Worship, spirit and truth

  • Question 129 from Annmarie, Ireland
    Would you please give me your understanding of what it means to ‘worship the Father in spirit and in truth’ as mentioned in John chapter 4 verses 21-24?

    The context of this statement attributed to Jesus is a conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman who raises the question of whom is correct in their worship – the Jews who worship God at the Temple in Jerusalem, or the Samaritans who worship God on Mount Gerizim. Jesus replies by saying a time is coming when “true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth.”

    There are a number of different reasons why the author of John’s gospel records this saying. The author is very fond of words like ‘light’, ‘truth’ and so on and this is why some people see ‘gnostic’ tendencies in John’s gospel. This saying of Jesus is one of many which lets a person, including the reader, in on a ‘secret truth’, or to put it another way, offers them a revelation that not many other people know.

    It is generally agreed that John’s gospel was probably the last of the four gospels to be written, at a time when the early Christian church was seeking to differentiate itself from Judaism. Certainly there is plenty of antagonism between the ‘Pharisees’ and Jesus in the stories recorded in John’s gospel, which may represent, in a subtle way, the ongoing debate at the time the gospel was written between those who clung to Jewish Law and practice, and those who embraced the new teachings of Jesus Christ.

    In fact throughout John’s gospel, there are very clear statements about the redundancy of the Temple and the sacrificial system of atonement. In John’s gospel the incident of Jesus ‘clearing the Temple’ is recorded at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry instead of at the beginning of Holy Week (John chapter 2, verses 13-22; compare this with Luke chapter 19, verses 45-46, which sets it directly after the Triumphal Entry).

    In John’s account as well, Jesus goes so far as to drive out the sellers of animals and doves, as well as the corrupt money-changers who are the objects of his anger in the other gospels. He then has a debate with the Pharisees, which the author sees as a direct allusion to Jesus’ own death and resurrection (chapter 2, verse 22).

    There is a motif in John of Jesus replacing the Jewish sacrificial system. The writer places Jesus’ death firmly within the context of Passover, underlining that Jesus’ death has brought the old sacrificial system to an end. There are several other parts of John’s gospel which can be interpreted as Christianity surpassing, or replacing, Judaism, for example the miracle of the water being turned into wine. This miracle comes just before the cleansing of the Temple in John’s account, is often seen as a commentary on the ‘wine’ of Christianity replacing the ‘water’ of Judaism. The fact that the water is poured out of Jewish purification jars (chapter 2, verse 6) and turned into wine in the process is perhaps more than just incidental.

    Jesus’ reply to the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4 indicates that both the Temple and Mount Gerizim, i.e. the religious practices of the Jews and the Samaritans, are irrelevant to the question of worshipping God. Instead he says the true believers can worship God anywhere, in ‘spirit and in truth’.

    There are a number of ways to interpret this saying. The idea that worship must be ‘led by the Spirit’ is quite popular in charismatic Christian circles, for example. However, it may just mean worship ‘wherever you are’, regardless of physical location.

    The use of the word ‘truth’ probably relates to a desire for genuine-ness or authenticity in worship. The gospel authors each include some scathing criticisms of religious behaviour done for show. A common theme in all the gospels, including John, is that the outward practice isn’t that important. What matters is the attitude of the person involved (see for example Matthew chapter 23 for criticism of religious leaders and an examination of motives).

    In conclusion then, this statement attributed to Jesus offers us a glimpse into some of the big debates in the early Christian church as it sought to differentiate itself from it’s Jewish background. One of these big debates concerned ‘right practice’ when it came to religious observance, and so the author of John’s gospel used this scene to remind Christian believers of the importance of authenticity in worship, and to encourage them that they could worship God anywhere.

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