Today’s Gospel reading is John 16:5-11, which includes a remarkably enigmatic passage spoke by Christ during his long discourse at the last supper. Here is the full text of the reading:
5 But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7 Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
In a gospel full of challenging passages, John 16:8 stands out as particularly difficult. The RSV translates it as “And when he [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convince the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment.” The following line clarifies this (somewhat) with the words “of sin, because they do not believe in me; of righteousness, because I will go to the father and you will see me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.”
There’s a sense that we are in a court, and the Holy Spirit is acting as both the advocate for the apostles and the prosecutor for the world. This legal understanding tallies well with the Greek word “Parakletos,” which John uses for the Holy Spirit five times in his writings. A “Parakletos” is an advocate or spokesman who defends the accused in a courtroom. This describes the Holy Spirit’s role of heavenly intercessor who “pleads our case” before the Father. In John 16:8, this aspect of the Holy Spirit is open to multiple interpretations.
The second half of 16:8 provides fewer challenges: the world is sinful, Jesus was righteous, and their judgment of him was wrong. The larger problem is with the first half of the sentence, “And when he comes, he will convince…” This is often subjected to various translations. The key phrase is elenchein peri, which roughly means “to bring to light, expose” and “to convict someone of something.” Raymond Brown translates 16:8 as “And when he does come, he will prove the world wrong about sin, about justice, and about judgment.” The RSV translates elenchein peri as “convince,” the King James Version as “reprove,” the Darby as “bring demonstration to,” the Contemporary English Version as “come and show,” the English Standard Version (among others) as “convict.”
We can see the subtle shades of meaning that are possible in rendering elenchein peri into English, ranging from mere demonstration of a point, to demonstrably proving a point, to persuasion, to a juridical sense of trial and conviction.
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his “Commentary on the Gospel of John,” opted not to offer his own interpretation of this passage, instead deferring to the opinions of St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom. Augustine works through several meanings for 16:8, dismissing them in turn. It cannot mean that the Holy Spirit will “rebuke” the world, because Christ has already done this. We also cannot say that Christ merely rebuked the Jews, leaving it to the Holy Spirit to rebuke the world, because the job of rebuking the world has been delegated to the apostles.
Augustine’s meaning (as expressed by Thomas) is more subtle and spiritual: “One must therefore say that, he will convince, rebuke, the world, as the one who will invisibly enter into their hearts and pour his charity into them so that their fear is conquered and they have the strength to rebuke… [H]e will convince the world because he will fill hearts which were before worldly and lead them to rebuke themselves: ‘I will reprove my ways in his sight’ [Job 13:15].”
Thus, it is the Holy Spirit dwelling within us who will turn us against the sinful world. The passage, in Augustine, becomes a movement of the Spirit in the individual Christian, as it moves us away from sin and onto a path of righteousness.
St. John Chrysostom places the emphasis on the prosecutorial nature of the Holy Spirit, who will judge the world that judged Christ. Because they failed to believe in Him, the Holy Spirit will come to testify to His righteousness. In the process of this judgment, the Holy Spirit will cast out the devil from the hearts of the believers.
In his commentary on John, Raymond Brown dryly observes that “Commentators have not found the detailed exposition of [John] 8-11 easy.” Brown synthesizes various interpretations without finding a single satisfactory answer. On the one hand, it appears that the Holy Spirit will bring “the merciless light of truth to bear” on the guilty party (“the world”). On the other hand, the world cannot be convinced of its guilt because it will reject the Holy Spirit and thus any of its claims, as stated in John 14:17 (“even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you”). Brown seems most comfortable applying the passage to the disciples. The Holy Spirit will show the truth of Christ to the disciples. Through their preaching, they (and the Holy Spirit dwelling within them) will challenge the world’s “truth” and prove the righteousness of Christ.