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Knowing the Holy Spirit: Insight from the Gospel of John

Who is the Holy Spirit?  We must never forget how important it is to formulate a question in order for our minds to understand what it is we are looking for, particularly when our subject is God.  For the Holy Spirit is a “Who” not a “What.” The Holy Spirit is not a thing sent to us from the Father and the Son, but a Person. That truth makes it possible to truly know God through faith.  Even though the Spirit uses images of things to aid in our understanding, the Spirit is a Who. Why is this distinction important? St. John early in his Gospel makes it clear to us that the Holy Spirit is intrinsic to the life and ministry of Jesus (Jn 1:32-33).  Jesus acted not only in the Spirit but with the Spirit.  Jesus treated the Spirit not as a tool to be used, but as a Person meant to be known and shared.  

How Are We to Understand the Person of the Holy Spirit in our Lives?

Early in his Gospel St. John offers his audience an answer to the question of how but focuses again on “who the Spirit is” and what it means to be in a relationship with the Spirit.  St. John wrote, “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8).  Through the image of the wind, even though it is a thing, St. John points to person-like qualities of the wind so that the audience may understand the personality of the Spirit better.  Why is this important to St. John? The Evangelist wants us to know that the Spirit is the one who will keep the life and memory of Jesus alive in the hearts of His disciples (Jn 14:26).  Those who are disciples of Jesus Christ, if they truly seek and desire to grow in Him, must turn to the Holy Spirit.  For it is only in the power of the Spirit that a person can know and grow in Jesus Christ (CCC, 683).

Context and Audience

Whenever dealing with scripture it is always important to understand the context and audience of a passage.  John 3:8 is part of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.  Nicodemus was a member of the educated elite of Jewish society, yet he knew something was lacking in himself, so he went to Jesus.  Recall that this conversation occurred during the night, and while the journey of Nicodemus with Jesus may have begun in the night, the story of Nicodemus ends in the day. On Good Friday Nicodemus came to Jesus at His hour of death during the day and cared for the body of Christ.  Jesus begins to tell him about how one can see the kingdom of God, a kingdom where Jesus will prepare a room for all (Jn 14:2).  Through this conversation, Jesus points to the need to be born of the water and the Spirit.  Jesus, through this conversation, hints at the role of baptism in the life of a person and the relationship of the Spirit to baptism.  A person is birthed in the Spirit through the waters to become the new person who can see and bear witness to the Kingdom. How? Because to be born of the Spirit is to be spirit (Jn 3:6).  It should surprise no one that after this encounter (Jn 3) we see the disciples of Jesus beginning to baptize.  

The wind blows where it wills … (Jn 3:8a)

The Prologue of John’s Gospel invokes images from the beginning in Genesis.  Recall, in Genesis 1, that the wind hovered over the dark waters of chaos. Now, St. John is reminding us that the wind is still blowing all over the Father’s creation.  What is wind? It is air in motion. The wind is the wind because it is always moving, going, and traveling, impacting all it touches. The wind ceases being the wind once it stops moving.  The Spirit is always moving because the work of the Spirit is eternal. That is why the Spirit is the eternal breeze of God. The wind that has always blown in the past is continually made known in the now and is there to greet us in each tomorrow.  Yet that word “impact”, when used to describe the movement of the Spirit as wind, contains a deep meaning. Why? Because the wind can impact us in many ways. The wind can push us in a direction we never thought of going. The wind can comfort our tired flesh.  The wind can stop or impede us on our travels when danger lies before us. Finally, the wind can transform us, as it does for the seasons when the warm air ignites the dormant life that lays in rest during the winter. St. John tells us the wind blows where it wills because we are all at different points in our lives and have different needs.  However, in our needs we do not control when the Spirit will come.

You can hear the sound it makes … (Jn 3:8b)

Even though the Spirit is uncontrollable, this does not mean the Spirit is unknowable.  The ability to know (and know of) the Spirit is hinted at by St. John when he writes, “… you can hear the sound it makes …” (Jn 3:8b).  Since the Spirit impacts, animates and shapes our lives, it is by these moments of encounter that the Spirit is made known.  Usually, before a storm impacts the land, there is a movement in the air that makes the storm known to us and by which we can “read the signs” (Mt 16:3) that the storm is imminent.  St. John’s use of sound reminds us that not only is the Spirit known through spiritual ways but also through the material world because the Spirit is blowing through it.  Think of the times when a person speaks the exact words your soul or heart need to hear, to provide you with the necessary comfort you longed for. The Spirit, as the air in which the Father speaks His Word for all eternity, manifests to us the love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father.  The Spirit’s eternal work of charity is shown to us and shapes us through those kind words that a person speaks to us. The sound of charity makes known to us the presence of the Spirit in our lives.

