The Spirit in John’s Gospel

by Ed Gallagher

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever. He is the Spirit of truth. The world is unable to receive him because it doesn’t see him or know him. But you do know him, because he remains with you and will be in you.

John 14:16–17
Duccio di Buoninsegna, Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles, ca. 1310, Wikimedia Commons

The Gospel of John does not lay particular stress on the Holy Spirit (any more than other parts of the New Testament), but it does talk about the Spirit in ways distinct from other New Testament writings. This Gospel does not connect the Spirit to power, as in the Old Testament (e.g. Judg 14:6) and the Synoptic Gospels (Matt 12:28). John’s Gospel contains no demon possessions, so no exorcisms. Instead, here the Spirit is teacher and witness to Jesus and—most distinctively—the Paraclete. 


The main words in the Bible for “spirit” are

Both of these words have roughly the same set of meanings: wind (Gen 8:1; Isa 7:2), breath (Gen 6:17), spirit, or other meanings (cf. Isa 19:3). In the New Testament, the word pneuma refers to a human ‘spirit’ about 47x, to a demonic ‘spirit’ about 38x, and about 275x to God’s Spirit. (The term “Holy Spirit” appears about 90x.) The word pneuma appears most frequently in Acts (70x), followed by 1 Corinthians (40x) and Romans (34x). John (24x) has about the same number of appearances as the shorter Gospel of Mark (23x); Luke has more (36x), Matthew fewer (19x). 

Some of the appearances of pneuma in John do not refer to the Holy Spirit: 11:33 and 13:21 both say that Jesus was troubled “in spirit,” referring to his human spirit. At 19:30, Jesus gave up his spirit. The command to worship “in spirit and truth” (4:23–24) might not refer to the Holy Spirit, nor Jesus’ statement that his words “are spirit” (6:63). At 3:6–8, Jesus twice uses pneuma in reference to something other than the Holy Spirit (spirit/wind). On a conservative estimate, then, the word pneuma refers to the Holy Spirit 16x. In addition, the word Paraclete appears 4x. 

The Spirit in John 1–7 

The opening chapters of the Gospel have several references to the Spirit. Almost always the simple term “Spirit” (pneuma) is used in these chapters (exception: Holy Spirit in 1:33). Readers first encounter the Spirit in the speech of John the Baptist, who reveals that he had seen the Spirit in the form of a dove come down upon Jesus (1:32). All of the Gospels mention this detail (Matt 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22), except that John’s Gospel alone acknowledges that the Baptist saw the dove, that the Spirit “remained” on Jesus, and that this event fulfilled a sign for which John was looking (1:33). The Spirit testifies to Jesus for the benefit of John. The Spirit’s “remaining” on Jesus distinguishes Jesus from the prophets who experienced the Spirit intermittently (cf. 1 Sam 10:9–13; 11:6; 19:19–24), and links Jesus to the promise of Isaiah 11:2. 

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,

the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

the spirit of counsel and might,

the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.

Isaiah 11:2

This sign reveals Jesus as the one who will baptize with the Spirit (1:33) rather than with mere water (1:26). Jesus in fact has the Spirit “without measure” from the Father (3:34). Later in the Gospel, after the Resurrection, Jesus breathes out “the Holy Spirit” upon the ten disciples (20:22; Judas and Thomas were absent) in a preview of the Spirit baptism of Acts 2. The strange passage at 7:37–39 probably also relates to this theme. The words of Jesus (7:37–38) should probably be translated (against most versions) like this:

If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the Scripture has said, “Out of his [= the Messiah’s] belly shall flow rivers of living water.”

John 7:37–38

No Old Testament Scripture matches exactly the words of this quotation, but likely Jesus had in mind passages such as Zechariah 14:7–8; Ezekiel 47:1–2, where a river flows from the temple. Jesus is, after all, the new temple (John 2:21; cf. 4:14). The imagery connects to the idea that the Spirit gives life (6:63; cf. Ezek 37:14), so one must be born of the Spirit in order to have life (John 3:3–8) and worship in Spirit/spirit (4:23–24).

The Spirit in the Farewell Discourse

The Gospel draws to a close Jesus’ public ministry at 12:37–50, and spends several chapters on Jesus’ final night with his apostles. Chapters 14–17 are essentially a single speech (and prayer) by Jesus, which has received the title “Farewell Discourse.” This discourse introduces two new terms for the Spirit:

  • the Spirit of Truth: 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; cf. 1 John 4:6
  • the Paraclete: 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; cf. 1 John 2:1

Paraclete is a Greek word meaning “mediator” or “helper” (often translated “counselor” or “comforter”). It is not a common word. The Paraclete is with the Father (14:16), but the Father will send him at Jesus’ request (14:26), or rather Jesus himself will send the Paraclete when he rejoins the Father (15:26; 16:7). The Paraclete’s job is to be with the disciples forever (14:16), to remind them of Jesus’ words (14:26), to testify about Jesus (15:26), to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (16:7–11), to guide the disciples in all truth (16:13), and to glorify Jesus (16:14). Whereas the Spirit earlier had been connected to life-giving, when the Farewell Discourse uses the term Paraclete, the emphasis is on teaching, recalling, testifying, convicting. 

Another difference in this section compared to previous passages in the Gospel is that the Paraclete is described in personal terms, whereas one might think of the Spirit elsewhere in the Gospel (particularly in John 3:3–8) as some sort of impersonal force. But the Paraclete teaches, or reminds, and convicts, indicating his personal nature. The Paraclete does some of the things that Jesus does:

speak what they have heard7:17; 8:26; 14:1014:26; 16:13–14
teach7:1414:26; cf. 1 John 2:27
testify5:31–32; 7:715:26
sent from God5:23–24; etc.14:26; 15:26
Activities Shared by Jesus and the Paraclete

Jesus calls the Spirit “another Paraclete” (14:16), indicating that he himself is the first Paraclete (cf. 1 John 2:1). 

Jesus will not leave his disciples orphaned, he will come to them (14:18), in a way that the world will not see him (14:19), and the Father will also make his home with them (14:23). He will send this other Paraclete (14:16, 26), whom the world cannot receive (14:17), but he will be with the disciples forever (14:16). In this way, it is best for the disciples if Jesus leaves (16:7). 


John’s Gospel shows that the Holy Spirit is a “person” who points people to Jesus, testifying about him and reminding the disciples of Jesus’ words. Most distinctively, this Gospel reveals the Holy Spirit as “another Paraclete” who will be with the disciples forever, mediating Christ’s presence to them, so that Jesus can say, “I am going away and I am coming to you” (14:28). 

Questions for Discussion

The Gospel of John mentions the Holy Spirit in the following verses: 1:32–33; 3:5–6, 8, 34; 4:24; 6:63; 7:39; 14:17, 26; 15:26; 16:13; 20:22. What do you notice about the “names” of the Holy Spirit in this Gospel? What is the Holy Spirit called? 

We often talk about the Holy Spirit as a “person,” one of the “persons” of the Godhead, as opposed to thinking about the Spirit as an impersonal “force.” Which of the passages in John’s Gospel sound like the Spirit is being described as a “force”? Which ones sound more personal? 

What do we learn about the Holy Spirit at 1:32–33? How does this Gospel’s version of this story compare to the version found in the other Gospels (Matt 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22)?

What does Jesus say about the Spirit at 7:37–39? What does he mean? 

What is the job of the Spirit in 15:26–16:15? 

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