This passage from the Gospel of John contains the longest sustained discussion of the Holy Spirit. Jesus opens by saying: “When the Advocate comes…” The Greek word translated here as Advocate is “paraclete”, “para” meaning “to the side of”’ and “clete” meaning to be “called”. This paraclete doesn’t come on its/ his/ her own volition. The Advocate is dispatched to us by Jesus from the Father. The first thing the paraclete is expected to do is to witness, that is to testify on Jesus’ behalf. This is a pretty important distinction here – the advocate doesn’t testify about Jesus – the advocate speaks for Jesus – continues the conversation which will be interrupted by what lies in Jesus’ immediate future. Jesus names this advocate ‘the Spirit of truth’.
We begin our reading with the last two verses of the 15th chapter. The first of these two verses tells us what the Advocate comes to do. 26”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. The second verse tells Jesus’ disciples what is expected of them. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. From last Sunday you might recall that the single qualification for both the men nominated to fill the seat among the Apostles vacated by Judas Iscariot was that they needed to have been a follower of Jesus from the beginning so they too could testify to the life and ministry of Jesus.
Twice Jesus shares his reason for sharing this new information with them now. The first begins the 16th chapter: “I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling.” or as another translation has it “I have told you all this to guard you against the break down of your faith. The second instance come in the fourth verse: 4But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. Another translation of that is;” I have told you this so that when the time comes for it to happen you may remember my warning. I was caught by the difference in these two translations. In one the warning is about events (when the time for it to happen) in the other it is a warning about actions of persons (when their hour comes). Jesus also tells his followers: “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.
In the 6th verse Jesus says: “ …you are plunged into grief because of what I have told you.” Another way to translate that is: “6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.” John gives us the back door version. What, John says, Jesus has told them plunged them into sorrow and grief. He tells us that Jesus prepares them in advance so that when these things come about his followers won’t lose faith. What? – What? – What? — Tell us. What were these things he hadn’t told them before that he is laying on them now? Or maybe we don’t want to know…
Jesus tells them two things. The first: 2They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. 3And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me.
Remember the story of the man born blind whom Jesus healed on the Sabbath. They put him out of the synagogue – they excommunicated him – they banned him from community – he was ostracized. That, Jesus says, will happen to you. And that’s not even the worst of it. He goes on and says: “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to him who sent me;…. So, which was it that plunged them into grief and filled their hearts with sorrow? Was it the coming persecution or the separation anxiety caused by Jesus’ intended departure? Regardless how we answer that question it is instructive to know that Jesus’ teaching about the promised paraclete comes in the context of anxiety and grief of an intensity great enough to expose his followers to a possible loss of faith.
Jesus seeks to soften the blow of his leaving. He says: “7Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” It is like Jesus is saying you have had cake, you can have ice cream but you can’t have both cake and ice cream at the same time. It’s a mystery beyond my pay grade.
For them, or us, to focus on the very human Jesus is idolatry. They are told that it is to their advantage to let go of him. John begins his Gospel telling us that incarnate in Jesus was the Word of God and that creative Word was instrumental in creation itself. He wants us to know that the Jesus they encountered in the flesh, as fully human as were they, witnessed to a God of love and leading, guiding, directing and even comforting Jesus himself was that same Spirit. And now, that same Spirit would come and abide with them, no longer in the person of Jesus but within their own flesh.
Listen to the how the work of the paraclete is described: This paraclete will be: near us and in us; will be with us in all circumstances of life and for all time; will lead us into all truth; will be sent by God the Father at the direction of Jesus; will testify about Jesus and make the life of Jesus alive in us; and will convince us of the truth about sin, righteousness and judgment. That’s a pretty tall order. Jesus leaves. The Holy Spirit comes.
Half way through this passage we get another perspective on the Advocate. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.
These verses are thought to be among the most difficult verses in the Gospel to interpret. Augustine, who seemed to have something to say about everything didn’t even try. Aquinas simply repeated what others had said about these verses, making no comments of his own.
For John, the question of the Spirit being acknowledged by the world is a non-starter. The world will never know the Spirit. Yet this is the only place in the Gospels where the Spirit has a direct role with the world. The crucial verb in the passage translated “prove…wrong” can be rendered several ways: to bring to light, to expose, to set forth; to convict or convince someone of something; to point out something to someone; to reprove, to correct; or even to punish, or discipline. Even though the world doesn’t recognize the Spirit, the Spirit will prove the world guilty of something. It is like the situation in a court of law where the court can pass sentence on someone even though the person refuses to recognize the jurisdiction of the court.
Jesus has already defined this Advocate, the paraclete, as one who comes alongside us like a counselor or comforter or guide. But here the focus is on the advocate becoming a prosecuting attorney who proves the world wrong. My preferred translation of this passage reads: “…he will confute the world, and show where wrong and right and judgement lie”. (NEB) Instead of dividing the words sin, righteousness and judgment into three separate ideas, the New English Bible captures the overall character of the Spirit’s prosecutorial work. The Spirit points out wrong. It shows what someone characterized as the ‘ethical lay of the land’ in the world. So, along with its internal work in the hearts of Jesus’ followers and us, the Spirit has this very public work to accomplish–to point out the world’s false confidences, judgments and its ignorance of its own harmful ways. This interpretation supports the role of the church in bringing to the world’s attention the injustice, waste, plunder, inhumanity and desecration of creation.
In the chapters immediately preceding this passage we learned that the Spirit of truth will be with and within the disciples. We learned that this same Spirit will teach Jesus’ followers what they need to know and remind them of everything Jesus said to them. We’ve now been told that the Spirit will ‘testify’ on Jesus’ behalf. This Spirit will speak Jesus’ words loudly and authoritatively in the world.
In the concluding section of this passage we read: 12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
This Spirit becomes the one who will clarify the things that the disciples cannot “bear.” This use of the verb refering to ‘words is otherwise unprecedented in the New Testament. More typically, it is used to describe a burden too heavy to bear. For instance it is used to describe how Paul will ‘bear’ the name of Christ. But that Jesus’ words are hard to bear suggests that there is almost a solid character to them, a sort of barbell-like heaviness to them, that are simply “too much” for the disciples now. We can easily understand this notion, because we know that in our lives we are only able to “bear” things at various points. We say, “Let me sit down before you tell me what you have to say..” or “I am not ready for that yet.” Were these things that the disciples are not able to bear things which Jesus said all along but which his disciples found confusing or were these new insights yet to come? The good news is that the Spirit will “guide us into all truth” by either clarifying the things that we just couldn’t bear at an earlier time or enabling us to discern direction for situations in an ever changing world. The Spirit’s work leads into truth and that includes a future dimension of discovery and discernment. It is said that he will take what is Christ’s and give it to us and thus lead us into all the truth.
With the Spirit’s convicting and teaching work, the disciples become ready for life in the world, life without the companionship of the earthly Jesus. That same two-fold sword is at work on our behalf today.