The Recovery Version seems to be unique in rendering the Greek word alētheia (ἀλήθεια) as “truthfulness” in John 4:23 and 24. Most English versions have rendered this word as “truth” in these two verses, and in the first edition of the Recovery Version (1985) it was rendered “reality.” These three translations point to significant differences in understanding what this Greek word means in this context and, ultimately, in understanding what the Father is seeking as worshippers.
What we now have in the Recovery Version of John 4:23 and 24 is “truthfulness” as the translation of the Greek word alētheia (ἀλήθεια):
But an hour is coming, and it is now, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truthfulness, for the Father also seeks such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truthfulness.
This translation is based on a comprehensive footnote on the meaning of this Greek word, placed on the word truth in 1 John 1:6 (note 6). Brother Witness Lee wrote this exceptional footnote in the spring of 1983 while preparing the Recovery Version of 1 John for the semiannual training that July, and we highly recommend every lover of the truth to read, study, and even learn the contents of this footnote. In composing this footnote he carefully considered nearly all the instances of alētheia in the New Testament and grouped them into one of eight categories of meaning. Based on these categories, the Recovery Version has rendered this Greek word as “truth,” “reality,” or “truthfulness” throughout the New Testament. The seventh category of meaning that Brother Lee gives for this Greek word is this:
(7) The genuineness, truthfulness, sincerity, honesty, trustworthiness, and faithfulness of God as a divine virtue (Rom. 3:7; 15:8) and of man as a human virtue (Mark 12:14; 2 Cor. 11:10; Phil. 1:18; 1 John 3:18), and as an issue of the divine reality (John 4:23-24; 2 John 1a; 3 John 1). (note 6 on 1 John 1:6)
Thus, in John 4:23 and 24 alētheia denotes mainly truthfulness “as an issue of the divine reality,” and it is this particular nuance of meaning that we want to explore here.
While most versions translate this Greek word as “truth,” that translation does not seem to fit the context properly. What would it mean to worship the Father in truth? Probably some will understand that we should worship the Father according to some correct doctrinal ways. But in this context the Lord seems to reject such a simple understanding. In verse 21 the Lord indicates that now the Father desires a new kind of worship, a kind that is not just in the correct physical location, in Jerusalem as opposed to Mount Gerizim, where the Samaritans worshipped God. Further, the Lord tells the Samaritan woman that the Samaritans worshipped that which they did not know and that the Jews worshipped that which they knew, because God brought His salvation to the Jews (v. 22). Thus, for the Jews to worship in Jerusalem was to worship God merely in truth. But the Lord declares that this kind of worship has been superseded by a greater kind of worship.
Some few English versions, as well as the 1985 Recovery Version, have rendered this Greek word as “reality,” and this is no doubt much closer to what is meant here. (Actually, the text and notes of John were first published in 1975 and are simply reproduced in the 1985 New Testament Recovery Version.) Deeper than truth, reality here could refer to worship in a real way, as opposed to the empty forms of worship that we see in many religions of the world. God is real, and the worship that His believers give Him should be real as well; thus, some may think that worship in reality is worship that is genuine and not vain. But on a much deeper level, reality is no doubt a reference to Christ as the reality (John 14:6), and He should be the center and means for our worship to the Father. Thus, while the ancient Jews worshipped God according to the truth revealed to them by bringing their offerings to God in the place of His choice, Jerusalem, the Father could be said to be seeking worshippers who offer Christ as the reality of all the offerings prefigured in the Old Testament. A number of Bible teachers have understood this as the meaning of worship in John 4:23 and 24, and this was the meaning that was first presented in the 1975 edition of the Gospel of John Recovery Version and was later reproduced in the 1985 edition of the New Testament Recovery Version.
But even this seems to fall short of the full meaning because what the Father is actually seeking is not just a kind of worship but a kind of worshipper. In John 4:23-24 what is in focus is not the worship but the worshippers: “the true worshippers,” “such to worship,” and “those who worship.” (In Greek the focus is even clearer in the last two phrases: ‘such worshipping ones’, ‘the worshipping ones’.) It is a kind of person that the Father is seeking, not just a kind of action, true or real. Thus, after his full study of the Greek word alētheia in 1983, Brother Lee’s understanding of these two verses deepened, and he revised and augmented the footnotes on these verses. Originally, his footnote on worship in verse 24 ended with this:
…now, since Christ the reality has come (vv. 25-26), all the shadows and types are over. (note 1 on John 4:24; 1975, 1985 editions)
In his final work on the Gospel of John in the Recovery Version he moved this note to spirit and changed this last sentence of the note to:
Since Christ, as the reality that issues in the human virtue of truthfulness, has come (vv. 25-26), all the shadows and types are over. (note 4 on John 4:24; 1991, 2003 editions)
Then, he added a new and marvelous footnote on truthfulness, the new translation of alētheia:
According to the context of this chapter and the entire revelation of John’s Gospel, truthfulness here denotes the divine reality becoming man’s genuineness and sincerity (which are the opposite of the hypocrisy of the immoral Samaritan worshipper—vv. 16-18) for the true worship of God. The divine reality is Christ (who is the reality—14:6) as the reality of all the offerings of the Old Testament for the worship of God (1:29; 3:14) and as the fountain of the living water, the life-giving Spirit (vv. 7-15), partaken of and drunk by His believers to be the reality within them, which eventually becomes their genuineness and sincerity in which they worship God with the worship that He seeks. See note 66 in 1 John 1; Rom. 3:7; and note 82 in Rom. 15. (note 5 on John 4:24; 1991, 2003 editions)
What kind of worshippers is the Father seeking today? It is not those who worship “in truth” as the ancient Jews did, in Jerusalem and with the physical offerings. But neither is it those who worship “in reality” by simply presenting Christ objectively as the reality of all the offerings. Rather, it is those who worship “in truthfulness,” that is, those in whom Christ the reality has become the reality within them as their very truthfulness, genuineness, and sincerity in their worship of the Father. If the Father wanted mere truth in worship, He could continue to accept what the ancient Jews offered; if He wanted just reality in worship, He could accept Christ offered objectively in faith by His New Testament believers. It is easy to see that the Father has put aside the ancient worship, which was indeed according to the truth of His Word, but it is not so easy to see that He desires more than Christ offered objectively in faith as the reality of all the offerings. When we worship the Father, for example, after the Lord’s table, what kind of worshippers are we? Do we simply admit that we are not absolute but believe and declare that He is the absolute One as the reality of the burnt offering? Do we simply confess that we are sinful but believe and declare that He is the One who has been made the reality of the sin offering for us? Do we simply realize that we are fallen human beings but believe and declare that He is the One who is the perfect reality of the meal offering to God? These things are, of course, wonderful in themselves, but the Father is seeking much more than this. He is seeking ones in whom Christ the reality has become their reality within as the human virtue of truthfulness, in this full sense of the term, and who, by this issue of the divine reality as their virtue, exist as genuine worshippers of Him. An hour for this is coming, and it is now. May the Father get these whom He is seeking.