Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 16.12-15
Holy Trinity Sunday - Year C

Other texts: 

These verses are included in the Gospel for Pentecost B (John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15). Some of my exegetical comments are repeated from those notes. However, I will begin with some comments about the Trinity, then move on to the text.

Trinity Sunday is a day devoted to a Church doctrine. As Mary W. Anderson says in, "So Explain It to Me," (Christian Century, May 20-27, 1998), "...this is the only day of the year that calls us to ponder a teaching of the church rather than a teaching of Jesus.... The scriptural readings provide Bible backup for a nonscriptural word: Trinity."

The doctrine of the Trinity is not something Jesus explained to us. It, like most doctrines, came out of the experience of the early believers. How can we put our experiences of God the Creator and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit into words? I have frequently used the following statement on the Doctrine of The Trinity by Frederick Houk Borsch when he was a religion professor at Princeton.

There are probably a number of people who imagine that the idea of the Trinity was thought up by ivory-tower theologians who, typically, were making things more complicated than they needed to be and were obscuring the simple faith of regular believers. In fact, it seems that the process worked pretty much the other way around. Practicing believers and worshipers were driven by their experiences of God's activity to the awareness that God related in several different ways to the creation. ... Thus what these believers came to insist upon was that God had to be recognized as being in different forms of relationship with the creation, in ways at least like different persons, and that all these ways were divine, that is, were of God. Yet there could not be three gods. God, to be the biblical God and the only God of all, had to be one God. This complex and profound faith was then handed over for the theologians to try and make more intelligible. They have been trying ever since.

A simple definition of theology is: putting our experiences of God into words (theos = God + logos = word). It is literally, "God-talk." The doctrine of the Trinity is our human attempt to use words to define God -- and none of our words or images will be adequate to capture all of God.

Mary W. Anderson, in the article I quoted above, relates a memorable experience at age three about the Trinity:

I was watching my grandmother sleep during her afternoon nap. As I contemplated her existence, I thought wisely. "That's Grandmama, Mamma, and Odell." She smiled in her sleep as I called her by the names used for her by her grandchildren, her daughter, and her husband. Three names, three relationships -- and yet the same person. Amazing!

Yet, a little later she writes: important is it to explain the mystery of God revealed to us in three distinct ways? Mysteries explained cease to be mysteries, don't they? Perhaps the doctrine of the Trinity challenges our secret wish to know God fully and eliminate all mystery. This, after all, was the burning desire of our first parents in the Garden, a desire that ultimately caused them to fall from grace. Does this temptation to dispel all mystery still burn within us?

Along the same lines, Henri Nouwen writes about "a docta ignorantia, a learned ignorance" in Reaching Out:

This is very difficult to accept for people whose whole attitude is toward mastering and controlling the world. We all want to be educated so that we can be in control of the situation and make things work according to our own need. But education to ministry is an education not to master God but to be mastered by God. [p. 74]

He then relates the following story (which I have to admit was also part of my seminary education):

I remember the educational story of a thirty-year-old Methodist minister from South Africa. When this man felt called to the ministry and was accepted by the church, he was sent as an assistant pastor to work in a parish without any formal theological training. But he was so convinced of his insights and experience, and his enthusiasm and fervor were so great that he had no problem in giving long sermons and strong lectures. But then, after two years, he was called back and sent to the seminary for theological education. Reflecting on his time in the seminary, he said, "During those years I read the works of many theologians, philosophers and novelists. Whereas before everything seemed so clear-cut and self-evident to me, I now lost my certainties, developed many questions and became much less certain of myself and my truth." In a sense, his years of formation were more years of unlearning than of learning and when he returned to the ministry he had less to say but much more to listen to. [p. 74]

Recently a friend had studied for and was ordained as a Roman Catholic deacon. He had been successful in business before responding to this call. I asked, "What was most surprising to you in your training?" He answered, "I learned how much I don't know." Studying the Trinity is like that -- we end up realizing how much we don't know.


While we often don't think of it in this way, Mary W. Anderson (in the article quoted above) suggests an important use of the Trinity from its beginnings and for our day:

It seems to me that instead of explaining how three things are really one thing, we must try to do what the doctrine of the Trinity was originally formulated to do: give words to the faith. As Christians in mission, we must be ready to witness to others about what we believe and why we believe it. The early Christians, living in a hostile world, needed to put some definitive language to what they believed Christ had revealed to them. For the sake of unity they needed a common language, a common confession. In our hostile world, our witness demands the same thing.


