This pivotal Scripture does indeed reveal that God gives His Holy Spirit by measure to some. However, in the case of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit of God the Father dwelt in Him without measure from conception to fulfill His mission—the work given to Him by the Father.
It is important to understand this verse in the context given when John the Baptist testified about who Jesus was:
“‘He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth is earthly and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. And what He has seen and heard, that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has certified that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit by measure. The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand’” (John 3:31-35)
Note that some translations, such as the King James Version, translated verse 34 with added text—as underlined:
“For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him.”
In fact, many translations add this, but these words are not in the Greek. As a consequence, some wrongly believe that verse 34 is saying that when God gives His Holy Spirit, it is given fully to everyone receiving it. Others rightly understand that it is Jesus Who is the subject of this unrestrained gift of the Holy Spirit.
Both the Hebrew and Greek are written with “elliptical” text. What this means is that sometimes utterances are contextually incomplete and require the hearer to supply contextual information. This is the case in verse 34, and it is why the words “unto him” or “unto Him” are added in many translations—this is the implied understanding based on the overall context.
English also leaves out words which we, as native speakers, are able to immediately fill in and understand. For example, one might say, “Jack drank milk and Jane water.” Obviously, Jane drank water, and we understand the implied meaning. This elliptical style is why in many literal translations of the Bible, italicized words are added to the text for clarification—even though they are not in the source text. (However, sometimes, the added italicized words obscure or even alter the intended meaning, so caution is always in order.)
Next, let’s also consider what is stated in some commentaries regarding the verse in question.
Barnes Notes on the New Testament—John 3:34: “By measure. Not in a small degree, but fully, completely. The prophets were inspired on particular occasions to deliver special messages. The Messiah was continually filled with the Spirit of God. ‘The Spirit dwelt in him, not as a vessel, but as in a fountain, as in a bottomless ocean’ (Henry).”
John Gill—John 3:34: “For God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him as he did to the prophets of the Old Testament, and to the apostles of the New; and to the ordinary ministers of the word, who have gifts differing one from another; to one is given one gift of the Spirit; and to another, another gift… and to everyone is given grace, or gifts of grace, according to the measure of the gift of Christ, (Ephesians 4:7).”
But even though God had given Jesus Christ the Holy Spirit without measure at the time of conception, we still read that after His baptism, Christ received additional powers to work miracles (compare Acts 10:36-38).
Other examples in the Word of God clearly show that when God gives us His Holy Spirit, He does so by measure. We read in 1 John 4:13 that God has given us “OF” His Spirit… He did not give us His Spirit without measure. A most remarkable example is that of Elijah and Elisha:
“And so it was, when they had crossed over, that Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?’ Elisha said, ‘Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.’ So he said, ‘You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.’ Then it happened, as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it, and he cried out, ‘My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen!’ So he saw him no more. And he took hold of his own clothes and tore them into two pieces. He also took up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood by the bank of the Jordan. Then he took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, and said, ‘Where is the Lord God of Elijah?’ And when he also had struck the water, it was divided this way and that; and Elisha crossed over. Now when the sons of the prophets who were from Jericho saw him, they said, ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.’ And they came to meet him, and bowed to the ground before him” (2 Kings 2:9-15).
We find in another account that Moses became overwhelmed in leading the Israelites, and God helped him by consecrating seventy elders. Note how God accomplished this:
“The LORD therefore said to Moses, ‘Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and their officers and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. Then I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit [which] is upon you, and will put [it] upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you will not bear it all alone’…
This account reveals that God took from Moses some of the Holy Spirit God had given to him and gave portions to the seventy elders of Israel. However, since we are to replenish the measure of the Holy Spirit within us to be “renewed day by day” (compare 2 Corinthians 4:16), we understand that Moses was not diminished in the measure of the Holy Spirit which He had taken from him to give to the elders. In fact, God further established the office of Moses by having him serve as the leader through whom God imparted His Spirit. This is much like most of the ordinations which would later occur in the Church of God—beginning with the apostles Jesus Christ chose. But this passage also shows that God gives portions of His Holy Spirit to people—not the fullness of it, and not always in the same quantity.
