John 7:39 interprets Jesus’ offer of living water as an offer of the Spirit to those who believe, “for,” John continues, “the Spirit was not yet, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” John was not making an ontological statement about the Spirit, as if the Spirit did not exist until Jesus was glorified; already in John’s gospel, John the Baptist has testified that the Spirit came upon Jesus in the form of a dove (1:32-33). Instead, John 7:39 shows that the Spirit would not come in the fullness of His power until the Son was glorified. John’s statement is about the redemptive-historical ministry of the Spirit, not His existence.
The question I wish to raise, however, is the timing of the Spirit’s coming. John states that the Spirit would come when Jesus was glorified. Normally, John’s comment is interpreted in the light of Luke’s account of Jesus’ ascension and His outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. That is, the Spirit comes in fullness after Jesus has been seated at the right hand of the Father. It is true that Jesus was glorified in the ascension, and that He then poured out the Spirit on all flesh. But is this what John meant? I think not.
In John’s gospel, the glorification of the Son begins with the cross, not with the resurrection or ascension. After entering Jerusalem at the beginning of the Passover week in which He was to die, Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23). Until this point in John’s gospel, Jesus has avoided arrest because it was not yet His “hour” (John 7:30; 8:20). Clearly, the “hour” of which Jesus speaks is the hour of His death, and His death is His glorification. Similarly, the brief parable of the grain of wheat that must die before it bears fruit suggests that the dying is a necessary part of a unified process that culminates in bearing fruit; the seed’s death is as much part of the life-producing process as its growth (12:24-25). In the same context, Jesus speaks of His coming crucifixion as the “judgment of this world” and as the hour when “the ruler of this world shall be cast out” (12:31). In the light of these statements, Jesus’s prediction that He would be “lifted up” on the cross takes on a more than spatial significance (12:33). To be “lifted up” is to be exalted and glorified; the cross, in John’s scheme of things, is the beginning of the exaltation of Jesus.
This is different from the way we tend to think about the work of Christ. Most often, we think of the cross and resurrection as a U-shaped series of events: Jesus descends into suffering and humiliation, and then is lifted up in the resurrection and ascension. Our catechisms talk about Christ’s “humiliation and exaltation.” This language is biblical (cf. Philippians 2:5-11), but the Bible also indicates that there are other dimensions to the same events. Instead of a U, John pictures the death, resurrection, and ascension as points along a straight line, with a steep positive slope. The cross is not stairway that leads down, but the first step of a stairway whose head reaches into the heavens. If it seems counter-intuitive to think of the cross as a revelation of God’s glory, remember that God’s glory is displayed in His self-giving love.
John’s emphasis on the cross as the glorification of the Son fits with an overall Johannine compression of the work of Christ. In John 20:17, Jesus speaks to Mary Magdalene as if His ascension were imminent, and He commissions and breathes out the firstfruits of the Spirit on the eleven on Easter evening (20:21-23). That is, John implies that the ascension and Pentecost are inseparable from resurrection – indeed, the ascension and Pentecost begin in principle on Easter. Not only are all the crowning events of redemption points on a straight line, but John compressed all these events into a single day. The seeds of the ascension and Pentecost are already planted on the third day after Jesus’ death.
If the cross is the beginning of Jesus’ glorification, then, based on John 7:39, we should expect the Spirit to be given when Jesus is “lifted up.” And in fact, this is precisely what John records. This is suggested, first, by the way John describes the death of Jesus. John 19:30 does not read, as Mark and Luke do, “Jesus breathed His last” (Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46); instead, the text says that, having cried out, Jesus “bowed His head, and gave up (or, delivered over) His Spirit” (cf. Matthew 27:50). The word “delivered over” (Greek, paradidomi) is a key word throughout John’s record of Jesus’ passion, mainly used to describe the transfer of Jesus from one set of wicked hands to another. Judas “delivers over” (betrays) Jesus into the hands of the Jews; the Jews deliver Him to Pilate; Pilate, though finding Him innocent and just, delivers Him back into the hands of the Jews to be crucified (cf. John 18:2, 5; 19:11). All these transfers of Jesus culminate in Jesus’ own transfer of His Spirit to the church. Having been glorified in His death on the cross, Jesus hands over His Spirit.
The blood and water from Jesus’ side, mentioned only in John’s gospel, underscore this point. In John 7:38, Jesus said that those who receive the living water (Spirit) become themselves fountains of living water. The Spirit came upon Jesus and remained with Him (1:33); thus, Jesus is supremely the One “born of the Spirit,” the One who “blows where [He] wishes and you hear the sound of [Him] but do not know where [He] comes from and where [He] is going” (3:8; cf. 7:27, 36; 14:1-6). It is fitting, then, that He become a fountain of living water and cleansing blood. In His death, Jesus became a source of living water, that is, a fountain of the Spirit (cf. 1 John 5:7-8). We may also note that the flow of water and blood from the side of Jesus is part of John’s temple symbolism. Already in John 2, Jesus says that His body is the true temple of God. When this temple is rent and torn on the cross, it becomes a source of living water (cf. Ezekiel 47:1-12; Zechariah 12:10-13:1; 14:8).
John does not deny that a fuller outpouring of the Spirit will be given at Pentecost. There is no contradiction among the gospels. But the different viewpoints of the gospels lend a sometimes neglected richness and fullness to our understanding of the events of our redemption. One of John’s contributions is to shows that the gift of the Spirit was being given from the beginning of Jesus’ exaltation, His lifting up on Calvary.
Peter Leithart is the president of Theopolis Institute. This post originally appeared on Biblical Horizons.