Michael Boling – The Holy Spirit as Explicated in the Gospel of John




The Gospel of John has long been recognized by scholars as a first rate work of theological acumen largely unequaled by the Synoptic accounts. As noted by theologian and author Andreas Kostenberger, “John’s Gospel towers over the Synoptics as the theological pinnacle of the Gospel tradition.” In keeping with this theological focus, the Apostle John throughout his gospel lucidly outlines Christ’s instructions concerning the roles and attributes of the Holy Spirit (parakletos) largely in keeping with the realized eschatology which permeates his writing. The theological connotations concerning the Holy Spirit contained in John’s Gospel must be interpreted as a unified peroration regarding the necessity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer and the modalities by which the Paraclete serves to glory Christ by assisting the believer in the walk with God.


Other than perhaps an implied mention of the Trinitarian involvement in creation at the forefront of John’s Gospel, the first overt mention of the Holy Spirit is in conjunction with the event of Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist. Indicative of his affinity for the theological especially his repetitive interaction with Old Testament prophecy, the Apostle John denotes several key aspects of the Holy Spirit, in particular, the role of the Spirit in the life of Christ.

The statement in John 1:32 depicting the Spirit descending as a dove “marked him (Jesus) as the Davidic ruler of Isaiah 11:1”, the Servant sent from God outlined in Isaiah 42:1, and finally as the prophet “who announces in Isaiah 61:1, ‘The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.’” The permanent endowment of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus is an essential element of this pericope. Additionally, the corresponding elements of Old Testament prophetic passages such as Ezekiel 36:25 clearly aver the “Messianic phenomenon” that was inculcated in particular to John the Baptist as he observed, whether through a vision or the actual descending of a dove the bestowal of the Holy Spirit bestowed.

The Apostle John clearly denotes that Christ is the Messiah at the very onset of the ministry of Jesus. Moreover, this pronouncement was made in conjunction with the provision of the Holy Spirit; a provision which lasted throughout Jesus’ period on earth. Craig Keener saliently notes that “what is most significant is that the Spirit remains on Jesus, a term used elsewhere in the Gospel for mutual indwelling and continuous habitation.” In keeping with a persistent comparison in the Gospel of John between Christ and Moses, it can also be argued that the “Spirit remaining on Jesus might also contrast with the glory of Moses which faded.” The Holy Spirit attested to Jesus being the promised Messiah and the absolute fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Perhaps more importantly, it can be construed that the anointing of the Holy Spirit on Christ has two essential elements subsumed within it: “the Mediator was ordained by God for his specific task, and that he was qualified to carry it out.”

Furthermore, in relation to the ministry of John the Baptist, it is evident that his “solemn avowal that he had seen the descent of the Spirit on Jesus and that he is the Son of God is the climax of his testimony.” In essence, the Apostle John further cements the purpose and testimony of the ministry of John the Baptist through the bestowal of the Holy Spirit on Christ. The presentation of the Holy Spirit in the event of the baptism of Christ essentially concluded the preparation of the Messiah foretold by the prophets and fulfilled by John the Baptist while additionally serving as the inauguration of Christ’s earthly ministry. The foundational purpose in this pericope, as noted by D.A. Carson, was to bring the “Baptist to recognize who Jesus was, and therefore to bear witness specifically to him, and no longer to an unidentified Coming One.” ; all through the bestowal on the Holy Spirit on Christ.


The third chapter of John’s Gospel contains a discourse between Nicodemus, a noted Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, and Christ concerning the necessity of being born from above more popularly labeled as being born again. In this pericope, the Apostle John once again hearkens back to the Old Testament prophetic words of Ezekiel, specifically the promise of God to the nation of Israel that His Spirit would be poured out upon them. It is vital to note the relationship between the Hebrew word ruach outlined in Ezekiel and its corresponding Greek term pneuma depicted in John’s Gospel. Both terms can be translated as wind or spirit in their respective contexts. Additionally, both terms clearly denote a sense of life being given to the recipient. The Old Testament prophecies outline the pouring of the Spirit upon Israel giving them new life while John notes the relationship between the pneuma of the Spirit, baptism and being born from above.

