In Defense of "The Comforter"
In John 14-16, Jesus gives the Holy Spirit a special name. In the Greek, the name is PARAKLETE; until the RSV, the English Bibles called Him the Comforter. Since the advent of the RSV, modern translators and commentators usually dismiss the term “Comforter” as archaic. A variety of names have been offered in substitution that have more meaning to the modern ear. I would like to demonstrate that this rejected term is really the best term for understanding the Holy Spirit’s ministry to the disciples.
Leon Morris dedicates a chapter to discuss the meaning of the term “Comforter” in his commentary on John. He concludes the chapter by saying, “It is impossible to find one English word that will cover all that the PARAKLETOS does. We must content ourselves with a term which stresses a limited aspect or aspects, or else use such a term as ‘Paraclete.’ (Leon Morris, New International Commentary of the New Testament, John, p. 666)” Transliterating the term PARAKLETE instead of translating the word is precisely what the Vulgate translation did. They could not find a term in the Latin that could adequately correspond to the Greek word. The Amplified Bible translates John 14:26 in this way, “But the Comforter (Counselor, Helper, Intercessor, Advocate, Strengthener, Standby), the Holy Spirit, Whom the Father will send in My name … He will teach you all things.” It is common for expositors to invite the reader into a world of varied options. It is as though the Holy Spirit intended the reader to choose the option from the shelf of inspired possibilities that makes the most sense to his present milieu and run with it. From reading the average commentary, one might assume that the Holy Spirit was ambiguous on purpose.
Is “Comforter” an archaic or misleading translation? Today, one associates comfort with ease. It is the acme of the American consumer to find food, clothing, and lodging that will bring him comfort. The Son of Man had not a place to lay his head, but the modern American consumer insists on a climate-controlled room with a mattress adjusted to his precise level of comfort and a pillow for his head. Obviously, this is the last thing that the Savior had in mind when He called the Holy Spirit the Comforter.
How then do we identify the Holy Spirit’s role? Is He merely a helper or friend who is called to stand beside one who needs Him (a definition based on etymology)? Perhaps His office parallels that of Jesus in 1John 2:1 (another Comforter of the same kind) where He serves as an advocate or counselor. Since the term is derived from the verb PARAKALEW, which means to exhort, perhaps the Holy Spirit is a Counselor. Is it possible that we have lost the real understanding of what it is to have a Comforter? Could it be that the King James translators possessed an insight the escapes our usual word studies? Does our misunderstanding of the Holy Spirit’s PARAKLETE work spring from that fact that we do not need or desire this work in our contemporary Christian experience?
It is the course of many Bible expositors who follow the advice of B.F. Westcott to see the term PARAKLETE as a court appointed attorney for the defense of the one charged with guilt (Holman, NET, NIV, NLT, NRSV, Wuest, RSV). While this understanding is clearly in play in 1John 2:1, it appears to be out of context in John 13-17. Other translations generically identify the office by calling the Holy Spirit the helper or friend (CEV, ESV, Good News, ISV, Message, NASB, NCV, NKJV). This betrays the precision of the Holy Spirit’s work. There is a reason why this precise title appears only five times in the New Testament.
The Origin of Comforter
The term was first translated as “Comforter” by John Wycliffe, who worked under the cloud of persecution. This choice was maintained by Tyndale who desperately needed comfort as he conducted the work of translation with fear for his own life. The Geneva Bible would capitalize the word making it a proper title for the Holy Spirit. The King James translators validated this tradition by using it in their work.
Not an archaic word; instead a foreign concept
I submit that the modern confusion over the meaning of this title springs from a concept foreign to the American reader. The office of Comforter cannot be rightly understood outside of genuine Christian persecution. It is for this reason that modern expositors are lured into a legal or friendly understanding of PARAKLETE. When understood in the historical context, the disciples did not need a “helper” or “friend.” They needed one who would console them in the midst of persecution and then embolden them to stand up and with settled confidence to face the impossible mission of turning a hostile world to Christ. Jesus told them that they were not being abandoned (left comfortless) to a cold, cruel world. The Comforter would play a permanent role in this relief. It is the Comforter who is active in Acts 4:23-31. Believers cried out to God after being threatened by those in charge. They cry for comfort (v. 29), and what is the result? Holy Spirit-filling emboldens them and divine peace subdues any carnal fear.
A society that cherishes the worldly peace and safety as does the contemporary culture will never comprehend the concept of the Holy Spirit as Comforter. They will choose compromise with the world to maintain the peace and friendship with their world. In contrast to the records of Christian history, contemporary Americans have endured very little of persecution for Christ. To them being comfortable is an American right, and they seek elected officers who will make them more comfortable.
The PARAKLETE who brings peace in the midst of tribulation does so by acting as the Spirit of truth as described in John. If the world will not receive the unknown Spirit, neither will they receive His message of truth. Where His truth conflicts with the laws of the society, the Spirit of Truth is judged to be a fictitious trouble-maker. It is in this context that the Bible-defined Christian will need the comfort of the Holy Spirit to accomplish their divine mission. He assures the indwelt believer that their light which shines in the sin darkened society will be resisted, but that no messenger needs to fear standing up for the truth. It is in this context that the ministry of Holy Spirit comfort makes the most sense in John’s Gospel (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). This is the same “comfort” and “consolation” that Paul speaks of in the opening verses of Second Corinthians (2Cor 1:3-7). It speaks not the absence of persecution, but of divine comfort in the midst of persecution.
The Comforter has no pillow for the Laodicean church member. He exhorts him to forsake the worldly providers of ease and to invest in gold tried in the fire of persecution. Thus the Comforter exhorts those who rest in the fickle peace that the world gives and takes away to find peace in eternal riches. The Comforter relieves the fears of those who suffer at the hand of their persecutors. He is not just a counselor; He consoles in the truest sense of the word. He does not merely wipe the tear from the eye; He lifts the wearied saint back to his feet and energizes him anew. The Comforter provides supernatural peace in the midst of the storm.