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Part Two: The Holy Spirit as the Promised Successor in Jesus’ Farewell Address in John

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Part Two: The Holy Spirit as the Promised Successor in Jesus’ Farewell Address in John

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

(Click here to see the overview of this six-part article.)

After a great deal of misdirection concerning the genre of the Gospels during most of the twentieth century, there is now beginning to be significant recognition among New Testament scholars that the Gospels largely match the characteristics of ancient Greco-Roman biographies (bioi). Richard Burridge’s book What Are the Gospels? thoroughly refuted the fallacy that because the Gospels do not conform to the usual elements of modern Western biographies they are not really interested in the life of Jesus.1 Burridge’s demonstration that the Gospels were of the same type of writing as classical Greco-Roman biographies does not settle all questions about the nature of the Gospels: one must keep in mind the uniqueness of their subject and the Jewish religious and cultural perspective of their authors. Nevertheless, Burridge correctly argued that the Gospels should be read not as “by committees, about concepts, for communities” but rather “by a person, about a person, for other persons.”2 The person who is the biographical subject of the Gospels, including the Gospel of John, is of course Jesus Christ. While acknowledging that John’s distinctive style and its rich theological content differ in some ways from the Synoptic Gospels, there are good reasons for reading the Gospel of John as a historically grounded and reliable portrayal of Jesus.3

The narrative of the Gospel of John divides into two main parts. The first part includes John 1-12 and is structured around seven miraculous “signs” that Jesus performs. This section of the Gospel introduces themes that will be elaborated or narrated in the second part of the book, including Jesus’ rejection by the Jews, his betrayal by Judas Iscariot, his death and resurrection, his giving of the Spirit to those who believe in him, and his return to the Father.4 References to the Spirit in John 1-12 are relatively fleeting and there is no clear indication in those references whether the Spirit is or is not a divine person. Yet what is said about the Spirit in John 1-12 in some ways anticipates and prepares for what is revealed in more detail and specificity in the later chapters. In these chapters the Spirit descends on and remains with Jesus (1:32-33). The Spirit comes “from above” and acts freely (3:3-8). The Spirit gives those who believe in Christ spiritual life (6:63).5

The second part of the book is John 13-21 and narrates the climactic events toward which the earlier chapters have been moving. These chapters further subdivide into two sections: John 13-17, in which Jesus has a final private meeting with his disciples prior to his death, and John 18-21, in which Jesus is arrested, tried, crucified, and buried, and then rises from the dead and appears to his disciples. It is in John 13-17 that teaching about the Holy Spirit is given major development.

Mainstream critical Johannine scholars generally view John 13-17 as the result of a process of redaction in which material that is in some ways repetitive and in other ways inconsistent was somehow worked together into the Gospel.6 However, some recent studies have argued that even if some redaction took place the result is a unified and coherent whole.7 That John 13-17 is a distinct and major section of the Gospel is beyond reasonable doubt. Up to this point Jesus has been engaged in public ministry, performing various signs, challenging his critics in controversy, and talking mostly with people not yet among his disciples (e.g., Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, and the man born blind). In John 13-17 Jesus meets privately with his inner circle of disciples and speaks with them at length. After the reader is told repeatedly that Jesus’ “hour” or “time” had not yet come (2:4; 7:6, 8, 30; 8:20), at the end of John 12 Jesus announces that his “hour” had come (12:23, 27), and in John 13:1 the author repeats this statement to mark the beginning of the second part of the book (see also 16:32; 17:1). The end of this section is clearly marked by the statement that when Jesus finished speaking, he went with the disciples out across the Kidron valley to the garden (18:1), where he was arrested.8

There is a general consensus among Johannine scholars that John 13-17 presents Jesus as delivering a “farewell discourse” or “farewell address” to his inner circle in anticipation of his impending “departure,” that is, his death.9 Perhaps the antecedent farewell discourse to which Jesus’ farewell is most often compared is that of Moses in Deuteronomy.10 John actually introduces this section of the Gospel by explicitly using the language of departure in reference to Jesus: “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father” (13:1).11 Jesus’ immanent departure and return to the Father is the dominant issue of concern in the passage (13:3, 33, 36; 14:2-5, 12, 18-19, 25, 27-28, 30; 16:4-7, 10, 16-22, 28; 17:5, 11-13).