The involvement of the Spirit in the new birth can rightly be described as simplistic profundity. Through the use of analogy, John weaves an intricate theological lesson regarding the dual concepts of wind and Spirit. Though the wind cannot be fully controlled by man, one can interpret and identify the results of its coming. As noted by Carson, “so it is with the Spirit. We can neither control him nor understand him.” The Apostle John clearly sought to imbue in his text that where the presence of the Holy Spirit is identified, the effects are both incontrovertible and inimitable. John, through the words of Christ, revealed a rather elemental yet foundational aspect foretold in the Old Testament. Just as the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel would come to life through God breathing His spirit on His people, John states that God’s people will also be imbued with new life through the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Earlier in his gospel, John denoted the importance of being baptized with water and the symbolism of cleansing subsumed therein. In the account of Jesus discourse with Nicodemus, John expounds on the concept of baptism by intricately combining the concepts of being born of water and the Spirit as a necessary function of entering the Kingdom of Heaven. As noted by William Barclay, “water is the symbol of cleansing…the Spirit is the symbol of power…Water and the Spirit stand for the cleansing and the strengthening power of Christ, which wipes out the past and gives victory in the future.”

Symbolically, John provides the believer with a salient and foundational truth. The example provided by Christ of being baptized with the Holy Spirit descending upon him providing him with the power of God to fulfill his divine purpose, so must those who believe in Christ be cleansed and filled with the power of the Spirit. This rebirth, as noted by John, “is to be changed in such a way that it can be described only as rebirth and re-creation.” Barclay further notes the ultimate purpose of the Spirit in the rebirth process in his comment that following the rebirth “we are forgiven for the past and armed by the Spirit for the future.” Entrance into the Kingdom of God is gained through the rebirth of the individual by believing in Jesus Christ and through spiritual rebirth and regeneration by the power of the Holy Spirit.

As averred by Tenney, the Apostle John clearly indicates that “membership in the kingdom of God is not a prerogative of any particular race or culture” ; an element of Rabbinic tradition espoused by Nicodemus. Rather, just as the “origins and the destination of the wind are unknown to the one who feels it…so, the new life of one born of the Spirit is unexplainable by ordinary reasoning.” Ultimately, John presents the Holy Spirit as an essential and foundational element of the rebirth as well as the source of spiritual authority and power in the every day existence of the believer.


Building upon the discourse between Jesus and Nicodemus, in particular the nomenclature of water and spirit, the Apostle John presents the Holy Spirit as an essential element in the provision of eternal life in the pericope of the Samaritan woman at the well. In his conversation with the Samaritan woman, Christ made repetitive references to his ability to provide the Samaritan women with living water; a reference which largely baffled the woman. As noted by Bruce, “the Evangelist no doubt discerns a deeper significance in the woman’s words; the descendants of Jacob, whether Samaritans or Jews, were still content with spiritual refreshment inferior to that bestowed by Jesus.” The living water offered by Jesus is none other than the Spirit of God who has been imparted by God to those who place their trust in Jesus as their Savior. The Holy Spirit provides the believer with a “perennial wellspring of refreshment and life.”

Interestingly, the Apostle John arguably alludes to both Old Testament prophecy and Judaic tradition in his presentation of the Holy Spirit as living water in this pericope. Edwyn Hoskins comments that in the Jewish Targums “references to water in the Old Testament are frequently interpreted as meaning the Holy Spirit of prophecy and the Law.” In this instance, the living water referred to by Christ is not based on any ability of the Law to provide a modality for obtaining eternal life. The only method by which one can obtain eternal life is through the gift provided by Jesus; a gift which has its functionality through the Holy Spirit. Keener saliently avers that the Apostle John did not oppose the necessity of Torah; but if “Jesus embodies Torah and dwells in the believer through the Spirit, it is not difficult to understand how the Spirit fulfills in Johannine theology a role normally reserved for Torah among John’s Jewish contemporaries.”

