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 you… These 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. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 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 truth. 19 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.