“God is Spirit, and those who worship God must worship in Spirit and Truth” (John 4:24).
You might not immediately notice but one of the differences between my translation and the traditional one is that I capitalize “Spirit” and “Truth.” I think this is important.
The traditional use of this text is to locate the prepositional phrase in the subjectivity of the worshipper (that is, worship with the right spirit or attitude) and in the objectivity of God’s revealed word (that is, Scripture). This interpretation has a long history and has been particularly stressed in many parts of the Reformed tradition. Churches of Christ have utilized the text in a way consistent with their Reformed (Presbyterian and Scottish dissenter) heritage.
But I think this misses the point of the text in at least two ways.
First, pneuma (spirit), though it appears 24 times in the Gospel of John, never refers to human attitudes or motivations. Though it is used to describe Jesus’ own personal identity three times (11:33; 13:21; 19:20), seventeen times the term refers without question to the Holy Spirit (1:32,33; 3:5,6,8,34; 7:39; 14:17,26; 15:26; 16:13; 20:22). Of the other four uses of pneuma, three are found in John 4:23-24 and the last one in John 6:63. The last text most likely refers to the Holy Spirit as well since Jesus describes his words as Spirit (but this is disputed).
John’s Gospel has developed a theology of pneuma up to John 4. Jesus is invested with the Spirit and born-again believers are born of the Spirit (John 1:33,34; 3:5, 34). The Spirit is something believers and Jesus have in common. When believers worship the Father, they worship “in the Spirit.” God is pneuma. So, the Son, believers and the Father share pneuma. This evidences the communal unity of the Father, Son and believers. We are one through or in the Spirit. As such, the worshipping community of believers–those who have been born of the Spirit–worship the Father “in the Spirit.”
This reading has the further benefit of seeing the “living water” which Jesus offers the Samaritan women (4:10-15) as the well-springs of the Spirit who is given to believers (John 7:37-39). Believers enjoy a living water that arises out of the Spirit who dwells within us and “in” this thirst-quenching water, that is the Spirit, we worship the Father. It is the living water that wells up inside of us to give praise and glory to God. We worship out of the or in the resources of the Holy Spirit. “In the Spirit” is the Spiritual dynamic of worship itself–the Holy Spirit who gives life to worship by the living, personal presence of God by the Spirit.
Second, aletheia (truth), though it appears 55 times in the Gospel of John, never refers to Scripture. Instead, the dominant meaning of truth in John is that of authentic reality The context of John 4 is not truth (biblical) versus falsehood (wrong), but is truth (reality) versus type (shadow). Moses employed types, but Jesus brings truth (John 1:17). The snake was a type of the truth (reality) of Jesus (John 3:14). Israel experienced manna through Moses in the wilderness, but Jesus is the true bread (John 6:32). Examples could be multiplied.
Jesus is the truth; he is the reality. Everything becomes real–eschatologically real–in Jesus. The reality of the future–who Jesus is and what Jesus accomplishes–is the truth.
Or, to put it another way…God tabernacles among us in the flesh. The body of Jesus is the sanctuary of God (John 2:19-21). The question in John 4 is in which temple should people worship. Should we worship in (en, literally “in” and not “on”) the mountain or in Jerusalem. Jesus’s response is that we worship in a new temple–we worship in the sanctuary of God’s presence. Jesus is the truth who is the new temple. True worshippers will worship in the Holy Spirit and in the true temple. We no longer worship in a type or shadow but in the eschatological reality of Jesus who is the Truth of God.
Believers worship in a new temple. The contrast between “in” the mountain/Jerusalem and “in Spirit and Truth” is a contrast between temples. It does not contrast the physical, external or ritual versus the immaterial, internal or spiritual. Rather, it contrasts the type and fulfillment, the shadow and ultimate reality, the old and new temple. The place of worship is no longer spatially or geographically located. It is located in “Spirit and Truth.”
To worship the Father in Spirit and Truth, then, is to praise the Father in his new temple out of the resources of the Spirit welling up in our hearts. We worship in Spirit as we experience the eschatological reality of God by the gift of his Spirit who indwells us. We worship in Truth as we experience the eschatological reality of God which Jesus revealed and embodied in his own person–the Son has brought the Truth into the world in his own person.
We worship the Father in the Spirit (eschatologically by that empowering presence) and in the Son (the true eschatological temple of God).