Will the Real Advocate Please Stand Up?

Author: Jacob P. Massine

Most of us are familiar with the idea that the Holy Spirit is a ‘helper,’ who intercedes between us and God. Images of lawyers pressing their case with passionate appeals and compelling arguments seem to fit the descriptions. But is there more to this idea of advocacy? What else lies hidden in the word we have assumed to mean ‘lawyer’?

Advocate or Helper? A Hung Jury?

In most English translations, the word ‘advocate’ only appears once in the New Testament: “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1 ESV). But when we look up the Greek word behind the English, which is parakleitos (παράκλητος), we learn that it also occurs in John’s Gospel—which is the only other place it is used in the New Testament. In the Gospel of John, Jesus reminds His disciples four times about the parakleitos He will send after His ascension. Without exception, the parakleitos in John’s Gospel is the Holy Spirit (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7).

Theologians typically discuss the “Paraclete” concept only with respect to the Holy Spirit. But both Jesus and the Spirit are called parakleitos. Should we translate the term the same way in each occurrence?

Bring in the Witnesses

Using A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG), we can probe the extra-biblical references to parakleitos and find the answer to our question. The Latin church fathers often rendered the Greek parakleitos as the Latin advocatus, from which we derive “advocate.” Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, called the Vulgate (4th century AD), well illustrates the problem. Instead of translating parakleitos in the Gospel of John, Jerome throws his hands in the air and simply transliterates the word as paracletus in every occurrence. But he opts for advocatus (“advocate”) in 1 John 2:1. Jerome appears not to know what to do with the Gospel of John references to the Spirit as parakleitos.

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) informs us that in Greek writings, the meaning of “lawyer” or “attorney” (hence “advocate”) for parakleitos was rare. Nevertheless, BDAG does indicate that it was used in a legal sense prior to the New Testament period (Demosthenes, Orations, 19; Heraclitus, Homeric Allegories, 59e). But the question remains: is “advocate” an appropriate translation for the Spirit’s role in John’s Gospel?

Your Honor, I Object!

While we would naturally be inclined to accept the traditional English translation “comforter” for the occurrences of parakleitos in the Gospel of John, it is a tenuous choice. The TDNT notes that the Greek terms for “to comfort” (parakaleo, παρακαλέω) and “encouragement” (parakleisis, παράκλησις) do not appear in John’s gospel, his letters, or even the book of Revelation. In view of the absence of these terms, it seems unwise to presume that John’s parakleitos is meant to be connected with ideas of comfort or encouragement.

Turning to the word’s usage in Judaism, we find that Josephus, a first-century historian, described God as a supporter and assister (Antiquites 1.268), but the word he uses is derived from parakaleo (“to comfort”)—one of the words John does not use. In rabbinical writings that post-date the New Testament, the rabbis describe God as a peraqlit (פרקליט—a loan-word from the Greek parakleitos. This is akin to the transliteration choice made by Jerome. This means that for the occurrences in John’s Gospel, the door is open to a translation other than “comforter.” But we still don’t know where John might have found the notion of advocacy with respect to the Spirit.

Objection Sustained

It is clear where John got the idea of advocacy with respect to Jesus, the Messiah. Since the messiah had a priestly (intercessory) role to fulfill, advocacy is transparent (e.g., Heb 4:14–5:10; 7:1–22). Does the Old Testament also speak of a heavenly intercessor before God who is not the Messiah? It turns out the answer is yes. Several references in Job describe angels interceding for the righteous when they are afflicted (Job 5:1; 16:19–22; 33:23–24). Angels are, of course, spiritual beings (1 Kgs 22:19–23; Heb 1:14). In ancient Judaism, angels were therefore conceived of as spirits, but they also had intelligent personhood.

This may be the key to understanding John’s use of parakleitos. By using the same term (parakleitos) for both Jesus and the Spirit, John informs us that Jesus serves as intercessory advocate in heaven, while the Spirit performs an advocacy role on earth. This is why in John’s Gospel before Jesus rose and ascended, He promised to send the Spirit to replace Him as advocate (parakleitos) on earth.

Court is Adjourned

When Jesus calls the Holy Spirit a parakleitos in His sermon in John 14–16, to His Jewish listeners, the term would have evoked ideas of divine mediation and intervention. For Greeks, however, parakleitos would have carried more earthly, social and legal connotations. But in either context, “comforter” or “helper” doesn’t seem to fit.

John’s terminology makes the Spirit’s ministry just as intimate as Jesus’. He is with us where we are, on earth. Also, John’s subtle equating of the Spirit with Jesus, who is full deity, forms an argument for the deity of the Holy Spirit.

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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 2 No. 1