Commentary on John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Compared to Acts’ description of the Spirit descending like tongues of fire at Pentecost, today’s reading from John is sadly lacking in drama.
Nevertheless, Jesus’ conversation with his disciples about the Holy Spirit provides an important counterpoint to the Pentecost story. In this passage Jesus outlines the critical role that the Spirit will play both in the Christian community and in the world.
In John, Jesus’ preferred term for the Spirit is the Paraclete. Because this word is notoriously difficult to translate without losing key components of its meaning, many commentators avoid the problem altogether and simply transliterate the Greek. The Greek noun Paraclete is related to a verb that means “I call alongside.” The Paraclete, then, is the Spirit of Truth whom Jesus calls to accompany his followers as helper, counselor, advocate, and guide. Though sent by Jesus, the Spirit goes out from the Father.
Jesus promises to send the Paraclete as a replacement for his own presence among his disciples. Observant readers will notice that Jesus’ comment in John 16:5, “But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, Where are you going?” seems to overlook Peter’s question in John 13:36 (“Lord, where are you going?”) as well as Thomas’ statement in John 14:5 (“Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”).
The point that Jesus seems to be making here in John 16 is that as he continues to talk about his imminent departure, his disciples have been stunned into silence. In their shock and grief, they simply do not know what to say. He consoles them by assuring them that it is better this way, because unless he leaves, the Paraclete will not come. Even though he himself is returning to the Father, the Paraclete will be their constant companion, the living presence of the divine among and within them, comforting the community in Jesus’ absence. The Paraclete will enable them to abide in Jesus’ love.
Jesus describes the Paraclete as the Spirit of truth who will expose sin, righteousness, and judgment and who will lead Jesus’ followers into all truth. It is vitally important that readers understand what Jesus means here by truth. The Spirit of truth is not focused on propositional, dogmatic truth. Jesus does not send the Spirit to ensure that the community makes no errors in its theological descriptions of the Trinity or of the precise nature of Christ’s presence in the consecrated bread and wine. No, Jesus sends the Spirit of truth to help his followers live in the Way of Jesus.
The truth that the Spirit of truth teaches is relational, not propositional. According to John 16:13, the Spirit of truth “will guide you into all the truth” (New Revised Standard Version). The Greek verb that describes the Spirit’s action here is hodegeo, which combines the noun hodos, “way” and the verb ago, “I lead.” The Paraclete leads Jesus’ followers in the way of all truth, and of course John’s community knows that Jesus himself is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (see John 14:6). Those who know Jesus’ character as revealed in his deeds and words will lead lives shaped by those words and deeds. How can anyone who truly knows Jesus — the beloved Son who says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:13) — use doctrinal error to justify violent or hateful treatment of another human being?
John 16:1-4a, the verses that have been omitted from today’s Gospel reading even though they fall in the middle of the passage, prove the above point by stating its opposite: not knowing the Father or the Son leads to profoundly mistaken behavior. Those who use faith as an excuse for violence do so because they do not truly know God. Only those who do not know God as revealed in Jesus could conclude that killing people is offering worship to God.
By contrast, the Spirit of truth leads Jesus’ followers in the way of Jesus, whose love for the world led him to lay down his life for it. As the living divine presence in the community, the Paraclete continues the work of Jesus. An essential part of the Spirit’s task is to bring to mind the words that Jesus has already taught the disciples and to teach them the words that they were not yet able to bear when Jesus was physically present among them.
The Spirit also continues Jesus’ work by revealing the truth about sin and righteousness and judgment, just as Jesus did. The Paraclete exposes the world’s sin by pointing to its opposite, the righteous one whom a sinful world crucified. As Jesus says at the turning point of John’s Gospel, “Now is the judgment of this world…. and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31, 32). When the world tries to deny the truth about itself, the Spirit offers convincing evidence of sin by pointing to Jesus, who embodies righteousness and justice. There can be no clearer indictment of the world than its choice to walk the path of darkness, violence, and hate instead of walking in the way of Jesus, who is light and love incarnate.
The Spirit of Truth testifies to the incarnate truth and empowers Jesus’ followers to become witnesses too. The Spirit speaks through the community of disciples, teaching them to bear witness not only with their lips, but with their lives. As Jesus himself said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). The most compelling witness that any disciple can bear is to love others as Jesus did, in deed and in truth.