Spirit and Truth
If we want to have a relationship with someone, it is vital we understand what they want for us and from us. This is especially important in our relationship with God. If we misunderstand what the Lord is doing in our lives, it can make us resentful and blind to his works. His hand is always mighty in our lives, but we won’t be able to see it unless we comprehend His ways.
In His conversation with the woman at the well, Jesus revealed God’s heart. The Lord’s passion is worship in Spirit and truth. Jesus told the Samaritan woman that such worship was of far greater importance than even the most pressing and controversial issues of the day, and when it came Samaritans and Jews there were many.
In 920 BC the kingdom of Israel split into two kingdoms. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin became the southern kingdom of Judah, and the other ten tribes became the northern kingdom of Israel.
According to the Old Covenant, if the people’s disobedience grew great enough, they would lose their home, the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 28:63-65). For the northern kingdom of Israel this curse became a reality in 720 BC. The Assyrians conquered the ten tribes to the north and transplanted many of them to Assyria, but some remained. To help solidify their control over the region, the Assyrians transplanted many of their own people to the land. The pagan Assyrians intermixed with the Jewish people and became known as the Samaritans. In time, Judaism became the dominant religion of Samaria, and its inhabitants considered themselves followers of Yahweh just at the Jews to the south.
The southern kingdom followed the footsteps of the north and lost their land to the Babylonians. In 586 BC Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. He too took many of the Jewish people as captives to Babylon. What followed was the time known as the Babylonian captivity. The book of Daniel records its history. After 70 years the Babylonians let the Jewish people return to their homeland.
The Judeans wanted to rebuild the temple. Yahweh needed a home. The Samaritans got word of this endeavor and offered to help rebuild God’s house. After all, they were Jews, too, at least in their own minds. The people of Judah refused. They deemed the Samaritans impure and unworthy to build God’s house. To say the Samaritan’s feelings were hurt is an understatement. This began a feud between the two peoples that lasted for generations.
Since the Samaritans could have no part in the temple in Jerusalem, they built their own on Mount Gerizim. Their neighbors to the south had the City of David, but the Samaritans had what they called the “Navel of the Earth,” the place they believed Adam gave sacrifices to God. There they built their temple, and it infuriated the Judeans.
The Jews assumed the Lord could have only one true house, so they burned down the Samaritan’s temple. Sometime later the folks to the north retaliated. During the Passover they snuck in at night and littered the Jerusalem temple with dead people’s bones thus defiling the whole place. Dead bodies were unclean and anything they touched became unclean. What an insult!
By Jesus’s day the animosity between the Samaritans and the Judeans still raged. If someone in Judea needed to travel north to Galilee, they passed around Samaria into the hill country where the bandits and robbers waited for travelers. They hated the Samaritans so much that they would rather risk their lives than talk to one.
The woman at the well was in the presence of a prophet. It was a great opportunity to settle the whole mess. He would know who had the true temple of God. This issue seemed all important to the woman and to countless others, but not to Jesus. He said there was something far more vital coming, worship in Spirit and truth.
We marvel at such conflicts. What a silly thing to fight about! But we fight about who is right and who is wrong, too. Conservatives and liberals have been fighting for generations in the United States. I have friends on the left and the right. Both sides reckon they are on God’s side. We not only fight about political issues, but we battle over right and wrong. If you read the news or social media, it looks like the all-consuming question of the times is “Is God okay with it?” We can also carry the battle to theological issues. If you have ever been in a theological debate, you know they can be just as heated as the worst political or moral debate.
If Jesus was here in the flesh, we would ask Him about these great issues, but how would He answer? Most likely He would not give the answer we expect or want. The Lord always spoke from a higher realm. He never took sides like we do. As with the woman at the well, He would point to the infinite, to Spirit and truth. God seeks to impart the view from His throne, and it is never what we presume. When worldly battles rage below, the Lord invites us to sit together with Him in the heavenlies, and from there everything looks different.
The Pharisee in this parable thought he knew God’s mind. He understood who was good and who was evil, and he assumed God saw things the same way he did. He was certain he was the kind of person God was looking for. Being a descendant of Abraham, he had the right lineage, and he did the right things. The Pharisees were extraordinary Torah keepers. They followed not only the written word but the oral traditions, the rules humans added to make sure they obeyed God.
For example, the Torah says they were not to work on the Sabbath, but the Lord did not define work, so men like the Pharisees filled in the details. For instance, you could walk on the Sabbath, but how far? When does walking become work? Someone decided God meant you could walk only 2,000 cubits (A little over half a mile) without working. They got this interpretation from their time of wandering in the wilderness. God commanded them to carry the Ark of the Covenant 2000 cubits in front of their procession. Someone thought He must have been hinting how far they could walk on God’s day of rest.
The Pharisees, like the one in this parable, were into fasting and tithing. An average Pharisee fasted two days a week, and they had exacting laws to make sure they tithed properly. The man in this parable stood thanking God that he got it right while others didn’t. Even though he was in God’s house, was he really worshipping the Lord?
