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Chapter 4 in About God
A Samaritan woman once asked Jesus where her people should worship God -- on Mount Gerizim, as had been their custom, or in Jerusalem. John 4:20. The underlying question was whose religion was correct, stated in terms of the proper place for worship. To this question, Jesus replied:
Woman, believe me, the hour comes, when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, will you worship the Father. You worship that which you don't know. We worship that which we know; for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such to be his worshippers. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.
John 4:21-24 (WEB)
Thus, Jesus answer to the question in what place God should be worshipped was not a physical place at all (1). Rather, it was a spiritual place or condition -- in spirit and in truth. Further, the reason God seeks to be worshipped not in a physical temple but in spirit is that God is spirit. This defines God's substance.
In order to understand what it means that God is spirit, a linguistic observation should first be made. The Hebrew word commonly translated "spirit" has as its primary meaning "breath."(2) Indeed, the King James translators render this word as "breath" in twenty six places. (3) Further, in three passages(4) this Hebrew word, as applied to God, is stated in direct parallel to another word which is rendered "breath" or &wind." (5) Moreover, in John 4:21-24, quoted above, the Greek word pneuma(6) , the primary meaning of which is "breath," "breeze" or "wind," is rendered "spirit" three times. Pneuma is, indeed, the only word used to refer to the spirit of God or of a man in the New Testament(7). The spirits of both God and men are directly compared to the wind in John 3:5-8 (WEB):
Jesus answered, "Most certainly I tell you, unless one is born of water and spirit, he can't enter into the Kingdom of God! That which is born of the flesh is flesh. That which is born of the (8) Spirit is spirit. Don't marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born anew.' The wind blows where it wants to, and you hear its sound, but don't know where it comes from and where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit."
According to this passage, spirit is like wind in three ways: both can be heard but not seen, both are at liberty to act in the world as they please and man does not know the origin or destination of either. Since God can be heard but not seen, it follows that he is not as he is often imagined -- an all-powerful and all-seeing but silent judge. No, God is speaking at all times. As God by his word created all things, so now all things are sustained and held together by his word. Genesis 1:1-2; Hebrews 1:3 & 11:3; Colossians 1:17. Further, the creation declares to us God's glory and deity, so that no man has an excuse to ignore him. Psalm 19:1-4; Romans 1:18-20.
God's voice is not merely a silent witness in nature, it is also an audible voice. In past ages God sent many prophets to speak to Israel his people and, through them, to us. Hebrews 1:1-3; Romans 3:1-2; 1 Corinthians 10:11; 2 Timothy 3:14-16. He demonstrated his freedom to speak to them however he determined best by speaking through regularly designated prophets, angels, women, judges, priests, kings, farmers, shepherds, his enemies, Gentile kings and even on one occasion a donkey.(9) In these last days, we are told, God has spoken to us through his Son, who is the perfect representation of his person. Hebrews 1:2-3.
God's expression of himself through Jesus is absolutely complete. But our reception of that expression is incomplete, and our understanding of it is imperfect. I Corinthians 13:9-12. Moreover, as previously noted, God's design is that Christ live through us. Galatians 2:20; Colossians 3:1-4. Christ lives through us when we follow the desires of the spirit God has given us rather than the desires of the flesh. Galatians 5:16-25. For we have been given a gift which was never enjoyed by people of the ages before Christ came in the flesh -- we have the spirit of God living within us, teaching us all things, guiding us into all truth and making Jesus' things known to us. John 14:25-26 & 16:12-15. Just as a person's spirit knows everything about him, so God's Spirit knows everything that is of God, reveals these things to us and gives us spiritual words with which to express these things to others. I Corinthians 2:6-16. Because God's spirit lives within us, we are his ambassadors, speaking his words to the world on his behalf. Matthew 10:18-20; John 15:26-27; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21. Though God is invisible, he is still speaking to us, to his creation and to the world of men.
