Posted 11 June 2019 | This article originally appeared in The Summit Liturgical Journal (2013)
The Gospel of John enriches the Christian
tradition of Jesus’ gift of the Spirit. The overall theology and Christology of
the Gospel of John generates a striking presentation of the Spirit, often
called ‘the Paraclete’ (14:16; 15:26; 16:7) or ‘the Spirit-Paraclete’ (14:26;
15:26). Properly to grasp Johannine thought, two questions need to be asked:
is the role of the Spirit?
is the Spirit given?
The gift of baptism
As in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus’
ministry is introduced by John the Baptist, who points away from himself to
Jesus, who will baptise in the Holy Spirit (1:33). As Jesus begins his
ministry, he tells Nicodemus that in order to see and enter the kingdom of heaven,
he must be ‘born again, from above’ by water and the Spirit. In order to enter
the Christian community, one must cross the road from either synagogue or temple
and enter the new community through a baptism that is both an external rite
marked by the pouring of water (‘born again’) and a gift of God, which is the Spirit
(‘born from above’). This gift of the Spirit is given without measure (3:3–8,
34). But when will that gift of the Spirit become available?
The Spirit had not yet been given
As Jesus celebrates the autumnal feast of
Tabernacles in Jerusalem (7:1–10:21), he looks to one of the important elements
of that celebration: a water celebration that asked for the gift of rain. But
he points to himself as that life-giving water: ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come
to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the Scripture has said, “Out
of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water”’ (7:37–38). But John
adds an explanatory comment, linking this gift of living water with the gift of
the Spirit: ‘Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to
receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet
The gift of the Spirit-Paraclete
The gift of the Spirit lies in the future,
and is associated with the time of Jesus’ glorification. This teaching is
further developed across Jesus’ final discourse with his disciples (14:1–16:33).
Jesus tells his disciples that he must leave them. He must return to his Father
(14:1–4, 28; 16:4b–6, 28), but he will not leave them orphans (14:17). They
will live the in-between time, guided, directed, taught and reminded of what Jesus has
taught them by the Spirit-Paraclete (14:16–17, 25–26; 15:26–27; 16:7–11, 12–15).
As long as Jesus is with them, he is their ‘Paraclete’. Once he leaves them, he
will send ‘another Paraclete’ to be with them forever (14:16).
The expression ‘Paraclete’, used only by
John to speak of the Holy Spirit, has a primary meaning associated with a legal
process. The Paraclete is the one who defends, who ‘speaks up’ for a person in
a court of law. John retains this meaning, as the court of law within which
Jesus and his followers have been and will continue to be rejected and
condemned is the hostile world that will not accept that Jesus comes from the
Father (see 15:18–16:3). Many translations catch this meaning with the word ‘Advocate’.
However, it has further possibilities that must also be included, especially
the idea of ‘Comforter’.
Paraclete as judge
However, as well as the role of ‘Advocate-Comforter’,
it is very important that Christians recognise that the gift of the
Spirit-Paraclete continues the challenging presence of Jesus in their midst, in
his physical absence. The Paraclete will be a thorn in their side, reminding
them of everything that Jesus has taught (14:26), and even leading them into
new challenges, as they were not ready for them in the time of Jesus (16:12–13).
Living in a threatening world, the
Paraclete will stand in judgment over against the sinfulness, false judgment
and self-righteousness that rule the lives of many (16:7–11). Strengthened by
the Spirit, Christians must hold their heads high, bearing witness to light and
truth in the midst of darkness (15:25–27). But the gift of the Spirit-Paraclete
still lies in the future. It will be given when Jesus is glorified (7:39).
Glorification and the gift of the
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is glorified
through his death and resurrection. This is what John calls ‘the hour of Jesus’
that is ‘not yet’ throughout the time of his ministry (see 2:5; 7:5–6, 30;
8:20), but is ‘now’ once the passion begins (see 12:23, 27, 31; 13:1; 17:1;
19:30). This is the time when he is lifted up on a cross (see 3:14; 8:28; 12:32–33).
