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Daniel of Doulogos Name:Daniel
Home: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
About Me: I used to believe that evolution was reasonable, that homosexuality was genetic, and that people became Christians because they couldn't deal with the 'reality' that this life was all there was. I used to believe, that if there was a heaven - I could get there by being good - and I used to think I was more or less a good person. I was wrong on all counts. One day I finally had my eyes opened and I saw that I was not going to go to heaven, but that I was certainly going to suffer the wrath of God for all my sin. I saw myself as a treasonous rebel at heart - I hated God for creating me just to send me to Hell - and I was wretched beyond my own comprehension. Into this spiritual vacuum Jesus Christ came and he opened my understanding - delivering me from God's wrath into God's grace. I was "saved" as an adult, and now my life is hid in Christ. I am by no means sinless, but by God's grace I am a repenting believer - a born again Christian.
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Friday, September 04, 2015
John 4:24
"God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" [ESV]

I don't know how many times I've read this verse, and you probably don't know how many times you've read it, or heard it quoted.  If you're reading my blog, chances are good that you didn't accidentally stumble in here, but are a Christians, and have probably read that verse enough times that you no longer marvel (if ever you did) at what it says.  If you're a believer, you accept these words as true and (presumably) literal.  God -is- a spirit.  Those who worship God -must- worship God in spirit and in truth (whatever *that* means).

If you're new to the scriptures, or you aren't a Christian and have stumbled into this blog providentially rather than intentionally, the verse is a statement about the nature of God and the nature of the worship God expects from those who worship Him.  What I am about to write is an explanation of how that verse influences the way Christians both perceive and worship God, and this I will do by looking at what the author of that verse (John) was talking about when he said that.  I will also do my best to steer the reader away from common pitfalls in their understanding - so that what is being said is not clouded by notions which might come about if we read the verse out of context.

You've read or at least heard of the woman at the well whom Jesus met on the way into the town of Samaria.  Recall that Jesus asked her for a drink of water from the well, and because Jews regarded Samaritans as unclean, she wanted to know what kind of Jew Jesus was if He was asking her to draw water for him - for the "...Jews had no dealing with Samaritans" (c.f. John 4:9b). Jesus enters into a conversation with the Samaritan woman, and using the drawing of water as a word picture, begins to describe Himself as the Messiah who gives eternal life to those who ask Him for it.  He then demonstrates that He has this authority by telling her things about her life that no stranger could possibly know.  Perceiving Christ to be at the very least, a prophet, she begins to ask him questions of a theological nature. 

At this point it might help to understand who the Samaritans were.  Long before Christ's encounter with the woman from Samaria, the ten tribes of Israel had been carried away into captivity in Assyria.  As was the custom, the king of Assyria, having conquered the land that was formerly the property of the tribes of Ephraim and the half tribe of Mannesseh, displaced those who vacated the land with Assyrian settlers from Cutha, Hamath, Ava, and Sepharvaim (c.f. 2 Kings 17:24; Ezra 4:2-11).

These Assyrian settlers intermarried with the Israelite population that was still in the land (not every single person was rounded up and carted off, after all), so that the ethnic stock of what was now called "Samaria" was a mix more Gentile than Jew. At first the Samaritans worshipped various Assyrian idols which they brought with them, or fashioned in the new land,  but because their "gods" couldn't deal with the abundance of lions in the land (which had been terrorizing the population), they supposed it was because the God of this new land was dissatisfied with them.  To answer their appeal to Assyria on this point, A Jewish priest was dispatched to them in order to teach them the Jewish religion.

The Samaritans were taught about the God of the Jews through the books of Moses, and incorporated the God of the Jews into their idolatrous customs. they build their own version of the temple on Mount Gerazim, and worshiped there.  It is fair to say that the Samaritans were not proper Jews, but then again, they weren't quite Gentiles either (see 2 Kings 17:26-28).

The Samaritans worshiped the one true God (albeit improperly) and regarded the writings of Moses (and only the writings of Moses) as scripture, such that they were genuinely waiting for the Messiah of God even as the Jews were.

As soon as the woman of Samaria perceives Jesus to be a prophet, she asks him whether the Samaritans ought to worship "on this mountain" - meaning in the temple her ancestors have erected on Mount Gerazim, or in the temple at Jerusalem - as the Jews insisted?  Christ answered her that a time was coming - referring to the age of the New Covenant - when locations wouldn't matter.  What was going to matter under the New Covenant age was whether or not you were worshiping God in Spirit and in truth. God was a Spirit, and as such, you didn't actually need to go to a specific location to worship Him - what mattered was whether or not your were worshiping Him in the Spirit and in truth.

To condense all that for you, and put the verse in question into context in summary form - Jesus was answering a theological question about where it was most proper to worship God, and His answer was that location won't matter when the New Covenant begins, since God is a Spirit (and presumably not bound to any one location, and what matters therefore is not where you worship, but rather the quality of your worship.

