I’m going away now to the one who sent me. None of you have asked me, “Where are you going?” Instead, because I told you this, your hearts are full of grief. But I tell you all the truth: I go away for your benefit. If I don’t go away, the Assistant won’t come to you. Once I cross over, I will send him to you all. Once he comes, he will correct the culture about sin, rightness, and judgment. About sin: People don’t trust in me. About rightness: I’m going away to the Father, and you’ll all no longer see me. And about judgment: The ruler of this culture has been judged.
—Jesus, John 16.5-11 KWL
Okay, I’ll get this inconsistency out of the way. Jesus said, “None of you have asked me, ‘Where are you going?’” (Jn 16.5) But a few chapters back, Simon Peter had asked him, “Lord, where are you going?” and Jesus hadn’t answered him with where, but simply, “You can’t go with me now.” (Jn 13.36 NLT) A little after that, Thomas had said, “We have no idea where you’re going, so how can we know the way?” (Jn 14.5 NLT) which isn’t a direct question about where Jesus was going, but is one way that one can fish for an answer. Well, those who hate the idea that the bible has inconsistencies have come up with all sorts of explanations of what Jesus really meant by this. I feel it’s most likely John was splicing together separate sayings of Jesus into the Passion Discourse. and that he hadn’t said all of this at one time. The earlier questions were asked in the upper room where they’d eaten the Passover; this part was hours later, at the second location they’d moved to after Judas went out to get the police. So at this time, at this point, the students were no longer asking, “Where are you going?”—they were becoming adjusted to the idea that Jesus was leaving… and they were bummed about it.
But there’s a good reason for Jesus to leave. “I go away for your benefit,” he told them. “If I don’t go away, the Assistant won’t come to you.”
Some Christians have attempted to come up with odd theological reasons why Jesus had to leave before the Holy Spirit would come. Those who believe in modalism—that there is no Trinity, but simply three “modes” that God operates in, i.e. sometimes, from our perspective, he’s the Father; sometimes he’s Jesus; and sometimes he’s the Spirit—figure God was just switching modes. Others teach that the Spirit couldn’t come, because humans are rotten sinners and he couldn’t indwell them until their sins have been wiped out by Jesus’s self-sacrifice. Of course, that doesn’t explain John the Baptist, (Lk 1.15) but they usually make up some unbiblical rigamarole about how John wasn’t really filled with the Spirit; the Spirit just “came upon” him from time to time. Or they figure John was a giant exception. (Of course, this doesn’t explain John’s parents being filled with the Spirit as well: Lk 1.41, 67.)
Most of these explanations inevitably wind up limiting God’s power. But Jesus never says the Assistant can’t come to them; it’s never u dýnati ércesthi nor uk iscýi ércesthi. It’s simply uk eléfseti—he won’t come. Jesus and the Spirit were swapping jobs. Jesus was his students’ helper and comforter and teacher and master; now that was going to be the Spirit’s job. Jesus was voluntarily stepping down and the Spirit was voluntarily stepping up.
And this is for our benefit. Unlike Jesus, who limited himself in order to live among us, the Holy Spirit is still unlimited, almighty God. He can be everywhere. He can accomplish ten billion times, and more, what Jesus could. He can indwell every Christian on the planet—and everyone else, for that matter. He can empower everyone.
Jesus is limited God. He’s like training wheels. When his disciples had Jesus around, they knew that if they tried and failed, as they often did (and as everyone does), they could turn to Jesus and he’d intervene and do it himself. But now that Jesus had taught them everything he felt he needed to, they were ready to do these things themselves, without the obvious safety net of Jesus looking over their shoulders. (Not that he isn’t still looking; like I said, without the obvious safety net.) They needed to take Jesus’s teachings and apply them in faith. They needed to stop following the Holy Spirit indirectly, through Jesus, and follow him directly. They needed to be filled with the Spirit.
So that’s why Jesus left. Not to abandon us; he never has and never will. But to get us to step up and follow the Spirit and act with power. Would Peter have been able to give his Pentecost sermon (Ac 2.14-40) if Jesus had been around to give it instead? I doubt it. Had Jesus been standing there, any Christian with some sense in them would have deferred to him, figuring he could do it best. And of course he could do it best. But his definition of “best” is quite a lot different from ours. His best involves obedient, active, participatory Christians, empowered by the Spirit to do the jobs he’s give us. In order to nudge us in that direction, he removed his physical presence from the equation. He took his finite form to the Father, and he sent us his infinite Holy Spirit. Way better… once we have the faith to realize this.
“Your hearts are full”—lit. singular.
“For your benefit”—lit. “it contributes to you all.”
“Assistant”—lit. pará-klitos, one who comes alongside; usu. “comforter” or “advocate” or “helper.”
“The culture”—usu. “the world,” specifically the worldly sphere around us.
“About sin, rightness, and judgment”—lit. “about sin, and about rightness, and about judgment.”
“People don’t trust”—lit. “they don’t trust.”