Commentary on John 16:12-15
John 16:12-15 begins with Jesus telling his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (v. 12).
What Jesus says here seems to contradict what he had just told the disciples in 15:15: “I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” How can Jesus have made known “everything” to the disciples and yet “still have many things to say” to them?
Within the framework of the Fourth Gospel’s theology, Jesus is the full and complete revelation of God. To see him is in fact to the see God (John 14:9; cf. 1:18). This is why Jesus can say in earnest that he has revealed everything from God (15:15). This is also why Jesus’s words in 16:12 cannot mean that there is new content to his revelation. Something else must be going on.
John 16:13 adds some clarity. It won’t be Jesus doing the talking but the Spirit. The disciples “cannot bear” certain things now (v. 12) but will — through the Spirit — be guided “into all the truth” (v. 13). This will take place at a future time, as can be seen in the future tense of the verbs used to describe the Spirit’s actions (the Spirit “will guide,” “will speak,” and “will declare”). As the verses leading up to John 16:12-15 indicate, a fundamental difference between the current experience of the disciples at the Last Supper with Jesus and their future experience with the Spirit is that the future context is marked by Jesus’s departure from the world (16:4-11; see also 16:28). The claim made by verses 12-13 is that in the post-Easter period, after Jesus’ return to God, the Spirit facilitates a fuller understanding of Jesus’ revelation without any change to its content. Just as Jesus did, the Spirit reveals God.
The vocabulary the Johannine Jesus uses in 16:13 underscores the close connection between Jesus and the Spirit as well as the Spirit’s function of “further revealing” the same revelation that Jesus revealed during his earthly ministry. Earlier in his farewell discourse, Jesus identified himself as “the way” and “the truth” (14:6). Just as Jesus is “the truth” (14:6), so is the Spirit “of truth” who “will guide you into all the truth” (16:13; cf. 15:26). When Jesus calls himself the “way” in 14:6, the Greek word used is hodos. In 16:13, the verb used for the Spirit’s act of “guiding,” hodegeo, combines the noun hodos (“way”) with the verb ago (“to bring, lead”). By guiding us “into all the truth,” where “truth” is the revelation of God found in and through Jesus, the Spirit will “bring the way.” That the Spirit speaks “whatever he hears” (v. 13) is in complete continuity with Jesus’s method of revealing only what hears from God (John 8:26-28; 12:49; 14:10; 15:15; 17:7-8). Even though Jesus is no longer physically present as God’s Revealer, the believer can trust that Jesus and the Spirit share the same source of revelation: God.
John 16:14-15 continue drawing parallels between Jesus’ role as Revealer and the Spirit’s function of continuing Jesus’ revelation in the post-Easter period. What the Spirit reveals comes directly from Jesus: “he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:14). Verse 15 confirms that the ultimate source of revelation for both Jesus and the Spirit is God. Since the Spirit takes what belongs to Jesus, and since what belongs to Jesus belongs to God, then even in Jesus’s absence God’s revelation to the world and to the church is still available — through the Spirit.
As we can see in John 16:12-15, the Fourth Gospel’s particular understanding of the Spirit recognizes two realities about how Christianity relates to its past and future. The first is that the revelation that took place in and through Jesus is fundamental for Christian identity. The second is that, as fundamental and eternal as Jesus’ revelation is for Christians, the world will keep turning from the time that revelation first made itself known. The church in John’s day, today, and always finds itself trying to understand and live its faith in the midst of social, cultural, and global circumstances that change rapidly.
It might have been tempting for John — whose theology gave central importance to the incarnation (John 1:14) — to devalue any new understanding of the Christian message that emerges when Jesus is no longer visible in-the-flesh to deliver it himself. Instead, John places firm confidence in the Spirit as continuing the ongoing presence and revelation of Jesus within the Christian community after Jesus’ return to God. For John, then, the church need not fear learning and practicing its faith in Jesus in the midst of a changing world marked by Jesus’ physical absence. This is because the Spirit “will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13). In other words, the Spirit makes possible a “deep understanding of what Jesus means for one’s own time” without betraying the core truth of Jesus’ original revelation.1
The question we are left with is whether we will listen to the Spirit and be open to newer and deeper understandings of our faith and to the implications of Jesus’s revelation for us today. The internet, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle now give us a more immediate awareness of local, national, and global crises that challenge us for a Christian response, such as immigration and racial disparity in police treatment, to list just two examples. What is the Christian response to such realities? What response is more true and faithful to Jesus’ revelation? Can we, like John, trust the Spirit to guide us in discerning what it means to live out Christian faith today?
1 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (2 vols.; Anchor Bible 29-29A), 2:716.