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The four cherubim with their wheels seen by Ezekiel with God’s glory (Ez. 1: 10; 10: 14) were also seen by John the Theologian next to the throne of God (Rev. 4: 6-7). Their faces were that of a lion, an ox, a man and an eagle. Not long afterwards Christians adopted these four creatures to represent the four gospels. According to John was given the eagle as its icon. The exact reason for this choice is not known, but later it was justified by noting the eagle’s capacity to soar high in the heavens, higher than any other bird.
Already at the beginning of the third century, Clement of Alexandria singled out According to John as the gospel that presents the spiritual realities of the ministry of Jesus. As an eagle, this gospel also soars to the heights where, according to the cosmology of the chain of being, are found the spiritual realities which rise above the material world. As already noted in previous columns, in this gospel the Logos descended to the world below, but he is not of this world (8: 23).
The prologue of this gospel focuses on the spiritual, eternal realities of the world of light and life (1: 4). There the Logos was with God, and was God. After stating that the Logos was made flesh and dwelt among humans to bring to them grace and truth (1:14), the narrative begins with the testimony of John. His function is not to baptize Jesus but to proclaim that he saw the Spirit descend as a dove on him (1: 32-33). Here Jesus and John the Baptist do not have a personal encounter. John saw Jesus from some distance and identified him as the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world (1: 29). We do not learn that Jesus received a water baptism. John plays his role as the one who identifies Jesus as the one who is to baptize with the Spirit (1: 33). In this way John publicly testified of the arrival of both the Logos and the Spirit to the world below.
Since in the first Farewell Discourse Jesus promises to send his disciples “another” Comforter (14: 16), it is reasonable to think that the One who descended from heaven and received the Spirit as a dove came to the world below as the First Comforter, precisely because he made possible the descent of the Spirit. Thus, the “other” Comforter will only be able to descend to the world below when the Logos had ascended and returned to the world above from whence he came. It is lamentable that the Greek word Parákletos has been translated as “comforter”. Even though this English word fits within the semantic range of the Greek word, it reduces the connotations of the original so as to give a false impression. The Greek word also says Consoler, Advocate, Defense Attorney, One Ready to Help, Protector. These other senses also apply to the uses of Parákletos in the Farewell Discourses.
The presence of the Spirit in the world below in the person of the One Who Descended makes not only possible but even necessary that women and men “be born”, not only baptized, from water and from the Spirit. That is, that they be born “from above” (3: 3). The Greek word anothen means both “from above” and “once again”. Which of its senses is the one intended is determined by the context. In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus avails himself of the double sense of the word to bring out Nicodemus’ inability to understand that Jesus is not talking about earthly births (3: 12).
A birth from human parents produces life “in the flesh”. A birth from water and the Spirit produces life “in the Spirit”. The activity of the Spirit is illumined by a metaphor. It is like the activity of the wind that blows without anyone knowing where it comes from and where it is going. In other words, it is mysterious, a miracle. As many other things in the realm of nature, however, the activity of the wind has ceased being mysterious. Any meteorologist from a TV channel explains to his viewers the atmospheric conditions and the causes for the wind and predicts the direction and the strength with which it will blow tomorrow. The metaphor that was explicative in According to John is no longer so. But the causes that produce the birth “from above” by the action of the Spirit continue to be a mystery and produce a miracle, even though in the realm of the flesh the activity of the wind has ceased to be one.
The distinction between the flesh and the Spirit is at the very center of the Johannine universe. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (3: 6). This is the law of creation. The bridge between these two realms is the birth that only the Spirit can produce. To make possible the crossing of the abyss between life in the flesh and life in the Spirit is the purpose for which the Son of Man came to live among women and men.
This contrast is also defined in practical terms: “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (6: 63). The Spirit and life, no doubt, are inseparable. Being born to life in the flesh is deceptive. By contrast, being born in the Spirit is effective and produces life eternal in human beings who still live in the flesh. Its characterization as “more abundant” (10: 10) does not refer to its quantity but to its quality. That is, human beings who have been born of the Spirit can also soar to spiritual heights like a dove or an eagle. In this way they realize their vocation and their destiny. Not in vain does the second Creation narrative say that man received life from the breath (Spirit) of God (Gen. 2: 7).
One of the characteristics of the Hellenistic Age was the widespread desire to ascend to the higher spheres of the chain of being and there participate in the activities of spiritual beings. The popular mystery religions promised its initiates journeys to the superior regions and knowledge of the mysteries of the universe. The Judaism of the time also encouraged ascents to the spiritual regions of the spheres traveling on Elijah’s chariot. To participate in such journeys through the spheres intense preparations were required. They included abstention from some activities and ascetic disciplines which helped the candidate get rid of earthly ballast. The letter To the Colossians is an argument against teachers who impose rules of “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not [even] touch” (Col. 2: 21) things that will prevent you from participating in “worship with angels and seeing hidden things” (Col. 2: 18, my translation).
