In Spirit and Truth: What does that mean, exactly?
“The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)
In the “worship wars” (read: style wars) of the past two or three decades, this passage has played a central role. On all sides people use these verses to make their cases—some argue that the “spirit” component of worship is missing from services that use only traditional hymns, and therefore contemporary music must come in to rescue the church from dead worship; others claim that Jesus’ statement endorses charismatic practices; still others argue that “truth” is missing from contemporary praise and worship music, directing us back to hymns as the answer for our worship woes.
Obviously, not all of these perspectives can be true. And in fact, I would argue that all of them miss Jesus’ point and thereby miss an essential truth about worship. Recall the occasion for these words: the Samaritan woman has put to Jesus the issue of where right worship of God should take place—in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim. And in His own infinitely wise way, Jesus thwarts her expectations, and, rather than answering her directly, He makes a much, much larger point. He tells the woman that physical location no longer matters in worshiping the Father; rather, spiritual orientation matters. And in fact, Jesus’ point here goes even further than issues of location; it touches on the very definition of worship. For, up to this point in the history of Israel, worship has been centered around the physical acts of sacrifice and offering, in the physical place of the temple. But Jesus says here that physical places and even physical acts are not the heart of worship: rather, spiritual, unseen realities define true worship.
Without delving any deeper into this text (there are volumes of truth here), think about just this point: the governing realities of true worship are spiritual, not physical. To put this another way: God looks not at the outward appearance, but at the heart. Or, another way: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” Sound familiar? These are all ways of stating the truth that worship is more about unseen realities than about seen realities. The unseen realities—who God is and who we are in light of Him—should be our consuming focus.
Be sure that I’m not saying that physical realities are completely meaningless or that there is some great divide between physical and spiritual—because we humans are both physical and spiritual, so any spiritual realities we experience are mediated through our bodies.
But if our chief focus is on the things we can see or touch or feel—the aesthetics of the place where we meet, the style of music, or even our emotional state, for example—then we will miss altogether the spiritual realities of true worship. The battle we must fight in our worship (and indeed in our entire Christian life) is the battle to fix our eyes on the unseen things.
So the next time we gather—and every time we gather—remind yourself that your physical experience is not the ultimate judge of whether your worship is spiritual and true; rather, the orientation of your heart is what will make your worship genuine.