Previously we examined the definition of “worship,” and delineated between two forms of worship: proskuneo, direct worship, the rendering of obeisance to and prostration towards, and latreia, indirect worship, the spiritual service rendered to fellow humans and to God. From this we could see that worship is not confined to the assembly, for anything we do in service to God is worship proper: in fact, very little is said regarding “worship” in the “assembly,” and the purpose of the assembly is primarily the encouragement and edification of the brethren, with direct worship also taking place. Having seen these things, let us now approach one of the focal passages on worship in the New Testament, John 4:19-24:
The woman saith unto him, “Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”
Jesus saith unto her, “Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall ye worship the Father. Ye worship that which ye know not: we worship that which we know; for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth: for such doth the Father seek to be his worshippers. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
John 4:24 is often taken out of its context and used to demonstrate the need to engage in worship to God in the assembly with both soul and mind according to the determination of God from the Scriptures. While the passage certainly supports this argument derived from it, are we to accept that such is the sum total of Jesus’ message to the Samaritan woman and to us? Let us examine this passage further along with the rest of the New Testament to see.
Before we begin, let us examine the context of the passage, and particularly the nature of the interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman and the question she asks.
We first learn of the Samaritans in 2 Kings 17:22-41, where the Kings author demonstrates that the Samaritans were the Mesopotamian peoples whom the Assyrians settled in the land of Israel when they exiled the ten tribes. At first, they did not recognize the LORD, but once the LORD established His presence by sending lions through the people, they requested to know more about the God of the land, and the Assyrians sent a priest of Israel. These people, according to the Kings account, kept worshiping their other gods but added the worship of Yahweh. In Ezra 4:1-10, we see that the Samaritans wanted a hand in helping to build the Temple in Jerusalem, and when rebuffed, did all that was in their power to halt the project.
More on the Samaritans can be gained from Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. In book 11, chapter 8, Josephus records that the Samaritans gained approval from Alexander the Great to build a temple on Mount Gerizim; in book 13 and chapter 9, after the Jewish leader John Hyrcanus conquered the area 200 years later, Josephus records that the temple was not being used.
The Samaritans exist until this day; they only accept the first five books of the Old Testament as authoritative, and believe that Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem/Mt. Zion, is the right place to worship God. They sacrifice animals on Mt. Gerizim to this day.
Having seen such things, we can understand why the Samaritan woman was surprised that Jesus, as a Jew, would give the time of day to her, a Samaritan (John 4:9), and why she would ask Him regarding where God was to be worshiped. It is also important to note that Jesus does affirm that salvation comes from the Jews, and that the Jews worship what they know while the Samaritans worship in ignorance (John 4:22), a strong affirmation of the worship in Jerusalem.
If Jesus had just responded with verse 22, there would be little else to talk about. Jesus’ response, however, looks toward the future and speaks in transcendental terms, and we should certainly look into such matters.
Jesus begins by effectively rendering the question of the Samaritan woman moot: the days are coming when God will not be worshiped in either Jerusalem or on Gerizim. This presents a strong contrast to what has existed so far in the Jewish covenant, where ritual and location were strongly emphasized.
Jesus then goes on to establish that God is spirit, that God seeks those who would worship Him in spirit and in truth, and this will be coming and is actually present now. The timeframe is manifestly a reference to Jesus and His covenant, since the language is similar to that used of the Kingdom in Luke 17:20-21. The passage also demonstrates that God does desire us to worship Him, and to be the ones doing so “in spirit and in truth.” But what, precisely, does this mean?
The standard answer, of course, is that we are to have our spirit engaged in our assembly worship and that our assembly worship is to be done according to the standard of God. This is all well, good, and true, but you could say that just as easily about the old covenant (cf. Isaiah 1:10-21, Hosea 6:4-7). What is Jesus’ larger point?
When we consider passages that speak of worshiping God in spirit, we turn to Romans 12:1:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service.
The word “service” here is the Greek latreia, that indirect worship to God that we are to continually offer to Him. When we consider this evidence, and consider how worship is never explicitly associated with the assembly, and that the thrust of the assembly is encouragement and edification of the saints, the picture begins to get clearer:
Jesus is affirming in John 4:20-24 that in the new covenant, worship will not be relegated to a building and the offering of animals and other rote rituals, but will be represented by people serving God according to His standard. As God is a spirit, and not physical (in an earthly sense), so the worship God desires is according to the spirit, and not according to the physical. When we are the living and holy sacrifice God wants us to be, we are worshiping God in spirit and in truth, and we can be the people God has earnestly sought.
Everything said here certainly applies also to how we should compose ourselves in the assembly; after all, all spiritual acts done in the assembly are worship, as we have seen previously. In fact, the distinction made in the previous article is somewhat tempered by the fact that Jesus refers to this worship in John 4 with proskuneo. So, just as proskuneo worship is also latreia worship, since direct worship is spiritual service, and under the new covenant, our latreia–spiritual service– is called proskuneo. When we act in service to God according to His standard, we humble ourselves and render obeisance to Him, and can be the people whom He has sought.
Perhaps we need to give consideration to what the Scriptures say about our worship as Christians and change our perspective on what we view as worship versus what we do not consider as worship, and change our attitudes and vocabulary accordingly. Let us seek to be the people whom God has sought, worshiping Him in spirit and in truth at all times.