Introduction: meaning and derivation

This lovely word occurs only 5 times in the NT, and is used only by the apostle John, but it is well worth exploring, both for linguistic reasons, and because it is used as a title both for Jesus and for his Holy Spirit. As a title of Jesus, its meaning and translation are quite straightforward, and greatly encouraging. As a title for the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, it has evoked many and various translations, being rich in meaning but hard to capture in a single word.

To begin with, we will approach the word linguistically. It is derived from the verb ‘parakalo’; this is itself a compound of the simple verb ‘kalo’, which, conveniently for English speakers, simply means to ‘call’. ‘kalo’, like its compound, adds the suffix ‘-tos’ to form the verbal adjective, ‘kletos’, which is the equivalent of a past participle passive, and so means ‘called’. This word occurs 10 times in the NT, most memorably in Jesus’ words in Matthew 24. 14 (and also, according to some MSS, in 20. 16): “For many are called, but few chosen”. Paul also uses the word in the openings of Romans and 1 Corinthians, to describe himself as “called (to be) an apostle”. From this we can see that ‘parakletos’ is a passive adjective - an important point to remember when we look at it as a title of the Holy Spirit. The basic meaning of the compound verb ‘parakalo’ is to ‘call to one’s side’, or to ‘summon’, so that ‘parakletos’ means ‘called to one’s side’, or ‘summoned’. Greek can turn any adjective into a noun by prefacing it with the definite article, and this is how it is used in 4 of its 5 appearances in the NT, those which refer to the Holy Spirit: ‘the one who has been called to our side’.

A. Jesus our Advocate.
i. the courtroom of heaven 1 John 2.1

We will look first at the one instance when this title is applied to Jesus: 1 John 2.1. Although there is no definite article, ‘parakletos’ is still used as a noun, in apposition to ‘Jesus’. This is its most straightforward usage, where there is no problem in finding the right translation: “If any one sins, we have, as our advocate in the presence of the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” ‘Advocate’ is derived from the Latin ‘advocatus’ (a past participle passive), which in turn is a literal translation of ‘parakletos’ - ‘called to one’s side’. The primary context of both words, as of ‘advocate’ today, is in the law-courts. In both Athens and Rome, a man who was accused and brought to court could ‘summon to his side’ a friend who would sit with him and speak for him - an ‘advocate’. This developed into a system in which skilled orators would hire out their services to ‘friends’ who realised that they did not have the rhetorical skills to defend themselves adequately; the most famous of these advocates were the Athenian Demosthenes and the Roman Cicero. In this passage, therefore, John seems to envisage heaven as a court of law, with Christians who fall into sin being accused before the throne of God the Father. Who is the accuser? This question is answered elsewhere in the writings of John, in Revelation 12.10: “Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say, ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before God day and night, has been hurled down’”. And what was it that evoked this triumphant cry? Verse 9 answers both our questions: “The great dragon was hurled down, that ancient serpent called the Devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray” (NIV). Against such an accuser, before such a judge, what can we say? How are we to defend ourselves? We are speechless, helpless, defenceless. But the great Advocate steps forward to defend us, “Jesus Christ the righteous”, and our cause is not lost after all.

ii. the case for the sefence

We shall return to this awesome scene in a moment, to find out exactly how our Advocate pleads our cause; but meanwhile another dose of linguistics will bring us down to earth. Here I am much indebted to William Barclay’s chapter on ‘parakletos’ (op. cit. pp. 219-20), who informs us that the word became so familiar and so useful that it was commonly transliterated into Hebrew by Jewish rabbis and biblical scholars. Two examples that he quotes are particularly relevant. Rabbinic writings, apparently, often described man’s good works as ‘parakletoi’ (plural form), or ‘advocates’ on our behalf before God: “he who fulfils one precept of the law gains for himself one ‘parakletos’”. Another quotation is even more obviously relevant: “In the heavenly judgment, a man’s ‘parakletoi’ are repentance and good works”. And a third quotation further emphasises the point: “All the righteousness and mercy which an Israelite does in the world are great peace and great ‘parakletoi’ between him and his Father in heaven.” These three statements perfectly encapsulate the essence of the Jewish religion - indeed, of all religion - and of the Old Covenant: keeping the law keeps God happy and pleads our cause for us. But can any one keep God’s law? Barclay also cites a second usage of ‘parakletos’ transliterated into Hebrew, in the Targum version of Job 33. 23-5: Elihu, in his attempt to comfort Job, describes a man desperately ill and approaching death, “the pit”. “Yet”, he goes on, “if there is an angel on his side, a ‘parakletos’ (NIV ‘mediator’), one in a thousand, to tell a man what is right for him, and to be gracious to him, and to say, ‘spare him from going down to the pit: I have found a ransom for him’, then his flesh is renewed like a child’s” - the OT equivalent, perhaps, of being ‘born again’. So these two uses of ‘parakletos’ in Hebrew neatly summarise the two lines of defence our Advocate may use to plead our cause: ‘his good deeds speak for him’, or ‘a ransom has been paid for him’. Which will he use? No-brainer! Let us return to 1 John 2 and to the court of heaven.

iii. Jesus the atoning sacrifice

If the first verse of this chapter suggests that Jesus presents the case for our defence, the second verse makes it clear that Jesus is the case for our defence: “he himself - Jesus - is an atoning sacrifice our for our sins”. Our good deeds and attempts to keep God’s law can never be enough to atone for the multitude of our sins and failures; only Jesus’ atoning death can provide the ‘ransom’ needed to rescue us from the pit. It is not even clear that John imagines Jesus actually speaking on our behalf; his actions - or rather, his passion, - has already spoken louder than even his words could. The Father only has to see the marks of crucifixion still evident on him, ascended and glorified though he is, to be reminded that, for the Christian who puts his faith in Christ, there is no case to answer.

iv. Jesus our intercessor
‘entunchanō’ Rom 8.33-4,Heb 7.25

Other writers, however, do suggest that in this context Jesus does ‘intercede’ for us, and here it is worth having a brief look at the Greek word so translated, ‘entunchanō’. Its basic meaning in Attic Greek is simply to ‘meet someone by chance’, or to ‘bump into’. But in the NT, where it is used (like ‘parakletos’) 5 times, it means to approach deliberately someone in power to present a petition to him; in 3 of the 5 uses this petition is on behalf of someone, so that ‘intercede’ is a good translation, while in the other 2 uses the petitioners are working, as it were, for the prosecution. These 2 latter instances do not really concern us here - the Jews petitioning the Roman governor Festus to have Paul put to death (Acts 25. 24), and the prophet Elijah ‘complaining’ (‘appealed’, NIV) to God about the way the Jewish nation had treated the prophets (Romans 11.2). But earlier in Romans, in chapter 8, Paul, like John, envisages court proceedings before the throne of God in heaven. Once one starts quoting from this magnificent chapter, it is hard to stop, but the verses which most concern us here are 33-4: “who will bring a charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God that justifies. Who is he that condemns?” Paul leaves that question rhetorically unanswered, but we have already seen that it is “the accuser of the brethren”, Satan, who is trying to condemn us. Paul continues: “Christ Jesus who died” (our “atoning sacrifice”) “- more than that, who was raised to life - is at the right hand of God, and is also interceding for us” (‘entunchanō’) .We will return to this chapter later, but now we will move on to Hebrews, where the writer is describing the perfect priesthood of Christ: “but because Jesus lives for ever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for us” (7. 25-5). Another verse from Hebrews (9. 24) also speaks of Jesus’ ministry as our advocate and intercessor, though it uses neither of these words: “for Christ entered heaven itself, now to appear before the face of God on our behalf”. To this day, legal parlance describes an advocate ‘appearing before’ a judge.