It can be argued that the mention of living water by John is a demonstration of not only the fulfillment of prophecy concerning Christ but also a prophetic statement regarding the outpouring of the Holy Spirit which was soon to take place at Pentecost. The pregnant meaning of living water in this pericope is truly a representation of the Holy Spirit and his involvement with the gift of eternal life to all who will believe. The cleansing power of this living water is a metaphor that clearly speaks of “God and His grace, knowledge of God, life, and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.” It is this transforming power through the gift of the Holy Spirit that brings forth a regenerative effect in the spiritual life of the believer. John clearly delineates in the case of the Samaritan woman and for subsequent generations seeking eternal life that the water provided by Jesus is the “satisfying eternal life mediated by the Spirit that only Jesus, the Messiah and Savior of the world, can provide.”

John again demonstrates theological acumen through his discussion of the Holy Spirit as the source of living water. Those who seek the Lord and who thirst after righteousness will find in the Holy Spirit, as demonstrated in this pericope, a source of eternal satisfaction and spiritual fulfillment in the presence of God through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on their lives. The rather remarkable scene depicted in the story of the Samaritan woman and Christ reveals the extent to which God desires to give freely the gift of eternal life to those who seek Him providing the Holy Spirit as a fount by which the believer can experience an everlasting source of spiritual energy and joy. The Apostle John clearly reveals in this passage that God’s spiritual gift is constantly renewed in the believer in Christ as the Holy Spirit becomes in him “a well of water springing up into everlasting life.”


The concept of living water once again emerges in the pages of John’s gospel in relation to the Feast of Tabernacles at which the symbolism of water played an important role. Throughout the seven days of this feast, a golden flagon was filled with water taken from the Pool of Siloam. The water was then transported by a procession led by the High Priest to the temple compound. As the procession neared the temple, “on the south side of the inner court three blasts from the shofar – a trumpet connected with joyful occasions – were sounded.” The priests would then walk around the altar with the flagon as the temple choir sang the Hallel. The water was then poured into silver bowls and poured out before the Lord. It is against the background of this popular and holy festival that John explicates further the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the symbolism of water inculcated in the Feast of Tabernacles.

Carson notes that the water rites of the Feast of Tabernacles have their roots with a number of Jewish beliefs regarding God’s faithful provision of rain for the harvest and perhaps more importantly for this pericope, they also interpreted the eighth day of the festival as a “festive anticipation of God’s promises to pour out spiritual rains in the messianic age.” It is no surprise that when Jesus cried out on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles “if any man thirsts, let him come unto me and drink. He who believe in me, as the scripture says, from within him shall flow rivers of living water,” the Jews had a difficult time with Christ’s claim. Given the messianic undertones of the water rite ceremony, John is clearly connecting the Jewish expectations and prophetic promises of the Holy Spirit being poured out in the Messianic age with Jesus. The Messiah would provide eternal life through the Holy Spirit. There is little ambiguity in this pericope. John clearly states Jesus claim to be the Messiah and that through him, living water or more directly, the Holy Spirit, would be provided to those who place their trust in Jesus.

The phrase “out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” is a clear depiction of the spiritual blessings that are given to those who believe in Jesus. The Apostle John, according to the renowned theologian and scholar John Calvin, is “denoting the diversified graces of the Spirit, which are necessary for the spiritual life of the soul. In short, the perpetuity, as well as the abundance, of the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit, is here promised to us.” The Holy Spirit is presented by the Apostle John as a source of continual and living spiritual power and refreshment in the life of the believer.

Calvin also saliently explicates the meaning of living water as espoused by the Apostle John in his comment that “whenever the Lord, promising an abundance of his Spirit, compares it to living waters, he looks principally to the kingdom of Christ, to which he directs the minds of believers. All the predictions of living waters, therefore, have their fulfillment in Christ.” The Holy Spirit, in keeping with his purpose and attributes, points the believer to Christ as the source of life.


