Nathan Abdy

What Does it Mean to Worship in Spirit and in Truth?

Worship is always an interesting topic in the church. What exactly is worship? How do we worship? What is appropriate in worship? I’m sure many more questions could be asked. I’ve been in more traditional brethren assemblies where worship is more orderly, calm and reflective, and I’ve been in churches were the worship is louder and more animated.

Is one better than the other? Is one lacking some insight into the worship of God that the other desperately needs? That always bugged me. If I’m going to worship God the creator of heaven and earth, I should make sure I do it right.

An important passage

In an effort to answer some of these questions, I turned to one popular passage on worship, John 4:23-24. This passage is in the middle of the story of the woman at the well, when Jesus and his disciples are traveling through Samaria.

They stop at a town to get food and other supplies, and Jesus stays at the well. A woman comes to draw water, and Jesus asks her for a drink. The woman is surprised by his offer considering the hostility between the Samaritans and the Jews.

While talking with her, Jesus offers her “living water.” The woman asks for the water, but Jesus asks her to bring her husband. She says that she does not have a husband, and Jesus reveals that he knows about her past relationships.

Where do we worship?

Realizing that Jesus is a “Prophet” she asks about where worship of God should take place, on her mountain, or in the temple. Jesus says that soon, worship will take place neither at the mountain or temple, and says that the Samaritans worship what they do not know, but the Jews do since salvation comes through them.

Then in verses 23-24 Jesus says “But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. Yes, the Father wants such people to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

A transition from old to new

Jesus views this time of his earthly ministry as a transitional period between the old era of worship at the temple and a coming era of worship. It is in the process of coming, but it is also presently here.

What will worship be in this new era? “The true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” True worshipers here may either be true worshipers as opposed to false worshipers, or rather true worshipers as in genuine. Worship is directed to the Father “in spirit and truth.” We will examine this phrase more closely when it is repeated in vs. 24.

Worship at the core

The reason for this is that the Father seeks people like this to worship Him. In this new coming era, God is stripping worship to its bare bones, to its essentials. It is common to hear that this passage is about external versus internal worship. But all along, in either the old era or new, this is always how God has wanted his worshipers to be (1 Samuel 15:22-23; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:8).

The reference to the fact that “God is spirit” is a little odd. It is here to show that God is not corporeal, but incorporeal. Rather than being confined to one place, a mountain or temple, God is free to be wherever He wishes, and is to be worshiped there.

How should we worship?

Finally, Jesus says, “and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” In the original text, “must worship” comes at the end of the sentence for added emphasis. And then they key phrase “in spirit and truth.” Here, “in spirit and truth” denotes the manner, or way, in which one must worship. How should we worship? In spirit and truth.

But the question remains, what is spirit and what is truth? Some argue that spirit is our human spirit, or soul. But considering the placement of “God is spirit” sandwiched in between both used of “in spirit and truth” it is best to take spirit as referring to the Holy Spirit. Not to mention that there are plenty of other uses of “in spirit” (as in the Holy Spirit) especially regarding baptism (Luke 3:16; John 1:33).

Truth and worship?

And what about truth? In John’s writings, Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), believers are sanctified by the truth (John 17:17; 19), it is something that believers know or it is in them, (John 8:32; 1 John 1:8; 2:4; 3:19; 2 John 1-2), the believer lives by or walks in the truth (John 3:21; 1 John 1:6; 2 John 4; 3 John 3-4).

Considering the close connection between spirit and God, there is also a close connection between truth and God. Kostenberger points out that,

“John attributes the characteristic of truth to each of the three persons of the Godhead. God the Father is “the only true God” [John 17:3]; Jesus is truth incarnate [1:17; 14:6]; and the Holy Spirit is the “Spirit of truth” [14;17; 15:26; 16:13].”

Jesus is truth and the self-revelation of God (Col 1:15). Therefore, truth is the divine reality, and the revelation given to us through Jesus Christ.

Who leads the worship?

That all sounds really nice, but how does one worship in the Holy Spirit and in the revelation of Christ? Well, the first requirement for worshiping in the Spirit is that you must have the Holy Spirit. Secondly, to worship in the Spirit, you must be led or controlled by the Spirit.

While this may be too much of a cliche, I think it captures the idea. The Holy Spirit leads and oversees our worship. If a worship service is like a large orchestra, then the Spirit is the Orchestrator.

What are we to use in worship?

Worshiping in truth, then, also has a controlling influence in our worship. Revelation reveals who God is, and His great and righteous works. Through God’s word, we see that God is worthy of our praise and worship.

Scripture illuminates God to us, and without God’s word and the revelation brought to us by Christ, we have no way of truly knowing God. To return to the illustration of the orchestra, the music we would read is the Word of God.


Whether a time of worship is more calm and reflective, or more upbeat and lively, what really matters is that worship is done under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and by seeing God as He is revealed in His own Word. Those are the essentials for worshiping the living and true God, who send His Son to rescue us from sin and death.

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