2. The Holy Spirit our Helper
i. Jesus' substitute
John 14.16
‘allos’ Matt 2.12, John 10.16

The other 4 occurrences of ‘parakletos’ all refer to the Holy Spirit, and are all used by Jesus on the eve of his crucifixion, during the long discourse, beginning in the upper room and continuing to Gethsemane, which constitutes chapters 13 - 17 of John’s gospel. The first reference is in 14. 16: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another ‘parakletos’, so that he may be with you for ever, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive.” One problem of translation here may be quickly dealt with. The Greek word for ‘Spirit’ is ‘pneuma’, which is a neuter noun, so that pronouns referring to it (the word!) are correspondingly in the neuter form; the example here is the relative pronoun ‘whom’, which I have translated thus rather than ‘which’, even though it is neuter in form. The AV also consistently in all these references to the ‘parakletos’ uses the personal ‘who’ or ‘he’ or ‘him’, as is appropriate for the Third ‘Person’ of the Trinity. But in other contexts, such as Romans 8. 26 (which we will look at later) the AV translates “the Spirit itself”, which puts strict grammar before good sense - and correct theology. The next issue of translation to look at should also be simple, but has, surprisingly, caused some trouble: the word for ‘another’ - ‘allos’ in Greek. The clearest definition I can offer of the word is ‘like in some ways, unlike in others’, or, more succinctly, ‘similar but different’. Two examples should be enough to make the point. In Matthew 2.12, the Magi, warned by God in a dream of Herod’s evil intentions, “returned to their country by another way” - same destination, different route; and in John 10. 16 Jesus says: “I have other sheep who are not of this sheepfold” - similar in that they are disciples of Jesus, different in that they are not ethnic Jews. When therefore Jesus says that the Father will give them “another ‘parakletos’”, he is implying that he will be like himself in his loving commitment to his disciples, but unlike himself in not being a human figure of flesh and blood, but an invisible presence who would be with them always and everywhere. To describe the Spirit as "Jesus’ other self" can be a helpful picture at a simple level, but is not theologically adequate as a definition of the Third Person of the Trinity. To think of him as Jesus’ ‘substitute’ might also be helpful, suggesting both the similarity of his role as the teacher, friend and companion of his disciples, and also his independence as a distinct Person. Just as on Good Friday Jesus was to become his disciples’ substitute, bearing God’s wrath in their place (the ‘atoning sacrifice’), so at Pentecost the Holy Spirit became Jesus’ substitute, taking his place in the disciples’ lives.

ii. our Advocate?
Mark 13.11,Luke 12.11-12

The remaining problem, which is the main problem, is how to translate ‘parakletos’. Could the Holy Spirit be described as ‘another advocate’, like Jesus? Well, in one instance, at least, Jesus acted as an advocate for his disciples: in Mark 2. 24 the Pharisees accuse them of breaking the Sabbath by plucking ears of corn to eat as they walked through the cornfield. This, to a Pharisee, was, in effect, reaping, and so working. Jesus then defended them against this accusation, so assuming the role of their advocate. The Holy Spirit, too, we are told, in certain circumstances, will help and support us in our hour of need just as an advocate does. In all three synoptic gospels Jesus warns his disciples of persecution to come as they preach the gospel. Mark’s version reads: “When they arrest you and hand you over for trial, do not worry in advance what you should say, but whatever is given to you at that moment, say it; for it will not be you speaking but the Holy Spirit” (13.11). Matthew (10. 19-20) describes the Spirit as “the Spirit of your Father”, and Luke (12. 11-12) says that the Spirit will “teach you what to say”, teaching being, as we shall see, one of the Spirit’s most important ministries. We could, then, describe the Holy Spirit as an ‘advocate’ in such circumstances; even though he does not actually speak on our behalf, as Jesus did for his disciples, he writes our lines for us, as it were, just as Demosthenes and Cicero wrote speeches for their ‘friends’ to deliver in court. We can, moreover, see Jesus’ promise being fulfilled in Acts 4 and 5. Twice the apostles are arrested, first just Peter and John after the healing of the lame man, and then all the apostles in a clamp-down by the authorities (4. 3 = 5. 18). On each occasion, when brought before the council they made powerful speeches testifying to Jesus and his resurrection, and proclaiming that he was the only author of salvation (4. 8-12, 5. 29-32). On the first occasion we are specifically told that “Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit”; on the second, we can infer this both from the parallel with the previous episode, and from the effect their words had on the authorities: “they were cut to the heart” (AV), just as the crowd had been by Peter’s Spirit-inspired sermon on the day of Pentecost (2.37); the Greek word is different, but the meaning is much the same. But whereas many in that crowd were led to repentance and faith as the Spirit brought Peter’s words right home to their hearts, the members of the Sanhedrin, or most of them, it seems, were hardened in their unbelief.

iii. our interpreter in intercession
Rom 8.26-7

The other context in which the Spirit could be described as our ‘advocate’ takes us back, as promised, to Romans 8 - and also to our fifth and final example of ‘entunchanō’, to ‘intercede’. “In the same wayalso”, Paul writes (26-7) “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know what to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself” (n.b.) “intercedes for us with wordless groans. And God, who searches human hearts, knows what is in the mind of the Spirit, because he intercedes for Christians according to God’s will”. The first ‘intercede’ here is, in the Greek, a double compound form of the verb, ‘huperentunchanō’ (‘huper’ meaning ‘on behalf of’), so that this idea of the Spirit as our advocate pleading for us is doubly emphasised. But of course the context here is very different from the court-room scenario of 1 John 2. 1-2. Here it is Christians, “the saints”, who are acting as advocates for the world, a world which Paul has described a little earlier as “groaning” (v. 22), interceding with God for its salvation and liberation, but (unsurprisingly) not really knowing how or what to pray. So the Spirit intercedes on our behalf, in a different sense from that in which Jesus intercedes ‘for’ us before God. Jesus pleads our cause, and his atoning sacrifice means that we have access to a holy God which otherwise would be denied, and can come into his presence to plead the cause of others. But we can only do this effectively with the help of the Spirit; he understands our weakness, feels much more acutely than we ever can the pain of the fallen world, and, most important of all, knows the will of the Father. In the previous example, the Spirit gives us the words to speak, and we speak them in our hour of need. Here, our stumbling and inadequate words of intercession are translated by the Spirit into powerful pleas which the Father, as he looks into our hearts and sees our genuine desires, is pleased to grant, because they accord with his will. The Holy Spirit here, then, is not so much an advocate as an interpreter - or a communications expert - who knows the language of heaven. It is not our skill with words which makes our prayers effective - that would disenfranchise many who do not have such skill - but the desires of our heart, which the Spirit can bring to God for us, if we ask for his help.

iv. our Comforter? our Counsellor?

