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Worship in THE Spirit and Truth part 1 | A Thing Worth Doing blog by Daniel Webster - worship, ministry, and culture

Worship in THE Spirit and Truth (part 1)

Don’t miss part 2 which breaks down all of John’s references to the Spirit in his Gospel.


The phrase “in spirit and truth” is often used like this: “Christ told the woman at the well that we should worship God in spirit and truth, so let’s be spirited about our worship! Put a smile on your face and display a spirit of joy.” This idea of “drumming up” worship excitement does not align with a biblical view of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s work is not generated by man; rather, the believer is enabled and empowered by the Spirit thus manifesting the fruit of the Spirit, part of which is joy (Galatians 5:22-26). An assembly of believers who are led by the Spirit through the Word will be characterized by joy and yield the kind of worship that is pleasing to God.

While joyful worship is certainly a biblical concept (see Psalm 100), leaders of worship should avoid deriving this truth from John 4. In this pericope, the form and place of worship is a concern for many commentators; the “let’s be spirited while we worship” position is not one postulated by scholars. Many commentators do, however, contend that “spirit” in John 4 refers to the human spirit.

The goal of this two-part post is to show that “in spirit” in John 4 is a direct reference to the Holy Spirit, and should be translated as “in the Spirit.” John’s use of πνεῦμα throughout the rest of his gospel presents his theology of the Holy Spirit. I will examine this to show that John 4:23-24 is actually a direct reference to the Holy Spirit.

  • In part one, we will examine the prepositional phrase ἐν πνεύματι in all of John’s writings (and the entire New Testament)
  • In part two, we will develop a biblical theology of the Holy Spirit throughout John’s gospel.

An Examination of ἐν πνεύματι

It is helpful to compare John’s two uses of πνεῦμα in John 4:23-24 to the other twenty-two uses to see if there is grammatical/syntactical support for the correct translation (“in spirit,” “in a spirit,” or “in the Spirit”). What follows is a deep dive into this prepositional phrase.

Anarthrous πνεύματι in John 4

In 4:23, John states, “προσκυνήσουσιν (worship) τῷ πατρὶ (the Father) ἐν πνεύματι (in spirit or in the Spirit) καὶ ἀληθείᾳ (and truth).” The same phrase is used in 4:24. It becomes immediately evident that John’s use of πνεύματι (the dative of πνεῦμα; used in verse 23 and 24) is anarthrous (it does not have the article). How could “in the Spirit” be suggested when the Greek article is not present?

When one considers that there are four other times when John does not use the article, and the NASB[1] translators chose to use “the Spirit” (bold print in Table 1), the absence of the article becomes understandable.

Table 1πνεῦμα in John’s Gospel
John 1:32τὸ πνεῦμα καταβαῖνον ὡςthe Spirit descendingSpirit
John 1:33ἴδῃς τὸ πνεῦμα καταβαῖνονyou see the Spirit descendingSpirit
John 1:33βαπτίζων ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳbaptizes in the Holy SpiritSpirit*
John 3:5καὶ πνεύματος οὐ δύναταιand the Spirit he cannotSpirit*
John 3:6ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος πνεῦμάthat which is born of the SpiritSpirit
John 3:6τοῦ πνεύματος πνεῦμά ἐστινof the Spirit is spiritimmaterial
John 3:8τὸ πνεῦμα ὅπου θέλειThe wind blows wherewind
John 3:8ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματοςwho is born of the SpiritSpirit
John 3:34δίδωσιν τὸ πνεῦμαfor He gives the Spirit withoutSpirit
John 4:23ἐν πνεύματι καὶ ἀληθείᾳin spirit and truth? *
John 4:24πνεῦμα ὁ θεόςGod is spiritimmaterial
John 4:24ἐν πνεύματι καὶ ἀληθείᾳin spirit and truth? *
John 6:63τὸ πνεῦμά ἐστιν τὸIt is the Spirit who gives lifeSpirit
John 6:63ὑμῖν πνεῦμά ἐστιν καὶto you are spirit and are lifeimmaterial
John 7:39τοῦ πνεύματος ὃ ἔμελλονHe spoke of the Spirit, whomSpirit
John 7:39γὰρ ἦν πνεῦμα ὅτιfor the Spirit was not yetSpirit*
John 11:33ἐνεβριμήσατο τῷ πνεύματιHe was deeply moved in spirithuman
John 13:21ἐταράχθη τῷ πνεύματιHe became troubled in spirithuman
John 14:17τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς ἀληθείαςthe Spirit of truthSpirit
John 14:26τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιονthe Holy SpiritSpirit
John 15:26τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς ἀληθείαςthe Spirit of truthSpirit
John 16:13τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς ἀληθείαςthe Spirit of truthSpirit
John 19:30παρέδωκεν τὸ πνεῦμαgave up His spirithuman
John 20:22Λάβετε πνεῦμα ἅγιονReceive the Holy SpiritSpirit*
*indicates anarthrous πνεῦμα