Initiates of the mystery cults fervently aspired to travel to the higher regions of the cosmos and went through the required disciplines to attain to the esoteric knowledge available only to those who had successful journeys. The Covenanters of Qumran had developed liturgies that, according to them, allowed participation in worship services with angels. We don’t have enough information to know the circumstances and the motives informing Paul’s trip to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12: 2). Normally, those who had a successful trip through the spheres enjoyed great personal prestige. Paul, undoubtedly, had a successful journey but refused the concomitant prestige.
According to John considers such journeys impossible. With a few words it disqualifies them as real, emphatically stating: “No one has ascended into heaven” (3: 13). Human beings on earth, however, can worship God “in Spirit”, that is “in truth” (4: 23), if they have been born of the Spirit who gives abundant life in the Spirit.
The gospel’s drama resides in this: he who descended and brought to the world the power of the Spirit is about to return to the world above from whence he came. How are human beings to live in the world below without the First Parákletos who makes “birth from above” possible? Are they going to become “desolate”? (orphans, 14: 18). Such an eventuality troubles the heart and leaves the disciples in despair (14: 1).
The two Farewell Discourses of According to John, to a large degree, wish to explain that the return of the Son to the Father who sent him is no tragedy. This is a divine comedy. Jesus assures his disciples that his departure is to their advantage (16: 7). They are uncertain of who Jesus is and do not grasp what he is accomplishing while incarnated among them. The other Parákletos to be sent by the Father at his request will make their uncertainty disappear, thanks to the Spirit of Truth (14: 17). He is going to bear witness to Jesus (15: 26). As is the case now with him (8: 28; 12: 50), so also will be with the other Parákletos. He will not speak by himself. He will say only what the Father tells him to say (16: 13).
The Parákletos “will convince the world of sin, and of righteousness and of judgment” (16: 8). He will convince of sin because he will make sin obvious by the reaction people have toward the Father in the person of the Son who stands before them. Those who do not believe in him are sinners (16: 9). He will convince of righteousness because the saving activity of God, which manifests God’s righteousness as he fulfills his duty to give life, is now fulfilled with the return of the Son to the Father who sent him (16: 10). He will convince of judgment because the successful completion of his mission and the glorification of the Son by the Father (12: 28, 31) means that “the prince of this world” has been judged and stands condemned (16: 11).
With these words the apocalyptic preoccupation with the elimination of evil and the vindication of the justice of God has been re-interpreted as already accomplished. With the presence of the Parákletos among the believers they no longer live in the world of sin and death. This gospel gives the promise “I will come again” (14: 3), but it does not present an apocalyptic discourse about the return of the Son of Man in the clouds with a sickle in his hand. The astronomical signs and wars and rumors of wars that announce his return are not mentioned. The judgment of the world of sin has already taken place, and the believers already have eternal life. Those who keep his words “will never see death” (8: 51).
The other Parákletos, the one who takes the place of the already glorified Son, also glorifies the Son, but not by receiving him victorious to the heavenly spheres from which he had descended to the world below. He glorifies the Son by being the intermediary who conveys to those who belong to him the things that the Son wishes to give them (16: 14).
Jesus fulfills his promise to return and to send them the Parákletos the very Sunday of his resurrection. In the evening, when the worried and fearful disciples had closeted themselves within closed doors (20: 19), Jesus appeared in their midst and breathing over them said: “Receive the Holy Spirit” (20: 22), thus re-enacting God’s giving life to Adam. He has returned and fulfilled his promise to send them the Spirit. Born of the Spirit they live in him, and he is with them in the other Parákletos.
When Jesus promised to send his disciples the Spirit, he told them that the purpose for which he is to send them this gift from heaven is to give them peace. Both Farewell Discourses close on this theme (14: 27; 16: 33). Life in the world below may have much tribulation, but the ones living “in the Spirit” live in the peace of Jesus. The peace of the Spirit, the peace of Jesus, is not like the peace of the world that is defined via negativa by the absence of war. The eschatological peace of the Spirit is defined by the abundance of life. God does not provide the Spirit “by measure” (3: 34) on those born of the Spirit. God does not give it out carefully, according to a formula, stingily, taking care to save some for tomorrow. God gives it with an open hand, carelessly, prodigally. God squanders it without scruples and, as a consequence, those who receive it have abundant life in the Spirit.
The Gift, however, includes a discrete mission: to continue the work of the First Parákletos. The Spirit converts those begotten by him into agents of life. The Spirit and life are twins. The mission of the Parákletos, to engender life, is accomplished not only by the giving of life to those born of the Spirit, to those who are born “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (1: 13). It is actually accomplished when those born of the Spirit, as agents of eschatological peace, share their life with others. This is the ultimate will of the God who is Spirit (4: 24).