John 16 - What does the Holy Spirit do?

Erkki Koskenniemi
Reija Becks

Teaching on the Holy Spirit 16:4-16

In the last verses of the section that we just discussed, Jesus spoke to his own about the hatred and persecution that the devil will inflict on Jesus’s followers. There will be bloodshed, and in their blindness, people will think that by hating God’s own they are serving God. There is a reference to this in Jesus’s words, “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.” Jesus is going away, and he leaves his own in the world, the darkness and godlessness of which he knows better than anyone else. However, at the same time he promises them that the Church will not be left alone but it will have the help and protection of the Holy Spirit, the living and active Spirit of God who will guide the suffering Church into all truth.

According to verse 8, the Holy Spirit will convict the world before the holy God. The world will be convicted when the Holy Spirit shows the truth about sin, righteousness, and judgment. And then, amid persecutions, at least some people in the rampantly complacent world will change sides and realize (1) that sin is not just anything but what it means is that one personally rejects the cross of Jesus; (2) that Jesus was not a sinner blaspheming God but the righteous Son of God, who went back to his Father; and (3) that as the Son of God overcame on the cross, Satan was condemned to lose his power. Thus the Holy Spirit leads us to Jesus and glorifies his work.

The teaching on the work of the Holy Spirit is a dear and important Article of Faith to us Lutherans. There are religious denominations in which everything is ultimately dependant on one’s own performance and effort: what is required from a person is a decision for faith and the ability to stay with God. In the explanation to the third Article of Faith, the Lutheran Christian confesses, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel”. With this statement, I do not mean to arrogantly turn down God’s call, on the contrary, I humbly admit that I do not have the strength to become a believer or to stand in the right faith, even for one day, if God will not keep me as his own by his Spirit. This is the place where the weak human being finds rest.

Another issue dividing the church of Christ emerges at the end of the section. Particularly in the Roman Catholic Church, verses 12-13 are traditionally understood to mean that revelation from God did by no means end in the times of the Apostles, but that the Church – or the General Assembly, according to some Catholics; or the Hierarchy of the Catholic Church, according to others; or, ultimately, the Pope – is able to make new resolutions in the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Eastern Orthodox Church maintains that a resolution made by an Ecumenical Council is binding for the whole Church. In the Lutheran Church, it has become common to think that the Holy Spirit will lead the General Synod in such a way that the will of God does absolutely take place, even when the resolution made by the General Synod is not in accordance with what the Bible teaches.

The same view, but in another form, is represented by those who think that the Holy Spirit will, directly and speaking straight to their heart, lead individual Christians irrespective of the Bible and, if need be, guide them into adopting new solutions also in such issues that are forbidden by the word of God, e.g. in getting a divorce and remarrying.

The Lutheran faith is grounded on the fact that God’s word is infallible and provides sufficient instruction both for the Church and for the individual Christian. The church history has shown that priests, bishops and General Synods make mistakes as much as individual Christians. Only the word of God will stand unshaken.

In their decision-making, the General Synods have, in the course of time, complied with the public opinion. According to our faith, the Holy Spirit has spoken in the Bible, and the Holy Spirit will not contradict himself. That is why we need to learn to accept what the Bible teaches us and be careful not to fall into the ways of any such spirit that might lead us away from the teachings of the Bible.

Jesus’s words that we are now discussing suggest that God’s Holy Spirit is at work amid the persecuted Church, convicting the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment. The Holy Spirit will certainly not guide us to ignore the words of Jesus (see 15:10!).

Only a little while 16:17-23

In this section, the expression ’a little while’ is repeated over and over again. The readers cannot overlook these words, even if they wished. It is these words that are the heart of this section. Jesus leaves his followers in great distress, amid persecutions. The ungodly world rejoices and Satan celebrates, but this will only be for a fleeting moment. It is like when a baby is born: there is great anguish, but it will end in great joy, when the child is born. It will be the same with Jesus’s departure: those who belong to him will, after all, have to be separated from their Lord only temporarily, for a fleeting moment. When they will meet Christ again, face to face, their hearts will be overflowing with joy.

Jesus has overcome the world 16:23-33

At the end of the discussion between Jesus and his disciples, there is more and more tension in relation to “already” and “not yet”. Jesus is concluding his public teaching, and there are still just a few words he wants to share with the group of his disciples. Everything has been said – and, still, nothing has been attained as yet. Of course, they can pray to God in Jesus’s name, and the Father loves them because of the Son. Also, now the time of enigmatic and figurative speech, in which the messages were hidden, is over, and Jesus may speak plainly to the disciples. But the most important things are yet to come. The time will come, when the disciples lose heart in their faith, are scattered, and renounce Jesus. And still, they will be carried even through all these difficulties by Jesus’s promises of complete joy and peace in him. “Not yet” but “already”, because Jesus has overcome the world.