Jesus’ words—“worship in Spirit and truth”—must be understood according to the context of Jesus’ discussion with the Samaritan woman. She had asked where the proper place of worship should be—Mt. Gerizim in Samaria or Mt. Zion in Jerusalem? Jesus responds with a prophetic statement, an utterance about something that will soon be in effect. At the time Jesus spoke to the woman, Jerusalem was the place where God had placed his Name. The Spirit descended in glory upon the tabernacle and temple. If you wanted to be faithful to the truth and enter into the environment of the Spirit, you went to Jerusalem with the people of God. In contrast to this, the Samaritans worshipped in ignorance. They bowed down as a people in the wrong place. There was no guarantee of the Spirit’s presence on Mt. Gerizim. Jesus makes this clear. They were wrong to worship God on the mountain of their own choice.
But a time was coming—indeed, it was being inaugurated in Jesus’ own ministry—when bowing down “faithfully” and “in the Spirit” could be done by God’s people anywhere, not merely in Jerusalem. The post-Pentecost situation would radically decentralize corporate worship. Not individual worship. That had always been decentralized. The big change now would be that longer would worshipers gather together only at Jerusalem, but now the Spirit would be present wherever the church assembled in the Name of Jesus. That's what this passage is all about.
Today most commentators agree that in proclaiming worship "in Spirit and truth," Jesus was not contrasting external worship with internal worship. His statement has nothing to do with worshiping God in the inner resources of one’s own spirit. The Spirit Jesus speaks of in this passage is the Spirit of God, not the spirit of man, as vs. 24 makes clear . . . . Jesus is speaking of the eschatological replacement of temporal institutions like the Temple, resuming the theme of 2:13-22. In 2:21 it was Jesus himself who was to take the place of the Temple, and here it is the Spirit given by Jesus that is to animate the worship that replaces worship at the Temple.
In John 4:24, therefore, Jesus is not emphasizing the importance of one’s inner emotional experience. Jesus is not saying if you want to have genuine worship you must participate with your innermost spirit. If that was what Jesus was saying, then there would be nothing new about such an admonition. It was true in the Old Testament. If worship “in spirit” only meant that individuals should worship sincerely, honestly, with one’s heart and soul, such an assertion could not have answered the Samaritan woman’s question.
"Spirit" is not a description of God’s non-material nature. We should not read this like this: God is a spirit. That is, God is in the category of what we call “spiritual, immaterial beings.” That is not John’s concern. The “S” should be capitalized. God is Spirit. This is not a statement about the “nature” of God, but of the way in which God is present to human beings, his dynamic relations with humanity. The Father gives the Spirit (John 14:1) and the Holy Spirit is the medium of his personal relations to us.
Compare this with 1 John 1:5 (“God is light”) and 1 John 4:8 (“God is love”). These statements do not describe God’s “nature,” but his relational being. To say that “God is Spirit” in the context of a discussion about the place where one should bow down means that God will be properly worshiped wherever his Spirit is. We must be “in the Spirit” if we are to be in God’s presence, the place where he is. This is similar to Jesus saying that one must be “born from above” and “born of water and Spirit” (John 3:3-8). The Spirit connects us with heaven, with the Father.
So if you want to worship the Father, you will be where the Spirit of truth is. Once again, I am not denying we can worship individually anywhere and anytime, and by the Spirit. That was true in Old Testament times as well. But there is a more specific sense of "in Spirit," which is in the community of believers gathered at a specific place for special worship. The context makes it clear that Jesus is speaking in this specific sense. It's as if the woman asked, "Where is the Spirit present so that we can be sure to be worshiping God in the right place? Is the Spirit in Jerusalem or on Mt. Gerizim?"
In the context of the Old Testament “bowing down in Spirit” meant gathering with the people of God for corporate, sacrificial worship wherever the tabernacle was pitched or at the site of the temple in Jerusalem. But not any more. The Spirit that descended and filled the old tabernacle and temple is the same Spirit that descended and remained upon Jesus, the true and final Temple.
