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

References to the Spirit in the second half of the Gospel increase dramatically in both number and prominence, in keeping with the Spirit’s pivotal role in the disciples’ mission subsequent to Jesus’s departure and return to the Father.

The three names for the Spirit used by John in the second half of his Gospel are “Spirit of truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13), “Holy Spirit” (14:26; 20:22; cf. 1:33), and paraklētos, or “helping presence,” translated “Helper” in the ESV (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7).

Farewell Discourse

The historical setting of the Farewell Discourse is the preparation of Jesus’s followers for the time following his departure. References to the Spirit in chapters 14–16 are numerous, with Jesus envisioning the giving of the Spirit following his exaltation. Contrary to the disciples’ sentiments at the time, Jesus’s departure will benefit them in several ways. Most important, Jesus will petition the Father to send the paraklētos, “another helping presence” like Jesus.

The term paraklētos does not occur in the LXX and is found elsewhere in the NT only at 1 John 2:1, which describes Jesus as believers’ “advocate” with God the Father. Jesus’s reference to the Spirit as “another paraklētos” in 14:16 indicates that the Spirit’s presence with the disciples will replace Jesus’s encouraging and strengthening presence with them while on earth (cf. 14:17). When the Spirit comes to indwell believers, it will be as if Jesus himself is taking up residence in them. Thus Jesus can refer to the Spirit’s coming by saying, “I am coming to you” (14:18).

This relieves a primary concern for Jesus’s first followers in the original setting of the Farewell Discourse: Jesus’s departure will not leave them as orphans (cf. 14:18); just as God has been present with them through Jesus, he will continue to be with them through his Spirit. The Spirit thus ensures continuity between Jesus’s pre- and post-glorification ministry. What is more, the Spirit’s coming will constitute an advance in God’s work with and through the disciples (16:7; cf. 14:12). The changing relationship between believers and the Spirit pre-Pentecost and post-Pentecost is nothing less than programmatic, highlighting a fundamentally changed relationship of the Spirit with the people of God.

The initial reference to the Spirit as paraklētos in 14:17 is the first of five Paraclete sayings in the Farewell Discourse (14:26; 15:26; 16:7–11, 12–15), in each case referring to the Holy Spirit. As Jesus’s emissary, the Spirit will have a variety of functions in the lives of Jesus’s followers:

(1) He will bring to remembrance all that Jesus taught them (14:26).

(2) He, together with Jesus’s followers, will testify regarding Jesus (15:26).

(3) He will, presumably through Jesus’s followers, convict the world of sin, (lack of ) righteousness, and judgment (16:8–11).

(4) He will guide Jesus’s followers in all truth and disclose what is to come (16:13).

Clearly, these statements pertain initially to Jesus’s historical followers. In their case, the Spirit, as “another paraklētos,” will pick up seamlessly where Jesus left off during his early ministry with them: he will remind them of Jesus’s teaching and help them understand it; he will empower their post- Pentecost witness and the early Christian mission; he will vindicate Jesus historically by showing that the decision, arrived at by an unholy alliance between the Roman governor and the Jewish authorities, to crucify Jesus was unjust and that Jesus was innocent. He will disclose to Jesus’s followers what is to come, engendering the formation of the NT canon as apostolic testimony to Jesus.

Beyond this, while the Spirit’s activity as set forth in the Farewell Discourse is initially focused on the Eleven, in a secondary, derivative sense he fulfills similar roles in believers today as he illumines the spiritual meaning of Jesus’s words and works both for believers and through believers to the unbelieving world. He also guides believers in truth and aids and empowers their witness. In all these functions, the ministry of the Spirit remains closely linked to Jesus. Just as Jesus is the Sent One who is fully dependent on and obedient to the Father, so is the Spirit said to be “sent” by both the Father and Jesus (14:26; 15:26) and to illumine the spiritual significance of God’s work in Jesus (14:26; 15:26; 16:9).

The Spirit is also called “Spirit of truth” (14:17; cf. 15:26; 16:13). Jesus has just characterized himself as “the truth” (14:6) in keeping with statements already made in the prologue (1:14, 17). The concept of truth in John’s Gospel encompasses several aspects, and the Spirit is involved in each. He accurately represents the truth regarding Jesus (as one of the witnesses featured in John’s Gospel, the Spirit testifies to Jesus; 15:26); he is the eschatological gift of God (whose coming/sending is placed in the future from the historical vantage point of Jesus’s original followers; 7:37–39; 20:22); he imparts true knowledge of God (indwelling the disciples, he will help them understand Jesus’s union with the Father; 14:16–20); he is operative in both worship and sanctification (true worship must take place in the realm of the spirit, which may hint at the Spirit’s involvement; 4:23–24; 6:63; cf. 17:17); and he points people to the person of Jesus (he will make known what he receives from Jesus and guide his followers in[to] all truth; 16:12–15).

This Spirit of truth, then, is the “other helping presence” who takes the place of Jesus following his exaltation. While the world cannot accept him because it neither sees nor knows him, Jesus’s followers do accept him because “he resides with you and will be in you” (14:17 NET; cf. 1 John 3:24; 4:13). The Spirit, in turn, is part of a cosmic drama in which Jesus and his followers are opposed by the devil. Contra the theology of Qumran, however, the struggle is not between two equally matched dualities of good and evil.

Commissioning Scene

The final reference to the Spirit is found in the context of Jesus’s commissioning statement, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (20:21 NIV ), which climaxes the characterization of Jesus as the sent Son. The disciples are drawn into the unity and mission of Father and Son. Succession is important both in the OT and in Second Temple literature, as well as in the early church. In the present Gospel, Jesus succeeds the Baptist and is followed by the Spirit and the Twelve (sans Judas), who serve as representatives of the new messianic community.

The reference to Jesus’s breathing on his disciples while saying, “Receive [the] Holy Spirit” probably represents a symbolic promise of the soon- to-be-given gift of the Spirit, not its actual impartation, which occurs soon thereafter at Pentecost. The present pericope most likely does not constitute a “Johannine Pentecost” but rather represents an anticipatory sign pointing forward to this event. Canonically speaking, therefore, John 20:22 prepares the reader for the account of the pouring out of the Spirit in Acts 2.

Otherwise, John and Acts would be found to stand in conflict. Moreover, John would be conflicted within himself, contradicting his earlier assertions that the Spirit would be given only following Jesus’s glorification, which entails his return to the Father. The disciples’ behavior following the present incident would also be rather puzzling had they already received the Spirit. Rather, the present gesture, as well as the pronouncement regarding the authority to forgive or retain sins, is made to the group in its entirety rather than to separate individuals.

The theological antecedent of the event is plainly Gen 2:7, where the same verb form is used. There, God imparts physical and spiritual life to humanity. Here, we are likely to see an escalation of the initial bestowal of the “breath of life” in man’s creation: when commissioning his disciples, Jesus constitutes them as the new messianic community, in anticipation of the outpouring of the life-giving Spirit following his ascension. Thus the narrative has come full circle, having progressed from original creation in 1:1–5 to new creation in 20:22.

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), 72–78.


Share this Post:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.