Thoughts From John 4:21-23
The 4th chapter of the Gospel of John where the Apostle John tells the story of Jesus meeting and talking with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in the town of Sychar, has always been a favorite of mine. This particular section of scripture has so many incredible “nuggets” to mine. However, I want to focus your attention primarily upon verses 21-23. The woman asks Jesus an important question regarding the “how” and “where” of worship.
She was interested in what Jesus thought was the correct form of and location for worship, but Jesus gave her so much more. Jesus answered her, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… Yet a time is coming and has now come when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (NIV; emphasis mine).
One of the first things I want us to recognize is that Jesus does not rebuke the woman for wanting to know the truth about authentic worship. In fact He answer’s her question right away. In verse 21 He says, “you will worship neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…” Her primary concern was a focus on where and how worship should happen. In her day there was a social/religious conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans regarding the Samaritan’s eligibility to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. This conflict was so intense that the Samaritans’ had set up their own temple of worship on a near by mountain. So the woman’s question was seeking to find Jesus’ answer to current controversy about the appropriate location for temple worship. Although Jesus answered this question willingly, he was not so much interested in “where?” or “how?” but rather He sought to open her eyes to the deeper truth of worship: the “whom”.
Let’s analyze Jesus’ answer more closely, “… a time is coming when you WILL worship the Father…”. He didn’t say that she might worship. He told her straight out, “ you WILL worship the Father.” This must have been incredibly good news to the Samaritan woman. She was an outcast, a half-breed; and as a woman, looked upon by the pure Jews as one disqualified for authentic worship. Yet here is Jesus. A Jewish Rabbi (she didn’t yet know He was the Savior) telling her that she wasn’t disqualified and that she WILL be allowed to worship the Father. What wonderful news for the Samaritan woman and for us today. Through Jesus we are fully “qualified” (able) to engage in worshiping the Father.
There is an important aspect to the reality of our being “qualified to worship” that I want us to see. We were created to be worshiping beings. Worship is at the core of our nature; completely inescapable. Whether we are consciously thinking about worship or not, in every moment of every day, we are giving something or someone our attention and/or affections and thus, a measure of our worship. It’s how God created us. We could no more not worship than not breathe. It is what and who we are at the innermost places of our being. The real question for each and every person is, “what will we choose to worship?” In his book, “Unceasing Worship”, author Harold Best writes,
“We begin with one fundamental fact about worship: at this very moment, and for as long as this world endures, everybody inhabiting it is bowing down and serving something or someone – an artifact, a person, an institution, an idea, a spirit, or God through Christ. Everyone is being shaped thereby and is growing up toward some measure of fullness, whether of righteousness or of evil.”
This is why the Apostle Paul, in Romans 12:1, exhorts us to “offer (the verb here “to offer” is a continuous, ongoing action verb) your bodies as a living sacrifice … this is your spiritual act of worship.” Paul understood that we were created to worship. He also understood that we must continually (relentlessly) train our devotion, our worship, in the right place. There is a universal restlessness in mankind. You can see it everywhere you look. People, much like the Samaritan woman, are looking to find satisfaction for their deepest longing and in doing so many are giving their affections and devotion (worship) to all sorts of objects (money, power, people, things) to find the answer to the longing in their soul. Saint Augustine recognized this and wrote, “Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it rests in Thee.”
Let’s take another look at verse 24. This is probably one my favorite verses! Jesus continues to answer the woman, “Yet a time is coming and has now come when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks”. Not only did God create us with the longing and need to worship, but He also reveals to us that He has set His heart to seek out “true” (authentic) worshipers. Don’t miss the importance of what Jesus is saying here. God is seeking worshipers. He’s not just willing to accept us as worshipers. He is seeking us out. In other words, God is not primarily interested in just the worship itself. He’s seeking worshipers. He’s after relationship with us.
What an incredible insight Jesus gives us in these verses. He first confirms that we (as represented by the Samaritan woman) can find, and engage, in the very thing that cries from our being; to give ourselves in worship to something greater than ourselves, namely God. He then reveals that we are not left to drift in the journey toward worship but rather that He is seeking us out. He’s not hiding from us or trying to make it difficult to find the true object of our souls. He’s seeking us out!
