Living in a Hostile World—John 16:1-33

Studies in John’s Gospel—Bible study lesson 37

by Reta Halteman Finger

A main street in ancient Ephesus in Asia Minor (now Turkey) . Photo by Reta Finger.
A main street in ancient Ephesus in Asia Minor (now Turkey) culminating in the majestic library façade in the background. If the Johannine community lived here, it would have been hard to withdraw entirely from Greco-Roman culture.  Photo by Reta Finger

The day before I wrote this lesson I canvassed a neighborhood in my hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia, encouraging people to make sure they exercise their right to vote in our nation’s midterm elections. I acknowledge that both major political parties are corrupted by money, and often ideology prevails over common sense and long-term concerns. But voting is one privilege and responsibility we still have in what’s left of our democracy. As Christians, we can at least try to support the candidates who are more likely to help the “least” among us, to work for human rights and equal opportunities, and to take seriously the climate crisis.

But to many readers of John 16:1-33, the author of this fourth Gospel does not seem to encourage such a political philosophy. Some scholars view the Johannine community as a sect that is so persecuted by the culture— and even by the synagogue— that it withdraws into itself and rejects the outside world (i.e., 16:1-4). Many lay Christians even conclude that this entire Gospel is so “spiritualized” that it deals only with a private relationship to Jesus—that believing he is the Christ and Son of God is all that is needed for personal salvation.

But New Testament scholar Warren Carter argues otherwise in John and Empire: Initial Explorations (T & T Clark, 2008). Carter reminds us that John’s audience is already part of the Roman Empire and must negotiate how they will relate within an idolatrous and highly socially stratified culture. Such Jesus-communities are still Jewish enough to belong to their local synagogues (16:2), which are scattered throughout the Empire. This author knows that Jesus-followers run the risk of hostility from both synagogue and Empire, just as the Jewish leaders handed Jesus over to be executed by the Romans. This entire chapter encourages disciples to hold on. Following are several related features found in John 16.

Present, past, and future

Three time periods are woven together here. Although Jesus’s “last will and testament” (chapters 14-17) is set the evening before he is arrested and crucified (around 30 CE), the author is writing much later, around 90 CE. This is a challenging time for followers of Jesus all over the Roman world. Even their titles for Jesus—“Messiah” and “Son of God”—are political. In the eyes of both Jewish and Roman political leaders, messiahs (of whom there were many around this time) were dangerous revolutionaries. To the Roman elite, only Caesar was considered a “son of god.” A long tradition ties the Johannine author to his community in Ephesus, a powerful and highly Romanized city of the Empire.

In 16:12-15, Jesus says to the disciples, “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Then he promises the coming of the “Spirit of truth” (v 13), also called “the Advocate” (v 7). This Spirit will tell you “what is mine and declare the things that are to come” (vv 13-14). Years ago I heard a lecture by Dr. Charles Cosgrove, who explained that, realistically, the disciples would not have been able to understand Jesus’s words in John chapters 14-17 on the night before his arrest. Much of what we read here is what the Spirit revealed about Jesus later in the community. “The things that are to come” (v 13) were likely the things that were then happening in the Johannine communities of the late first century. The Spirit in the hearts of the faithful believers empathized with their difficult choices, warned them of the painful future, and promised Jesus’s presence with them. Yet, John 16:31-33 takes us back to the original setting, where the disciples “will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone.” Thus past, present, and future weave together into one eternal Now—which also includes us today as believing readers.

A woman symbolizes the faithful community

The suffering Johannine communities are symbolized by a woman in labor (16:20-22). Earlier we noted how Jesus’s role in John’s Gospel is similar to an idealized Mediterranean woman who is given complete authority over her household and children. This is another example of Jesus’s (and the Spirit’s) understanding of women’s concerns. We can imagine Jesus as an older woman ministering to her daughter who labors to bring forth a child. In this way the Advocate stands with the marginalized community, making the reassuring promise that, in Jesus’s words, “You have pain now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one can take your joy from you” (16:22-24).

Gender grammar

In Hebrew (perhaps Aramaic also?) “spirit” is always feminine; in Greek “spirit” is neuter. But here the Spirit/Advocate is personalized and identified with Jesus, so in the male-generic Greek language, “it” becomes “he.” But unlike our English translations, it occurs only a few times because the subject is implied in the verbs, which identify the third person but not its gender. It seems entirely appropriate to reread John 16:1-15 naming the Spirit of truth as “She,” especially since Jesus is identified so closely with Sophia/wisdom in John 1:1-18. Women especially may find this reading deeply comforting.

“Take courage!” says Jesus/Spirit/Sophia in closing: “I have conquered the world!”

Questions for discussion and reflection:

1.  What is your experience with the Spirit/Advocate promised in this chapter?

2.  What do you think of the idea of past, present, and future collapsed together in John 16?

3. How do you as a woman (or as a man) relate to the image of a woman in childbirth to symbolize the Christian community in the world?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.