Volume 6 - Issue 1
Spirit and Life: Some Reflections on Johannine TheologyBy David Wenham
John’s gospel is one of the most wonderful books in the New Testament; but, at least for the theological student, it is also often one of the most problematic. It is internally problematic, in that the gospel’s different theological ideas and themes seem hard to fit together; and it is externally problematic, because it differs so noticeably in language and ideas from other parts of the New Testament, most significantly from the synoptic gospels. This brief study looks at a few key Johannine ideas, suggesting how they can be fitted together and arguing that they have striking parallels elsewhere in the New Testament.
Spirit and life in John
2.1. The problem: ‘eternal life’ and ‘the Holy Spirit’ two unrelated blessings for the believer?
Two of John’s most important and distinctive themes are ‘eternal life’ and the coming of the Spirit. John is clear that the way to receive both is through believing in the Son (e.g. 3:15; 7:39), but what is not so clear is how the two blessings are related. On the basis of John 3 we might conclude that the Spirit is the one who initiates us into the experience of eternal life; but from other passages it is clear that the Spirit is much more than the midwife in the new birth. The new birth is indeed through the Spirit, but it is also birth into the Spirit: the Spirit is received through faith in Jesus.
What then is the relationship between the Spirit and eternal life, both of which are received through faith in Christ? We cannot say that one is present and the other is future, since in John’s realized eschatology eternal life is something received here and now (3:18; 5:24, etc.). The fact that various New Testament theologians in discussing John’s theology treat the two topics quite separately might lead us to conclude that we must simply accept that the two ideas cannot be closely related. It is, however, the argument of this study that the two ideas have a definite and close connection in Johannine thought.
2.2. John 17:3: eternal life as fellowship with Father and Son
A key verse for seeing the connection between life and Spirit is John 17:3, where the fourth evangelist gives his definition of ‘eternal life’. Eternal life for John is not (or is not only) endless existence; it is something much more. The Greek phrase aiōnios zōe may itself be better understood to mean ‘life of the age’ (i.e. life of the new age of the kingdom) rather than to mean ‘everlasting life’,1 and here in 17:3 John defines the life of the new age as ‘knowing thee the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent’. The word ‘know’ here, as elsewhere in John, may be understood in the Hebraic sense of ‘have fellowship or personal relationship with’, and so eternal life in John is primarily and essentially ‘fellowship with the Father and the Son’.2
2.3. John 14:15–24: Father and Son come to the believer through the Spirit
It is when the definition of eternal life in 17:3 is borne in mind that the relationship between eternal life and the Holy Spirit may begin to become clear, especially if we compare 17:3 with 14:15–24. In this passage we find a promise and a condition three times: (a) verses 15, 16: ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth.’ (b) verse 21: ‘He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.’ (c) verse 23: ‘If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.’ The parallelism between these three promises/conditions within the one discourse makes it very probable that we have here the same thing being said in different ways; and, if that is so, then we see that the gift of the Spirit (verses 15, 16) is the same thing as Jesus manifesting himself to the believer (verse 21), and the same thing as Jesus and the Father coming to the believer and making their home with him (verse 23). To put the matter more accurately, it is through the Spirit that Father and Son come to the believer.
2.4. Thus the coming of the Spirit, fellowship with Father and Son equals eternal life
When the point from John 14:15–24 is appreciated, the relationship between ‘eternal life’ and the coming of the Spirit becomes clearer. ‘Eternal life’ is, more than anything else, fellowship with Father and Son, and this fellowship is realized in the believer’s experience through the coming of the Spirit. The phrase in 14:23, ‘We will come to him and make our home with him’ (which we take to be a reference to the coming of the Spirit—see above), is similar to John’s definition of eternal life in 17:3, ‘that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.’ We could conclude that eternal life in John is the Father and the Son ‘making their home’ with the believer—through the Spirit. Receiving the Spirit and receiving eternal life are thus to be seen not as two separate blessings, but in a very real sense as the same blessing.