But despite these rather specialised examples, ‘advocate’ is clearly not a satisfactory translation for ‘parakletos’ when referring to the Holy Spirit. The oldest translation, dating back to Wiclif, and retained in the AV, is ‘Comforter’ - which originally had the sense of ‘strengthener’ rather than ‘encourager’. This is a tempting option, partly because it well describes one of the most heart-warming of the Spirit’s ministries, and partly because the verb ‘parakalō’, from which, as we have seen, ‘parakletos’ is derived, commonly means to ‘comfort’, together with its abstract noun, ‘paraklesis’. These two words appear 10 times between them in 2 Corinthians 1. 3-7, each time translated ‘comfort’ in NIV (though one usage is, quite reasonably, left untranslated), while AV alternates between ‘comfort’ and ‘console’. But this temptation should be resisted, mainly because, as we have also seen, ‘parakletos’ is passive in meaning, not active. This is well exemplified in Job 16. 2: “Miserable comforters are ye all” (AV); in the LXX the Greek word for ‘comforters’ here is the plural form of ‘parakletor’, and, as in English, the Greek suffix ‘-or’ denotes the person who performs the action of the verb. The NIV moves from ‘Comforter’ to Counsellor’. This has at least two advantages: it retains a suggestion of the law-courts (especially in American ears), and it echoes one of the titles given prophetically to the Messiah in Isaiah 9.6, “wonderful Counsellor”. Both these translations are appropriate to some areas of the Spirit’s ministry, but not to others.

v. our Helper
Rom.8.26, Matt 14.30-31

Let us return one last time to Romans 8, where we read: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (v. 26). This sentence seems to capture the essence of the work of the Spirit in the life of the Christian, so that the translation of ‘parakletos’ found in some versions, ‘Helper’, has much to commend it. For it is not only in prayer that we are weak. In every area of our lives, though our spirit may be willing to live for Christ and serve him faithfully, yet the flesh is weak, and all too often we fail to live out our faith effectively, and to live up to our fine resolutions. It is at such times that we need to ‘call to our side’ the ‘parakletos’, the great Helper of the weak, the ‘Jesus substitute’. We may be like Peter, walking in faith on the water (in our case, metaphorically!), but then suddenly sinking as his faith failed. “Lord, save me!” he cried, and Jesus “stretched out his hand and took hold of him” (Matt. 14. 30-1). Jesus in his earthly ministry could only stretch out his hand to one disciple at a time, but now, in the Person of his Holy Spirit, his great substitute, he can come to the help of any of his disciples at any time, anywhere. He is only an arm’s length away from any of us - a cry-for-help away.

One of the advantages of ‘helper’ as a translationness"s 8, where we read: "f the spirit'n Isaiah 9.6, "rming of the Spirit', is that it is flexibly generic, leaving us to infer from each particular context the specific kind of help the Holy Spirit offers us. Let us, then, look at each of the 4 occasions in John 14 - 16 when Jesus promises the ‘parakletos’ to his disciples, and determine what kind of help is being offered to those who ‘call him to their side’.

(a) the help of his assurance
John 14.15-17, Matt 28.20

“If you love me, keep my commandments; and I will ask the Father, and he will give you another ‘parakletos’, so that he may be with you for ever, the Spirit of truth” (John 14.15-17); and in verse 18 he continues, “I will not leave you bereaved, I am coming to you”. The word I have translated ‘bereaved’ here is ‘orphanous’ (accusative plural ending), which literally, and not surprisingly, means ‘orphans’. It is only used on two other occasions in the NT (Matt. 12. 40 and James 1. 27), each time coupled with ‘widows’. Jesus had been at the centre of the disciples’ lives for three years, revered as their Lord and teacher, and loved as their friend and companion. He knows that, after his ascension into heaven, their sense of loss and loneliness would be like a bereavement. But, he promises them, only a few days later he would return to them in the Person of his Spirit, restoring to them the warmth and assurance of his presence with them. This promise is paralleled in Matthew’s gospel, whose last words, the words of Jesus, are “behold, I am with you all day and every day until the end of time” (28. 20), a promise that he would, and could only, fulfil in the Person of his Spirit. This is, perhaps, the foundation ministry of the Spirit. For the disciples he was the perfect Jesus-substitute, more than filling the void left in their lives by his physical departure. For us, who have not seen Jesus in his human form, the Spirit lifts from the pages of the gospels and transforms into a living reality in our hearts and in our daily experience the one whom one day we shall see face to face. Sometimes a woman whose husband dies after many years of happy marriage, living now in an empty house whose every room and every corner reminds her of her loneliness and loss, will invite some dear friend to live with her as her companion; she can never be an adequate substitute for the absent husband, but the warmth of her friendship and the liveliness of her company can bring much comfort and consolation. In the same way, but far more effectively, the ‘parakletos’ helps us in our loneliness and insecurity and fear of the future, making Jesus a living reality for us and a constant companion with us, bringing us that deep sense of assurance and belonging that only he can give. In this context, certainly, the ‘parakletos’ is the great Comforter!

(b) The help of his teaching
i. in the writing of the NT
John 14.25-26, John 16.13

“I have said this to you while I still remain with you; but the ‘parakletos’, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and will remind you of all that I have said to you.” Like the previous passage, this promise has a double reference, one immediate, addressed to the (now 11) disciples, the other universal, addressed to all Christians everywhere. The disciples would soon be given the awesome challenge of the ‘great commission’: “Go and make disciples of all nations”. How were they to do this? What were they to say? What would be their message? In the OT, God’s plan of salvation had been foretold by the prophets, and foreshadowed by the rituals of the law, in particular, the sacrificial system; in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus this plan of salvation had been fulfilled. Now they would have to formulate God’s plan into a gospel which they could preach and into a theology which would be a sure foundation for the church. This would be the most immediate ministry of the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of truth”, as Jesus titled him in the first passage we looked at. We can watch this process taking place right before our eyes, as it were, on the day of Pentecost, the day of the ‘parakletos’, as “the Spirit of truth” lights up the scriptures for Peter as he preaches, and shapes his words into a gospel sermon of such power that 3,000 are converted. And after Peter came Paul, led by the same Spirit to set out the gospel, God’s plan of salvation, in all its glorious fullness in his epistles, most notably in Romans. This promise of Jesus that the Spirit “will teach you everything”, together with the even more explicit promise in 16.13 that “he, the Spirit of truth, will lead the way for you into all truth”, is our guarantee that the writings of the epistles are indeed the word of God, since the writers have been led and enlightened by the Spirit of God. And, in the same way, the second half of this promise, “he will remind you of all that I have said to you”, assures us of the reliability of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching.

