The Holy Spirit in John’s Gospel: The Book of Signs

Anyone seeking to explore the role of the Spirit in John’s Gospel is initially struck by the way the Son-Father relationship between the Word-made-flesh and God the Father completely dominates the first half of John’s Gospel.

This is not to say that the Spirit is completely absent; yet it is not until the second half of the Gospel, with the Son’s departure to the Father being imminent, that the Spirit moves into the foreground.

There is no reference to the Spirit in John’s introduction, and act 1 of the Johannine drama features a mere handful of passages in which reference to the Spirit is made, all of which relate to his role in Jesus’s ministry. The Spirit rests on Jesus (1:32–33), is involved in regeneration (3:5) and worship (4:23–24), and rests on Jesus to an unlimited degree (3:34). It is the Spirit who gives life (6:63), and the Spirit will be given only after Jesus’s glorification (7:39).

John’s and Jesus’s Early Ministries

The initial references to the Spirit are in conjunction with Jesus’s baptism by John (1:32–33). The Baptist testifies that he saw the Spirit descend from heaven as a dove and remain on Jesus. He had been told by God that the person so designated would be the one who would baptize—not with water, as John does, but with the Holy Spirit (1:33). Thus the Spirit’s first appearance in the Gospel serves both to highlight his ongoing presence with Jesus and to confirm Jesus as the God-sent future dispenser of the Spirit.

Cana Cycle

The next possible cluster of references is found in Jesus’s interchange with Nicodemus. Jesus’s reference to being “born again” (3:3) is explicated as being “born of water and spirit” (3:5; i.e., being reborn spiritually as opposed to physically). In addition, it is possible that the agent of the new birth is here identified, at least on a secondary level (for John’s readers) as the person of the Spirit (cf. Ezek 36:26). In either event, the reference conveys the notion of spiritual birth effecting cleansing and renewal. Most likely, the primary emphasis in Jesus’s statement seems to lie on the spiritual nature of the birth required for entering God’s kingdom, as is apparent from the analogy between wind and spirit in v. 8.

The next unambiguous mention of the Spirit is found in 3:34. In a section explicating the significance of the Baptist’s testimony for John’s readers, the evangelist comments that “he” (most likely God; made explicit in the NIV ) gives the Spirit without measure (i.e., to an unlimited extent; cf. 1:33). That is, Jesus is no mere prophet; he is the Messiah on whom the Spirit has come to rest in all his fullness.

The reference to worship “in Spirit and in truth” in 4:23–24 sustains a close connection with the reference to being born “of water and the Spirit” in 3:5. While possibly containing a secondary reference to the Spirit, Jesus’s statement here focuses primarily on the kind of worship those who would please God should render, namely, worship that is spiritual rather than focused on physical location. Nevertheless, while pneuma may not refer directly to the Spirit here, one may reasonably infer that a person is qualified to worship “in Spirit and in truth”—existing in the realm of spirit (as God himself is in that realm)—by the new birth God grants (cf. 3:6: “that which is born of spirit [or: the Spirit] is spirit”).

Festival Cycle

The first of several instances in which Jesus refers to the Spirit in this Gospel is found in the context of Jesus’s instruction to the Twelve subsequent to a mass defection by Jesus’s other followers (6:63). Jesus affirms that the Spirit gives life and that Jesus’s words are spirit and life. The latter reference should probably be taken to mean that Jesus’s words are lifegiving because they are infused with the Spirit who rests on Jesus (1:33) to an unlimited degree (3:34).

The next reference to the Spirit is part of an aside by the evangelist, who explains a given utterance of Jesus with reference to the Spirit (7:39). The context is Jesus’s invitation for people to come to him and drink, uttered on the final day of the Feast of Tabernacles (7:37). The festival was celebrated in hopes of Israel’s joyful restoration and the ingathering of the nations. Jesus here presents himself as God’s agent in bringing about these end-time events.

The Scripture adduced in Jesus’s saying, “The one who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within him” (7:38), is likely common prophetic teaching. “From deep within him” probably refers to believers in Jesus rather than to Jesus himself, with the first clause, “The one who believes in me,” serving as a pendent subject. The evangelist adds that Jesus’s reference is to the future giving of the Spirit to those who believe in him (7:39; cf. 1:33; 4:13–14).

Note: This is adapted from Andreas J. Köstenberger and Gregg R. Allison, “The Holy Spirit in the New Testament and in the Gospels,” in The Holy Spirit (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2020), 69–71.


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