The Sending of the Spirit, Part 3: Gospel of John (1)

I have discussed the Pentecost Narrative of the sending/coming of the Spirit, within the context of Luke-Acts, in some detail in Parts 1 and 2 of this article. Now I will be discussing the Johannine account (20:19-23) here, as follows: First, an introductory comparison of the two accounts; second, an analysis of John 20:19-23; third, a concluding comparison of the two passages.

1. Introductory Comparison of John 20:19-23 and Acts 2:1-13 (esp. vv. 1-4):

The key points of difference are fairly obvious from a simple reading of the two texts:

    • One takes place (apparently) the day of the Resurrection, the other between 40 and 50 days later (Acts 1:3; 2:1)
    • In one the resurrected Jesus is ([meta]physically) present and visible, in the other he has departed and is no longer seen (Acts 1:9)
    • One depicts the Spirit coming through the direct (physical or metaphysical) mediation of Jesus (Jn 20:22), the other has the Spirit coming in a theophany from “out of heaven” (Acts 2:2)
    • One passage includes other elements common to the Resurrection narratives and Gospel traditions (cf. Luke 24:36-40, 47-48; Matt. 28:18-20; Mar 16:19, etc.); the other clearly does not have these—if anything, one finds reflections of Old Testament passages (Ex. 19, etc., and related Jewish traditions).

Points of similarity, though less obvious, are notable:

    • Both occur in context of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus. If Luke had chosen to compress the Pentecost tradition into the end of the Gospel (along with the Ascension, 24:49-53), this would be even more apparent.
    • Both can be understood to occur following the “ascension” of Jesus to heaven (i.e., to the Father) (John 20:17; Acts 1:9-11)—though the precise meaning and parallel may be debated (see below).
    • Both are connected with the commission and early Christian mission of the apostles (or wider group of disciples) (John 20:21; Acts 1:8 and following).

How should we understand the relationship of these two accounts? Here are some positions adopted by commentators:

    1. Both episodes are factual/historical and are separate chronological events, just as it appears when one combines (harmonizes) the narratives. This would be the standard orthodox or traditional-conservative view. There are still difficulties and differences of interpretation, particularly in explaining John’s account; a few solutions:
      a) It describes a symbolic gift, in promise of the future sending of the Spirit.
      b) It is a real but partial gift, until the day when the Spirit will be sent in full.
      c) The gift is limited to the apostles (the ‘Twelve’), their mission and authority; at Pentecost it will be given to all the disciples.
      d) The gift is limited to the (apostolic) ‘power over sin’ (v. 23); at Pentecost it will be given in full.
    2. The episodes reflect separate, unrelated historical traditions (which may or may not be entirely factual in detail) as to when, where, and how the apostles (and other disciples) first received the Spirit. This would probably be the more common Critical view.
    3. The episodes are historical (in substance), but generally symbolic in nature—that is, two different narratives have been chosen to represent the climactic moment when the Spirit was sent.
    4. The episodes are fundamentally interpretive (theological) narratives, rather than historical/factual accounts—that is, narratives have been built up (centered on real historical tradition), and shaped by each author’s own understanding (or the understanding of a wider Christian community), as to the meaning and significance of Christ’s work, the nature of the Holy Spirit, the believer’s relation to Christ through the Spirit, and so forth.

Arguments can be, and have been, offered in favor of each of these four positions (or some variation of them)—some stronger than others. However, before any further judgment is made, let us examine John 20:19-23 in detail:

2. Analysis of John 20:19-23:

Four elements make up this brief passage:

    • Resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples (v. 19-20)
    • Jesus’ commission to the disciples (v. 21)
    • Jesus’ “breathing in” (the Spirit) to the disciples (v. 22)
    • Statement of Jesus on the disciples’ authority regarding forgiveness of sins (v. 23)

I  think it possible, even likely, that four short pieces of tradition have been combined, as some of them have parallels elsewhere in Gospel tradition (see below). Also, I believe, one can adapt the outline of the passage slightly to indicate a bit more clearly how the author may have fashioned this material:

    • Traditional narrative (Resurrection appearance), v. 19-20
      —Saying of Jesus (general “apostolic” commission), v. 21
    • (Traditional?) narrative (“Breathing in” the Spirit), v. 22
      —Saying of Jesus (statement of [apostolic?] authority), v. 23

Before examining each of these, I should say that it is my conviction that John 20:19-23 cannot properly be understood without consulting the Gospel elsewhere at three points:

    1. The Resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene (20:11-18, particularly vv. 16-17)
    2. References in the great “Farewell” discourses (13:31-17:26) to: (a) Jesus’ return to the Father, and (b) the sending of the Spirit/Paraclete.
    3. Other references to: (a) the Spirit,  and (b) Jesus ‘going up’ (being ‘raised up’, etc), found in the earlier discourses.

