The paraclete, God the Father
One of the most precious words in the New Testament is the word paraclētos, usually translated as either ‘comforter’ or ‘advocate’ in English versions. It comes from the Greek verb parakaleō, which means to call in or to call beside, and referred to someone who was called in to stand by someone in need of help and support. This might be a friend or some professional such as an advocate.
We are all familiar with the Lord’s description of the Holy Spirit as our paraclete in John Chapters Fourteen to Sixteen, but what tends to be overlooked is that the New Testament portrays each of the Persons of the Trinity as doing the work of a Paraclete. In 1 John 2:1, for example, Jesus is described as our paraclete or advocate with the Father.
The Father: the God of all comfort
But what is particularly striking is the portrayal of God the Father as paraclete. We see this clearly in 2 Corinthians 1:3 – 7, where Paul refers to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as ‘the Father of mercies and God of all comfort (paraclēsis)’; and then, having introduced the word ‘comfort,’ he goes on to repeat it no fewer than nine times in the following five verses. In verse 4 alone the idea occurs four times: God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, ‘comforts us in all our afflictions, so that we may be able to comfort others with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.’
Here the Father is revealed as not only the One who sends the Comforter, but as himself the Comforter who stands beside us whatever challenges we face. This was already the Old Testament picture, of course. God was a very present help in times of trouble (Ps. 46:1), his ears always alert to our calls for aid (Ps. 34:15), always holding us by the right hand (Ps. 73:23).
Paul traces this ministry of the Father back into the very depths of the divine being. By nature, he is the Father of ‘mercies,’ moved by feelings of the deepest pity for his children. The word here is oiktirmoi, used frequently in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to describe the sort of feelings a mother has for her child. This is the background to the message of Isaiah 66:13, ‘As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you.’ But the word is also used of fatherly pity. In Psalm 103:13, for example, we read that, ‘As a father shows compassion for his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.’
We find this same word, oiktirmoi, again at the beginning of Romans Twelve, where Paul, having described the whole sweep of redemption in the previous eleven chapters, now traces it right back to its fountain and origin: ‘I appeal to you, by the mercies of God,’ he writes, ‘to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God’. The whole of God’s saving action flowed from the divine pity.
Today, at the heart of the Covid-19 storm, we can be sure that God still views the world (his world) with pity, even though it may yet transpire that it was through human negligence that the virus first appeared on the planet. But what Paul is highlighting here is God’s intensely personal care. God comforts ‘us,’ he writes, in all our afflictions, and he goes on to give a detailed account of the tribulations (literally, ‘crushings’) he himself had been through since he had last visited the Corinthians. It was in these that he had tasted the depths of the divine comfort. He had been burdened beyond his strength; he had been in deadly peril; he had even despaired of his life (2 Cor. 1:8-11). He adds further grim details in Chapter Eleven (verses 23 – 29). He had had to endure countless beatings, he had been flogged, he had been stoned, he had been imprisoned, he had been shipwrecked, he had had to toil through many a sleepless night, he had suffered hunger and thirst, cold and exposure. But in all these God had comforted him.
It is not easy for us to relate to this. None of us has toiled the way Paul did or suffered the horrors that he suffered in the course of his service for Christ; and we would find it hard to describe our own experiences as ‘sharing in Christ’s sufferings’ (verse 20). We would do well, then, to heed James Denney’s warning that, ‘few parts of Bible teaching are more recklessly applied than those about suffering and consolation.’
But this doesn’t mean that we dare not take Paul’s words and apply them to ourselves. They are not merely Paul’s words. They are God’s words, spoken through the Apostle, and God intended them to be appropriated not only by the church of Corinth but by the church of all ages and by believers in every time and place. The Father, writes the Apostle, comforts us in all our tribulations, and though these may not be on the same scale as those of apostles and martyrs, or even on the scale of the persecution encountered by thousands of our fellow believers still suffering today under fanatical totalitarian regimes, they may still be enough to test our faith to the limits and to bring us close to paralysis and despair. There are broken hearts a-plenty and toiling souls a-plenty in every Christian circle, but when Paul speaks of God as the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, he means that he has unbounded stores of compassion, and grace enough to instil courage in every troubled soul, whether the trouble be great or small.
How God comforts us
How, then, does he comfort us?
First, by assuring us that we are his children. This was the foundation on which the Psalmist built: ‘as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him.’ (Ps. 103:13, KJV). He feels for us, not only because he knows our plight, but because we are his children, loved and adored; and because he knows that we cannot cope. We are but ‘dust,’ ill-equipped to deal with the rigours of life. All the more reason, then, for him to love us, and the Old Testament expresses that love in another of the great words of the Bible, hesed: the love that never lets go. Sometimes we cannot see it, either because of extreme suffering, or because of our own feelings of guilt, or because we assumed that if real it would shield us from all pain. But nothing can ever separate us from it: neither time nor distance, neither things present nor things to come, neither tribulation nor calamity, neither life nor death. We are his heirs. All he has is mine. All he is, is mine
Secondly, he assures us, ‘I’ll be with you.’ This, as we have seen, is the basic meaning of paraclete: the One who stands beside us, ever near and ever caring. Wherever we are, the glory of the Lord is shining all around. ‘Open his eyes that he may see,’ prayed Elisha, when he and his servant were surrounded by a vast Syrian army and the poor servant thought their position was hopeless. The prophet’s prayer was answered, but when the servant’s eyes were opened, he saw nothing that hadn’t been there before. The mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha (2 Kings 6:17). Faith believes in what it cannot see. Even in isolation and quarantine we are surrounded by companies of angels; and not only by angels, but by the fulness of God himself, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. ‘I am your shield,’ said God to Abraham; or as an old Covenanter put it, ‘Where there is only one of you, he will be the second; where there are but two, he will be the third. You will never lack company.’
