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Part Three: The Holy Spirit as the Paraclete in John

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Part Three: The Holy Spirit as the Paraclete in John

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

(Click here to see the overview of this six-part article.)

The starting point of what Jesus says about the person of the Holy Spirit is that he was leaving the world and would send in his stead allon paraklēton, “another Paraclete,” identified as “the Spirit of truth” (14:16). The Greek term paraklētos appears in the Bible only in these passages in John 14-16 and in 1 John 2:1. Since this word has been translated so many ways in English (especially advocate, comforter, counselor, and helper), scholars often use the Anglicized transliteration “Paraclete” instead of choosing one of those translations.


Table 1: Translations of Paraklētos in the Gospel and Epistle of John

English Translations of Paraklētos

John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7

1 John 2:1



ASV, CEB, Douay-Rheims, ERV, ESV, GNV, HCSB, KJV, Murdock, NAB, NASB, NET, NIV, NJB, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, Webster, TNIV, Tyndale, Young, Noyes, Rotherham; Vulgate, advocatus


ASV, Darby, ERV, GNV, KJV, Bishops’, Webster, Tyndale, Young, Noyes



CEB, MacDonald














One who speaks in our defense/for us




Douay-Rheims, NJB; Vulgate, paracletus





To understand the significance of the expression “another Paraclete,” it must be set in the context. John’s narrative of the farewell discourse begins with the narrator’s comment that “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world to the Father…and that he had come out from God and was going back [hupagei, “going back, returning, going home”] to God” (13:1, 3). These statements at the beginning of the passage form an inclusio with Jesus’ statement just before his prayer in John 17: “I came out from the Father and have come into the world; I am leaving the world again and going to the Father” (16:28).

As is clear to all readers of the Gospel, the point of these statements is that Jesus was about to go into heaven where he would be with the Father in glory (see also 17:5). But notice that in both 13:1-3 and 16:28 the going from the world to the Father reverses an earlier event in which Jesus came from God the Father into the world. These statements reflect the narrative structure or “story arc” of the entire Gospel: Jesus is the divine Logos-Son who was with God the Father and came into the world as light and life for the estranged human race (1:1-18), and who returned to God the Father following his death, resurrection, and appearances to the disciples (20:17). Jesus is thus the divine, preexistent Son, whose existence antedates that of the most ancient patriarch Abraham (8:58), who existed in glory alongside the Father even before the world was made (17:5), and who is God himself (1:1, 18; 20:28).1

The meaning of the Paraclete’s coming of which Jesus speaks in the discourse sandwiched between 13:3 and 16:28 dovetails closely with what these statements say about the Son. The Son is a heavenly, divine person who came out of heaven from the Father into the world. He is about to return to heaven and his glory alongside the Father. It is in this context that Jesus reveals the coming of the Paraclete. Although Jesus will be leaving them, he will send someone in his place: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Paraclete to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth” (14:16-17a).2 The words “another Paraclete” imply, of course, that Jesus has been a Paraclete (as John confirms explicitly in 1 John 2:1), and now he is leaving and “another” Paraclete is coming in Jesus’ place. When Jesus goes away, he “will send” the Paraclete to them (16:7). Just as the Son came “from the Father” (para tou patros, 16:28), so also the Paraclete will come “from the Father” (para tou patros, 15:26). That is, like the Son, the Paraclete is a heavenly, divine figure who was with the Father in heaven and will be personally coming to the disciples to be with them. Just as the Son was someone who came into the world from the Father, the Holy Spirit is also someone who was going to come from the Father to be with the disciples as “another” Paraclete.

It is because the Spirit is presented in this narrative context as Jesus’ successor or replacement following his return to heaven that the term “Paraclete” must be interpreted as referring literally to a divine person, not a mere force or power. The masculine noun paraklētos is a personal designation or title; while such personal nouns could be used in some contexts in a figurative way to personify something that is actually impersonal or abstract, the narrative context of Jesus’ comments about the Paraclete make such an interpretation impossible here.

Consistent with the fact that paraklētos is a masculine noun, pronouns for which paraklētos is the grammatical antecedent are also masculine (ekeinos, 14:26; 15:26; 16:8, 14; auton, 16:7), while pronouns for which the neuter noun pneuma is the grammatical antecedent are neuter (ho, 14:17a, 26; 15:26; auto, 14:17). As Daniel Wallace and others have shown, and as mentioned in Part One of this paper, this means that John has not let the personhood of the Spirit trump grammatical agreement between pronoun and antecedent noun. Nor, on the other hand, can one extract an argument against his personhood from the neuter pronouns. What should not be missed, however, is the fact that the masculine pronouns are used precisely because their antecedent is a personal noun used in a context in which that noun designates someone who will be taking Jesus’ place after his return to the Father’s side in heaven. One need not and should not attempt to defend the personhood of the Spirit from grammar alone, but the grammar is part of the whole complex communication act in which historical and literary contexts, narrative structure, semantics, and grammar all work together synergistically in such a way as to convey the idea of the Spirit as a divine person.