At this point, I haven't really explained how one goes about worshiping God in spirit and in truth, I've just explained that this statement was given in answer to a theological question concerning "where" one ought to worship God.

To be pithy, I suppose, we could say that Christ answered the "where" question enigmatically, by implying that one worships God "in" their heart.  But I don't believe our Lord was trying to be pithy or clever - even if that "location" is a fairly fitting answer to the question posed by the woman of Samaria.

What I want to focus on, to answer the question I put in parenthesis in the last sentence of the first paragraph, i.e. "Whatever that means?" is the notion that God is a spirit, and how that knowledge should inform our worship.  When our Lord described God as a spirit, it is informative to remember that He was -correcting- a wrong understanding of both God and how God is worshiped.  The notion that it is right to worship God in one place, but not right in another, flows from a wrong-headed, anthropomorphic image of God - as though God had enough substance to be in one place to the exclusion of being in other places.

As creatures, we live in one place at one time.  If we are here, we are not also there. 

God, in the scriptures, often describes something of Himself using anthropomorphism.  He has no face, but we understand what He means when He says that He spoke to Moses face-to-face.  When Moses looked at God's back - He wasn't looking at a giant man walking with his back to Moses - whatever He saw, it wasn't human, and even if Moses had tried to describe it, words would very likely fail to capture it.  God is a spirit.

That fact is very important when we discuss something like the Impassibility of God.  Closely related to the immutability of God, the impassibility of God describes the thought that God does not and cannot experience such things as pain or emotions.

That isn't to say that God isn't love, or that God isn't kind, or merciful, or to diminish any of the ways in scripture our God anthropomorphically represents Himself to us - it is rather to hold firm to the *fact* that God is a spirit, and that such descriptions remain anthropomorphisms.  When the bible describes the love or mercy, or anger of God - it is not describing a temporal human emotion.

Hopefully the reader is mature enough in their thinking to see that I am not trying to diminish the character of God - rather I am saying that to regard God solely in terms of those human emotions which the scripture uses to portray what are not "human" emotions - which fluctuate according to such base things as our heart rates, body temperature, hormones, and even situation that provoke us.

God cannot be provoked, He has no hormones, not heart to beat, and no body temperature to be affected by any environment.  He is unchanging, and all knowing.  No situation surprises God, so God is not provoked by any momentary passion.  He is not a creature, and does not experience emotion in the same way we do.

That isn't to say that God isn't "angry" with sinners as the scriptures teach (c.f. Psalm 7:11), or that God isn't "merciful" (c.f. Deuteronomy 4:31).  Rather than provide a long list of the various emotions that scripture users to describe God's character in one situation or another, it is enough to say that our own emotions reflect to some degree the nature of our Creator who made us in His own image.  We *resemble* - but we are not *like* him.  We are made of dust, formed into His image, but we are not of the same substance, as it were. 

What I am trying to expound here is the gulf between our own experiences and the character of God - I want to introduce, or at least reinforce the notion that it is bad theology to read our experiences back into the character of God. Yes, God is described using language that makes sense to us - but we must remember that God is a spirit, and the language of the scriptures communicate God's character to us through anthropomorphic imagery - but the imagery isn't intended to suggest that what we are, God is - or that when God describes Himself as "angry" it is describing the exact same thing we experience when we are "angry".

God is a spirit, and not an emotional, suffering human in a fallen world.  Whatever God's love is, it isn't like our love - which waxes and wanes depending on outside factors.  It isn't injured or jeopardized by insult or injury, it cannot grow, it cannot shrink, it cannot change, because it is not dependent upon anything else.  Every emotion attributed to God must be understood in the light of the fact that God is not a man, but a spirit. 

Why does that matter - why is it important to understand that God does not "experience" emotions or pain, or suffering, or a sense of loss or gain?

I could give you a handful of reasons off the cuff, but let's keep this practical: God has told us that He is a spirit, so that we might respond accordingly - meaning, so that we will not reason from any perspective that diminishes the character of God into the an image or likeness of man.

People have emotions, people experience pleasure and  pain suffer loss and are pleased or dismayed according to circumstances.  God is not like that.  He doesn't "feel" love - He "is" love.  He doesn't act just, He "is" just, He doesn't "get" angry He "is" anger.

But even saying this much is still painting God in anthropomorphic language.  The truth is we have no language to sufficiently paint the unchanging character of God.  When we say that God is this or that - we aren't saying that God became this or that because of such and such - rather we are saying that God is always for such and such, and always against such and such, His character appears to us as "loving" when He does this, as "merciful" when He does that, and as "Wrathful" when He does this other thing.

I want the reader to understand that although God's nature is unchanging, that doesn't mean that God Himself is somehow dormant - as though He were a great big, unchanging block of stone.  If you want to think of His character in those terms - that's fine, but don't imagine for a moment that the impassibility or immutability of God means that God exists in a perpetual stasis - unmoving, unthinking, unchanging. 