2.5. But the future experience of eternal life is fuller than the present experience
Although eternal life and the Spirit are in a real sense one blessing, not two, it would be a mistake to identify them entirely. In John, eternal life (equals fellowship with Father and Son) has a present and a future tense. John indeed emphasizes that eternal life is experienced now in the present, as the believer has fellowship with Father and Son through the Spirit; but eternal life will also be more fully and completely experienced in the future (e.g. 4:14, 5:29), when the believer will be personally in the presence of Jesus and of the Father. At present paradoxically we may say that Jesus and the Father are present with the believer (through the Spirit), and yet at the same time they are absent.3 In the future they will be present in a more complete and glorious sense—not only through the Spirit, but in person face to face.
2.6. Conclusion: the present experience of eternal life equals the experience of the Spirit
The observation of the difference between the present and future of eternal life in John means that we must qualify our earlier conclusion that eternal life is the same blessing as the gift of the Spirit: eternal life in the future is a greater fellowship than that experienced in the present through the Spirit. What we may say is that the present experience of eternal life is the experience of the Holy Spirit, but the future experience will be something more. Not that they are different experiences—both are experiences of fellowship with Father and Son—but the future experience will be a greater one.
The Johannine understanding of Spirit and life compared with parallel ideas elsewhere in the New Testament
3.1. Jesus present with and absent from the believer
If our analysis of Spirit and life in John is anywhere near correct, then it is interesting to note the similarity between John’s ideas and those of other New Testament writers. In John we found the idea of Father and Son having present fellowship with the believer (through the Spirit), but also the idea of Jesus going away and of a future greater fellowship face-to-face. The same seemingly paradoxical thought of Jesus being present with the church in one sense and yet absent from it in another sense can be found in several other New Testament writings or writers. Compare, e.g, Matthew 24:3, 27 with 28:20, or Philippians 1:23 with Romans 8:10.
3.2. The Spirit in Paul as a firstfruit of our future fellowship in God’s family
More striking and significant is the parallelism between John’s view of the Spirit as the present experience of eternal life and Paul’s teaching on the Spirit of ‘firstfruits’ or ‘downpayment’ of our future inheritance (Rom. 8:23; 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13f.). The Holy Spirit in Paul gives us a first experience of living as sons of God who call God ‘Abba’, but the full experience of this fellowship lies in the future. (This idea of fellowship as members in the family of God has parallels in John, e.g. 1:12; cf. 1 Jn. 3:1.)
3.3. The synoptics: the kingdom is present and future
The thought of a present first experience and a fuller final experience is, of course, also present in the synoptic gospels in Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom. Scholars are now almost all agreed that Jesus taught both a present and a future kingdom: the longed-for kingdom of God had indeed come near in Jesus’ ministry and was ‘in your midst’ in the person of Jesus: the blessings of the kingdom were beginning to be experienced through Jesus’ miracles, life and preaching. But the present experience of the kingdom was like a minute mustard seed when compared with the future kingdom that would one day be revealed. The future kingdom would not be something different from the present kingdom; it would be the same, but in far greater, more glorious measure. It will be something complete and not partial.
3.4. The synoptics: the kingdom equals fellowship with God
The parallelism between the present and the future of the synoptic kingdom and the present and the future of Johannine eternal life is clear, and the parallelism is the more striking when we recall that eternal life in John is essentially fellowship with Father and Son and that the kingdom in the synoptics means (among other things and perhaps pre-eminently) a restoration of fellowship between God and sinners. This restored fellowship is already experienced now as Jesus, in God’s stead, feasts with reconciled sinners, and it will be consummated in the future at the messianic banquet.
3.5. The synoptics: the supreme blessing of the kingdom is the Holy Spirit
We have seen certain parallels between the synoptic view of the kingdom and the Johannine view of eternal life, but we should beware of oversimplifying the picture by concentrating on the similarities and ignoring the differences. We need to consider two differences. In the first place we recall that the present experience of eternal life in John is the experience of the Holy Spirit; but at first sight at least this is not the case with the synoptic idea of the present kingdom. Indeed the Holy Spirit seems to be notably absent from the synoptics. A second related difference between John and the synoptics is that, although John and the synoptics have a present/future tension, in the synoptics the present of the kingdom is the ministry of Jesus, but in John the present experience of eternal life through the Holy Spirit is a post-Easter experience, since John makes it clear that the Spirit was not given until Jesus’ glorification (7:39).