Careful consideration of the meaning of paraklētos in ancient Greek generally and in relation to the context of its usage in Jesus’ farewell discourse strongly confirms this understanding of the Paraclete as a person. Although the word paraklētos has been translated in many ways and the literature on the meaning of the word is voluminous, the scholarship during the past two decades or so has matured to a great extent and one may now reduce the number of significant proposals as to its precise meaning to two quite similar views.

The first sense is represented by the translation “Advocate,” used in the Gospel occurrences of paraklētos in more English versions of the past century than any other (NAB, NET, NIV/TNIV, NLT, and NRSV) and in almost all English versions at 1 John 2:1. Two arguments strongly support this rendering. The first is that the term paraklētos appears in ancient Greek usage to have been primarily and predominantly a legal or forensic term denoting someone who interceded or advocated for another in a court or juridical setting. In a 2009 article Lochlan Shelfer, a classics scholar at Johns Hopkins, laid out an especially strong case for this interpretation of the word.3 According to Shelfer, paraklētos is a literal translation into Greek “for the Latin legal term advocatus, meaning a person of high social standing who speaks on behalf of a defendant in a court of law before a judge.” He shows that during the Roman Hellenistic era of the New Testament various writers such as Diogenes Laertius, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Cassius Dio, and Heraclitus Stoicus all used the word with the legal sense reflecting the Latin advocatus.4 The term could also be extended in this sense into a religious context, as in a third-century AD pagan inscription found in Turkey. In this inscription a man named Theodorus stands before the gods assembled in “senate” and appeals to be forgiven of his crimes, stating, “I had Zeus as paraklēton.” Zeus then speaks on his behalf.5 Shelfer also finds this usage in the writings of the first-century Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo. For example, in Philo’s work on the Genesis patriarch Joseph, Joseph assures his brothers, “you have no need of anyone else to be your paraklētos” (De Josepho 239). This means that Joseph “will not pursue his suit against them for the injustices he has endured at their hands, and thus they have no need for anyone to speak on their behalf in a court of law.”6

The second reason for favoring the sense of “Advocate” for paraklētos is that this sense in significant ways appears to fit the context of the Gospel of John extremely well. As numerous Johannine studies have shown in great detail, legal or juridical motifs of trial and witness pervade the Gospel of John.7 Jesus came to bring judgment to the world by conquering “the ruler of this world” (Satan), consigning to darkness and condemnation those who refuse to believe, and bringing light and life to those who do believe (3:16-19; 5:19-30; 8:15-16, 26; 9:39; 12:31, 47-48). Various figures in the book function as “witnesses” who testify to the truth, including John the Baptist (1:7-8, 15, 32, 34; 3:26; 5:33-35), Jesus himself as well as the Father (4:44; 5:31-32, 37; 7:7; 8:13-18; 13:21; 18:37), and the beloved disciple who is the author of the book (19:35; 21:24). This language of judgment and witness exemplifies the juridical motif that runs throughout the entire book. Gary Burge, in his influential study of the Spirit in John, comments:

This context of juridical trial and persecution presents us with the most likely catalyst for John’s introduction of the term ho parakletos. In fact, it is the comprehensive activity of the Spirit as a forensic witness that best explains the varied tasks of the Paraclete in the Farewell Discourses. Christ was still on trial before the world, and the Johannine church regarded its existence vicariously: it was on trial for Christ. Hence the Paraclete as an advocate implored and persuaded the opposition concerning the truth; and as a witness the Paraclete brought forward evidence establishing the cases for Christ (and his church).8

Similarly, Antony Billington nicely shows how this juridical motif illuminates the references to the Paraclete:

What happens when Jesus departs? The trial with the world cannot cease, the witness cannot fall silent, for then his case will be lost by default. After Jesus’ departure, the trial continues between the disciples and the hostile world (see e.g. 15:18-16:11). Throughout the Farewell Discourse, Jesus teaches them that his time of ‘advocacy’ is coming to an end; he is handing it over to them to continue the work. It will not be easy, they are warned; they will encounter intense opposition as Jesus did. How will they be able to face the daunting task? This provides the context for the Paraclete sayings. The disciples will not be left on their own; Jesus will send to them the ‘Paraclete’ (14:16) who will aid them in the cosmic struggle already begun between Jesus and the world.9

The second proposed way of understanding paraklētos in John is that it describes both Jesus and the Holy Spirit as “brokers” or mediators who give believers access to the benefits of God as their heavenly Patron. Those who favor this view argue that although paraklētos could often be used in juridical contexts, its usage was somewhat broader. An early advocate (pun intended!) of this view was Kenneth Grayston, who argued in 1981 that the term “gains its significance from the universal conviction in antiquity (and indeed not only in antiquity) that in approaching an important person, for whatever reason, you need an influential person or a group of supporters.”10

