Dark shadows fall over the closing pages of John’s Gospel. For our Lord himself, there is the shadow of the cross; for the disciples, the shadow of his imminent departure.
He is leaving them to return to the Father, and they are utterly distraught. It is to this distress that Jesus addresses the words of John 16:7: “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.”
The words make two remarkable points. First, unless he goes away “the Helper” will not come. There is a divine order in the work of redemption, and in terms of that order there can be no Pentecost before Calvary. It is not simply that without the cross neither the disciples nor the Helper would have any witness to bear. There is a deeper reason: Only when Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law can we receive the promised Spirit (Galatians 3:14).
Before there can be communion, there must be reconciliation. But the converse is also true. Wherever Christ redeems, the Spirit ministers. This is why salvation can never be merely an external imputation of Christ’s righteousness. It is also profoundly inward. Wherever the blood is sprinkled, the Spirit transforms.
To Your Advantage
But then Jesus adds a second remarkable word: “It is to your advantage that I go away.” This was the last thing the disciples wanted to hear. What could he mean?
We all know the sentiment, “If only we could have been with him when he walked the hills of Galilee and strode the streets of Jerusalem!” But what if, when he walked those hills, we happened to be in Jericho, or Brazil? The incarnate Lord could not be in two places at once. But this is exactly what the coming of the Helper makes possible. Wherever we are, he is with us.
The word “Helper” (Greek parakletos) means, literally, one called to be beside us, but Jesus also spoke of him as being with us and even of his being in us. These words bespeak a remarkable intimacy between believers and the Holy Spirit. True, we see Jesus no more. But in place of that external presence, we now have an inner presence. We never walk alone. Whether on great missionary journeys, or languishing in prison cells, or fighting our own personal battles, the Helper is always beside us, always with us, and always in us.
But not as a replacement for Christ, as if he went away when the Spirit comes. Remember the words of John 14:18: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” This cannot mean only that the disciples would see him again in his resurrection appearances. If that were all, then Christians would indeed be “orphans” for the whole period between Jesus’s ascension and his return. The truth, surely, is that in the Helper, Jesus himself comes.
He Is with You Always
This is what the church later expressed in the doctrine called perichōrēsis: The three persons of the Trinity indwell and embrace each other so closely that where One is, the Three are (a doctrine based on Jesus’s own words in John 14:10, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me”). The Spirit is the Spirit of his Son; where his Spirit is, he is; and it is thus that Jesus fulfills his promise to be present with his church every day to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).
Nor is this all. The Father, too, is with us. Here again the intimacy is remarkable: “If anyone loves me,” declared Jesus, “my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). The we is breath-taking. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit now live in the heart of every believer. Christ is no longer visibly present to us, but through the indwelling Spirit the triune God is with us every step of the way.
He Is a Person
What of the Helper himself? He is clearly distinct from Jesus, yet his work is a continuation of Jesus’s work. This is why the Lord calls him “another Helper,” and why John can later call Jesus himself a Helper (1 John 2:1). This underlines the fact that the Spirit, no less than Jesus, is a person, not some abstract force or mere spiritual fuel; and because he is a person, our relationship with him must also be personal.
He does not possess us, as demons possessed demoniacs, or overwhelm us, depriving us of the use of our own minds and wills. Nor are we absorbed into him, as in some great mystical ocean. Nor is he an intoxicant (Ephesians 5:18), destroying our self-control and giving us drug-like highs. He guides, teaches, witnesses, advocates, helps, encourages, strengthens, intercedes, and assures. And he expects us to listen, obey, follow and, above all, to keep in step (Galatians 5:25).
He Is Your Advocate
The word parakletos usually meant an advocate, and this applies to the Holy Spirit in two distinct ways.
First, he is Christ’s advocate in the world (John 16:8–11). The disciples (and the church) were given a daunting commission: the evangelization of the world. But how can we convince the world of its need of salvation? How can we convince it that one who died an ignominious death is its appointed Savior? And how can we convince it that every man will one day stand before his judgement seat?
The short answer is that we cannot. The relief is that the Holy Spirit can. He can convict the world. He can stand up for Christ and his witnesses, and then our poor, lisping, stammering tongues become words of life and power.
Secondly, he is Christ’s advocate in our hearts. He shall glorify me, says Jesus (John 16:14), by sharing with us his own vision of the beauty of the Savior. The Spirit sees Christ through the Father’s eyes (John 16:13). A believer sees him through the Spirit’s eyes.
He Is Your Helper
Still, there is a warmth in Jesus’s promise which the word “advocate” cannot convey. Remember that his words were addressed to the disciples’ fear of being left friendless and helpless. The comfort is that when he goes, he will send another who will stand by them and stand up for them, just as he has done. Far from being orphans, they have a Father in heaven, and through his Spirit he will provide for them as only a heavenly Father can.
Yet the mission of the Helper does not mean that there is no further place for hope, as if we already enjoyed all that God intends for his children. We still long to see him (1 John 3:2). And completeness comes not with Pentecost, or with Spirit-baptism, but only in the glory of the resurrection.