There is a right way to worship God, but what is it? What can Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman teach us about what God requires of us?
What does John 4:24 say?
“God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
The truth came out in a conversation Jesus had with a Samaritan woman. Jesus said, “Believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father . . . But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth . . . God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:21, 23-24).
With that, He silenced a bitter dispute between Jews and Samaritans regarding the location for proper worship. Jesus wanted them to learn a different approach altogether. So He leaped over the narrow question of where and pointed to the how.
But this required that the Jews and Samaritans first understand something about the nature of God.
Jesus revealed that God is not found by seeking Him at a physical site—on a mountain or in a temple—but by seeking Him on the higher level of spirit and truth.
So what does John 4:24 tell us about how to worship God? What exactly does it mean to worship God “in spirit and truth”?
“God is Spirit”
Why did Jesus lead with this statement?
Because if we miss that God is spirit, we are bound to worship Him the wrong way. So what is spirit?
First—and this is important—we know what spirit is not, and that is physical. Anything physical (made of matter) is characterized by limitations. As an example, consider human beings. We each have a beginning, a limit. We all die, another limit. We occupy a certain space in the universe, also a limit. We live in the present, not the future. This is, again, a limit.
But God has no limits. One passage makes this point powerfully: “‘Am I a God near at hand,’ says the LORD, ‘and not a God afar off? Can anyone hide himself in secret places, so I shall not see him?’ says the LORD; ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ says the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:23-24; emphasis added throughout).
This passage emphasizes His transcendence, the fact that God exists outside the boundaries of the physical universe. Because He is spirit, God is not subject to what we as physical humans are subject to.
The Samaritan woman needed to hear this because, although she didn’t realize it, she was stuffing God into a box due to a misconception. She, other Samaritans and even some of the Jews had been guilty of limiting God to a single place.
By insisting that God could be found in only one geographical location, she demonstrated that she didn’t grasp the transcendent and spiritual nature of God. It was as if she was thinking of God as physical.
She was trying to approach the limitless God with limits.
“Those who worship Him must worship in spirit . . .”
Some think this means that real worship has to include thrills and chills and that a church service is lacking if it doesn’t have such excitement. Interpreting the scripture this way makes emotion the standard. But is that what Jesus intended? As we’ll see, this statement has nothing to do with how euphoric or teary-eyed someone should feel after church is over.
Since God is spirit, it logically follows that He requires spiritual worship. So what does that look like?
Let’s consider the context of the conversation again. The right place to worship was the Samaritan woman’s concern. But given what we read in the account, consider what she wasn’t concerned with. We don’t find that she asked, “What kind of attitude does God want to see?” or “What should be my motivation when worshipping God?” It appears her focus was on the physical—a rite, a mere place someone needs to go.
Worshipping God in spirit is about dropping all pretense, fully engaging the mind and being absolutely sincere with your desire to please Him in every way. The danger with that is that it leads to a mindless and ritualistic approach to God. Not only does it become superficial and void of the impact worship should have on us, but it also gives us a false sense of security about how God views us. We think, “God must be pleased with me because I routinely do x, y, z.” A ritualistic approach to worship can distract us from spiritual issues in our lives that require attention.
Put simply, worship that is centered purely on form is not befitting a God who is spirit. Form-based worship is what the ancient pagans did to serve their dumb idols, but the Creator God of the Bible rightly demands something more.
He wants worship that has substance.
Remember, God wants to convert the human mind (Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:22). But physical rites and rituals alone don’t facilitate that transformation. By themselves, they are empty and meaningless gestures, not based on any kind of inner conviction of who God is.
Therefore, worship must go beyond form and include substance. This is what it means to worship in spirit.
Worshipping God in spirit is about dropping all pretense, fully engaging the mind and being absolutely sincere with your desire to please Him in every way.
Truth these days is seen as anything but the immovable bedrock that previous generations believed it to be. All around us, people prattle, “Your truth is not my truth,” seemingly oblivious to the contradiction. But when carried into Christianity, this philosophy will spoil every attempt to worship the God of the Bible.
When Christ said we should worship God in “truth,” He meant one truth, not multiple truths. And the source of all truth is the Word of God (John 17:17).
Jesus advocated worship that is informed by what the Bible says. So if we worship God based on customs or traditions that contradict Scripture, our worship is not based on truth, but on lies.
A classic case of failing to worship God in truth was on full display in the first century. At the time, the Jewish religious leaders were appropriating the name of God to support nonbiblical teachings, and Jesus took exception. Some mistakenly believe He condemned them because they were hopelessly stuck on Old Testament laws, but this is a misunderstanding.
Notice His evaluation of their practices: “In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9).
This became tradition-based worship, not truth-based worship. In fact, many of these man-made commandments actually obstructed God’s original intent for the laws He gave.
They should have known better. The Scriptures warned against worshipping God in any way other than how He explicitly commanded them:
- Deuteronomy 4:2: “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.”
- Deuteronomy 12:32: “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.”
Through these passages, God speaks loud and clear: His words are the standard by which we judge whether our worship is acceptable to God. Worshipping in truth is about obeying God and carefully aligning ourselves with His explicit instructions.
But this is often ignored today, especially in the case of which day we are to observe the Sabbath. Many people claim they worship God by attending church services on Sunday. However, when we listen to what the Bible says, we find that God commands formal worship be conducted on His Sabbath day, which is the seventh day (Saturday).
Churchgoers may be as sincere as they can possibly be, but to worship God in truth requires that we have a formal service on the day He says to—and no other.
To learn more, read “When Is the Sabbath Day?”
Will God ever be pleased with us?
At the core of John 4:24 is the reality that God has given us specific standards to follow. The Samaritan woman and her people were misguided in their approach to God, doctrinally and in attitude. This is the case for many now.
Today, the prevailing school of thought seems to be that sincerity is enough—that what God mostly cares about is whether we have good intentions.
But John 4:24 says otherwise.
God desires that His children worship Him in spirit. That is, He doesn’t want mindless and empty rituals to define our relationship with Him. Instead, He wants complete devotion and a genuine motivation to please Him. He wants us to repent, be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
He also wants us to worship in truth. That is, our worship must pass the doctrinal test. It must conform to Scripture.
Practicing these things is how we find God and give Him the worship He seeks. If we are mindful about following Him in spirit and truth, we can be confident not only that He accepts our worship, but also that we are growing in our personal relationship with Him.