The word for "bear" in v. 12 usually means "to take up, to carry." It is used in John 19:17 of Jesus "carrying" his cross. Something that would be too heavy to lift would be "unbearable." Would words (or ideas) that are too complex or confusing for us to understand also be "unbearable"?

A similar image is presented in 13:7 concerning the foot washing event. After Peter refuses: Jesus answers him, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand."

Does v. 12 imply that "later" we will be able to "bear" more of Jesus' words -- that is, to be led by the Spirit of Truth into all truth?


The word for "guide" is hodegeo, a compound word from hodos = way, road; and ago = to lead. So literally it means "lead in the way."

It is used in the Psalms (LXX) to point to the instructional role of God (cf. Pss 25:5, 9; 85:10) in leading the community into right and faithful behavior. In Wis 9:11 and 10:10, it is used to describe the teaching function of Wisdom. This verb thus points to the teaching role the Paraclete will have in the future life of the faith community. Its combination with "truth" is a direct echo of 14:6, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life," and thus specifies the content of the Paraclete's teaching. To say that the Paraclete will guide the disciples into all the truth is to say that in the future the Paraclete will lead the community into the life-giving revelation of God in Jesus. [O'Day, John, New Interpreters Bible, page 773]

Frequently the distinction between managing and leading is confused. I included the following in a newsletter article.

Frequently I've been told that pastors are to be leaders -- but what does that mean?. A member of one of the churches I had served stated that it had become clear to him that the congregation wanted "a strong leader they could dictate to." Is that what leadership means?

Recently I have read a few books that make a distinction between managers and leaders. Frequently we confuse the two roles. Some distinctions from my readings:

Stephen Covey includes the following story in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It is also quoted by Gilbert R. Rendle in Leading Change in the Congregation.

You can quickly grasp the important difference between the two if you envision a group of producers cutting their way through the jungle with machetes. They're the produces, the problem-solvers. They're cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out.

The managers are behind them, sharpening their machetes, writing policy and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programs, bringing in improved technologies and setting up working schedules and compensation programs for machete wielders.

The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, "Wrong jungle!"

But how do the busy, efficient produces and managers often respond? "Shut up! We're making progress."

In checking the different Greek words in the New Testament. All of the words related to managing are based on the Greek word for "house." Managers organize the "house." They manage something that already exists. Jesus begins one of his parables with: "Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time?" (12:42).

Feeding the members of the household is very important. We cannot do without managers. They are very important -- however, they are not leaders.

A major Greek word translated leader or guide is based on the word for "road" or "way." Leaders lead others down the road to a destination -- to someplace other then where they are at.

Jesus tells his disciples about the Pharisees: "Let them alone; they are blind leaders of the blind. And if one blind person leads another, both will fall into a pit" (Matt. 15:14, my translation). Frequently "blind" is used with this word for leader to indicate a poor leader (Matt. 23:16, 23; Luke 6:39). This implies that good leaders need to have vision -- the ability to see where they are going.

I was sharing this with another minister and she said, "The blind can lead the blind, if they are going down a familiar path." That's true. If it is a path that the leader has been down many times before, they don't need vision to travel that way. I know that I can find my way around our house pretty well in the dark. I don't need to see when I'm traveling in familiar territories. Traveling down familiar paths is safe. One doesn't need a leader.

The same is true of being in a rut. You know where you're going.

However, this word for "lead" seems to imply arriving at a new destination. It means "seeing" what others don't see. Its use in our text implies that the Spirit will lead us to new areas of knowledge and understand where we couldn't bear to go earlier.

However, Mark Allan Powell writes: "I sometimes ask reputed Bible believers to identify one instance in which they have changed their beliefs, values, or lifestyle based on something that the Bible says. I am amazed at how many times they cannot think of a single example of this ever happening -- yet they maintain that the Bible is authoritative for their lives. How can people claim that the Bible has authority over them if they have never had to submit to that authority? Is it just a hypothetical authority? They would change their beliefs, values, or lifestyle if these ever did turn out to conflict with what the bible says (in passages still relevant for today), but as it turns out this just hasn't happened. This, I submit, is a hermeneutic with no "existential cash value." [Chasing the Eastern Star: Adventures in Biblical Reader-Response Criticism, p. 176]

If we can't find new areas of knowledge and understand in our lives, shouldn't we wonder if we are being led by the Spirit?


