“They shall be comforted!”
Although Jesus’ statement in Mt.5:4 is a clear reference to mourning someone’s death (see previous post), his total sharing of our human condition is indisputable (Heb.2:14-18 and elsewhere).
Nevertheless, it is NOT in the Holy Spirit’s job description to wrap you in a warm fuzzy “blankie”, hand you a pacifier, and bestow a sympathetic pat on your head (“spiritual”, of course!) every time you stub your toe or get your feelings hurt!
Traditional translators have done us a great disservice by their choice to use “comfort / comforter” for the richly varied words, parakaleo (verb), paraklesis (corresponding noun), and parakletos (the person doing it). To be fair, the verb form is also rendered “beseech” and “exhort” – although unfortunately with no hint that these represent the same original word. The persistent notion of the “blankie” image, reinforced in traditional translations of the Beatitudes and Jesus’ final discourse in Jn.14, as well as several epistles, is neither accurate nor helpful. This, despite the fact that one of the worst aspects of any devastating loss is the despairing question, “What now???”. When the future looks like it has disappeared into a black hole, you don’t need a “blankie” – you need a direction! You need to “get a life”! And that is exactly what is promised in parakaleo – a life!
Even a cursory check of the lexicons reveals a much wider scope for parakaleo, and places the rendition of “comfort” near the bottom of the list. The primary intent, according to L/S, is “to call for or summon, especially summoning a friend for support at a trial.” This is followed by “to invite, to appeal, to exhort or encourage”, before (6th in the sequence) “to comfort or console.” “To demand or require, to beseech or entreat, and to relent, repent, or regret” finish out the list.
I encourage you to try out some of these alternatives in places where you are accustomed to reading “comfort”, remembering that any one of them would be an equally valid choice for parakaleo.
It was this exercise, many years ago, that led one student in a word study class to the suggestion quoted in W.S.#53 – one that I still find more attractive than most: the work of an excellent “coach”, who, being well-versed in the techniques and requirements of a game, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of his players, is able to encourage each one’s optimum performance for the sake of forming a winning team – sometimes with a hug, and sometimes with a kick in the pants! I think “coaching” stands a much better chance of bearing Kingdom fruit than does the pacifier and blankie approach!
It would be interesting to know how the traditional translators sorted parakaleo into their chosen categories.
“Beseech” was chosen 43x. In the gospels (15x), it refers uniformly to requests for healing – with the intriguing exception of Mt.8:31,34 and its parallel in Mk.5:10,12, of demons trying to negotiate a “lighter sentence” from Jesus!
In Paul’s epistles (11x), it involves his instructions to various groups. Notice that he appeals to them, he does not give orders. Five times he makes requests of particular individuals. Only once does he refer to his own prayer (II Cor.12:8), although 6x the translators chose to render the same word “pray” (Mt.26:53, Mk.5:17,18; Ac.16:9, 24:4, and 27:34).
In Acts, “beseech” was primarily used for invitations, as was “desire” (13:42, 16:15, 8:31, 9:38, 28:14). It was also used in court cases (25:2, 19:31, 16:39).
In Hebrews (13:19,22) it is a request for prayer, and in I Pet.2:11, an admonition to faithful living.
“Comfort” and “exhort” were chosen 23x each – although speakers of English would be unlikely to assume that those two could possibly represent the same idea! One would expect them rather to appear as opposites! But folks, both are presented to you as “translations” of parakaleo! The common thread could be a flavor of advocacy – maybe. If you can detect another, please suggest it!
There is another, rarely used word, paramutheomai, that conveys something closer to our standard impression of “comfort” – it describes the folks who came to “console” Mary and Martha in the loss of their brother (Jn.11:19,31), and the treatment of the weak and despairing advocated in I Thes.5:14. L/S offers words like “attempt to reassure, assuage, console, soften, palliate”, but also includes “encourage or exhort.” (You could, however, more readily find a “blankie” in paramutheomai than in parakaleo.) It is not a bad thing, it is just not primary or predominant, appearing only 4x in verb form and 2x a noun, in the entire NT.
The “comfort” of parakaleo is much more robust. It is “encouragement” that may even lead to a solution – or at least growth, maturity, or strengthening. Paul’s extended description of God’s “comfort” in the first chapter of II Cor., is not a “poor baby” type of sympathy, but a dynamic move toward reconciliation, as evidenced in the follow-up in chapter 7. Clearly, the transgressor referenced in chapter 2 was corrected, not coddled.
Another clue can be gained from the words associated with parakaleo: conveying encouraging information (Eph.6:22, Col.4:8), extreme stress on the part of the one doing the “comforting” (Col.2:2), instructions for faithful living (I Thes.2:11 – where paramutheomai is also used), strengthening in faithfulness (I Thes.3:2), edifying (I Thes.5:11), and being established (II Thes.2:17) in good efforts.
It is also significant that this is a mutual task in the brotherhood (I Thes.4:18, I Cor.14:31). Remember: although the New Testament writings were set down long before the “church” morphed into a hierarchical institution, English translations were not! Could that have had some bearing on the choice of “exhort” when the same word was used of Peter, Paul, Timothy, or Titus, but rendered “comfort” in other contexts?
“Exhortation” (still parakaleo, remember), includes many subjects: Ac.2:40 – urging people to join the Kingdom; Ac.14:22 – to continue in faithfulness; I Tim.6:2 and 2:15 – teaching; Tit.1:9 – convincing opponents, 2:6 – encouraging responsible living, and 2:15 – even occasional rebuke; and I Pet.5:1 – urging elders to take responsibility for younger members.
So what about the promise with which we began, of “comfort” for people who “mourn”?
In most cases, “encouragement” would be a much better word than either “exhortation” – which has acquired negative connotations – or “comfort” which has grown mushy. “Encouragement” holds out the possibility of support, or even of a solution! This applies even for the “ultimate” problem of death (I Thes.4:18), since Jesus has accomplished its definitive defeat!
Paul demonstrates that there is a difference between “comfort” and “encouragement” in I Cor.14:3, where he defines New Testament prophecy as including
oikodome – “edification” or building up – often instruction
paraklesin – “exhortation, instruction, encouragement”
paramuthian – “comfort, reassurance, consolation”
and assigns all three to the responsibility of the entire brotherhood (14:31).
He also uses the latter pair together in I Thes.2;11, where he cites his own example of faithful “coaching”.
The goal, as always, (v.12), is that the Lord’s people be a credit to his Kingdom!
To that end,
“Let’s don’t neglect getting together … but keep on coaching each other, more and more, as you see the Day getting nearer!” (Heb.10:25)