The answer is obvious. He was not glorying in the Lord but in himself. Though he stood in the temple of God, his heart was in the temple of ego. Who he was and what he did looked good, but it was just religion, a form of godliness void of the Spirit. Jesus called men like him whitewashing tombs, a fitting description of religion based on self. Such religion looks good on the outside, but it is only a disguise, ego masquerading as God.
These angels of light fooled many in Jesus’s day, and they still fool us today. However, the ego has one telltale sign: contempt. If we measure our godliness by self, we have something to compare to others. This misguided Pharisee was holding up self as the standard, and if anyone did not look like him, that person earned the Pharisee’s disdain.
This story might tempt us to heap shame upon this false man of God. Yet, that is not why Jesus told this parable. He wanted us to recognize the Pharisee in our own hearts. The way we judge others gives his presence away. Where there is contempt, there is ego.
Jesus came to put away the temple of the ego. Perhaps that is why He warned that Herod’s temple would soon be destroyed (Matthew 24:1-2). It had become a place where self was glorified with all its distinctions. Its destruction was a picture of a far greater end that came at the cross. There Jesus put away the temple of the ego, so we could become the temple of the Holy Spirit. As Paul said, “… those who belong to Christ Jesus has crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24).”
The tax collector found the heart of God. In our day we miss the incredible irony this parable holds. People thought the Pharisee was the best of the best, but the tax collector was the worst of the worst. Tax collectors worked for the Romans. They were the cogs in the machine that was squeezing the life out of the common people. They were going hungry because of high taxes, and there were no breaks for the poor. Many sold themselves into slavery to pay their debts. The tax collectors were profiting from their neighbor’s misery. Yet, one found justification that day!
At the end of the parable Jesus tied worship to humility. Worship in Spirit and humility go together, but we must be careful how we define the two. At first glance we might conclude God wants us to kick ourselves and the harder the better. It could appear that the way into the kingdom is to devalue ourselves, and the more worthless we feel, the closer we are to God.
Christians often pray from this perspective. We come to God like the prodigal son ready to tell Him we are unworthy to be His child, the more we feel like a worm the better. We imagine this fulfills the heart of God. However, if we had a friend who insisted we demean ourselves before he would talk to us, could we love them? Perhaps we would play along to get them to do our will, but we would never really want them. Yet, this is the way we treat God!
True humility is never self-focus, either our good or our evil. It is receiving something higher than self. To the Pharisee, self was the measure of his place with God. The sinner found something higher than self, a higher gauge of his acceptance, the infinite mercy of God. True humility is looking away from self and seeing Christ. When we gaze upon the glory of what He has done, we find an infinite measure of who we are and of who God is in our lives. Not I but Christ!
Worship in Spirit is about union. When we are together with Christ, that is Spirit. When we are separate and the ego lives, that is flesh. We call our church gatherings worship services. This should tell us what God wants from us and for us. The Lord comes to church to give Himself to us, and we come to let go of self to receive His gift afresh. Worship is the means by which God lifts our heads. We might come with our eyes down, feeling unworthy and far away, but the Lord lifts our heads. He says, “Look at Me!” When we do, the illusion of separateness disappears, and we experience infinite worth.
Truth is connected to Spirit. Our problem is we have trouble separating truth from ego. We regard truth as being right in deeds and beliefs. In Jerusalem they preached that their temple was the true temple of God. When preachers spoke such things, many saw this as telling the truth. “Preach it, brother! That’s the truth!” In Samaria they presented arguments that their temple was the true temple of God. No doubt their preachers got hearty amens. Obviously, neither was preaching truth. They were just defending self. When we debate ideas we call truth, it is very hard to admit we are wrong. To do so is like dying, and the ego does die a little in doing so. Truth is not self-preservation. It is something much higher. To discern it we must gaze beyond the finite to the infinite.
Jesus said truth is a Person, not just an idea or point of view. He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Therefore, living in the truth is not just being right but living in Christ and what He has done. In Christ the infinite defines the finite. Reality is found in who God is and to live in the truth is to look there above all else.
In this we can see why worship and truth are tied together. Worship redefines who we are. We might enter worship self-defined, but we leave God-defined. We offer the sacrifice of who we are that we might live in Who He is, thus losing our identity to find it in His. Worship is two becoming one. It not only redefines us but our neighbor and every circumstance of our lives.
We have all heard the expression, “defining moment.” Defining moments are events we think define who we are. Good moments can define us like big victories or wonderful circumstances. Bad moments can also define us like shame, great loss, and failure. However, in worship we let go of these. We see there is a transcendent moment that defines who we are. That moment happened when Jesus uttered His last on the cross, “It is finished.” It is there God tied who we are to who He is. Worship in truth is letting go of all the finite moments for Christ. All the past, good and bad, fades, and we see only Him. We see the Truth face to face, and we take on His image.
Jesus in His talk with the Samaritan woman revealed what the Father wants from us. Our efforts to do right and be right fall short. He wants worship. Worship is coming to the cross where we lose our lives. We lose the ego with all its self-righteousness, self-gratification, and self-preservation. At the cross we see that terrible enemy of God, the self, died long ago together with Christ. On the other side of the cross is the gift of God… Himself, and His gift defines everything.