God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth. ~ John 4:24
What does Jesus mean by that: “in spirit and in truth”?
I have heard it taught – perhaps you have, too – that when Jesus says “in spirit,” He means that the spirit of the worshiper is engaged in worship, and when He says “in truth,” He means that the worship obeys God’s commands for worship.
Where does that interpretation come from?
Does Jesus use the word “spirit” exclusively to describe the spirit of an individual person? Is it possible that He is speaking of the Holy Spirit within an individual person instead – or also?
Does Jesus use the word “truth” exclusively to describe God’s commands? Does He even use it to describe God’s commands at all? Is it possible that He is speaking of truth here as the accurate proclamation of fact (as He uses it a few verses before – 4:18)?
The quote above, of course, is not isolated. It is part of a conversation with the woman at the well near Sychar, Samaria in John 4. The entire conversation is about truth. The entire conversation is about Jesus: the Truth, the Living Water, the Messiah.
As nearly as I can tell, Jesus never uses the word “truth” in John or any other gospel (or through His Spirit in any New Testament writing) to describe a set of commands from God.
He uses it to describe prophecies He shares; He uses it to describe characteristics of God’s children; He uses it to describe Himself and God’s word. His followers later use it to describe the gospel; and will speak of walking in the truth and obeying the truth or the gospel – not as a set of instructions – but as a Christlike way of life.
Not once do I find “truth” used to describe anything but the accurate proclamation of fact.
In fact, one of Jesus’ points to the woman at the well is that man’s interpretation of God’s commands are not His commands at all; where one set of forefathers or another claimed as the unique place and way of worship was irrelevant. God’s desire is worship from the heart of the worshiper, wherever he/she is. (See Isaiah 29:13 and its context … and the reason Jesus quotes it in Matthew 15 and Mark 7.)
Jesus seems to speak on one occasion in scripture of an individual person’s spirit (Matthew 26:41; Mark 14:38). In virtually every other instance in the gospels, a writer refers to Jesus’ spirit (which He gives up at the cross) or evil spirits whom He casts out (plural) or the Holy Spirit (singular). In the remainder of the New Testament, the same holds true; the exceptions are when Stephen surrenders his spirit at his martyrdom (Acts 7:59) and several occasions in which writers speak of an individual’s spirit (Examples: Romans 8:16; 1 Corinthians 5:5, 7:34, 14:14-16).
But in the great majority of those passages in which a person’s individual spirit is mentioned, it is in the context of (hopefully) being united with the Holy Spirit. Don’t just take my word for this; check it out for yourself:
Is that what Jesus is communicating to the woman at the well in Sychar? He has not given up nor fully given out His Spirit at this point, nor has He taught His closest followers about His Spirit in those final days of His mortality.
But this is what He tells her in the verse right before the one quoted above:
“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” ~ John 4:23
The time was coming; the time had come. They were right on top of it. And He says this will happen, because it is the Father’s will.
So I’ve had to come to the conclusion that what Jesus means by the phrase “in spirit and in truth” means that, in order to truly worship God who is spirit, we must be united with His Holy Spirit; we must worship as a proclamation of truth from the heart that we thoroughly believe – loving Him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.
And that His instruction has nothing to do with rules made up by man and attributed to God.