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)
“It is to your advantage that I go away.” What a strange thing to say. Right at the verge of Jordan in this new covenant conquest, how does Christ’s leaving benefit the disciples—or you and me? First of all, we need to exercise empathy here. When we read about how the disciples had not yet experienced the Holy Spirit’s illumination of their hearts so they could understand what was happening, we have to imagine how they would have heard this. In this light, it makes perfect sense that they were stunned. Here is the true and great Joshua—Jesus—standing on the verge of the Jordan, on the verge of the conquest, ready to lead the armies of God into the Promised Land, and he says, “Okay, it’s time for me to go.” Allow yourself to enter into their confusion about this because it makes perfect sense.
In John 13:36, Peter had asked him, “Lord, where are you going?” The Holy Spirit is the answer to Peter’s question. Why would Jesus desert the disciples right after he triumphed over sin and death, the cross and the resurrection? Why would he now ascend to the Father? Why would he have to leave Jerusalem in order to assume the throne of his father David? After all, Jerusalem was the very place where he was supposed to ascend to the throne of David. No, he’s going to assume the throne of David at the right hand of the Father himself. It’s not that the disciples’ thoughts were too great or that their hopes were too costly. They were too small! The horizon of their thinking was too narrow. Yahweh declares concerning his Servant-Son, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6).
The Spirit’s work in the church through the Word will become the anticipation of the great judgment in the future. The Holy Spirit will not only bind them to the Jesus of history, the Jesus of the past, the Jesus the disciples knew, walking on the road with him and fishing on the sea with him—the Holy Spirit will also bind us to the Jesus of the future, the one who has entered into his glory. In a very real sense, then, we know Jesus Christ better than the disciples knew him when they were eating fish with him by the Sea of Galilee.
The same Spirit, who ushered into this present evil age the future resurrection of the dead by raising Jesus, will now bind us to the resurrected Jesus in anticipation of that resurrection. He will first of all raise us spiritually from the dead, so that we will be able to understand and embrace Jesus Christ as our vine, with us as his branches. The future has arrived! But it could happen only when Jesus ascended. That’s the paradox here. Only when Jesus left would the future arrive or the new creation dawn—not just upon and for Jesus, but upon and for us. Only then, would we be swept into the age to come.
Before that happens, though, the apostate church will expel the true church. Think of Saul of Tarsus who became the apostle Paul. This is the paradox. Stephen might have appreciated it if, in God’s providence, the Lord’s timing could have been a little different—that Saul could have become Paul before Stephen was stoned to death (Acts 7).
But this is how Christ continues to move the conquest forward. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Not even the disciples understood this. But they would, Jesus said, when the Spirit brought his words to mind. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). The same Spirit who inspired the prophets to speak of this outpouring of the Spirit would inspire the apostolic writings and illumine the hearts of believers in all generations to understand these words.
The world judges the church now, but the Spirit will judge the world. This is not the last judgment, however, which has been entrusted into Jesus’ hands. It is the judgment before the last judgment. This is the wonderful period between the two comings of Christ where the Holy Spirit’s prosecution actually brings us to salvation. When Jesus comes, the prosecution will move only in one direction: conviction and sentencing.
But the Holy Spirit comes to us to tell us, “I’m bringing to you right now my verdict of you on the last day. Whoever does not believe in Jesus is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. I’m bringing to you that verdict from the age to come, and it’s not good. Your future is not good.” The Holy Spirit does that mercifully now so that we won’t actually hear that verdict in the future. Instead, when we read that verdict, it will say, “Acquitted for the sake of Christ.”
Adapted from Michael Horton “It Is to Your Advantage That I Go Away,” Modern Reformation, July/August 2019. Used by permission.