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ACCEPTABLE WORSHIP (10): In Spirit & In Truth

In Spirit and In Truth

One of the most important statements by Jesus, indeed in the entire New Testament, about worship is in John 4:19-24. This was the climactic part of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar.

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 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. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”

Traditional Understanding

As I was growing up, the understanding of this passage conveyed to me was that to worship in spirit was a worshipful attitude. I believed this was in seriousness and sincerity, certainly not celebration. I understood that worship in truth is worshiping according to the teachings of the Bible.

We did not think much about the possibility that worship in spirit might have something to do with the Holy Spirit. In fact, we did not think much about the Holy Spirit at all, except to aver dogmatically that the “Holy Rollers” were way out in left field.

To us “worship according to the teachings of the Bible” was the same as “worship according to the teachings of the Church of Christ.” We did not consider, and indeed did not conceive of the possibility, that our teachings might vary from the teachings of the Biblical record.

We did not go to the extreme of saying that “two songs, a prayer, another song, the Lord’s Supper, another song, a sermon, and the invitation song followed by a closing prayer” was the scriptural pattern. We were quite happy to have a few more songs than that – as long as we stayed within the allotted hour for worship.

Now, I hope you realize this is at least a little facetious. Honest worship did occur in those churches, even though our understanding of worship “in spirit and in truth” was seriously lacking, though I did not realize it then. What was lacking was not sincerity of purpose – but comprehension of what Jesus was actually saying.

Context of John 4

The context of any statement is important. John did not write His gospel as isolated, unrelated events. Most believe John is the most theological of the four gospels. That means there is a discernable plan in its development.

Without trying to look at the total plan for the Gospel of John, there are significant things in chapter three that relate to Jesus’ statement about worship in chapter four. The first significant fact is that chapter four is immediately after chapter three, and should be building on what is in chapter three. In chapter three, we see the following:

  • Nichodemus came to Jesus as a “teacher who has come from God.”
  • Jesus told him he must be “born again” of water and spirit  to see the kingdom of God.
  • Nichodemus asked how he could be born again when he was old.
  • Jesus replied, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
  • As Nichodemus continued to question, Jesus elucidated further: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
  • Following this conversation, the scene shifts to Jesus baptizing in the wilderness.
  • John the Baptist’s disciples asked him about Jesus’ baptizing.
  • John replied that he himself was the friend of the groom, but that Jesus was the groom who must increase while John decreased.
  • This is true, John said, because Jesus “comes from heaven” and “is above all.
  • Further, John added, “The one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit.”

This chapter has two distinct references to the Holy Spirit: first, as being involved in the new birth of water and Spirit and, second, John said that God gives the Spirit without limit.

The KJV is woefully inaccurate in its translation of John 3:34. It says, “God gives not the Spirit by measure unto him. The italics are in the original. Those familiar with the KJV know that italics mean the translators have added the words italicized. In this instance, there is absolutely nothing in that text even to suggest the italicized words. Yet, we based an elaborate theory of “measures” of the Holy Spirit on this verse. This has distorted our understanding of the Holy Spirit for generations.

Jesus said that those who are born of Spirit are spirit and that God gives the Spirit without limit. It is against this backdrop that Jesus said, “True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

His Worshipers Must Worship in Spirit…

What did Jesus mean by “worship in spirit”? He Himself had just said, “God is spirit.” In the context of chapter three, He had said, “Spirit gives birth to spirit” and that everyone who enters God’s kingdom must be “born of water and Spirit.” By being born of water and Spirit, those entering God’s kingdom come into relationship with God, who is Himself spirit. It is in that relationship with God that true worship can occur.

While on the Isle of Patmos, in his introduction to Revelation, the apostle John wrote, “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit…” (Revelation 1:10). That is, he was in a close fellowship and communion with God, who is spirit. This fellowship is through the indwelling Spirit at all times, but on “the Lord’s Day” John seemed to be particularly aware of his communion with God.

Paul also bears testimony to what it means to “worship in Spirit.”

Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh – though I myself have reasons for such confidence…. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:1-11 (Emphasis added, JS)

Worship in Spirit is worship focused on Jesus and His greatness, for the Spirit bears witness to the Son of God. In glorifying Jesus through the Spirit, we glorify God. Worship in Spirit is also worship we offer because we, by faith in Christ, receive the righteousness that comes from God.

