What is “Truth” According to the Apostle John?

By Garrett Best

What does it mean to “worship in Spirit and truth”? When I would read passages that discussed “truth” in the past, I imagined (and was taught) that “truth” included ALL truth. If some other religious group got one “truth” wrong, they had moved outside the boundaries of orthodox “truth” or sound doctrine.

To illustrate what I mean, I recently taught a Sunday morning class at the congregation in which I minister on John 4:23-24. I asked the class what they had been taught by preachers that John 4:23-24 (“worship in Spirit and truth”) was referring to. They said they had been taught that “Spirit” referred to the “attitude” or “heart” that we should have in worship. “Truth” refers to worshiping according to the pattern established in the New Testament. The majority of my class had someone teach them in the past that “worship in truth” was a way of referring to the five acts of worship (singing, prayer, preaching, giving, Lord’s Supper). Thus, the passage teaches that if someone worships in a way not approved by the New Testament, they are false worshipers according to John 4:23-24. I pointed out to my class how curious of an interpretation that is given the fact that when Jesus first uttered the words, there was no Christian church (i.e. Acts 2 hasn’t happened yet). To make that interpretation work, you would be forced to argue that in this passage Jesus was speaking proleptically or that the text took on a secondary meaning after the outpouring of the Spirit in Jerusalem. It couldn’t have meant that when Jesus said it.

Truth is an important theme for John in the four pieces of literature we have from him from the first century. The noun form of “truth” (aletheia) occurs 25 times in the Gospel of John, 9 times in 1 John, 5 times in 2 John, and 6 times in 3 John. The first introduction to the term in the Gospel of John occurs in the prologue (1:14, 17). The Word which came and dwelt among us is “full of grace and truth” and “grace and truth” came through Jesus Christ. In the first two occurrences of the term, “truth” is related to Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word.

In the gospel of John, Jesus says that his words are “true” at least seven times (i.e. 8:13-14, 26, 31-32). In John 5:33, Jesus says that John the Baptist “bore witness to the truth.” John the Baptist came bearing witness to the Messiah who would come after him- Jesus. In the most explicit statement in the Gospel, Jesus himself says in 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”. In the Gospel of John, the “truth” is Jesus Christ.

There are three passages that help us understand what John 4:23-24 means because both terms “Spirit” and “truth” are used in a single phrase. In John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13, the Paraclete is referred to as the “Spirit of truth”. Why is the Spirit modified with “of truth”? I would submit that it is because of the Spirit’s role in testifying about Jesus and continuing his ministry. In 14:17, Jesus said he would ask the Father for the Helper to be sent. In 15:26, the Spirit will “bear witness about” Jesus. In 16:13, the Spirit will remind the disciples of the words of Jesus and will glorify Jesus. The reason he is the Spirit of truth is because the Spirit bears witness to Jesus, the truth.

How does this inform the way we read and apply John 4:23-24 “worship in Spirit and truth”? In John 2:19-22, the Jews had taken issue with Jesus’ statement that he would “destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days.” John adds an explanatory note that Jesus “was speaking about the temple of his body.” What was the Temple for the Jews? It was the locus of worship and Jewish life. It was the place that atonement for sins was made. When Jesus was asked by a Samaritan woman which mountain she should be worshiping on, Jesus responded in essence, “worship is no longer tied to a particular place, but it is tied to a particular person.” Jesus is the truth, and the Spirit of truth bears witness about the truth, Jesus. So, in the context of John’s own Gospel, worship “in Spirit and truth” is worship in Jesus Christ. True worshipers worship in Christ, the truth, empowered by the Spirit of truth.

Before we move on to John’s three letters, there’s one more important concept to review in John’s Gospel. The idea of following “truth” is also linked with keeping the “commandments”.  In John 14:15 Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Which commandments? In the context, only one command has been given. “A new commandment I give to you that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). Again, in 15:9-14, Jesus says:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command youThese things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:9-14, 17)

It is clear that “keeping the commandments” for John refers to keeping the “new commandment” to love one another. The “new” part of the commandment is that love is now defined by how Jesus loves (“even as I have loved you”).

With this knowledge, let’s move to 1,2,3 John.

In 1 John 2:3-6,

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.

Here, John says that we know we are of the truth if we keep his commandments. Immediately following, in verses 7-9, John makes it clear what “commandments” he is referring to. He is referring to the same new commandment that was given in John 13:34, that disciples are to love one another. This sounds very similar to John 13-15. Thus, “truth” for John means loving people as Jesus loved people.

Once more, 1 John 3:18-24,

Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.23 And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.

How much more explicit can he be? For John, “keeping his commandments” refers to “believing in the name of his Son Jesus” and “loving one another”. If we do these two things, “we shall know that we are of the truth.” You may be tempted to add a few more things to the list of what it means to be in “truth”, but that would be adding more things to the list than John intended when he wrote.

