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The gift of the Johannine Spirit-Paraclete

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:

  1. What is the role of the Spirit? 
  2. When 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 glorified’ (7:39).

 

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).

 

Paraclete?

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 Spirit

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 light.

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).

 

Conclusion

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.

 
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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. 
 
 

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