This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

By the Spirit, guided to the truth

Is that a true story? Did it really happen that way?


The film Selma celebrates the civil rights march at Selma, Ala., and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Answering critiques about a few rearranged historical details, its director pleads literary license. Since Selma is not a documentary film, is it justifiable to take some liberties in order to best communicate the truth of this dramatic event?

We can address that question in light of our texts from John’s Gospel and Luke’s Book of Acts. Defining “truth” as simply meaning factual accuracy will result in misunderstanding it. We will also confront irreconcilable differences in the texts.

In John 16:4b-15, Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending the Spirit of truth, “who will guide you into all truth.” Does this mean all literal, factual truth? Not if we look at the context. The Spirit of truth “will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.”

In other words, Jesus’ vigorous opposition to “this world” — the oppressive Roman occupation of Palestine, in collusion with its clients, the high priests of the temple system — will be continued by the Spirit of truth. The behavior and unbelief of these political powers will be identified as sin.

The supposed “righteousness” of handing Jesus over to the Romans (see John 11:50) is ironically sending him back to the Father. The Spirit of truth has already condemned Pilate and the high priests — “the ruler of this world” — for not recognizing who Jesus was and executing him.

This is confirmed at Jesus’ trial before Pilate in John 18, where Jesus explains that he is king of such a different kingdom that his followers do not fight the rulers of “this world” of domination and hierarchy and violence. Instead, he came to testify to the truth.

Pilate sarcastically asks, “What is truth?” and abruptly leaves. Pilate has no clue what truth Jesus is talking about. He only understands the world’s political and military powers, not servanthood and agape love.

The Spirit of truth, then, is the One who empowers believers to continue the radically different way of life that Jesus has been teaching and living throughout this Gospel. As in John 3, the Spirit gives birth to those who see that the values of God’s kingdom stand in opposition to the values of “this world” as defined above. This is the deeper truth of John 16:4-15.

Our John 20 text is titled “the calming and sending Spirit.” It is paired with the Spirit’s descent in flames of fire in Acts 2:1-4. The very different contexts of when, where and how the Spirit is sent drives home my point that John’s Gospel is not talking about literal, factual truth. We may celebrate the Holy Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost, yet here in John 21, the risen Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Which event “really happened”? Or did the Spirit come twice? Demoralized and fearful of arrest, the disciples probably also felt guilty for fleeing when Jesus needed them most. After the shock of recognizing their leader raised from the dead, they needed a calming Presence.

In the same breath, however, Jesus tells the disciples that peace and calm are not the only results of a Spirit-filled life. He grants them the same wisdom and power that he had to understand sin and forgiveness. Like him, they must also challenge “this world” with the values of the reign of God. The Spirit will show them the difference and empower them to act on it.

Seven weeks after Passover, it is Pentecost, another festival crowded with visitors. But this time, according to a very different writer, the Holy Spirit makes a dramatic appearance as flames of fire on the heads of the disciples. In Acts 2:5-11, they walk the streets of Jerusalem, preaching in the languages of the visitors from other regions — Babylon, Egypt, Libya, Crete, Asia and even Rome.

Who is right? From a literary perspective, John’s calming and discerning Spirit sent on the breath of Jesus is a fitting climax to a Gospel that calls believers to distance themselves from the ways of “this world.” And the fiery public descent of the Spirit at the beginning of Luke’s second volume sets the stage for the intense missionary work that will lead the disciples “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In quite different circumstances, we meet the Spirit of truth.

Reta Halteman Finger is presently writing a Bible study blog on the Gospel of John at

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