2 John only has 13 verses and the first 4 verses have the word “truth” 5 times. He and all the others “who know the truth” write to the elect lady “whom I love in truth”. John rejoices that some of her “children are walking in the truth, just as we were commanded by the Father” (2 John 4). ” And now I ask you, dear lady—not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning—that we love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it.” (2 John 1:5-6) I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, “keeping the commandments” is loving one another.

3 John only has 15 verses and mentions “truth” 6 times. John writes to Gaius whom he “loved in truth”. He says,  “For I rejoiced greatly when the brothers came and testified to your truth, as indeed you are walking in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” (3 John 1:3-4) John was overjoyed they were walking in truth. It is apparent in what follows that they were “walking in truth” by supporting the traveling evangelists who were going around spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. In other words, they were in walking in truth because they were participating in preaching Jesus Christ and loving people as Jesus loved. This is why Diotrephes was such a dangerous fellow, a false teacher. He did not abide in the “truth”. He did not follow the new commandment to love as Jesus loved.

I have often heard John 4:23-24, 14:15, 15:14; 2 John 9-11 used in ways that John did not intend them to be used. The one who is “in the truth” according to John is the one who “keeps his commandments”. His commandments are to believe in Jesus Christ and love people the way Jesus loved them. If you do not love one another, you are not of the truth. Jesus is the truth and the one who keeps his commandments to love one another is walking in truth.

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9 comments

  1. There must be more to truth than just those two commandments to believe and love. When I look at John 4:22, it seems that sound doctrine is still an ingredient.

    The Samaritan’s question is based on a centuries-old debate between them and the Jews. Is the proper mountain of worship in Jerusalem as the Jews say or is it Mount Gerizim as the Samaritans say? (Their manuscripts of the Pentateuch were different in this regard.)

    In verse 22, Jesus points out that the Samaritans worship incorrectly, not because of their lack of love, but because salvation (Jesus Christ) would come from the Jews and not from the Samaritan people or their understanding. Jesus came to save all people, but His statement in verse 22 seems to hold more weight than just believing in Jesus and loving one another.

    1. I don’t understand the disagreement. I never claimed that the Samaritans didn’t worship in “truth” because of their lack of love. Jesus says that “salvation comes from the Jews” because he was a Jew. Salvation came through him. So, again, he’s pointing to himself.

      John has a temple replacement motif that begins back in chapter 2. Jesus body has replaced the Jewish Temple. The locus of worship is now in the person Jesus, not the Temple building. And, since Jesus is the “truth” (14:6), worship “in truth” is worship in Jesus Christ. The Gospel develops this theme throughout.

      Even if you believe that “truth” in John 4:23-24 means more than I have laid out here, you still cannot get the typical explanation made by many that Spirit refers to heart/attitude and truth refers to the acts of worship. Jesus couldn’t have meant that originally.

      I’ll point you back toward the statement in the original article: “When Jesus was asked by a Samaritan woman which mountain she should be worshiping on, Jesus responded in essence, “worship is no longer tied to a particular place, but it is tied to a particular person.” Jesus is the truth, and the Spirit of truth bears witness about the truth, Jesus. So, in the context of John’s own Gospel, worship “in Spirit and truth” is worship in Jesus Christ. True worshipers worship in Christ, the truth, empowered by the Spirit of truth.” Nothing in the original post on John 4:23-24 about a lack of love. Although John means that in other places, he hasn’t gotten there yet in his own Gospel. That doesn’t come until John 13-15. He’s still laying out the Temple replacement motif.

  2. Let me rephrase my comment. What do you think Jesus meant in John 4:22 regarding the worship of the Samaritans?

    You have good comments about worshiping in “spirit.” From my studies also, I do not interpret it as an emotion. Based on the next verse (25) and how God is Spirit, I interpret Jesus’ meaning that worship is not merely a physical act but is primarily and most importantly a spiritual act. The externals do not matter as much as the internals, our spirit. In other words, Jesus wants us to worship with our Spirit. This is different from strictly worshiping from perfectly sound doctrine–as your article points out very well. I believe the teaching that is done on the “five acts of worship” has done more harm than good.

    There really no disagreement I have. But I am a bit confused. If Jesus said “truth” to mean love for others, why didn’t Jesus say “worship in spirit and love”? I love the connection you made. But I still believe Jesus’ use of “truth” must have some degree of doctrine, correct?

    1. Let me address Spirit part first. Bible translators have to make a choice whether to capitalize “Spirit” or not. Here it is capitalized and I think with good reason. I believe that the worship being discussed has to do with God’s Holy Spirit, not our “spirit”. So, I’m not sure that I would agree that “Spirit” has any reference to our spirits or the internals. I think this is a Trinitarian passage. True worshippers worship the Father through the Son by the power of the Spirit.