(b) in our reading of scripture
Matt 11.25, Acts 8.29-31
But what is the relevance of these promises to us today? We have the scriptures, God’s word, and, as Jesus said to his Father, “your word is truth” (John 17. 17). Why, then, do we need the Spirit to “lead us into all truth”? Yes, the meaning of scripture is generally plain, and “he who runs may read”; but the truth of scripture is a mystery: spiritual truth can only be perceived spiritually, and that requires the help of the Holy Spirit. Two passages from Matthew make this clear. In 11. 25 we are privileged to hear Jesus praying to his Father (as in John 17, just quoted): “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and clever, and revealed them to children”. If God’s truth could only be grasped by the exercise of intelligence, then the unintelligent would be shut out of God’s kingdom; whereas it is often those whom the world would call ‘simple’ who have the simplest faith, and so the strongest faith, which they often live out with a simple obedience which shames many of the “wise and clever”. Then in 13. 11 and 13 Jesus tells his disciples why he teaches in parables: “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them (the crowds) it has not been given. This is why I speak to them in parables, because, though seeing, they do not see, and, though hearing, they do not hear”. It is fatally easy to read and understand the words of scripture without understanding the word of God, and so the truth of God. It is fatally easy, too, to be led into error by the devil, whom Jesus described as “a liar, and the father of falsehood” (John. 8.44). So every time we open our bible and read and study God’s word, we need to claim this promise of Jesus, and call the Holy Spirit to our side to help us and to lead us into the truth. There is a lovely illustration of this, at the human level, in Acts 8, where the Ethiopian official has opened his scroll of Isaiah; he can read the words, but he does not understand their significance: he needs help. Help is at hand! The Holy Spirit has led the deacon Philip into the desert for this very purpose: if the Spirit is the Jesus-substitute, then here Philip is a ‘Holy-Spirit-substitute’. “Do you understand what you are reading?”, he asks; to which the Ethiopian replies: “how could I, unless someone ‘leads the way’ for me ?” It is surely no coincidence that the verb used here, ‘hodego’ is the same as that in John 16. 13, when Jesus promises that the Spirit “will lead the way for you into all truth”. It is a rare word, used only 5 times in the NT, and is a compound of two different words, ‘hodos’, a ‘road’ or ‘journey’ (whence ‘exodus’), and ‘ago’, to ‘lead’. Thus a full translation, appropriate to both verses, might be to ‘guide one on one’s journey towards a full understanding of the truth’. The Ethiopian then “invited Philip to get up and sit with him” in his chariot (v. 31). Again, I believe that it is no coincidence that the verb ‘invite’ here is ‘parakalo’ - he ‘called him to his side’. So Philip, “beginning at this scripture, explained to him the good news of Jesus”. What the Holy Spirit did through the agency of Philip for the Ethiopian he can do for each one of us - if we ask for his help rather than relying on our own intelligence. A businessman who suddenly finds himself posted to head office in Tokyo may buy ‘Teach yourself Japanese’, or, more likely, work through a teaching programme on his computer; but, much better than these aids, he could hire a private tutor, a native speaker, who will patiently help and explain and demonstrate how to speak his language. Jesus promises that the ‘parakletos’ “will teach you everything”: this great Teacher can be our private tutor as we read the bible - and who better to help us in our reading of the bible than the one who inspired its writing? What a privilege! All we have to do is ask for his help and call him to our side.

(c) help in bearing witness
John 15.26-27John 15. 26-7
marturō,marturia, parrhesia

“ When the ‘parakletos’ comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will bear witness to me; you too must bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning” John 15.26-27). This double reference to ‘bearing witness’ seems to suggest that, once again, we are in a court-room context. In the previous 8 verses (18-25), Jesus has been warning his disciples to expect opposition and persecution from the world, just as he had himself: “if they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (20). Persecution often involves prosecution in a court of law, and we have already seen how, in the synoptic gospels, Jesus promises that in such circumstances the Holy Spirit will “teach” them what to say - the Holy Spirit as advocate. This passage seems to be Jesus’ equivalent to the similar promises in the other three gospels - but there is an interesting difference. The verb that is twice used in these two verses is ‘marturō’, meaning to ‘give evidence’ or ‘bear witness’; the synoptics hardly use this word at all (two instances in three gospels!), but it is one of John’s favourites: he uses it 33 times in his gospel, and 10 more in his letters, and he uses the related noun ‘marturia’ (‘evidence’, ‘testimony’) 14 times in the gospel and 7 times in the letters (all numbers resonant with significance!). How, then, does the Spirit ‘bear witness’ for Jesus? He does so, I would suggest, in two ways. Firstly, as the ‘Spirit of truth’, he convinces us that the testimony we shall give is ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’ - though ‘the whole truth’ is beyond our powers in this life. We have seen already how the Spirit shines his light on the scriptures, and especially on the Messianic prophecies which ‘bear witness’ to Jesus. We have seen, too, how he will remind us of all that Jesus said. In fact, he convinces us intellectually, all over again, that Jesus really is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14. 6). Secondly, in his role as the ‘Jesus-substitute’, he can set our hearts on fire all over again with love for our Lord, and with love for those who do not yet know him. The Spirit witnesses to us of the living reality of Jesus, and we then witness it to the world. Once again, we can watch this process in action in Acts, as the disciples are dragged before the court of the Sanhedrin twice in successive chapters, 4 and 5. And, once again, one is tempted to wonder whether Luke is deliberately writing a commentary on these promises of the ‘parakletos’ in John 14-16. On the first occasion (4.7ff.) the apostles Peter and John are interrogated by the council about the healing of the lame man at the temple gate: “By what power, and in whose name, did you do this?” Perhaps at this moment Peter, remembering Jesus’ promise, sent up an ‘arrow prayer’, calling the ‘parakletos’ to his side to help him to bear faithful witness to Jesus, for we read that he was “filled with the Holy spirit”. Then he testified powerfully for his Lord, to his death and resurrection, and to the salvation which only he can offer. The council were amazed at this “boldness” (‘parrhesia’, a word which appears three times in this chapter in relation to the apostles’ Spirit-inspired witness), and “recognised that they had been with Jesus”. Indeed they had, for three years; but for them Jesus was not just a fading memory, but a living presence through the ministry of his ‘substitute’, the Holy Spirit. The authorities decided that they could take no action against them because the evidence of the healed cripple was too strong to deny (v. 16), so they strictly forbade them to continue “speaking or teaching in the name of Jesus”. To which they replied: “we cannot but speak of that which we have seen and heard” (v. 20). Their experience of Jesus had been so life-changing and earth-shaking that silence was impossible - they must bear witness. If our witness for Jesus is to be similarly compulsive and compelling, we, too, must experience his life-changing power in our lives through the ministry of his Spirit. Released, Peter and John went back to the rest of the church and held a prayer-meeting of such power that at the end “their meeting-place was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (v.31). Just as the Spirit had empowered Peter and John to bear powerful witness, so he now does for the whole company: “they spoke the word of God with boldness (‘parrhesia’) --- and the apostles with great power bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (vv. 31, 33). So it is that, in chapter 5, it is the whole company of the apostles who are arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin. Accused of breaching the ‘ASBO’ imposed on them in chapter 4, they once again testify powerfully to the death and resurrection of Jesus, and to his power to save those who repent of their sins; their conclusion could almost be a direct reference to John 15. 26-7: “We are witnesses of these words, together with the Spirit whom God gave to those who obey him”. They can testify so powerfully to the Sanhedrin because the ‘parakletos’ has testified so powerfully, and so personally, to each of them.

(d) our 'witness-support officer?

Only once have I been called upon to give evidence in a court of law; it was a fairly minor case in a juvenile court, and so not a very daunting prospect. Nevertheless, before the case was due, I received several phone-calls, and a letter, from a friendly policewoman who identified herself as my ‘witness-support officer’. On the day itself, she greeted me with a warm smile and a hot (-ish) cup of coffee, and helpfully went through the procedures I could expect. She was, in fact, a credit to the police service; it was just a pity that the CPS failed to produce a vital document to the court, and the magistrates dismissed the case before my evidence was required. ‘Witness-support officer’ might not seem the most obvious translation of ‘parakletos’ in this verse (John 15. 26); as elsewhere, ‘helper’ reads more naturally. But this illustration does, I think, enable us to understand just what kind of help the Spirit offers us when we ‘bear witness’ for Jesus. Maybe we have time to prepare in advance; maybe we are suddenly put on the spot by a question or a criticism; we may be ‘ready’, as Peter urges us to be in such situations (1 Peter 3. 15); but in either circumstance we need to ‘call to our side’ the ‘parakletos’ to help us, both by convincing us of the truth, and by making Jesus so real to us that we speak not just of what we know but of the one whom we know. It has been said that witnessing for Jesus needs a cool head and a warm heart; our ‘witness support officer’, if we ask for his help, can give us both clarity and passion.

