Note of the Day – June 6

This series of daily notes on the Holy Spirit in the Gospel Tradition, begun in celebration of Pentecost, concludes with a survey of passages dealing with the Spirit in the Gospel of John. For the most part, these references occur in the Discourses of Jesus which make up the core of the Gospel. It is not possible to discuss all of these in detail here; several of the passages have been treated extensively in earlier notes and articles. I would organize the references into five categories which highlight the Johannine view and presentation of the Holy Spirit.

1. John 1:32-33—In relation to Baptism

These two verses combine distinct pieces of early Gospel tradition, also preserved in the Synoptic Gospels and within the book of Acts: (a) the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism (vv. 32-33; Mk 1:10; Matt 3:16; Lk 3:22; Acts 10:38); and (b) the saying that Jesus will baptize people in the Holy Spirit (v. 33; Mk 1:8; Matt 3:11; Lk 3:16; Acts 1:5; 11:16). The latter saying sets a contrastive parallel between water and the Spirit.

2. John 3:5-6, 8—”New Birth”, believers born of the Spirit

Central to the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus in Jn 3:1-15ff is the idea of people coming to be born “out of [i.e. from] the Spirit [e)k pneu/mato$]”. The following points should be noted:

  • It is parallel and synonymous with being “born from above [a&nwqen]”, which can also be understood as “born again” (v. 3)—the dual-meaning serving as the source of Nicodemus’ misunderstanding in the narrative.
  • It is contrasted with physical/biological birth from the mother’s womb [i.e. “water”] (v. 4), and from flesh (v. 6). Indeed spiritual birth has an ineffable, invisible character (v. 8).
  • There is likely also an allusion to baptism—”water and (the) Spirit” (v. 5, cf. 1:32-33; Mk 1:8 par).

This spiritual birth is clearly connected with trust/faith in the Son, who has come down from heaven, sent by God—vv. 11-15, 16-21. Elsewhere in the New Testament, coming to be born “out of [e)k] the Spirit” relates to the birth (conception) of Jesus (Matt 1:18, 20, cf. Lk 1:35), though similar language is applied to believers in Gal 4:29 (cf. also 1 Pet 1:23). In the Johannine tradition, believers are typically said to be born of God (Jn 1:13; 1 Jn 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18), but certainly this should be taken as synonymous with “born of the Spirit“.

3. John 6:63; 7:39—Symbolic of trust/faith in Jesus, the image of eating and drinking

John 6:63—The contrast between Spirit and flesh, similar to that in 3:5-6; for the dualistic idea in Paul, cf. Rom 8:4-6, 9, 13; Gal 3:3; 4:29; 5:16ff; 6:8; Phil 3:3. Note the phrasing:

  • “The Spirit is the (one/thing) making (a)live [i.e. giving life]”—(by contrast) “the flesh makes nothing useful” (v. 63a)
  • “The utterances/words which I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life” (v. 63b)

This declaration by Jesus comes at the close of the great “Bread of Life” discourse in chapter 6, in which Jesus identifies himself as the bread (of life) that has “come down out of heaven” (vv. 32-33, 35, 41, 48, 51, 58), parallel to his identity as the Son who has come down from heaven, being sent by God the Father (Jn 3:13-18, etc). It is trust in the Son which leads to eternal life (vv. 64-65ff), and this is principally what is symbolized in the image of eating the bread of life. Actually, Jesus gives to the metaphor the added dimension of eating and drinking, with the bread representing his body and blood. There is very likely a eucharistic allusion here, but, in my view, commentators have given this far too much weight; verse 63 makes clear that this eating is spiritual, and applies fundamentally to Jesus’ words. However, as the Johannine depiction of Jesus shows him to be the incarnate ‘Word’ of God, accepting Jesus’ words is essentially the same as trusting in his person and his sacrificial death (body/blood).

John 7:39—Here also we find the similar image of drinking, with the Spirit symbolized specifically as water. Again, the symbolism refers to trusting in Jesus, i.e. his words and his person (v. 38). It is the Gospel writer who interprets the water, which will flow out for the believer, as referring to the Holy Spirit (v. 39). In passing, it is worth mentioning that the “writing” (Scripture) Jesus apparently cites in v. 38b remains uncertain; it does not correspond exactly with anything in the Old Testament, though commentators have suggested Psalm 78:15-16; Isa 58:11; Zech 14:8; and Prov 5:15; 18:4 (cf. also Sir 24:30-33) as possibilities.

On the (triadic) conjunction of Spirit, water, and blood, cf. also 1 John 5:6, 8.

4. John 14:17, 26; 15:26; 16:13—Promise of sending the Spirit for believers

These are the famous “Paraclete” passages in the Discourses of chapters 1317—the sending/coming of the para/klhto$ (parákl¢tos) in 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7, also called “the Spirit of Truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13), and once “the Holy Spirit” (14:26). The basic context of chapters 14-16 is Jesus’ impending departure to the Father; actually the language of departure/return takes place at several levels in the (narrative) structure of the discourse:

  • The disciples will no longer see Jesus—
    • 1: He will be put to death
    • 2: He will return to the Father, i.e. remaining in heaven for a time
    • 3: He will go away (depart/return) to his place with the Father
  • They will see him again—
    • 1: He will rise again and appear to them
    • 2: He will come again to them (at the end-time)
    • 3: He will be present with them through the Spirit (i.e. they will see him spiritually)

#1 fits the traditional Gospel narrative context, of Jesus’ impending death and resurrection.
#2 accords with early Christian eschatology, i.e. the end-time return of Jesus.
#3 corresponds to what is often called “realized” eschatology—Jesus’ “return” takes place for believers, even at the present time (at least in part), through the abiding presence of the Spirit.

The Discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John seem to blend together all three of these strands of tradition/interpretation. The Paraclete passages will be discussed further in the next daily note.

5. John 20:22 (and 3:34)—The sending/giving of the Spirit to believers

John 20:22 records—briefly and succinctly—Jesus’ sending/giving the Holy Spirit to his disciples. Based on Jn 17:20ff, it may be inferred that other believers would (similarly) receive the Spirit through the work and ministry of the disciples. The Gospel of John has nothing matching the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2:1-4ff; however, it essentially holds the same place in the Gospel narrative—i.e., a record of the coming of the Spirit upon the first believers, which Jesus gives/sends from the Father (Lk 24:49; Acts 1:4, 7-8 || John 14:1-7, 16, 19-24, 26, 28; 15:26; 16:4-7; 17:11ff; 20:17, 22). I have discussed this in some detail in short series of articles from Pentecost last year (see esp. Part 3 on the account in John).

There is a relatively close parallel to Jn 20:21-22 in 3:34:

  • 20:21b—”even as the Father set me forth [i.e. sent me], I also (am) send(ing) you”
    3:34a—”the one [i.e. the Son] whom God [i.e. the Father] set forth [i.e. sent] (from Him)…”
  • 20:22—”(Jesus) breathed in/on (them) and said to them, ‘Receive (the) holy Spirit'”
    3:34b—”he [i.e. the Son/Jesus] does not give the Spirit out of (a) measure [i.e. he gives the Spirit without measure]”

On the Spirit having been given to believers, cf. also 1 John 3:24; 4:13.

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