Jesus told the woman at the well tht the time had now come when true worshippers would "worship the Father in spirit and in truth" (Jno. 4;24).
This has long been a favorite passage among us preachers because it lends itself so well to sermon outlines. We can say this passage teaches us the proper object of worship (the Father), the proper attitude of worship (in spirit), and the proper standard of worship (in truth), thus making a good three-point sermon outline for next Sunday.
Now I have no doubt concerning the essential truthfulness of such lessons, but I wonder if that was really the point Jesus was trying to get across to the woman of Samaria. Frankly, I have come to doubt it. As I look at the context of John 4, it seems to me that Jesus was saying that this worship that was described as "in spirit and in truth" was to be some new type of worship. Yet there is nothing new at all about worshiping God with the right attitude and according to the standard of truth revealed in His Word. The Israelites were constantly being chastised by the prophets of the Old Testament for their failure to worship God "in spirit and in truth" (Isa. 1:10-15; Amos 5:21-24; Mal. 1:6-14).
In fact, the very point that Jesus is alleged to be making was made all the way back in Jos. 24:14 when Joshua admonished the Israelites to "fear the Lord, and serve Him in sincerity and truth." God has always expected men to worship Him with the right attitude, and according to the standard of truth. It doesn't seem sensible to have Jesus saying in John 4 that the time for such worship had just now arrived.
Moreover, a continued examination of the context of John 4 seems to indicate rather clearly that the coming of this new "worship in spirit and truth" has something to do with the transition from the old to the new covenant. It was the Samaritan woman's question about worshiping in Jerusalem or Samaria that prompted Jesus' remark. And the coming of this new type of worship is linked directly by Jesus to the cessation of worship in Jerusalem (Jno. 4:21).
What then is there about the worship that we offer under the new covenant which, when compared with the worship offered under the old covenant, can be characterized as "in spirit and in truth?" I believe that the key to the answering of this question is in vs. 24. Jesus says that "God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth." Now Jesus is not just making an assertion here. He is making an argument. He is implying that it is because of God's nature as a spiritual being that our worship must be in spirit and truth. Now if "in spirit and in truth" only means in sincerity and according to God's laws, it is a bit hard to see how the necessity of such worship is related to God's nature as a spiritual being.
But, if we take the phrase "in spirit and in truth" as a combination of two words to express the single concept of the inner spiritual realities of the new covenant as opposed to the external shadows of the old covenant, all becomes clear. Jesus is telling the Samaritan woman that God is not a material being but a spiritual being, and the time has now come for the material and external forms of the Old Testament system to be replaced by the true spiritual realities which they foreshadowed.
This point can be most clearly illustrated from the very question that the woman put to Jesus. She wanted to know whether men should worship God at the sanctuary in the temple at Jerusalem or at the sanctuary of the temple on Mt. Ebal in Samaria. Jesus responded by saying, in effect, that though Jerusalem was God's appointed place, the time had now come for the old temple worship of Jerusalem to be replaced by the new "worship in spirit and in truth." But He is not thereby implying that the worship that had formerly been offered at Jerusalem was insincere and false. Rather, He is saying that the time has now come for that temple to be replaced by the true spiritual reality that it foreshadowed, the true sanctuary that the Lord pitched and not man (Heb. 8:2). As a matter of fact, the writer of Hebrews develops this very point throughout chapters 8 and 9 of his letter. The Aaronic priesthood has been replaced by the true spiritual reality that it foreshadowed, the priesthood of Christ. The animal sacrifices of Moses' system have been replaced by the spiritual reality that they foreshadowed, the sacrifice of Christ. And the old sanctuary has been replaced by the true sanctuary that it foreshadowed.
Perhaps we can also bring in 2 Cor. 3:1-18 at this point. There we are told that the old covenant was one of the letter while the new is one of the spirit. I do not believe Paul is saying here that the religion of the Old Testament was unspiritual. That was just not true. In fact, Paul himself said that the Law of Moses was indeed spiritual (Rom. 7:14). But though it was a religion for spiritually minded people, the Old Testament system was still an external foreshadowing of inward spiritual realities that were not to be fully revealed until the coming of the Christ. And in that sense, the Old Testament was an external ministration of the letter as compared to the ministration of the spiritual realities of the new covenant.
This than is the interpretation of Jesus' words that seems to me to suit the context best. I have difficulty seeing Jesus telling the Samaritan woman that the time had just now arrived for men to start worshiping God sincerely, and in accordance with His laws. But I can sure see Him telling her that her question about the proper mountain of worship would soon be insignificant because the time had now come for the old external forms such as the temple at Jerusalem to be replaced by the true spiritual realities which they foreshadowed.
Indeed, I believe that such a message would have been of special interest to this woman, for it would, if actually understood by her, enables her to see why Jesus, a Jew, had been willing to talk to her, a Samaritan. The matters that separated the Jews and Samaritans were related primarily to external features of the old covenant. But the time had now come when the true Jew was to be reckoned, not according to the flesh, but inwardly, according to the circumcision of the heart in the spirit (Rom. 2:28,29). And thus it was that Jesus, the Jew, could offer her, a Samaritan, the water of life.
By Phil Roberts, via. Biblical Insights, Vol. 6, No. 7, July, 2006.
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