(e) his help in 'convincing' and 'convicting'
John 16.7-11

. But however bold and cogent our witness to the world may be, the world will not be converted to Christ unless it is first convicted of its sin, and so of its need of a Saviour. This, too, is the work of the Holy Spirit, the ‘parakletos’. This brings us to our last passage, John 16. 7-11: “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the ‘parakletos’ will not come to you; but if I do go away, I will send him to you. (8) And he, when he comes, will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgement: (9) of sin, because they do not put their faith in me; (10) of righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you no longer see me; (11) and of judgement, because the ruler of this world has been judged.” This passage brings us round full circle, in two different ways. Our first example of ‘parakletos’ referred to Jesus, our ‘advocate’ before our heavenly Father, presenting the case for our defence - himself, and his “atoning sacrifice”. This verse (8) describes the Holy Spirit as the ‘parakletos’, the advocate, or counsel for the prosecution, not before God in the court of heaven, but before each person’s conscience in the court of the human heart. The second way in which we are, as it were, back where we started is that once again we are confronted with a word which, like ‘parakletos’, is a challenge to translators, and needs different translations in different contexts. Before we can fully understand (if we ever can) the ministry of the Holy Spirit as the ‘convictor’ or ‘prosecutor’, we need to look at the Greek verb ‘elenchō’.

PARENTHESIS: ‘elenchō’
'elenchos': proof positive
Hebrews 11.1

This word is common in classical Greek, together with its related noun ‘elenchos’. It means to ‘prove by reasoned argument’, and the noun is most notably associated with Socrates. It describes the relentless cross-questioning by which he shows that various experts of his day in theology and philosophy were not expert at all, and knew nothing - hence the famous ‘Socratic paradox’ that he was, indeed, the wisest man in Athens (as the Delphic Oracle had, with uncharacteristic unambiguity, declared), because he knew one thing at least, that he knew nothing. In the NT, the verb is used 18 times (20, maybe, if some MSS are credible), but the noun only once, in that great definition of faith at the beginning of Hebrews 11: “faith is the ‘elenchos’ of what we cannot see”, that is, faith convinces us of the truth of that which reason and observation on their own cannot prove to us. Here, clearly, ‘elenchos’ means ‘proof positive’, rather than the Socratic ‘disproof’, but it is a helpful guide to the meaning of our verse, since it refers to an inward conviction of the heart, just as it is the ministry of the ‘parakletos’ to bring about an inward ‘conviction’ of sin in the conscience. It is a convenient quirk of English that ‘conviction’ is the abstract noun of both the verbs ‘convince’ and ‘convict’. By contrast with this single use of the noun, almost all the uses of the verb mean to ‘prove wrong’ - though, of course, if you prove people wrong, you ‘put them right’. It has another double reference, either to wrong belief or to sinful behaviour - the error of one’s thinking, or the error of one’s ways; but, again, since the one so often leads to the other, this distinction is sometimes blurred.

(b) convicting of sin
John 8.46,Matt 18.15-16, Luke 3.19-20

Of the 18 (or so) uses of ‘elencho’ in the NT there are several which throw light on our passage, and these we shall come to shortly. But first, we will look at a verse which, though linguistically parallel, in its application is the direct antithesis of John 16. 8. The words are the words of Jesus, and the gospel is the gospel of John - 8. 46. During a long discourse with the increasingly hostile Jews - they end the chapter by trying to stone him - Jesus issues a challenge: “Which of you can convict me of sin?” (NIV: “prove me guilty of sin”). As in our verse, and in two others, ‘elenchō’ here is followed by the preposition ‘peri’, meaning ‘about’, ‘concerning’, or simply ‘of’. Again, as in our verse, the noun after ‘peri’ is ‘hamartia’, ‘sin’; this word, or various of its synonyms (sorry !), are associated with ‘elencho’ in 8 of its uses. But what is most striking here is that, whereas in 16.8 it is the Spirit of Jesus that will convict the world of sin, here Jesus is challenging the world to convict him of sin. This, of course, they cannot do; the best that they can manage is to say that he is a Samaritan and that he has a devil. The only other usage of ‘elencho’ by Jesus (assuming that John 3.20 is not Jesus speaking but John writing) is in Matthew 18. 15-16: “If your brother sins against you, go and make his wrongdoing clear to him” (NIV: “show him his fault”) “between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother; (16) but if he does not listen ---”. Verse 16 shows that you can ‘convict’ someone of his sin without ‘convincing’ him that he is a sinner who needs to repent: only the Holy Spirit can convince his conscience. This same truth is evident in the case of Herod, who, although ‘convicted’ by John the Baptist “about (‘peri’) Herodias his brother’s wife” (whom he had married, contrary to the law) “and about all the wicked things he had done”, so far from repenting, actually ‘shot the messenger’ by having him beheaded (Luke 3. 19-20).

(c) rebuking
2 Tim 4.2, 1 Tim 5.20, Titus 1.9,13

Jesus’ use of ‘elenchō’ in Matthew seems to pave the way for Paul’s use of it in the pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus. One of the tasks he urges on these church leaders is to ‘rebuke’ those in their congregations who fall into sin. ‘Rebuke’ seems to be the preferred translation of both AV (alternating with ‘reprove’) and NIV in these contexts. The correctness of this translation is confirmed, though the translation itself is not made any easier, by 2 Timothy 4. 2, where the standard Greek word for ‘rebuke’ (‘epitimō’) is used right next to ‘elenchō’ in a quick-fire trio of instructions: “convict, rebuke, exhort”. This last word is our old friend ‘parakalo’, which could well mean ‘encourage’ here (NIV), though that seems less consistent with the rather sharper tone of the other two members of the trio. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul had been even more specific: “Those who fall into sin rebuke in front of every one, so that the others, too, may be in fear” - ‘pour encourager les autres’, perhaps! (5. 20) ‘elenchō’ is again paired with ‘parakalō’ in the first of its 3 appearances in Titus (1. 9): “A church leader (‘episkopos’, ‘bishop’) needs to stick closely to the faithful word of the gospel (literally, ‘the teaching’) so that he has the ability to encourage his church in sound doctrine, and to ‘convince’ those who argue against him”. If this usage could be paraphrased ‘show up and correct the errors in their thinking’, the next example in verse 13 seems once again to refer to moral failings, so that ‘rebuke’ here is appropriate - and Paul does his best to get Titus into the mood: “Cretans are always liars, brutes and lazy gluttons” (he is quoting from an anonymous -wisely so! - Cretan poet, so perhaps can be acquitted of racial stereotyping); “rebuke them sharply, so that they may be sound (or ‘healthy’, as also in 1. 9) in their faith”. So in all these instances to ‘convict’ is not to ‘condemn’ but to convert: the aim of the church leader is to build up his flock both in correct belief and in right behaviour.

(d) convincing of the truth
Titus 2.11-14

The third instance of ‘elencho’ in Titus is different - in my opinion: like the related use of the noun ‘elenchos’ in Hebrews 11.1, it is positive rather than negative, not ‘convict of sin’ but ‘convince of the truth’. In this interpretation I am, I confess, at odds with NIV. In 2. 11-14 Paul gives Titus a glorious summary of the gospel of grace “through Jesus Christ who gave himself for us to redeem us”, so that we might be “a people --- eager to do what is good”. Then in verse 15 come three imperatives which echo the trio in 2 Timothy 4.2 - though this time they are ‘present continuous’ imperatives. A literal translation, then, of the first half of the verse reads: “speak these things and urge them and make them clear (‘elenche’ - imperative form) with all authority”. “These things” must be the object of all three verbs, and as they are the central truths of the gospel ‘elencho’ cannot mean ‘show that they are false’, but must mean ‘demonstrate that they are true’. NIV, apparently unable to countenance this possibility, divides this one sentence into two: “These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority.” This implies that the second and third imperatives are quite unconnected with the first, and with the verses referred to as “these things”. This translation, in effect, divorces what God has joined together. I would suggest, as a paraphrase of this half verse, using adverbs to express the last two imperatives: “Continue to teach these great truths urgently and convincingly.”

