The Holy Spirit, Our Comforter (John 13-24)

I sometimes hear Christians say something like this, “If only we had been there when Jesus was around!  If we lived near Jesus and saw him every day, it would have made things so much simpler.  We could ask him about all those difficult decisions we have to make — who to marry, which house to buy, which job to take.  We could ask him all our Bible questions.  Jesus would have explained everything to us and told us exactly what to do.  It would have been so much easier to follow God.”

            But, as much as we would like to believe that, it’s wrong for a couple of reasons.  First of all, when we read the gospels, we find that the people who were around Jesus didn’t do much better than we do.  People were slow to believe what Jesus had to say.  And they were even slower to put it into practice.  Some of his closest friends betrayed and denied him.  Some of his own family thought he was out of his mind.

            But the second reason why it wouldn’t be better if we were around Jesus is because Jesus himself said that we have an advantage that the people living in his day didn’t have.  Jesus said to his disciples in John 16:7, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”  As hard as it may be for us to accept it, Jesus said that having the Holy Spirit in us is better than having the physical body of Jesus beside us.

            Now, I realize that, on the surface, that doesn’t seem to make any sense.  Think about how awesome it would be to have Jesus here with us.  What if you were looking for a new minister to replace me here at Cruciform, and an application came in the mail from Jesus.  Granted, that’s a bit far-fetched.  But if it were true, think about how exciting it would be to have Jesus right here working in this church with you.  But Jesus said, “Here’s what’s even better.  I’ve given you the Holy Spirit.”

            Now, my question for you this morning is this — do you really believe that what Jesus said is true?  Do you find it just as exciting to know that you as an individual and this congregation as a whole have the Holy Spirit of God?  Do you believe that the Spirit in you is indeed better than having Jesus beside you?  And if we don’t believe that, then I don’t think we fully understand or appreciate what the Holy Spirit should mean to us.

            I think it’s safe to say that, of the three persons of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is the one who is most neglected.  I heard about one preacher who was asked the question, “If you had to grade your congregation on their knowledge of the Holy Spirit, what grade would you give them?”  His response was a C+. 

            But he went on to explain, “If you graded my congregation on their knowledge of God the Father, I would give them an A, and on Jesus Christ, I would give them an A+.  But I don’t think we know as much about the Holy Spirit as we do about the Father and the Son.” 

            And I think that his assessment of that congregation is a pretty accurate assessment of most congregations.  We can all relate to God the Father, because most of us have a relationship with our earthly fathers.  And we can relate to Jesus the Son, because he has become God’s human face for us.  But the Holy Spirit is mostly a mystery to us.  Several years ago, Francis Chan wrote a book about the Holy Spirit and he called it “Forgotten God.”

            In Acts chapter 19, we read about Paul’s visit to Ephesus where he met some disciples of John the Baptist.   I find it interesting that he did not ask those people the same question that we tend to ask people.  You see, if someone comes to us and we don’t really know them, one of the first questions we want to ask them is this, “Were you baptized for the remission of your sins?”

            But that’s not the question Paul asked.  Paul wanted to know, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” (Acts 19:2).  I wonder what would happen if that’s the question we started asking people.  Whenever somebody wants to place membership, we first ask them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

            And I would imagine that a lot of people would answer the same way that those disciples in Ephesus did.  They told Paul, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” (Acts 19:2).  Paul, we don’t even know what you’re talking about.  And my fear is that a lot of Christians would say the same thing today.

            I don’t know what it was like for you. But for me, growing up, the Holy Spirit wasn’t talked about all that much.  I was at least taught that there is a Holy Spirit.  But that didn’t make much of an impact in my life, because I was basically taught that the Holy Spirit used to do a whole lot of stuff.  But after the Holy Spirit finished inspiring the prophets and the apostles who wrote the Bible, he got quiet and he went back to heaven.  And I was taught that the only place I would ever meet the Holy Spirit here on this earth is in the pages of the Bible.

            I know a lot of you have had similar experiences.  You’ve told me that the Holy Spirit has been somewhat of a mystery to you.  Many of you have shared how you were taught that the work of the Holy Spirit was shut up in the pages of your Bibles.

            But you’ve also let me know that you’re eager to know more about the Holy Spirit. And not just to know more about him, but to have an actual relationship with the Spirit.  Because the Holy Spirit is just as active and engaged in our lives and in our world as he ever was.

            He breathes through the pages of our Bibles, yes.  Absolutely.  But the Spirit is still moving in this world.  Stirring human hearts.  Joining us together in fellowship.  Encouraging us and helping us in our prayers.  And Jesus said, “it is to your advantage that I leave and send the Holy Spirit.”

            For three chapters, John 14, 15 and 16, Jesus talked about the Holy Spirit that he was going to send.  Before we get into those chapters, though, let’s take a look at this overview of the last half of the gospel of John and then we’ll see what Jesus had to say about the Holy Spirit.

