John 4:23-24 — ‘God is a spirit’ [?] — LeGrand Baker

The Savior said to the woman at the well,

23 But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.
24 God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24).

That can be a very confusing scripture. It sounds like John is saying God is a spirit, and we must worship with our spirit. That might sound reasonable for people who believe that their “faith” is all that is necessary for salvation because the way they live their lives has no bearing on the matter. The renowned Bible scholar David Noel Freedman characterized that kind of faith this way.

Faith is a peculiarly Christian concept. While other religious traditions have aspects of what the churches have come to name “faith,” none has the specific quality of intellectual assent that distinguishes faith from fidelity. The problem of faith and the central discussion of it arises in the context of the medieval attempts to codify and integrate the Christian experience into the emerging philosophical language of the scholastics. {1}

As Latter-day Saints, we know that God is more than just a spirit and that worshiping him requires much more than a “spiritual” adherence to what one supposes is the truth. So the question is, “How do we deal with this strange passage of scripture?”

The word “spirit” (Strong # 4151) is used three times in those verses, but even the definition of the Greek word from which they are translated does not help us understand what the sentence means.

My old copy of Strong defines # 4151, pneûma, as:

a current of air, i.e. breath (blast) or a breeze; by analogy or figuratively, a spirit, i.e. (human) the rational soul, (by implication) vital principle, mental disposition, etc., or (superhuman) an angel, demon, or (divine) God, Christ’s spirit, the Holy Spirit:–ghost, life, spirit(-ual, -ually), mind.

We came across that word not long ago when we were discussing Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus. There the word is used five times, and one of them is translated as “wind.”

5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit [# 4151], he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit [# 4151] is spirit [# 4151].
7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
8 The wind [# 4151] bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit [# 4151].
9 Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? (John 3:5-9). {2}

In the account of Jesus’s baptism, it may represent the shechinah. {3}

32 And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit [# 4151] descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him (John 1:32).

It has an even richer meaning in Luke 23:46.

44 And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour.
45 And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst.
46 And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit [# 4151]: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost. [#1606 breathed his last]
47 Now when the centurion saw what was done, he glorified God, saying, Certainly this was a righteous man (Luke 23:44-47).

An online version of Strong’s Concordance, breaks down its uses this way:

The KJV translates Strongs G4151 in the following manner: Spirit (111x), Holy Ghost (89x), Spirit (of God) (13x), Spirit (of the Lord) (5x), (My) Spirit (3x), Spirit (of truth) (3x), Spirit (of Christ) (2x), human (spirit) (49x), (evil) spirit (47x), spirit (general) (26x), spirit (8x), (Jesus’ own) spirit (6x), (Jesus’ own) ghost (2x), misc (21x). {4}

So by simply analyzing the meanings of the word, we really have no clue what is meant by “God is a Spirit.”

Fortunately, the Prophet Joseph has done the job for us. In place of the KJV’s “God is a Spirit,” the Inspired Version has, “For unto such hath God promised his Spirit.” So the sentence reads,

25 And the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth; for the Father seeketh such to worship him.
26 For unto such hath God promised his Spirit. And they who worship him, must worship in spirit and in truth (JST John 4:25-26). {5}
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A really important line is, “The Father seeketh such to worship him.” We can passively read that as being about missionary work, but there is nothing passive about the verb “seeketh,” especially when Jesus uses it to describe his Father’s involvement in our salvation. A fascinating scripture that suggests what that may mean is this one:

11 Q. What are we to understand by sealing the one hundred and forty-four thousand, out of all the tribes of Israel—twelve thousand out of every tribe?
A. We are to understand that those who are sealed are high priests, ordained unto the holy order of God, to administer the everlasting gospel; for they are they who are ordained out of every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, by the angels to whom is given power over the nations of the earth, to bring as many as will come to the church of the Firstborn (D&C 77:11).

Another is at the conclusion of the Beatitudes. I have described the Beatitudes as saying everything we need to know during this entire lifetime, but it takes a lifetime to know what the Beatitudes say. In that light, it is interesting and important to note that they are followed immediately by a charge to teach the gospel.

13 Verily, verily, I say unto you, I give unto you to be the salt of the earth; but if the salt shall lose its savor wherewith shall the earth be salted? The salt shall be thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men (3 Nephi 12:13).

Some time ago I wrote a short article that appeared in the Ensign called, “What does it Mean to be the ‘Salt of the Earth?’” It is not very long, and I would like to quote it here.

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The scriptural phrase “salt of the earth” has come to mean many things. In likening the scriptures unto ourselves (see 1 Ne. 19:23), we may sometimes overlook the author’s primary intent and the key points of comparison in his use of metaphor. A full understanding and appreciation of a given passage of scripture may thus elude us.

