Worship in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:24)

“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).

17 Responses to “Worship in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:24)”

  1.   rich constant Says:

    blessings john mark
    i Do love to start mornings out this way.

    •   rich constant Says:

      so then if i have faith as big as a mustard seed i will be able to move the proverbial mountain?

      •   rich constant Says:

        another little ps

        we should all wake up in the morning asking ourselves

        exactly what IS REALITY
        kinda to keep us centered

  2.   jimmyhinton Says:

    Love this blog, JM. I’ve always had a problem with some coercing John into saying that someone is not worshiping in Spirit and truth if they worship with instruments. I’m not making an argument pro/con instruments here but I think that John is getting his readers to grasp a much deeper reality of how God sustains us and dwells in Christians. Thank you for sharing this.

  3.   D'Angelo Says:

    I’d like to share some similar thoughts I presented in a discussion:

    “I doubt John 4:24 means, have the right attitude and make sure it is according to the biblical doctrines I have laid out for worship in the books that the apostles will have written over the next thirty to fifty years. Spirit never means “disposition or attitude” in John unless this is the exception, it without fell refers to the Spirit. Truth does refer to God’s word (17:17) but is also refers …to Jesus (14:6; 8:31-32), and in the immediate context to genuinesss (4:23). How preachers automatically jump to 17:17 and make up a meaning for pneumatos, isnt persuasive to me.

    More fitting to the context, of what is true, is the actually worshipper, since God seeks true worshippers. The discussion centers around where to worship in Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim, a time will come where worship is not marked off by holy spaces but by true worshippers. It was an experience that would come in the future, worshiping in Spirit is an eschatological experience that is inauguated through the cross and the gift not through a text (since they already had one).

    What’s important about truth is that it linked with Spirit (likely an hendiadys) and in a stylistic way clarifying “Spirit of Truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13). Temples in Gerizim and Jerusalem are not made obsolete by the bible, they had that already; they are made obsolete by a temple of true worshippers in dwelt by the Spirit, who by him, offer up spiritual sacrifices; this agrees with not only Johnannine usage but Petrine and Pauline as well.” (Continued)

  4.   D'Angelo Says:

    I find it difficult that pneumatos wouldn’t refer to the Spirit, since John is very much reserving pneumatos to refer to the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit in the community of faith. I essentially see Jesus, especially when noting the context, saying those who worship God must worship him “in the true Spirit/Spirit of truth, as opposed to being in Jerusalem or in Gerizim, that also helps me understand the puzzling expression “God is Spirit” what does that have to do with worshipping him in Spirit? Essentially, it seems to mean that true worship is done in the Spirit to a spiritual being. In the Messiah we don’t worship in the flesh but in the Spirit (Phil 3:1-3; Eph 6:18). Even if it referred to the human spirit the hendiadys wouldn’t be lost (by means of a true spirit which would clarify true worshippers). I don’t see this text as a launch pad to proof texting random verses about items of worship, that isn’t in the context…

    Also, there are a number of ways one can clearly talk about worshipping with a disposition or right attitude. The LXX naturally expresses this with: en ole kardia mou (with all your heart) or doxa (praise) or even soul (psyche). To make the Joshua allusion more apparent if it were one he could have just slightly altered the quotation or quoted it all together λατρευσατε αυτω εν ευθυτητι και εν δικαιοσυνη, serve him with sincerity and justice, contrasted with serving idols like Abraham’s family…

    John is selecting material about Jesus life that the other writers did not, in many ways he is still governing vocabulary. But let’s look at how Jesus used pneumatos John 3:5, 4:13-14 explained in 7:38-39, 6:63 a reference to the Spirit and then a reference to his words being spirit and life (obviously derivative from the Spirit), 14-16 is full of Holy Spirit references, and he ends with “receive the Spirit” (21:22-23).

    All of these reference support my interpretation. What I purposely left out because it isn’t Jesus words but Johns, was 1:32-34, where john says Jesus “baptizes” present tense, in the Spirit instead of future tense (like Synoptics, his point is Jesus Baptizes in the Spirit customarys (gnomic present) as opposed to a future event, that sets the stage for how Pneunatos should be interpreted in John and with 21:22-23 function as book ends to the narrative. It begins with creation and leads us through to new creation where Jesus breathes on the apostles like God breathed on Adam and empowers them to live as a new humanity, but if we don’t respect John’s portrayal we will miss it.”

  5.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Great post…you are stirring the gospel imagination within me.

  6.   riverwindfire Says:

    Hi, John Mark – great post, I like what you’ve written. I’ve heard it said that in the Greek construction, because “pneumatos” and “aletheia” are only linked by “kai” (and the “en” preposition for “aletheia” is not repeated), that the semantic force is more like “in Spirit-truth.” A similar thing apparently happens in John 3 re “water-Spirit.” If this is correct, it seems that your point is further highlighted, and there may be other ramifications, too.

    Your thoughts?

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      You are correct about the grammatical construction, and in some grammars that is fairly significant. There is some debate about how significant. Nevertheless, it is feasible that “Spirit-Truth” is a possible construction and tightens the understanding.