Unlike in the Synoptic Gospels and Paul (see Philippians 2:5–11), the Cross is
not the lowest moment in Jesus’
career; it is his moment of exaltation.
Symbols of the church, the Mother
of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple are instituted as a new family by the crucified Jesus at his ‘hour’
(19:25–27). As Jesus dies, he brings everything, including the Scriptures, to
fulfilment (19:28–29). He bows his head and ‘pours down the Spirit’ upon the
infant church, his mother and the Disciple at the foot of the cross. Many translations cannot accept that the
Greek must be translated ‘poured down the Spirit’, but that is what it says. This
is Jesus’ moment of glorification; this is the time when the Spirit is given
(see 7:38–39), accompanied by water that flows from Jesus’ side (19:34).
All that has been promised throughout
Jesus’ ministry (especially the Spirit-filled gift of baptism) and during his
final discourse (the gift of the
Spirit-Paraclete to the ongoing Christian community) comes to life. Indeed,
immediately following Jesus’ death, the Johannine church emerges. It comes out
of the darkness as two former ‘hidden disciples’, Joseph of Arimathea and
Nicodemus. boldly request the body of Jesus and bury him as a king (19:38–42).
The final commission
The church is founded by means of the gift
of the Spirit in 19:30. But the risen Jesus concludes his gift of the Spirit in
20:21–23. There is only one ‘hour of Jesus’. Jesus’ foundational gift of the
Spirit in 19:30 is further extended into a commissioning of the disciples by
the risen Jesus. As the Father sent Jesus, so now he sends his disciples on
mission (20:21). He breathes the Spirit upon them, as the Spirit was given at
creation (see Genesis 2:7), so that they might have the gifts that they need
for their mission. They are commissioned to forgive and retain sin.
Although the Catholic Church uses
this text as background for the sacrament of reconciliation, this is not what
Jesus is doing for his disciples. Throughout his ministry, and even in his
discourse, trial and execution, Jesus was a light shining in the darkness. The
Paraclete lays bare all sinfulness (see 16:7–11); Jesus breathes the Spirit
into his disciples that they will continue to lay bare evil, and to bring
Raymond Brown explained the
meaning of 20:21–23 well when he described the disciples’ commission as ‘The
power to isolate, repel and negate evil and sin, a power given to Jesus and
given in turn by Jesus through the Spirit to those whom he commissions’ (The Gospel According to John, Anchor
Bible series, vols 29–29A, New York: Doubleday, 1976–80, § 2:1044).
The gift of the Johannine Spirit-Paraclete
is a rich Gospel message for the church of all seasons. A baptism that passes
through the rite of water (rebirth) is gifted without measure by the Spirit
(from above) (3:3–35). But the Spirit-Paraclete plays an essential and even
aggressive role in Johannine thought. Jesus must return to the Father, so that
the church can live the in-between time, questioned, led, taught, reminded by
the presence of ‘another Paraclete’ (14:16–17, 26; 16:12–15).
Jesus was the first
Paraclete-Advocate-Comforter (14:16). He was also the first thorn in the side
of a comfortable community, quietly accepting the greyness that emerges from a
lack of recognition of the conflict between light and darkness (16:7–11). As he
gives himself unconditionally, laying down his life for his sheep (10:16), he
founds the church from the cross, in his foundational ‘pouring down’ of the
Spirit upon the infant church, gathered at the foot of the cross. ‘Another
Paraclete’ is now with them. But to complete ‘the hour’ of his glorification
(see 7:39), as risen Lord, he further commissions them, breathing the Spirit
into his disciples so that they, like him, will continue to be light in the
midst of darkness.
Francis J. Moloney SDB, AM, FAHA, a Salesian of Don Bosco, is an internationally recognised biblical scholar. Beyond Australia, he has taught in Europe, Israel and the United States. His main interests are the historical Jesus and the Gospels. He has published more than and many journal articles, both scholarly and popular. He is currently a Senior Professorial Fellow at Catholic Theological College, in the University of Divinity.