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Bible Commentaries

The Church Pulpit Commentary

John 4

Verse 7


‘There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give Me to drink.’

John 4:7

Had not Christ the power to create springs in the desert, and showers in a dry and barren land? Yes; but the Incarnate Son of God, Whose delights have ever been with the children of men, longs for human love and human sympathy, and asks for them at our hands. He says to us, as it were, ‘Give Me to drink. Refresh Me with your gratitude and your love. Let Me see of the travail of My soul, and be satisfied.’ And He takes the risk of receiving our repulse.

I. Defection pained the Saviour exceedingly.

( a) We have only to look in John 6:66-67 to see that independently of the injury to the men themselves, the incident involved the disappointment of fondly-cherished hopes; the waste of the spiritual teaching which He had been labouring so assiduously to impart.

( b) So, too, in the course of the conversation which took place at the table of the Lord’s Supper, Philip asked the Saviour to show them the Father. Alas, what a tale that request told of instruction that had been unheeded; of revelations that had been made to unsympathising, or, at least, to imperfectly-sympathising hearts!

( c) In Gethsemane He took those of His disciples with Him—the nearest and dearest and most spiritual—to sustain Him by their presence. Overpowered by His anguish, He rises from His knees and advances to the little group, craving for human sympathy, for ever so small an amount of it. In that dark hour—to see a human form, to hear a human voice, to touch a human hand, were something. But he finds that they, from whom He might have expected comfort in such extremity, are fast asleep. And the sad cry bursts from Him, ‘What, could ye not watch with Me one hour?’

The Man Christ Jesus, like all great spirits with a great mission before them, felt very lonely. But with His intense capacity for loving, He yearned for human sympathy, and strove to get it. What He said to the Samaritan woman, He virtually said to His brethren of the human race, ‘Give Me to drink.’ And He received, in most cases, the same indifferent, careless, chilling repulse.

II. The Saviour still longs for the lore of those whom He died to redeem.—Is this too much to say? What then is meant by that description of Christ in the Book of the Revelation of John, with which you are so familiar? It is the risen and glorified Saviour with the diadem on His brow, and the royal mantle over His shoulders; it is not the humble Jesus of Nazareth Who stands at the closed door of the heart—stands patiently and knocks, waiting for admission. He exposes Himself, glorious as He is, to repulse at the hands of His creature. And why? Because He desires companionship, communion with us. ‘If any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me.’

Rev. Prebendary Gordon Calthrop.

Verse 24


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

John 4:24

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.

Verse 35


‘Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest.’

John 4:35

‘Look on the fields.’ ‘Do you think,’ said the captain of the ship in which Robert Morrison was a passenger, to that brave pioneer missionary, ‘that you will make an impression upon four hundred million Chinese?’ ‘No, sir,’ replied Morrison, ‘but I believe that God will.’

I. Look with faith.—‘How often it is that the true source of spiritual power is out of sight, and for the time unknown; as with the preacher—of whom Faber tells us—whose success won for him universal admiration, but to whom it was revealed that that success was due, not to the weight of his learning or the force of his eloquence, but to the prayers of an illiterate man who incessantly pleaded with God for the salvation of souls.’

II. Look with thankfulness.—What a touching story this is. Bishop Hannington, on his way to Uganda in 1855, was murdered in Busoga by the chief Luba, acting under orders from King Mwanga. On April 8th, 1906, the son of this same Luba (Timothy Mubinyo) was baptized by Rev. J. E. M. Hannington, son of the Bishop. Or listen to the words of James Chalmers, who died at last at the hands of cannibals in New Guinea: ‘Recall the twenty-one years, give me back all its experience, give me its shipwrecks, give me its standings in the face of death, give it me surrounded with savages with spears and clubs, give it me back again with spears flying about me, with the club knocking me to the ground—give it me back, and I will still be your missionary.’ It is men like these who have written with their dying love a bar or two of the songs of heaven.

III. Look with hope.—Be sure India has no problem Christ cannot solve, Africa no sore Christ cannot heal, China no weakness Christ cannot remove. A hundred years ago nearly the whole heathen world was closed to the missionary: to-day almost every tribe is accessible.

—Rev. F. Harper.

Verse 37


‘And herein is that saying true, One soweth, and another reapeth.’

John 4:37

‘That saying,’—it was then a common and familiar saying already; what we should call a proverb of the people. And there can be little doubt that it had, as so used in the common speech of men, a somewhat different meaning from that which our Lord gave to it.

I. The disciples must have recollected those words when, not very long afterwards, He said to them, as He sent them out to the whole house of Israel, as He prepared them for their wider work in the whole world, ‘The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few.’ Well, he seems to say, Learn this lesson now, and carry it through all your future labours: one soweth—I have been sowing—I, within this short hour since you left me, and the fields are white already to harvest; and what you see here is true in the world around you. There God has been doing His work, though you knew it not; not the prophets and psalmists and kings of Israel only, but the wise men, the seekers after truth and after God among the heathen; there also they have poets of their own who have borne witness that God is not far from every one of us, for we also are His offspring.

II. The angels reap the harvest, but Who was the sower?—The sower was He who came to live not to Himself, but for men. Who sowed, just as a corn of wheat falls into the earth and dies to bring forth much fruit, so He gave His own life to death, consented to lay aside the glory that He had with the Father before the world was, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross: and through His whole life on earth, and through that passion, death, and resurrection of His, was sowing the word of eternal life in the hearts of men. The angels in that case reap the harvest which they had never sown. ‘Herein is this saying true, One soweth, another reapeth.’

