the truth spoken of in the elements of worship in the Mosaic system.

How, then, does one worship God according to what He has revealed in His Word? Only through the Holy Spirit who illumines the riches of God’s grace in Jesus. Evangelicals commonly glean from John 4:24 the importance of worshiping God according to the truth of His written Word and with all our hearts as opposed to mere physical formalities. These observations are indeed true, but the passage says much more. God is spirit (immaterial), but Jesus is the Messiah — the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth. The Holy Spirit enables us to comprehend and appropriate that grace and truth so that we can worship the Father in an acceptable manner. Acceptable worship is not an inherent trait of fallen men and women. In our fallen state of corruption, we are still inclined to worship, but we have lost the ability to worship properly. And like the Jews and the woman at the well, who had the law of Moses, even when given detailed instructions on who and how we are to worship, we are prone to miss what is being communicated and required. While they were to look forward to Jesus, who provided the guarantee of access to the Father, we today can look back and forward to the One in whom God is well pleased as our access and surety in worshiping the Father in spirit and truth. 

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.