With regard to the first point—the absence of the Spirit in the synoptics—it is true that during Jesus’ ministry, as the synoptics describe it, receiving the kingdom does not lead to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; rather Jesus’ followers experience the kingdom, the rule of God, in Jesus’ works and words (which, however, we should note, are Spirit-inspired).4 But all the synoptics are unanimous in recording John the Baptist’s prediction that ‘he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’. Interestingly all the evangelists give a prominent place to this prediction at the start of their gospels and are then remarkably silent about it for most of their gospels. The reason for this silence in Luke’s case is made clear at the end of the Gospel and in Acts: although the Holy Spirit is the supreme blessing of the new age of the kingdom (looked forward to by the Old Testament and proclaimed by John the Baptist), the blessing was not in fact given by Jesus or experienced until after his resurrection; and so it does not receive much attention during the course of Luke’s Gospel.
If we may assume that the same understanding was shared by Matthew and Mark—and I see no other satisfactory explanation of the prominent recording of the Baptist’s prediction—then the synoptic view is that the Holy Spirit is both the power of the kingdom at work in Jesus and the supreme blessing of the kingdom in the believer’s experience; but the Holy Spirit was not given to believers until after Jesus’ ministry. If this is a correct understanding of the synoptics, then John and the Synoptics are evidently much closer to each other than might at first appear.5
3.6. The synoptics and John: three tenses of kingdom/eternal life?
Our observation about the significance of the Spirit in the synoptic gospels throws light on the second point of difference between John and the synoptics that we noted, namely that in the synoptic present/future tension the present is the ministry of Jesus, whereas in John it is the post-resurrection age of the church. Now it seems that we should more carefully describe the synoptic view of the kingdom; in the synoptics the kingdom is experienced in one way in Jesus’ ministry; it is to be experienced in a very important new way with the coming of the Spirit; and it will come in final power and glory at the end. Thus we may think of a three stage coming of the kingdom.6 If we compare this with John’s view of eternal life, then evidently he has equivalents to stages 2 and 3: eternal life is experienced after Jesus’ glorification through the Spirit, and it will be experienced completely at the parousia. But what of stage 1, the ministry of Jesus? Can we say that eternal life in John is experienced even before the giving of the Spirit? This might be hard to prove very directly from John,7 although we may well argue that Jesus’ promises of eternal life in John to people like Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman seem to have immediate relevance to them and are not promises that will take effect only at a later time.8 However, if we approach the question through the definition of eternal life given in John 17:3, then the probable Johannine answer to the question becomes clear. If eternal life is knowing Father and Son—fellowship with Father and Son—then John’s gospel suggests that this was indeed possible during Jesus’ ministry. Although the disciples’ understanding is faltering, yet they do believe and come to know Jesus, who is the manifestation of the glory of God (e.g. 6:69; 17:6f.). They do experience fellowship with him, albeit not so close a fellowship as that which the Holy Spirit will bring into their very hearts. If, as we suggested before, an alternative Johannine definition of eternal life would be ‘Father and Son making their home with the believer,’ then we can find an exact parallel to the kingdom idea of the synoptics: (a) in the incarnation and ministry of Jesus ‘the Word … dwelt among us’ (1:14); (b) through the Holy Spirit Father and Son dwell with the believer now; (c) in the future believers will be with Father and Son in glory face to face.
Postscript: the love command in John
Having completed the main argument of this paper and suggested (a) that the two Johannine ideas of Spirit and life cohere closely in John’s thought, and (b) that the Johannine ideas have notable parallels in other parts of the New Testament, not least in the synoptics,9 we return finally to John and remark that an appreciation of John’s view of eternal life (as expressed in 17:3) also helps us understand the Johannine emphasis on love and unity as proper marks of Christian living. According to John, God’s purpose in sending the Son was to give eternal life to men, which means to bring them into fellowship, or we could say into a relationship of unity and mutual love, with himself. This unity is a reflection and extension of the relationship that already exists between Father and Son (see chapter 17), and God’s purpose is seen to be not just the unifying of individuals to himself, but the extending of the family fellowship. As Father and Son are one, so God’s purpose is that believers be one with the Father and Son and one with each other. When this is appreciated, then the logic of the love command is clear: in a real sense the unity of believers is part of eternal life, and it is theological nonsense to claim eternal life and to refuse to love my brother.10
I began this paper by commenting on the difficulty of relating different themes in the fourth gospel and of relating John to other parts of the New Testament; but taking 17:3 as my starting-point I have attempted to show how various of the Johannine themes, e.g. eternal life, the Spirit, unity, the love of God, may cohere, and also that these distinctively Johannine themes have important and often quite close parallels elsewhere in the New Testament. My contention is that not only has the fourth gospel more internal coherence within itself, but also more external coherence with the rest of the New Testament, than is often recognized. I have, of course, bypassed many difficult questions (e.g. about the precise connotation of Johannine terms such as ‘eternal life’); but whether or not my whole analysis is valid, I hope that certain of the lines of thought suggested may be useful in the important and exciting task of interpreting John’s gospel.
