Note on the Johannine “Paraclete” passages

This is a supplement to the recent daily note, the last of a series exploring the development of traditions regarding the Spirit of God within early Christianity. Given the special character of the “Paraclete” passages in the Johannine writings, I felt it was best to discuss them separately. I will not be presenting a detailed critical and exegetical analysis of them here, as that has been done in earlier notes and studies. Instead, the focus will be along the lines of the recent note on the Johannine references to the Spirit, considering how these passages relate to the development of the early Christian belief.

The term “Paraclete” is a transliteration of the noun para/klhto$ (parákl¢tos), used as a title four times in the Johannine Last Discourse of Jesus (13:31-16:33)—at 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7. It also occurs at 1 John 2:1, but nowhere else in the New Testament (nor in the LXX), essentially marking it as a distinctive Johannine term. The noun is derived from the more common verb parakale/w (“call alongside”), often used in the sense of calling someone alongside to give help. This help can be understood various ways, including the more technical sense of serving as a (legal) advocate. The relatively wide semantic range has led New Testament translators to render para/klhto$ variously as “advocate”, “counselor”, “comforter”, all of which can be misleading and are not entirely accurate. A safer route would be to transliterate the noun as a title in English—i.e., Paraclete—as many translators and commentators have done. The best solution, however, is to adhere to the literal, fundamental meaning of “(one) called alongside” (i.e. to give help). A related noun, para/klhsi$ (parákl¢sis), more common in the New Testament, refers properly to the help that is given by the person “called alongside”.

In each of the four references in the Last Discourse, Jesus first mentions the para/klhto$, and then subsequently identifies it with the Spirit (pneu=ma):

    • 14:16-17— “And I will make a request of the Father, and He will give to you another (one) called alongside [para/klhto$], (so) that he would be with you into the Age, the Spirit of truth…”
    • 14:26— “…but the (one) called alongside [para/klhto$], the holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, that (one) will teach you all (thing)s…”
    • 15:26— “When the (one) called alongside [para/klhto$] should come, whom I will send to you (from) alongside the Father, the Spirit of truth who travels out (from) alongside the Father, that (one) will give witness about me”
    • 16:7, 13— “…if I should not go away, the (one) called alongside [para/klhto$] will not come toward you; but, if I should travel (away), (then) I will send him toward you. …. And, when that (one) should come, the Spirit of truth, he will lead the way for you in all truth…”

This has led to all kind of interesting speculation as to whether the Last Discourse material may originally have referred only to the para/klhto$, and that the identifications with the Spirit were introduced in a subsequent stage of editing. I do not find such theories very convincing; in any event, within the overall framework of the Gospel as we have it, there can be no doubt that the “Paraclete” and the Spirit are identical.

In three of the references, the expression “Spirit of truth” is used, while “holy Spirit” is found in 14:26 (though some manuscripts there read “Spirit of truth” as well). It should be noted that “holy Spirit” is quite rare in the Johannine writings; apart from a traditional reference in the baptism scene (Jn 1:33), presumably inherited as part of the wider Gospel tradition, the expression occurs only in the episode where Jesus gives the Spirit to his disciples (20:22), and does not occur in the Johannine letters at all. Also, it is worth noting that there is no other reference to the Spirit in the Last Discourse, apart from these four “Paraclete” references.

It is perhaps best to begin with the use of the word para/klhto$ in 1 John 2:1, as in some ways it is the key to a correct understanding of the term in the Last Discourse as well. There the author assures his readers that, if any believer happens to commit sin, “we hold (one) called alongside [para/klhto$] (for us) toward the Father—Yeshua (the) Anointed, (the) just/righteous (one)”. In his role as para/klhto$, Jesus speaks before God on our behalf, much like a legal advocate in front of a judicial court. This implies the exalted position of Jesus (following his resurrection), standing at the “right hand” of God the Father, in accordance with the exaltation-Christology that dominated the earliest period of Christianity.

The main point to note, however, is that it is Jesus who is identified as the para/klhto$, a fact which helps to explain the use of the expression “another para/klhto$” in Jn 14:16. Jesus himself was the first para/klhto$, one called by God to be alongside believers (i.e. his disciples) during his time on earth. He quite literally spent time alongside (para/) them, having previously been alongside (para/) the Father. In his ministry, Jesus gave all sorts of help and guidance to his disciples, teaching them about God the Father and instructing them in the way of truth. The Spirit continues this same work of Jesus, remaining alongside the disciples (believers) and “leading the way” for them “in all truth” (16:13). This association of the Spirit with the truth of God is a key Johannine theme, expressed most clearly elsewhere in John 4:23-24 and 1 John 4:6; 5:6 (“the Spirit is the truth”); cf. also Jn 1:14ff; 8:32, 44; 14:6; 17:17-19; 18:37; 1 Jn 1:8; 2:4; 3:19.

