37On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38and let the one who believes in me drink.

As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” ’

39Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive;
for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

It is a curious and troubling statement – “as yet there was no Spirit.” At what point could it ever be true to say there was “no Spirit”?

The “Spirit” is not some foreign substance that needed to invade the world at Pentecost in order to occupy human beings from whom the Spirit had previously been completely absent. The Holy Spirit is the “breath of life” God breathed into the human creation at the beginning of time:

the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath (nesh·ä·mä’ – spirit) of life; and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

A human being in whom there was “no Spirit” cannot exist. The Spirit is the force of life, the power that causes my heart to beat, that keeps the blood to coursing through my veins, and my lungs to expanding and contracting. In the absence of the Spirit there is no life.

So, what could John possibly have meant with his editorial comment that

as yet there was no Spirit?

Context is important.

Jesus’ dramatic action at the Feast of Tabernacles and his powerful claim that

Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water,

occurred in a difficult and uncomfortable context.

Jesus was in Jerusalem in the Temple, surrounded by the religious authorities and powers of his day. Preparations were already being made by the religious authorities to put a stop to Jesus:

The Pharisees heard the crowd muttering such things about Jesus, and the chief priests and Pharisees sent temple police to arrest him.  (John 7:32)

Even for his supporters, this was a sobering time, as Jesus predicted that he was soon going to be gone:

Jesus then said, ‘I will be with you a little while longer, and then I am going to him who sent me. You will search for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come.’ (John 7:33, 34)

Jesus’ prediction that he would soon depart caused confusion and questioning for his audience:

The Jews said to one another, ‘Where does this man intend to go that we will not find him? Does he intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks? What does he mean by saying, “You will search for me and you will not find me” and, “Where I am, you cannot come”?’ (John 35,36 )

In a context of threat, absence, and confusion, it is tempting to shut down. In situations that feel unpredictable and possibly dangerous, it is easy to find ourselves building walls in a futile attempt to protect ourselves from danger.

When we build walls and retreat behind our protective fortifications, we lose touch with the well-spring of life (“the Spirit”) that lives at the heart of our being.

The key to this passage is the first half of verse 39:

Now Jesus said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive.

The Greek word translated “receive” is lambano. It means to “take upon one’s self,” “take what is one’s own”  “admit,” or “not refuse or reject”. To lambano is essentially to appropriate, to open to.

What happened at Pentecost is not that something was sent that had been up to this point completely absent. The Spirit has always been at work throughout human history (see: https://inaspaciousplace.wordpress.com/2017/05/30/pentecost-puzzle-1/). But the Spirit has not always been received, opened to, embraced. There have been times when the work of the Spirit has been “refused or rejected.”

As long as I resist the Spirit, there is a sense in which it might almost be appropriate to say that in my life there is “no Spirit.”

What John really seems to be saying in the second half of verse 39 is something like:

As yet, among these people, at this time, in this place, there was no experience of the
Holy Spirit.

And where there is no experience of the Holy Spirit, it is as if there is “no Spirit”.

The challenge is for me to ask how open I am to the presence and work of God’s Spirit in each moment of my life.

Pentecost asks me to consider:

How surrendered am I to the power of love?

How  open am I to the direction, guidance, and shaping of God’s Spirit in my life?

In the face of the fear that is natural in a context of threat, absence, and confusion this deep opening to God’s Spirit is seldom my first reaction. My tendency to allow fear to control my responses is the reason John’s last editorial aside is so important. John writes,

as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:39b)

At Pentecost the disciples’ hearts opened enough to enable them to become convinced that the power of Jesus was still available. They experienced the truth and love they had seen in Jesus and now present in their own lives.