“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:13)
In verse 12 of chapter 16 of the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” This inability reflects not merely the disciples’ weakness, but also the reality that they were still living before the cross. The pattern of God’s revelation is for His saving action first to happen, and then for the biblical teaching to record and explain it. In the forty days after the resurrection, and before His ascension, Jesus would give an intensive course on biblical theology to the disciples. Still, He promised to send “the Spirit of truth” to complete their education after He had gone, guiding them “into all truth” (John 16:13).
This statement indicates a progressive unfolding of God’s revelation. We see this in the relationship of the Old Testament to the New. They present the same salvation, but there is growth in terms of clarity and maturity. In the Old Testament, Christ and His gospel are presented by symbols such as the Temple, the Feasts, and especially the animal sacrifices. At no time, however, does the Bible teach that sinners are forgiven because a lamb or goat died in their place. Rather, the sacrificial animals drew a picture of the true Savior and Lamb of God, Jesus, who would shed his blood for our sin. John 1:29, “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” answers the great longing of the Old Testament. This shows the organic connection between the salvation doctrine of the Old Testament and that which has progressed in the New Testament.
Seeing this progressing within the Bible, some scholars erroneously conclude that this revelatory process continues beyond the Bible. This is the teaching of the Mormons, who hold that the nineteenth-century musings of Joseph Smith were the continued revelation of God to His Church. The idea of new revelation from God is common to all the cults, including Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A similar problem is being seen in the Roman Catholic Church, with its emphasis on the extra-biblical and counter-biblical teaching passed down through the popes and councils. Another version of this problem confuses the Holy Spirit’s special inspiration of the apostles with the idea of human inspiration.
A biblical understanding will agree that God still speaks to the world today, but will deny that God is still granting revelation. God speaks to His people in the Scriptures, which are His final revelation to mankind before the return of Christ in glory. This realization is essential for the life and health of the church. Those who assert that God is continuing to give revelation consider the New Testament to be an incomplete and provisional revelation. Under this view, especially when linked to an evolutionary theory that grants those currently living a superior capacity for inspiration and understanding, the Bible’s clear teaching on sexual immorality, gender distinctions, and even the gospel of salvation are replaced with more current, worldly doctrines.
When Jesus spoke of a future revelation, He did not mean that there would be a needless progress sin divine disclosure throughout human history. James Montgomery Boice explains, “Jesus is teaching that the Holy Spirit would lead the disciples into a supplementary but definitive new revelation that thereafter would be the church’s authoritative standard of doctrine.”[i] The writer of Hebrews (in Hebrews 1:2) said, “In these last days God has spoken to us by his Son”, indicating that the apostolic witness to Christ in the New Testament is the last revelation of God to mankind. Notice as well that Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit will guide them into “all the truth” (John 16:13). Jesus was not promising to reveal all truth to them, as if they would know everything about everything. Nor was Jesus promising that the Spirit would teach them only some truths. Rather, it was “all the truth,” that is, the whole of the fixed body of Christian doctrine that would be contained in the New Testament.
Once we understand the New Testament as God’s final revelation setting forth His salvation in Jesus Christ, we may then grasp the essential role played by the Holy Spirit. John 16:13, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” This promise was given specifically to the eleven disciples, and provides the basis for their inspired writing of the New Testament. By describing the third person of the Trinity as “the Spirit of truth”, Jesus was acknowledging His suitability for granting this God-breathed revelation. The Spirit’s character is that of truth, the Spirit has an inherent love of truth, and the Spirit has perfect knowledge of the truth, which He would commit to the apostles for the Church.
While divine revelation was committed to the apostles, the Spirit who revealed God’s Word to them continues to work today to enable Christians to believe, understand, and adore the apostolic doctrine. Just as the Spirit guided the Apostles into the knowledge and teaching of the whole counsel of God—“all the truth”—the Spirit opens our eyes to the body of doctrine in the New Testament and enables us increasingly to embrace it and experience its power.
The Spirit is our guide today which is why Paul urges us to “walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16) and “keep in step with the Spirit“(Galatians 5:25). We follow along with the Spirit’s guidance as we study, believe, and obey His revealed Word in the Holy Scriptures. Just as the original disciples were not ready to receive Christ’s full doctrine until they had received the Holy Spirit, men and women darkened through sin today need the light of the Holy Spirit to illumine the sacred page to their understanding. Christians should always study and teach God’s Word asking in prayer for the Holy Spirit’s aid and power.
The Spirit guides us into all truth and declares God’s truth to our own spirits. His aim in doing so is to display the glory of Christ for our faith, adoration and service. John 16:14, “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” There are three important applications from this principle of the Spirit’s Christ-centered witness. The first is that this rules out the Holy Spirit’s being at work in any religion that denies Jesus Christ. We increasingly hear in our ecumenical world that Jesus must be at work in other faith. We are told that to believe that the Spirit speaks only in Christianity is an intolerable arrogance. But Jesus states that the Spirit’s ministry is directed toward the revelation of His glory, declaring only the things of Christ. Thus the Spirit is at work only where the biblical teaching of Jesus is believed and proclaimed.
What is true of false religions is also true of false professors of Christianity. Those who disobey the teaching of Scripture by deserting a spouse, pursuing an agenda of greed or pride, teaching unbiblical doctrines—or worshiping according to worldly principles—only deceive themselves if they claim the leading of the Spirit, who serves and glorifies Jesus alone.
Second, this tells us that the hallmark of the Spirit’s presence and activity is an intense focus and excitement. When the focus is placed on the Spirit Himself, rather than on the person and work of Christ—and especially His sin-atoning death on the cross, we can be sure that the Spirit is not working.
The third application is that the intent of the Spirit’s work in our lives, and therefore the purpose of our study of the Bible and faith in its doctrines is that we would be drawn closer to Jesus Christ. It is popular today to speak of being a spiritual person. But if we are speaking of the result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our life, the result will and must always be a keener interest and delight in Jesus, a more fervent love and devotion for Jesus, a firmer trust and reliance on Jesus, and a life that is increasingly yielded in obedience and service to Jesus. This is why Jesus said in John 16:7, “It is to your advantage that I go away”, since once enthroned in Heaven He would send the Spirit, and the Spirit working with power in our hearts will draw us to a closer discipleship to Jesus than was possible even for the original disciples. Thus, by the Spirit, we may possess a more blessed experience of the saving benefits that Jesus has provided for us.
True Riches in Christ Alone
Once we realize the purpose for which the Spirit was sent into the world, we will not only recognize that our calling is summed up in our relationship to Christ, but also realize that the treasure of God for us are all found in and summed up in Christ. John 16:15 states, “All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Christian salvation is Trinitarian—it brings us the blessing of each of the persons of the glorious Godhead: God the Father to take us as His children, Christ the Savior-Shepherd to gain us salvation, and the Spirit-Helper to guide us into all the truth and unite us to Christ, in whom all divine blessings are found.
This raised the question: If we have Jesus through faith and in Him we have the riches of God, what else do we need to lead lives of peace, joy, and spiritual power? Through the God-given means of His word and of prayer; we receive the ministry of the Spirit. He has come not to deny us riches and pleasure that we could otherwise find in the world but so that we might enjoy true riches and true life, by the Spirit and in Jesus Christ—the riches of eternal life and glory that God the Father has provided for us only in His Son.
[i] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 4:1217