23 “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. 24 “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
A main emphasis in worship is that we worship God in Spirit and in truth. What does it mean to worship God “in Spirit” (ἐν πνεύματι)? This post will examine this phrase. First we will discuss the preposition “in” drawing the conclusion that is used in the sociative sense as opposed to the locative sense. Secondly, in all the modern versions the word “spirit” is left un-capitalized, I will challenge that interpretive decision and make the case that it should be capitalized.
The preposition “in” (ἐν)
It may seem a small and insignificant word, but in fact determining the meaning and emphasis of this preposition is critical. Contrary to silly political evasion (remember Bill Clinton’s evasiveness concerning the word “is”), “in” can have different nuance of meaning. For instance, one way to understand “in” has to do with location: “she is in the kitchen.” But another way to understand “in” is call the sociative use: “she is in trouble.” It is not speaking of location rather she is “associated” with trouble.
Now the Greek word “ἐν” is not an exact equivalent to the English word “in” which sometimes causes the variations we see in the English translations. This is one of the challenges with the related phrase to ours here in John 4:23, like the phrase “baptism in the Spirit” in John 1:33. “ἐν” can mean: in, within, by, by means of, with, on, among, when. The meaning is determined by many contextual considerations. So determining what Jesus means by worshiping the Father “in spirit/Spirit” is not as simple as it may first seem. But we all make some conclusion upon reading the phrase.
Maximilian Zerwick in his helpful (highly technical – you won’t find this book at Berean) book Biblical Greek gives this explanation:
“The preposition “ἐν”, thanks in part at least to the influence of Semitic be, increases its scope to a very great extent. In Biblical usage the value of “ἐν” seems to be very ill defined, and often to be very far indeed from the local sense. Thus where Mk 5:2 speaks of a man ἐν πνεύματι ἀκαθάρτῳ (with an unclean spirit) one might feel that it would be more logical to say the spirit was in the man rather than the man in the spirit, and one might explain the preposition as meaning that man was in the power of the spirit. Later however, in the same chapter (5:25), such an explanation will not avail, for the woman with the flux of blood is said to have been ἐν ῥύσει αἵματος (with a flow of blood).
“The question has a certain importance when one wishes to understand what Paul means by saying sometimes that we are in Christ, or in the Spirit, and at other times that Christ, or the Spirit, is in us. Indeed the distinction in Paul’s mind between the two notions seems to be so small, not to say non-existent, that he explains and as it were defines the one by the other; Rom 8:9: “you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God dwells in you”. So he is “in the Spirit”, in whom the Spirit is, or as the apostle goes on to say, who “has the Spirit”: “but if anyone have not the Spirit of Christ, the same is not of Him”. In John also the dwelling of God (Christ) are two correlative and inseparable aspects of the same reality, cf 1 John 4:13, 15, 16; John 6:56; 15:4f; in John 8:44 it is said of Satan that he is not in the truth because the truth is not in him. Thus “ἐν” (not without Semitic influence) is practically reduced to the expression of a general notion of association or accompaniment, which would be rendered in English by “with”: a man with an unclean spirit, a woman with an influx of blood.”
John 4 is the story of the Samaritan woman by the well. There was a turf war that went on between the Samaritans and the Jews. Jews worshiped at the temple in Jerusalem; Samaritans worshiped at Mt. Gerazim (although their temple at this time was in ruins). She asks Jesus for a location (we worship in this mountain, Jews worship in Jerusalem) and Jesus answers with:
“Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither ἐν this mountain nor ἐν Jerusalem will you worship the Father…but an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father ἐν spirit and truth.”
Our options are to take the phrase to mean “in the location of the spirit/Spirit” or “in association with the spirit/Spirit.” To take in the locative sense would require us to identify the where of the spirit/Spirit. So it could refer to the spirit of man, that inner place of man where the spirit is located. Or it could be referring to a location where believers gather and where two or three are gathered, that being characterized in Matthews gospel as a “place” where Jesus is present. Those views are both possible, and even accurate, but is that what Jesus is talking about? Is he saying that as opposed to Jerusalem or Gerazim, the “new” worship will take place in churches? or internally as opposed to corporately? I imagine that is possible, but as we shall see, it isn’t the strongest view. The context of chapter 4 and the gospel of John draws a more powerful conclusion that is connected to the temple (2:13ff, 4:20ff, 14:23).
The sociative sense of the word “in” would give the sense that Jesus is saying that true worshipers worship in association with the Spirit. Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman are both told that the key element in their encounter with Jesus has to do with the Spirit and his life giving operation. In the Nicodemus encounter, Jesus tells him that he must be born from above and equates that activity with the operation of the Spirit. He uses the metaphor of wind to dramatically describe the activity of the Spirit. In the story of the Samaritan woman Jesus speaks of the gift of God which he describes as the water of life, later identified with the operation of the Spirit (7:38).
It is safe to say that true worshipers are those who have been born from above and those who have drunk of the living water. They are true worshipers as a result of their “spiritual” transformation and it is in this sphere that they worship. They agree with the Spirit’s testimony regarding the truth who is Jesus as they are now believing. This is the characteristic of the new worship and worshipers, it is the direct result of regeneration; the new creation.
Jesus is contrasting the worship of the Jews and Samaritans in a certain location (Jerusalem and Gerazim) with the true worship which is not related to location but is associated with the Spirit. It is not worship in a particular place but with a particular person, the person of the Holy Spirit. The type of worship is being emphasized, not the location of the activity of worship. This doesn’t exclude the activity of worship connected with a location, but emphasizes the nature of the future true worship behavior – as it is going to be a global activity. The Great Commission moves the worshiper outside the boundaries of Israel and hence moves beyond location.
