The Spirit and God’s Mission: How Jesus’ Going Away is to Our Advantage

In John 16:7 Jesus told his followers that it was better for them if he went away. Jesus said a lot of things that His followers did not understand (destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it, eat my flesh and drink my blood, etc), but this might be one of the most shocking things he ever said. Here was the savior of the world, the man who would be the king in the kingdom of God, telling his followers that they are going to be better off without Him, the kingdom of God would advance in His absence. These words must have sounded like insanity in the ears of Peter and the others. I can imagine Peter asking, “How can life be better if you leave us here alone?” Of course, if Jesus were going to leave them alone it would not be better, but that was not His plan. He was going to return to the Father and send them the Spirit. It is the coming of the Spirit that guarantees that the departure of Jesus is to the advantage of His followers. The kingdom of God will expand when the king sends His Spirit to empower His people to proclaim the good news of His victory.

During Jesus’ last night on earth, as he was walking with His disciples toward the garden of Gethsemane, and ultimately toward the cross, he had some reassuring words about how they were to continue on with His mission. It was a dark night after Judas had left the upper room to betray Jesus, and when the dawn broke it would be a darker day. The disciples, who were ready to go to war for Jesus as evidenced by Peter’s deft sword play in cutting off Malchus’ ear (John 18:10), would all scatter to the wind when the shepherd was taken prisoner. These same cowering men would watch their savior die the next day on the cross, but fifty days later they would stand in the public square and proclaim that salvation is found in no one else except the messiah that the people had rejected. At this preaching, three thousand people would but their trust in a crucified messiah (Acts 2). What caused such a dramatic change in these men, what caused such a dramatic change in the people’s response to Jesus? The answer can be found in Jesus’ promise to his followers that his going away was to their advantage. That when he went back to the Father the Spirit would come to them, convict the world, and convey Jesus’ message. By looking at the three Cs of the Spirit’s work in Jesus’ promise in John 16:1-15 we can find guidance for our own efforts at continuing Jesus’ mission.

The Coming Spirit

John opens his gospel by letting us know that the Son had come from the Father, had become flesh, and had dwelt among us (John 1:1-3, 14). With the deity of Jesus firmly established, John proceeds to lay out his testimony for why we should believe in Jesus. Miracle after miracle attests to Jesus’ coming from the Father. As Jesus talks with his closest followers on the last night of his life, he tells them that it is best if he goes away, because if he doesn’t go the Spirit will not come. This is a shocking statement that it is somehow better that the Word incarnate, the exact radiance of the glory of God, goes away. How can it be better for Jesus’ followers that he leaves and the Spirit comes? To answer that question, we need to quickly recap who the Spirit is and what He had already done in the Biblical story.

The Spirit whom Jesus was going to send was the same Spirit who hovered over the surface of the deep at the creation (Gen. 1:2). He is the same Spirit who came upon Moses to enable him to lead the nation of Israel (Num. 11:16-17). He is the same Spirit who empowered Joshua and the judges to lead God’s people (Deut. 34:9, Jdg 3:10). He is the same Spirit who empowered Saul and then David in their role as king (1 Sam. 10:6-7, 16:13). This is the Spirit that Isaiah promised would rest upon the messiah (Isa. 11) and who Joel said would be poured out on all God’s people in the last days (Joel 2). This is the same Spirit who came upon Jesus to empower him for ministry and to whom Jesus gave the credit for His miracles. So you see, Jesus is not leaving his followers with some lesser spirit, but Jesus was going to send the very Spirit of God, who had been empowering many of God’s leaders since Moses.

It would be one thing if a star quarterback from a football team said that he was leaving and it was going to better for the team if he left. How can it be to the advantage of the team that the best player and leader of the team were to leave? If, however, he is able to say that when he goes away he is going to send his spirit to each player on the team so that they have the same power as he has and they can now carry on the mission, you can see how his going away could be to their benefit. Also, what if somehow while he is physically absent from the team he is still with them in spirit, so that they are not left without him? This is what Jesus was promising to His followers.

As Jesus departs this earth by his crucifixion and resurrection, he ascends to the Father and sends the Holy Spirit. We will see that with the coming of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ followers will be able to bring the convicting message of the gospel and will still have access to the words of the Father.

