In 1677, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek had a crazy idea. While observing diseases and infections, it seemed to him that something unseen was at work. Something so small that he couldn’t detect it. Leeuwenhoek tested this idea and discovered bacteria. He is now considered the father of microbiology.
Just because something is unseen doesn’t mean it doesn’t have substance, or that it isn’t real. Simply not being able to perceive a person or reality doesn’t mean that it can’t have an epic impact. People die from diseases and infections every day, and Leeuwenhoek discovered a whole new world previously unseen to us. Understanding more about that world has saved lives.
In the Gospel of John, while speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus makes a bold declaration. “God is Spirit” (John 14:24). While a simple statement, it has profound implications if true. Life-altering implications. However simple, the words “God” and “spirit” are also open to a host of interpretations and can be confusing.
Leeuwenhoek’s theories could be tested, especially providentially assisted by new technology like a microscope. Tested and proved. But when a wandering prophet says, “God is Spirit,” what can that mean? Is it true?
What Does God Is Spirit Mean?
Jesus makes this statement in the middle of the conversation with the woman at the well. He first asks a question to dignify her and engage her. “Get me a drink of water,” crossed religious, racial, and cultural barriers and showed her she had something to give.
Her response was to point out their racial differences, how Jews wouldn’t deal with the unclean and half-breed Samaritans, deftly designed to start an argument and divide them.
Jesus didn’t take the bait. He told her that, in reality, he has water to give her, immortal water that when she drank it, she’d never thirst again, contrasted with the water she could see—she would need more of that later. In fact, Jesus’ immortal water would produce more immortal water from within her. In other words, Jesus points to something not physical. Not temporary. Something spiritual and eternal.
When she asked to have this water, Jesus dealt with her heart. In asking about her husband, he revealed that he already knew her innermost secrets, the things that shamed her. He exposed her heart, her failings.
No one likes to be exposed, so she tried to start an argument again, a distraction to push him away. The racial one didn’t work, so she tried the religious one. “Samaritans worship on the mountain in Samaria. Jews worship at Jerusalem.”
Again, Jesus didn’t take the bait. He lifts her vision higher. God can’t be contained in a temple, or on a mountain, a truth she could have read from David’s conversation with the Lord centuries earlier (2 Samuel 7). God is too big. But he’s also of a different substance. God is Spirit.
Jesus’ declaration that “God is Spirit” is the conclusion of his continued attempts to lift her vision off the physical. Off her gender limitations. Off racial divisions. Off religious conflicts. He goes from the unseen within her, her own heart, and her failed attempts to have a secure and loving relationship, to the unseen reality of who God is.
Her misdirected longings, while unseen and buried in her heart, had tragic consequences in failure, guilt, and such shame that she went to get water in the middle of the day to avoid her community.
God is made up of a different substance than what we physically see. That substance is Spirit. Spirit is immortal, eternal, and omnipotent. Since he is Spirit, he must be worshipped that way. Not by race or gender or in a specific place. God can then be worshipped from anywhere by anyone. Only a God of the unseen realm can be the solution to the unseen longings of our hearts.
That invitation so excited her, the woman was in such a rush she left her water jar and ran to tell her community, the same town she attempted to avoid, about this man.
What Does the Bible Say about the Spirit of God?
The Apostle Paul also describes the substance of spiritual things in 2 Corinthians 15. In the chapter, Paul highlights the resurrection, the truth that all born-again followers of Jesus will be resurrected in new bodies. Death will not be the end. Death has been defeated. We will live on in a different kind of body. This is central to the Gospel.
But what kind of body? While Paul concedes that we shouldn’t waste too much time on that question, he does explain that we will have a body like Jesus’ resurrected body, but that it will be made from a different substance. A spiritual one. A different substance, but a substance it is.
What was Jesus’ body like after his resurrection? They could touch him. He still had his scars. But the body didn’t operate by our rules anymore. He popped in and out of rooms (John 20:19). He flew up when he ascended, like a superhero.
Beyond these important principles, the Bible has much to say about the Spirit. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20). Our rebirth is, at its core, a spiritual one (John 3:5-6). The Law brings death; the Spirit brings life (2 Corinthians 3:6). Therefore, the gift of the Spirit is the ultimate gift to us by a Father who loves us (Luke 11:3). The Spirit is a witness that testifies of Jesus (John 15:26), seals us for Heaven (Ephesians 4:30), shares God’s thoughts with us (1 Corinthians 2:11), gives us power (Romans 15:13) and freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17). When we walk in that Spirit (Romans 8:1-3), we won’t sin and will have boldness to speak truth (Acts 4:31).