1 The phrase may be seen as a translation of the Hebrew ḥayyē hā ‘ōlām. Cf. R. E. Brown The Gospel according to St John 1 (London, 1971), pp. 505–8; G. E. Ladd A Theology of the New Testament (London, 1975), pp. 254–9.
2 The ideas of ‘knowing God’ and ‘eternal life’ may well have other connotations in John; but I agree with those who argue that the primary thought is that of fellowship. The first epistle of John tends to confirm this: the ideas of eternal life, knowing God and having fellowship with God are there very closely related to each other; see 1:1–4, 2:4, etc. Also see R. Bultmann on ginōskein in TDNT 1, p. 711.
3 Jesus has gone away to his Father’s house to prepare a place for his followers; and it will be only after his coming again that his followers will be ‘with me … to behold my glory’ (14:2, 3; 17:5, 24). If we wish to be more precise, we may distinguish three different experiences of Jesus’ presence: (a) the experience of his fleshly presence on earth; (b) the experience of his post-ascension presence through the Spirit; (c) the future experience of his heavenly presence. See below.
4 Cf. Mt. 12:28–32; Mk. 3:28–30; Lk. 4:14–17; Acts 10:38.
5 For the Spirit upon Jesus see 1:32, 33; 3:34f.; for the Spirit being given to believers after Jesus’ exaltation see 7:39 and chapters 14–16.
6 Maybe it would be better to retain the idea of a two-stage coming, but the first stage is itself in two parts—the giving of the Spirit is the completion of Jesus’ historical bringing of the kingdom.
7 Some would argue that such a historical question would not be of interest to John, since he was writing from and for a church situation. We do not deny that John’s writing does reflect his situation, but we cannot so quickly dismiss John as a-historical in outlook, as the now not so ‘new look’ on the fourth gospel has made clear.
8 We would wish to maintain this point, even if it is granted that John has expressed Jesus’ teaching in the terminology of his (John’s) own day and situation.
9 As well as having parallels elsewhere in the New Testament, John’s ideas have important links with the Old Testament, where the eschatological hope for the future includes as important elements (a) the ‘knowledge’ of God, (b) the thought of relationship/fellowship between God and his people (e.g. ‘I will be their God, and they shall be my people’), (c) the hope for the presence of God among his people, (d) the giving of the Spirit to God’s people (as well as the coming of a Spirit-filled Messiah). See Is. 11:9, 60:19, 61:1f.; Je. 31:33ff., 32:38; Ezk. 37:14, 27f.; Ho. 2:23; Joel 2:27, 28; etc. These ideas, as in John, are closely related to each other.
10 This is made much more explicit in 1 John than it is in the gospel, e.g. 1:6, 2:4ff., 3:14, 4:7, etc. 1 John specifically points out that love is the nature of God. The love between Father and Son and the love which reached out to save us must be reflected in our lives, if we know or are in fellowship with him.
It is interesting to compare the teaching in John on love and unity with that in Ephesians. Paul there speaks of God’s plan to ‘unite all things in him’ (i.e. Christ; Eph. 1:10), and goes on to speak of the church, in which Jew and Gentile are united, as a demonstration of this divine plan of universal unification (3:9, 10); in line with this he urges his readers to live out this unity (4:1ff.). So in John’s gospel Jesus’ followers are to live in unity as a demonstration to the world of the glory and life of God. They are to live out eternal life now in their relationships with each other.
The Johannine and Pauline teaching on this point may be related to the synoptic picture of Jesus’ teaching and life: one of the effects of the eschatological kingdom in Jesus’ ministry is the breaking down of barriers between men (e.g. Jew and Samaritan). Jesus in his lifetime, and his community afterwards, are (or in the case of the church should be) a living demonstration (or prototype or first-fruits) of the unity that God is going to bring completely at the parousia.