The Anarthrous Object of the Preposition

While it is helpful to see all of John’s uses of πνεῦμα in his gospel (Table 1), this data is not sufficient enough to make a determination. For this reason, we turn to the grammarians. The question is whether the object (πνεύματι) of the preposition (ἐν) requires the Greek article in order to be definite. Daniel Wallace gives a forthright answer: “There is no need for the article to be used to make the object of a preposition definite.”[2] This means that “in spirit” (qualitative), “in the Spirit” (definite), or “in a spirit” (indefinite) are grammatical possibilities. “When a noun is the object of a preposition, it does not require the article to be definite: if it has the article, it must be definite; if it lacks the article, it may be definite.”[3]

Askeland, a grammarian well acquainted with Johannine literature, agrees with these observations and takes it a step further. Concerning John’s use of the anarthrous object, Askeland states, “the definite article is often omitted in the case of a prepositional phrase,” and “in these cases, the anarthrous object is syntactically definite” and is appropriately translated with the English article.[4]

For the English reader, this is unsettling. How can something that is indefinite in the Greek form, actually be definite in the English translation? There is no way to cover so deep a topic in a couple paragraphs, but here are two things to keep in mind:

  • The Greek language does not have the indefinite article (English “a” or “an”), so the function of the Greek article is already very different from English.
  • Unlike English, Greek “linguists and grammarians have long since abandoned the idea that the Greek article’s main function is to definitize.”[5]

ἐν πνεύματι in All of the New Testament

After consulting all of John’s uses in his gospel, as well as the rules of grammar, it is still best to gather more data. Table 2 provides every occurrence of ἐν πνεύματι in the entire New Testament, 4 of which appear in John’s Revelation. Out of these thirty-five total times, ἐν πνεύματι occurs with no modifier (e.g. ἁγίῳ) fourteen times. In all fourteen occurrences, it is translated with the article in reference to the Holy Spirit (“in/with/by the Spirit”). It is also interesting to note that only four of the thirty-five occurrences of ἐν πνεύματι are not translated in reference to the Holy Spirit. These four occurrences have some kind of modifier (e.g. ἀκαθάρτῳ is “unclean”) indicating that specific human spirit.

