The book of First John has received relatively less attention from biblical scholars compared to other sections of the gospel. Part of this diminished attention stems from the ambiguity regarding the role of the Holy Spirit in the book of First John. Here, critics often say the book of John undermines the prominence and role of the Holy Spirit in Christians’ lives. For example, Nissen argues that the gospel speaks little of the Holy Spirit and does not portray it as a key theme.1
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Fears are rife that, from the abstract understanding of the portrayal of the Holy Spirit in the gospel of John, many people will understand it as a lower case issue, hence refer to it as the “spirit,” as opposed to “holy spirit.” Although such fears are rife, the true question that arises in this analysis is if the book according to John de-emphasizes the prominence of the Holy Spirit. This paper shows that this belief is false because the apostle firmly entrenches the Holy Spirit in the life of Christians and believers alike.
To affirm this claim, this paper draws a connection between the Holy Spirit and Christ. It also shows that the Holy Spirit is central to the rebirth of Christians (baptism) and helps them to live according to the word of God. The importance of this investigation stems from a careful consideration of the critical role that the Holy Spirit plays in the spiritual nourishment of Christians.
Moreover, The apostle John emphasizes the importance of the holy spirit in his biblical teachings. Therefore, contrary to the opinion of some observers, this paper argues that the book of John shows that the Holy Spirit is critical to the nourishment of Christians’ lives.
Some biblical scholars believe that some people have misrepresented the role of the Holy Spirit in the book of John because of its ambiguous depiction in the gospel.2 In fact, their views show that most of these misrepresentations have brought a cessation from the orthodox view of the same issue. The secessionist group that has promoted this view has merged into a larger movement known as “second century Gnosticism.”3
This view largely explains the departure of the heretics (2:19) because they believed they were the sole confidants of the true recipients and guardians of the spiritual truth, which was supposed to explain the role of the Holy Spirit. In line with this view, the Apostle John draws a connection between his teachings with the true anointing. In the same breadth, he warns believers against false prophets who may purport to be preaching the word of God.
Based on these highlights, we find that the main conflict regarding the portrayal of the role of the Holy Spirit emerged from John’s pneumatological community. The apostle combats this issue on two fronts. First, he explains the important role of the Holy Spirit on Christ’s life on earth. He did so because some people considered Jesus’ life to lack salvific importance.4 Relative to this view, the Holy Spirit bears witness to the historical Jesus.
This reference is particularly associated with the baptism and resurrection of Christ. Besides showing the important role of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ life, John also shows the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. Relative to this assertion he says a true believer cannot benefit from the fruits of salvation without the power of the Holy Spirit.
Secondly, he claims that, without the Holy Spirit, a true believer would not distinguish truth from error, or live in truth in the first place. These issues are the true highlights of authentic Pneumatology that characterized the gospel according to John.
Connection between the Spirit and Christ
According to Kostenberg, John compares the spirit with the earthly life of Jesus Christ and his sacrificial death for the sins of humanity.5 He drew this comparison because the heretics did not consider the life of Jesus to be significant for salvation and daily experience. In verse 5: 6-8, the apostle John called on all people to heed to the word of God because of his saving work on the cross.6 Some verses are difficult to interpret in this form.7
Particularly, 1John 5:6 highlights the difficulty in understanding this message. There are three main viewpoints here. The first stems from the view of the blood and water, which symbolizes Christ’s crucifixion and the last supper. The main message in this verse is the importance of Christ’s death as a sacrifice for humanity.
The events that follow his death are similarly important because John does not pretend to defend the ordnances; instead; he attempts to anchor the resurrection of Jesus Christ into history. Stated differently, he is defending the incarnation of Jesus indirectly. The second view comes from the same verse (19:34-35) where the scriptures refer to the blood and water that poured out of Jesus’ body during his crucifixion.8
The premise for this verse is the defense of Christ’s crucifixion, especially for those who would still deny him after his death. In this regard, John is arguing that the crucifixion of Christ is the main redemption in the life of a believer and not the baptism of Jesus Christ. However, as Nissen observes, there are fundamental problems with this analysis.9 First, the representation of the water is three fold. In the first instance, the water refers to Christ’s baptism by water.
