by Steven Siciliano | 7 March 2018 |
Bible verses lifted out of context have a way of taking on a life of their own. Used in a colloquial sense they can often encapsulate helpful sentiments but can just as easily end up veering far from their original meaning. A particularly ironic example of this is the statement found in Genesis 31:49, in which Laban says to his son-in-law Jacob “the Lord watch between me and thee when we are absent one from another (KJV).” These words are well-known because many churchgoers quote them as a form of blessing when they separate from friends and loved ones. In the story itself, however, Laban uttered that phrase with a much different tone, something more like “I call upon the Lord to keep an eye on you after you leave here, so that you don’t do anything fishy against me or my daughters.” In other words, the sentence in its own setting functions less like a parting benediction and more like Robert De Niro’s “I’ll be watching you” signal to Ben Stiller in “Meet the Parents.”
That’s just one example of how Bible verses can be loosely employed not only in everyday conversation but even in building big systems of theology. They may serve as shorthand summaries of biblical themes but they don’t always capture the meaning embedded in the passage itself. In fact, habitually using Bible quotes imprecisely can not only prevent readers from grasping their original intent but, perhaps worse, inculcate poor Bible study habits in the process.
With those two problems in mind, this series of short articles, titled, “Reading What’s There” will look at one well-known Bible passage at a time, noting first how it is popularly understood and then paying attention to its broader context to uncover any insights that a close reading may reveal. Hopefully, the series will elucidate a few well-known texts while providing examples of how to read biblical passages on their own terms.
The text this time is John 16:7-11.
Chapters 14 through 16 in the gospel of John comprise Jesus’ last conversation with His disciples, touching on such topics as His relationship to the Father, His disciples’ need to remain “in the vine,” and the command that they love one another. References to the Holy Spirit also appear a number of times in the passage, adding information that is found only in the fourth gospel. In particular, John 16 includes one of those sayings about the Spirit that is commonly used to express a useful idea that nevertheless falls far short of Jesus’ intended meaning. It’s the section in which Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:7-8, NASB).”
That last sentence is typically quoted in order to describe how the Holy Spirit works upon the hearts of individual men and women, convincing them of their need for salvation. Taken in this way, the verse presents the Spirit as bearing down on a person’s conscience, either by pointing out a specific sin or making them aware of their generally corrupt condition. The Spirit then reveals the perfection of true righteous and provokes a sense of fear in regard to judgment. Presumably, the Spirit achieves these goals either when the gospel is preached publicly or whenever solitary individuals are in a susceptible mood, or both.
From this point of view, Jesus’ statement about the work of the Spirit applies to any and all individuals throughout history who are led to acknowledge their personal deficiencies and turn to Jesus for deliverance. And as far as it goes, most Christians would probably not dispute this use of the saying. Yet there is a two-fold problem with it.
First, this way of applying the passage fails to consider the three verses that immediately follow, in which Jesus explains exactly what He had in mind. Second, it assumes that the Spirit would “convict” the world through the messages the Spirit would convey in inspiration to followers, though it could be that the Spirit’s arrival would be enough to corroborate Jesus’ claims in its own right.
Inspiring Belief in Jesus
To begin with, Jesus plainly says in verses 9-11 that the Spirit would convict the world “concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged (NASB).”
In other words, the persuasive power of the Spirit would not focus on exposing the personal flaws and faults of individuals, but bring to light things that the world had previously failed to recognize about Jesus, including Jesus’ identity, achievement, and status before God.
For instance, the first clause in verse nine states that the Spirit would convict the world of sin by showing that Jesus’ opponents were wrong to disbelieve in Him as messiah. This proposition aligns with the intent of the whole book because the primary goal of John’s work, like the other three gospels, was to provide evidence that Jesus was indeed the long-awaited messiah. In fact, he explicitly states that in 20:31, which says, “these (things) have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name (NASB).”
A similar dynamic is at work in the clause that says the Spirit would convict the world “concerning righteousness.” Jesus’ comment makes it clear that this phrase does not refer to any other human being’s lack of righteousness, but to His own positive righteousness, which would be attested to by His having gone to the Father.
Finally, the conviction regarding judgment which the Spirit would impress upon people’s minds does not consist in a fear for their own future standing before God, but a realization that judgment had already been pronounced on the devil.
In other words, the primary insight that a contextual reading of the passage adds to the popular use of this verse centers on the object or focus of the Spirit’s convicting power. It does not point to just any individual’s sin, unrighteousness, or vulnerability in judgment but to the identity, status, and achievement of Jesus.
Not Primarily in Words
The second idea suggested by the passage has to do with how the Spirit convicts people of these things. In line with parallel passages in the New Testament it seems likely that the convincing work which the Spirit would accomplish does not depend so much on the words or messages the Spirit would inspire, as much as the Spirit’s very arrival itself. That is, the phenomenon of the Spirit descending on the day of Pentecost served as proof that the messianic age had appeared and that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Contrary to what Jesus’ opponents had maintained, the coming of the Spirit testified to the fact that Jesus was the righteous Son who had overthrown the devil, regained Adam’s lost dominion and ascended to the seat of authority, thus earning Him the right to send the Spirit as predicted in the old testament.
To put that simply, the descent of the Spirit upon the followers of Jesus was, in itself, proof that Jesus was who He claimed to be. Even before the Spirit would “say” anything, the Spirit’s coming and presence gave testimony to the fact that Messiah had arrived and the new age had begun.
Repeating New Testament Themes
These themes show up in other parts of the New Testament as well.
One instance that comes to mind is the initial outpouring of the Spirit and Peter’s commentary on that event, as recorded in Acts 2. When visitors to Jerusalem heard the Aramaic-speaking apostles preaching to them in their mother tongues they were moved to ask what it all meant. Peter then explained (verses 14 and on) that the ability to communicate in previously unknown languages was an effect of the Spirit’s coming in fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy for the last days, He then added that this phenomenon proved that Jesus (rather than David) was the “holy one” of God. Verse 33 in particular contains a statement which dovetails nicely with the message in John 16 as just described. In that verse Peter refers to Jesus and says, “Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear.”
Here again, the coming of the Spirit served as evidence to the fact that Jesus had been exalted to the right hand of God – as Lord and Christ. Considering Acts 2 and John 16 together it seems reasonably clear that the Jewish people of the first century interpreted the coming of the Spirit as a sign that Jesus had indeed been installed as messiah and Lord.
A similar dynamic shows up at the beginning of Romans, this time in regard to the resurrection. Paul uses the same kind of reasoning when he says that Jesus, “was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead.” That is to say, although Jesus’ life and teachings had not succeeded in certifying His claims to being Messiah, the phenomenon of the resurrection testified to the fact that Jesus was who He said He was.
In the end, there may be little harm in using John 16:7-8 to describe how the Spirit reveals moral deficiencies to various individuals, but that way of interpreting the passage pales in comparison to its embedded meaning. In affirming Jesus as the Christ, the passage in its own context comprises a virtual summary of the entire Christian worldview. The coming and presence of the Spirit served as living proof that Jesus was indeed the righteous Messiah who had defeated the devil, fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies, and inaugurated the messianic reign of God.
Steven Siciliano is pastor of the Jackson Heights, Hartsdale, and New York Filipino Churches in the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and an M.A. in Community Health Education from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.