The Convicting Spirit

Have you ever struggled with sharing the gospel with people? Maybe you worry that you’re not good enough at it or that you don’t have all the answers. Well rest easy my friend, we are not the ones tasked with changing hearts; that is the Spirit’s job. In John 16:8-10 Jesus tells his followers that when he leaves, the Spirit will come and He will convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment. It is the Spirit’s job to bring conviction, it is our job to tell the gospel message. But what does it mean that the Spirit will convict of sin, righteousness and judgment,

First, when the Spirit is said to convict, it means that he will expose the wrongness of the world in regard to its sin. What is this sin? It is the sin of unbelief, of not trusting God as revealed in Jesus? The number one sin in the Top Ten List of Sins (Exod. 20:1-17) is cheating on God, having another God before Him. Jesus says that when people do not believe in Him they are breaking the number one command, have no other God before the one, true God. As the gospel is spread, the Spirit will convict people of this, but that means we need to confront people with the truth of Jesus’ claims about Himself. In other words, we need to spread the gospel.

The Spirit will also convict the world considering righteousness because Jesus is going back to the Father. What does Jesus mean that His returning to the Father is connected to righteousness? It is difficult being two thousand years removed from the cross to see it as a sign of unrighteousness, but in the time of Jesus, his being hung on a cross was a sign that he was cursed by God, that he was unrighteous. This idea comes from Deuteronomy 22:22-23. The opponents of Jesus wanted to discredit Him, so they convicted Him on charges of blasphemy and then hung him on a tree. This would have been the end of the story, the death of another unrighteousness man, except that Jesus came back from death, and the coming Spirit would convict the world of its own unrighteousness in relation to the righteousness of Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus and His return to the Father proved to the world that Jesus was indeed righteous. Paul informs us in Galatians 3:13-14 that the plan of Jesus’ opponents backfired because God had planned for Jesus to take our curse upon Himself, so that when he died on the cross it doesn’t show his unrighteousness, but the world’s.

Finally, the Spirit will convict the world regarding judgement because the prince of this world has been judged. In the death of Jesus, Satan and the world thought that they had won, that they had eliminated this pretender to the throne. What happened though was Satan and the world were judged. Caiaphas passed his judgment that it is better for one man to die than for the whole nation to be destroyed (John 11:49-52). Caiaphas, in an attempt to retain his power, was judged in the judgment of Jesus. Satan, in his attempt to eliminate Jesus, ended up judging Himself. The way for the Son of Man to ascend to the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:14) was through the cross. Death is judged as Jesus dies and is resurrected (1 Cor. 15:54-57). Satan is defeated in the apparent defeat of Christ. As we share the gospel we are proclaiming that the sting of death has been removed, that the ruler of this present darkness has been dethroned, and the Spirit brings that truth to light, he convicts the world regarding this truth. 

The Conveying Spirit

Ok, so the Spirit will come into the world and will convict the world as we spread the gospel, but how can we be sure that what we are saying is right. I mean, the apostles sure seemed confused quite a bit in the gospels, especially in John’s gospel. How can we be sure that they are going to be able to teach what Jesus wants them to teach once he is gone? They didn’t really understand him will while he was with him, wouldn’t his departure just make things worse? Also, Jesus said that he only told his followers what the Father was telling Him. Now that he was leaving, how were they going to hear from the Father? Enter the Spirit who will convey the words of Jesus to the apostles. Not only that, but Jesus says all that the Father tells Him He will tell the Spirit and the Spirit will tell the apostles. It is like the telephone game we played as kids, with the difference being that Jesus and the Spirit are God, just as the Father is God, so we don’t have to worry about the message getting jumbled or lost in transmission. The Spirit will accurately convey the words of Jesus.

It is for this reason that we can proclaim with confidence the message of the apostles that we find recorded in the New Testament. The Spirit conveyed to them the message of Jesus and brought to their understanding the things that Jesus had said before he left the earth. Once the Spirit was poured out on the Apostles they were enabled to understand what Jesus had been teaching while he was on the earth. Their confusion gave way to clarity through the conveying work of the Spirit.

So we can have confidence as we spread the gospel. Not confidence in our ability or our rhetorical skill, but confidence in the coming, convicting and conveying Spirit. He will do His work through us as we tell the world about the good news that Jesus is king and we can be adopted into God’s family, we can be a child of Abraham, through faith in Christ.

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