The next clear discussion of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John emerges in Christ’s promise to his disciples that he would provide them with another Comforter or Paraclete. Bruce avers that the term Paraclete is best understood as a “verbal adjective with passive force, denoting one who is called alongside as a helper or defender, a friend at court.” The mention of another Paraclete by Jesus clearly delineates that there is a present comforter, that of Christ himself. The Holy Spirit is provided as another Comforter for the express purpose of compensating the disciples and future generations of believers for the loss of Jesus’ physical presence on earth. Not only is the Holy Spirit depicted as another Comforter, he is also described in John 14-16 successively as “helper, interpreter, witness, prosecutor, and revealer.”

Jesus, in preparing his disciples for his imminent departure from earth, promised them he would not leave them as orphans. He thus promised that the presence of the Holy Spirit would be their support. The Spirit of Truth will indwell the believer providing “whatever help is necessary.” The Holy Spirit is promised to the believer to guide them into the realm of truth embodied through the person of Christ and the redemption for humanity provided at the cross.

The Holy Spirit is further presented by John as the interpreter who will enable the disciples to “recall and understand what Jesus taught them: he will serve them, in other words, as remembrancer and interpreter.” Essentially, the teaching provided by the Holy Spirit should be understood as explanatory and applicational rather than a set of innovative teachings. As noted by Keener, for the Apostle John, “teaching must stem from God and not merely fleshly human intellect. The Spirit’s role also appears as the “anointing” in I John 2:27, where the anointing teaches discernment between truth and error.” In his function as the one who would bring remembrance of Jesus teachings, the Holy Spirit would assist the disciples in understanding Scripture and how to apply its teachings. The relevance of this theme in this present pericope suggests that the function of remembrance and interpreter was specifically mentioned by John for the purpose of encouraging the 1st century church. Conversely, as noted by Carson, “John’s purpose in including this theme and this verse is not to explain how readers at the end of the 1st century may be taught by the Spirit, but to explain to readers at the end of the 1st century how the first witnesses, the first disciples, came to an accurate and full understanding of the truth of Jesus Christ.” Essentially, the ministry of the Holy Spirit in this regard was to complete the revelation explicated by Jesus himself.

The third reference to another Paraclete in the John 14-16 pericope appears in John 15:26-27. In this passage, the Holy Spirit is presented as a witness who would enable the persecuted disciples to “bear their witness boldly.” This ability to boldly proclaim the gospel message of Jesus Christ did not fully transpire until the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples during Pentecost. Barclay comments that John utilized two very distinct ideas to portray the witness of the Holy Spirit: the witness of the Holy Spirit himself and the witness which mean bear to Christ. He avers that the “reaction of the human mind, that answer of the human heart is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit within us who moves us to respond to Jesus Christ.” While this concept may have overtly Calvinistic undertones, the point is nevertheless salient in relation to the John 15 pericope. The Holy Spirit, as presented by John, will assist the believer in the proclamation of the gospel bearing witness to those in need of salvation of the gift of eternal life available to them through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

The Holy Spirit references continue in John 16:4-11 as John depicts the prosecutorial function of the Spirit. Bruce notes that Christ performed the function of prosecutor while he was with the disciples, often deflecting the constant barrage of attacks aimed at them as his followers. Christ assured the disciples that he would send the Holy Spirit to serve as another Paraclete; in this case as another Prosecutor who would assist them in responding to the spiritual and often physical attacks borne against them in a more direct nature after Christ’s ascension. The prosecuting ministry of the Holy Spirit is defined by the verb elencho, meaning to expose, refute, convince or convict. More importantly, as averred by Carson, the aim of the Spirit’s work as presented in this Johannine passage is not to “produce a guilty verdict – that already stands – but to bring the defendant to see the perilous condition in which he stands.”