Various scholars have compiled lists of characteristic elements in farewell discourses, commonly focusing on Jewish examples to illuminate NT passages.12 The following elements in John 13-17 are some of the characteristics of farewell discourses13:

  • A revelation that the speaker knows that his death is near (13:1)

  • Gathering with the speaker of those he will be leaving behind (13:1-20)

  • Final meal together (13:2-4)

  • Statement that those with the speaker will be better off staying behind (13:33)

  • Presentation of the speaker as a model and example to imitate (13:15, 34)

  • Speaker gives promises and comfort to those who will feel bereaved (14:1)

  • Appointment, designation, or promise of a successor (14:16-17, 26-27)

  • Exhortation that they keep his words and instructions (15:22)

  • Warnings, final injunctions (15:22)

  • Revelations about the future, especially about coming opposition or troubles (14:29; 16:2-4)

  • Announcement (formal or otherwise) of the speaker’s soon departure (16:28)

  • Prayer for those being left behind (17)

One of these features of the farewell discourse just listed is the promise of a successor. That promise is found in Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit. The four famous passages in John about the coming of the Holy Spirit to be with the disciples and to teach and guide them are all found in this context (John 14:16-17, 26-27; 15:26-27; 16:7-15). The Holy Spirit is to be that successor to Jesus—the one whom Jesus promises will pick up where he is leaving off. These fifteen verses woven into the farewell discourse constitute the most sustained exposition by Jesus in the four Gospels concerning the Holy Spirit. It was thus not without justification that William Barclay described this passage as “the high-water mark of the teaching of the New Testament about the Holy Spirit.”14

Click here for Part Three: The Holy Spirit as the Paraclete in John


1. Richard A. Burridge, What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Dearborn, MI: Dove Booksellers, 2004). See also Dirk Frickenschmidt, Evangelium als Biographie: Die vier Evangelien im Rahmen antiker Erzählkunzt (Tübingen: Francke Verlag, 1997).

2. Burridge, What Are the Gospels, 295; see also idem., “About People, by People, for People: Gospel Genre and Audiences,” in The Gospel for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences, ed. Richard Bauckham (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 113-45.

3. See Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Biography (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), esp. 1:3-80; Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011).

4. D. François Tolmie, Jesus’ Farewell to the Disciples: John 13:1-17:26 in Narratological Perspective, Biblical Interpretation 12 (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 191; Andreas J. Köstenberger and Scott R. Swain, Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 135.

5. Tolmie, Jesus’ Farewell to the Disciples, 133-34.

6. This view of John 13-17 remains one of the lasting legacies in Johannine scholarship of Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, trans. George R. Beasley-Murray (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971).

7. E.g., Tolmie, Jesus’ Farewell to the Disciples; John Carlson Stube, A Graeco-Roman Rhetorical Reading of the Farewell Discourse, Library of Biblical Studies (London: T & T Clark, 2006).

8. Tolmie, Jesus’ Farewell to the Disciples, 192; Stube, Graeco-Roman Rhetorical Reading, 54-55.

9. In addition, to Tolmie and Stube, see Fernando F. Segovia, The Farewell of the Word: The Johannine Call to Abide (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991); George Parsenios, Departure and Consolation: The Johannine Farewell Discourse in Light of Greco-Roman Literature, NovTSup 117 (Leiden: Brill, 2005); Ruth Sheridan, “The Gospel of John and Modern Genre Theory: The Farewell Discourse (John 13‐17) as a Test Case,” ITQ 75 (2010): 287‐99, among many other works. Ernst Bammel, “The Farewell Discourse of the Evangelist John and Its Jewish Heritage,” TynBul 44 (1993): 103-116, is an especially problematic analysis of the passage.

10. Notably Aelred Lacomara, “Deuteronomy and the Farewell Discourse (John 13:31-16:33),” CBQ 36 (1974): 65-84, and others following him.

11. Biblical quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless noted otherwise.

12. The best-known study on this topic is William Kurz, Farewell Addresses in the New Testament, Zacchaeus Studies: New Testament (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990). For a convenient introduction see “Farewell Address,” in David E. Aune, The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 182-83.

13. See, e.g., Stube, Graeco-Roman Rhetorical Reading, 56-60.

14. William Barclay, The Promise of the Holy Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 30.