John 14:8-17 is a slightly odd text for Pentecost — until the end it says very little about the coming of the Spirit. But as with all of John 13-17, it is theologically rich.
It’s a great text on the Trinity and on the purpose of the Incarnation — plus, if you sneak a few verses into the next section it says some very important things about spiritual life.
It is also a very odd passage on prayer which I’ll have to discuss another time.
The Holy Spirit
First, let’s think about the coming of the Spirit. Jesus makes a very important promise about the Spirit here. He portrays the Spirit quite differently from Pentecost in Acts chapter 2, and it is different from the way people discuss the Spirit in our culture — where it is often all about the gift of tongues.
The Spirit in the Acts and Paul
In Acts chapter 2, when the Spirit comes with power, we see the original form of the gift of tongues in action.
The Apostles began to speak the praises of God in a crowd gathered from all corners of the earth. They found themselves able to speak the native language of all these people. Tongues was a miraculous ability to speak ordinary human languages — like an English speaker suddenly speaking Chinese. That enabled clear communication and prompted effective proclamation of the Gospel of Christ.
Fast forward to the letters of Paul and the same gift of the Spirit looks rather different. In Paul, tongues is but one of several gifts. And instead of enabling ordinary language, tongues is a special language for worship, understandable only if someone has the matching gift of interpretation.
The Spirit in Los Angeles 1909
Fast forward again to 1909 in Los Angeles California and the birth of Pentecostalism. In a revival at the Azusa Street Mission, people began to speak in tongues — and ever since, the gift of tongues has looked a lot more like Paul’s version that that in Acts. People under the Spirit’s sway burst forth in words unlike any human language.
The other gifts of the Spirit mentioned by Paul also became prominent in the Pentecostal movement, but nothing marked the Spirit’s presence so distinctly as the gift of tongues. To this day, vast numbers of Christians assume that the proper function of the Spirit is to give the gift of tongues.
(When I was a university student a group set up a table at the student union building. Their sign read “We’re looking for Christians.” Obediently I approached. “I’m a Christian.” I said. “Well, have you spoken in tongues?” he asked. When I told him “No,” it was clear that he didn’t believe I was really a Christian at all.)
The Spirit in John 14
So, what do we find in Jesus’ statement about the Spirit’s coming? Well, there is nothing about the gift of tongues. That fact sets our Lord’s testimony apart from modern expectations.
Jesus says that the Spirit’s role is to be our divine “advocate.” An advocate, or in some translations a counselor, is a role taken from the legal system. One hires a lawyer, a legal counselor, to serve as an advocate when one has to go to court.
- If it is a civil case, your advocate stands up for you, making the best argument possible on your behalf, so that you get what you need from the legal system.
- If it is a criminal case, your advocate stands up for you against the accusations of your prosecutor, making the best possible argument to keep you from being punished.
Personally I really like the idea that the Spirit is my Advocate, my Counselor – someone called to stand by me and help me against my foes.
The devil is an accuser. When I’m oppressed by guilt and shame, accused by some inner devil, I’m glad to hear that the Spirit is on my side, making a better, stronger case for my innocence – that I really am forgiven in Christ.
And when life is hard and I need to plead for help from God, I’m glad to hear that the Spirit is my advocate, making my case for mercy and justice.
Frankly, I need a divine Advocate far more often than I need to speak another language.
But as I said, this passage also says things about Jesus’ perspective on the Trinity that contrast with typical Western views.
The contrast with common assumption
Some of what Jesus says contrasts with common simplistic theological assumptions rather than with any church’s official doctrine.
Jesus tells Phillip that, because Phillip has seen Jesus, Phillip has actually seen the Father.
Here and throughout John, and especially throughout the Farewell Discourse, Jesus is making claims about his own full deity. He builds a case, sometimes in subtle words and sometimes in bold, that he is the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity – he is just as much “God” as his Father is “God,” and he is fully One with the Father.
That’s key to why he’s come: he wants to make perfectly clear who God is and what God is like.