      •   D'Angelo Says:


        The phenomenon of which you speak is called hendiadys (one through two), where an author expression one idea through two words. In Greek this is normally done when one preposition governs two words joined by kai (and). John 3:5 may also be an hendiadys, but I struggle with that conclusion for two reasons. First, I believe the early church universally understood water to refer to baptism; Greek speakers should be familiar with their language and second, I recall scholar, I cannot remember which, that said both spirit and water are unique stand alone words in the OT and because of this it isn’t likely that they would be used together to describe one idea. Just my thoughts.

      •   D'Angelo Says:

        Although, the kai could be appositional, “born of water, namely, the Spirit” and if it were an hendiadys, it would mean something like unless an man is regenerated perhaps with Ezekiel 36 in mind. Regarding John 4:24, I think it’s best to render it traditionally, although I think a good case can be made for 4:24 to be an hendiadys.

      •   riverwindfire Says:

        Thanks, D’Angelo – I was unaware that there was disagreement re John 3.5 as a hendiadys (except from the Baptists 😉 ), but it poses no problem for me. I would agree re “water” referring to baptism, and “Spirit” perhaps to the palpable koinonia of the Spirit which is likewise highlighted in John 4. Two aspects of the same event, initiation into the Spirit, or something like that. 😉

  7.   Wyatt Says:

    Thanks John Mark. Wonderful and encouraging thoughts regarding the “reality” we embrace in Christ.

  8.   Tommy Drinnen Says:

    thanks John Mark for these thoughts – Tommy

  9.   A.J. Cox Says:

    A couple of years ago I listened to one of your sermons on this subject (probably somewhere on your website) and it totally convinced me that our typical interpretation of John 4:24 (with the right attitude and in the right way, or according to Scripture) completely misses the point. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else make this observation (and maybe that should tell me something), but I’d be curious to hear what you think. Could there not be a connection between John 4:23-24 and passages like Revelation 1:10 and Revelation 4:2? I know we have tended to view John’s being “in the Spirit” as a supernatural experience, but isn’t worship something of a supernatural experience? Being “in the Spirit” enabled John, earth-bound though he may have been, to in a sense transcend the boundaries of space/geography and to also be in Heaven in the presence of God, Christ, the angles, etc. (Rev. 4-5). (Anybody watch Fringe?) 🙂 The idea of the Spirit as the agent who makes a thin place exceedingly thin, or the one who facilitates an interaction between earth (our space) and Heaven (God’s space) would seem to fit neatly within a discussion about “where people ought to worship.” It also dovetails nicely with another text that you have addressed elsewhere (and boy did that ever draw the curtain back!), Hebrews 12:22-24. So, John 4:23-24 and Revelation 1:10; 4:2. A connection worth making? Thanks for the great post.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Yes, I think there is a potential connection. The specific context of Revelation is visionary, but the effect is also to place John, by the Spirit, in a situation where he could see what he normally could not see. I would not argue that “in the Spirit” in John 4:24 is exactly the same as Rev. 1:10 or 4:3, but I think there is a connection. One, perhaps, is a fuller experience of the other, but both anticipate the climatic experience of heaven and earth united. Thanks for the reminder.

      •   riverwindfire Says:

        I like the connection A.J. is making, and I’m sorta repeating what both of you have said as I try to grasp it here. ISTM the context of the John 4 verses points to something like what A.J. is saying, in accord with your point, John Mark: Jesus speaks prophetically – i.e. speaks to the Samaritan woman what God sees and shows Him – she perceives He’s a prophet, and asks the prophet (the guy with the connection to God) about “where to worship.” As we know, that’s not an idle question: to Jews and Samaritans alike, the location was “the place where YHWH meets His people.” Solomon’s prayer of dedication indicates what the people expected Temple worship to mean: not only fulfilling their obligations to God, but also the locus of His blessing to them.

        Jesus’ reply that location will no longer matter because worship is in “Spirit and truth” is spoken in the context of the woman’s personal prophetic experience of connection with God (via Jesus as prophet): “God notices me! He has put in my path a male Jewish prophet who accepts me!” To re-state JMH’s words, Jesus’ reply moves worship from a localized “meeting with God” to a shared ongoing experience of God in “Spirit and reality.” I agree that “in truth” will be eschatologically-conditioned reality. But it’s also “prophetic,” as A.J. said so well, “making the thin place thinner.” ISTM that the difference between John’s experience in Revelation 1 and the woman’s in John 4 – and ours in Hebrews 12, Eph 5.19, et al – is only a matter of degree, not kind.

        On the “reality” side of the expression I really like JMH’s emphasis, especially how we can in some way experience the Great Day in advance. On the “Spirit” side of the expression I also appreciate JMH’s comments re “living water welling up to give praise and glory to God, worshipping with resources of the Spirit welling up in our hearts …”

        But I’m left with the question: What does “that” look like?

        ISTM that we would also do better with a clearer description of the “Spirit” side. Wouldn’t “Spirit and truth” in John 4 be properly construed in accord with the Biblically well-established use of “Spirit” in terms of tangible, palpable, perceptible prophetic experience? Wouldn’t an enhanced awareness of prophetic experience in the NT (and OT) better shape our expectations and experience of “worship in Spirit and truth”?

        Wish I could have said all that better … Thanks again for a great post, and a helpful discussion.

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