Spirit, like the wind, blows wherever it pleases. It is only spirit which has such freedom to act in the world: the Lord is the spirit, and where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 2 Corinthians 3:17. Solomon, the Preacher of Jerusalem, noted the futility of everything that happens in the world as the result of a physical cause -- events happen to be forgotten and happen again; things come into existence to decay, disappear and come into existence again. There is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:5-7. It is the same with the fruit of human efforts -- though we flatter ourselves that our works have made a difference, we die, our works are forgotten to be repeated by someone else and nothing has really changed. Ecclesiastes 1:1-3:15, 5:15-17, 8:8, 9:5-12, 12:6-7. It is spirit which is the real cause of all that is lasting:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty. Darkness was on the surface of the deep. God's Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters. God said, "Let there be light," and there was light... God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over the livestock, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." God created man in his own image. In God's image he created him; male and female he created them... Yahweh God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath (10) of life; and man became a living soul.
Genesis 1:1-3, 1:26-27 & 2:7 (WEB)
It is the spirit who gives life. The flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and are life.
John 6:63 (WEB)
This is the word of the LORD unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the LORD of hosts.
Zechariah 4:6. (KJV)
Remain in me, and I in you. As the branch can't bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me. I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man doesn't remain in me, he is thrown out as a branch, and is withered; and they gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, you will ask whatever you desire, and it will be done for you. In this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit; and so you will be my disciples.
John 15:4-8 (WEB)
The relationship between word and spirit should here be noted. As will be further developed in a later chapter, Jesus is the word of God and all things were created through him. John 1:1-3. Further, as was explained above, God's spirit (breath) was active in creation, and all things were created when God spoke. Genesis 1, passim. Thus, it is said that all things were created through, or by the instrumentality of, God's word (Jesus), his spoken words and his spirit. But there is no contradiction, because these three are one.
Words truly communicate the meanings behind them only when spoken -- i.e., given breath. A listener will not receive or understand an unvoiced message in a speaker's mind. (Nonverbal cues are not an exception to this rule -- the emotions expressed by them are given a "voice" by being put into action). An unexpressed idea is not a word. It can truly be said that words and their expression are one.
Even written words represent spoken words. A person who reads words in his native language does not merely see a collection of characters which are to be translated, computer-style, by reference to a mental translation table. No, one who truly understands what he is reading hears the words as if spoken and forms the idea or image which they represent in his mind. I have learned to read a little Portuguese. However, in Portuguese I read only bundles of symbols and refer them computer-style to translation tables -- sometimes in my mind, sometimes in a published dictionary -- to get English words and grammatical forms. It is these English words and forms which create the corresponding ideas in my mind. Portuguese read in this way is sufficient to communicate dead information, which is enough for many purposes.
However, written words read mechanically are not sufficient to communicate the living thoughts, heart and spirit of the author. Written Portuguese is dead to me; since I cannot speak the language from my heart, I do not really understand it. All words spoken or written, except communications intended to convey only dead technical information, have a spirit which they are intended to convey. The written word remains dead if not spoken -- i.e., given the breath of life -- physically or mentally. All words, even those of God, must be given life, given voice before they can have any effect. Compare, Genesis 1:26-27 with Genesis 2:7. This is why a Bible sitting on a shelf has no effect, while it can bring great light to one who reads it with understanding. Scripture spoken at the right time and in the right way has altered the course of history.
Finally, the world cannot understand spirit, or the course of those who are born of God's spirit. Although everything in this world is passing, beautiful only in its time because sin has rendered this world futile, God created man with eternity in his heart, and men in the natural state still base their lives on the inward premise that all things familiar (including their own lives) will continue forever. Ecclesiastes 3:10-11; Romans 8:20-21; 2 Peter 3:3-4. But this very assumption blinds us to God's working, which must cause change as long as sin is present. Just as we cannot understand the path of the wind(11), so the world cannot understand the acts of God. Ecclesiastes 11:5. To the man without the spirit, the things of the spirit appear foolish, and he cannot understand them. I Corinthians 2:14. The things of God are spiritually discerned -- i.e., spoken by the God who is spirit to the spirits within us. I Corinthians 2:9-16. Only spirit understands spirit.
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© 1998, 2005 Ian Johnson
Next Page: Chapter 5. God is Light
Some Thoughts and Tracts
for the Gospel
Speaking in Unknown Tongues
and Related Issues
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