"True worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth," says Jesus in John 4:23, "for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth."
In this particular setting, Jesus is talking with the Samaritan woman at the well. She asks Him who is correct, the Jews or the Samaritans. (Jews believed they should worship in Jerusalem, Samaritans on Mt. Gerizim.) Jesus, after clarifying that salvation is coming through the Jews, effectively tells her God isn't concerned about "where we worship." That's not the question.
But what does it mean to worship? What does Jesus mean when He says worship in spirit and truth? What is meant when He tells us that’s what God seeks?
The English word worship comes from the Greek word, proskuneo. The definition in Strong's concordance goes like this: to kiss the hand to (towards) one, in token of reverence 2) among the Orientals, esp. the Persians, to fall upon the knees and touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound reverence 3) in the NT by kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one) or make obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication 3a) used of homage shown to men and beings of superior rank.
After examining this definition, we were challenged in one of our Bible studies by the following. I thought it most helpful.
Think for a minute about what it means for a subject to prostrate himself on the ground before a King. For instance, if a King sees you walk through the door, what kind of questions might he be asking himself about you? Probably things like, “What does this person want? What sort of spirit does this person exhibit? Is he a threat to my interests? Exactly what is he up to?"
The act of prostrating oneself before a King is a position of high vulnerability. You can’t defend yourself lying flat on your face. What it purports to say is that, "I have no will of my own. I have no designs on what happens here. I am at your mercy. I am totally in your hands. You may dispose of me as you wish."
Now certainly not everyone who prostrates themselves before a King or purports to worship God is of that mind inside. Disjunction between the outward behavior and the inward man is not uncommon. When it comes to worship, we are capable of going through the motions of what we call worship without ever even thinking about God or coming into his presence in our own consciousness.
But Jesus says that God seeks those who will worship in spirit and in truth. So it’s not a bodily ritual we go through, but it comes from our inner man, and "in truth" is another way of saying in reality or in fact.
God is looking for the worship which is real, which is a reflection of what we are in our heart. When we are living a life of worship to him, we are no threat to His kingdom. We are no threat to His authority. We are living a life which is totally committed and submitted to His will.
Someone says, “I have greatly changed in my understanding of what worship is. I used to feel good about what I was doing when I went to a large church where worship was about praise and emotion and generating a good feeling. I honestly felt good and I felt like I was worshiping. I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to do, but I realize now that it was a deceptive thing. It was about feeling good. It was about generating a high, and that’s not what worship is.”
Certainly, as we follow Jesus, there will be times when we experience, if you will, ecstatic feelings having to do with our relationship to God. There will be feelings which are generated in us that are incredible, but that’s not something we should seek to produce. Rather, it seems to me that worship, as Jesus describes it, results in a relationship between us and God that involves us following in the footsteps of his Son, following Him even through the garden where, when faced with the ultimate challenge of His life, He said “Father, not my will but thine be done.”
This, I submit, is worship "in spirit and in truth."