2. The Steadfast Spirit
What does the writer of John’s Gospel mean by the title, “The Spirit of Truth” (John 15:26, 16:13)? This is the Gospel of John’s unique designation for the Holy Spirit. But what does it signify? Like the term “paraclete,” we can just leave it alone and settle for a simple translation of the Greek, but that leaves us to our own guesses. Deeper exploration is in order here.
We begin with the grammar. The title includes a genitive, a possessive, as represented by the English word “of.” In some sense, “truth” belongs to the Spirit. What is that sense of belonging?
The genitive in the phrase is an “attributive” genitive. That is, “truth” (whatever the Gospel of John means by that) is an attribute of the Spirit. “If the noun in the genitive can be converted into an attributive adjective,” Daniel Wallace writes, “modifying the noun to which the genitive stands related, then the genitive is very likely an attributive genitive” (page 87). The noun in the phrase is “Spirit,” and the genitive attribute is “truth” (just to leave no doubt).
In other words, a simple rendering of the literal “the Spirit of truth” could be “the truthful Spirit.” Let’s continue to delay for the moment the decision on how to translate “truth” here. The construction, according to Wallace, reflects a Hebrew linguistic background and “Semitic style” of expression. The attributive genitive is common in the Christian scriptures because of that Hebrew linguistic background – far more common than it is in classical Greek writing.
Wallace suggests that this construction is used because it “is more emphatic than an adjective would have been” (page 84). He observes that for the writer “the Spirit of truth” conveys a stronger emphasis than “truthful Spirit” would to the Greek reader. If that is the case, then that emphasis needs to come through in translation and interpretation. I suspect that the writer of John’s gospel wants to convey more than the idea that the Spirit gives an accurate representation of the facts.
I imagine that the genitive here could be one of content – the Spirit full of truth like the net was full of fish in John 21:8. It could be a genitive of apposition – the Spirit, which is the Truth, like the temple which is Christ’s body in John 2:21. It might even be the genitive of production – the Spirit that produces truth. But the attributive genitive seems the most likely and informative construction.
We return, therefore, to what the Gospel of John means by “truth.” Karoline Lewis notes that a major premise of the Gospel is that Jesus himself is the truth. In the Farewell Discourse, Jesus describes himself as “the way, and the truth, and the life.” I’m inclined to translate that as “the true and living way,” but that’s another story. Lewis observes that this statement “is important because it is Jesus’ words to his disciples in the Farewell Discourse that anticipate his absence. The truth of Jesus’ words, Jesus as the truth,” she concludes, “is dependable even without Jesus present…” (pages 71-72).
Therefore, part of the role of the Spirit is to remind the disciples of the truth of Jesus after he has gone to the Father and to exegete that truth for their current situation. The Spirit will guide disciples in all truth (John 16:13). “To say that what Jesus says is true does not mean he speaks verifiable facts,” Lewis suggests. “The concept of truth has to be situated in the theological premises of the Fourth Gospel, the primary one being that, in Jesus, God is made known in such a way that there is an intimate, abiding relationship with God” (page 72).
So, truth in John’s gospel is not about “verifiable facts,” Lewis concludes. Instead, it is about dependability and trust – what we might describe as faithfulness. “Jesus is truth because he is the one on whom we can be utterly dependent,” Lewis argues. “Jesus’ words are true because there is a correlation between what he says and what he does and who he is” (page 72).
I am reminded of Luther’s definition of what it means to have a “god” – to depend on something or someone in life and in death. This dependability, then, must be the “truth” which is the attribute of the Spirit, aka “the Protector.” And, just to finish the thought, “faith” is a relationship of trusting dependence on the one we name as “God.”
“The truthful Spirit” is probably not an adequate translation of the phrase in question. What might we suggest instead? One English word will not suffice, as is so often the case in the Gospel of John. The Spirit of truth is faithful, reliable, and dependable because that’s who Jesus is. The Spirit of truth is authentic, real, and genuine because that’s who Jesus is. And the Spirit is accurate in rendering both the words Jesus has spoken to the disciples and in the further revelation that will take place when Jesus has returned to the Father.
