Among the many promises of John 14–17 are several that anticipate heightened activity by the Holy Spirit in the apostolic era. These have long been a source of both comfort and confusion to NT believers. Assurances that the Spirit would assume new functions of “bringing to remembrance” Christ’s words (14:25–26) and empowering the testimony of the disciples (15:26–27) gave confidence to the early church that Christ had not abandoned his people when he ascended to be with the Father. But they also raise questions about the nature of the Spirit’s work. Are these promises offered generally to all NT believers? And if so, were OT saints summarily denied these benefits as they struggled to bear witness to the superiority of Yahweh? IOW, can we expect the Spirit to do more spectacular things for Christian believers as they witness for him today than he did for earlier generations of God-worshipers?
The answer to this question is complex, and I cannot hope to give a comprehensive answer in a single blog post. But the conundrum is reduced at least in part when we correctly see at least some of the promises of John 14–17 as having a narrower scope than is often assumed. While Christ is surely using these chapters to prepare the whole Christian church generally for his departure, some of the promises he makes in this pericope have a restrictive application. Note, for instance, that some of the promises are limited to those who had been “with Christ from the beginning” (15:27) and who could be “reminded” of things that Christ had personally “spoken to them while still with them” (14:25–26). IOW, some of these promises anticipate what Larry Pettegrew has labeled an “apostolic anointing”—a special dispensation of Spirit activity to be “breathed out” on the Twelve (20:22) as they set out on their peculiar mission as foundation blocks for the brand new Christian community denominated “the Church.”
Of particular interest here are Christ’s oversight and the Spirit’s equipping of the Apostles to produce the New Testament canon. Note the following:
- As with his ministry to the writing prophets of old (Amos 3:8), some of the Spirit’s promised function is efficacious (15:26–27). The apostles spoke/wrote of necessity what were God’s own words (cf. 1 Cor 2:11–13; 2 Pet 1:19–21). Here is no promise of memory jogs made generally available for Christians at large as they testify humanly for God, but a special promise that the Apostles would testify necessarily and in errantly as authorized spokesmen for God.
- The Spirit’s work was also comprehensive in scope (the “all things” of 14:26 and 16:13). We’ve already seen from the context that the “all things” can be restricted to the words that the disciples had personally heard Christ say, but we can probably reduce it still further: They did not necessarily remember Christ’s every word (e.g., “Hi Mom” or “Hey Peter, please pass the salt”), but rather everything in that special category of “things necessary for life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3–4) that “thoroughly equips” the believer for “every good work” (2 Tim 3:17). The promise reflects one of biblical sufficiency.
- The Spirit’s work was also derivative in nature (16:14–16). What I mean by this is that he was not offering his independent and original services to the apostles, but was carefully taking divine thoughts expressed first by the Father and thence by Christ and expressing them in spiritual words (cf. 1 Cor 2:10–13) that live on in the divinely inspired and humanly unoriginal words of Scripture (2 Pet 1:19–21).
Some believers hesitate to accept this interpretation, preferring instead the occasional spiritual memory prompts that they hope the Spirit will miraculously bestow as they witness for Christ. But the promise here is much greater than this! Here instead is Christ’s promise that he would, through his Spirit, oversee the inspiration of the NT Scriptures, offering a personal imprimatur on those words as the very Word of God containing everything necessary for life and godliness. This is indeed a grand promise for the Christian Church as it labors faithfully in the physical absence of our Lord Christ. And in this promise we have something far more scintillating than individual and existential experiences of the divine to which many modern expressions of the Christian religion have reduced. We have God’s sufficient Word transmitted, recorded, canonized, and preserved!