We have further evidence of God working through Moses to ordain His chosen leaders. In this case, God selected the individual who would lead Israel as Moses’ replacement:
“And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Take Joshua the son of Nun with you, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him; set him before Eleazar the priest and before all the congregation, and inaugurate him in their sight. And you shall give some of your authority to him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may be obedient. He shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire before the Lord for him by the judgment of the Urim. At his word they shall go out, and at his word they shall come in, he and all the children of Israel with him–all the congregation.’ So Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He took Joshua and set him before Eleazar the priest and before all the congregation. And he laid his hands on him and inaugurated him, just as the Lord commanded by the hand of Moses” (Numbers 27:18-23).
We read that God gave His Spirit of wisdom to artisans to enable them to fulfill the task of making Aaron’s garment (Exodus 28:3). In Ezekiel 2:2-3, we read that God gave Ezekiel His Holy Spirit, to enable him to do his job.
This is not unlike what now occurs in the Church of God. When a man or a woman is ordained to the office of deacon or deaconess, they receive an extra portion of the Holy Spirit to accomplish their responsibilities. But a deacon is not a minister. To become a minister, a further ordination is necessary. And so, when a member or a deacon is ordained to the ministry, an additional extra portion of the Holy Spirit is given them at that time. Note what Paul wrote to Timothy:
“Therefore I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:6-7). This passage refers foremost to Timothy’s ordination as a minister. Timothy had received a measure of the Holy Spirit when he was baptized, but when he became ordained, he received an extra measure of the Holy Spirit to fulfill his work as a minister.
There is a hierarchy of spiritual offices within the ministry (elder, pastor, evangelist, etc.). When God’s ministers are raised in rank through an ordination and the laying on of hands, they will at that time obtain still more of God’s Holy Spirit to enable them to fulfill their added responsibilities, including spiritual discernment to make right decisions (compare Matthew 16:19; 18:18). We have an example in which two ministers were ordained to offices of greater responsibility, indicating, also, that they were given more of God’s Holy Spirit:
“Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers : Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away” (Acts 13:1-3).
Note that these men are first identified as “prophets and teachers”; however, after the laying on of hands in this account, the two men, Barnabas and Saul (Paul), are subsequently called “apostles” (compare Act 14:14).
We read about two witnesses who will do an outstanding work in the future (Revelation 11:3-6). God will give them extra powers and an additional measure of the Holy Spirit to enable them to accomplish their task.
The New Testament reveals just how God has organized the church:
“There are diversities of gifts [margin: “allotments of various kinds”], but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills” (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).
“Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” (1 Corinthians 12:27-30).
“And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13).
Now Paul says in Ephesians 5:18, to “…be filled with the Spirit.” “Be filled” is translated from the Greek, plerousthe, and means—literally—“be being kept filled.”
Paul also warned : “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19).
Christ warns us, in the parable of the ten virgins, in Matthew 25:1-13, that five virgins were foolish. They allowed that their lamps were going out. They were running out of oil—a symbol for the Holy Spirit.
People who are called by God, who are led to repentance and then are baptized also receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. Understand that this portion of God’s Spirit is a first step, and is referred to as “a down payment,” “the earnest” and “the guarantee” of what is yet to come:
“In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory” (1 Corinthians 1:13-14; Compare 2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5).
From the foregoing references, we see that Christians who have God’s Holy Spirit may not always draw the same measure of God’s power in their lives. Rather, it is our challenge to submit to God’s guidance so that we can “be filled with” and “stir up” the gift of God. We are to live and walk according to the Spirit (Romans 8:3-4; Galatians 5:16), and set our minds on the things of the Spirit (Romans 8:5). God gives us of His Spirit so that we can overcome our human nature, society and Satan the devil. We are to grow in God’s knowledge, which only His Spirit can give us. But when we are not diligent in obeying God, He will not bestow us with more of His Holy Spirit. In fact, when we continuously refuse to obey Him, He may take His Spirit away from us.
As mentioned, the Word of God also reveals that He allots His Holy Spirit to individuals for the work He wants them to do. Jesus Christ was given the ultimate job to accomplish, and because of this, God also gave to His Son the complete help He needed—His Spirit without measure:
“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’” (Luke 4:18-19).
Lead Writers: Dave Harris and Norbert Link