The Paraclete

As we enter Holy Week, it is good to focus our minds on the matter that occupied Jesus in His final hours before His Passion, that we might imitate the mind of Christ. Therefore, I thought we might take a little time and look at what is called the Last Supper Discourse in the Gospel of John (Jn 13-17).

In the Last Supper Discourse, Jesus warns His disciples that they will suffer as He is about to suffer. But He does not speak only of suffering, nor does He expect them to stoically bear such suffering by sheer will power. Indeed, as He has already warned Peter, He knows they cannot, humanly speaking, weather the storm they are about to face, nor the storms the Church will face in the future (Jn 13:38). As they are soon to find out, they will all abandon Him. That is the best their fallen humanity can do.

But Jesus is not going to leave the apostles to their fallen humanity. He promises again to send the “Paraclete.” A look at the way in which Jesus speaks of the Paraclete throughout the Last Supper discourse is vital to understanding this great gift of God: the Holy Spirit.

 

“Paraclete” is term with diverse meanings. The word is derived from a Greek term meaning “to exhort,” but it also means “Guide,” “Friend,” and “Defender.” The term also connotes the imparting of strength. Because of this wide range of meanings, Scripture translators vary in the way they render the word in English. Sometimes it is translated “Counselor” (since the Spirit provides guidance). Sometimes it is translated “Helper” (in the sense of friendship) or “Advocate” (in the sense of a legal defender). This last translation is also justifiable, since “paraclete” was used in the first century to speak of a defense attorney in legal proceedings. And finally, “Comforter” (in the sense of giving strength) is a possible translation. As is common in John, we are not intended to pick the “best” meaning of Paraclete but rather to bear in mind that all these meanings are intended.

Jesus speaks several times of the Paraclete in the Last Supper discourse. In John 14:16-17, we are told that the Spirit is “another” Paraclete. The implication is that Jesus is the first Paraclete, and that the Spirit — the other Paraclete — is therefore coming to continue and complete the work begun by Christ. This is precisely the picture that Luke gives in Acts 1:1, when he tells us that his Gospel describes what Jesus “began” to do and teach. In Acts, the understanding is that the Spirit is now carrying on what Jesus began, for it is the Spirit of Christ Himself (Rom 8:9). And the Spirit is even more intimate with the Church than the earthly Jesus, for He indwells the Church, making the members of the Body of Christ able to do what they could not do by their own natural power.

This explains the Catholic approach to salvation, which emphatically insists that we are “participants in the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4): active participants and not merely passive patients. It is quite true that we are entirely the recipients of grace and that we cannot earn justifying grace or put God in our debt. But as real recipients of Spirit, we are enabled by God to take part in the process of atoning for our sins. We “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil 2:12-13). We are made “God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor 3:9), but doing all by the power of the Spirit, not by our own power.

For this reason, we can truly say that Christ’s work is complete, even as Jesus Himself said when He died on the cross (Jn 19:30). Redemption is indeed fully accomplished by Christ. But it is not the case that this complete redemption requires nothing from us. For if that is so, then not even repentance and faith are necessary, which is nonsense according to our Lord’s own teaching (cf. Mk 1:15). Instead, the teaching of both Scripture and the Catholic Tradition is that the work of redemption is completed by Christ, but it is applied to us by the Holy Spirit.

 

This is why, according to John 14:26, the Spirit acts as teacher to the Church and to the believer. It is important, however, to bear in mind the context of Jesus’ words here, since many Christians view this as a license to declare that they are personally instructed by the Holy Spirit without any reference to what the Church says at all. This is not the case. For Jesus is a) speaking to the apostles here, not directly to us, and b) His emphasis is on the fact that the Spirit does not teach “new revelations” but rather that He brings to remembrance “all that I have said to you.” “All that I have said” refers to the apostolic deposit of faith: all that He has said to the apostles and all that the apostles have, in turn, entrusted to the Church.

The Spirit’s task, first and foremost, is therefore to put us in mind of the common Apostolic Tradition of Jesus, both written and unwritten, as it has been preserved by the Body of Christ in union with the apostles and their successors, the bishops and pope. His promise to teach us therefore applies to us only insofar as we are in a subordinate union with the apostles and their successors: the bishops in union with the See of Peter, that is, the Magisterium.

So we are not to expect “new revelation” from the Spirit, but we are to expect the Spirit will “guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:13). That is, He will help us understand more profoundly what we already know through the deposit of faith He gave the apostles, not show us things Jesus has never revealed. The complete revelation of Christ was handed down to the Church in both written and unwritten form (cf. 2 Thes 2:15) and closed with the death of the apostles. Now it falls to the Church, under the guidance of the Spirit, to explore that revelation and, when necessary, articulate it through the magisterial office of the Church.

The Spirit Himself guides that process and “bears witness” to Jesus (Jn 15:26). This is a legal expression and dovetails well with the idea of the Paraclete as a defense attorney. The Spirit Himself is at work in the Church and in the believer, strengthening us to bear witness to Christ, even in the midst of a hostile world.

This witness is vital because of the Spirit’s mission in the world. As John 16:7-15 makes clear, the Spirit’s purpose is threefold: convincing of sin, righteousness, and judgment. How does the Paraclete convince of sin? Jesus tells us: “Because they do not believe in me” (v. 9). This answer, so mysterious to those who conceive of sin simply as “breaking the rules,” becomes clear when we realize that Jesus is the True Word and that “the rules” (i.e., the Commandments) make sense only insofar as they reflect our living relationship with Him. The greatest sin is not breaking a law but rejecting Christ, who is the Giver and Incarnation of the Law, the Word made flesh. Of course, our rejection of Him can be mitigated by ignorance. But ultimately, there is no more serious sin than spurning God’s greatest gift: Jesus. The work of the Holy Spirit is precisely to break and melt our hearts when we discover that the one we abandoned, denied, and rejected is the Creator and lover of our soul. This was precisely Paul’s experience, and it is the experience of every human person who has truly been converted to Christ.

That is also the paradox behind the Spirit’s task of convincing the world concerning righteousness. The Jews who condemned Jesus believed righteousness was in their understanding of keeping the law. But the reality is that Jesus is the law and righteousness of God, yet they rejected Him. His death is the judgment on their view of righteousness. The one they cursed and called a devil and blasphemer is the one who returns to the Father.

Which leads to the final work of the Spirit: He will convince the world concerning judgment. For in the judgment of Christ, the entire juridical system of the world missed Christ. It did not just miss the boat; it sank the boat. The verdict against Christ is a verdict against Christ’s judges, both human and superhuman. As St. Paul says, “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8). The possessors of the Law of God misunderstood it so badly that they put the Author of the Law to death. The political authorities of the world, entrusted with the sword for the common good (Rom 13), are reduced to babbling sophistries like “What is truth?” to avoid doing justice (Jn 18:38). And the principalities and powers in the heavenly places are cast down and led in triumph by Christ’s overwhelming victory (Col 2:15).

Mark P. Shea

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Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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