III. And very often this text is a word of great comfort to the hearts of those who are seeking to serve Christ, every man in his vocation and ministry, devout laymen, as well as earnest priests, in the midst of apparent failure, seeming disappointment. For the growth is not always sudden and instantaneous; and if it is, it is not lasting. The growth of the true seed is that the days pass on and the sun shines and the rain falls, and you see first the blade showing itself above the clods of the earth; then the ear, and after that, the full corn in the ear. And a man may be a very faithful and earnest witness for the truth, may preach, according to the grace given to him, that message of the word of life which is as the good seed of God; and yet never know that it has taken root, never see the harvest which he leaves for other hands to reap.

—Dean Plumptre.

Verse 42


‘Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard Him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.’

John 4:42

This incident reminds us that there are different stages and different degrees of faith. The men of Samaria first of all believed on the evidence of the woman of Samaria who had spoken with our Lord by the well; then they began to make personal inquiries into the truth, about which they heard; and finally their personal experience led them to know that ‘this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.’ Here then we may find for ourselves one or two thoughts.

I. The evidence of authority.—Why do we believe in Christ? Why do we believe in the Christian faith, in the Christian religion? In the first stage, we believe wholly and entirely and completely upon the evidence of others. And what are the kinds of evidence which we hear and which we trust?

(a) There is the witness of the Church.

(b) And then there is the witness of the Saints.

(c) And then there is the evidence of some one whom we have known.

II. The evidence of experience.—Religion has to be corroborated by personal experience. We ought all of us to be able to reach a time when we can say, ‘Now we believe, not because of thy saying, for we have heard Him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.’ Christ says it must be a matter of practice, it must be a matter of obedience, if the faith which has been accepted on authority is to become the faith which is strengthened and corroborated by experience. Let me take one or two instances of the way in which this may be done, or may not be done.

(a) The love of God. Why do we in the first place believe in the love of God? Simply because we were taught it. But little by little, what was perhaps the barren dogma, ‘God is love,’ passes into a living experience.

(b) The case of prayer. Now here is a matter in which we may all of us feel difficulties of some sort or another. But the value of prayer can only be known by those who pray. You will find with those who really pray that the difficulties which physical science puts about prayer do not seem to hurt them or frighten them at all. Why not? Because they have on their side a great personal experience: they know whatever may be the difficulties of prayer, it has put them into closer communion with God; it has given them a new life and new spirit.

(c) Obedience. ‘If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine.’ The sayings of Christ are things which can never be proved by demonstration; they can only be verified by experience.

III. See Christianity from the inside.—Before we can judge of Christianity or the Christian religion, we have to see it from inside. That is to say, we have to try it. Only those who have made the venture of faith can convert what at first is a mere hypothesis into a practical certainty.

Verses 48-50


‘Then said Jesus unto him, Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe. The nobleman saith unto Him, Sir, come down ere my child die. Jesus saith unto him, Go thy way; thy son liveth.’

John 4:48-50

There are just three points into which the narrative seems to divide itself:—

I. The nobleman applying to Jesus.—There was much to keep him away. The worldly pleasures of Herod’s court ( 2 Timothy 4:10; Luke 8:14). Like most of the Jews, he would be satisfied with his own religion ( Matthew 3:9). Our Lord was despised as a Galilæan ( John 1:46; John 7:41; John 7:52). Why, then, should this great man come to Jesus? It was outward need. One he loved was ill—nay, dying ( Psalms 107:17-20). No doubt he had heard of the exercise of His power in many ways, and thought He might be able to cure his son. Troubles bring many to Jesus who do not believe in Him as the Son of God or the Saviour from sin ( Isaiah 26:16).

II. The nobleman accepting the word of Jesus.—Our Lord knew, by his request, that he wished Him to display His power in curing his son. To this our Lord does not accede. He wishes the nobleman to trust in His word. He says, ‘Go thy way; thy son liveth.’ Mark what these words convey. Thy way is perfectly plain ( Psalms 37:5; Zechariah 4:6-7). I am the giver of present salvation. He does not say, ‘Thy son shall live’; nor does He pray that He may live. He simply gives life ( John 11:25-26). What does the nobleman do? He accepted the word of Jesus, and went home leisurely. (The distance was only twenty miles, and he was on his way the next day [ John 4:52 ].) ‘He that believeth shall not make haste’ ( Isaiah 28:16). He has peace in believing the word ( Psalms 112:7).

III. The nobleman believing in Jesus.—As he was on his way home, his servants met him and told of his son’s recovery. What then? Three things are told us. He inquired. He knew. He believed. So it is. On receiving the Word, we must search and inquire. This is the first step ( Acts 17:11; John 5:39). Then we come to have knowledge ( Hosea 9:7; 1 John 5:13). So we come to believe. The nobleman saw the power of the Word. His son had received life at the very time ( John 6:63). He saw Jesus to be the Imparter of life—the Son of God—and ‘himself believed and his whole house’ ( John 4:53).

This narrative shows us the steps of faith. The nobleman believed in the power of Jesus from the first ( John 2:23-25). At last he believed savingly in the person of Jesus ( John 3:36). Oh, to know this difference!

—Bishop Rowley Hill.

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Bibliographical Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on John 4". The Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.