The other Comforter spoken of is a subject of great interest & perhaps understood by few of this generation, After a person hath faith in Christ, repents of his sins & received the Holy Ghost (by the laying on of hands) which is the first Comforter then let him continue to humble himself before God, hungering & thirsting after Righteousness. & living by every word of God & the Lord will soon say unto him Son though shalt be exalted. &c When the Lord has thoroughly proved him & finds that the man is determined to serve him at all hazard. then the man will find his calling & Election made sure then it will be his privilege to receive the other Comforter which the Lord hath promised the saints as it is recorded in the testimony of St. John…
Now what is this other Comforter? It is no more or less than the Lord Jesus Christ himself & this is the sum and substance of the whole matter, that when any man obtains this last Comforter he will have the personage of Jesus Christ to attend him or appear unto him from time to time.
Joseph Smith, June 27, 1839, Commerce, Illinois; recorded in Willard Richards Pocket Companion
These comments by Joseph Smith have been the source of much speculation over the years, including the foundational principle of several Mormon offshoot communities. However, much like his confusion regarding Elijah/Elias and Isaiah/Esaias, I believe Joseph Smith probably misinterpreted the verses he used as a basis for the concept of a “Second Comforter”.
First, let’s take a look at John 14:16-18, referenced by Joseph in the talk I quoted above (I used ellipses for brevity’s sake and cut out Joseph’s quoting of the verses):
And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.
When we, like Joseph, having grown up understanding that the Holy Spirit is the Comforter, read that Jesus is going to send another comforter, we tend to think of Jesus as referring to something other than the Holy Spirit; but that is because we already have that concept in mind. If we instead read the verses in context, the implication is that Jesus is the first comforter and, once he is no longer with his disciples, he will send the Holy Spirit as another comforter.
The Greek word translated here as “Comforter”, παράκλητος (paraklētos), means an intercessor or helper. It was frequently translated in Latin as “advocatus” and generally means “one who is called to someone’s aid”. It is set as opposite the reference in verse 18 that Jesus will not leave his disciples “comfortless”. Here, the Greek word is ὀρφανός (orphanos) and means to be orphaned, or without the aid of one who brings comfort (e.g., parent, guardian, friend).
Paraklētos is also used in John 15:26:
But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me:
Again, this verse, when placed in context, is building on the idea that Jesus is the “first” comforter and the Holy Spirit is the “second” comforter.
The same word, paraklētos, also shows up as a direct reference to Jesus in 1 John 2:1, where it is translated as “advocate”:
My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous:
So, I think we are on the right path when we refer to Jesus as one of the Comforters, but rather than being the “second” Comforter, he is instead the “first”. He was present with the disciples and was their advocate before the Father. He was shortly to leave them so was telling them that he would send them another advocate/helper/comforter – the Holy Spirit, who would testify of him and remind them of his covenant. He is the first and primary advocate, while the Holy Spirit would fill in during his absence.
The text is pretty clear when placed into context, despite Joseph’s reading of the verses, which is why I think it is taking things too far when Joseph’s misinterpretation is used as the foundation for a Mormon offshoot’s doctrine that one must have a personal visitation from Jesus in this life in order to receive exaltation.
Perhaps Joseph was eager to read a personal visit from Jesus into the text because, as he claimed, he had been visited by Jesus, which no doubt brought great comfort to him. I also wouldn’t limit what God can do and claim that Jesus can’t visit someone; God can do what he wishes (e.g., Saul of Tarsus). However, I also find the concept described in the text to be a powerful and useful one: Jesus was and is the first – the primary – advocate and comforter. His work should bring great comfort to us, and his support as our advocate should provide us with the confidence to move out into the world as his disciples, aided by the comforter he promised in his physical absence, to love others and reflect his image into all the world.