The Gospel of John is a significant source of Christian pneumatology, our understanding of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promises in John 14 and 15 that after he leaves, the advocate (paraclete) will come. The words found in those chapters offer hope and consolation to disciples who appear to be lost and confused at the thought of life without the direction of their Lord. I have fond memories of great Nazarene preachers exegeting those passages and conveying wonderful truths about the gift of the Holy Spirit. While John 14 and 15 seem to facilitate the preaching of a message of sanctification, the passage at hand is one few lift up as a source of pneumatological fodder.
Preachers often avoid this passage (John 20:19-23) after the resurrection, as it is confusing for a strictly historical understanding of the New Testament: If the disciples received the Holy Spirit when Jesus breathed on them, what happened at Pentecost? The inability to answer this question well has led to this passage’s omission in Pentecostal and holiness circles. One of the most important works of pneumatology from the previous century in the Church of the Nazarene was William Greathouse’s Wholeness in Christ. The subtitle of this great text is “Toward a Biblical Theology of Holiness.” The biblical index of the book is full of references throughout the Bible that talk about the Holy Spirit, but there is one significant omission: John 20:19-23. This passage does not fit the historical narrative of Greathouse or many other theologians proposing an “age of the Spirit” post ascension, previously absent before Pentecost. This is understandable, however, as Acts begins with Jesus claiming that the disciples need to wait in Jerusalem for the gift that they had heard him speak about. Luke’s story, in Acts chapter two, describes in dramatic fashion the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in wind and fire, a very Hellenistic screenplay for the Greek imagination.
John begins his gospel very differently than Luke begins Acts. John takes us back to Genesis, implying with his language that the same logos which was sent to the prophets in the Septuagint was actually a present and creative force in creation. If we let our minds go to creation, we remember that the Spirit of God was a hovering presence, waiting and anticipating a world in need of the Spirit’s participation. Just a few verses later, still in the first chapter of John, John the Baptist’s testimony about Jesus is that he a)is the one that John saw the Holy Spirit descend upon and b) will baptize with the Holy Spirit (John 1:32-34). Just a couple chapters later Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night to get answers about the point of Jesus’s ministry. Jesus does not tell Nicodemus that he needs to believe or confess anything; rather, he needs to be born of the Spirit (John 3:5). In the next chapter, what does Jesus tell the woman at the well but that “a time is coming, and has now come, where the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23)?
What I am not implying in writing about the beginning of John’s gospel in contrast to the book of Acts is that one of the accounts is not true. What I do hope to convey, however, is that an overemphasis on the Luke narrative as authoritative for pneumatology has allowed us to dismiss the significance of John’s account here in John 20. What does John want us to understand about Jesus in relationship with the gift of the Holy Spirit?
As John’s gospel tells us that Jesus “breathed on them, and they received the Holy Spirit,” I can’t help but think about the scene in Genesis, when God breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life (Genesis 2:7). My assumption is that John saw the parallel as well. For John, Jesus emboldened and empowered his disciples and those coming to him to live under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit, immediately. John is not as concerned with the anticipation of the Holy Spirit coming as Luke is, because John experienced the Holy Spirit’s presence with Jesus – something that Luke did not as Luke probably never met Jesus in person.
This understanding of John’s Gospel has radical implications for discipleship and salvation in the contemporary church. The Holy Spirit for John is always active and requires no preconditions. In John’s account, Jesus didn’t tell the woman caught in adultery to wait for a second blessing or hold out for something better(John 8). He says to her the same thing he says to the man healed by the pool (John 5): “Go sin no more.” John’s Jesus is emboldened by the power of the Holy Spirit and implies throughout the text that the Holy Spirit is active in lives of individuals prior to their understanding of the Spirit. This is John’s great commission: Jesus breathes on his disciples and tells them to be about the business of forgiveness. John’s commission (which is much less popular than Matthew’s) does not imply the necessity for conversion of others, but a rebirth of the self. John implies that one’s efficacy as an evangelist is more tied up in one’s ability to forgive others than her or his ability to convert or teach others.
For holiness traditions, historically, we have emphasized a soteriological succession of salvation then sanctification; conversion then discipleship. What John demonstrates all throughout his gospel is that Jesus was discipling and the Holy Spirit was sanctifying them even before their recognition of it. It is after Jesus ascends to heaven that John writes his account, remembering fondly the teaching moments and growth that took place before any of the disciples had realized what was going on. Discipleship in John’s gospel has no prerequisite other than an invitation from Jesus, “follow me.” The call “follow me” is one of forgiveness. It is a statement that regardless of who you have been, I (Jesus) am accepting you into my fellowship. The purpose of receiving the Holy Spirit in John’s Gospel is to empower the disciples to disciple others. This, in my opinion, is the reason for the second ending of John (John 21) which many scholars think was added by John’s disciples. It is in John 21 that we find Jesus pleading with Peter that the proof of his love for Jesus is to “feed my sheep” (John 21:17).
Biblical theology is difficult if we are being honest. Various voices say very different things in the New Testament. Paul says, “You are saved by faith apart from works!” James says, “Faith without works is dead!” Luke has a version of Pentecost, and so does John. Although we might never come to a full resolution of the tensions in the text, we must listen to the voices of each inspired author. They are calling to us from the living Word, the logos. In many ways, good pastoral ministry mirrors good biblical theology. We do not allow rigid fundamentalisms and preconceived notions to dictate our interactions. Rather, we embrace the call with each new day to be reborn, even though we are old. We receive the Holy Spirit, who empowers us to forgive, enabling us to disciple others as Jesus did. May God give us the grace and courage to be reborn, and to forgive, as he has forgiven us.