Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Friday, March 1, 2019

How Much of the Spirit do You Possess? (John 3:34)

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John 3:34 gives a good example of how easy it is to misunderstand a passage if you forget to look at the larger context.  John writes, “For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit (ἐκ μέτρου)” (NIV, and so most translations).

This is a well-known verse, which actually makes it a little more difficult to see the problem. The NIV is close to a word-for-word translation (although the order of the words must be rearranged to make sense), but in this case word-for-word is misleading. Why?

First of all, the context makes it clear that the “the one who God has sent” is Jesus. However, the way that most translations handle this verse is too broad in scope. The statement “God gives the Spirit without limit” is intended only to refer to Jesus. Again, check the context.

Secondly, do you have the Spirit “without measure”? Of course not, at least not in the way that Jesus had the Spirit. All believers are fully endowed with the Spirit, and no believer has more of the Spirit than another. Thankfully the old charismatic theology that said only those who speak in tongues are fully endowed with the Spirit has long since been discredited.

But does that mean your possession of the Spirit is limitless in the way that Jesus had the Spirit without limit? Are you able to say only what the Father says, and do only what you see the Father doing? Of course not. Most commentators rightly reference Eph 4:7 where Paul is speaking about spiritual gifts and says, “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it (κατὰ τὸ μέτρον).” In v 11 he then specifies the gifts of apostleship, prophecy, evangelism, and pastor/teacher. We are fully possessed by the Spirit, and given the grace necessary to do the tasks that God has called and gifted us to do (see Hoehner, 523).

So on both points the common translation of John 3:34 is misleading, and the NLT gets it right. “For he is sent by God. He speaks God’s words, for God gives him the Spirit without limit.” The insertion of “him” make the meaning of the verse clear in its context and prevents misunderstanding.