The final aspect of the Paraclete explicated by the Apostle John in this passage is of the Spirit’s role as revealer. God sent his Son into the world as a means as a revelation of Himself to humanity. Due to the short duration of his earthly ministry, the fullness of his revelation was not understood by the disciples. The ministry of revelation would thus continue under the direction of the Holy Spirit. As stated earlier in this pericope, the Holy Spirit is depicted as the Spirit of Truth – not truth additional to that stated by Christ, but rather the “further unfolding of that truth…the Spirit would guide them further along the way.” According to Tenney, the Apostle John, in the depiction of this promise from Christ, outlines the “germinal authority of the apostolic writings, which transmit the revelation of Christ through his disciples by the work of the Holy Spirit.” Additionally, as the revealer of Truth, the Holy Spirit would once again fulfill his main function; that of glorifying Christ by assisting the believer in understanding and applying the truths of God’s Word and making Christ a “reality to people.”


John 20 portrays the inbreathing of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. Calvin denotes that “Christ took this outward emblem from the ordinary manner of speaking in the Scriptures, which very frequently compare the Spirit to wind.” Further Old Testament comparisons have arguably been elucidated by the Apostle John as he hearkened back to the creation account where God breathed into the nostrils of man the breath of life. Further still, the valley of dry bones prophecy in Ezekiel finds its place in John’s present pericope as the “coming of the Holy Spirit is like the wakening of life from the dead.” Additionally, as stated by Keener, even if the “punctiliar force of the aorist were pressed, it would not imply that the gift was solely for the apostles present, although the gift may be unrepeatable, but, rather, that the gift was imparted on this occasion once for all to be available to the rest of the church.”

The recurring theme of the outpouring out of the Holy Spirit finds its conclusion in this commissioning of the disciples for ministry. John outlines the necessity of the Holy Spirit as a prophetic anointing in order for the believer to declare the message of the gospel as well as the requirement that “only those who are purified or regenerated by the Spirit will be empowered by him to experience and proclaim the risen Christ.” Christ breathed on the disciples an earnest portion of the Holy Spirit with the promise that the fullness of the Holy Spirit and the power subsumed therein to witness to the world the saving message of Christ would be forthcoming upon his ascension.


The concept of the Holy Spirit is replete in the pages of John’s Gospel account. The Apostle John continually references established Judaic tradition as well as accepted Old Testament prophetic utterances declaring the inclusion of the Holy Spirit with the expected Messianic age. MacGregor succinctly declares that “for John…the Spirit is not a fitful and miraculous gift, an ecstatic and non-ethical experience, but rather an abiding endowment – the principle of spiritual living.” The similarities between the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17 and those of the Apostle John throughout his gospel are striking: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” The regenerative work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer and the witness provided by the Holy Spirit to a lost and hurting world are essential attributes of the Spirit depicted by John. The Holy Spirit is truly another Paraclete. John saliently and brilliantly outlines the mission of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit serves to glorify God, brings the lost to a convicting understanding of their need for Christ, and assists the believer in an ever increasing understanding of the Truth.

Barclay, William. The Gospel of John. 2 vols. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975.

Bruce, F. F. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983.

Carson, D.A. The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus: An Exposition of John 14-17. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.

__________. The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.

Calvin, John. “Commentary on John” in Calvin’s Commentaries: Volume XVII. Translated by Rev. William Pringle. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009.

__________. “Commentary on John” in Calvin’s Commentaries: Volume XVIII. Translated by Rev. William Pringle. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009.

Hendrikson, William. The Gospel of John. 2 vols. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953.

Hoskyns, Edwyn. The Fourth Gospel. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1947.

Keener, Craig. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Peabody: Hendrikson Publishers, 2003.

Kostenberger, Andreas. Encountering John. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.

MacGregor, G.H.C. The Moffatt New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of John. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1928.

Tenney, M.C. . “Commentary on John” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon. Edited by Frank Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Michael lives in Belleville, IL, a suburb of St. Louis, MO with his wife Erica and daughter Alissa. An 8 year Navy veteran, he is now employed at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) where he oversees advanced educational programs. Michael holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Religion (Biblical Studies) from Liberty University. He is an avid reader and blogger operating the website Christian Apologetics and Intelligence Ministry (http://intelmin.org) which provides both original content and relevant posts and articles from around the web. Mike serves as the Managing Editor of Servants of Grace, and the editor for Servants of Grace Apologetics.

bolingme – who has written posts on Apologetics and Intelligence Ministry.

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