When Christians think of the Holy Spirit, echoes
of catechism answers often come to mind: the Third Person of
the Blessed Trinity, one in divine substance with the Father
and Son. But that Trinitarian doctrine was not defined until
the fourth century, and in the first days of Christianity the
picture was far less precise, especially in regard to the personhood
of the Spirit.
As for the witness of the New Testament, part of
the difficulty is that the concept of "spirit" has many facets:
the human spirit, angelic spirits, evil spirits and so on. In
addition, the Greek word for "spirit," pneuma, which
can also mean "wind, breath," is neuter, so that in passages
dealing with the Holy Spirit, the pronouns are literally "it,
its." Finally the roles attributed to the Spirit are varied:
It is like the mighty wind that moves the apostles to preach
at Pentecost; it gives life; it cries out in our hearts; it
is the source of charisms or special powers.
John—s Gospel shares much New Testament thought
and expression about the Holy Spirit; but it also makes its
own unique contribution, enhancing an appreciation of the Spirit
in the life of Christians and of the church.
In John alone the Spirit has the title Parakletos,
the gender of which is masculine, requiring personal pronouns.
(Elsewhere in the New Testament the term Paraclete is
featured only in 1 John 2:1, and there it refers to Jesus.)
The Paraclete Spirit is described in five passages, all in Jesus—
long discourse at the Last Supper, often accompanied by the
designation "Spirit of Truth," which also is peculiar to John.
As we shall see, the Greek parakletos has
different connotations and therefore is difficult to translate.
St. Jerome, faced with divergent older Latin renderings, decided
to settle for transliterating as paracletus in his Vulgate
Latin, and "Paraclete" is still the best choice for an English
Aspects of the Paraclete
Literally parakletos means "one called
alongside," particularly one called to help in a legal situation:
a defense attorney. A forensic or courtroom atmosphere can be
seen in words like "Advocate" and "Counsellor," also used to
translate parakletos. Actually there is a legal tone
to some of what Jesus in John says about the Paraclete; yet
the picture is more exactly that of a prosecuting attorney.
Jesus is going to die on a cross—in the eyes of the world judged
guilty and convicted. Yet after his death, the Paraclete will
come and reverse the sentence by convicting the world and proving
Jesus— innocence (16:8-11). He will show that Jesus did not
sin; rather the world sinned by not believing in him. He is
the one who is just or righteous, as shown by the fact that
he is not in the grave but with the Father. The judgment by
his enemies in putting him to death did not defeat him; ironically
it defeated his great adversary, the Satanic Prince of this
In a famous passage from the Old Testament Book
of Job (19:25), Job knows that he will go to death judged guilty
by all because of the sufferings visited on him; yet he knows
that his vindicator lives, namely, the angel who will stand
on his grave and show to all that he was innocent. That vindicating
spirit has the role of a paraclete, and Jesus now looks for
the Holy Spirit as his Paraclete.
Yet there is another role for "one called alongside."
Sometimes those who are suffering or lonely need to call in
someone to console and comfort them. This aspect of the Paraclete
is caught by the translation "Comforter" or "Consoler" (as in
Holy Comforter, and the Consolator optime of the Latin
hymn to the Spirit). In the context of the Last Supper Jesus—
disciples are sorrowful because he is departing; the promise
that someone just like Jesus is coming to take his place is
Nevertheless, the Jesus of the Last Supper who
prepares his disciples for the coming of the Spirit is also
realistic. The world will hate the disciples who have received
the Spirit of Truth (15:18-19) that the world cannot accept
because it neither sees nor recognizes that Spirit (14:17).
The disciples will be expelled from the synagogues and even
put to death (16:2-3). Yet because Jesus is with them, they
can have peace. "In the world you will have trouble; but take
courage, I have conquered the world" (16:33).
The Paraclete as Another Jesus
A major emphasis in the Johannine presentation
of the Paraclete is the likeness of the Spirit to Jesus that
enables the Spirit to substitute for him. (That is why the Paraclete
Spirit cannot come until Jesus departs.) Both come forth from
the Father; both are given or sent by the Father; both are rejected
by the world.
The Johannine Jesus claims to have nothing on
his own; whatever he does or says is what he has heard or seen
with the Father (5:19; 8:28, 38; 12:49). The Paraclete will
speak nothing on his own; he will take what belongs to Jesus
and declare it; he will speak only what he hears (John 16:13-15).
When Jesus is on earth and the Father in heaven,
whoever sees Jesus has seen the Father (14:9). When Jesus has
gone to the Father, whoever listens to the Paraclete will be
listening to Jesus. In short what Jesus is to the Father, the
Paraclete is to Jesus. Thus in many ways the Paraclete fulfills
Jesus— promise to return.
In one extraordinary passage (16:7) Jesus says
that it is better for his disciples that he go away,
for otherwise the Paraclete will not come to them. In what possible
sense can the presence of the Paraclete be better than the presence
of Jesus? Perhaps the solution lies in a major difference between
the two presences. In Jesus, the Word became flesh; the Paraclete
does not become flesh. In the human life of Jesus, visibly,
at a definite time and a definite place, God—s presence was
uniquely in the world; and then corporally Jesus left this world
and went to the Father. The Paraclete—s presence is not visible,
not confined to any one time or place. Rather the Paraclete
dwells in everyone who loves Jesus and keeps the commandments,
and so his presence is not limited by time (14:15-17). The presence
of God as the Paraclete means that there are no second-class
citizens: The Paraclete is just as present in the modern disciples
of Jesus as he was in the first generation.
