Rooted in Christ

In Spirit and (?) Truth

True worshipers and true worship

“God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24, NKJV)

A textual variant has snuck in to the canon of Scripture without manuscript support. It’s not a variant we find in our more literal English translations. Where we do find it is in conversation. We hear it from the pulpit, the platform, and in prayer. It is propagated not in the scriptorium but by oral tradition.

What is the variant in question? It’s found in the account of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus is challenging her redemptive-historical understanding of worship. The woman declares: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship” (John 4:20). Jesus speaks of an hour when worship of the Father will be neither on that mountain nor in Jerusalem. His bottom line is this: “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).

In the Greek text one preposition governs spirit and truth. It is not in spirit and in truth. It is in spirit and truth. That suggests that spirit and truth are inseparable for the worship of God and characteristic of worship in the climax of redemptive history. True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.

What might it mean to worship in spirit and truth? Is Jesus talking about sincere worship, worship from the heart and not just from the lips? Is He referring to worship that is not restricted to a particular place? Is He saying that we can’t worship in our own power or in our own way but that our worship must conform to the contours of God’s maturing revelation?

Perhaps all these aspects are represented in the phrase “in spirit and truth,” but the expression gains its fullest impact from the emphasis of John’s Gospel. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the Word that became flesh, the message of redemption incarnate. As the Messiah to come, He is the answer to Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” John’s entire Gospel holds evidentiary value, bearing witness to Jesus as the Christ of God, the given Son to be embraced by faith, the truth to be believed and believed upon (John 20:31).

But how is faith generated? How are the blessings of Christ as the truth received? Only by God Himself (John 1:12-13), in our being born again of the Spirit (John 3:5-8). The Spirit brings Christ to us. He unites us to the given Son and living Lord that we might have life, spiritual ability, and a heart inclined to God.

In His upper room discourse Jesus makes it clear that branches have life only by residing and abiding in Him as the true vine (John 15). Jesus embeds that image of the vine and the branches within teaching on the Holy Spirit. Jesus calls Him the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). This Spirit dwells in believers and distinguishes them from the world.

The blessings of salvation and position as true worshipers are bound up in Christ and brought to us by the Spirit of the risen Christ, the Spirit of truth. The Spirit unites us to Christ in our effectual calling and enables our worship along with all that means.

That’s why spirit and truth cannot be separated, why they are governed by a single preposition. Perhaps it would be helpful not only to respect the single preposition, “in spirit and truth,” but also to acknowledge the objects of the preposition by upper case, “in Spirit and Truth,” recognizing it is through the Spirit of truth, sent by the risen and reigning Christ, that the Father seeks us and enables us to be worshipers.

Digging Deeper

  1. What difference does it make whether spirit and truth are governed by one preposition or two?
  2. What do spirit and truth say about how the Father sought us? What do they say about the nature of our worship?     

Great and marvelous are Your works, Lord God Almighty! Just and true are Your ways, O King of the saints! Who shall not fear You, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy. For all nations shall come and worship before You. I thank You for seeking me and enfolding me into the great congregation. 

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Scripture quotations marked NKJV are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, copyright ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved. Those marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Stan Gale

Stanley D. Gale (MDiv Westminster, DMin Covenant) has pastored churches in Maryland and Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He is the author of several books, including A Vine-Ripened Life: Spiritual Fruitfulness through Abiding in Christ and The Christian’s Creed: Embracing the Apostolic Faith. He has been married to his wife, Linda, since 1975. They have four children and nine grandchildren. He lives in West Chester, Pa.