Even more important, from the standpoint of the Last Discourses, is the idea that the Paraclete/Spirit represents the abiding presence of Jesus himself, after he has departed/returned back to the Father. This is part of a wider tendency in early Christianity, whereby the Spirit came to be understood as both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Jesus. Paul uses “Spirit of God” and “Spirit of Christ” more or less interchangeably, though the latter is admittedly more rare. In prior notes, we examined the idea, best seen at several points in Paul’s letters, that, through his resurrection/exaltation, Jesus came to be united with God’s own Spirit. The Gospel of John, of course, expresses a much clearer sense of Jesus’ pre-existent deity; and his identity as the Son—both in the Gospel prologue and throughout the Discourses—must be understood in light of this Christological emphasis. Jesus the Son was present with the Father, in heaven/eternity, prior to his human life and ministry on earth. With his departure from his disciples, he returns back to the Father, leaving the Spirit in his place. Through the Spirit, Jesus remains with believers (the important Johannine use of the verb me/nw, “remain”); it is also the means by which Jesus shows the way for us to the Father. We are united with both Jesus the Son and God the Father through the presence of the Spirit.

Commentators have long noted the apparent ambiguity with regard to who it is that sends the Spirit, whether the Father or the Son, or the two of them together:

    • The Father gives the Spirit at Jesus’ request (14:16)
    • The Father sends the Spirit in Jesus’ name (14:26)
    • Jesus sends the Spirit from the Father (15:26; 16:7)

Ultimately, the Spirit comes from the Father, but this has to be understood in terms of the clear chain of relationship established and expressed repeatedly throughout the discourses: the Father gives all things to the Son, who, in turn, gives them to believers. The Spirit is certainly among those things that are given—indeed, it is the primary thing given by God to the Son (and then to us as believers). This is summarized and expressed most clearly in John 3:35:

“The Father loves the Son, and has given all (thing)s in(to) his hand.”

According to the prior verse 34, the Spirit is what is primarily in view in this statement:

“For the (one) whom God sent forth from (Himself) speaks the utterances of God, for (it is) not out of a measure (that) He gives the Spirit.”

To say that God does not give his Spirit “out of a measure” means that he gives it fully and completely—that is, here, fully and completely to the Son. The Son, in turn, is able to bestow God’s Spirit upon all who trust in him.

1 John 4:1-6

Finally, some light may be shed on the Paraclete passages from the discussion in 1 John 4:1-6, where the expression “Spirit of truth” is used. This passage has a strong eschatological orientation, whereby the author has set the conflict (in the Johannine Community) involving certain ‘false’ believers as part of the end-time appearance of “Antichrist” —a)nti/xristo$, literally “against the Anointed”. According to the author, these false Christians hold a false view of Jesus Christ, which, being false, cannot be inspired by the Spirit of truth—that is the Spirit of God and Christ. Instead, such “false prophets” are inspired by evil and deceitful spirits—the opposite of God’s own Spirit—characterized as “the spirit th(at is) against the Anointed” (i.e., spirit of ‘antichrist’). Part of the early Christian eschatology, inherited from the Judaism of the period, involved the expected rise of “false prophets” and Satanic-inspired figures during the time of distress (qli/yi$) which precedes the end of the current Age. For further study, cf. my three-part article “The Antichrist Tradition” in the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”.

This eschatological worldview was central to much early Christian thought, going back to Jesus’ own teachings, and received a distinctive expression within the Johannine writings. The presence of the Spirit marked the beginning of the New Age for believers in Christ. All of the anticipated future blessings of the New Age—resurrection, eternal life, abiding with God in heaven—were experienced by believers, through the Spirit, already in the present. This is the “realized” aspect of early Christian eschatology, and it is especially prominent in the Gospel of John. At the same time, the activity of the Spirit in the present offers a promise of what will be experienced fully in the future. For more on the Johannine eschatology, in terms of the Last Discourse and references to the Spirit, cf. my articles in the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, along with the earlier notes, e.g., on Jn 16:7-15.

 

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