In speaking of the Spirit as substance, we can’t miss that he is also a Person. The Spirit is a substance that acts as a Person, someone who does relational things. The Spirit works out God’s will, is active, speaks, thinks, feels, can be offended, bears witness, testifies, and more.
The night before Jesus’ death, he spent time teaching intimate revelation, a type of “last words” exchange. Within that conversation, Jesus shared a great deal about the Holy Spirit, using male personal pronouns in the Greek (ekeinos, John 14:17, John 16:8, 16:13). Let’s make sure we remember the Spirit is a Person, too.
Why Is This Concept Sometimes Hard to Grasp?
Often, when we say, “God is Spirit,” then we imagine a ghost. Actually, another word for the Holy Spirit is the Holy Ghost. Beginning with the ancients and continuing to this day, a spirit or ghost is often viewed as immaterial, like a mist or a vapor that we can’t hold or touch. It is difficult, then, to imagine that when Jesus said, “God is Spirit,” that he was revealing that God was made of a different substance, not that he was like a cloud.
The first heresy of the church dealt with this very issue. Gnosticism, at least in part, was a rejection of everything material, as if material things were in and of themselves evil. If that were true, therefore, then Jesus couldn’t have been fully man while being fully God. According to the Gnostics, either he wasn’t God or he was just a ghost walking around, an apparition.
The New Testament doesn’t teach this, of course. As shown above, the reality isn’t that God is immaterial, only that he is made of a different material, an UNSEEN one. A spiritual, eternal, transcendent material.
Why Is it Important That God Is Spirit according to John 4:24?
If God was immaterial, he would have no power. He would just be a voice or vision without any real impact. The power would still reside in us, which doesn’t actually change anything. Since God is Spirit, he’s not bound by the limitations of our dimension and reality. And if he can transcend our limitations, then change is possible. Transformation is available.
For our initial creation, God made us in his image and likeness. This tells us something about ourselves, that the most intimate part of us isn’t physical or emotional but spiritual. It is our spirits that have been corrupted, the very core of our being, through the Fall of Adam and sin. True change must begin with the renewal of our spirits. Then that will affect the emotional (peace, joy, love, etc.), which in turn leads to the transformation of our physical to a new body at the resurrection.
For God to share his Spirit with us, he shares his very nature, his divine nature. If that is his nature, then it follows that the one sin that Jesus taught was “unforgivable” was the sin against the Spirit (Matthew 12:31-32).
God’s love seeks to bring us into his family, so he gives us his DNA in the Spirit. Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3 that we must be born again to see and enter the Kingdom. Back to Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 15, he tells us that “flesh and blood” (i.e., our current material) can’t inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. We can’t live in Heaven in our current form, we need to be made of a spiritual substance to live in that Heavenly, spiritual reality.
All of this gives us hope! God as Spirit means he is with us forever! No one can separate us. Sin, death, have no hold over us. We have a future that is eternally secure and full of wonder and wealth and goodness. We have an inheritance and reward that no one, nothing in this world, can take away. And it will be real and tangible, all in a New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 21:1-4), not ghosts walking around the clouds.
As a final note, “God is Spirit” should guide our interactions with a lost and dying world. Our world is divided over politics, race, geography, culture, and more. More arguments on those topics won’t fix it. That’s a lateral move and a distraction away from the real solution.
Jesus wouldn’t allow himself to be baited into those arguments with the Samaritan woman because he loved her. The Father sent Jesus to dignify her, expose the deepest longings of her heart that had gone unfulfilled, and point her to the solution of a God of the unseen she could worship immediately and attain the relational satisfaction she had sought her whole life.
We must do the same. It isn’t that politics or race or culture or sexuality don’t matter, but we have been sent into our communities and relationships not to argue but to dignify every person made in the image of God with intrinsic worth, asking questions and telling stories that expose the unseen longings of our hearts, and call each other to a God who is both more transcendent and intimate than anything this world has to offer, all because he is not of this world.
That is the solution to those divisions. Unity in God, who is Spirit.
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/ThitareeSarmkasat
Britt Mooney (with his amazing wife, Becca) has lived as a missionary in Korea, traveled for missions to several countries, and now lives in Suwanee GA as a church planter that works bi-vocationally with Phoenix Roasters, a missional coffee company. He has a podcast about the Kingdom of God called Kingdom Over Coffee and is a published author with Say Yes: How God-Sized Dreams Take Flight.