Jesus said to his disciples in the Upper Room, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever”. This is the first of five sayings about the ‘Paraclete’ (see also 14.26; 15.26; 16.7-11; and 16.12-15), a phrase which John alone uses of the Spirit. The term ‘parakletos’, from which the English word ‘Paraclete’ is a transliteration, is a verbal adjective with a passive sense, and literally means ‘one called alongside’; it is related to a Greek verb (parakaleo) which means to ‘call to one, to summon’. In the New Testament the word only occurs six times: five times here in the Farewell Discourses, and once in 1 John 2.1.
The question arises: how do we translate this term, ‘Paraclete’? The various English translations are attempts to answer these questions. The NRSV adopts the translation of ‘Advocate’, and there is much to be said for that translation. In secular Greek it was often used of one called alongside to help one another in court. However, it never became a technical term, but rather denoted a powerful friend or sponsor who might come to court to speak on one’s behalf. This legal connotation is clearly present in 1 John 2.1, where John applies the term to Jesus: “If any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous“. Jesus is pictured as pleading our case in heaven, speaking to the Father in our defence. There are also legal overtones in John16.8-11 where, within what amounts to a court scene, Jesus says that the Paraclete will “prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement“. On the other hand the NIV adopts the translation of ‘Counsellor’, presumably because of the wisdom that the Paraclete has to offer. He it is who teaches and reminds (14.26), who bears testimony of Jesus to the disciples (15.26), and who guides God’s people “into all the truth” (16.13). I prefer the translation offered by the GNB and which is open to every nuance: the Paraclete is the helper, because he draws alongside us to help us by teaching us, reminding us, guiding us, encouraging us, and empowering our witness by enabling us to expose the falsities of the world.
However, the traditional English term for the Paraclete is the ‘Comforter’, which is found in the AV. The use of this term for the Spirit is reflected in many traditional hymns. For instance, in R.F. Littledale’s great hymn ‘Come down O love divine’, based on words of Bianco da Siena, we sing: “O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear, and kindle it, your holy flame bestowing”. Similarly the first verse of Henrietta Auber’s hymn about the Spirit begins: “Our blest Redeemer, ere He breathed his tender last farewell, a guide, a comforter bequested with us to dwell”. But what do we mean by this term ‘the Comforter’?
Today a ‘comforter’ is a person one who cheers up the sad and stops their tears. In American English a ‘comforter’ is a baby’s ‘dummy’ given to stop the baby crying. But this use of the term ‘comforter’ is misleading, and is not what the 17th century English divines, who gave us the Authorised Version, meant by the word ‘Comforter’. For the English word ‘comforter’ was originally derived from the Latin word for ‘brave’ (fortis). At that time to ‘comfort’ a person was to make them brave by giving them strength to stand up to whatever challenges life might bring. But perhaps we draw too great a contrast between the 17th and 21st centuries. For even today, when people comfort one another after a bereavement or a tragedy of one kind of another, the comfort they give is with a view to giving them strength to face the world again.
In this sense of giving fresh strength and new courage the term ‘Comforter’ is a great synonym for the Holy Spirit. The disciples in the Upper Room were understandably fearful. Indeed, Jesus begins his Farewell Discourse with the words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (14.1). A little later Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you… Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (14.27). But the disciples had good reason to be afraid: not only was their Master about to leave them, but persecution lay ahead (15.20); people would not only “hate” them (15.18), but would “kill” them too (16.2). This was the context in which Jesus first promised the ‘Comforter’ to make them brave.
The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of how the Holy Spirit continued to make God’s people brave. When the believers in Jerusalem were being threatened by the Jewish authorities “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (4.31). When Peter and John had been forbidden to speak of Christ, they refused to be silenced, because the ‘Comforter’ made them bold (Acts 4.13-22).
This original meaning of ‘Comforter’ is to be found in the great Bayeux tapestry, which in 72 pictures tells the story of King William and the Norman conquest of England in 1066. In one scene William is marching behind his troops with a drawn sword, prodding them. Beneath are the words: “King William comforteth his soldiers”. This is a wonderful illustration of the task of the Holy Spirit, who prods, incites, and urges onward the disciples of Christ.
The significance of the word [‘comfort’] is not so much, ‘there, there little one’, but ‘Up, guards, at ’em’. It is not soothing syrup, but a clarion call. (Leon Morris)
The Holy Spirit ‘comforts’ the church, in the sense that he drives the church out in mission. We see this in the Book of Acts, where time and again it was the Holy Spirit driving the church out into mission. How we need this same Spirit in our lives today, prodding us laggard soldiers of Christ into action!