In the new world, the place where God and man are united is in the flesh of Jesus. He is the new Temple (John 2:19-22). Jesus will ascend to heaven shortly after his discussion with the Samaritan woman, and he promised to send the Spirit to indwell and empower his body, the church (John 14-16; Acts 1:8; 2:1-4). When the church gathers, the Spirit is there. Where the Spirit gathers the church, there is Christ. She is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:21). And so worship to the Father occurs through Jesus and in the Spirit where the earthly temple of living stones is gathered (1 Pet. 2:5). Thus, in the New Testament, people who worship “in Spirit and truth’ will gather with the Body of Christ to participate in Spiritual worship of the Father (1 Cor. 12:12-14).
Some have even used Jesus’ statement to argue that he was condemning all kinds of external and material worship—rituals, corporeal objects, and the rest. That doesn't work. No way. Jesus is not speaking here about individual, in-your-thoughts worship. But about people and what they do. The Samaritan woman asked where one should “bow down,” that is, where is the proper place to bow down before God and experience his Spirit.
In the New Covenant God has not suddenly become available only to individuals who turn inward or seek some immaterial/spiritual means of communion. Nor has he become a “vagabond God” (Luther’s phrase), wandering here and there apart from any place. Rather just as God limited and bound himself to specified places and times and people in the Old Testament, so also in the New. This has not changed in the New Testament. We have not become disembodied spirit beings! We have no independent, immaterial access to God in the New Covenant. What we have is a different set of physical means appropriate to the change made in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
In the Old Covenant the place of corporate worship was one place and people—the tabernacle, the temple, the ark of the covenant, the altar, and the physical rituals of sacrifice that were performed at these centralized sites. We Christians, however, unlike the believers in the Old Testament, are no longer bound to one geographical location, to one physical temple at the center of the world. We no longer go to one nation that has been given the ministry of priestly intercession and ministry. The Spirit no longer binds himself to one location or one people. This is evident even in this passage. The living water that the woman receives (i.e., the Holy Spirit) wells up in her such that when her fellow towns people hear her witness, they too receive the living-water Spirit and believe (John 4:28-30, 39-42). And they are nowhere near Jerusalem!
What Jerusalem and the Jews were to the Old Testament—the place and ministers by which God met with men and women—Christ and his Body, the Church, are today. Jesus’ humanity is the place to which God summons us. Christ alone is the new sanctuary, the mercy seat, and the high priest through whom we must draw near to God. And Christ has given the Spirit to fill his Body, the Church, on earth so that she might be the place where humanity finds God. She is the New Jerusalem. If we wish to worship God in Spirit and truth, we will seek God among his people, where the Word is audibly read and preached, where the physical sacraments are given and received. He still embodies his presence by the Spirit, but it is no longer a centralized, geographically limited embodiment.
The Spirit is given by Jesus (as John 14-17 will make clear). He is the proper environment of worship. And the Spirit brings men and women together in various places by the Spirit in order that they might worship God through the Messiah. In union with the humanity of Jesus, we have access to the Father through the Spirit. We bow before God in Christ in the environment of the Spirit. Luther reminds us that the ministry of the Holy Spirit “is thoroughly external and completely available to our sense . . . we see and hear the Holy Spirit in the dove, in tongues of fire, in baptism, and in a human voice.” Paul Althaus summarizes it well:
“Christ is present to us in very earthly ways. Everywhere in the history of revelation God embodies himself for us. His Spirit came in the form of a dove and the fiery tongues of Pentecost. And God still embodies himself for us. The Holy Spirit comes to us and brings Christ to us through the external, physical, sensible means of the word, of the human voice, and of the sacraments.God meets with us at trysting places (Luther’s evocative terminology). Where the people of God are gathered as the Church and there is baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the word of God on the lips of his ministers and all his believers—that is where God is. That is where we bow down in Spirit and truth.
I reject all four of the deformations of the Reformed regulative principle of worship. Much better is A. A. Hodge’s simple comments on the Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1. According to Hodge, this section teaches,
“That God in his Word has prescribed for us how we may worship him acceptably; and that it is an offense to him and a sin in us either to neglect to worship and serve him in the way prescribed, or to attempt to serve him in any way not prescribed.”This is a very productive summary of the regulative principle. It avoids the dangers of an unworkable, overly strict formulation (like “whatever is not commanded is forbidden.”). It does not, of course, answer all of our questions in advance. We must still do the hard work of biblical exegesis to determine precisely how God regulates worship. We can be confident, however, that God has prescribed for us in his Word how we may worship him acceptably. This authoritative prescription comes by way of command, principle, and example from both the Old and New Testaments.