The death of Jesus Christ and the blood he poured for sinners outline the second representation of the water. Here John draws a close relation between the blood shed for the sinners and the water associated with his baptism and resurrection. The last manifestation differentiates water and blood by showing that blood symbolized Christ’s death (crucifixion) and water symbolized his baptism.
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Based on these assessments, the apostle John is defending a few important truths. The first is that Jesus Christ is the same divine Christ and the Holy Spirit. In this regard, he does not support the ontological separation of the two. John supports a second truth, which suggests that the same person whom he baptized is also the same person who died on the cross. The acceptance of Jesus Christ emerged through his defeat of death and the fulfillment of his purpose of earth.
This glorification occurred after his death and resurrection. This understanding contradicts the view of some people who believe that Christ came upon the “human Jesus” after his baptism and departed his human self after his death. However, John shows that the Holy Spirit bears the historicity of these events because when combined with the testimony of the Holy Spirit, there is little contention that Jesus and the son of God (Christ) are the same.
The Holy Spirit and the Life of the Believer
In the book of John, the apostle rejects the views of the heretics by saying that the Holy Spirit is an integral part of the life of a believer.10 Particularly, he draws attention to the role of the Holy Spirit in four aspects of a Christian’s life. The first part is the rebirth of a Christian.
The second part is in assuring believers of the promise of an eternal life. The third and fourth parts involve helping believers to remain in the truth and in the discernment of truth and error. The following sections outline the role of the Holy Spirit in these four parts of a Christian’s life.
The Spirit and the New Birth
The book of John portrays the Holy Spirit as an agent of the new birth. Similarly, it portrays it as the epitome of the new birth. However, these depictions are not apparent in the scriptures. For example, they are not apparent in First John 3:9. Some readers have singled out this verse for its difficulty in interpretation.11
However, the work of God and his purpose for human beings stems from people’s understanding that they have to live according to his word. Similarly, it emerges in reference to the “seed.” An extrapolation of the verse reads, “Everyone who is born of God does not commit sin because his seed abides in him, and he is not able to sin because of God he is born.”12 From this verse, clearly, John argues that, “born of seed” and “born of God” are similar.
Nonetheless, this similarity has not been apparent to many people because the term, “seed” has been contentious for many people. However, many people interpret the seed to mean the word of God. To support this view, it is crucial to look outside the book of John and investigate what other books in the bible speak of the subject.
For example, the book of James and Peter speak of this issue. Nonetheless, Mills says these passages fail to associate the “seed” with the begetting of the Christian.13
Mill views the seed as the Holy Spirit, because he says John’s original readers would easily identify it with the foundational born of God passage.14 This view is borrowed from (John 1:12; 3:3–6). In John 3:5, it is difficult to miss the link between the phrase “born of God” and the holy spirit.
Based on this understanding, the apostle John projects the Holy Spirit at the start of the Christian experience. The idea behind this assertion is the understanding that the Holy Spirit gives life. Here, the flesh profits from nothing. Therefore, people should understand the regeneration of God’s children in connection with the Holy Spirit. This understanding reinforces the view that the spirit is the seed. To support this assertion, Mill suggests,
“…The immediate context suggests that the seed…is simply a part of John’s now familiar divine birth terminology: (2 times in 3:9). Divine birth employing God’s seed echoes John 3:3ff., where such birth is also discussed in terms of the Spirit. Therefore, the seed in 1 John 3:9 is a symbol of the Spirit in a crude though legitimate application of the regeneration metaphor.”15
Besides the above-mentioned uses of the word “seed,” John does not use it in other places within his scriptures. However, it carries an important idea – reproduction. Its paternal characteristics stem from the portrayals of God as the Father of all children of God. In this regard, belivers are encouraged to live in the likeness of God.
Moreover, the scriptures show that the “seed” is the true beginning of the believer’s transformation. This statement speaks of the believer’s fellowship and union with the father. Through this relationship, they enjoy the benefits of eternal life. Mills adds, “The imagery of begetting is the corollary of the Johannine emphasis on the Christian’s possessing God’s eternal life, an image carried to the point of speaking of God’s seed.” 16
The power of regeneration as depicted in the role of the Holy Spirit also manifests in two contexts that underlie the concept of rebirth. The first context is the distinction between righteousness and love because this is what the scripture uses to distinguish the children of God from the children of the devil.