So far we discovered two foundational truths:
- God created us with the innate drive to worship;
- And that God reveals that He is seeking (desiring to have relationship with) worshipers.
There is one more important aspect to this incredible revelation that we need to look at; in verse 23, Jesus said, “…true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth”. We have already established that the Father is looking for worshipers. However, He’s not seeking just any worshiper. He’s specifically seeking those who worship Him in “spirit and truth.” So the question we must ask ourselves is, “What does it mean to worship in spirit and truth?”
There has been much written on the meaning of the phrase, “spirit and truth.” I will leave the deeper theological discussion and debate to those better who are much better suited than I. However, I believe that when Jesus referrers to the “spirit” in these verses, He is referring to our spirit aided by the Holy Spirit. This idea comes from John 3:6 where Jesus says, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit (God’s Spirit; Holy Spirit) gives birth to spirit.” In other words, when we receive Christ and are born again, it is the Holy Spirit that brings life to our spirit and we become a new creation. Thus, once our spirit (the core of our being) and our soul are made alive in Christ (by the Holy Spirit working in us) we are able to engage in the authentic worship that the Father seeks. It is this Spirit to spirit connection that allows us to be able to worship beyond mere external actions or rituals.
I believe that the “truth “ Jesus mentions here is simply a right way of thinking about and understanding who God is as revealed through His word. In John 17:17, Jesus is praying to the Father for His disciples, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” God and His word are the ultimate truth. They are source of knowledge by which we are to live. In fact one of the specific activities of the Holy Spirit is to teach and remind us of God and His word so that we might have abundant life (John 14:26; John 6:63).
When we step back and look at the meaning of “spirit and truth” in its full view, a clearer picture emerges: an image of the Father who seeks worshipers who will worship Him with the fullness of their whole hearts; while simultaneously embracing a deep commitment to His word and right thinking about Him. This is what it means to worship in spirit and truth. For authentic worship to take place, there must be both. Without the heart we run the risk of falling victim to what God warned us about in Isaiah 29:13 when He said, “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” Yet without deeply rooted right thinking guided by the Holy Spirit, we are left with frenzied emotionalism anchored in shallow soil; easily blown around by the winds of fads and/or heresy and in danger of going off course.
Let’s recap what we’ve discovered while unpacking our initial text, John 4: 21-23. First, there is an innate and deeply rooted desire within each of us to worship and further, this core desire of ours was placed there by God’s design. Second, God recognizes our desire to worship Him and moves toward us by seeking out worshipers who are not blindly focused on rituals or emotionalism but who have been made alive in their spirits by God’s Spirit and who have opened their minds to embrace His word and truth.
The final piece of this incredible discovery in John chapter 4 is that these truths are held together in Jesus and His work on the cross. Notice in verse 21 when Jesus first answers the Samaritan woman. He says, “… a time is coming…”, then in verse 23, Jesus says, “… a time is coming and has now come…”. Jesus was pointing the woman toward the truth that through himself, these truths have now come together. It is through the work of the Cross that our spirits can be made alive by His Spirit. It is through the work of the Cross that the Holy Spirit is released to those who believe and can now work in their lives to guide them in all truth. It is through Jesus and the work of the Cross that we are able to fully become the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.
So here’s the beautiful truth of God’s heart for us as shown in John 4:21-23:
- He created us with an innate drive and purpose to worship;
- He sent His Son to provide the way for us to be able to enter into authentic worship (in spirit and truth) of Him;
- He repeatedly shows us in the scriptures, and specifically through the cross, that His heart is seeking those who authentically worship and seek Him.
God created us with the capacity to be the very thing that He seeks: worshipers who will worship Him authentically in spirit and in truth. When you stop and meditate on this fact, its depth and reality will free you. It will encourage you, and more importantly, it will align your heart, attention and affections to the One who created You for relationship with Himself.
Brent Helming has been involved in Pastoral and Worship Ministry for over 20 years. He has traveled both nationally and internationally leading worship and teaching at Churches and conferences. He has written numerous worship songs such as “Your Beloved”, Jesus Lead On”, “Rock of My Salvation” and “God of All Splendor”, along with an interactive work book titled “Hot Tips for Worship Leaders”.