It’s better for us that Jesus is gone. He said so when he left (John 16:7). But how so? Why is Christ’s physical absence from us better for us than his physical presence? It’s a wise theological question that comes to us from a listener named Sam in the form of a question about the Holy Spirit. “Hello, Pastor John! Can you tell me: Why did Jesus have to leave before the Holy Spirit could come? The timing does not make sense to me. Couldn’t the Spirit have come in full power while Christ was physically on earth?”
This is a hugely helpful question because it causes me to step back and ask a bigger question: What is God doing in the world, and why does he do it the way he does it? That is a huge question. It’s so obviously simple and yet, my oh my, does it shed enormous light on the very history of redemption. What is God doing, and why does he do it the way he does it?
“The Spirit’s role is to reveal the glory of Christ in the gospel, which cannot be done until Jesus is dead, buried, and risen.”
Sam asks, “Couldn’t the Spirit have come in full power while Christ was on earth?” Here’s my answer: he could not have come in full, Christ-exalting, gospel-applying, new-covenant-fulfilling, deepest sin-convicting, Satan-defeating power while Jesus was on the earth. No. The reason he couldn’t is because every one of those hyphenated expressions, every one of those expressions of power, is based upon the death, resurrection, ascension, and rule of Jesus Christ. Those had to be done before the Holy Spirit could glorify them.
In other words, the most basic ministry of the Holy Spirit in this age is the glorification of Jesus Christ crucified for sins, risen, triumphant over Satan, forgiving sins on the basis of his blood, ascending in triumph in kingly power in heaven, and coming again. That’s what the Holy Spirit glorifies. He couldn’t glorify that until it happened.
In other words, the Holy Spirit’s ministry is not power in general — that’s a mistake made in the question. It’s not power in general; it’s Christ-glorifying power, particularly glorifying the gospel, or Christ crucified (as we see him in the gospel) and Christ risen. Now, we can see this in the New Testament really clearly.
The Holy Spirit’s Work
Here is John 16:7–11. “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.” Now we should ask, “Well, why not?” And let’s watch what he says. “But if I go, I will send him to you.” Now, here is what he’s going to do: “And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” Then he unpacks what he means by those three things: “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.”
We see that the resurrection and the ascension show the world to be wrong. It convicts the world about the justice of Jesus’s crucifixion and proves they’re guilty. The Holy Spirit’s work is to make that clear after the resurrection. Then in verse 11, we read, “concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.” When did that happen? That judgment of Satan was accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus (Colossians 2:15).
Finally, in verses 12–14, he says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” — namely, the most important truths yet to be accomplished in his death and resurrection. “For he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me” (John 16:12–14).
In other words, he will glorify Christ. John 16:14 is the most important sentence about the work of the Holy Spirit in the Bible: “He will glorify me.” Specifically, the Holy Spirit glorifies Christ’s resurrection glory and his achievements over sin and Satan on the cross. That’s the peak, the apex of the glory of Christ in the gospel. But you cannot glorify Christ for that if he hasn’t done it.
Here is Jesus again in John 7: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:38–39).
“The work of the Holy Spirit in new-covenant power happens only on the basis of the blood of Jesus.”
Now we know that the Spirit was present in the ministry of Jesus. He was causing people to be born again in John 3. Jesus was doing his ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit. We know that the Holy Spirit was present in the Old Testament, overcoming the mind of the flesh. Just read Psalm 51 or Isaiah 53. He was overcoming the mind of the flesh, which, according to Romans 8:7, keeps you from pleasing God. We know saints pleased God in the Old Testament, which they can’t do without the work of the Holy Spirit.
We know he was there. But he could not, however, powerfully do his most essential work, which was glorifying the risen and crucified Christ.
Here it is again in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
Paul adds to the idea that we are being changed into the likeness of Jesus by looking at him. He adds this: “For this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” There’s the most essential ministry of the Spirit. He lifts the veil. He causes us to see the glory of Jesus Christ and, thus, he transforms his church into the likeness of Jesus.
Now, where are we seeing that glory? Where are we seeing the glory of Christ as the Holy Spirit lifts the veil so that we can see and be transformed? The answer comes four verses later: “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
The Spirit’s role in 2 Corinthians 3:18 is to reveal the glory of Christ in the gospel, which cannot be done until Jesus is dead, buried, risen, raised, and reigning. That’s the key work of the Holy Spirit that he could not do until Jesus was gone.
Here’s one last way to say it. The Holy Spirit’s work is spelled out in the promise of the new covenant in Ezekiel 36:27 like this: “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Now, that is the work of the Holy Spirit, which we just saw happens by revealing the glory of Jesus Christ. That’s his work in this age right now.
“John 16:14 is the most important sentence about the work of the Holy Spirit in the Bible.”
But Luke 22:20 makes clear that Jesus bought this work, secured this work, obtained this new-covenant work by shedding his blood: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). So, “Couldn’t the Holy Spirit have come in power while Jesus was still here?” No. The work of the Holy Spirit in new-covenant power happens only on the basis of the blood of Jesus.
I’ll give my answer one more time, and maybe this time it’ll make more sense. Sam asks, “Couldn’t the Spirit have come in full power while Christ was on the earth?” Here’s my answer: he could not have come in full Christ-exalting, gospel-applying, new-covenant-fulfilling, deepest sin-convicting, Satan-defeating power. All of those aspects of the power of the Holy Spirit’s ministry are based on the death, the resurrection, and the triumphant ascension of Jesus to God’s right hand as king.