“Nevertheless, 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” (John 16:7). What could be so wonderful that it actually justifies Jesus leaving?
The disciples wanted a revolution.
If you look at the context, all of John 14-16 is one sermon that Jesus preached in the upper room. He's in the upper room with his disciples. He washes his disciples’ feet and tells them this is about what he's going to do for them going to the cross. Then he institutes the Lord's Supper. He preaches his sermon, and this is his sermon: I'm leaving, but I'm going to send the Holy Spirit. The sermon, preparing his disciples for his departure, is all about the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Imagine what they're thinking right now. Jesus is saying, "I'm going to go to the cross and die, and then be raised after three days." They say, “What, no you're not going to die, we're not going to let you die. We’re your bodyguards. We’ll take care of you. No, no, the revolution is just beginning. Jesus, you're the Messiah. We're going to install you. Oh and by the way, can I sit on your right hand? Oh, can I sit on your left hand?” They're thinking about a presidential inauguration, and they want to be enthroned next to him in this messianic kingdom.
Jesus's throne is a cross.
Jesus is saying: "my throne is a cross. That's where I'm going, I'm going to the cross and the people on either side of me on their thrones, are the two people crucified next to me. You don't want to be one of those people." And they're just shaking their heads: “where is he going, I don't get this. He's saying he's leaving. Why is he leaving?" Joshua didn't leave when he was on the verge of bringing them out after the Exodus. Now is the conquest. We're going to drive out the Romans and we're going to set up the good old days again of the Jewish theocracy, the temple, and everything. With a Messiah, Jesus, sitting on his throne judging the whole world. This can be great. No, this is going to be great Jesus, stop talking about all this negative stuff. No, you're not leaving. You’ve got to run this thing. Where are you going, can we follow you?”
"No, you can't come where I'm going,” Jesus says, and the disciples are just completely confused. So Jesus says,
I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the paraclatos, (itdoesn't mean helper here. It means attorney, advocate) will not come. (John 16:4-7)
Jesus will leave but he will send someone to take his place.
What is interesting about this is it's all about trading places. The Holy Spirit has miraculously brought about the conception of the second person of the Trinity, the eternal Son, in the womb of the Virgin Mary. He has, along with the Father, given his benediction over Jesus as Messiah, in his baptism. This Holy Spirit has been a part of the story, all along. He's central to the story.
But here's the thing: the Holy Spirit doesn't become flesh. The Holy Spirit doesn't keep the law perfectly in our place. The Holy Spirit didn't die on a cross for our sins and the Holy Spirit isn't raised from the dead for our resurrection. Only Jesus, the incarnate Son, could do all that. That's his proper role as the Son of God. But here's what's interesting, when Jesus preached the gospel, how many people came to him? Just some here and there, right? “He came to his own and his own received Him not, but to those who did he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:11).
Jesus knows the human heart, he knows that people are dead in trespasses and sins and until the Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh—men and women, Jew and Gentile, young and old, slave and free—and indwells them, everything Jesus says will fall on deaf ears. So, the Holy Spirit doesn't do what only Jesus can do, but Jesus doesn't do what only the Holy Spirit can do. They trade places.
Jesus has accomplished his work—he's accomplished redemption. Now he leaves because what really needs to happen now is for us to be united to Christ, to receive that redemption, and that's why Jesus says “it's better that I go because if I don't go the other attorney will not come.” And here's what will happen, "when the Holy Spirit comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment" (John 16:8).
In other words, when the Holy Spirit comes, he will work within people's hearts; that's what the Holy Spirit does. Jesus is God with you, but the Holy Spirit is God within you. He will bring you to conviction; he'll be the lawyer within you, convicting you of your guilt, and then bringing you to me for justification. The Holy Spirit is far more important than we often realize. We have not only Jesus who died for us and was raised on the third day accomplishing our redemption, but we also have the Holy Spirit uniting us to him so that we can receive that redemption as part of his body.
Editor's Note: Adapted from an answer given in Episode 231 of the Core Christianity Radio Show.