Thirdly, God comforts us by assuring us that our sins are forgiven: all of them, for ever. That is the life-giving truth enshrined in the great Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone. In his Commentary on Second Corinthians, P. E. Hughes speaks of what he calls ‘an agony of self-reproach,’ and many will recognise it as a place where they have spent many an unhappy hour. But believers have no right to stay there. Nor have we any right to try to try to dig our way out of it by improving our own spiritual performance. Only one thing can get us out: ‘the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.’ (1 Jn. 1:7). We cannot accept this as just an abstract theological truth. It is a personal truth: a truth about me.
‘What,’ asks the First Question of the Heidelberg Catechism, ‘is your only comfort in life and in death?’ and it replies, ‘That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, belong to my precious Saviour Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins’ (italics added). The Catechism makes the same point again a little later, when it defines true faith as, ‘A hearty trust that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merit.’ (Answer 21).
Or, as the poet, Richard Wilton, put it in his ‘Hymn to the Holy Spirit,’ this is, ‘The blood which bids the storms of conscience cease.’
Fourth, there is God’s promise to keep us. We may very well doubt our own spiritual stamina. ‘The grace of God in the heart of man,’ wrote Archbishop Leighton, ‘is a tender plant in a strange unkindly soil.’ Faith, hope and love are all fragile; the world is an arid spiritual desert; and there are lions in the way. Humanly speaking, then, the danger of our falling away is very real; and the danger is there to the very end, in old age as much as in youth. But the paraclete, God the Father, is close by, and he, as Jude reminds us, is able to keep us from falling (Jude 24). This doesn’t mean that we never stumble or fail. We do, and we will, and like Peter we may sometimes need to weep bitterly and make a new beginning (Lk. 22:32). But the fatherly power of the paraclete will ensure that we’ll never finally fall away. We have no durability in ourselves, but God will keep us till the Day of Salvation, and then he will ‘present us blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy’ (Jude 24).
This same great assurance was given by the Lord himself when describing his own ministry as the Good Shepherd (Jn. 10:27 – 29). No one could snatch a sheep out of his hands; and no one could snatch one out of his Father’s hands. Each one known by name, and each one safe in two great pairs of hands, his and the Father’s, not one can ever perish.
In his broadcast to the nation on Christmas Day 1939, King George VI ended with these lines from the American poet, Minnie Louise Haskins:
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
The lines are often quoted, but they have lost none of their force. The hand that made the heavens will take them where he always intended them to go; and he will take us home.
Finally, there is the hope of glory. There were times, as we have seen, when Saint Paul was despondent. The years and the labours had taken their toll. Physically exhausted, and emotionally drained, his ‘outer self’ was wasting away (2 Cor. 4:16), and sometimes he must have felt as if he had no more to give. But then, while the ‘outer self’ suffered under constant attrition, his ‘inner self’ – that place where faith and hope and love resided, and where the Holy Spirit had his temple – was being renewed day by day.
What was it that with each successive day brought such renewal? It was the hope of an eternal weight of glory (2 Cor. 4:18). The glory was unseen, of course, but faith could see it (Heb. 11:1), faith was sure of it, and Paul was sure of it: sure that when he died he would be with Christ, which would be far better; sure of a powerful resurrection body; sure of new heavens and a new earth; sure of seeing every knee bowing to his beloved Jesus; and sure, absolutely sure, that what God had promised was an overwhelmingly superior glory. His sufferings were light, and transient. The glory was solid in substance and eternal in duration.
It was this assurance, this acceptance of the comfort offered by the God and Father of his Lord Jesus Christ, that rejuvenated Paul at the end of each gruelling day, just as it was ‘the joy set before him’ that sustained Jesus on the way to Calvary; and just as it was the hope of the Promised Land that sustained the People in their long trek through the wilderness. It is a misplaced piety that pretends to be indifferent to the prospect of a day when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
Not for our own benefit alone
But the Father doesn’t comfort us for our own benefit alone. He comforts us ‘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 Cor. 4:4) God’s children inherit the compassion of their Father and become, in turn, consolers and encouragers of those who are in any trouble. Pain, it has been said, is the price we pay for love, but it is no less the price we pay for compassion. There is no other way to learn it, and once we learn it, it makes us vulnerable to more pain. Like God, who was afflicted in all the afflictions of his people, his children take the pain of others upon, and even into, themselves (Is. 63:9); and it follows from this that each of us, in our own way, has to be a comforter: in effect, a paraclete, standing beside those who are in any trouble.
But then we have to remember that we have no comfort of our own to offer. We can offer only the comfort with which we ourselves have been comforted by God: the divine words, referred to briefly above, that kept ourselves going in the moments of our own light and passing afflictions. For lack of a divine word, we will often find ourselves unable to answer the ‘Why?s’ of the bewildered and the broken-hearted, but we can always remind our fellow-believers that God loves them as his dear children; and every other consolation flows from this.
And we can tell those who are not yet his children that the door into our family-home is always open, and that our Father waits to welcome with open arms all who seek its warmth and care.