(e) showing up, exposing
John 3.18-20, Eph 5.1-13, James 2.8-9

This last verse was a first in another way, too: the object of the verb ‘elencho’ was impersonal, so that it meant not to ‘show up’ a wrong-doer, but to ‘show clearly’ a truth. There are two other instances of this usage. In John 3.18-20 (a passage relevant to 16.8 in several ways), Jesus is referred to, as in John’s great prologue, as ‘the Light’: “he who puts his faith in him is not condemned”; but, tragically, “men loved darkness more than the Light”. Why was this? “Because their actions were evil”, so that they avoid the light “so that their actions may not be exposed by it” - or “revealed for what they are”, or “shown up”. Just as Jesus in his earthly ministry and in his human form showed up people’s sinfulness for what it was, so now, through his Spirit, the ‘Jesus-substitute’, he shows up the sinfulness of our lives by shining on them the pure light of his own perfection - just as we do not realise how dirty our windows are until the sun shines through them. Paul seems to have these verses in mind when he writes to the Ephesians: “Walk as children of light” (5.8 - present continuous imperative again: ‘keep on walking’). Christians, too, in their witness to the world, are to be ‘Jesus-substitutes’. Jesus said both “I am the light of the world” (John 8. 12), and “you are the light of the world” (Matt. 5.14). ‘Walking in the light’ seems to be the equivalent of ‘walking in the Spirit’ (Gal. 5.16); as the Spirit fills our lives with the light of Christ, so we can reflect that light into the world around us. “So”, Paul urges them, “do not associate in any way with the fruitless works of darkness, but rather ‘show them up’ for what they are; for everything that is ‘shown up’ by the light becomes clear” (Eph 5. 11-13). One of the ways in which the ‘parakletos’ “convicts the world of sin” is through the shining lives of faithful Christians. Sinful behaviour may be ‘shown up’ not only by the Christlike behaviour of Christians but also by the Christlike standard of righteousness prescribed by the law. James quotes the ‘royal law’, “love you neighbour as yourself”, and then goes on to say that those who, within the fellowship of the church, give preferential treatment to the rich, offering them comfortable chairs while making the poor sit on the floor, are ‘shown up’ by the law as transgressors.

(f) convicted by conscience
John 8.1-11

Our last three examples of ‘elenchō’ can, I believe, shed particularly helpful light on John 16.8 - though the first one is doubly dubious. It occurs in the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery in John 8. 1-11, an incident not included in many of the best MSS of the gospel. But although many believe that this passage was not written by John, most are persuaded by its content that it is an authentic account, by another hand, of an event in the life of Christ: it has the ring of truth. The priests and Pharisees bring the guilty woman before Jesus; the equally guilty man is conspicuous by his absence. “The law demands that such women should be stoned”, they say; “What do you say?” Jesus says nothing, but stoops and starts writing in the sand. They ask him again, and Jesus speaks the memorable words: “The one of you who is sinless - let him be first to throw a stone at her” - and he continues writing in the sand. Generations of readers have longed to know, and have idly speculated, what it was that Jesus wrote. My idle speculation is that he wrote out the other 9 commandments; or perhaps he put in writing what he had spoken in Matthew 5. 28: “I say to you, every man who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart”. We don’t know; but we do know that Jesus’ words, both spoken and written in the sand, caused the priests and Pharisees to “go out one by one, beginning with the eldest” - they, perhaps, had the most to feel guilty about - until Jesus was left alone with the woman. Several MSS add an explanatory phrase before ‘they went out’: “convicted by their conscience”. This is probably a later addition (the Greek word for ‘conscience’ is never used by John, or in any of the gospels), but it does make explicit what is already implicit in the rest of the account. Jesus, by his transparent righteousness and his direct challenge to the consciences of his questioners, and perhaps by his appeal to God’s holy law, is ‘convicting the world of sin’, just as his ‘parakletos’ continues to do today.

(g) convicted by prophecy
1 Cor 14.23-25, Heb 4.12, Acts 25.26
‘anakrinō’ ‘anakrisis’

One of the ways in which the ‘parakletos’ can speak today is through inspired words of prophecy, and this is the subject of our next verse. In his first letter to Corinth, Paul gives directions to the church on its use of spiritual gifts, ‘charismata’. In 14. 23-5, he contrasts the gift of tongues with the gift of prophecy: if an unbeliever or an enquirer comes into the church meeting and every one is speaking in tongues, “will they not say that you are mad?”, he asks, rhetorically, and reasonably enough. “But”, he continues, “if every one is prophesying, the enquirer or unbeliever is ‘convicted’ by every one and judged by every one; the secrets of the heart are revealed, and he will fall on his face and worship God, crying, ‘Truly God is among you’”. Once again, we see that it is the work of the Spirit to search deep into the hearts of men (“the world”), and shed his holy light onto our darkest secrets. He may do this through an inspired word of prophecy or through a carefully prepared sermon, but in either case it is the word of God directed by the Spirit of God which has this armour-piercing power; as the writer to the Hebrews says (4.12), “the word of God is alive and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, --- able to judge the thoughts and intentions of our hearts”. It is, of course, the loving purpose of God that the Spirit’s ministry of conviction should lead to repentance and conversion, if not always as dramatically as in the scenario which Paul envisages in these verses. But we have also seen that, all too often, “men love darkness rather than light”, so that conviction leads to condemnation; there is little evidence that the priests and Pharisees were led to repentance by their guilty consciences in the previous passage. It has been suggested that the word that Paul uses in verse 24, translated ‘judged’ (‘anakrinō’, a compound of the basic verb ‘krinō’), refers to a preliminary hearing, or a ‘pre-trial hearing’. The noun derived from it, ‘anakrisis’, seems to be used in this sense in Acts 25. 26, where the Roman governor Festus tells King Agrippa that he is holding this ‘hearing’ so that he may have some hard information (literally, ‘something safe’) to write to ‘the Lord’, Caesar, to whom Paul has appealed, and who will therefore make the final judgement. This is a helpful analogy. All mankind will one day face the final judgement before the throne of ‘the Lord’, Jesus Christ himself, when the books will be opened (Rev. 20 12) and every secret revealed. But before that awesome day (‘dies irae, dies illa’), God graciously empowers his Holy Spirit to hold a ‘preliminary hearing’ in a lower court, the court of our own hearts, not to condemn us, but to show us our desperate need of mercy, and so to lead us to “repentance and forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24.47).