The virtues of righteousness and love manifests in 5:11-12. Subsequent verses also emphasize it. When referring to the concept of righteousness and love, John still refutes the views of the heretics who argued that righteousness and love were not important tenets of the spiritual life. This is why in the book of John, the apostle claims that God will not consider anyone who is unrighteous and possesses hate as a child of God.
The Spirit and Assurance
The Book of John encourages believers to understand that they are the true beneficiaries of eternal life. The apostle positions the Holy Spirit at the center of this assurance in 3:24 and 4:13. This understanding also manifests in the Greek text, which emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit in giving believers eternal life. This understanding manifests in the verse 3:24, which says “And we know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit which He has given us.”17
Through this scripture, John reveals that Christ abides in his believers and his believers abide in him through the connection that they share through the Holy Spirit. Through this statement, the Holy Spirit plays important roles in a believer’s life. For example, it refers to fellowship with God and asserts the incarnation of Jesus Christ. These two roles lead believers to confide in him and make them have improved confidence in the coming of the judgment day. In this regard, Mills argues that
“Just as in 3,24 the Spirit is the ultimate source of peace of heart (3,19–24) and the answering of our petitions (3,22), so in 4,13 the same Spirit is the source of our confidence on the day of judgment (4,17) and of the absence of fear.”18
In line with the above statement, the Apostle John says that the Holy Spirit gives believers the assurance that on judgment day, their confidence should not come from their outward profession or freshly generated acts of love and righteousness, but from the Holy Spirit who gives them the power to implement and safeguard these virtues. In this regard, a believer knows that his/her confidence during judgment day will not come from their personal convictions and knowledge of their lives, but from the Holy Spirit.
According to Thiselton, of importance is the role of the Holy Spirit in allowing believers to seek fellowship with God.19 This mediation is synonymous with the concept of eternal life. In fact, according to Kostenberg, the concept of the Holy Spirit and assurance refers to this basic idea in two ways.20 The first way is the role of the Holy Spirit in mediating how Jesus abides in the lives of believers and how believers abide in God’s ways.
The Holy Spirit is the possession of true believers and sits at the apex of believers’ fellowship with God. The apostle John also confirms this narrative by saying the possession of the Holy Spirit makes believers aware of their union with their father. It also gives them assurance that they are possessors of God’s life and that God will accept them as “being in Christ.”This sense of awareness is not subjective because it is more inclined with understanding the word of God and its appropriation in the lives of believers.
The Spirit and Remaining in the Truth
The Apostle John highlights the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers by saying it safeguards them against apostasy.21 He says this safeguard occurs under the concept of anointing. Other biblical scholars say it emerges with reference to the last hour and the redemption that awaits believers before the last coming of the Messiah.22 The gospel also believes that the last hour coincides with the proliferation of multiple false prophets.
These false prophets announce a departure from Christ and his word because John warns us that most of these false prophets would emerge from the church. He also characterizes the activities of these false prophets by denial and deception. Furthermore, he says that they do not have the Holy Spirit, because it would have guided them to “be of God.” Here, he says that the Holy Spirit likeness believers to God, and without it, there are no bonds of communion between the two parties.
Therefore, the false prophets stand in sharp contrast to what John expects of people who have the Holy Spirit. In this regard, the Apostle John teaches us that the Holy Spirit relies on origin, character, and communion when helping people to remain in the truth. Again, the apostle differs with the heterics who say Jesus Christ is not the divine Christ by arguing that the Holy Spirit does not possess them and neither do they have the spirit of the father, or the son. Stated differently, they are not possessed with eternal life.
The deception of the anti-Christ is set forth in 2:26, which shows how false prophets deceive people by leading them away from the path of the antichrist. With respect to the concept of anointing, biblical scholars have held three main views. One view provides a close relation between the anointing and the Holy Spirit.
Here, John tells the believers that the Holy Spirit is the one that would guide them to live in the word of God. In light of this assertion, the anointing role of the Holy Spirit is inescapable. Therefore, it is okay to associate the Holy Spirit with the anointing role. At the same time, it is similarly important to associate the word with the Holy Spirit. The abiding presence of the anointing helps believers to overcome the unwarranted deception of the gospel as propagated by the antichrists.
Comprehensively, when trying to understand the role of the Holy Spirit as an instrument to help Christians remain in truth, it is similarly important to understand the presence of the Holy Spirit under the image of anointing. The anointing serves different purposes in a Christian’s life. First, it shows the role of the Holy Spirit as a teacher.
