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The idea of worshipping the Lord “in spirit and truth” comes from Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in John 4:6-30. In the conversation, the woman was discussing places of worship with Jesus, saying that the Jews worshipped at Jerusalem, while the Samaritans worshipped at Mount Gerizim. Jesus had just revealed that He knew about her many husbands, as well as the fact that the current man she lived with was not her husband. This made her uncomfortable, so she attempted to divert His attention from her personal life to matters of religion. Jesus refused to be distracted from His lesson on true worship and got to the heart of the matter: “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such to worship Him (John 4:23).
The overall lesson about worshipping the Lord in spirit and truth is that worship of God is not to be confined to a single geographical location or necessarily regulated by the temporary provisions of Old Testament law. With the coming of Christ, the separation between Jew and Gentile was no longer relevant, nor was the centrality of the temple in worship. With the coming of Christ, all of God’s children gained equal access to God through Him. Worship became a matter of the heart, not external actions, and directed by truth rather than ceremony.
In Deuteronomy 6:4, Moses sets down for the Israelites how they are to love their God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Our worship of God is directed by our love for Him; as we love, so we worship. Because the idea of “might” in Hebrew indicates totality, Jesus expanded this expression to “mind” and “strength” (Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). To worship God in spirit and truth necessarily involves loving Him with heart, soul, mind and strength.
True worship must be “in spirit,” that is, engaging the whole heart. Unless there’s a real passion for God, there is no worship in spirit. At the same time, worship must be “in truth,” that is, properly informed. Unless we have knowledge of the God we worship, there is no worship in truth. Both are necessary for satisfying and God-honoring worship. Spirit without truth leads to a shallow, overly-emotional experience that could be compared to a high. As soon as the emotion is over, when the fervor cools, so does the worship. Truth without spirit can result in a dry, passionless encounter that can easily lead to a form of joyless legalism. The best combination of both aspects of worship results in a joyous appreciation of God informed by Scripture. The more we know about God, the more we appreciate Him. The more we appreciate, the deeper our worship. The deeper our worship, the more God is glorified.
This melding of spirit and truth in worship is best summed up by Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century American pastor and theologian. He said: “I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections [emotions] of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth.” Edwards recognized that truth and only truth can properly influence the emotions in a way that brings honor to God. The truth of God, being of infinite value, is worthy of infinite passion.