In our small groups recently we’ve been focusing on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Basically, who is he and what different does he make in our lives? The first passage we looked at was John 14-16, in which Jesus promises that when he leaves, he will send the Spirit to be with us forever. In chapter 16, Jesus makes a shocking statement about the Spirit. He says:
I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.
Wait a minute.
It is to our advantage that Jesus goes away?
I’m sure that’s not what the disciples were thinking when they first heard these words and it’s certainly not how I think about Jesus having left. My heart has been conditioned to see our existence as simply a sort of waiting; a time between Jesus’ first coming and his second. While it’s true that we are living in a tension between the already and the not-yet, the present is not to be thought of as an inferior form of existence. In fact, Jesus says that it’s to our advantage that he goes away, otherwise he wouldn’t have sent the Spirit. The question is though, do you believe him? Do I believe him?
Before I started thinking more seriously about this a couple of months ago, there’s no way I could have answered yes to that question. Even now I’m still struggling to come to terms with how Jesus being away could possibly be better than having him here with us. The reality is, though, that as much as I struggle to take Jesus at his word on this point, this is Jesus we’re talking about. If he says that it’s to our advantage that he goes and sends the Spirit in his place, then it’s not my place to question whether or not he’s right. It’s my job to figure out why it’s better. As such, over the last while I’ve been doing some thinking on this topic. Specifically, I’ve been asking the question, “If it really is better that Jesus went to the Father and sent the Spirit, how does that change the way I live here and now?” So far I’ve come up with four answers, which I’m sure is only the tip of the iceberg.
First, it makes me less worried that Jesus hasn’t come back yet. I know it’s not just me who wonders sometimes when Jesus will return and why he’s left it so long as is. Every generation of Christians since the very beginning has struggled with this same question. The further we get from the time that Jesus walked the earth, the easier it is to start questioning why he hasn’t returned yet. But if we take Jesus’ words seriously that it’s better that he went and sent the Spirit, then we need not be so anxious about his return. This isn’t just some enormous holding cell we’re living in waiting for life to finally begin when Jesus returns. Jesus has sent the Spirit in order that we might live fully now.
Second, if it really is better that Jesus has gone and sent the Spirit, then I ought to be less anxious to leave earth in order to be with Jesus. We all have those days when we cry out “Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly!” but that need not be our normal mode of existence in the world. Yes Jesus has left to be with the Father, but he has not left us alone. He has given us the Helper, the one who Jesus said would guide us into all truth, by taking what is his and declaring it to us (John 16:13,14). The world isn’t a place to be fled from, it is God’s good creation and he has not abandoned it until Jesus returns. God is as present as he has ever been by His Spirit.
Third, the fact that Jesus has left to be with the Father does not mean that we no longer have access to him in the same way as those who knew him in person. In fact, we are closer to Jesus because we have access to him at all times through the Spirit. If Jesus had remained on earth, our access to him would be directly proportional to our physical proximity. But by the Spirit, we all have access to him at all times and in all places.
Finally, since Jesus’ leaving enabled him to send the Spirit, we are able to rely on the Spirit to do the work that we’re unable to do on our own. Although Jesus’ death upon the cross has made us right with God, it is the Spirit that carries out that work in our lives. As Paul says in his letter to the church in Rome, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11). It is only by the Spirit carrying out that saving work that we can be in relationship with our creator. It is the Spirit that gives life to our bodies. It is the Spirit that groans on our behalf when we are speechless. And it is only by the Spirit that we are able to testify that Jesus is Lord.
I guess what I’m trying to say with all this is that Jesus’ going to the Father and sending the Spirit ought to be central to how we think about our existence in the world. This isn’t some superfluous theological point that we can choose to pick up or put down based on how our day or our week is unfolding. If it really is to our advantage that Jesus left, then it’s something that we all need to wrestle with. As I said earlier, these four points are merely the tip of the iceberg and I’ve yet to come anywhere near fully grasping their implications. What I do know however, is that I’ve failed in a big way to give the Spirit the credit he deserves. My prayer moving forward is that as I continue to think and pray about all this, that these truths will move from my head to my heart. That the knowledge of the Spirit’s presence in my life will result in seeing Jesus, the world and my existence as they really are. We have not been abandoned!