The disciples were sad; Jesus recognised that sorrow had filled their hearts. “Nevertheless”, He told them, “I tell you the truth: It is expedient for you that I go away” (Jn 16:7). There was a necessity about His departure; it would be profitable for them. He was going to die for them, to suffer the punishment of their sins, so that He might bring them to everlasting glory.
But the Saviour had a particular point to make in relation to their sadness. “It is expedient for you that I go away,” He explained to them, “for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you.” This was the One He had already spoken of as another Comforter: “I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you for ever” (Jn 14:16). And Jesus explained that this other Comforter was “the Spirit of truth”, the Holy Spirit. But if the Holy Spirit was to come as “another Comforter”, then Jesus must have been referring to Himself as the first Comforter.
Literally, the word translated comforter means someone who is called beside another person to help him. As David Brown explains, in his comments on the last-quoted verse, “In this more general sense, the Holy Spirit is undoubtedly sent to our aid, and every kind of aid coming within the proper sphere of His operations. But, more particularly, the word denotes that kind of aid which an Advocate renders to one in a court of justice. So it was used by the Greeks; and so undoubtedly it is used in 1 John 2:1: ‘If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous’. But it also denotes that kind of aid which a Comforter affords to one who needs such.” And Brown concludes that the idea of “a Comforter seems to us to be the kind of help which suits best the strain of the discourse at this place. The comfort of Christ’s personal presence with the Eleven had been such that, while they had it, they seemed to want for nothing; and the loss of it would seem the loss of everything – utter desolation.”
Up till then, Christ had been their Helper, comforting them in all their sorrows and difficulties. So, for example, after John the Baptist had been beheaded, “his disciples . . . took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus” (Mt 14:12); clearly they already knew Him as a Comforter. And what comfort the risen Christ brought to His sorrowing disciples! How quickly they advanced in knowledge and understanding during the 40 days until His ascension to the right hand of the Father!
Yes, He rebuked them as “fools [or, ignorant] and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken”. Then, with a view to strengthening and comforting the disciples’ hearts, the Saviour asked, “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into His glory?” They would now have reflected on the prophecies and on what Christ had previously told them about His sufferings and death; comforting light would now have begun to dawn on their hearts, which so recently had been greatly troubled. Then, “beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself (Lk 24:25-27); He did so with power and comfort. And we may note in passing the honour the Son of God put on the Scriptures, of which the writings of the prophets were part; so we must view the Word of God as the one fundamental source of instruction in religion.
Soon He ascended to heaven, from where, according to Psalm 68:18, He was to distribute gifts to mankind. He remembered His promise, “I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter”. And, presenting before the throne of God the merits of His finished work of redemption, He made intercession for sinners so that they would be blessed through the work of the Holy Spirit on their hard, rebellious hearts. What a wonderful gift to a lost world! Accordingly the Spirit was powerfully poured out on the Day of Pentecost. Yes, the Spirit convinced sinners of their sin; He applied to many of them Peter’s rebukes for their involvement in crucifying the Lord of glory. But the Spirit came to them further as a Comforter, coming where they were, in a state of distress because of their sin. That day He applied to 3000 sinners the truth that Jesus Christ is a great and glorious Saviour, who is able to save to the uttermost.
From His throne of glory, the exalted Christ is still bestowing gifts upon a lost world. We may not now see 3000 souls born again in a single day. But ought we not to expect greater things yet to take place, even in this ungodly world, for the Lord has promised that “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Is 11:9)?
Whenever an individual sinner is brought under conviction of sin, he is in desperate need of the further work of the Holy Spirit as a Comforter. One might say that the sinner’s greatest need is to look to Christ for salvation, but the sinner will never look to Christ unless the Spirit, as the Comforter, will apply to the sinner the truth concerning Christ as a willing Saviour. The Spirit enables him or her to receive such a portion of truth as, “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16). When the Spirit gives light to the sinner on the great fact that God the Father gave His Son to die as the Sin-bearer – and when He grants grace, not only to believe the fact, but also to trust in this glorious Saviour – the sinner is saved; he will never perish and he is certain of entering eternal life.
It may be a long, difficult journey to eternal glory from the time of entering the kingdom of God by faith. How could the disciples, for instance, find help after their Master had left them? Through the Comforter, He whom their Master had promised to send, applying the Word to their souls.
So if God’s children are troubled about sin, it is a great comfort if the Holy Spirit comes to stand, as it were, beside them and apply to them the truth that Christ “is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25). This is help indeed: by faith to see Christ presenting before the Father the merits of His infinite sacrifice, through which all their sins can be completely washed away.
Or is it the power of sin that troubles this individual? Then it is help indeed when the Holy Spirit applies to the soul the truth about His own sanctifying power and assures them that “He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). “The work of grace is not perfect at the first,” says James Fergusson in his commentary on The Epistles of Paul, “but hath its own beginnings, progress, and accomplishment at death.” And he goes on to speak of further blessings: “Albeit grace in believers will be perfected at the time of their death, when their soul shall be presented before Christ their Judge and carried up to be with Him, yet the complete consummation of their blessed state in soul and body is reserved till Christ’s second coming, wherein He shall raise up their bodies in an incorruptible estate, unite them to their souls, and carry up the whole man with Him, to put the copestone on that work of grace begun here”.
Whatever difficulty or trial or sorrow any of God’s children may yet have to confront, there is always something in the Word of God which is suited to the particular need of the moment. But if that person is to receive comfort from the Word, the Holy Spirit must come and apply the Word with power. Let us note just one promise, which ought to provide comfort in every conceivable situation: “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Heb 13:5). It was the truth of such promises, applied by the Comforter whom Christ sent, that supported the disciples through all their years of arduous service in spreading the gospel. And these same promises, applied by the Spirit, will comfort and support believers till the end of time.