“Spirit” or “spirit”
Capitalization in the Bible is not always a straightforward translation issue. Since the Greek New Testament, the manuscripts, don’t have capitalization cues for the translator, the translator must designate where capitals should be used. This passage is one of the debatable “to capitalize or not to capitalize” passages. We don’t have access to the discussion that surrounded the decision to leave “spirit” in John 4:23 & 24 lower case on the part of the translation committees. I argue that it should, in fact, be capitalized, that is, as a reference to the Holy Spirit.
If you leave the translation “spirit,” it can be taken in at least two different ways.
First, that Jesus is saying that instead of worship happening in a physical place in the future, it will take place in the spirit of the true worshiper; maybe akin to the modern claim of being able to worship anywhere; therefore ,the “I don’t need to go to church” mentality. True worship takes place in the realm of my spirit; the essence of worship is, therefore, personal rather than corporate. Since my spirit is localized, the nature of worship is inward and independent.
This view is rejected. Jesus is not affirming a personal form of worship here. He is not interested in establishing individual temples compartmentalized from a larger body. He is not saying that Jerusalem/Gerazim are rejected in favor of the spirit of man.
Second, that Jesus is saying that worship is a spiritual activity and not a physical activity. We worship in spirit then has the sense that worship is a spiritual activity. The important part being that worship is spiritual and that the physical is peripheral. It is the heart of worship that really matters, not simply the physical location, activity or posture.
This view is rejected as well. It leads to an unnatural dissection between the physical and the spiritual. True worship is not worship that simply has to do with my spiritual side; we reject any gnostic notion that the spirit is good and the material or physical is evil. Jesus is not espousing a purely spiritual and non-physical expression of worship.
A third, mid-stream addition: I just heard a pastor use this phrase: “my parents are here in spirit”. These kind of odd statements have a life that is not founded in the Scriptures or in reality. I think what he meant is that they would be here if they could, but since they can’t, they would be supportive. But not everyone dissects the statement that way; some believe that there is some actual spiritual presence. This kind of language was probably not in mind here.
Though there may be truth in these positions, I don’t see that as the thrust of Jesus’ teaching here or elsewhere, and I see no reason to not capitalize the word Spirit here as it is usually done elsewhere in the Bible. Of the 51 times this phrase occurs in the Bible it refers to the Holy Spirit. I don’t see a compelling reason to remove the divine dynamic from this verse, in fact the passage almost demands it.
John has a strong link between the Spirit and truth. He is called the Spirit of truth (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; I John 5:6). In John 14 there is a strong linkage to the Trinity, with Jesus also being identified as the truth. In this passage, maintaining the capitalization emphasizes that the nature of worship is trinitarian in nature, in keeping with the message of John: Jesus leads us to the Father and the Spirit leads us to Christ (John 14:26). In John 14:17 the Holy Spirit “abides with you and will be in you (could also be rendered “abides in you and will be in you).
The nature of worship is that it is performed by “true worshipers,” and true worshipers worship in/with the Spirit. It is the Spirit who makes the worshiper “true” and the Spirit who guides the worshiper. It is the Spirit whose presence makes known the truth of the Father and the Son. It is through His presence that we are able to experience the presence of God. It is through His presence that we are quickened and made alive to God. Without the Spirit, the spirit is incapable of worship.
Grammatically, if we take the “ἐν” in what is called the sociative sense (association) as opposed to the locative sense (location), it makes more sense to associate the true worshiper with the Holy Spirit in this context. So when we combine the two parts ἐν πνεύματι, it makes more sense to capitalize “Spirit.” The Trinity is present and the believer is invited into the relational wheel in the context of worship: The Father is the object of worship; the Son is the truth component who reveals the Father to us in word and deed and sacrifice; The Spirit is the activator who reveals the truth to the believer and enables him to approach the Father and the Son. The “true worshiper” finds his place in the dynamic mix of Father, Son and Holy Spirit fulfilling the prayer of Jesus: “That they may all be one; even as You, Father are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.”
Maybe the most dramatic reason to take this passage as referring to the Holy Spirit is it’s connection to Ephesians 5:18: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit,” where “with the Spirit” here is represented by the same Greek phrase as we find in John, ἐν πνεύματι. Jesus and Paul are talking about the same phenomenon. When you are filled with the Spirit you can worship in/with the Spirit, the result being an expression of worship as summed up by Paul:
speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord;
20 always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father;
21 and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. (Eph 5:19-21)
The Character of the Worshiper & Worship Leader
Seeing this strong association with the Holy Spirit and true worship leads us to ask how it is that we practice this “worship in Spirit.” The linking together of character and worshiper in this paradigm is inseparable. Since it is an association and not simply an activity, and since it is an activity linked with the person of the Spirit as opposed to a place the transformational and character issues are prominent. Worship is not simply an activity, it is part of my new nature in Christ. Worship becomes a work of the Spirit both individually and corporately. Worship becomes a work of the Spirit both in body and soul. Worship becomes a part of my waking and sleeping not simply my segmented and scheduled behavior.
Having said that, the fruit of the Spirit seems to be the best place to glean the directives with regard to the character of the Worship leader. If worship is a by-product of association with the Holy Spirit, the fruit will also be a by product of this association. The symbiotic nature of fruit and worship stems from the centrality of the Spirit in the life of the true worshiper.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23).