Once in seminary, I was in a group conversation with fellow peers. I don’t remember the subject, but it was apparently theological in nature since one guy in the group said something like, “The Westminster Shorter Catechism says God is spirit.” He’s right. Specifically, question four of the WSC asks:
Q: What is God?
A: God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.
I wish the catechism would have said “God is Spirit” and not “God is a Spirit” to avoid confusion and to more accurately mirror the wording of the first prooftext provided, which is John 4:24, and reads, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Yet, I’m glad this discussion of God’s essence made it in the WSC. In this post, I’d like to focus our attention on answering this question: What does it mean that God is spirit?
In order to examine what this expression means, we’ll turn to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine for guidance. In chapter 12 entitled Communicable Attributes, the first one listed is “spirituality.” This is where Grudem talks about what it means that God is spirit. I’m not a huge fan of the word “spirituality” to describe God’s nature because it’s a word that is too easily misunderstood and misapplied, not to mention it’s a word used almost universally across religions to mean a multiplicity of things. Despite my distaste for the word, Grudem does an excellent job of helping us understand what it means that God is spirit.
“People have often wondered,” Grudem asks, “what is God made of?” “Is he made of flesh and blood like ourselves? Certainly not.”
If not, then what? Spirit. God is Spirit. “Whatever this means,” Grudem continues, “it is a kind of existence that is unlike anything else in creation.” While we don’t fully know what this means, we can truly know what this means. Grudem goes on to rightly tell us that God does not have size or dimensions, that he does not have a physical body, that he is not made of any kind of matter. God is other. Although he is knowable and imminent, he is also infinite, transcendent, and incapable of being fully known. What is God? God is spirit.
And that leads us to Grudem’s definition of spirituality: “God’s spirituality means that God exists as a being that is not made of any matter, has no parts or dimensions, is unable to be perceived by our bodily senses, and is more excellent than any other kind of existence.”
That’s a good definition. God’s essence is far more superior than our minds can fathom. Per usual, Grudem is a reliable guide, but now I want to look at the text where it mentions that God is spirit to help us better understand why Jesus said it in the first place.
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman
The context is the Gospel of John (John 4:1-45). Jesus leaves Judea to head to Galilee. The fastest route is through Samaria, so that’s where Jesus goes. But the Greek of “had to” in John 4:4 where we read “And he had to pass through Samaria” is strong. The words “had to” could be translated “to be necessary.” In some contexts, when used elsewhere in Scripture, it shows divine necessity and requirement. So Jesus travels through Samaria not just because it was the quickest route to Galilee (although that’s true), but also because it was God’s sovereign, providential plan. It was no accident. There’s no such thing as a coincidence. It was God’s sovereign plan for Jesus to meet the immoral woman at the well.
Jesus speaks to the woman at the well about multiple topics. He asks her for a drink of water, he uses metaphorical language to reveal her need for a Savior, he lets her know that he knows she’s had five husbands, and so on. Finally, they get to the discussion of worship. The Samaritan woman says, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship” (John 4:20).
There’s a lot going on here, but one thing is certain: this woman thinks worship is confined to a specific location. Key word: location. The Samaritans wrongly only believed in the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) and rejected the rest of the Old Testament Scriptures, and therefore had a truncated view of worship. They thought that the place of worship was to be done on a mountain, specifically Mount Gerizim (Deut. 11:29). If Jews had a high view of worship being done in a temple, then Samaritans had an overly-inflated view of worship being done on a mountain. But what Jesus says in the next section of Scripture forever transcends our view of worship.
Jesus says, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).
“The hour” doesn’t mean a literal 60 minutes; it can be translated as “the time,” and the time that Jesus is talking about is likely the time after his death and resurrection. What Jesus is saying is that through the salvation he provides for his people through the cross and resurrection, no longer will his people be confined to a specific location to worship God. No longer will people be confined to worship at a mountain or in a temple. God is not limited to a physical location and neither is true worship. No, because God is Spirit, and because he is everywhere at all times, his people who are sealed with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13) can, therefore, worship him at all times in all places. And this happens as they worship him in spirit and in truth — that is, as they worship him with the proper inward posture, and as they worship the one true God.
We’re living through a pandemic and much of the Christian world cannot physically gather on Sundays. Are we hindered? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that we cannot physically go to a church building to worship together. No in the sense that, since God is spirit and everywhere at all times, we can worship him in our living rooms, even though it pales in comparison to actually being with our church family.
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