In 2003 two scholars independently lent strong support to this view. In his magisterial commentary on John, Craig Keener finds the forensic senses of witness and intercessor likely to be important though perhaps not exhaustive. He suggests that “Greco-Roman ideas of patronal intercession, presupposed as a matter of common knowledge in Jewish sources by the third century, may have also played a part in the development of intercessory figures.”11 In another study published that same year, Tricia Gates Brown argued that Jesus and the Spirit both function as “brokers” in John—intermediaries who bring together “a patron who has specific resources and a client who needs the resources which the patron possesses.”12 In the Old Testament, “God was the patron par excellence,” providing the Israelites with “protection, guidance and material provision” under the covenant, all of which was mediated through brokers such as Moses and the prophets.13 In John, Jesus is the ultimate and definitive broker between God and man, superior to Moses because Jesus is the divine Son who comes down directly from the Father in heaven.14 So when Jesus promises to send “another” Paraclete to continue his work, according to Brown, the Spirit functions as a “broker” between believers and Jesus Christ, giving them access to the eternal life and associated blessings he came to secure for them.

While these two interpretations of paraklētos may seem somewhat at odds, Andrew Lincoln has suggested that the primary sense of “advocate” for paraklētos need not imply “a professional legal office. Instead a person of influence, a patron or sponsor, could be called into court to speak in favor of a person or a person’s cause, thereby providing advocacy.”15 Both senses of the word describe the figure so named as advocating or interceding on behalf of a needy person who entrusts themselves to that figure as the one who can secure a favorable outcome with the judge or patron. What is in any case clear is that these two proposed senses for paraklētos both definitely understand the Holy Spirit to be described in John 14-16 as fulfilling an overtly personal role.

Click here for Part Four: The Holy Spirit and Jesus the Son in John



1. On the preexistence and deity of Jesus Christ, see Robert M. Bowman Jr. and J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), esp. 81-102, 135-56.

2. Translation mine.

3. Lochlan Shelfer, “The Legal Precision of the Term ‘Paraklētos,’” JSNT 32 (2009): 131-50.

4. Ibid., 134-37.

5. Ibid., 140; the inscription is also cited also in Judith M. Lieu, I, II, and III John: A Commentary, NTL (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 65.

6. Shelfer, “Legal Precision of the Term ‘Paraklētos,’” 143-44.

7. Studies exploring these legal motifs have demonstrated that they dominate the structure and presentation of the narrative and speeches in John. See Theo Preiss, “Justification in Johannine Thought,” in Life in Christ, trans. Harold Knight, SBT 13 (Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, 1952), 9-31; David E. Holwerda, The Holy Spirit and Eschatology in the Gospel of John: A Critique of Rudolf Bultmann’s Present Eschatology (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1959), 38-48; James Montgomery Boice, Witness and Revelation in the Gospel of John (Exeter: Paternoster, 1970); Severino Pancaro, The Law in the Fourth Gospel: The Torah and the Gospel, Moses and Jesus, Judaism and Christianity according to John, NovTSup 42 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975), esp. 194-208; A. E. Harvey, Jesus on Trial: A Study in the Fourth Gospel (London: SPCK, 1976); Allison A. Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness, SNTSMS 31 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 78-124; Jerome H. Neyrey, “Jesus the Judge: Forensic Process in John 8:21-59,” Bib 68 (1987): 509-41; J. Daryl Charles, “‘Will the Court Please Call in the Prime Witness?’: John 1:29-34 and the Witness-Motif,” TrinJ 10 (1989): 71-83; Antony Billington, “The Paraclete and Mission in the Fourth Gospel,” in Mission and Meaning: Essays Presented to Peter Cotterell, ed. Antony Billington, Tony Lane, and Max Turner (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1995), 95-102 (90-115); Robert Gordon Maccini, Her Testimony Is True: Women as Witnesses according to John, JSNTSup125 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996); Jerome H. Neyrey, “The Trials (Forensic) and Tribulations (Honor Challenges) of Jesus: John 7 in Social Scientific Perspective,” BTB 26 (1996): 107-124; Martin Asiedu-Peprah, Johannine Sabbath Conflicts as Juridical Controversy: An Exegetical Study of John 5 and 9:1-10:21, WUNT 2/132 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000); Andrew T. Lincoln, Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2001); and George L. Parsenios, Rhetoric and Drama in the Johannine Lawsuit Motif, WUNT 258 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010).

8. Gary M. Burge, The Anointed Community: The Holy Spirit in the Johannine Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 205.

9. Billington, “Paraclete and Mission in the Fourth Gospel,” 100.

10. Kenneth Grayston, “The Meaning of Paraklētos,” JSNT 13 (1981): 72 (67-82).

11. Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), 960.

12. Tricia Gates Brown, Spirit in the Writings of John:  Johannine Pneumatology in Social-scientific Perspective, JSNTSup 253 (London: T&T Clark International, 2003), 29.

13. Ibid., 56.

14. Ibid., 56-57.

15. Lincoln, Truth on Trial, 113.