Let me touch on these in turn:

(1) The Resurrection Appearance to Mary

I have discussed this in some detail in an earlier post; here I will draw attention specifically to verse 17. The dramatic moment of recognition comes as Jesus speaks Mary’s name, and she responds with the exclamation “my Rabbi!” (yn]oBr*, an honorific title something like “my lord”, often applied to great teachers). Then follows the somewhat enigmatic verse 17:

“Jesus says to her, ‘Do not fasten (yourself) [a%ptou] to me! for I have not yet stepped up [a)nabe/bhka] toward the Father; but go toward my brothers and say to them: “I step up [a)nabai/nw] toward my Father and your Father and (to) my God and your God”.'”

Read in context, without resorting to the narrative in Luke-Acts, Jesus certainly seems to indicate that he is about to ascend (“step up”) to the Father, and that, by the time he appears to his disciples in v. 19ff, he will have “ascended”. But do John and Luke-Acts describe the same “ascension”? It must be pointed out that the Gospel of John uses a wide range of words referring to Jesus’ “ascent” and/or “departure” to the Father: a)nabai/nw (“go up”, lit. “step up”—1:51; 3:13; 6:62; 20:17); u(yo/w (“lift up [high]”—3:14; 8:28; 12:32-34); u(pa/gw (“lead/go away [lit. under ‘cover’]”—7:33; 8:14, 21-22; 13:36; 14:4-5, 28; 16:5, 10, 17); poreu/omai (“pass on, travel”—14:2-3, 12, 28; 16:7, 28); e)rxomai (“go”—17:11, 13; par. “come” [from the Father]—8:14, 42; 12:46, etc., cf. also 14:6]) and a)pe/rxomai (“go [away] from”—16:7); lamba/nw (“take [up]”—10:17, 18; a)nalamba/nw “take/receive up” was a common term for the Ascension). a)nabai/nw is used to describe [Jesus’] Ascent in Eph. 4:8-10 and Acts 2:34, both referencing Old Testament passages; Revelation also uses it frequently for heavenly ‘ascent’; and it would become much more widely used for the Ascension later on. The dualism of coming/going, above/below, so common in Johannine thought, can also be seen in the pointed juxtaposition of a)nabai/nw (“step up”) with katabai/nw (“step down”)—1:51; 3:13; 6:33, 38, 41-42, 50-51. Just as Jesus’ came from Heaven sent by the Father, so he will return to the one who sent him (the Father in Heaven). Clearly, John’s language implies something much more than a single Ascension moment or event. These passages should all be studied carefully.

(2) References in the Farewell Discourse(s)

 The main references are:

  • John 13:33: “where(ever) (o(pou) I go away (u(pa/gw), you are not able to come (e)rxomai)” (cf. 36, 7:34; 8:21)
    Related themes: the Son being glorified (doca/zw) in/with God (v. 31-32); the disciple’s seeking; the command to love one another (vv. 34-35); the disciples (Peter) following (a)kolouqe/w) (v. 36-38)
  • John 14:2ff: “I pass (on) (poreu/omai) to make ready a place for you …. I am passing (on) (poreu/omai) toward the Father (v. 12)”
    Related themes: trust (pisteu/w) in God and Christ (v. 1); the way (o(do/$) to the Father (vv. 4-5, also v. 3, 12); Jesus coming (e)rxomai) (again) to take the disciples along; “where(ever) (o(pou)” He is (v. 3-4); seeing (o(ra/w), knowing (ginw/skw) and coming (e)rxomai) to the Father (in Christ who shows [deiknu/w] Him) (vv. 4-9); “I in the Father and the Father in me” (same works, same glory) (vv. 10-12)
  • John 14:16f: “I will inquire (of) the Father and he shall give you another para/klhto$, that he might be with you into the Age, the Spirit (pneu=ma) of truth…”
    The para/klhto$/Spirit will also: “remain alongside (para/) you and shall be in (e)n) you” (v. 17)
    Related themes: love toward Christ (and keeping his commands, v. 15, 21ff); opposition to the World (ko/smo$) (v. 17, 22); seeing (qewre/w) and knowing (ginw/skw) God (and Christ) (v. 17, 19); Christ’s going and away and coming again (v. 18-19, 23); life in Christ (v. 19); “I in the Father” (along with believers) (v. 19-20); Christ sent (pe/mpw) by the Father (v. 24)
  • John 14:25-26: “the para/klhto$, the holy Spirit whom the Father will send (pe/mpw) in my name, that one shall teach you all things and shall put under [i.e. in] memory (for) you all things which I have said to you”
    Related themes: Christ will no longer remain alongside the disciples (v. 25ff)—his going away (u(pa/gw) and coming (e)rxomai) again (v. 28); Christ going (poreuomai) to the Father; peace (v. 27); love toward Christ (and the Father) (v. 28, 31); Christ’s words (v. 26, 29, 30) and commands (from God) (v. 31); opposition to the World (ko/smo$) (v. 30)
  • John 15:26-27: “when the para/klhto$, whom I shall send (pe/mpw) to you (from) alongside the Father, does come—the Spirit (pneu=ma) of truth which passes forth out (from) alongside the Father—that one shall witness about me”
    Related themes: opposition to the World (ko/smo$) (vv. 18ff, 16:2-4); love (and hatred) toward the Father and Christ (and His own) (vv. 19ff); Christ’s words (v. 20, 22; 16:4) and works (v. 24); Christ sent (pe/mw) by the Father; seeing (o(ra/w) and knowing (ei&dw/ginw/skw) Christ and God (v. 21, 24; 16:3)
  • John 16:7ff: “if I do not go away (u(pa/gw) from (you), the para/klhto$ will not come (e)rxomai) toward you; but if I pass on (poreuomai), I will send (pe/mpw) him toward you”
    The para/klhto$/Spirit will (vv. 8-15):
    “expose (e)le/gxw) the World about sin and about justice and about judgment”
    “lead you on the way (o(dhge/w) in all truth”
    “not speak from himself: whatever he hears (from God, and receives from Christ) he will speak”
    “announce (a)nagge/llw) to you the coming things… (and all that he receives from Christ)”
    Additional related themes: Christ going away (u(pa/gw) and (the Spirit) coming (e)rxomai) (v. 5, 7, 10, 13); Christ sent (pe/mpw) by the Father (v. 5); Christ going to the Father (v. 10); opposition to the Word (ko/smo$) (v. 8-11); words of Christ (v. 4, 12ff); trust (pisteu/w) in Christ (v. 9); seeing (qewre/w) Christ (v. 10); “I in the Father” (v. 15)
  • John 16:16: “a little (while) and you shall not anymore see (qewre/w) me, again a little (while) and you shall see (o)pta/nomai) me” … “again I leave (a)fi/hmi) the world and pass on (poreuomai) toward the Father (v. 28)”
    Related themes: disciples’ seeking/asking (vv. 17-19, 23ff); opposition to the World (ko/smo$) (vv. 20, 28, 33); words of Christ (v. 25, 29); peace (v. 33); love toward Christ (v. 27); Christ going/coming, esp. going to the Father (v. 17, 28); Christ sent by (“came out from alongside” e)ce/rxomai) the Father (v. 27, 30); “I in the Father…” (v. 32)
  • John 17:11ff: “I am not anymore in the World—but these are in the World—and I come toward you” … “but now I come toward you—and (yet) I these (things) I speak in the World, that they might have my joy filled (completely) in themselves (v. 13)”
    Related themes: knowing God and Christ (v. 3, 7-8); Christ sent by God (v. 3-4, 18); “I in the Father…” (shared glory, name, work) (vv. 1ff, 10); opposition to the World (vv. 6, 9ff); words of Christ (vv. 6-8, 14); Christ going/coming to the Father (vv. 11-13)

