We celebrated Pentecost at my church this morning. We sang songs about the liberating, creative, convicting, and yet gentle Spirit of God. I especially liked one of the songs that we sang, “Spirit”, which went into the Holy Spirit’s activity from creation through Sinai, all the way to Acts 2.
We were reading John 16:7-14, which is about the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. I’d like to highlight vv 8-11 in the King James Version:
“(8) And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: (9) Of sin, because they believe not on me; (10) Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more; (11) Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged.”
I think that I understand v 9: the Holy Spirit convicts people of the sin of not believing in Christ. And I can somewhat understand v 11: the Holy Spirit is informing people that the prince of this world is judged. But I don’t quite get v 10: what does the Holy Spirit convicting people of righteousness have to do with Jesus going to his Father? Let’s check some commentaries!
One point that John Gill makes is that Jesus’ ascension to heaven and subsequent sending of the Holy Spirit vindicated his own (meaning Jesus’) righteousness against those who accused him of unrighteousness. Other Christian commentaries offer similar thoughts.
The Nelson Study Bible states: “of righteousness: After Christ’s departure the Holy Spirit would convict the world of the nature of righteousness and the need for righteousness. Jesus’ work on the Cross was completely righteous. This is demonstrated by the Father’s emptying of the tomb, signifying His satisfaction with the righteous payment and His acceptance of Christ into His presence.” In this view, Jesus’ ascension affirms the righteousness of what Jesus did on the cross, as well as God’s recognition of Jesus’ saving work for the saints.
John MacArthur states in his MacArthur Study Bible: “righteousness. The Holy Spirit’s purpose here is to shatter the pretensions of self-righteousness (hypocrisy), exposing the darkness of the heart (3:19–21; 7:7; 15:22, 24). While Jesus was on the earth, He performed this task especially toward the shallowness and emptiness of Judaism that had degenerated into legalistic modes without life-giving reality (e.g., 2:13–22; 5:10–16; 7:24; Is. 64:5, 6). With Jesus gone to the Father, the Holy Spirit continues His convicting role.” I don’t particularly care for MacArthur’s characterization of Judaism here, but I can see his overall point about the meaning of John 16:10: the Holy Spirit is carrying on Jesus’ work of convicting the world of righteousness, now that Jesus has ascended to heaven and is no longer physically on earth to do his convicting work.
Which of these interpretations do I prefer? Well, I’d like to interpret John 16:10 in light of themes within John’s Gospel itself. I’m hesitant to interpret it in reference to the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement, for I’m not certain that this doctrine is in John’s Gospel. I’m open to correction on this, but Jesus in John 12:32 seems to posit a moral-influence view of the atonement: Jesus, in being lifted up on the cross, draws people to him, perhaps through his demonstration of love.
But I’m open to some of the other interpretations of John 16:10: the Holy Spirit continues Jesus’ work of convicting the world now that Jesus is in heaven, or the Holy Spirit affirms that Jesus’ righteousness was affirmed by Jesus’ ascent into heaven.