That sometimes appears to be the case with the metaphor of salt. Perhaps we have observed that just as salt enhances the taste of certain foods, so we must be as salt, living our lives to bless and enhance the lives of others and make the gospel palatable to them. We may have also noted that salt is a preservative not unlike the preserving influence of righteous Saints who uphold gospel ideals in a world of shifting values.

While such applications are relevant and meaningful to Latter-day Saints worldwide, to the ancients the central figurative meaning of salt had to do not with taste but with smell.

When sacrifices were offered upon the altars of ancient Israel, the Israelites did not give the Lord the flesh of the animal, the fruit of the ground, or the ashes or smoke of such sacrifices. The acceptable part of the offering presented to the Lord was the smell, “a sweet savour unto the Lord” (Leviticus 1:17).

In the Bible, the word savour most often refers to the pleasant smell of burning sacrifice in the Temple. To ensure that the smell would be sweet, the Mosaic law required that the offering be liberally sprinkled with salt.

The scent of an unsalted burnt offering would be the stench of scorched flesh. But if the meat were generously salted, the odor would be quite different, due to the reaction of the salt upon the cells that compose animal flesh. Under high-salt conditions, cellular fluid rapidly escapes the cells to dilute the salts outside cell membranes. When accentuated by heat, these fluids cause a sweet savor to emanate.

The Lord’s requirements concerning their offerings was clear. Referring to “the salt of the covenant,” the Lord instructed ancient Israel, “With all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt” (Lev. 2:13). Flavius Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, explained how that was done. He wrote that the priests “cleanse the bodies [of the sacrificial animals], and divide them into parts, and salt them with salt, and lay them upon the altar, while the pieces of wood are piled one upon another and the fire is burning. … This is the way of offering a burnt offering” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, trans. Whiston, 1876, 3:9:1).

The purpose of the law of performances and ordinances given to the children of Israel through Moses was to point their souls to Christ and to bear witness of His gospel.
The atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ perfectly fulfilled the law of Moses and ended blood sacrifice. The resurrected Lord explained the new law of sacrifice to His followers on the American continent: “Ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away.

“And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost” (3 Ne. 9:19-20).

In this context the charge to be the “salt of the earth” takes on marvelous significance. The Lord said, “I give unto you to be the salt of the earth; but if the salt shall lose its savor wherewith shall the earth be salted?” (3 Ne. 12:13). The Savior’s audience no doubt understood the law of Moses and the close connection between salt and acceptable sacrifice.

It is clear that under the new covenant the followers of Christ, as “salt,” are responsible for extending gospel blessings to the whole earth. “When men are called unto mine everlasting gospel, and covenant with an everlasting covenant,” the Lord explains, “they are accounted as the salt of the earth and the savor of men” (D&C 101:39). It is our privilege and blessing to lovingly lead our brothers and sisters to Christ, helping them receive their covenant blessings. As we do so, we become the figurative salt that makes it possible for them to offer the acceptable sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit. In addition, our own covenant sacrifice of time, talents, and means is pleasing to the Lord.

This tremendous responsibility of helping bring salvation to others is coupled with caution: “But if the salt shall lose its savor wherewith shall the earth be salted? The salt shall be thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men” (3 Ne. 12:13). Salt used anciently for sacrifice could easily lose its savor, and always for the same reason—impurity. If such impure salt was heated, the combination of impurities and salt can result in an unpleasant odor. It was therefore discarded, lest its use desecrate the sacrifice and offend the Lord.

Likewise, we are displeasing to the Lord to the degree that we are impure and ineffective “not the saviors of men,” but instead “as salt that has lost its savor” (D&C 103:10).

So how do we become the salt of the earth? The Apostle Paul points out that charity is a key to this process: “Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; “And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour” (Eph. 5:1-2). We must seek to love others purely, as the Savior loves us. It is through this love that we can help bring souls to Him, that they and we might be found acceptable “unto God a sweet savour of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:15). {6}
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FOOTNOTES

{1} David Noel Freedman, “Faith,”The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Doubleday, New York, 1992, vol. 2 p. 744-745

{2} For a discussion of this passage use the search engine to find “John 3:8-12 — The Breath of Life (Nicodemus, part 3).”

{3} Use search engine to find, “Ether 2 & 3 — veil of light, of fire, of cloud, shechinah.”

{4} The online version of Strong’s Concordance is www.eliyah.com/lexicon.html

{5} John 4:23-24 are verses 25-26 in JST.

{6}LeGrand L. Baker, “What does it mean to be the ‘salt of the earth’?” Ensign 29, (4 April 1999): 53-54

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