You do not know where it comes or where it goes … (Jn 3:8c)

Now, to save us from hubris because of the Spirit’s role and place in our lives, St. John states clearly: “… you do not know where it comes or where it goes …” (Jn 3:8c). This line reminds us that the Spirit comes to us in ways we cannot fully comprehend. Just because we know someone does not mean we fully comprehend them.  Consequently, even if we try to prepare for the Spirit, we will always be surprised by the way in which the Spirit affects us. Also, this line causes us to first reflect upon our past to see where the Spirit has come from and reoriented us.  Reflecting on the mystery of the wind as the Holy Spirit reveals moments in our lives when the Spirit was needed but not expected. As we recall and reflect upon those encounters we are growing in the virtue of humility because the uncontrollability of the Spirit reminds us that our lives are never fully our own.  Why? Because the Spirit has always and will always continue to affect us. The idea of “will always” points us to the second half of the statement, which has a future orientation: namely, the phrase, “…or where it goes.” The Spirit will go where the Spirit desires. The Spirit, as the eternal breeze, goes to where there is the possibility that its fruit can grow.  The wind is necessary for life: life, not just of simple growth, but a bountiful life that is always flourishing. Just as the Spirit was known in our past and is transforming our present moments, the Spirit is always waiting for us in our tomorrows. Why is the Spirit waiting? The Spirit wants to caress our faces through the gentle touch of the morning breeze, as the sun rises anew.  

So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit … (Jn 3:8d)

Finally, this last part is again a hint at the uncontrollability of the Spirit because humans in their own way are uncontrollable.  As St. John tells us, being born of the Spirit makes one like the Spirit (Jn 3:6).  As I have mentioned, the Spirit allows others to make its presence known such as the baptized who are transformed by the Spirit.  The ability to impact and transform another has been entrusted to us. This ability is spoken about by St. John of the Cross in his text, The Spiritual Counsels, when he reminds the young religious that they will be shaped and sculpted by the community in which they live because the hand of the Divine Artist is made known through them.  The love that compels the work of that Divine Artist is, of course, the Holy Spirit, who St. John of the Cross reminds us is the living flame of love. This ability to participate in the Spirit is also made known to us by St. Paul: “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing” (Phil 2:1-2).  If a person is born of the Spirit, thus being shaped and transformed by its winds, he will make known the compassion and mercy, and joy of the Spirit, which is achieved through the cultivation of minds, through love.  

Living in a Mystery

St. Paul reminds us that “no one knows what pertains to God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:11b). Thus, to know God means one must be in union with the Spirit of God.  St. John tells us through his Gospel that God wants to be known, particularly by His creation.  Also, St. John tells us, we can know God because of the Spirit. We have the Spirit because Christ, with the Father, has sent us the Spirit.  Now, even though God wants to be known, that does not mean we fully exhaust our knowledge about who God is. God is a mystery. A mystery is not a challenge to be solved but a gift to be experienced.  Hence, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are important, they are our aids that help in our ability to be in a relationship with God. As Christ has told us, we are called to be like the Spirit, for it is in the Spirit that life has been given to us (Jn 6:63).  May we always remember that it is by this life, given to us by the Spirit, that we come to be with and know our glorified Savior, Jesus Christ (Jn 7:39).

O consuming Fire, Spirit of Love, “come upon me,” and create in my soul a kind of incarnation of the Word: that I may be another humanity for Him in which He can renew His Whole Mystery. ~ St. Elizabeth of the Trinity (part of a prayer composed by her)

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About the Author:

I am Carmelite Friar. I serve in the Archdiocese of New York via the St. Elias Province of the Carmelite Order. I am originally from Michigan. I served in the Peace Corps in West Africa. I love to read and walk through nature. I enjoy sharing my Carmelite Spirituality through my, YouTube channel, podcast, and blog. I graduated from Northern Michigan University with a B.S. and the Catholic University of America with a M.Div. and S.T.B. My YouTube Channel is: https://www.youtube.com/c/thefrankfriar My Podcast can also be found on soundcloud,, iTunes, and GooglePlay under the name 'The Frank Friar.'

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