If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and He will give you another Comforter, to be with you for ever. John 14: 15-16 (AV)
The Gospel of John is greatly loved by Christians. Cherished because it succeeds, more than any other, to shape our thinking about the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit; concerned not just with what Jesus said and did. John unfolds and shares his understanding of what Jesus in the Spirit has always been and always will be – a contemporary Jesus. A lot of teaching about the Holy Spirit has been a little vague and undefined. The coming of the Spirit to the disciples at Pentecost IS a bit of a mystery. Much easier to understand and to speak of God when we call Him “Father” – although this is a problem for some. Easier still to put a face on Jesus. We are given vivid pictures in the gospels to make Jesus come alive before our eyes. But with the Holy Spirit it is not so easy and our thoughts verge on the vague and nebulous. Perhaps it is because we still hear in some parts of the church the Spirit spoken of as the “Holy Ghost” – a wee bit spooky! This is no ghost story and it is about time that concept was eliminated from traditional liturgies.
The great lesson of Pentecost is that Jesus is not a memory but a presence. With us now in the Spirit: God’s gift available to us all and not the privilege accorded to some believing Christians and not to others. Something some Christians have forgotten – I was well aware of this in the second half of the last century with an exodus of members departing mainstream denominations because they were persuaded they would be blessed by the Spirit, (“anointing” was a word in vogue) in a more congenial environment. Those days are past, I hope – a work of the Holy Spirit effecting healing and reconciliation. The verse quoted in the heading above indicates how significant is the gift of the Spirit in our midst that John has his own distinctive name for the Spirit – Parakletos – the Greek word which the AV of the Bible translates as “the Comforter.”
Looking ahead to post-Easter, post-Pentecost, Jesus promises his disciples “another Comforter” as the AV translates it. But this word Comforter, hallowed by time and usage, at first glance may leave us with a somewhat inadequate and erroneous impression of what the Holy Spirit is about. A baby’s dummy is a “comforter.” Is this how we regard the Spirit, narrowing the scope of the Spirit’s activity to that of a “soother”- something to keep us quiet, sleepy even? The promise is a good deal greater. As we endeavour to unwrap the potential of Parakletos we will discover that biblical scholarship presents us with a choice of English words to describe it. The Revised Version of the Bible sides with the AV’s preference for “Comforter”; the Revised Standard Version plumps for “Counsellor”; Dr Moffat goes for “Helper”, as does the Good News Bible; J.B. Phillips, not content with one word, goes for “Someone who will stand by you”; the New English Bible has the support of a fairly wide number of more recent translations with its choice of “Advocate.” John’s vision of the Holy Spirit may even be paraphrased as “Friend” or as “One who will befriend you.” Such is the extent and variety of the ’Parakletos’ blessing – almost untranslatable. Who is right? It would take a brave woman or man to rule any one translation to be wrong! A story could be told about all, each one is relevant to our understanding of the Pentecostal blessing (not a reference to what is known as “the second blessing” about which I have little to say!)
At this juncture we go back to John’s preferred description of the gift the Holy Spirit bestows – in the words of Jesus:
“I will ask the Father and he will give you another COMFORTER.”
How did this word “Comforter” get into the English translation of Scripture? Answer the question and simultaneously we will find ourselves in the process of teasing out what the Holy Spirit – the Comforter – can and will do for us. John Wycliffe, the great English reformer, is credited with being the first to translate the whole Bible into vernacular English from the Latin Vulgate – a task completed in 1382. At least six other versions followed and eventually our Authorised Version arrived on the scene in 1611, the forerunner of numerous productions, particularly translating and paraphrasing the New Testament principally from Greek. And in New Testament Greek Parakletos is someone who is called in to help when we are facing personal crisis; someone to help us cope with life’s adverse and testing circumstances. And here is the interesting bit. The word “comfort” in English comes from the Latin word fortis, which means brave and was used of someone who puts courage into you.
Biblical scholars have not found it easy to come up with a single word in our language to equate with John’s Parakletos. On a rare occasion it does mean “comfort” as we understand it, but not the kind of comfort that encourages us to sit back and passively accept whatever fate has in store. Both words, Parakletos and “Comforter” have a common root which in English spells “dynamite” and provides us with a perfect picture of the Holy Spirit at work among us. What Jesus is saying to us is this – The Christian life and the Christian way are no sinecure; it is tough, it is demanding; follow me and you will find yourselves in places where you never dreamed of venturing; doing the kind things that will have you shaking in your boots. But I will send you another Comforter, another Counsellor; another Helper; an Advocate; a Friend; the Parakletos, someone with a power like spiritual dynamite; someone who gives us power and enables us to cope with life; helps folk to stand on their own two feet and face life four-square. God’s gracious and generous gift of the Holy Spirit, Not a Memory – a Presence.