James Nisbet Commentary - John 4:24 - 4:24

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James Nisbet Commentary - John 4:24 - 4:24

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‘God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.’


It is impossible to imagine a subject that more intimately affects the daily life of every one of us. I think we shall best get hold of it if we first study on general principles the sacred office of the Holy Spirit in all true worship.

I. Let us begin, then, with the office of the Holy Spirit in all Scriptural worship.—In order to see this clearly, we must bear in mind three most important truths.

(a) True worship is the worship of the living God, of Him of Whom our Lord declares, ‘God is a Spirit.’

(b) A second great principle is that true worship is the act of the inner man.

(c) A third essential to spiritual worship is that it must be through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

II. Now let us turn to the application of these general principles to public and private worship.—In one respect there is a great difference between the two, viz. in this, that in our private devotions we can have much greater liberty than we can in our public worship. But in public worship we must have a form. Whether that form is carefully prepared beforehand, or constructed at the time by any one individual, it is equally a form, and without some such form it is perfectly impossible that a thousand persons should unite in worship.

(a) The use of form, arrangement, or order, is not necessarily opposed to the movement of the Spirit.

(b) But we may go a step further, and we shall find that order or arrangement may not only not hinder but may greatly help the soul in the reception of the work of the Holy Spirit.

(c) But though it is clear that external arrangements may greatly assist our spiritual worship, it is of the utmost importance that we should never for one moment forget that they are utterly powerless in producing it, and that the Holy Ghost is the author of all acceptable worship in public and in private.

Rev. Canon Edward Hoare.


‘We all seek to have our worship, both public and private, full of faith, full of love, full of deep humiliation, full of praise, and full of thanksgiving; and in order to have this, let us earnestly resolve never to be satisfied with any mere animal impression, but seek rather to be full of the Holy Ghost and power. Let us take good care that everything shall be in beautiful order: the church clean and in good repair; the music good, though not too elaborate; the singing spirited; and the prayers intelligently prayed. But when we have done all, let us remember that the fire must come from God; let our prayer be, “Breathe, oh! breathe upon us that we may live”; and let us look for such a manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s mighty power, that man, and all that man can do, may disappear and be forgotten in the all-absorbing presence of the invisible God.’



Our religion is a true religion, a deep religion, a high religion, a wide religion, in proportion as it grasps more and more firmly the spiritual aspect of religion—as it recognises more fully that the highest revelation, the revelation which gives light and force to natural religion, and to historical religion, is spiritual religion.

Let me illustrate the value of this truth by taking a few obvious instances.

I. Let any one who may be perplexed by thinking of the Divine Nature, observe how many difficulties are cleared away by dwelling on this aspect of it.—As when we ask, What is a man? The answer is, not his body, but his spirit; not his outward form, but his inward affections; so when we ask, What is God? Whilst there is much that we cannot answer, yet, when we think of Him as a Spirit, we are taught to believe that it is in His Spirit that we can best understand Him—that is, in those attributes of goodness, love, and wisdom which are most the same attributes in man.

II. The same truth places in their proper light all the words or phrases which either in the Bible or elsewhere have been used to describe the nature of God.—Forms of expression which describe Him by physical or metaphysical analogies, if taken literally, lead us away from the spiritual—that is, the essential—nature of God. ‘God is Spirit,’ ‘God is Light,’ ‘God is Love.’ Let us hold fast to those three definitions, which all express to us the spiritual and the moral nature of God, and which, therefore, express to us the very essence of the Christian faith.

III. This same aspect of the Divine nature tells us by what means it is that He wills that the world should be brought towards Him.—Not by compulsion, not by fire and sword, not by external decrees of authority, not by reproaches or curses, but by the ready assent of the spirit of man seeking and finding its communion with the Spirit of God. The blasphemy which shall not be forgiven is not that against the Son of Man (that is, mistakes a man makes concerning the outward form in which the Divine truth is manifested), but that against the Holy Ghost (that is, hatred of goodness, because it is goodness).

IV. It is through the inward spirit of all things, not through their outward form, that God is to be approached.—God can be worshipped anywhere—in Jerusalem as well as in Gerizim, in Gerizim as well as in Jerusalem—if He be worshipped in spirit and in truth. The plainest worship becomes unspiritual if we have lost the meaning of it. The most elaborate worship is spiritual if it helps us to do our duty, to be more loving to men, and more devoted to God.

V. This value of the spiritual aspect of religion is yet more visible in proportion as we apply it to the whole history of the human race, or of the human being.—There has never failed altogether a succession of those good men who have seen the spirit beneath the letter, the meaning beneath the form, the sense beneath the nonsense, the moral beyond the material; and these have been the true backbone of Christendom. What would the early Church have been without such men as Clement of Alexandria, and Chrysostom of Constantinople? How much power would the mediaeval Church have been without Thomas à Kempis; the Church of the Reformation without Erasmus; the Church of England without Hooker, Jeremy Taylor, and Butler; or the Church of Scotland without the apostolic name of Leighton? It is the perception of this universal and far-reaching element which forms the connecting thread of those articles at the close of the Creed common to all Western Churches (‘the holy Catholic Church,’ ‘the communion of saints,’ ‘the forgiveness of sins,’ ‘the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting’), which, as if by a natural instinct, have gradually fastened themselves to the single article of the primitive Church, which says, ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit.’

Dean Stanley.