When talking to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, she asked Jesus where they should worship God, on the nearby Mt. Gerizim or in Jerusalem as believed by the Jews. She had always been taught that Mt. Gerizim was a holier and more ancient place for worshiping God. Jesus replied that soon they would not be able to worship in either place. But more important than the location was to worship God “in spirit and truth.”
What did Jesus mean by that phrase?
21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father.
22 “You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.
23 “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.
24 “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
John 4:21-24 (NKJV)
The Greek word for “spirit”, pneuma, has the basic meaning of breath, air or wind. Scripture also uses the word for the Holy Spirit. In relation to people, it sometimes means the inner being. For example, “spirit” is used for mood, attitude, emotions or character.
Most translations translate the phrase simply as “spirit and truth” or “spirit and reality.”
However some of the paraphrases do a little interpreting. For example, The Living Bible assumes “spirit” refers to the Holy Spirit. Here is how it paraphrases verse 23: “For it’s not where we worship that counts, but how we worship – is our worship spiritual and real? Do we have the Holy Spirit’s help?”
Jack Blanco in his The Clear Word paraphrases verse 23 as “But the time is coming and is already here when people can worship God anywhere, because true worship is a matter of the heart. This is the kind of worship that God is looking for.” This paraphrase assumes “spirit” means the inner person.
Looking at the context however, the reason given for worshiping in spirit is that “God is spirit.” (verse 24). In other words God is not physical, material or tangible but He is spirit. God is not confined to things. Therefore image worship is an inappropriate method of reaching out to God. It becomes a barrier to developing a trusting relationship.
And since God is spirit He is not confined to places. God is not limited to Jerusalem or any church headquarters. God is everywhere. We can worship as well in a tin shed (as I did in northern Brazil) as in a Cathedral. True worship has nothing to do with location, but has everything to do with the condition of the heart.
When we turn to the meaning of worshiping “in truth,” verse 22 seems to help: “You [Samaritans] worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.” (John 4:22 NKJV)
Jesus seems to be speaking concerning the truth about God. The Samaritans do not really know Him. They do not know who He really is. Jesus later said, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17:3 NKJV). They need to know what God is like in order to really worship Him. If they think of God as harsh, vengeful and capricious it will affect their worship. On the other hand, if they know Him as loving, fair and dependable this will influence their worship in another way.
Our worship will be more meaningful as we understand the character of God. Like the Apostle Paul, I truly want to know Him better.