It is striking how often the same themes—the key words and phrases—occur throughout these chapters. To simplify matters, here is a thumbnail (chiastic) outline of the sections detailed above:

John 13:31-38: Jesus is going away, the disciples cannot come

John 14:1-14: Jesus is passing on to the Father, showing/preparing the way

John 14:15-24: The Father will send the Spirit/para/klhto$ (Jesus’ request)

John 14:25-31: Work of the Spirit/para/klhto$ whom the Father sends in Jesus’ name

John 15:1-17: Remain in Christ—the Vine and branches

John 15:18-16:4: Witness of the Spirit/para/klhto$ whom Jesus sends from the Father

John 16:4-15: Jesus will send the Spirit/para/klhto$ (it is necessary for Jesus to go away)

John 16:16-33: Jesus leaving (“releasing”) the World and passing on to the Father

John 17: Eternal Life with the Father—disciples to be united with Him (v. 22ff)

A couple of difficult points of interpretation in these chapters:

First, the language of going/coming seems to work on several different levels. “Going” can refer to: (1) Jesus’ death, (2) his glorification/exhaltation [going to the father], or (3) his ‘final’ earthly departure. Similarly, “coming” can reference: (1) Jesus’ coming to earth [from the Father], (2) his coming (back) to the Father, or (3) his coming (again) to the disciples, either following the resurrection or in a future return.

Second, I have chosen to leave para/klhto$ [parakl¢tos] untranslated above. Literally, it would be rendered “one called alongside”, usually in the sense of one who offers some form of assistance or encouragement. As a technical term, para/klhto$ can refer to a legal aid or advocate. Conventional translations vary—”Helper”, “Counsellor”, “Comforter”, “Advocate” being the most common. There is some uncertainty among Critical scholars as to what extent the Gospel definitively identifies the para/klhto$ with the Holy Spirit. In 14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27, the identification is clear enough, however it is possible that older language and/or traditions about a heavenly/angelic parakl¢tos have been given new meaning here. Curious also is the first reference to “another (a&llo$) para/klhto$“, implying that Jesus himself, during his earthly ministry was a first para/klhto$. Finally, note too the alternation between references where the para/klhto$ is said to be sent by the Father (14:16-17, 25-26) or sent by Christ (15:26-27; 16:7ff)—this is another example of the Gospel depicting the unity of will, purpose, power and authority of Father and Son.

(3) Other references to the Spirit,  and Jesus ‘going up’ (being ‘raised up’, etc), found in the earlier discourses

As space is limited, I would recommend careful study, in particular, of John 3:1-21, 31-36 and 6:22-71.

(For the conclusion of this article, see Part 4.)

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