But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.
While talking with Jesus at Jacob’s well, the Samaritan woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship” (v. 20). Jesus answered her question by pointing to the time of Christianity and the new covenant in which one’s geographical location while worshiping will not be important (v. 21). He then told her of how God wants “true worshipers” to “worship in spirit and truth” (vs. 23-24).
What does it mean to worship “in spirit and truth”? I have heard it taught that to worship “in spirit” means to worship from the heart, and to worship “in truth” means to worship in compliance with God’s directives in His Word. There is legitimacy to this view.
Jesus said, “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. But in vain do they worship Me…” (Matt. 15:8-9a). Let’s say we bow our heads and close our eyes while the prayer is led but do not make that prayer our own within our hearts and minds because we’re thinking about that great TV show we saw last night. Perhaps while singing Amazing Grace, we are completely focused on the cute baby two rows in front of us and are making faces at it. What if instead of listening whole-heartedly to the message from God in the pulpit we are daydreaming about the lunch waiting for us at Cracker Barrel or checking Facebook on our phones? Our worship is not from the heart if we do those things, it is not “in spirit,” and it certainly is “vain” or meaningless in God’s eyes.
Jesus defined God’s Word as “truth” (John 17:17), so if one is worshiping according to the dictates of rightly divided Scripture one is certainly worshiping “in truth.” The entirety of Scripture (which is truth – Ps. 119:160) shows that the old covenant of Moses was replaced by the new covenant of Christ (Heb. 8:7-13), and it is the latter which we are obliged to follow. Thus, we worship as God directed the early Christians to worship as recorded in the New Testament through a capella singing, prayer, communion, giving, and paying attention to the preaching of God’s Word. We will study each of these in more depth in the future.
Yet, let us go deeper in our study of “in spirit and truth.” Keeping in mind that Jesus had been teaching the woman differences between Old Testament worship with New Testament worship (John 4:19-24), let us consider that to worship “in spirit” also means to offer spiritual worship as opposed to the worship centered around fleshly things which was common in the Old Testament. Under Moses, Israel’s worship centered around the physical (e.g., Heb. 9:1-10) – the tabernacle or temple, lamp stands and burning incense, instrumental music, animal sacrifices, etc. Under Jesus, however, we are the priests, and we offer spiritual sacrifices (1 Pet. 2:5-9). Our prayers are considered sweet incense (Rev. 5:8). We play our hearts in song rather than a harp (Eph. 5:19). The emphasis is on the spiritual.
This same concept applies to New Testament worship which is “in truth.” Many things in the Old Testament symbolically foreshadowed what was to come in the New Testament. For example, the tabernacle was “a symbol for the present time” (Heb. 9:8-9), i.e., heaven, where Christ is (Heb. 9:11-12, 24). Paul spoke of Old Testament ordinances as “a mere shadow of what is to come,” with the substance belonging to Christ (Col. 2:16-17). Moses’ law itself was “a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of those things” (Heb. 10:1). Old Testament worship, physical in nature, was just a shadow. New Testament worship, spiritual in nature, is according to the true realities, the reality that “God is spirit” (John 4:24). The emphasis is on what is real and true. Thus, it is “in truth.”