            Watch VIDEO (John, part 2)

            In John 14, Jesus said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” (John 14:16-17)

            I want you to notice how Jesus worded this.  Jesus said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper.”  What that tells us is that the disciples already had a helper – Jesus — and the Holy Spirit was going to be another helper. 

            Bear with me as I get just a little bit technical for a moment.  The Greek language is much more precise than English.  And we’ve talked about this before.  For example, in English, we only have one word for love, but the Greeks had four different words for love, each one a different kind of love.

            Well, the Greeks also had two different words that meant “another.”  One was the word “heteros”, which means “another of a different kind,” as in, “This wrench doesn’t fit; bring me another one.”  I want another one, but I want a different one.

            A second Greek word for “another” was “allos” which means “another of the same kind,” as in “I enjoyed that sandwich; I think I’ll have another.”  I want another one, but I want it just like the one I had before.

            When Jesus said that God will give you “another Helper”, he used that second Greek word “allos”.  In other words, he told his disciples that God is going to send you another helper who will be just like the helper you already have right now.  

            Jesus had been their Helper for years.  He helped them, he comforted them, he walked with them.  And now they were going to get another Helper — someone with the same compassion, the same attributes of deity, and the same love for them — another Helper to continue to help them the way that Jesus had.

            But there are a couple of things that would be different.  First of all, Jesus said that when this new Helper, the Holy Spirit, arrives, he would not only be with them; he would be in them.  “for he dwells with you and will be in you.”   And then, in verse 16, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will be with you “forever”; he will never leave you.

            Later in John 14, Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you.  But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:25-26).

            In chapter 15, Jesus said, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” (John 15:26)

            And again, as we saw earlier in chapter 16, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7).

            Throughout all of these verses, Jesus used one specific word to refer to the Holy Spirit.  He called him “the Helper”.  At least, that’s how it’s translated in the English Standard Version.   

            The Greek word that’s used here, parakletos, can also be translated as “advocate”.  In the NIV, Jesus says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever.” (John 14:16, NIV).  An advocate is somebody who stands up in a court of law and pleads your case to the judge or the jury.  But, perhaps, even more important, an advocate is that person who stands beside you.  And we all have times when we need someone to stand beside us.

             But there’s a third way that this Greek word, “parakletos” is sometimes translated.  It can also be translated as  “comforter.”   In the King James Version, Jesus says, “I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever.” (John 14:16, KJV)

            Now, that’s not a bad translation, but the idea of the Holy Spirit being a Comforter may be a bit deceiving unless we understand that the word “comfort” meant something a little bit different when the King James translation came out than it does today. 

            You see, today, comfort means living a life of ease.  It means being comfortable.  We talk about comfort food.  And what we mean by that is food that makes you feel good.  You’re having a rough day, you go home and pull out the Ben & Jerry’s.  We talk about making a comfortable living, and what we mean by that is a life where things are easy.  We talk about creature comforts, and we mean all the modern conveniences that make life more pleasant.

            But that’s not what the word “comfort” meant in the 17th century.  The word “comfort” comes from a Latin word.  “Com” is a Latin prefix meaning “with” and “fortis” is the Latin word for “strong”.  So “comfort” literally means “with strength”.  So when the King James translators used the word “comforter” to refer to the Holy Spirit, they weren’t telling us that the Holy Spirit would come to us to make our lives easy and pain-free.  Refer, he was sent to us by God to provide strength to us in our times of struggle.

            And comfort is a wonderful thing.  Have you ever noticed how, when someone is deeply distressed, after a bereavement or a tragedy, if there are other people with them, hugging them and sitting with them, it gives them the strength they need to get that moment, to get through that day?  Outwardly, nothing has changed.  The tragedy is still a tragedy.  But that support from other people changes our ability to cope with disaster.  It gives us the strength we need.  And so, when the Holy Spirit is referred to as the “comforter”, it’s talking about his ability to give us that kind of extra strength we need to deal with tough situations in our lives.

            I want to spend the rest of this lesson talking about this idea of a comforter.  But allow me to take a bit of a diversion and then I’ll come back to this idea of the Holy Spirit as a Comforter.

            Let me ask you this question – How should we feel about suffering?  When we suffer, or our loved ones or neighbors suffer?  How should we respond to that suffering?  And how does God fit into all of our suffering?

            Here’s the answer that John Calvin came up with.  He said that whatever happens, happens because God willed it.  God decreed it.  God set it in motion.  Everything that’s either good or evil; helpful or harmful —it all comes down to God’s plan, God’s desire.  Calvin even specifically said that if a branch falls from a tree and kills someone who is passing by below, that’s not a random act of chance.  Rather, it is God who decided to kill somebody.

            So, what that means is that. . .

