“My prayer closet, or my local church, is holier than the Temple Mount.” When we started our movement, Cry For Zion, in 2014, this was the response from one of the most influential Christian Zionist leaders in Jerusalem.
We contended that Christians should join Jews in solidarity for their sovereignty and right to pray on the Temple Mount. After all, the Gospels say Jesus was consumed with a passionate zeal for God’s House in Jerusalem (John 2:17). Shouldn’t his followers have something of a similar passion?
Thank God, a lot has changed over the past decade. But in 2014, sitting in the office of one of the most prominent Christian pro-Israel organizations in the world, the flat response was: forget it. “My prayer closet is holier than the Temple Mount.”
This (among a few other objections) is one of the biggest issues for Christians regarding the Temple Mount. Didn’t Jesus say, “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” (John 4:21)? What did he mean?
This question goes back to an even bigger one: for Christians, is there any legitimately holy space?
Christians have often called Israel, terra sancta, the “Holy Land.” Aside from a convenient way for Christians to de-Judaize the land and avoid saying the name “Israel” when the church has classically spoken of the “Holy Land,” it is not that the land has kept its essential holiness in God’s eyes (as in biblical times). It is holy simply because of the past—here, Jesus walked and talked, died, and rose again. That makes the land somewhat unique or “holy.”
These questions touch on God’s sovereign choice and whether God can change or contradict his own words. Are the Jewish people still God’s uniquely chosen people? For all of us who have rejected replacement theology (aka, supersessionism, see notes below),* the answer is, “Of course, they’re still God’s chosen people.”
The same principle applies to God’s Holy Mountain in Jerusalem.
If the city of Jerusalem—or the land of Israel—is still special, how much more so Mount Zion, which makes Jerusalem holy in the first place? And, if God chose the Jewish people forever, doesn’t the same apply if he chose the Temple Mount to place his Name there forever?
God told King Solomon, “I have consecrated this house that you have built, by putting my name there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time” (1 Kings 9:3). “For the LORD has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his dwelling place: ‘This is my resting place forever; here I will dwell, for I have desired it’” (Psalm 132:13–14). God told Ezekiel, “Son of man, this is the place of my throne and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the people of Israel forever” (Ezekiel 43:7).
So yes, in biblical theology (without supersessionism), God’s Holy Mountain in Jerusalem is still very special. It’s from this perspective we need to look deeper at Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John.
The Samaritan Woman
Jesus had recently celebrated the pilgrimage festival of Passover in Jerusalem (John 2:23, 3:22), and was traveling from Judea through Samaria when he stopped to rest at Jacob’s well by the city of Shechem. He ended up in a discussion with a Samaritan woman.
The Samaritans were descended from Assyrian deportees and some Israelite refugees in the 700s BCE (2 Kings 17:22–35). The Samaritans had developed their own religion based on a version of the Law of Moses. In the Law, or Torah, God had promised he would choose a place in the Promised Land where he would “make his name dwell” and where everyone should come to worship (Deuteronomy 12:1–14). This is what later became Mount Zion in Jerusalem during the time of David and Solomon.
The Samaritans, however, claimed that the chosen place God intended was Mount Gerizim in Samaria, which is also mentioned in the Torah. They even built their own temple there, which was destroyed in 128 BCE. Yet, they kept worshiping on Mount Gerizim and claimed it was the true temple of God.
The Samaritan woman eventually realized that Jesus is a true prophet and immediately wanted to know, who was right, the Jews or the Samaritans?
“Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship” (John 4:19–21).
“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:21–22).
Jesus seems to have alluded to a coming hour when the Romans would destroy Jerusalem and desolate the whole land. Then it would not be as much of a question of worshiping God at either place. Secondly, from the very dedication of the First Temple, Solomon had made it clear that the Creator of the universe is not contained in a building. As the Bible clearly shows, we can pray to God anywhere. At the same time, God did sanctify Mount Zion in a special way as the dwelling of his Name and reputation forever, and he made promises about it (1 Kings 8–9).
Throughout their conversation, Jesus repeatedly shifted the focus from debate to the woman’s spiritual situation. However, he did not leave her specific question unanswered. He responded with a resounding defense of the Jewish position.
He basically told her, “We Jews know what we’re doing. You Samaritans don’t.” That means that God’s Holy Mountain in Jerusalem is really the Father’s house—the true Temple of God. “Salvation” and all it entails, not only was, but “is from the Jews.”
This answer is crucial to keep in mind if we are tempted to think that Jesus declared Jerusalem’s Holy Mountain void in the plan of God.
In Spirit and Truth
“But the hour is coming, and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23–24).
As he continued, Jesus not only said that “an hour is coming,” but “the hour is coming, and is now here…” This doesn’t seem to refer to Jerusalem’s destruction but to the coming kingdom of God—the Messianic Age. One day, the kingdom will come in fullness. And yet, the New Testament teaches that we can have a foretaste, now, of the age to come (Hebrews 6:5), a downpayment, now, of the Spirit of God (Ephesians 1:14), guaranteeing the full inheritance on the Day of the Lord. Through the gift of God’s Spirit, we can worship God in the way he has always desired, in spirit and truth. Whether we are in Jerusalem or not, whether we are Jewish or not, this is foundational and essential.