(g) the 'rebuke' of Laodicea
Rev 3.14-22

Our final example of ‘elencho’ is a beautiful illustration of this truth. The last of the seven letters to the churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 is addressed to the church at Laodicea. These letters are, as it were, Jesus’ inspection report on the spiritual state of each church; any one who has in any way been involved in an OFSTED school inspection will understand the impact which such a report can have. Or we might compare these letters to the feedback after a health check-up; it is as though each church has been subjected to the all-seeing eye of a CAT-scan, and each letter records the findings. Laodicea is clearly a failing church, and an ailing church: verses 13-18 of chapter 3 use a string of adjectives which makes this clear. They are ‘lukewarm’ in their discipleship; they think that they are rich and need nothing, but in fact are “wretched and pitiable and poor and blind and naked”. Is this devastating rebuke delivered in order to condemn them? No! In verse 19 Jesus continues: “All those I love, I rebuke and discipline. So stir yourselves up out of your complacency (literally, ‘be zealous’) and repent”. It is worth noting that as well as this seventh letter, the first, third and fifth letters also contain this challenge to ‘repent’ - the aorist imperative, indicating that a decisive change of attitude is needed (2.5, Ephesus; 2.16, Pergamum; and 3.3, Sardis). Failing schools, as I read in today’s newspaper (GCSE results day !) are liable to be “put under new management”; presumably they will have no choice in the matter. The church at Laodicea, and the other three, do have a choice: they are called on to ‘repent’. And to the Laodiceans Jesus issues not a threat but a wonderfully gracious offer, expressed in verse 20, one of the best known and best loved verses in the bible. Collectively, they have shut Jesus out of their church, and carried on without him; and individually they have shut him out of their lives. Now, he knocks at the door, asking to be let in again - or for the first time. At first, with amazing humility, he offers to come in as a guest: “I will come in and have dinner with him”, but in time he wants to be the Master of the house: “he will have dinner with me”, so that each one individually who hears his voice and opens the door will be ‘under new management’, and Jesus will in reality, and not just in words, be ‘Head of the Church’.

(h) a summary

This passage draws together and illustrates a number of points about the ministry of the Holy Spirit that it might be helpful to summarise before we come to John 16.8.
(a) The Spirit convicts us of sin not to condemn us, but to lead us to repentance; it is as though he sets off the alarm bell of our conscience to arouse us from our complacent slumber so that we can hear the knocking at the door.
(b) If, under the conviction of the Spirit, our consciences do condemn us, it is to lead us to enter a plea for mercy before we face the same verdict in a higher court, the last judgement. It is worth comparing Jesus’ gracious words in Revelation 3. 19-20 with Jude’s stern warning about his second coming. Quoting a prophecy from the (apocryphal) Book of Enoch, he says: “Look, the Lord is coming with thousands of his saints to pronounce judgement against all, and to convict (‘elencho’) every soul of all its ungodly actions and of all the contemptuous words they have sinfully spoken against him” (Jude 14-15). On that day, conviction will inexorably lead to condemnation.
(c) The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth; he is the Spirit of Jesus, who said “I am the truth”. John in his gospel records that Jesus “knew what was in (the heart of) mankind”; and at the end of the same gospel (21.17) Peter has come to realise the same truth: “Lord, you know everything, you know that I am your friend”. Each of the letters to the 7 churches begins with the word (one word in Greek) “I know”; what Jesus knows, the Spirit knows.
(d) We have seen how Paul urges Timothy and Titus to ‘rebuke’ those who fall into sin and those who speak against the truth of the gospel. The letter to Laodicea gives us a dominical, if daunting, model of such a rebuke. Church leaders who do not shy away from such confrontations but are faithful to their calling and obedient to scripture - and who are led by the Spirit - can be the channels through whom he can do his convicting work.
(e) Each of the 7 letters begins with a title of Jesus: he is the author. But we can only read them today because John obediently wrote them down. Twelve times in the Book of Revelation John is given the instruction “write” (‘grapson’, aorist imperative again), and the Book of Revelation is testimony to his obedience. But, as with all scripture, John can only achieve his task if he is guided and inspired by “the Spirit of truth - who will remind you of everything I have said to you”. With such a Remembrancer, who needs a tape-recorder?
(f) Each of the 7 letters ends with the words “Let every one who has ears hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches”. The message is the word of Jesus, and Jesus is the Word of God, but the word can only truly be heard and get through to the heart by the medium of the Spirit. The eye of the reader may travel, line by line, over the words of scripture, and the words of the preacher may roll their sound-waves over the ears of the listener; but unless the Holy Spirit is at work imprinting God’s word on the heart and the conscience, nothing is really ‘heard’, and no lasting effect is achieved. Word and Spirit must walk hand in hand, both in the life of the believer and in the life of the church. The word remains dry and dead, like a seed in the ground, unless it is awoken into life and fruitfulness by the quickening Spirit. But. equally, it is dangerous, and sometimes disastrous, to assume that every thought that enters one’s head, and every impulse prompting us to action, is a message direct and infallible from the Holy Spirit; first we must assure ourselves that this message is consistent with the word of God revealed in scripture. The Word is Jesus; the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus: they are always in perfect harmony.

(4 continued) John 16.8-11: the Holy Spirit the convictor
(a) of sin (v.9)

So we return to John 16.8: “And he, the ‘parakletos’, when he comes, will convict the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgement.” The verb ‘elenchō’ is used only once, but the preposition ‘peri’ is used with each of the three nouns. The first of the trio is straightforward: we have seen exactly this construction in 8.46, when Jesus challenges the Jewish authorities to ‘convict him of sin’, or to ‘prove him guilty’. But how do you ‘prove someone guilty’ of righteousness or judgement? In these two instances, the meaning of ‘elencho’ must elide into something slightly different, something much more like the Socratic use of the Classical Greek original: to ‘prove wrong’ rather than to ‘prove guilty’. So the Spirit will ‘show up’ the world’s thinking, and make it clear that its definition of sin and its standard of righteousness and its idea of judgement are all quite wrong - fatally wrong. The world believes that “I’m no saint” can be said with a complacent chuckle, that “I’m no worse than any one else” means that I am good enough, and that the judgement of my peers is what really matters: if they accept me as a ‘good bloke’ or a ‘good woman’, then I have passed the test. It is the work of the Spirit, and no small task it is, to break through this relativism and to confront the world with the absolutes of God, his absolute holiness and righteousness, and his absolute hatred of sin.

(b) of righteousness (v.10)

In the next 3 verses, 9-11, Jesus goes on to explain his meaning more fully, allotting ‘sin’, ‘righteousness’ and ‘judgement’ a verse each, each introduced by ‘because’. I must confess that I have always found verse 8 reasonably straightforward, as expounded above, but that it is these explanations that really need explaining. It helps, I think, to see ‘conviction of sin’ as the Spirit’s ultimate aim; but before he can achieve it, he must first ‘convince’ and then ‘condemn’. We will begin, then, by looking at verse 10: “--- of righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you no longer see me” - or “look at me”. To be convinced that I am a sinner, I need to be made to realise that “I’m no worse that the next man - or woman” is not good enough for God: his standard is absolute goodness. This standard is revealed to us in the Law (which, as we saw in James 2.9, has the power to ‘convict’ us), and in particular by Jesus’ summary of it: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength”, and, next, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12. 30-1). But even more compellingly, it is revealed in the sinless life of Jesus himself, “Jesus Christ the righteous”, as John describes him. We have already seen how Jesus ‘convicted’ the consciences of the accusers of the woman caught in adultery; and to this example we might add Peter’s reaction to the revelation of Jesus’ divine power in the ‘miraculous’ catch of fish: “Go away from me - I am a sinner, Lord” (Luke 5.8). But Jesus’ earthly ministry was coming to an end, and he was about to “return to the Father”. When the world could no longer “look at” Jesus, how could it be brought to realise that it falls far short of God’s standard of righteousness? This, Jesus says, will be the work of the Holy Spirit, the ‘parakletos’, and he works in (at least) three ways, of which we have already seen examples. First, he inspired and guided the writing of the gospels, so that Jesus’ model life of perfect righteousness has been put on record. We cannot ‘look at’ him in the flesh, as his disciples were privileged to do, but we can ‘see’ him in scripture. Next, when the Law or the Gospels - the gospel, in fact - is read or preached, the Holy Spirit can bring the words alive in the heart of the reader or listener. And thirdly, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of holiness, by developing his fruit of Christlikeness in the lives of Christians, as Paul describes in Galatians 5. 22-23, enables the world to see something of Jesus in his church - if only in fleeting glimpses. It is the glorious, if frustratingly laborious, ministry of the Spirit, the ‘Jesus-substitute’, to develop every Christian into a ‘Jesus-substitute’ for the world to ‘look at’.

