We know that those who worship God “must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24b). What does this mean? “Truth” is self-evident: God requires worship that is theologically informed. He does not accept worship that lies about the nature of Christ or about His work. Worship riddled with falsehoods and lies is not worship to God, it is worship to an idol. Worship to God must be true about who He is, because only then will be truly worshiping God. But what, then, of “spirit”?
The Greek word for “spirit” found in this verse is “pneuma,” which refers to an immaterial essence. This particular word is also used to refer to the Holy Spirit, such as when John quotes Christ in saying, ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). When we are born of the Spirit, that which is born in us is not flesh. It is not solid or tangible or material, but is instead an invisible and immaterial essence–“pneuma.” It is through this rebirth and transformation of our inner being that we worship the way that God requires. Indeed, the entirety of John 4:24 reads, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The very nature of God clues us into the the type of worship He desires. God is spirit, therefore we must worship Him in spirit.
So what does this mean? What does it mean that God is spirit? It means that God is not physical. He is “pneuma,” spirit, not “sarx”–“flesh.” We do not worship Him by appealing to any physical nature or aspect of worship. The context of John 4:24 provides helpful illumination. In this chapter, Jesus is speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, who, in an attempt to distract Jesus from her sin, wonders about the fact that Samaritans and Jews disagree on the place where they need to worship. In response to her implicit question, Jesus responds that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” He corrects the Samaritan woman’s false understanding of the nature of worship. God is not concerned about where we worship, or how we worship. He instead requires that our worship come from the immaterial essence within us, borne by the Holy Spirit–and that we worship the one true God, and not our private concept of God plagued by misconceptions and errors.
In the time of Isaiah, the nation of Judah fell collectively into the error of believing that worship is about the actions. God says to them,
“11 ‘What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 12 ‘When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? 13 Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. 14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.” (Isaiah 1:11-14)
From the days of Moses, God required the Israelites to perform sacrifices such as burnt offerings and grain offerings. He required their firstfruits (Deut. 26:2) and a tithe (26:12). Entire chapters of the Torah are dedicated to describing the offerings that God required of them. But that of which the Israelites lost sight, the reason why God was so infuriated with them, is that it was never about the ritual itself. God has no use for bulls or blood or barley. He is spirit, and does not eat or drink. God was angry at the nation of Judah because they performed these rituals without any heart. The point of these sacrifices was to remind the Israelites that God was their God. He saved them from the Egyptians and gave them a land flowing with milk and honey (26:8-9). The point of the ritual was the heart, as a cultivation of reverence and love and worship, but they abandoned such things and instead turned to sin. This is why God was displeased with them.
The greatest commandment is not “Follow the law of Moses all the days of your life,” but instead, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 26:37b, Deut. 6:5). He wants the totality of our being to be engaged in worship of Him. God looks for so much more than our style of music or how talented our band is. He is not as concerned with the fact that you read your Bible as how you read it. God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7b). God does not want just our actions, He wants our love and adoration and praise. This is how we worship in spirit.
But one last cautionary note: It is not enough to worship from the spirit. The requirement is twofold, that we worship in spirit and truth. God will not accept worship that refutes Him as He has revealed Himself through Scripture. As a matter of personal taste, I prefer songs that are heavy on doctrine and solid truth as a way to lead my heart to worship. I think there is a case to be made for having emotions spring from the truths we know about God and the gospel, because it is the truth of the gospel that leads us to spirit-filled worship. It is not enough to give emotional worship. Emotions are the flesh on the skeleton of doctrine. Just as both are needed to comprise a whole body, emotion and doctrine both must be present for true worship. One without the other, God will not accept. He requires both. Have both, and He will be glorified by the way He alone has led you to turn from your evil ways to worship Him.