However, when interpreting this verse, there are some crucial things to keep in mind: (1) reading vague passages in the light of clear ones; (2) reading texts in the light of the whole Canon; and (3), what is spirit and truth?
The Whole Canon
As most Gospel readers are aware, the deep, spiritual, and powerful language of John is often a bit vague and open to interpretation. To clarify more vague language, we always need to zoom out and keep clearer passages in mind. We need to read canonically, in light of the whole “counsel of God.” God does not change. He always keeps his promises. He does not contradict himself. Errors creep in whenever one “truth” is elevated to contradict another in Scripture. This can be likened to making a “canon” within the Canon. Many have done it and it always leads to theological shipwreck in the end.
Jesus, who taught on worshiping in spirit and truth, also said we should not even entertain the thought that he had “come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets” (Matthew 5:17). His apostles echoed the same truth. Paul declared, “I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets” (Acts 24:14). Unlike some liberal scholars, Jesus firmly held that “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). And the same Gospel which speaks of spirit and truth says Jesus was consumed with zeal for God’s House on the Temple Mount (John 2:17).
Jesus’ deep words in John 4 must then be read in light of his other statements and the rest of Scripture. This does not mean we relegate John 4 to less important, spiritual obscurity. God forbid! But it limits how the text can legitimately be interpreted.
Mount Zion, the Temple Mount, is the place God constantly told Moses would be the place he would choose to place his Name. In the time of the kings, God did place his Name and reputation there forever (1 Kings 9:3, Psalm 132). The Prophets foresee a glorious future for God’s Holy Mountain. Isaiah 2 refers to the physical Hill in the hot and dusty Middle East and describes something that has not yet happened, not even when Jesus came. Zion is the very throne of God on Earth (Ezekiel 43). The great kingdom banquet has yet to come and death has not yet been swallowed up forever. And it is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem today that is eternally linked to this promise in Isaiah 25.
Spirit and Truth Revisited
Finally, how do we understand “spirit and truth” in John 4?
“Truth” cannot be read in contradiction to the Law and the Prophets, to cancel the election of Jerusalem. “The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever” said the psalmist (119:160). Paul said the Torah is “the embodiment of knowledge and truth” (Romans 2:20). Thus, worshiping “in spirit and truth” cannot contradict worshiping according to God’s revelation in Scripture, including the details of God’s Temple. Following biblical instruction is obviously the right way to worship the God of the Bible.
What about “spirit?” It is not a contradiction between inward worship in one’s spirit and outward actions or rituals. As Raymond Brown—a world-renowned expert on the Gospel of John—points out: “Jesus is not contrasting external worship with internal worship. His statement has nothing to do with worshiping God in the inner recesses of one’s own spirit; for the spirit is the Spirit of God, not the spirit of man … an ideal of purely internal worship ill fits the NT scene.”**
Brown stresses that the text refers to God’s Spirit, not the human spirit. John 4 addresses our human lack, and the need to worship in the light of God’s revelation and through the Spirit that God gives.
Furthermore, all Scripture is “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16); his instructions are Spirit-breathed truth. Scripture is called the “Sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17). God’s instructions regarding worship in Jerusalem are, therefore, also Spirit-breathed truth. Thus, “spirit” cannot be read as a contradiction of the same.
In summary, Jesus was very firm on the fact that his people, the Jewish people, knew what they were doing—meaning the Temple Mount was the right place, chosen by God. Jesus then shifted the conversation to what he really wanted to discuss: the woman’s spiritual situation and the need to worship in spirit and truth. Whether we are in Jerusalem or not, whether we are Jewish or not, we can personally encounter God. This in no way contradicts Jesus’ previous affirmation about God’s Holy Mountain.
Ultimately, the question of one’s personal prayer closet is a question of replacement theology.* It has been said that later Christian theology was an attempt to interpret the Bible, while removing its geographic and ethnic center. Has God rejected his chosen, Holy Mountain, along with the Jewish people, in favor of universal love for the whole world? Never! And that is not a contradiction. The Temple Mount is still the holiest place in the world, and God still loves the whole world. In fact, God has worked, is working, and will work through that special place to bless us all.
John Enarson is the Christian Relations Director at Cry For Zion (cryforzion.com). He is happy to receive input or questions about his articles.
* “Replacement Theology” (a.k.a. “Supersessionism,” now often called “Fulfillment Theology”) is the belief that “the church has taken the place of the Jewish people as God’s chosen community, and that God’s covenant with the Jews is now over and done. By extension, the term can be used to refer to any interpretation of Christian faith generally or the status of the church in particular that claims or implies the abrogation or obsolescence of God’s covenant with the Jewish people.“ (R. Kendall Soulen, “Supersessionism,” in A Dictionary of Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge University Press, 2005, 413-14). Fully rejecting Replacement Theology as unbiblical is called a “Post-Supersessionist” view, defined as “a family of theological perspectives that affirms God’s irrevocable covenant with the Jewish people as a central and coherent part of ecclesial teaching. It rejects understandings of the new covenant that entail the abrogation or obsolescence of God’s covenant with the Jewish people, of the Torah as a demarcator of Jewish communal identity, or of the Jewish people themselves” (Society For Post-Supersessionist Theology, spostst.org). Note that it should not be confused with “Dual Covenant” theology.
** Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John I-XII, The Anchor Yale Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1966) 180.