What If Jesus Never Left?
Why His Absence Is Our Advantage
Have you ever wondered how Jesus’s absence could be an advantage to us? I’m referring to something Jesus said to his disciples just before he died:
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. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. (John 16:7–11)
What “Helper” could possibly be better than Jesus’s perfect, powerful presence and witness with his people on the earth?
I can only imagine that this question was going through his disciples’ minds when Jesus announced that he was leaving them (John 16:5–6). What advantage would it be to them for the Messiah to leave, when his mission was not yet complete, and to send them as his replacements? How could they be more effective than he had been? They could not have felt anywhere close to ready, and their collective behavior over the next couple of terrible days only seemed to confirm this.
But Jesus knew his absence would be a huge advantage, not only for his closest disciples, but “for those who [would] believe in [him] through their word” (John 17:20). He intended to empower their (and our) experience of his presence and global witness beyond anything they had ever imagined.
Not Merely With but In
One advantage of Jesus’s physical absence, the one Jesus explicitly mentioned, is that the Helper would come to the disciples (John 16:7). The Helper is, of course, the Holy Spirit, who Paul calls “the Spirit of Jesus” (Philippians 1:19). This is where we strain our mind’s eyes as we try to peer into the mystery that is the Trinity.
Earlier that evening, Jesus had told his disciples that although he was going away to prepare a place for them (John 14:2–3), he would not leave them as orphans, but he was going to come to them again (John 14:18). But rather than just be with them — which is all they had yet known — Jesus was going to give each disciple (including all of us who would eventually follow) the deeper, more intimate experience of the Father and the Son making their home in them through the Spirit (John 14:17, 23).
This meant that each disciple would experience the advantage of a personal manifestation of and communion with the triune God. But this raises the question, Why must Jesus be physically absent for the Helper to be present (John 16:7)?
Why It Requires Jesus’s Absence
Well, it can’t be that there’s some metaphysical reason that makes it impossible for the Holy Spirit to be present and fill believers when the incarnated Son is present, because that wouldn’t make sense of numerous Scriptures.
The Spirit is clearly active during Jesus’s earthly ministry, even from the earliest days. Not only are we told that Mary conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35), but that Elizabeth (Luke 1:41), Zechariah (Luke 1:67), and Simeon (Luke 2:26–27) were filled with the Holy Spirit with Jesus present. And if it wasn’t the Holy Spirit, then who empowered John the Baptist’s prophesies and who revealed to John who Jesus was (John 1:29–34)? Jesus himself told Nicodemus that no one is born again without the Spirit’s involvement, and he wasn’t referring to his post-ascension future (John 3:6–8), and he told his disciples “it is the Spirit who gives life” (John 6:63).
So then, what’s the reason Jesus had to leave in order for the Spirit, the Helper, to come? D.A. Carson explains,
The thought is eschatological. The many biblical promises that the Spirit will characterize the age of the kingdom of God . . . breed anticipation. But this saving reign of God cannot be fully inaugurated until Jesus has died, risen from the dead, and been exalted to his Father’s right hand, returned to the glory he enjoyed with the Father before the world began. (Gospel According the John, 533–534)
The Spirit could not be poured out on all flesh (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17) in new-covenant fullness until Jesus was exalted by the Father (Philippians 2:9–11) where “he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25).
Present Everywhere with Everyone
A second advantage of Jesus’s physical absence is seen in the words “convict the world” (John 16:8). Jesus had a world-reaching mission in mind. His mission was far broader and would take far longer to accomplish than the eleven had yet comprehended.
Jesus intended for billions of people to hear his gospel on multiple continents around the globe over the course of many centuries. His physical presence on earth would be a tremendous draw for his disciples. Who would want to spend their lives far away from him when they could be with him?
So, part of God’s eschatological design is a strategy that would scale to meet the needs of this massive mission. It could only be accomplished if Jesus’s powerful presence was in millions of disciples as they took the gospel to billions of people around the world over millennia.
That’s why it’s to everyone’s advantage, for now, that Jesus is physically absent. Because of this, you as a disciple, no matter where you are, have the unspeakable advantage of the presence of the triune God dwelling in you to commune with you and empower you in your role in his Great Commission. And the global church has the advantage of Jesus’s empowering presence whenever and wherever it gathers for worship (Matthew 18:20) or sends out disciples to preach the gospel (Matthew 28:20).