We bring this current series of notes to a close with a brief study on the references to the Spirit in the Gospel and Letters of John. All of these references were discussed previously, at considerable length, in the earlier study series “…Spirit and Life”. Here they will be discussed only briefly, in summary fashion, in terms of the development of traditions regarding the Spirit of God in early Christianity.
This question of development is complicated in the case of the Gospel of John, due to the nature and character of the Discourses of Jesus. On the one hand, the Johannine Discourses are rooted in authentic historical traditions regarding the words and teachings of Jesus; on the other, they also evince signs of having been shaped (and interpreted) within a distinctive literary and theological framework. This framework may be called “Johannine”, referring to the Community of believers within which the Gospel and Letters were produced and disseminated. That there was some definite literary and theological shaping of the Discourses is confirmed by the close similarities in thought and expression—the language, style, etc—between the Discourses and First John.
Thus, insofar as the Discourses reflect the genuine sayings/teaching of Jesus, they represent the beginning of the process of development; insofar as they reflect the Johannine thought-world at the time the Gospel was composed/completed, they represent a relatively late stage in the process. Most (critical) commentators would date the Gospel and Letters to the end of the first century (c. 90-100 A.D.), while the historical traditions drawn upon by the Gospel may have taken shape decades earlier. A proper study of the Discourses requires that both aspects of the critical question be kept clearly in view.
An objective analysis and survey of the references to the Spirit yields the following results:
1. The life-giving character of the Spirit, as symbolized by water. This traditional association of the Spirit with water is used by Jesus in his famous dialogue with Nicodemus (3:5ff), the discourse with the Samaritan woman (4:10-14, 21-24), and his declaration in 7:37-38 (where the Gospel writer explains that this is a reference to the coming of the Spirit, v. 39). The Johannine writings are unique in the way that they specifically associate the Spirit with “water and blood” —that is, the blood of Jesus, meaning his sacrificial death. This can be glimpsed in three passages:
- The ‘Eucharistic’ allusions in the Bread of Life discourse of chapter 6, with the comparable reference to drinking Jesus’ blood in order to quench one’s thirst—vv. 35, 53-57. In the context of this discourse, we find Jesus’ climactic words to his disciples stating that, in reality, it is the Spirit that gives life (6:63), rather than some sort of concrete (sacramental) eating and drinking, and that this Spirit is communicated to believers through Jesus’ own words.
- The reference to “blood and water” coming out of Jesus at his death (19:34) must be understood in the context of his allusion to the giving of the Spirit at the moment of his death (v. 30).
- The famous declaration in 1 John 5:6-8ff; cf. my earlier notes for a detailed study on this passage.
2. The coming of the Spirit as the mark of a ‘New Age’ for the people of God. This is another traditional theme, deriving ostensibly from the Prophetic writings of the 6th century B.C., and continuing down into the New Testament period. According to this line of tradition, in the New Age God will ‘pour out’ his Spirit upon the people as a whole, marking a new and restored relationship (or covenant) with YHWH. We saw how this idea received a unique development among early Christians, expressed throughout the early chapters of the book of Acts, and given an even deeper theological treatment, for example, by Paul in his letters. It may well be that the basic line of interpretation, among the earliest Christians, stems from Jesus’ own teachings, though there is relatively little evidence for this in the Gospels. However, it is certainly suggested by Jesus in his discourse with the Samaritan woman (esp. 4:21-24), as well as by the place of his references to the Spirit within the “realized” eschatology that dominates the Discourses—cf. the following note on the ‘Paraclete’ passages.
3. Jesus as the means by which the Spirit is given to God’s people. This belief regarding Jesus’ role in communicating God’s Spirit is rooted in early Gospel tradition—most notably, the saying of John the Baptist in Mark 1:7-8 par. That saying relates to an identification of Jesus as God’s chosen/anointed representative (Messiah), who will appear at the end of the current Age and usher in the New Age for the people of God. This Messianic association with the Spirit is a bit unusual, but not entirely unprecedented, when one considers the development of Messianic thought from its Prophetic roots, and as it is attested, for example, in a number of the Qumran texts (cf. my earlier article on the Holy Spirit in the Dead Sea Scrolls). In the Gospel tradition, the saying of the Baptist is tied to the manifestation of the Spirit during Jesus’ baptism (Mk 1:9-11 par)—all of which the Gospel of John records, in its own way (cf. 1:29-34).
Even more significant, along these same lines, are the references to the Spirit in the Discourses. In addition to the ‘Paraclete’ passages of the Last Discourse (cf. the discussion in the note following), we have:
- The key statement (by the Gospel writer?) in 3:34-35
- The idea of Jesus giving the Spirit under the symbolic figure of water—4:10, 13-14; 7:37-38 (cf. above)
- The allusion to his giving the Spirit at his death (19:30, cp. verse 34)
- The giving of the Spirit to his disciples following his resurrection (20:22)
- The statements in 1 John 3:24; 4:13
4. The role of the Spirit in a “new birth” for believers as sons/children of God. The roots of such birth imagery, in connection with the Spirit of God, are probably to be found (a) in the general sense of the Spirit’s life-giving power (manifest at creation, etc), and (b) the Prophetic imagery that depicted the restoration of God’s people with the motif of new life from the dead (i.e. resurrection, in a figurative sense). Both aspects are naturally tied to the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the resurrection-motif is especially prominent in the Gospel of John (5:25-29; 6:39-40ff; chapter 11 [esp. verses 23-27]).
A comparable matrix of ideas developed around the symbolism of the baptism-ritual, which entailed (i) the believer’s participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and (ii) the life-giving presence of the Spirit. Both of these aspects serve to effect our union with Christ (the Son), and, at the same time, with God the Father. Paul draws out the connection of the Spirit with the divine sonship of believers, in the context of the baptism symbolism, in Galatians 4:4-7 and Romans 8:9-17 (discussed in prior notes).
The Johannine writings similarly emphasize the role of the Spirit in the experience of the “new birth” that allows believers to realize their identity as sons/children of God. The Gospel and Letters use the term te/knon (plur. te/kna), “offspring” for believers as children of God, reserving the noun ui(o/$ (“son”) more or less exclusively for Jesus (the Son). For instances of this usage, cf. Jn 1:12; (11:52); 1 Jn 3:1-2, 10; 5:2. Even more common in the Johannine writings is the idiom of “coming to be (born) of God”, with its distinctive use of the verb genna/w (“come to be, become”)—Jn 1:13; 1 Jn 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, etc. In First John, believers are often referenced as such through the use of a substantive perfect participle—i.e., “the (one) having come to be (born)”, cf. 3:9; 5:1, 4, 18.
The main Johannine passage associating the Spirit with this “birth” of believers, is the famous discourse with Nicodemus (3:3-8, cf. my earlier notes). In 1 John, the key references to the Spirit (3:24; 4:13; 5:6ff) occur within the context of a discussion centered around the identity of the (true) believer as one who has come to be born of God—i.e., the child/offspring of God—using the terminology mentioned above.
Due to the special importance of the ‘Paraclete’ references in the Johannine writings, these will be treated in a supplemental note.