The Spirit of God

(Editor’s note: This is the fifth and last in a series of articles on John’s Gospel.)

In line with its own unique theological orientation, John’s Gospel has a special way of characterizing the Holy Spirit. This article proposes a brief examination of John’s special contribution to the Church’s understanding of the identity and mission of the Spirit.

Spirit Vocabulary

The first observation concerns vocabulary. In the New Testament, the normal word for “spirit” is a neuter word in Greek, pneuma, which means breath. Behind it lies a word used in the Hebrew Old Testament, ruach, a feminine word also meaning breath.

The Spirit is understood as God’s very breath, which can create and give life, as in the case of the creation of the world (Gen 1:2) and breathing life into Adam, the man created from dust (Gen 2:7). This vocabulary is somewhat ambiguous because it represents the Spirit of God as an inanimate power rather than a personality.

The vocabulary in John’s Gospel is different. John speaks uniquely of the Spirit as the Paraclete, from the masculine Greek word parakletos. This word literally means “one called alongside of” and normally represents a kind of defense attorney, an advocate, someone who assists in a legal context.

We should recall that contemporary Christian understanding of the Spirit as the third person of the Blessed Trinity was, of course, not yet fully understood in New Testament times. It took centuries to refine the concept of the Spirit and to formalize it in personal terms. The roots of the concept, however, are clearly scriptural.

Aspects of the Johannine Paraclete

Four passages in John express the basic concept of the Advocate, the Johannine Spirit. They occur in the second half of the Gospel, the Book of Glory, in which Jesus prepares to accept His fate and return to His heavenly Father, whence He came.

The first passage (14:15-18) occurs in Jesus’ lengthy discourse at the Last Supper, a detailed instruction He gives to His disciples to help them understand the meaning of His mission. Here Jesus explains certain key aspects of this Paraclete or Advocate.

First, He calls Him “another Advocate” (v. 16). This designation implies that Jesus himself has been serving as an Advocate, and the Spirit who will come will function in the same fashion. Moreover, Jesus says that this Advocate will remain with the disciples “always.” The Spirit, in fact, will be the guaranteed presence of Jesus in the midst of the disciples. He will never leave them orphaned (v. 18).

Finally, the passage also points to a unique aspect of the Spirit as Advocate. Contrary to the normal sense of the term in Greek, this Advocate is not merely a defender of the disciples. He is also a prosecutor. He is given another title: “the Spirit of truth” (v. 17). As such, this Paraclete will be unacceptable to the world at large. This Advocate is against the world, which is unable to accept or even to recognize His presence.

The second passage (14:26) adds to this understanding. Here the Advocate is explicitly called “Holy Spirit.” He comes from the Father who sends Him, just as the Father had sent his own Son. Moreover, this Holy Spirit’s job will be to “teach” the disciples and to “remind” them of what Jesus had taught. Thus, the Advocate’s job is a direct continuation of Jesus’ own extensive teaching ministry.

A third passage (15:26-27) continues in the same vein but with an added layer of understanding. Not only is the Advocate named “the Spirit of Truth” again, and not only is He said to come from the Father, but Jesus also says He will send the Advocate. He then explains another aspect of the Spirit’s work. He will “testify” to Jesus. He will give witness or bear testimony about the truth of Jesus and His teaching. Jesus also says that the disciples will testify as well.

Although John does not explicitly say here that the Paraclete’s presence will help sustain the witness (the Greek verb martyreo) of the disciples, the context seems to suggest this interpretation because the text speaks of them being “expelled” from the synagogue. This is a hint of the tensions that existed in early Christianity before its distinct identity apart from Judaism was clear.

In the fourth passage (16:7-15), we see most clearly expressed the prosecuting role of this Advocate. We notice first that Jesus insists that He must first leave the disciples so that the Advocate can come to them. He goes away not to abandon them but to send them this Advocate, this Spirit of Truth, who will be able to assist them in their ministry. The passage then becomes a little murky. The Advocate’s role is not merely to defend or assist the disciples. Rather he comes also to “convict the world in regard to sin, righteousness and condemnation.” The forensic context of the Paraclete is most evident here, but as a prosecuting attorney rather than defense attorney.

If the language of this last passage is a bit mysterious, its basic meaning follows the logic of the previous passages. The Paraclete is the Spirit of Truth. He enables the disciples to give proper testimony on behalf of Jesus. He comes so that the disciples will not forget what Jesus taught. He also provides insight, knowledge that only comes to the disciples after the death and resurrection of Jesus Himself. This Spirit will speak only the Truth, which is not simply his own message but that of Jesus. Through this special mission among Jesus’ disciples, He will glorify Jesus (v. 14).

Making Sense of the Paraclete

This little excursion into Johannine theology shows how profound and complex it can be. With John, one gets more than meets the eye. But how does this theology translate today?

First, the very notion of the Holy Spirit is a way of talking about Christ’s ongoing presence in the world. For Christians, the Spirit is not simply a divine power but a personal presence to be appreciated. The Spirit gives life to the church today. The Spirit communicates the presence of the risen Lord Jesus in our midst today.

Second, John’s teaching shows us that Jesus’ physical absence is not a sign of abandonment. It is a means through which Jesus cares for His disciples by sending them an Advocate who can both guide and protect them by condemning those who are opposed to the Truth.

As is well known, John’s Gospel devotes considerable energy to discussing the “Truth.” Pilate’s question is haunting: “What is truth?” (18:38) He ignores Jesus’ statement that leads to this question: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Sadly, it has become no easier in our day for many people to discern the truth. We do not listen well. And rationalization is alive and well! People often choose to ignore the truth because it is more attractive to pursue false paths, which is exactly why an Advocate for the truth is needed.

A third aspect of the Spirit’s work is condemnation. This very concept may make us uncomfortable because we live in an age of affirmation. No one likes to be condemned. Even the most egregious criminal justifies his actions. But with regard to John’s teaching we have to be careful with the concept of condemnation. The vocabulary in John is that of decision (Greek, krisis, and related words, from which we get “crisis”). The deeper meaning of this vocabulary is decision-making. In John, the coming of Jesus as the Word-made-flesh provokes the need for a decision. People either accept Him or reject Him.

Faith means making a conscious choice to accept Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and Savior of the world. This is seen in the multiple stories of encounters with Jesus, many of which we celebrated this past Lent (the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, etc.). “Crisis” means making a decision or a choice. To choose badly, however, brings consequences.

The Advocate’s role, then, is not to condemn externally but to be the assurance of the consequences of our decision-making. Condemnation is not something imposed from outside, but the effective consequence of our own actions.

This message, of course, is not an easy one in a world where placing blame everywhere else but on our own shoulders is rather common. We may not like being confronted with the implications of our own choices, but in an adult world of faith, this is the measuring rod.


John’s pneumatology, or understanding of the Holy Spirit, is broad and deep. As the Church embraces its mission to go forth and evangelize, as a result of the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that continually accompanies us on our pilgrim journey, we take comfort in the notion that we have this Advocate by our side to guide us.

FATHER WITHERUP, S.S. is Superior General of the Society of Saint Sulpice. Among his many publications is Saint Paul and the New Evangelization (Liturgical Press, 2013).