(c) of judgement (v.11)

But this, in itself, is not enough to achieve conviction. To convince the world that it falls short of God’s perfect standard may just replace a complacent chuckle with a helpless shrug: “so what?” is all too often the response of the unconvicted. “So judgement” must be the answer. Verse 11 I find even more difficult that verse 10: “ --- of judgement, because the ruler of this world has been judged”, or “condemned”. This is the third of the three times that Jesus uses this phrase to refer to the Devil in John’s gospel. In 12. 31 he says: “Now is the judgement of this world, now the ruler of this world will be thrown out” - and then he goes on to talk about the crucifixion. Throughout his ministry, he has “thrown out” devils from those in their grip, but now the cross will mark his final triumph over Satan. In 14. 30 he says “the ruler of this world is coming; he has no hold over me”. Perhaps this refers specifically to Judas: Luke (22.3) tells us that “Satan entered into Judas, called Iscariot”. It is a sobering thought that, just as the ‘parakletos’ wants to transform us into ‘Jesus-substitutes’ to witness to the world, so the Devil tries to turn us into ‘Satan-substitutes’ to fulfil his dark purposes. The treachery of Judas, and the travesty of a trial by which both Jews and gentiles (‘the world’) condemned Jesus to death, must have seemed to Satan to be his greatest triumph. But in the sovereign purpose of God, when the world condemned Jesus it was in fact condemning itself and its ‘ruler’. Just as Jesus’ sinless life showed that man can do his best and still not be good enough for God, so Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection showed that Satan could do his worst, yet be the one who was ‘condemned’. The crucifixion was not Satan’s greatest triumph, but God’s, planned “before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13. 8), and prophesied in the third chapter of the bible, when God, in his judgement on the serpent, promised: “the woman’s offspring, Jesus, will crush your head, and you will strike his heel”. The East window of the church of my youth depicts the crucifixion, with the serpent prostrate at the foot of the cross, his head crushed beneath the bleeding heel of Jesus. The writer to the Hebrews puts this picture into words: Jesus took on our humanity, he says (2.14), “so that by his death he might reduce to impotence the one who holds the power of death, the Devil”. The death of Jesus, among other things, symbolized the dethronement of Satan. Paul quotes from Isaiah and Hosea to make the same point: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15. 54-5). This victory was achieved on the cross for Christians, but it was declared to the world by the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. In order, therefore, to “convict the world of judgement”, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, bears witness to the truth of the resurrection. We have seen this already in scripture, in Acts 5. 32, where the apostles bear witness to the Sanhedrin: “we are witnesses of these words (that Jesus has been raised from the dead), as is also the Holy Spirit”. And the same Spirit is at work in the same way today whenever Christians bear faithful witness to the risen Jesus in the testimony of their lips and their lives. The fact that Jesus triumphed over death and is alive proves that his teaching is true, and that judgement is certain, because that is what Jesus taught, both in parables and in plain speech, time and time again. What is more, God the Father has entrusted judgement entirely to the Son (John 5. 22), so that the same Jesus who today is the advocate for the defence for Christians when they fall into sin will, on that last day, be seated on the throne of judgement himself.

(d) of unbelief‘ (v.9)
John 3.18,36:
pisteuō eis’

The ministry of the Spirit, then, is to convince the world of two unpleasant truths that it is reluctant to hear. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s standard, because his righteousness is absolute; and therefore all face God’s judgement, as delegated to Jesus, because his justice is inexorable. As John puts it, “God is light, and with him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1.5). The world, in fact, is “condemned already”, as Jesus (or John) starkly puts it (John 3. 18). This brings us to our last verse, verse 9: “he will convict the world of sin, because they do not put their trust in me”. This is the Greek verb ‘pisteuo’, to ‘believe’, followed by the preposition ‘eis’, meaning ‘into’. This combination is used 37 times in John, and implies not just ‘belief in’ but ‘commitment into’ Jesus with the whole of our lives: that is ‘faith’, and it is that faith alone which can save us from God’s righteous judgement. Two more verses from John’s gospel make this as clear as it could be: “the one who puts his or her faith in Jesus is not condemned; the one who does not have faith is condemned already. --- The one who puts his or her faith in the Son has eternal life, but the one who does not believe the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him (or her).” John 3. 18, 36) If Jesus is the world’s ultimate hope, then disbelief is the ultimate sin. Paul says, “there is no distinction: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3. 23). But there is a distinction, the crucial one, between those who put their trust in Jesus as their “atoning sacrifice”, and those who commit the ultimate sin of disbelief. It is here that the ministry of the Spirit, the ‘parakletos’, is so vital: it is his purpose to “glorify” Jesus (John 16.14) by so convicting unbelievers of their sin that they are “cut to the heart”, and cry out, “what must we do to be saved?” This, of course, was the crowd’s response to Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, the day when Jesus’ promise was fulfilled and the Spirit came in power. First, he filled all the disciples with an inexpressible joy - a joy that could only be expressed in languages which the Spirit himself gave them, joy that Jesus was with them once again in the person of his Spirit, and now would never leave them. Then he filled Peter with the courage to preach to the crowd, illuminating the scriptures for him as he spoke, so that his words were the word of God. Finally, he ‘convicted’ the crowd of sin, not to condemn them - they were “condemned already” - but to lead them to repentance and faith in Jesus, a faith which alone could save them from judgement.

5. the helper of the helpless
John 15.5, Phil 4.13

Today, too, the church can only witness effectively to the world with the help of the Spirit, the great Helper of the weak, just as individual Christians can only live a life worthy of their Lord if they “walk in the Spirit” every step of the way, depending entirely on his guidance and support. Jesus said to his disciples, “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15. 5); Paul accentuated the positive: “I have the strength for everything in the one who empowers me” (Phil. 4. 13), that is, the Holy Spirit of Jesus. When an evangelist preaches the gospel, or a church holds a mission, they should pray humbly, passionately, insistently, to ‘call to their side’, and call to their aid, the ‘parakletos’. Without his convicting work, however lurid the hellfire imagery may be, however skilful and persuasive the rhetoric, hearts will remain unmoved and unrepentant. So, too, however earnestly we study the bible, and however many learned commentaries we turn to, unless we call upon the ‘parakletos’ to sit beside us and shine his light on the page, we may read the words of scripture, but we will not hear the word of God. And however regularly we go to church, and however enthusiastically we jump up and down to the beat of the music, unless the Holy Spirit brings Jesus to life in our hearts all our religious observance is just a hollow shell. It is the ‘parakletos’ alone who can make Christ real to us, and make the Christian life liveable.


We began this study by looking at the derivation of ‘parakletos’ from the Classical Greek verb ‘parakalō’. In modern Greek, ‘parakalo’ is among the commonest words in the language: it simply means ‘please’. It is, I hope, a helpful and encouraging thought that the ‘parakletos’ is the one who responds to our ‘please’ - or our pleas for help. Whatever our problem, whatever our challenge, whatever our work for the Lord, the help of the Holy Spirit is only a ‘please’ away: all we have to do is ask!