“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.”
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 Paraclete, 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).
In his teaching on the Holy Spirit, Jesus began by telling them that judgment would begin within the church. Although the world will judge the church, Jesus said that the ruler of this world had already been judged. Satan may persecute us now on earth, but he can’t prosecute us in heaven! Whatever horrible suffering we might experience on earth does not compare, Paul says, to the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom. 8:18). Because of the work of Christ—because he took his place at the right hand at the Father, because he took that throne, and because Satan has been cast out—all authority has been given to Jesus in heaven and on earth.
In John 16:1–4, Jesus says, “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” That is, your own parents, your own siblings, your own children will consider it an act of piety to turn you over to the police. And so there’s going to be an apostasy within the church itself. That’s already what John the Baptist had proclaimed—a pruning, a period of division within Israel. The Holy Spirit will be the prophet of all prophets; the Holy Spirit will come with that word of prosecution to his people—the word that cuts, that divides. But the Spirit who convicts through the law will also convince sinners of the gospel. So by faith, the heavenly Paraclete, the heavenly attorney, will save his people.
The Spirit’s work in the church through the word will become, Jesus says, 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.”
Jesus says he will send another paraklētos. What a wonderful word that is. Unfortunately, “helper” is just about as lame as you can imagine for this description. Part of our demotion of the Holy Spirit is due to our translation of the Greek here. Jesus says, “I will send you allos paraklētos”—“another paraclete.” I think, however, that when we’re talking about Jesus as paraklētos, as in 1 John 2:1—“We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous”—we should think of Jesus. But when we think of the Holy Spirit as paraklētos, we should translate it as “comforter.” The ESV translates this word as “helper,” but that misses Jesus’ point. Jesus is not saying, “I’m sending someone of lesser importance.” Otherwise, why would he say, “It’s good that I go. But if I go, I will send you another paraclete”? That is, “He is equal to me but different from me. I didn’t hover over the waters in the beginning, impregnating them. I didn’t hover over the waters of the Red Sea, parting them so that my people could pass through. I didn’t hover over the waters of my mother in my own incarnation. But this paraklētos did, and he is the one who will unite you to me.”
Jesus is the one with whom we need to be united, but the Holy Spirit is the only one who can unite us to him! There are certain things the Father does, certain things the Spirit does, and certain things the Son does. While they don’t do different works, they do different things in every work. The Father is the origin, the Son is the mediator, and the Spirit is the perfecter. And that’s why these are the last days. The Spirit will be poured out in the last days, because the Holy Spirit is the perfecter; he’s the one who finishes the job. In other words, Jesus is saying—astounding as it is—“You don’t need me on earth right now.”
Like the disciples, we don’t understand what he’s talking about. How can we not need him on earth right now? Some think it would have been wonderful if Jesus could have stayed on earth after his resurrection. If he hadn’t ascended, then he would still be here today, enjoying long, long life. You could even shake hands with him! But Jesus said, “It is good that I go.” Why? Why is it good that he left? Because if he didn’t, the Paraclete would not have come.
Here’s the thing: Jesus was an evangelist. If you look at the history of evangelism and missions and then look at Jesus, however, you may not think he was too spectacular in this area. But that wasn’t his primary mission. His primary mission was to be the gospel, not to be the missionary of the gospel. His primary mission was to be the Lamb of God that we proclaim. His primary mission was to proclaim good news to the poor—the day of liberation, through his death, burial, and resurrection, and through his ascension to the right hand of the Father. We need one attorney in heaven pleading our case before the Father, with Satan cast out of the courtroom. Jesus says that we need him in heaven; we need another attorney on earth who will actually lead the campaign! If you misunderstand the nature of the kingdom and what the conquest really is, then you won’t appreciate why we need the Holy Spirit on earth right now and not Jesus.
What we see at Pentecost proves exactly what Jesus is saying here. In Acts 2, we’re told that the people were “cut to the quick.” Hundreds, then thousands, and multiplied tens of thousands of people start believing, because Jesus was indeed successful in his mission. He completed his mission to be the gospel, and now the Holy Spirit was being poured out to unite those dead in trespasses and sins to him. Now they would have ears to hear, eyes to see that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of the living God.
The distinction here is not between Jesus as advocate and the Spirit as comforter or helper, but between a heavenly attorney and an earthly attorney. We need Jesus to be our attorney in heaven, exercising his case before the Father for us; but we need the Holy Spirit as our attorney on earth, bringing us to conviction and faith in Jesus the Messiah, so that we will be covered in his righteousness. That verdict of the future—“Justified!”—can be heard even in the present.
In John 16:7, Jesus assures us that “it is for your good that I go, for if I do not go away, then the advocate will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you.” First, he will convict the world of sin (vv. 8–11). This activity underscores the role of the Holy Spirit as attorney. The language is legal: he will convict; he will expose. He will bring our secrets out into the open.
You see this also unfold in Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2. He prosecutes the case against the people in the crowd (“You put him to death”), while proclaiming God’s righteousness (“God raised him from the dead”) and judgment (“It was impossible for death to keep its hold on him”). Therefore, the external word goes out in the power of the Spirit, who inspired this preaching; and the internal word is effective, because the Holy Spirit is the one who goes to court within us, bringing us to trial so we will cling to our heavenly attorney. Cut to the heart, about three thousand were added to their number that day. This is quite different from the ministry of Jesus! Again, not because he wasn’t a sterling preacher and not because he wasn’t a great orator, but because the Holy Spirit had not yet come. In that great passage earlier in chapter 7, John said that the Holy Spirit had not yet been poured out because Jesus had not yet ascended to the Father.
So we need both paracletes: Jesus is God with us, and the Spirit is within us. And that’s why the apostles knew Jesus even better on the Day of Pentecost than they had known him all those years they walked with him. That’s why a person in San Diego or Singapore today knows Jesus better than Peter knew him when he was traveling as his companion. Because we know him not just according to the flesh, not just as a great person in history. We know him as the head of the body, of whom we are members! We know him as the vine, of whom we are the branches! The firstfruit, of whom we are the harvest! We know him in a much more intimate way than the disciples ever knew him before Pentecost.
Thank God for the Holy Spirit. This was the point Jesus was making. The disciples didn’t understand then, but they did when the Spirit came. The Spirit was waiting in the wings for that cry from Jesus on the cross, “It is finished!” Then, when that crucified Savior was raised in the power of the Spirit to the Father’s right hand in glory, the Holy Spirit was poured out to win a conviction in our hearts, so that we will be justified before God in him. When the Spirit comes, Jesus says, he will convict the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment. And so the Spirit’s ministry is not to add something to Jesus’ work, but to crack open our stony hearts to understand and embrace what he has accomplished.
In this critical hour in the Upper Room when Jesus approached his hour of crucifixion, we are amazed that foremost on his mind were not the nails or even the Father’s wrath. The last thing on his mind before he was taken out and arrested—as we see in this final prayer—was for you and for me to become one with him, which could happen only when the Spirit came. Indeed, it is the Spirit who unites us to him.
We live, gathered here, in the aftermath of Pentecost. We don’t need another Pentecost any more than we need another resurrection or crucifixion of Jesus. We need to breathe in deeply that rarified air of the Holy Spirit that continues to waft through this evil age—the stench of death that is pushed aside as we have a scent of the age to come. Every time the Holy Spirit opens people’s hearts to see Jesus for who he really is—which is why Jesus said, “He will glorify me”—you can be absolutely sure of where the Holy Spirit is. You know the Holy Spirit is present in power and majesty wherever Christ is being proclaimed in languages that people can understand, and where they are crying out, “What must we do to be saved?”
Michael S. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.