Monday, October 11, 2010

The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John

The Gospel of John is packed full with important teaching about the Holy Spirit. John’s Gospel presents Jesus’ coming as being the key event for the accomplishment of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that had been prophesied about by the Old Testament prophets.

The view of the Holy Spirit presented in John’s Gospel fully accords with the teaching of the Old Testament in this regard. According to the Old Testament, all life whether physical or spiritual is a product of God’s Spirit (e.g., Gen 1:2; Ps 104:30; Ezek 37:14). John’s Gospel teaches that the Spirit gives life (John 6:63). The Spirit is “living water” (John 4:10). Those who drink of the Spirit live eternally (John 4:14). Rebirth by the Spirit is necessary for entering the kingdom of God (John 3:5), and for experiencing eternal life and immortality (John 3:6). In the new covenant age, this Spiritual rebirth is no longer limited to the traditional Israelite lines of covenant membership, but is open to people of all nations (John 3:8; 4:21, 23).

John’s Gospel presupposes the Old Testament teaching concerning the eschatological gift of the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament describes the old covenant age as a time in which there was a limited work of God’s Spirit writing the law on the heart. During the old covenant age, God’s law was not written in the hearts of the majority of the people of Israel. This meant that the nation of Israel viewed as a whole did not walk in the way of God’s law, thereby breaking the covenant with God. This led to the covenant curses coming down upon Israel, culminating in the exile to Babylon. Even though God had allowed the Jews to come back to Judea after the exile, the time of covenant blessing had not yet come. The Old Testament looked forward, therefore, to a new age when God would pour out his Spirit upon Israel and all flesh. This eschatological work of the Holy Spirit would result in Israel returning to God in covenant obedience (see Deut 30:6; Jer 31:31–33; Ezek 36:24–27).

As Jer 31:31–33 and Ezek 36:25–28 make known, the coming of the new covenant age would mark the beginning of a transformation in the comprehensiveness of the work of the Holy Spirit. Instead of the limited work of the Spirit under the old covenant (which led to the covenant failure and exile of Israel among the nations), the Holy Spirit would be poured out in a greater way such that the hearts of the people of Israel would be changed, with the result that Israel would return to God in true worship and obedience and, as a result, begin to experience covenant blessing instead of covenant curse.

John’s Gospel is concerned to link this Old Testament prophetic expectation of the eschatological gift of the Spirit with the ministry of Jesus. The Old Testament prophets understood that the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit would come about through the ministry of the Messiah (e.g., Isa 11:1–5; 44:1–5; and 55:1–4), through the work of the Spirit-filled suffering Servant (e.g., Isa 42:1–7; 49:1–6; 61:1–4). John’s Gospel proclaims Jesus of Nazareth as being none other than this Spirit-filled suffering Servant-Messiah who has come into the world to accomplish the promised eschatological outpouring of the Spirit of life.

Thus, Jesus is presented in John’s Gospel as being the one upon whom the Holy Spirit descended and upon whom the Holy Spirit remains (John 1:32). Jesus has received the Spirit without measure (John 3:34). Following the more likely interpretation of John 7:38, “rivers of living water” flow from within the Messiah, who is himself the eschatological temple, bringing life and blessing to the world, in fulfillment of Ezek 47:1–10. Because Jesus is the Spirit-filled Messiah and Spirit-filled Servant, he is the person who would (after his glorification) baptize people in the Holy Spirit (John 1:33). He gives the living water of the Spirit to those who ask of him (John 4:10, 14). But only those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah can receive this gift (John 7:37–39). In other words, the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit is performed by Jesus. The Spirit proceeds from God the Father, but would be sent by Jesus to dwell within his disciples (John 14:17; 15:26). The Spirit would be given to those who love Jesus and who keep his word (John 14:23), but not to the unregenerate people of the world (John 14:17). Jesus’ disciples would see the Spirit and know him (John 14:17). The Spirit would abide with them forever (John 14:16). This eschatological outpouring of the Spirit, however, would not take place until after Jesus’ glorification (John 7:39). In God’s plan, the comprehensive outpouring of the Spirit was reserved for the new covenant age, which would be inaugurated through the death and resurrection of Christ.

The coming of the Spirit would be beneficial for Jesus’ disciples in a number of ways. The Spirit would be their Paraklete, their Helper. He would mediate to Jesus’ disciples the presence of the Father and the Son (John 14:21, 23). As the Spirit of truth, he would help God’s people worship God in the proper way (John 4:23–24). He would also guide Jesus’ disciples into all truth (John 16:13), reminding them of Jesus’ teaching (John 14:26), and testifying about Jesus to them (John 15:26). He would receive revelation from Jesus to pass on to Jesus’ disciples (John 16:13–15).

The teaching in John’s Gospel about the Holy Spirit is concluded in 20:22 when Jesus breathes upon his disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” There has been some discussion on the relationship of this incident with the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, but it is probably best to understand this as a prophetic action on the part of Jesus intended to convey the important truth that the eschatological gift of the Holy Spirit—which would be poured out after Jesus’ glorification (John 7:39), i.e., after his resurrection and ascension—would be mediated through Jesus himself, and also that the gift of the Spirit to be received by his disciples would be a sharing in the Spirit of Christ himself.

Overall, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John is very comprehensive. However, it cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of the need for the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit which emerges from the story of the covenant rebellion of Israel in the Old Testament.


junkka said...

thank you so much for this comprehensive yet short summary of the Holy Spirit in John. Thanks.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Junkka, for your encouragement. I'm glad the post was helpful.