  • If somebody robs a pizza delivery person at gunpoint. That God’s will.
  • If you find your spouse in bed with your boss, that was God’s plan all along.
  • If a child gets killed in a drive-by shooting. God ordained it.
  • If the doctor tells you it’s cancer, and it’s terminal. God made that tumor just for you!
  • Oh, and the Holocaust. Totally God’s idea.

            One of the many reasons that I’m not a Calvinist is that I just can’t fit what John Calvin said about human suffering and God’s character with what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians chapter 1.  Beginning in verse 3, Paul  wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

            Paul said that God comforts us in all our trouble, which is very different from saying that God causes all our trouble.  And, whenever God comforts us in our trouble, it helps us to be able to comfort other people who are in trouble. 

            Throughout the book of 2 Corinthians, Paul talks a lot about suffering.  And one of the themes throughout this letter is that Jesus Christ came to this earth to share in our suffering.  He suffered for us and he also suffered with us.  Jesus entered into our suffering and our trouble and made it a part of his own life.

            Paul tells us that “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” wants us to come to him and be comforted in our troubles; and then to share that comfort with others.  The God of all comfort creates communities of comfort in a troubled and suffering world.  And that’s part of what it means to be the church.

            In 2 Corinthians 1, verses 3-7, Paul uses the word comfort ten times.  Ten times in five verses.  And guess what the Greek word for comfort is?  It’s paraklesis, which is a form of the same word that Jesus used in the gospel of John to describe the Holy Spirit.  Most translations translate this word in 2 Corinthians as “comfort”, but I think The Message translation actually does a good job of bringing out the full range of meaning of this word.   It translates paraklesis in a variety of ways — as healing;or counsel; or coming alongside; or giving a helping hand.  And all of those are appropriate ways to translate this word.

            I mention this because I want you to see that the comfort-words in this passage are built on relationship.  To console, to counsel, to heal, to come alongside, to offer a helping hand — those are all about reaching out to someone else, and drawing them in.   Reaching out, offering a listening ear, a warm embrace, an encouraging word. That kind of comfort can only take place in relationship, in community.

            And that’s essential because God has called the church to be a community of comfort.  In our day and time, we might misunderstand that to mean a community where we are made comfortable.  A gated community where everyone is making a comfortable living.  And we all come home to the latest and best creature comforts.  And if anything we’ve experienced that day has made us uncomfortable, we can just smother it in comfort food. 

            The problem with that idea of comfort is that it makes us ignore our own troubles and suffering.  And before long, we’ll also be ignoring or minimizing the troubles and sufferings of our neighbors. The comfort that Paul is talking about in 2 Corinthians doesn’t end with us. Fred Buechner once said that “compassion is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”

            The comfort that comes to us from our compassionate Father makes us unable to ignore someone else’s troubles or sorrows.  Because God comforts us in all our trouble so that we can comfort other people who are also in trouble.

            Which brings us back now to what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit in John 14-16.  Because Jesus tells us where we get our comfort.  Again, Jesus said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth… for he dwells with you and will be in you.” (John 14:16-17)

            What’s interesting is how this special name that Jesus gave the Holy Spirit in John — in our translation, the Helper — how that corresponds to the comfort-words Paul used in 2 Corinthians. The words Paul used in 2 Cotinthians were paraklesis and parakaleo.  Consolation.  Healing.  Comfort.  A helping hand.  Coming alongside.  

            And the word Jesus used in John to refer to the Holy Spirit is parakletos.  The Helper, the Comforter, the Advocate, the Friend, the one who is coming to stand beside you.  The point is, God’s comfort is found in relationship.  But it comes to us from the Holy Spirit.

            Paul said that the comfort we can all share in times of suffering and trouble is our confidence in God, who raises the dead.  Who better to instill this comfort in us than the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 8:11)?  If our comfort comes in knowing that the life-giving God is making all things new; who better to pour this comfort into our lives and our community than the Spirit of God who moved upon the face of the waters when God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1-2)?

            A few minutes ago, I asked some questions: How should we feel about suffering?  When we suffer, or our loved ones or neighbors suffer?  How should we respond to that suffering?  And how does God fit into all of our suffering?

            I hope that now we’re a little better prepared to answer those questions.  Our God is a God who comforts us in all our trouble.  We find our comfort from God as he lives with us and in us through the Holy Spirit.  Our Companion.  Our Advocate. The One who has come to stand beside us.  The one who gives us the strength we need to get through this day, and every day.

            And as a group of people who have received this comfort from God, we offer those who are troubled the same comfort that we ourselves received from God.  We pray for others, but it shouldn’t end there.  Like the Holy Spirit, we comfort others by being with them, lending a helping hand.  Providing a listening ear.  A hot meal.  A warm embrace.  Giving others the strength they need to get through whatever they’re going through right now.

            Jesus said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth…for he dwells with you and will be in you.” (John 14:16-17).   May we offer our thanks to God for this wonderful gift.

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