That fact is particularly important when we consider
one of the principal activities of the Paraclete. The Paraclete
is "the Spirit of Truth" who supplies guidance along the way
of all truth (16:13). The Johannine Jesus had many things to
say that his disciples could never understand in his lifetime
(16:12); but then the Paraclete comes and takes those things
and declares them (16:15).
In other words, the Paraclete solves problems
by supplying new insights into a revelation brought by Jesus.
When God gave the Son, divine revelation was granted in all
its completeness: Jesus was the very Word of God. Yet on this
earth that Word spoke under the limitations of a particular
culture and set of issues. How do Christians of other ages get
God—s guidance for dealing with entirely different issues? The
Paraclete who is present to every time and culture brings no
new revelation; rather he takes the revelation of the Word made
flesh and declares it anew, facing the things to come.
The Role of the Paraclete in Christian Life
The Gospel of John took final written form about
the end of the first century A.D. This was a time when several
churches were developing an external teaching magisterium or
authority to guide those under pastoral care. For instance,
a speech in Acts 20:28-31 stresses the role of the presbyters
of Ephesus in protecting the faithful from strange perversions
The Pauline pastoral epistles also envision presbyter-bishops
who hold on to the true doctrine they have been taught (Titus
1:9) as a criterion for judging what is valid in any new approaches.
John, however, would place emphasis on the indwelling
Paraclete, the guide to all truth, given to every believer,
so that 1 John 2:27 can say in reference to the Spirit, "The
anointing that you received abides in you; and so you have no
need for anyone to teach you." There has been a tendency in
Christian history to allow one or the other of these approaches
to dominate; but as the sole approach each one has drawbacks.
Teachers whose only strength is to hold on to
the tradition may tend to regard all new ideas as dangerous.
The Spirit is a vibrant guide and would seem better adapted
to face the things to come. Yet when two believers who claim
the guidance of the indwelling Paraclete disagree, often neither
can acknowledge the possibility of being wrong, and so they
tend to split irreconcilably.
In the liturgy before the feast of Pentecost the
church reads Acts alongside John, and thus implicitly reminds
itself that guidance for Christians involves an interplay between
external instruction by well-grounded teachers and internal
movements of the Paraclete. Both factors are essential to enable
the church to combine valid tradition and new insights.
Another issue affecting Christian life at the
end of the first century was the gap caused by the death of
the eyewitness generation who constituted the living chain between
the churches and Jesus of Nazareth. For the Johannine community
the full impact of this issue would have come with the death
of the Beloved Disciple, the eyewitness par excellence (19:35;
21:24), a death that occurred seemingly just before the Gospel
was put in final form. How would the Johannine community survive
without its principal living link to Jesus?
The concept of the Paraclete/Spirit offered an
answer to this problem. If the Beloved Disciple had borne witness
to Jesus, it was not solely because of his recollections. After
all, the disciples had seen Jesus and not understood (14:9).
Only the post-resurrectional gift of the Spirit taught the disciples
the full meaning of what they had seen (2:22; 12:16); and their
witness was the witness of the Paraclete speaking through them
In particular, the profound reinterpretation of
the ministry and words of Jesus effected under the guidance
of the Beloved Disciple and now found in the Fourth Gospel was
the work of the Paraclete. Indeed, the Beloved Disciple was
in a figurative sense an "incarnation" of the Paraclete. And
the Paraclete would not cease activity when these eyewitnesses
had gone, for he dwells within all Christians who love Jesus
and keep his commandments (14:17). The Paraclete is the link
of future generations to Jesus so that in an essential way later
Christians are as close to Jesus as were the earliest Christians.
A third issue is the anguish caused by the delay
of Jesus— second coming. In the period after A.D. 70 the expectation
of Jesus— return began to pale. It had been associated with
God—s wrathful judgment upon Jerusalem (Mark 13), but now Jerusalem
had been destroyed by Roman armies and Jesus had not yet returned.
In particular, Jesus— return had been expected within the lifetime
of those who had been his companions (Mark 13:30; Matthew 10:23).
Some in the Johannine community had expected his return before
the death of the Beloved Disciple (John 21:23); yet this death
was now imminent or even a reality, and still Jesus had not
come back. That the delay caused skepticism is seen in 2 Peter
3:3-8 where the answer is given that no matter how long the
interval, the coming will occur soon, for with the Lord a thousand
years is as one day.
The Johannine answer is more profound. The evangelist
does not lose faith in the second coming but emphasizes that
many of the features associated with it are already realities
of Christian life (judgment, divine sonship, eternal life).
And in a very real way Jesus has come back during the lifetime
of his companions, for he has come in and through the Paraclete.
The Johannine Christians need not live with their eyes constantly
straining toward the heavens from which the Son of Man is to
come; for, as the Paraclete, Jesus is present within all believers:
their Advocate, their Consoler, their Guide to all truth.
Next: Israel—s Neighboring Nations (by Elizabeth