The lectionary gospel reading for Easter 6 in Year A (this Sunday) is the next section of John 14.15–21. The split of the passage for the two Sundays is a little odd, in that last week’s was twice the length, and contained three massive issues to address! This week’s is much shorter and more straightforward.
The text still has a slightly strange feeling to it, for the reasons I mentioned last week:
- The whole discourse (which begins at John 13.31 and continues to the end of chapter 16) is dotted with apophthegms which are highly memorable—and often remembered out of context.
- There are often abrupt changes of subject and sharp contrasts, even from one sentence to another—in this section, moving from love, Jesus’ commandments, the giving of the Spirit, seeing and not seeing, and so on.
- There is no obvious linear structure or progress in the discourse; instead, subjects are repeated, circled around, and returned to. In this section, we begin and end with love, and the material in the middle is implicitly but not explicitly connected to this frame.
- Jesus’ comments are often obscure or ambiguous, and the disciples are baffled—something that happens throughout the gospel between Jesus and his dialogue partners.
But I think the main reason why these chapters read slightly strangely to us is that we are reading them (and the author is writing them) from such a different perspective from that of the disciples themselves. Whenever we watch a film, if it is one I have seen before and really enjoyed, I cannot help myself from saying to those I am watching with: ‘You’ll love this—there is a great bit coming up!’ It drives my children spare! We are reading from a post-crucifixion, post-resurrection, post-Pentecost reality, and that makes Jesus’ teaching to the disciples and their reaction seem rather odd. And it means that Jesus’ brief summary comments on specific issues need unpacking in the light of later reality.
This section begins and ends with Jesus setting out the close relationship between loving him (loving God) and obedience to his commandments. Supreme amongst these is the command from chapter 13 to ‘love one another’, but in both statements, in verse 15 and verse 21, ‘commandments’ is in the plural. As on other occasions in reading the Fourth Gospel, there is an assumption that we know the other gospels and so Jesus’ teaching in other places, and there is no reason to exclude this from our understanding of what Jesus teaches.
The relationship between love and obedience is expressed in two reciprocal ways, at the beginning and end of the passage. On the one hand, loving Jesus will lead to obedience (‘keeping’ is the standard biblical, that is, Old Testament, language for obeying a command); on the other hand, obedience is a sign of love for Jesus. If we see the criticism of some of the Pharisees in the gospels as being a criticism of obedience without love for God and others, then the antidote to that is not love without obedience, or love regardless of obedience—it is holding love and obedience together. This counters the popular myth that, in Christian discipleship, ‘all you need is love‘.
The fulfilment of commandments as an expression of love evokes the Shema (Deut 6.4–9). Covenantal fidelity, or the notion of being God’s people, is in view (Jo-Ann Brant, Paideia commentary, p 214)
…though God’s people are now formed, not around the Law, but around the teachings of Jesus.
The unexplained change of subject focusses on the giving of the Spirit. As the gospel later expresses through Jesus ‘breathing’ on the disciples (John 20.22), the Spirit is sent from both Jesus and the Father. I was taught as a teenager that there are two Greek words for ‘another’, allos which we find here, and heretos which comes to us in the word ‘heterodox’ (as a contrast to ‘orthodox’). The former means ‘another of the same kind’, whilst the second means ‘another of a different kind’, so the Spirit is another person or agent like Jesus, who makes Jesus’ presence real to us. I am not quite convinced that the grammar supports this idea in the way I was taught (insights welcome in the comments below!) but the way these chapters describe the Spirit certainly do support this idea. Craig Keener lists the ways in which the character and work of the Spirit match very closely Jesus’ own role as an ‘advocate’:
The discourses are clear that the Spirit, above all else, carries on Jesus’ mission and mediates his presence. The personal functions of the Spirit are also the functions of Jesus in the rest of the book, and the sensitive reader cannot miss the connection (Keener, The Gospel of John vol II p 965)
Immediately we see that the promise that the Spirit ‘will be with you forever’ both matches Jesus’ promise to ‘be with you always’ in Matt 28.20 and fulfils his promise that ‘I will not leave you as orphans’ in the following verse.
The description of the ‘Spirit of truth’ draws on a theme that is threaded all through the gospel, from the very beginning when we read that ‘the Word became flesh…full of grace and truth’ (John 1.14, 17). It is closely associated with light and life, so that those who walk in the light of Jesus know the truth and can see, whereas those who reject the truth of Jesus cannot see since they remain in darkness. It functions within the whole narrative sharply to delineate between those who accept Jesus and those who reject him, most pointedly in the discourse in chapter 8:
You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? (John 8.44–46)
The ‘Spirit of truth’ therefore continues this truth-telling ministry of Jesus, being an ‘advocate’ in the positive sense of reassuring and confirming the followers of Jesus who receive the Spirit, but also in the negative sense of making judgement apparent in highlighting that which is not true.
Although the Spirit is characterised in Revelation as ‘the eyes of the lamb that range throughout the earth’ (Rev 5.6), here the narrative sets up a clear delineation between the disciples and the ‘world’, a world that God loves (John 3.16) but which has rejected Jesus and so will stand in opposition to Jesus’ disciples (John 16.33). This understanding of the Spirit challenges the current idea that we need to look at the Spirit at work in the world in order to see what God is doing, in contrast to what is happening amongst God’s people. It is this Spirit who leads the disciples into truth, and it is this truth which both sanctifies them and brings them unity (John 17.17).
Though most English translations obscure it, the language of the Spirit ‘living in you’ or ‘dwelling in you’ in verse 17 uses the verb meno, to remain or abide. This forms part of the developing theme through the gospel, from the first question of the disciples to Jesus, ‘Where do you dwell?’ (John 1.38) through to the command to ‘Abide in me, and I in you’ (John 15.4). The mutual indwelling of Jesus in the believer is effected by the mutual indwelling of the Spirit and the believer. Although this complex of ideas, of Jesus in the Father, the Father in Jesus, and both in the believer, appears to be distinctive of the Fourth Gospel, we find similar ideas of incorporation in the writing of Paul:
|You in God||Col 3.3||John 17.21|
|You in Christ||2 Cor 5.17||John 15.4–5|
|You in the Spirit||Rom 8.9||John 4.23–24|
|God in you||Phil 2.13||John 14.23|
|Christ in you||Col 1.27||John 14.18–20|
|Spirit in you||1 Cor 3.16||John 14.16–17|
There is, therefore, no need to read this passage as a distinctively Johannine ‘Christ mysticism’ or as unique to this gospel. There is an eschatological sense to the phrase ‘in that day’ in verse 20, but this is, once again, the gospel’s realised eschatology, seeing the gift of the Spirit that makes the presence of God real an anticipation of the presence of God with his people at The End.
The language of ‘I will come to you’ is elaborated here in the following verse ‘The world will not see me, but you will see me’, referring to his resurrection appearances to the disciples but not to the world at large. Combined with the language of the Spirit abiding, meno, this confirms that the language in the earlier part of the chapter of ‘rooms [monai] in my Father’s house’ is a reference to the post-resurrection and post-Pentecost reality of the presence of God and Jesus by the Spirit.
And thus we return to the connection between loving Jesus and obeying his commandments. The implication of this framing of the discussion of the Spirit by the language of covenant fidelity suggests that the centre of the section answers the questions raised by the frame. How can we love Jesus? How can we live in faithful obedience? By the receipt of the Spirit, who will encourage us, equip us, making the presence of Jesus real to us, and strengthen us for the conflict with ‘the world’ that we will inevitably face.
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?