Secondly, it highlights the role of the holy spirit as a protector (protects believers from apostasy) by abiding in them. In this regard, the Holy Spirit allows the believers to know God because it mediates between God and the believers. Similarly, the Holy Spirit helps to invalidate the knowledge conveyed by the false prophets. It helps to do so by providing Christians with true knowledge of God. Therefore, the anointing of the Holy Spirit is essential for all believers.
Holy Spirit and Baptism
Baptism is often associated with the apostle John.23 In some biblical texts, baptism refers to the death of a believer’s “old self,” as it signifies rebirth. It is evident that the people who accepted baptism also accepted the Messiah, whom John advanced in his teachings. After baptism, the event would later culminate in baptism by the Holy Spirit. Stated differently, although baptism by water was symbolic, the consummation of the event occurred through the baptism with the Holy Spirit.
There is no mistake in this analysis because John declared that he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon him during the baptism. He highlights this event five times in his teachings. Through the same teachings, Christians witness the death of the messiah and the effects that follow his defeat of the death.
This paper started by showing the ambiguous nature of the role of the holy spirit in a Christian’s life. It showed that, unlike other biblical texts, the role of the Holy Spirit was unclear in the book of John. This ambiguity has often led some researchers to believe that the gospel of John diminishes the role of the Holy Spirit in a Christian’s life.
However, this paper shows that this belief is false because the apostle firmly entrenches the Holy Spirit in the life of Christians and believers alike. To affirm this claim, this paper has shown a connection between the Holy Spirit and Christ. It has also shown that the Holy Spirit is central to the rebirth of Christians (baptism) and in their attempt to live according to the word of God. Stated differently, the Holy Spirit abides in believers).
By abiding with the Lord’s word, John also reassures believers that they will enjoy the fruits of eternal life on judgment day. In this regard, he says believers should have confidence in the Holy Spirit that they would reap the fruits of abiding by the word of God. Collectively, these analyses show that the role of the Holy Spirit is clear in the gospel according to John. Indeed, all excerpts of this paper show that the Holy Spirit is central to the life of the believer.
Bevere, John. The Holy Spirit: An Introduction. New York: Messenger International, 2013.
Carson, Donald. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: WM Erdmans, 1990.
Kostenberg, Andreas. Encounter John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary and Theological Perspective. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.
Mills, Donald. “The Holy Spirit in 1 John.” DBSJ 4, no. 2 (June 1999): 33–50.
Nissen, Johannes. The Gospel of John and the Religious Quest: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. New York: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013.
Thiselton, Anthony. The Holy Spirit — In Biblical Teaching, Through the Centuries, and Today. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2013.
1 Johannes Nissen, The Gospel of John and the Religious Quest: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (New York: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013), 116-120.
2 Anthony Thiselton, The Holy Spirit — In Biblical Teaching, Through the Centuries, and Today (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2013), 144-150.
3 Thiselton, The Holy Spirit, 144.
4 John Bevere, The Holy Spirit: An Introduction (New York: Messenger International, 2013) 12-19.
5 Andreas Kostenberg, Encounter John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary and Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 57-65.
6 Kostenberg, Encounter John, 57.
7 Donald Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: WM Erdmans, 1990), 64-65.
8 Kostenberg, Encounter John, 58.
9 Nissen, The Gospel of John, 117.
10 Carson, The Gospel According to John, 65.
11 Carson, The Gospel According to John, 65.
12 Carson, The Gospel According to John, 65.
13 Donald Mills, “The Holy Spirit in 1 John,” DBSJ 4, no. 2 (June 1999): 33–50.
14 Mills, “The Holy Spirit in 1 John,” 33.
15 Mills, “The Holy Spirit in 1 John,” 39.
16 Mills, “The Holy Spirit in 1 John,” 39.
17 Mills, “The Holy Spirit in 1 John,” 40.
18 Mills, “The Holy Spirit in 1 John,” 42.
19 Thiselton, The Holy Spirit, 144.
20 Kostenberg, Encounter John, 58.
21 Kostenberg, Encounter John, 58.
22 Mills, “The Holy Spirit in 1 John,” 42.
23 Carson, The Gospel According to John, 65.