Three times in our text (vv. 13, 14, 15) the word anaggello = "to declare" is used. From O'Day:

The verb "to declare" means to proclaim what has been heard (cf. 4:25; 16:25) and as such builds on the claim of v. 13b. It is not a verb of prophecy or prediction, and thus does not describe the Paraclete as one who foretells the future. Rather, it highlights the proclamatory function of the Paraclete within the community. "The things that are to come" may refer specifically to the events of Jesus' hour (which the Paraclete will help to interpret to the community; cf. 2:22; 12:16), but it also refers to the community's future, to the events for which Jesus cannot prepare them now (v. 12). The Paraclete thus will proclaim the teachings of Jesus to them in the new and changing circumstances of their lives. That is, Jesus' words are not locked in the disciples' past, restricted to a particular historic moment. Nor does Jesus' death rob future believers of the chance to receive the word of Jesus in the changing circumstances of their lives. The promise of v. 13c is that the presence of the Paraclete in the life of the community will ensure that all believers' futures are open to fresh proclamations of Jesus' words. [pp. 773-774]

While I don't agree with the Mormon's view of God's continuing revelation that can create a Book of Mormon which surpasses the Bible in importance, we also need to be open to the guidance of the Spirit to face the issues facing us in our time -- many of which were unheard of in Jesus' day. What would Jesus say to us today about [fill in the blank]? We need to trust that the Spirit will give the believing community (not necessarily an individual) the words Jesus would want us to hear.

As the Athanasian Creed indicates, the doctrine of the Trinity is a very important doctrine for the Christian church. It is essential for salvation. It is an essential doctrine of our Christian faith. This important belief was framed by a committee -- as was the Nicene Creed and the list of the books that would be in the Bible. Does the Holy Spirit declare Jesus' words on earth through committees? If we believe that the Spirit inspired those committees to put into words such documents as our creeds and the canonical scriptures, can we also believe that the same Spirit works through committees and councils of the Church -- both on national levels and in local congregations? Can the Spirit declare God's will to us through a majority vote? What about those who may disagree with such a vote -- are they without the Spirit?

Related to my comments above about "leading," we should also expect the Spirit as a "leader" to show us things that are new -- to lead us into places or understandings that we didn't have before. (My reading of the Book of Acts is that the Spirit constantly drove the Jewish believers into new mission activities where they weren't particularly comfortable going, e.g., to Samaritans, Eunuchs, and Gentiles.)


While it may be a bit ironic to use a Jewish story on Trinity Sunday. I like the following story about God's ways that can be beyond our human understanding. This comes from A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People, Edited by Nathan Ausubel, Copyright, 1948, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York

All their lives the two young brothers had lived in the city behind great stone walls and never saw field nor meadow. But one day they decided to pay a visit to the country.

As they went walking along the road they saw a farmer at his plowing. They watched him and were puzzled.

"What on earth is he doing that for!" they wondered. "He turns up the earth and leaves deep furrows in it. Why should someone take a smooth piece of land covered with nice green grass and dig it up?"

Later they watched the farmer sowing grains of wheat along the furrows.

"That man must be crazy!" they exclaimed. "He takes good wheat and throws it into the dirt."

"I don't like the country!" said one in disgust. "Only crazy people live here."

So he returned to the city.

His brother who remained in the country saw a change take place only several weeks later. The plowed field began to sprout tender green shoots, even more beautiful and fresher than before. This discovery excited him very much. So he wrote to his brother in the city to come at once and see for himself the wonderful change.

His brother came and was delighted with what he saw. As time passed they watched the sproutings grow into golden heads of wheat. Now they both understood the purpose of the farmer's work.

When the wheat became ripe the farmer brought his scythe and began to cut it down. At this the impatient one of the two brothers exclaimed: "The farmer is crazy! He's insane! How hard he worked all these months to produce this lovely wheat, and now with his own hands he is cutting it down! I'm disgusted with such an idiot and I'm going back to the city!"

His brother, the patient one, held his peace and remained in the country. He watched the farmer gather the wheat into his granary. He saw him skillfully separate the grain from the chaff. He was filled with wonder when he found that the farmer had harvested a hundred-fold of the seed that he had sowed. Then he understood that there was logic in everything that the farmer had done.

The moral of the story: Mortals see only the beginning of any of God's works. Therefore they cannot understand the nature and the end of creation.

The day may come when we understand the Triune God as fully as we understand the life-cycle of wheat, but for now, such understanding seems to be too much for us to bear.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901