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The Holy Spirit as the Paraclete

Julian Spriggs M.A.

The Teaching by Jesus in the Upper Room about the Holy Spirit

The “paraclete” is a term unique to John’s writings, and has become characteristic of his teaching. It is used to describe both Jesus and the Holy Spirit. In 1 John it describes Jesus, as the advocate (paraclete) with the Father (1 Jn 2:1-2). In the Upper Room Discourse, John identifies the Paraclete as the Holy Spirit (14:26), the Spirit of Truth (14:17). He describes the Holy Spirit as “another paraclete” (14:16), implying that Jesus was the first paraclete, as in 1 John, whose ministry he will continue.

The meaning of the word

“Paraclete” is not an English word, but is a direct transliteration from the Greek (parakletos). Its basic meaning in Greek is “a strong person called in to help in time of trouble”. The Greek word is in the passive mood. However there are differences between the Greek meaning and how the Paraclete is described in the Gospel. In John, the Paraclete is sent, rather than called in. Instead of just bringing a helpful word, he brings active help. It was often used in a legal sense in Greek as someone called in to witness in a court case, or as an advocate to plead the case of an accused person. However, it was not a technical title, unlike the Latin “advocatus”, which was a professional legal expert, like a modern barrister.

In the Upper Room Discourse, the Paraclete is described as having a legal function. He will testify on Jesus’ behalf, like a legal witness (15:27), and prove the world wrong, as a prosecutor (16:8). In 1 John, Jesus is our advocate in a legal sense also (1 Jn 2:1). However, Jesus’ description of the work of the paraclete was much wider than merely a legal function. He will also be with the disciples as a helper (14:17), to remind them of what Jesus taught (14:26), and to guide them into all truth (16:13). He will transform them from a timid fearful group of disciples, into bold witnesses to the risen Jesus.

On a wider level, John presents the whole of Jesus’ ministry as a giant court-room trial. The world opposed and tried Jesus, and also opposes his disciples, when in reality it was the world which was being tried and judged by its response to Jesus and his claims. Through the disciples, the paraclete will bear witness to Jesus before the world, explaining why he is also described as the Spirit of Truth.

English translations

The word is difficult to translate into English, as there is no word giving a directly equivalent meaning, giving problems to translators of the New Testament. The work of the Paraclete is so far-reaching, that no one English word is adequate to describe it. So a wide variety of words are used in different English translations, all of which capture at least part of the meaning:
1. “Paraclete” (NAB). This is a direct transliteration from Greek, and is therefore meaningless in English. This avoids the problem, leaving interpretation to the reader, who needs to know the Greek background to the word.
2. “Comforter” (Wycliffe, Luther, KJV, ASV). This translation has been used for many centuries, and has become part of the tradition of the church. “Comforter” was a good translation at the time of Wycliffe, when the word had a richer meaning than today, derived from the Latin “confortare”, meaning someone who helped make another person be strong or brave. But the word “comforter” is too weak and misleading today, when to give comfort to someone means to have sympathy when they are suffering, which is not the primary role of the Holy Spirit described in John’s Gospel.
3. “Counsellor” (RSV, NIV), or “Advocate” (JB, NRSV, NEB, Weymouth), “One to plead our cause” (NEB). These retain and maybe over-emphasise the legal sense of the word, while omitting the other aspects of one coming to help, unless Counsellor is understood more in the sense of listening and giving advice. The Latin writers in the early church often described the Paraclete as the Advocate.
4. “Helper” (Moffat, TEB, NASB), “Someone to stand by you” (Philips), “The friend” (Message). These three lose the legal aspect, but do include the idea of providing assistance to someone in a difficult situation, and may be the most effective way of translating the word. Of the three, only Philips retains the passive nature of the word. “Helper”, although it has an active meaning and is rather indefinite, is probably the one English word which is both meaningful today, as well as fitting all the passages in the New Testament which speak of the Paraclete.

Teaching of the Trinity

The paraclete passages in John have strong Trinitarian implications. The paraclete is strongly and consistently described as a personal being, even though some scholars understand the Paraclete only as an impersonal power. Although the Greek word for Spirit (pneuma) is neuter, it is used with a masculine pronoun (ekeinos), actually breaking the rules of Greek grammar, but showing that the Spirit is not merely divine power, but is a personality. The Paraclete is sent by Jesus from the Father (15:26), showing that the Spirit is intimately related both to the Father and the Son. He is empathically described as the “Holy” Spirit (14:26), again showing him to be part of the god-head.

Jesus as the Paraclete (1 Jn 2:1)

In this passage, Jesus is the paraclete, or advocate, who pleads for his people before the Father in a legal sense, when they have sinned. He is the intercessor, standing in the gap between the sinful believer and a holy God. The exalted Jesus is at the right hand of God interceding for us (Rom 8:34). He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins (v2), having taking the punishment for sin, therefore he is able to present us before the Father washed clean from sin.

The Five Paraclete sayings:

In John’s Gospel, there are five separate passages where Jesus teaches about the paraclete, all in the Upper Room Discourse (ch 13-17), giving some of the richest teaching about the Holy Spirit found in the New Testament, describing a great variety of different activities. They give an important foundation for developing a Biblical doctrine of the Spirit, and are totally consistent with the teaching in the synoptics and in Paul’s letters. Together, they give a self-contained teaching about the Holy Spirit, which some scholars have seen as detachable from their context, and some have even suggested that they were previously circulated quotations which John has inserted into the text. However they should not be detached from their wider context of Jesus preparing his fearful disciples for his approaching departure and their witness to Christ in a hostile world, where they will face persecution. They will not be left alone in the world, but the Paraclete will come to be with them as his successor and representative.

The Paraclete is like Jesus both in nature, and in activity. Each function performed by the Spirit is ascribed to Jesus elsewhere in the Gospel. What Jesus did for a short time during his ministry, the Paraclete will continue forever after his exaltation to the Father. For example, both are sent into the world from the Father (16:28, 14:16), both will remain with the disciples (15:4, 14:17), and teach them what they need to know (13:13, 14:26). Both Jesus and the Paraclete are Holy (6:39, 14:26), and both are the Truth (14:6, 17). As Jesus glorified the Father during his ministry (17:4), the Paraclete will glorify Jesus (16:14). Both Jesus and the Paraclete are known by the disciples, but both will be rejected by the world (1:11-12, 14:17). The Spirit should be seen as the continuing presence of Jesus with his disciples, empowering them to continue to do the same works as he did during his earthly ministry. This explains why Jesus described the Spirit as “another Paraclete” (14:16), implying that he was the first.

In these five sayings, his role is divided between the church and the world. In the church, he lives within his disciples, teaching them, revealing Jesus to them, and helping them to understand his teaching. To the world he bears witness to Jesus when disciples are persecuted, and convicts the world of sin, righteousness and judgement. John emphasises the role of the Paraclete in exalting Jesus and interpreting his work of salvation, omitting any description of gifts of the Spirit.

First Paraclete saying - The Replacement Friend and Helper (14:16-17)

The Spirit is “another paraclete”, meaning that Jesus was the first one, another (Gk = allon) meaning another of the same kind, implying that he must be as personal as Jesus himself. The Paraclete has often been called the “alter ego” (or “other self”) of Jesus. Jesus was about to leave this world, and he will ask the Father to send another paraclete to replace him. For the last few years, Jesus had been with his disciples as their Paraclete, their friend and helper. They had learned to rely on him, but now he was about to leave them. Because he did not want to leave them abandoned as orphans (v18), he promised to come to them, not just at the end of the age, but in the person of the Paraclete, to be with them forever, until the end of the age, when the kingdom will be consummated.

The Paraclete is defined as the Spirit of Truth, the custodian of truth, which the world cannot know. This is because, by John’s use of the word, the world remains in unbelief because it has rejected the truth revealed by Jesus, so it cannot know him, being blind and unaware of the Spirit’s activities. His very different ministry to the world is described later (16:8-11). In contrast, the disciples know him as their helper. They know him already, because the Spirit is essentially the same Spirit they have come to love in Jesus. In the future, the Spirit will also be in them. This promise was fulfilled by the arrival of the indwelling Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2), when this became the mark of a true believer (Rom 8:9). Only because Jesus has died as a punishment for sin can the Holy Spirit come and dwell within the cleansed hearts of believers. In contrast to the Old Testament, when the Spirit came upon different leaders of Israel to empower them for service, and could be taken away, under the New Covenant the Spirit indwells all believers forever.

Second Paraclete saying - The Reminder and Interpreter (14:25-26)

The Paraclete is defined as the Holy Spirit, showing his relationship to the Father and to the Son. He will be sent by the Father, in the name of Jesus, as his representative, which shows his personal nature. He will teach the disciples, reminding them of what Jesus taught, rather than bringing any new revelation. He will also help them understand the significance of his words. Through his Gospel, John repeatedly states that the disciples failed to understand Jesus’ words (eg. 12:16). It was not until after Jesus’ glorification and arrival of the Spirit at Pentecost, that the disciples really understood, both what Jesus taught about himself, as well as his work of redemption and establishment of the Kingdom of God. This greater understanding is passed on to us through the Spirit-inspired writings of the apostles in the rest of the New Testament.

Third Paraclete saying - The Witness to Jesus (15:26-27)

This passage has parallels in Mark’s and Luke’s Gospel. In these, Jesus promises that when the disciples are brought before synagogues and kings, they are not to worry about what to say in their defence, as the Spirit will speak through them by giving them words to say, so they can give a bold and powerful witness to Jesus (Mark 13:9-11, Luke 21:13-15). Peter and the apostles were very aware of this when they stood before the Sanhedrin, saying they were witnesses to the resurrection together with the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:32). Both Stephen and Paul also powerfully did this in their trials (Act 7, 22). As the disciples preach, the same paraclete will bear witness in the hearts of the judges. The Paraclete, as the Spirit of Truth, will witness to the truth of Jesus, once Jesus has departed from this world. He will continue to testify to Jesus through the faithful witness of the disciples, as described in the Book of Acts and through church history. His role is not to defend the disciples, but to enable to them to be bold and effective witnesses when facing persecution. Although the disciples are being judged by persecutors, through the Spirit, their words will bring conviction to their adversaries.

Jesus states that he will send the Spirit, who comes from the Father (v26), sharing the same nature as the Father. The Paraclete is said come only from the Father, although he is sent at the request of Jesus. There has been a deep and long-lasting division in the church over this issue. The Western Latin-speaking Church inserted the much debated “filoque clause” into the Nicene Creed, stating that the Spirit also proceeds from the Son. They inserted this clause in order to emphasise the divinity of Christ in opposition to the Arians, who denied his deity. It was rejected by the Orthodox Greek-speaking Church, who objected to one part of the church altering the wording of the creed without consulting the rest of the church. This disagreement contributed to the eventual schism between East and West, and is still a source of division between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Some scholars have attempted to clarify this issue by making a distinction between the earthly and exalted natures of Jesus, saying that the Spirit could proceed from the exalted Jesus, but the earthly Jesus would never have said that the Spirit came from him.

Fourth Paraclete saying - The Prosecutor of the World (16:7-11)

Jesus comforted his disciples who were grieving over their approaching loss by explaining that he must depart before the Paraclete can be sent. The fellowship they enjoyed with him will continue through his Spirit. His departure will actually be to the advantage of the disciples, because the Spirit is not limited to one geographical location, as Jesus was in his incarnation. This will enable them to do greater (more numerous) works (14:12), as the Spirit transforms lives all over the world as a result of the preaching of the Gospel. The coming of the Spirit will compensate for their loss of his presence with them, and will equip them for their future witness and the persecution they will inevitably experience.

This saying also has a strong legal association. The Paraclete will act as prosecutor to prove the world wrong, or convict the world of sin. The word (elencho) translated “prove the world wrong” in the NRSV, is a difficult word to translate from the Greek. In Greek, it is a legal term, meaning to cross-examine in order to convince or refute an opponent. It can variously be translated convict, convince, refute or expose, depending on the different contexts. The Spirit can take the words spoken by human beings and use them powerfully to bring conviction to unbelievers. There is an example of this happening at the end of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, when the hearers were “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37), and many came to repentance. The world tried Jesus and condemned him to death, but in doing so, the world was condemned. The Spirit will prove that Jesus was right and the world was wrong. This passage is often understood to say that the Spirit will work in the hearts of unbelievers to bring conviction of sin, but this aspect of his work is not stated clearly here.

The role of the Paraclete is to expose the truth in three ways. Firstly to expose the sin of unbelief because people rejected and crucified Jesus, and continue to reject the revelation given through Jesus. Secondly to reveal his righteousness because his demonstration of righteousness was shown on the cross, his way to the Father, which showed that all men’s attempts of achieving righteousness through their own efforts are ineffective. And thirdly to show that the world has been judged when the Son of man was lifted up on the cross, and that Satan, the ruler of the world, who was working through Judas and the Jewish leadership was defeated and condemned (12:31). It can also be understood to mean to demonstrate to the world that there will be a future judgement, when all people will stand accountable before God.

Fifth Paraclete saying - The Revealer and Clarifier (16:12-15)

Although the word “paraclete” not actually mentioned in this saying, the Spirit of Truth will guide the disciples into all the truth. The Spirit will enable the disciples to understand the profound truth that Jesus had told them, which up to now they had not grasped. The truth that Jesus received from the Father and passed on to them will continue to be revealed to them by the Spirit. We can see that profound understanding given in the Gospel of John is part of the fulfilment of this promise. He will also declare the things that are to come (v13), either meaning the coming trials, crucifixion and resurrection, or the ultimate future, as in the Book of Revelation, with the eschatological coming of the Kingdom. The Paraclete never glorifies himself, but always glorifies Christ, declaring not his own words, but the words of Jesus, and never speaking on his own authority. The Spirit should never be glorified at the expense of the Son. In a similar way, Jesus came to glorify the Father, through his faithful obedience to him (17:4). This shows a great unity within the Trinity, with absolutely no sense of any divisions or competition between them.


W. Barclay. Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of John. St. Andrew Press. 1975. Vol 2. Page 166f
G.R. Beasley-Murray. Gospel of Life: Theology in the Fourth Gospel. Hendrickson 1991. Page 70-79.
F.F. Bruce. The Gospel of John. Eerdmans 1983. Page 301ff.
D. Guthrie. New Testament Theology. IVP 1981. Page 529ff
G.E. Ladd. A Theology of the New Testament. Eerdmans 1993. Page 329ff.
L. Morris. The Gospel According to John. New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT). Eerdmans 1995. Page 587ff.
S.S. Smalley. John: Evangelist and Interpreter. IVP1998. Page 257ff.
C.L. Blomberg: Paraclete in International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (ISBE). ed. GW. Bromiley. Eerdmans 1986.
G. Braumann: Advocate, Paraclete, Helper in New International Dictionary of New Testament
M.M. Thompson: John, Gospel of., and M.M.B. Turner: Holy Spirit in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. ed. J.B. Green, S. McKnight, I.H. Marshall IVP 1992.
P.K. Jewett: Paraclete in Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopaedia of the Bible. ed. M.C. Tenney. Zondervan 1975.

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