The word “Comforter” (KJV, ASV) is a translation of the Greek
parakletos. The word is derived from two roots—
para (beside) and
kaleo (to call).
In secular Greek, the expression suggested one who has been called to another’s side for counsel, (e.g., an advocate in court) or an advisor.
This clearly seems to be the sense in 1 John 2:1.
And if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Christ Jesus the righteous.
The Comforter in John’s Gospel
In this study, I’d to consider how
parakletos is used in the Gospel of John (Jn. 14:16-18, 26; 15:26-27; 16:7, 13-14).
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Many scholars today contend that the word “Comforter” is not the best rendition of the original term.
Morris argues that it derives from Wycliffe’s translation and that “Advocate” is the more accurate reflection of the primitive form (1995, 576). For an excellent discussion, see Hastings (1906, iii.665ff).
In John’s gospel record, each instance the word
parakletos is employed to describe the Holy Spirit’s role in working on behalf of Christ’s apostles following the Savior’s ascension to heaven.
It is important that the context of these passages be examined carefully. The reason for this precaution is because the texts frequently are hijacked from their original setting and given a modern application.
For example, a Presbyterian theologian writes:
The Holy Spirit as a Comforter is a power practically available and in the reach of every Christian (Vaughan 1975, 362; emphasis added).
Commenting on John 14:16, Barclay declared:
Jesus does not leave us to struggle with the Christian life alone. He would send us another Helper (1956, ii.194; see also Erickson 1998, 275).
Those who argue that we must have the direct operation of the Holy Spirit to understand the Scriptures (and they are many) frequently appeal to these texts, yet erroneously so.
No knowledgeable Bible student will deny that the Holy Spirit operates in the interests of faithful Christians.
He doubtless functions in the implementation of providential activity (cf. Mt. 7:11; Lk. 11:13). He assists with our faltering, inadequate prayers in difficult times (Rom. 8:26).
The texts in John 14-16, however, relate to a special endowment of the Spirit in his relationship with the Lord’s inspired teachers, not on behalf of present-day Christians.
The Contextual Setting
The contextual setting of John 14-16 takes place on the evening before Christ’s crucifixion that will take place the following morning.
After the Passover supper, Judas left to consummate his diabolical mission (Jn. 13:30). At this time, the Lord sought to encourage the eleven remaining disciples.
He cautioned that he would be with them only a “little while” longer (Jn. 13:33). The Teacher then began a discourse, a part of which took place in the upper room. The remainder was given as they journeyed to Gethsemane (cf. Jn. 14:31b).
Within this narrative there are many indicators that he was speaking directly to the eleven, conveying truths applicable only to them and not to the church of the future.
There must be a clear distinction drawn between generic truths applicable perpetually and special promises limited to the apostles.
John 14:16-18 Examined
Jesus cautioned that his apostles were limited in their knowledge of him (Jn. 14:7a). He promised that although he would be forced to leave them, the Father would provide “another Comforter.” Up to this point, the Lord himself had been their source of support during his ministry.
The term “another” (
allon) frequently suggests another of the same kind. In this case, it would be another divine instructor, exhorter, or advocate.
Lenski describes the Holy Spirit as “one like Jesus who revealed God to the disciples” (1943, 998).
The use of “another” reveals that Christ and the Holy Spirit are different persons, not the same, as the “oneness Pentecostals” allege.
Additionally, the Holy Spirit is a sacred person, not merely an “active force” as the Watchtower cult contends.
Even though the Jewish authorities were on the verge of murdering the Son of God, this would not happen with the promised comforter. The “world” would be unable to “receive” or perhaps “remove by force” the Spirit (cf.
lambano [Mt. 5:40; Rev. 3:11]).
Why? Because they would neither “see” nor “know” him. Instead, the Spirit would abide with the apostles and be in them forever (i.e., in perpetuity as they completed their earthly mission; [Jn. 14:16-17; cf. Mt. 28:20]).
This does not signify that the Spirit would be with all disciples forever in the same sense as he was with the apostles during their ministry.
Finally, in a manner of speaking, the presence of the Spirit would be the presence of Christ, since Jesus himself would dispatch the Spirit to them (v. Jn. 18; cf. Acts 2:33).
The Promise of John 14:26
Additionally, Christ promised the Spirit would
teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you (Jn. 14:26).
This limits his promise to the disciples whom the Lord taught personally. Their memories would require refreshing. They would need to know “all things” essential to their teaching duties (cf. Acts 2:1-4).
A note in the ESV Study Bible concedes that Jesus’ promise is “specifically to these disciples.” But the writer ventures further:
[T]here is of course a broader teaching and guiding ministry of the Holy Spirit generally in the lives of believers (Kostenberger 2008, 2053).
The author cites Romans 8:14 and Galatians 5:16, 18 in support of his “guiding ministry” theory.
But neither of these passages establishes the case for a direct operation of the Holy Spirit in refreshing one’s memory and providing supernatural instruction in “all [the] things” one needs to know in teaching (cf. Eph. 6:17; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Examining John 15:26-27
Presently Christ would say:
I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit (Jn. 15:16).
He speaks of his original disciples—not modern Christians. He charged them to “remember the word that I said unto you” (Jn. 15:20). Jesus continued:
But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceeds from the Father, he shall bear witness of me: and you also bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning (Jn. 15:26-27).
It is perfectly clear that this instruction was to the apostles who had been with the Lord throughout his earthly ministry.
[Note: See Acts 9:31, where “comfort” likely has the meaning of “inspired exhortation” (Jackson and Lake 1965, 107).]
These texts have no modern supernatural application. Today our comfort is through the Scriptures, which were inspired by the Spirit (Rom. 15:4).
John 16:7 Considered
Later in the discourse, Jesus would say:
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I go, I will send him unto you (Jn. 16:7).
Here it is transparent that the promise of the Spirit was contingent upon the Savior’s departure (i.e., his “going away”). His “sending the Spirit” was to be in close proximity to that event.
Does anyone today imagine that the Lord somehow is now with them and yet he is about to depart so that the Spirit might be dispatched?
How can a responsible exegete extract this promise from its context and give it an application to disciples centuries removed?
The Text of John 16:13-14
Christ then supplements the following text:
Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he shall guide you into all the truth: for he shall not speak from himself; but what things soever he shall hear, these shall he speak: and he shall declare unto you the things that are to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall take of mine, and shall declare it unto you" (Jn. 16:13-14).
Is there anyone today who has been infallibly guided into all the truth?
Does the modern student who applies this text to himself believe he can predict the things that are to come?
Why is it that those who claim they have been guided into all the truth will teach at the same time outlandish perversions of Scripture?
Moreover, those making such claims consistently contradict each other in an amazing variety of teachings—all of which will be attributed to the Holy Spirit!
Again we must strongly emphasize: the promise of “the Comforter” in these chapters is restricted to the inspired recipients of the first century.
The passages must not be forced from their original settings and given an application wholly foreign to the sense of the immediate context.
A modern-day application of these passages exposes the Scriptures to skeptical criticism and weakens the teaching of the Lord.
Note: See our article What Is the Gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:38? for additional study on the gift of the Holy Spirit for baptized believers.