Note that Galatians 3:26-27; 4:6 states,

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ…. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.

In passage after passage, we see that receiving the Spirit comes through the new birth or through baptism. When we became sons of God by faith (because we were baptized into Christ), God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts. Thus, we are now “spirit,” not mere “flesh” because God’s Spirit lives in us. There is a new relationship to God in Christ; God makes us righteous and we become spirit. In this new relationship, we worship God in Spirit.

(For more on worship and the Holy Spirit, see this post.)

…And in Truth

But, what does it mean to “worship in truth?” John uses this phrase, “in truth,” also in 1 John 3:18. There he writes, “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” What does the phrase mean there? It refers to genuine love that comes from the heart. It is an actual love shown, not in words alone, but in heart-felt action.

Worship in truth is genuine worship that comes from the heart. It stands in stark contrast to the worship of the Pharisees of whom Jesus said as he quoted from Isaiah, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men” (Matthew 15:9; Isaiah 29:13).

Try worship in place of love in 1 John 3:18. “Dear children, let us not worship with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.

What “actions” show genuine worship? What keeps worship from being mere words? I will discuss this further in the next post in this series.

NEXT (11) Bow Before Him

PREVIOUS (9) Self-Imposed Worship

Series Index


2 Responses

  1. Your comment re: John 3:34 is the background for this Broken Cup letter (McGarvey did us no favor with his “measuring cup”

    Dear Dad,

    I broke THE MEASURING CUP the other day. I know the family has treasured THE MEASURING CUP for generations; I had been trying to protect it as best I could, but the light of truth came through a crack in the door, struck THE measuring cup and shattered it, perhaps beyond repair. I had not realized that it was so fragile, even though I had been warned severely about not getting to close to THE MEASURING CUP or I might get hurt, burned, or worse. Yes, Dad, I’m writing about THE MEASURING CUP of the Holy Spirit.
    I was not trying to break THE MEASURING CUP at all. I was just seeking Biblical truth in the gospel of John and Acts. Some of the commentaries you had taught me to hold in high esteem spoke of the “full measure of the Spirit, the Apostolic measure, the miraculous measure, and the ordinary measure of the Spirit”. To be sure, I was taught to acknowledge the gift of the Holy Spirit through baptism in the ordinary measure; and at times was even told that the gift of the Holy Spirit was the word of God only. It sounded good and even safe at the time, because we did not want to be accused of emotional excess or worse; our logical approach to Biblical truth and THE MEASURING CUP would certainly protect us from danger.
    I think the light of truth first came when I was studying John 3:34 “For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him.” KJV While this verse was the premise our beloved commentators used to craft THE MEASURING CUP, I was not reading the King James, but the Greek, which seems to give a different sense. I know neither of us is a true Greek scholar and have to work our way through slowly, but look at the Greek: in John 3:34 Hón gár apésteilen ho Theós tá reémata toú Theoú laleí ou gár ek métrou dídoosin tó Pneúma (Whom for has sent God the words of God speaks for not of measure he gives the spirit). Looking at this, it is not so clear that it is God giving the Spirit without measure to the one He has sent; it is more likely that “the one whom God has sent” is the one giving the Spirit without measure, as “the one sent” is the subject of the verse. This is consistent with Jesus’ words in John 15:26 “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth”. Certainly the next verse indicates that God loves the Son, and has given all things to him, which would (Acts 10:38) include the Spirit. But that still leaves verse 34 as saying the Spirit is given without measure, whether it is God or the one sent who is doing the giving. Please don’t misunderstand; I believe Jesus had the Spirit without measure. But I don’t see anywhere that the Holy Spirit was given by measure. There is a lot about the gift of the Holy Spirit and the filling of the Spirit and the fullness of the Spirit. I tried to find other verses that spoke of “measures of the Spirit”, but I came up empty; nowhere else in the New Testament does it speak of a “measure of the Spirit” or any limits on the Spirit at all, but always the sense of completeness and fullness. How strange that we would create or build an entire doctrine about the gift of the Holy Spirit based on a verse that says the exact opposite of our conclusions. I thought of how I was taught that only Jesus had the “full measure” of the Holy Spirit, so I thought I should look at the “fullness or filling of the Holy Spirit”. Here is what I found (New American Standard Version search):
    “Filled with (Holy) Spirit”
    Luke 1:15 “For he (John the Baptizer) will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine or liquor; and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, while yet in his mother’s womb.
    Luke 1:41 And it came about that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
    Luke 1:67 And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying:
    Acts 2:4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.
    Acts 4:8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of the people,
    Acts 4:31 And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak the word of God with boldness.
    Acts 9:17 And Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
    Acts 13:9 But Saul, who was also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, fixed his gaze upon him,
    Acts 13:52 And the disciples were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
    Ephesians 5:18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit,