And that contrasts with the views of many a Christian in many a pew in many a church. Maybe you personally have a very high Christology. But if you could get people around you to be completely honest, you would find many who think Jesus is, at rock bottom, a man and not God.
The contrast with Western teaching
More importantly from the perspective of the grand sweep of history, Jesus’ portrayal of the Spirit rings truer to the Orthodox East than it does to the Catholic and Protestant West.
In the East the understanding of the Trinity is primarily about the way the three Persons relate to one another – about the nature of the Godhead eternally, quite apart from what we encounter of the Persons here in creation.
So, as it originally said in the Nicene Creed,
We believe … in the Holy Spirit… who proceeds from the Father.
With the Father and the Son He is worshipped and glorified.
Notice that the when it says the Spirit proceeds from the Father the next thing in the next thing in the sentence is a period.
No so in the West. Chances are, if you are a Catholic or a Protestant and your church ever says the Nicene Creed, it goes like this:
We believe … in the Holy Spirit … who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
That little phrase “and the Son” was added by Christians in the West – despite rules that nobody was allowed to amend the Creed.
(Don’t tell anybody, but the East quietly amends it too, saying “I believe” instead of “We believe”.)
Anyway, this little addition reflects a serious conceptual difference in how the two sides of the Christian world understand the relations of the Persons of the Trinity.
In the East,
- the Father is the ultimate source:
- The Son is begotten by the Father,
- and the Spirit proceeds from the Father.
In the West,
- while the Son is begotten by the Father,
- the Spirit proceeds from BOTH the Father AND the Son.
Sometimes the West’s beloved St. Augustine would describe Spirit as the love between the Father and the Son – a description that gives credit to both Father and Son but reduces the Spirit to rather less than an eternal co-equal Person.
Anyway, though Jesus is talking here about asking God to send the Spirit to us, rather than talking about the Spirit’s role in the Godhead, this passage sounds more like Trinitarian theology in the East than the West.
The Spiritual Life
And the passage’s contribution to our sense of Christian spiritual life? Well that goes to what Jesus says about the Trinity too. As I said, you have to sneak a peek into the next part of the passage.
First think about the way people talk about the reality of Christian faith. We say “It’s a personal relationship with Jesus” or “with God.” We say “It’s about asking Jesus into your heart.” Or we think “It’s about being filled with the Spirit.”
We seem to focus on one Person of the Trinity at a time.
Now check these verses out. First from this passage:
This is the Spirit of truth,
whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.
You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” (John 14:17 NRSV)
If this lectionary selection were all we had, you might think that, after the Ascension, Jesus the Son would be with the Father in heaven, quite out of our reach, and that only the Spirit would be with us and in us.
But then comes this, from one verse beyond our passage:
I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” (John 14:18 NRSV)
So despite the fact that Jesus will ascend to heaven, Jesus promises to come and be with us.
Perhaps you think he’s talking about the second coming. But keep reading:
In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14:19-20 NRSV)
If he was talking about the second coming, he was mistaken about the timing: it didn’t happen “in a little while.”
And in fact this is quite different than the second coming: this is Jesus promising to be “in you” just as he already said the Spirit would be “in you.”
So keep reading:
Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23 NRSV)
So now Jesus makes it clear and complete. The Father will also be with us. Jesus says he and his Father will “make our home” with us.
Take note: in this passage Jesus tells us that here and now we are in relation to the Trinity, and that each of the three Persons comes to dwell in us and with us.
If you are used to thinking the Christian life is really about a general “relationship with God” then keep all of this in mind.
Likewise if you think it is all about praying to the Father, having Jesus in your heart, or being filled with the Spirit.
Protestants often don’t really know what to do with the doctrine of the Trinity. We think of it as abstraction and speculation. But the ancient Church was right to emphasize the Trinity, to try to discern as much as we possibly can about what Scripture reveals about our one God in three Persons.
The Trinity is the God with whom we are in relationship.
The Trinity is the God in whom we have faith.
Nothing could be more practical — or more important.
I’d love to send you all my Monday Meditations, as well as my other new articles and announcements. Scroll down to the black box with the orange button to subscribe and they’ll arrive by email most Fridays.