Table 2 – ἐν πνεύματι in all of the New Testament
Ephesians 2:22ἐν πνεύματι in the SpiritSpirit
Ephesians 3:5ἐν πνεύματι in the SpiritSpirit
Ephesians 6:18ἐν πνεύματι in the SpiritSpirit
Colossians 1:8ἐν πνεύματι in the SpiritSpirit
1 Timothy 3:16ἐν πνεύματιin the SpiritSpirit
Rev. 1:10ἐν πνεύματιin the SpiritSpirit
Rev. 4:2ἐν πνεύματιin the SpiritSpirit
Rev. 17:3ἐν πνεύματιin the SpiritSpirit
Rev. 21:10ἐν πνεύματιin the SpiritSpirit
Romans 8:9ἐν πνεύματιin the SpiritSpirit
Matthew 22:43ἐν πνεύματιin the SpiritSpirit
Acts 1:5ἐν πνεύματιwith the Holy SpiritSpirit
Ephesians 5:18ἐν πνεύματι with the SpiritSpirit
Romans 2:29ἐν πνεύματιby the SpiritSpirit
Matthew 12:28ἐν πνεύματι θεοῦby the Spirit of GodSpirit
1 Cor. 12:3ἐν πνεύματι θεοῦby the Spirit of GodSpirit
Jude 1:20ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳin the Holy SpiritSpirit
1 Thes. 1:5ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳin the Holy SpiritSpirit
Romans 9:1ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳin the Holy SpiritSpirit
Romans 14:17ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ in the Holy SpiritSpirit
2 Cor. 6:6ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳin the Holy SpiritSpirit
John 1:33ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳin the Holy GhostSpirit
1 Cor. 12:3ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ by the Holy SpiritSpirit
Romans 15:16ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ by the Holy SpiritSpirit
1 Peter 1:12ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳby the Holy SpiritSpirit
Acts 11:16ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳwith the Holy SpiritSpirit
Mark 1:8ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ with the Holy SpiritSpirit
Luke 3:16ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρίwith the Holy Spirit and fireSpirit
Matthew 3:11ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρίwith the Holy Spirit and fireSpirit
John 4:23ἐν πνεύματι καὶ ἀληθείᾳin spirit and truth?
John 4:24ἐν πνεύματι καὶ ἀληθείᾳin spirit and truth?
Luke 1:17ἐν πνεύματι… Ἡλίαin the spirit…of Elijahhuman
Galatians 6:1ἐν πνεύματι πραΰτητος in a spirit of gentlenessattitude
Mark 1:23ἐν πνεύματι ἀκαθάρτῳwith an unclean spiritdemon
Mark 5:2ἐν πνεύματι ἀκαθάρτῳwith an unclean spiritdemon

What is to be done with this information? It is unwise to draw a conclusion, since multiple translations are still within the realm of possibility. Clearly, “in the Spirit” is a viable translation, and may in fact be the most common translation of this prepositional phrase. However, without a doubt, the clearest support for the translation of “in the Spirit” is John’s development of a theology of the Holy Spirit. We will explore this in the next post.

[1] Other modern translations could have been used in this project, but the NASB represents a conservative approach to translation and fairly represents the majority of translations the majority of the time. Also, since the NASB translators disagree with my proposition that John 4:23-24 should be translated at “in the Spirit” this, in my mind, is fair for the opposite viewpoint.

[2] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the NT (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 247.

[3] Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics.

[4] Christian Askeland, John’s Gospel: The Coptic Translations of Its Greek Text (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co, 2012), 56.

[5] Daniel Wallace, review of The Greek Article: A Functional Grammar of Ὁ-Items in the Greek New Testament with Special Emphasis On the Greek Article, by Ronald D. Peters, Review of Biblical Literature (September 2015).

2 Responses

  1. ἐν πνεύματι καὶ ἀληθείᾳ It’s not the absence of the article that makes me feel that it’s not the Holy Spirit that is in view here, but the close connection with ἀληθείᾳ. I feel that it needs to have a meaning of the same type as ‘truth’, so I don’t feel it’s the human spirit either, but rather ‘in the spiritual realm’ or ‘in a spiritual way’, although neither of these are at all satisfactory. Plummer, ‘Cambridge Greek Testament, St. John’, 1913, at 4:23: “ἐν πνεύματι. This is opposed to what is material, carnal, and of the earth: ‘this mountain’, the Temple, limitations of time, and space and nation.”

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Daniel Aaron Webster - blog a thing worth doing - worship, culture, ministry - early Christian music

Daniel Aaron Webster is a minister, writer, and teacher. His primary research interest is early Christian music, especially the musical thought of Clement of Alexandria.

Daniel serves at Welch College as Director of Enrollment & Marketing and as Adjunct Instructor of Music & Theology. He is also the Associate Pastor for Music & Worship at Immanuel Church in Gallatin, TN. 

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