Good gravy, No! It is God's character that never changes.

One of the problems we run into in the Christian life is when we try to persuade ourselves, or others, that God, when He is (momentarily) pleased with us, He will send us a blessing, or (as I have heard it described), He will "honor" our decision to do such and such; as though God is up in heaven being moved by some act of obedience, to reward His servants with some sort of blessing.  The God of the scriptures expects perfect obedience from His servants, and when they have done all that is required of them, they have done nothing worthy of praise or reward - they  are *servants* - their *perfect* obedience is what is expected of a servant - anything less means you weren't a fit servant.

That is one of those harsh lessons that a lot of nominal Christians cringe at.  What do you mean God doesn't reward obedience?  What do you mean God *expects* obedience?  What kind of monster to you think God is?

Well, I think God is a holy God, and that He commands us to be holy too.  I think that when we fail to be holy (which happens regularly for all of us) God's wrath towards us is merited.  For those of us in Christ, that wrath was poured out in full upon Christ.  The law of reaping and sowing is still in effect - if our disobedience is pregnant with consequence, we may experience the consequences our disobedience produces - and being mindful of our sin, these consequences will be understood as the fitting chastisement of a loving Father.  But make no mistake chastisement isn't punishment - it is teaching.  The punishment for sin is not worldly difficulties - it is the second death.  God's chastisement is correction, and He often uses what our sowing has reaped to chastise us. 

In the same way, our temporary obedience, if it is actual obedience, isn't worthy of merit, such that God is not rewarding us if we experience peace - rather God leads us by the still waters, if we follow Him, we will experience peace - not as a reward, but as a consequence. 

Those who picture God's dealings with them in terms of punishment and rewards, do so because they believe God is momentarily angry at their sin, and momentarily pleased by their obedience.  They imagine God is for them, when they obey, and against them when they disobey - because they believe that God rewards in his pleasure, and punishes in his displeasure.  It isn't that God is emotionally unstable - it is that the believe God is *reacting* to their situation in an emotional way.

When Jesus said that those who worship God must worship Him in spirit and in truth - I believe He was saying that God cannot be reckoned in terms of a man, but must be understood as transcending such things as time and space, but also such things as are common to the human experience.

We are ready to say that God doesn't have arms or legs - but how many are willing to understand that God doesn't have a body that reacts emotionally to situations?  How many are willing to regard God as "Holy" (meaning so entirely set apart from us as to be utterly *alien*), so holy that whatever emotions God has, they are certainly not reactionary, nor can they be "triggered" - God is not a temporal being, He knows the end from the beginning - He isn't surprised by anything.  His dealings with us are never reactionary - though we (who live bound to the laws of time and space) may interpret God as reacting to a situation - we must remember that God is not reacting, He is simply God being God as He has always been.

How do you worship God in spirit and in truth?  well, let's start with the first commandment - love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  That is not a command for people to foster a warmest possible emotional affection towards God.  It is actually a command to serve Him selflessly - as Christ served mankind selflessly.   The love that God speaks of there is demonstrative: it flows from a place of true humility - you cannot serve anyone else if you're serving yourself, so the moment you stop trying to provide for your own desires, and instead look to fulfill God's desires, you will be "loving" God.  You have to be humbled in heart, mind, soul, and strength - and frankly, you can't do that, but Christ did.  Thus the only way you can obey that first commandment is to surrender your life to Christ, and allow the life of Christ to be manifested in you.  When you surrender a moment to Christ, count yourself as nothing, and set your heart to obey, the life of Christ in you rises to the surface, as it were, and (as the apostle Paul described), Christ lives in you.

The point is that worship isn't about trying to produce or foster a right emotional state, or to find the right "Christian motivation" - as though you were an actor looking for your muse. God operates towards us in a perfectly selfless way.  He serves us, working tirelessly for us, unchanging, untiring, unstopping - because He is a spirit.  We have to worship God in the same way - not depending on our flesh (humanity), not working in our own strengths, but rather we must worship God in the Spirit (uppercase "S" denoting the Holy Spirit), through whom we have Christ indwelling within us.

There is no real way around it. Every effort in the flesh is wasted, useless, doomed to empty religion and failure - because it is carnal effort; i.e. the work of the "old man" trying to make himself into a "new man". 

Yet when we regard ourselves as humble servants of God - nay, slaves!  Slaves of God, so that we reject for ourselves the carnal "right" to do what we want, and instead, trust ourselves to be His actual servants, responding in each moment as the Lord's selfless servants ought to respond - in those moments where Christ is living in and through us even as we are putting to death the deeds of the body in order that Christ may reign - in those moments, we are truly worshiping God in spirit and in truth.

The heart of John 4:24 is that you can't worship God in the flesh, in your own power, or in your own way - you must simply surrender to God, allow the life of Christ to constrain your living, and in doing so you will be worshiping God in spirit and in truth.
posted by Daniel @ 11:01 AM  
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