Features, Highlights

Worshipping in spirit and in truth

In John 4:24, Jesus is recorded as saying: “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (2011 NIV)

Do you notice the minor difference from the following earlier translation? “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (1984 NIV)

The 2011 NIV adds a capital “S” to Spirit, implying that Jesus is referring to the Holy Spirit. It also adds the definite article “worship in the Spirit”. The 1984 edition uses a small “s”, implying spirit as in one’s inner being or soul or spiritual fervour.

The earliest Bible texts used large capital letters throughout—no small letters at all. So translators have to guess whether Jesus meant Holy Spirit (capital “S”), or spiritual energy or fervour (small “s”). Unlike the 2011 NIV, most English translators adopt the small “s” for spiritual energy. One supporting reason for this is that the Greek Bible text does not include the definite article “the” before “spirit”. Personally, I think the 1984 NIV and most English translations are correct to use the small “s” for spiritual energy or fervour.

True worship, of course, cannot be offered without being in harmony with the Holy Spirit (capital “S”). So there is no significant contradiction at stake between the translations. But Jesus here in John 4 is making a not contradictory, but complementary point—that true worship must be offered with our spiritual energy and fervour; it must come from the spirit within us. It cannot be only a matter of correct externals: what we mouth with our lips or do with our hands or how we bow our heads and bend our knees. The worship which God desires must come from our spirit and soul. This is Jesus’ emphasis here.

I’m not sure why Jesus said only “God is spirit” rather than “God is spirit and truth.” He could, I suppose, just as easily have said, “God is truth, and his worshippers must worship in truth and spirit.” Or He could have been more complete and said, “God is spirit and truth, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and truth.”

Instead, here in John 4, He says only, “God is spirit and his worshipers must worship in spirit and truth.”

Once again, I don’t want to make too much out of this. Both statements are equally true: God is Truth and God is Spirit. But perhaps on this particular occasion, Jesus wanted to emphasise the “spirit” component a little more because the woman He was speaking with was majoring too much on arguing the “truth” component (see John 4:20).

She asked: “Which is the true place to worship? Which church teaches the truth? My leaders say it is at the church on the mountain in Samaria. Others say the temple in Jerusalem is better and the truer synagogue or church.”

Maybe Jesus knew the woman was too caught up arguing doctrinal truth that she had lost touch with “spiritual” truth. If someone else was prone to major too much on one’s spiritual fervour to the neglect of truth, Jesus might well have said God is truth, and we must worship in truth and spirit.

In any case, Jesus here reminds us that God is spirit, and this is appropriate for Methodists who this month commemorate John Wesley’s Aldersgate Street experience, which was a major turning point in his spiritual life, and of which he wrote: “I felt my heart strangely warmed.”

It is one of the hallmarks of our Methodist heritage. It is a major part of the kind of worship which God our Father desires. He wants worship that is more than just cold and clinically accurate statements or professions of truth and doctrine. God desires worship from spirits and souls and hearts that are strangely and truthfully warmed.

I pray that that the energising flame of God’s Spirit will warm and move all of our hearts and souls this Aldersgate month.

The Rev Dr Gordon Wong was re-elected President of Trinity Annual Conference (TRAC) in 2016 for a second quadrennial term, but is primarily grateful to God for the gift of his wife Lai Foon and two children Deborah and Jeremy.