Convincing the World: Red Letter Year 12/10

John 16.5-16

5 “But now I am going away to the one who sent me, and not one of you is asking where I am going. 6 Instead, you grieve because of what I’ve told you. 7 But in fact, it is best for you that I go away, because if I don’t, the Advocate won’t come. If I do go away, then I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will convince the world concerning sin, justice, and judgment; 9 sin because they do not trust me, 10 justice because I go to the Father and you will see me no more, 11 and judgment because the ruler of this world has been judged.

12 There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. 14 He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine; this is why I said, ‘The Spirit will tell you whatever he receives from me.’

16 In a little while you won’t see me anymore. But a little while after that, you will see me again.”


Today’s reading includes one of the more enigmatic passages in the Gospels (v.8-11). So, I devoted about one-fourth of my dissertation to a careful reading of those verses. This means a couple of things. One, I have made heavy modifications to the NLT’s translation of this passage. Their version adds a lot of extra words to “help” with the meaning, but I am convinced the interpretation that led to their translation is deeply flawed, so I have given you as close as English will allow to a word-for-word translation from the Greek. In case you didn’t know already, take a moment to let this fact sink in: every single translation of Scripture (including the venerable KJV and ‘literal’ ones like the NASB) has an embedded theology – an interpretation that sends the translation in a certain direction, even when that direction might be contrary to the meaning (either the original meaning or other possible meanings) of the text. To give one of several examples here, the word I translated as “justice” is dikaiosune. Paul uses this same word in Rom. 1.18 (and elsewhere, Paul liked this word) and Martin Luther built his entire theology on a stylized reading of that verse, leading to what people familiar with Christian lingo call “righteousness,” specifically the “righteousness of God.” I’m not going to argue about the validity of Luther’s reading today (it is somewhat suspect). I only want to point out that the NLT imports Luther’s reading of Paul into this sentence (16.8-11 is all one sentence) in John. This is the only time John uses the word, Luther’s notion is not in line with John’s themes, and the word for God (“theos”) does not appear here at all. So this is not “God’s righteousness” as the NLT has it. Bad translation based on theological commitment, not what the text says. And this is not a rare case. It happens all the time. If you are reading a translation, you are reading someone else’s interpretation. Which is one reason for learning Greek and Hebrew – and also one reason for not building doctrines or moral positions on literal readings of English versions.

So these verses were the basis of my Ph.D. dissertation. The second thing that means (as you can already see) is that I can go on about this passage for a long time. A long time. Like 10,000 words without breaking a sweat. But I don’t want to do that and I know you don’t want me to do that. So I am going to try to sum up as succinctly as possible what I take v. 8-11 to be saying. I am going to leave out all the supporting arguments and most of the ramifications and just give it to you straight. I think this will be good for both of us, you get the ideas and I get to practice brevity. So here goes:

Jesus again brings up this promise to send the Paraclete. Paracletes served as supporting counsel in legal matters of the day, they were always supporters and defenders, never prosecutors. But here Jesus says this supporting lawyer will “convict” – a word that has a range of meanings from persuade to prosecute. Given the decided positive nature of paraceletes, “convince” is probably our best English word. This is a persuasive action, a strong one, but also a positive one.

So Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit to convince – the whole world. The “world” has been an important word in John (e.g., for God so loved the world). Throughout John, we have seen that God loves the world, that the world is hostile to God, but that God’s love for the world prevails because Jesus comes to demonstrate God’s love for the world. If the action here is convicting, it is a loving convicting.

The Paraclete/Spirit comes to convince this world about three things: sin, justice, and judgment. Sin relates to them not trusting Jesus. Justice relates to the disciples not seeing Jesus anymore. And judgment relates to the fact that the ruler of the world has been condemned (note that only the ruler has been condemned, not the world). The world is the object of all the Paraclete’s convincing action, but that action either takes three forms or has three motivations, non-disciples not trusting Jesus, disciples not seeing Jesus, the ruler of the world being condemned.

But here we have to note that back toward the beginning of this speech (14.17), Jesus said that the world could not accept or even hear the Paraclete, only the disciples could. How can the Paraclete convince people who cannot hear his message? Put simply, the Paraclete communicates this convincing through the community the Paraclete forms of people who do trust in Jesus. This sentence comes within the context of Jesus explaining the nature of the church he and the Spirit are forming. A key part of that nature is that the church will be the conduit of the Spirit’s mission of convincing the world.

Convincing the world of what? Sin, justice, and judgment. Convincing the world how? Through the agency of the church. In short, people who do not trust Jesus become convinced that they can by seeing people who do trust Jesus and who trust each other. The church lives as a community of trust, where unity trumps doctrinal differences.

People who do not know justice become convinced justice is possible by seeing people who live out the justice that Jesus practiced, hoping for and enacting the good for each other, showing preference for each other (especially the outcast), showing the world that justice was not limited to when Jesus was on earth, but continues among his followers who, even though they do not have his moral example in front of them carry on because the Paraclete/Spirit is reminding them of all Jesus did and taught and empowering them to do the same, so that they still set people free from spiritual and physical bondage, free to pursue life in Jesus.

People who are used to the world’s modes of power – hierarchical, domineering, dehumanizing, destructive – become convinced that these modes of power have been condemned by seeing people who relate to each other in altogether different terms. Authority among Jesus’ followers is demonstrated by washing people’s feet. Power is not something held, wielded, or consolidated, it is always and only given away. Worldly power is inverted and subverted; the least are greatest, the last are first, the disenfranchised are empowered. And to be clear, this is no benign dictatorship (as some churches pervert it to be), all consolidations of power, all maintenance and manipulation of others stands condemned. In other words, instead of controlling people, we love them because only in love does the focus and power shift from the one performing the action to the recipient of that action. In love, the lover empowers the beloved. Love creates agency.

The church convinces the world of the sin of not trusting Jesus by being a community of trust expressed in radical unity. Unity shows we trust each other and God.

The church convinces the world of the justice of the Jesus we do not see by being a community of hope expressed in radical freedom. Freedom shows we hope for the good for each other.

The church convinces the world of all its modes of power have been condemned by being a community of love expressed in radical equality. Equality shows we love each other and God.

There you have it. My entire dissertation in less than 1500 words. Not bad, eh?

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.