      In terms of John 4:21-24, notice what Jesus is saying. In v. 21, he tells her that there will come a time when neither Mt. Gerizim or Mt. Zion will be the place of worship. And, in v. 22, “salvation is from the Jews” is meant to point to the fact that salvation is from Jesus who is a Jew. So, what Jesus is saying in context is, “Worship is not at a particular place, but is not centered in a specific person.” This is part of the Temple replacement motif that began back in chapter 1. Jesus has come and “tabernacled” among us. Then, in chapter, 2, his body is the Temple. Jesus replaces the Temple and worship is now in Christ, not “in Jerusalem” or on “Mt. Gerizim”. That seems to me to be what he’s saying.

      The “truth” is Jesus himself. Thus, walking in “truth” or living in the “truth” for John would be living like Jesus and following the commands of Jesus, the truth. John hones in on one command of Jesus heavily in his writings- Jesus command to love one another. I never said in the original article that John 4:23-24 means “worship in Spirit and love”. Truth in John is Jesus and what Jesus taught and commanded. I would agree with you that it “must have some degree of doctrine” if we mean the same thing that I think John meant- the doctrine of Christ.

  3. OK. When I read John 4:24, I don’t read, “God is the Holy Spirit.” I read, “God is spiritual, that is, ethereal and not physical.” In my translation of choices (HCSB), spirit is lower case. Do you think Spirit should be capitalized and that it refers to the Holy Spirit?

    Yes, we agree that “salvation is the from the Jews” means the Christ is from the Jews. Places do not matter. The phrase I am curious about is “You Samaritans worship what you do not know.” What did Jesus mean here? Was there some sort of doctrine that the Samaritans did not have that cause their worship to be worthless?

    Coolness. We are in full agreement about the meaning of Truth and what the Truth came to teach.

    1. John has already used the word “pneuma” (Spirit) in two different senses in the same passage. Look at John 3:5-8. Do you believe there that Spirit is Holy Spirit? Then, he goes on to say “The wind blows.” I don’t know if you know Greek or not, but “wind” there is the same word as Spirit in “born of water and Spirit.” John can use the word “pneuma” in the matter of 1-3 verses in a different sense. I think you have accurately defined what it means that “God is spirit”, but that is not to say that we should read that meaning back upon previous verses. To apply that same logic to chapter 3 would mean to say “be born of water and wind.” Clearly they mean different things here even though they are in the same context.

      I think Jesus is saying that the Samaritans are not in line with God’s plans and ordinances. They had a different Pentateuch. They had not received God’s prophets. They were outside of the stream of God’s revelation. Remember what Jesus said in John 5:39-40. He said that the Scriptures bore witness to him. I believe Jesus is saying that the Samaritans had gotten some things wrong, but if they had rightfully acknowledged God’s revelation, they would know that the Scriptures point to Jesus. Again, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus… haha

      1. What do you think it means? And, what do you think it proves? Do you think this one use of “truth” ought to impact the way we read the other 35+ occurrences of “truth”?

        I don’t know how else to say it… The Samaritans were not God’s chosen people, the Jews. Salvation came through the Jews because the Messiah came through the Jews. The Scriptures had always pointed to Christ (John 5:39-40). The prophets pointed to Christ (i.e. Isaiah). The Samaritans did not receive God’s prophets. This is why the woman asks these questions in the first place because she supposed him to be a prophet. Had the Samaritans been privy to God’s revelation through the Scriptures and prophets, they would have known about Jesus. Had they of known about Jesus, they would be able to worship what they know rather than what they don’t know. Again, it all comes back to Jesus as does every other use of the 35+ uses in John. I think that is the best reading contextually. I’m not sure how else to say it.

  4. I’m all for looking at patterns and how words are used. I’m just looking at this context. I just don’t know why the Samaritans were different from the Jews. The Pharisees (especially), Sadducees, etc. had the Scriptures and all the prophecies about Jesus, but they did not worship Him when He came. Why are the Samaritans different?

    The only answer I can come up with is that the truth of doctrine does matter to some degree when it comes to worship. When Jesus told her that Samaritans do not worship God, I believe He is pointing out that Gerizim was the wrong mountain and Jerusalem was the correct mountain. I think Jesus is saying this because of her question. I also believe Jesus is talking about their errors in OT worship. Jesus also makes the point that NT worship isn’t based on such meticulous doctrines.

    I guess I came around to the same thing you are saying. I’m sorry, I thought you were equating truth with Jesus’ commands to love. Perhaps this is correct: Jesus’ statement is about OT worship which did require detailed doctrines. But now, worship is about a Person. 🙂

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