I want to suggest that we might translate the title as “the Steadfast Spirit.” That translation can remind us, for example, of the steadfast love of God which is reported often in the Hebrew Scriptures. Steadfastness is one of the primary characteristics of God in those scriptures. We can find that description, for example, offered by the Lord about the Lord in Exodus 34:6 – “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…”
The connection between the Spirit and steadfastness is strengthened by the location of the mentions of the Protector in the Farewell Discourse in John. “The first mention of the Paraclete,” O’Day and Hylen write, “is found within the context of Jesus’ words about keeping his command to love” (Kindle Location 3071). In John 14:18-24, the promise that the disciples will not be left orphaned is followed by the promise of love and revelation for the disciples as they are keeping Jesus’ commands.
In verse 25, the Protector is directly identified as the Holy Spirit. The first two functions of the Protector are identified there – to remind the disciples (then and now) of what Jesus taught and to continue Jesus’ teaching in and through the community. Thomas Tops points out that these functions are both retrospective and prospective. That is, the Protector brings to mind what Jesus taught during his ministry. And the Protector continues to reveal and unfold Jesus’ teaching in the life of the church here and now.
“Was the revelation of God in Jesus available only for those who had firsthand experience of the historical Jesus and his ministry?” O’Day and Hylen ask. “Is Jesus’ revelation of God limited to one moment in history, or does it have a future beyond its particular historical moment?” (Kindle Location 3078). Tops answers yes to the clause of the second question, and O’Day and Hylen agree.
In our text we read that the Spirit comes to “testify” or “to bear witness.” This is a mark of the faithfulness and reliability of the Spirit. Because the testimony of the Spirit is faithful and reliable, the testimony of the disciples and the community will also be faithful and reliable. In the Farewell Discourse, Jesus is talking to “you all” rather than “you singular.” Truth, in John’s Gospel, is always a community reality rather than an individual possession. “It is a gift to all the disciples,” write O’Day and Hylen, “witnessing to the life of Jesus and continuing to speak his word” (Kindle Location 3086).
Like Jesus, who teaches and is the “way” to God (John 6:45; 14:6), the Spirit carries on the work of instructing the disciples in God’s truth. The Steadfast Spirit will enable them (and us) to hear afresh the teachings of Jesus even after Jesus’ departure. The teachings of the Spirit are both old and new: the Spirit “will not speak on his own” (v. 13), and yet the implication is also that the Spirit speaks the “many things” that Jesus does not say during his life (v. 12). (see O’Day and Hylen, Kindle Location 3345).
“The promise of these verses keeps the teachings of Jesus fresh and names how the good news can and will be available to successive generations of believers,” O’Day and Hylen write. “There are things that none of us can bear now, but fresh words of Jesus will be there when we need them and can bear them.” (Kindle Location 3353). If there was ever a time to hear fresh words from Jesus, now is that time. The real question is whether we can bear them.
Is this a way to talk about developments in Christian doctrine and practice over the centuries – as the continuing work of the Steadfast Spirit? I would argue that this is the case. We can point to changes in how Christians view enslavement of other human beings, how we treat the role of women in church leadership, how we view sexual orientation and identity, and (currently) how we must repent of and repair our historic and systemic racism. All of these changes are the result of fresh words from Jesus given to us by the Steadfast Spirit.
The image of the Steadfast Spirit in the Gospel of John would lead us to expect that some of the things we could not “bear” formerly may be revealed and explained at some future time. And this image should certainly lead us to understand that what we know now is not everything there is to know.
Next: Convincing and Convicting.
References and Resources
Behm, TDNT V:800-814.
Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M.. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
O’Day, Gail. “John’s Voice and the Church’s Preaching” https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/21-4_John/21-4_O’Day.pdf.
O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Shillington, V. George. “The Spirit-Paraclete as Jesus’ alter ego in the Fourth Gospel (John 14–16). https://press.palni.org/ojs/index.php/vision/article/download/238/194.
Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics.