Jesus promised the disciples: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth; it is expedient that I go away: for if I don’t go away, the Comforter (Greek: parakletos) will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you” (John 16:7, AKJV).
Facing difficult and stressful situations we always need someone alongside us. Someone who understands us and gives us that needed service, for without that service rendered on our behalf we wouldn’t be able to cope with life. We need a helper who will console us. We need a defence counsel to plead our case. We need someone to encourage us along the way in our Christian pilgrimage. We all need such a friend. That Friend is none other than the promised Holy Spirit.
This is where a deeper and a broader understanding of the ministry and work of the Holy Spirit becomes important. Translators found it rather difficult to translate the Greek parakletos into English. This can be seen in the varied renderings of the word from translation to translation. The AV translates it as “comforter”. The RV retains the word comforter, but the margin gives “advocate” and “helper” and notes that the Greek is Paraclete. The RSV uses the word “counsellor”. JB Philips translates it as “someone to stand by you”. Ronald Knox’s translation is “he who is to befriend you”, while Moffat, Torrey and the Twentieth Century New Testament translate it as “helper”.
The difficulty in translating parakletos shows that the Greek word is loaded with so much—so much that a single English word alone cannot fully capture adequately its richness and depth. Even limiting the work of the Parakletos by the English term “comforter” alone is far too shallow and narrow.
Parakletos is a Greek word that is passive in form but is always active in meaning. It literally means “one who is called in”. He is someone who is called in so that he or she may do something or render a service. Therefore, in its widest sense, a parakletos is a person who is called in to help in a situation, for without that help a person cannot cope.
Secondly, one of the rarest meaning of the verb parakalein in secular Greek means to “comfort”, in a sense to console. Even in this rare meaning it still has the background of a type of comfort that will eventually support a person to stand on their feet and face life.
In ordinary, secular Greek, the most common usage of parakletos and its verb parakalein is in connection with the kind of help given in some kind of legal trial. The parakletos is the friend of the accused. He is someone who is called in to speak in support of the character of the accused in order to enlist the sympathy of the judges.
Finally, the verb parakalein is often used to exhort troops who are about to go into battle, cheering and urging them to fight. Parakletos is therefore an encourager, one who puts courage into the faint-hearted, one who helps a very ordinary person cope gallantly with a perilous and dangerous situation.
"The difficulty in translating parakletos shows that the Greek word is loaded with so much—so much that a single English word alone cannot fully capture adequately its richness and depth."
Understanding this context and background of the word parakletos gives us a much richer and deeper insight into the function of our Friend the Holy Spirit: 1) our Friend the Holy Spirit is sent to help us deal with the complexities and difficult situations in life, for without His assistance we wouldn’t be able to cope; 2) our Friend the Holy Spirit is sent to give us comfort and consolation in life; 3) our Friend the Holy Spirit is sent to be our defence counsel, someone to plead our case before the Father; and 4) our Friend the Holy Spirit is sent to spur us along the way, to encourage us to fight the good fight of faith.
He fills us with courage, confidence and hope as we gallantly fight the battles of life.
* I am indebted to the thoughts, ideas expressed and sifted in this article to the renown Scottish New Testament interpreter and scholar William Barclay in his book New Testament Words, pp 215–222.
Vince David is principal of Hoda Training Centre, Kukudu, Solomon Islands.