By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective
Jesus midrash about worshiping in “spirit and truth” from John 4:20-23 is based on Isaiah 66:1-2. These verses are part of a larger section, Isaiah 65:17-66:6. Although interpretations and outlines vary, I view the text as going backward in time, beginning with the Eternal State (65:17), the Millennium (65:18-25), and the “Last Days,” the current age between the Messiah’s two comings (66:1-6). The Last Days include the period from Jesus’ Ascension until His return to the earth, what I would call the current Church Age and the coming Tribulation.
Jesus understood that the Last Days were at hand. He explained to the Woman at the Well that times were changing: it did not matter where people worshipped, what mattered was their attitude and approach toward serving God. Neither the location of the Samaritan temple atop Mount Gerizim nor the Jewish Temple atop Mount Zion really mattered during the coming “Last Days,” which he knew were approaching with His ascension. Still, He asserted that salvation comes from the Jews, and thus implied that the Temple was rightly built on Mount Zion.
It should be noted that “worship” here is not used in the popular evangelical sense of religious music. Nor does it refer to the broadest possible definition: pleasing and honoring God in all we do. The term worship here occupies a middle ground, referring to intentional attempts to honor God through observing commanded acts of reverence, like offering a sacrifice, prayer, Bible reading, Bible memorization, fasting, reciting blessings, reciting the Sh’ma, observing Jewish holidays, as well as singing (or perhaps even dancing) to the Lord.
What mattered was the worshiper’s heart. In other words, those who seek to honor God in all of life are best qualified to honor Him through commanded acts of reverence. John 4:20-23 (ESV) reads,
“ Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.
But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.”
There are three truths in Jesus’ discussion, the same three truths we see prophetically in Isaiah 66:1-2.
The first truth is the future irrelevance of the Temple. The second truth is the attitude of the worshiper. The third truth is that God “looks to” or “seeks” true worshippers. The fact that all three elements are present in both texts suggests Jesus is expounding the earlier text from Isaiah.
Here is Isaiah 66:1-2:
Thus says the Lord: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord.
But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”
Neither text condemns Temple worship; but, because the Temple would be destroyed during almost all of the current period we call the “Last Days,” (Hebrews 1:2), worshiping God at that location becomes a moot point. In addition, gentile believers who were under the New Covenant were not tied to a location, as were the Jewish people.
What Isaiah prophesied in Isaiah 66:1-2 was fulfilled twice, on the 9th of Av in 586 BC when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple, and again (more fully) when the Romans destroyed the Temple on the 9th of Av in 70 AD (an event Jesus perhaps predicted in the John 4 text).
If I have correctly detected a midrash, then the text help define what Jesus meant by worshipping in “spirit and truth.” Is the “spirit” the Holy Spirit, or does it refer to the heart attitude of the worshiper?
We know that the Holy Spirit is involved in worship; that is a no-brainer (a perusal of I Corinthians 12-14 makes it clear). But what exactly did Jesus mean in this text when he says “in spirit”?
Truth would be a summary of Isaiah’s words, respect and reverence for the Word (“trembling at my Word”), whereas “in spirit” correlates to being “humble and contrite in spirit” (attitude).
In John, Jesus says that the Father is “seeking such people to worship Him.” In Isaiah, “this is the one to whom I will look.” Again, a similar concept.
What both texts mean is easy to understand: the condition of our hearts is the real prerequisite to the type of worship that pleases God.