    So if those verses say something to us, what about verses that talk about being full of the Spirit? Please look at these verses:
    “Full of the Spirit”
    Luke 4:1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led about by the Spirit in the wilderness
    Acts 6:3 “But select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.
    Acts 6:5 And the statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch.
    Acts 7:55 But being full of the Holy Spirit, he (Stephen) gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God;
    Acts 11:24 for he (Barnabas) was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord.

    Perhaps I had been confused about the difference between the “gift of the Spirit” we received at baptism (Acts 2:38) and the “gifts of the Spirit” in 1Cor.12-14 that were given as the Spirit willed (1Cor.12:11) through Apostolic authority (Acts 8:18). Yes, the apostles authorized by Jesus were enabled by the will of God to impart “some spiritual gift” (Romans 1:11), and yes indeed those “spiritual gifts” ended when those receiving them died, but there were numbers of believers who were “filled” or “full” of the Holy Spirit who did not receive (from the New Testament record) what we would normally call “the miraculous measure of the Spirit”, among them John the Baptizer, Elizabeth, Mary (mother of Jesus), those present at Acts 4:31, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas. Also, we do not see any record of “gifts of the Spirit” among the household of Cornelius beyond the initial tongues speaking in Acts 10 nor do we see the Apostles of Acts 2 continuing in the gift of tongues. Neither is it certain that every believer had the hands of the Apostles laid upon him or her. What seems to be apparent is the Spirit at work as the Spirit wills. Acts 2:38 does not promise us a partial, limited, measured gift of the Holy Spirit. It is not “and you shall receive the x% gift of the Holy Spirit; no limit or measure is mentioned. It is not that Jesus was given 100%, the Apostles 70%, those who received an Apostolically imparted gift 40%, and us “ordinary” Christians 10% or some other measure. What seems clear is that Jesus had the Holy Spirit in all fullness to accomplish the work that God had for Him to do; the Apostles had the Holy Spirit in all fullness to accomplish the work that God had for them to do; those Apostolically gifted had the Holy Spirit in all fullness to accomplish the work that God had for them to do; we receive through baptism the Holy Spirit in all fullness to accomplish the work God has for us to do. The only difference is the will of God through the Spirit in every situation, whether it is Jesus, the Apostles, Cornelius, those apostolically gifted, or we today. We were all baptized by the Spirit into one body and made to drink of one Spirit (1Cor.12:13) and different gifts were given to different people and at different times and through different means, but the same Spirit, just as God desired (1Cor.12:18).
    Please do not misunderstand, I’m not looking for a “new” faith or a “new” tongue or a “new” baptism or a “new” revelation. Jesus is indeed the final revealing authority (Heb.1:1) and the faith has been perfectly delivered once for all (Jude 3). I am looking for a clearer understanding of New Testament truth with the Holy Spirit guiding me into a clearer conviction of Jesus’ claim to my discipleship and servant hood.
    Yes, Dad, THE MEASURING CUP is broken, but perhaps it has only served to hold us back from the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.) as we have grieved (Eph.4:30) or quenched the Spirit (1Thess.5:19) within, instead of being filled with the Spirit (Eph.5:18). Realizing that every generation must continue to search for Biblical truth; I don’t think that I’ll try to glue THE MEASURING CUP back together; it’s probably past time to just throw it away. From you I inherited generations of wisdom about worshiping in truth; perhaps it is past time to apply that wisdom to worshiping in spirit as well (John 4:24).
    I do love you for bringing me to the knowledge of salvation, and I do not seek to hurt you; I would hope together we would allow and enjoy the filling and fullness of the Spirit and allow him to bear fruit in our lives that gives honor and glory to our Savior.

    Your grateful son…

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