by Matthew W. Bassford
Translation is an art, not a science, and this is true even of translating the Bible. We cannot hope to establish a one-to-one correspondence between words in Koiné Greek and English so that one is an apt translation for the other every time. Instead, translators commonly are presented with several different possible translations, and they must choose the one that makes the most contextual sense.
As a result, different translations often say things differently, and in our search to discover God’s intent in His word, it can be quite useful to consider those different renderings. This is true even of familiar passages.
For instance, most Christians are familiar with the description of the Holy Spirit as “the Comforter” in Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 14-16. “Comforter” certainly is a permissible translation of the Koiné word paraclētos, but it is not the only possible one. Indeed, it reflects an extension of the meaning of paraclētos rather than its core meaning. Most technically, a paraclētos was something like a legal advocate or an assistant defense attorney.
The Christian Standard Bible, then, renders paraclētos as “Counselor” (as in the way a judge will address a lawyer) rather than “Comforter”. This sheds a great deal of new light on what Jesus is saying about the work of the Holy Spirit in the context.
For instance, in John 14:15-17, Jesus depicts Himself as One who gives commandments to be obeyed. He promises, though, that after His departure, God will provide another paraclētos, the Spirit of truth. “Comforter” doesn’t seem to make sense in a context that isn’t about comfort, but “Counselor”, as in “provider of legal counsel”, makes perfect sense.
The same is true in John 14:25-26. There, Jesus presents Himself as One who has taught the word of the Father. Later, though, the paraclētos, the Holy Spirit, will both teach them all things and remind them of the teaching of Jesus. The work of a Comforter? Not really. The work of a Counselor? Very much so.
Substituting “Counselor” for “Comforter” also enhances the meaning of John 15:26. There, Jesus says that the paraclētos, the Spirit of truth, will proceed from the Father to testify about Him. The appearance of the legal concept of testimony should lead us to view the role of the Spirit here in a legal sense too.
Finally, in John 16:7-8, Jesus says that the work of the paraclētos will be to convict the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment. Comforters don’t convict, but a counselor might!
All this is important for us to understand because it tells us what we should expect from the work of the Spirit in our lives today. Many people, perhaps because of the use of “Comforter” in most translations, have a very emotional view of that work. The Spirit makes them feel certain ways.
However, that’s not the point of John 14-16 at all. Instead, we should expect the Counselor who indwells us to teach us, to remind us, to testify about our Lord, and even to convict us if necessary. The Spirit of truth speaks in our lives with the voice of truth, and we must listen!