Why Did Jesus Just Up and Leave Us?
“It is expedient for you that I go away.” —John 16:7
If they had been left to their own fleshly, weak, and earthbound reason to “muse” about Jesus’ comings and goings and to answer to their own short-sighted satisfaction the questions that plagued their ignorance, Jesus’ disciples might well have expressed their frustration in the words of our title. For, although they trusted in Jesus as the promised Savior (John 1:29), as the one “of whom Moses in the Law, and the prophets, did write” (v. 45), as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), they were still —even up to the very day of His ascension into heaven— laboring under the common delusion of the Jews then and now that the Messiah would be more than a Savior from sin (Isaiah 53), more than a deliverer from death (Job 19:25), and more than a victor over the devil (Genesis 3:15). They looked for Him to establish a temporal reign over the House of Israel and to restore its earlier prominence as the people of God (Exodus 6:7-8), secure from all their enemies in the “kingdom” of God, ruled over by the Son of God (Acts 1:6). It was in that sense in particular, based upon the premise that He would survive the plot of the Jews against Him, that certain of His disciples “trusted that it had been He which should have redeemed Israel” (Luke 24:21). In fact, James and John (Mark 10:35ff.), with their mother as their spokesman and “agent” (Matthew 20:20ff.), started a real ruckus among the disciples when they endeavored to get in on the “ground floor” of Jesus’ temporal power base by trying to get a commitment from Him to make them what we might call today “chiefs of staff” in His government! What were they thinking?? In actuality, their “thinking” was not much different from that of the Millennialists of our day and time who would direct our thinking and attention away from the Savior’s spiritual reign in the Kingdom of Grace and its culmination in the Kingdom of Glory in heaven to a temporal 1,000-year reign here on earth for the vindication of His Church in the eyes of the world here where political power is the power that counts!
How would Jesus be able to set up His Messianic kingdom here on earth if He were to “go away” (John 16:7)? The disciples were concerned; they were worried; they were disappointed at the prospect of Jesus’ leaving them. Indeed, they were so perplexed by the very thought of it that, instead of asking Jesus to explain to them what positive, yea, wonderful benefits He had in store for them as the result of His temporary (v. 16ff.) absence, they hadn’t even bothered to ask Him, “Whither goest Thou?” (v. 5). Why weren’t they interested? Were they so preoccupied with the thought of His absence, were they so blinded by the “sorrow [which had] filled [their] heart” (v. 6), that they couldn’t see any up-side to His departure?? How would His kingdom ever be built up and established without His visible presence??
“It is expedient for you that I go away,” Jesus explained to them. “It’s to your advantage.” Why? “For if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you.” Jesus’ visible presence was of no real advantage to His disciples. Their confidence, their security, their happiness, and their hope were already too closely tied to the fact that He was visibly with them (v. 4b); and both the disciples’ skepticism (Luke 24:21-24; Mark 16:13-14) and Thomas’ challenge to the reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection, namely, that he would have to “see” and touch and feel Jesus’ body before he would believe it, were ample testimony to the importance (in their own minds) of His visible presence. It was to their advantage that He withdraw His visible presence so that their spiritual sight could be opened by “the Comforter” (v. 7), “the Spirit of Truth” (v. 13), to the knowledge and understanding of His person and work for their souls’ salvation. The Holy Ghost, the third person of the Holy Trinity, true God with the Father and the Son, would be sent by Him (v. 7) “from the Father” (15:26) in order to do for the disciples what was to their advantage:
1) “He will reprove [better: convict] the world of sin¼because they believe not on Me” (vv. 8-9). The Holy Spirit —specifically through the preaching of God’s Law in its fierceness as the flawless mirror of the truth that cannot lie— will confront the world of unbelievers and convict it of its damnable sins. Its sins, though expiated by Jesus Christ because of His vicarious atonement (I John 2:2) and for His sake not imputed to the world by God (II Corinthians 5:19), will remain unremitted and will bring the impenitent into everlasting condemnation. Why? “Because they believe not on Me” (v. 9); “for if ye believe not that I am He,” Jesus told the Jews, “ye shall die in your sins” (John 8:24). This reproof or conviction of the Holy Spirit will either crush hardened, unbelieving hearts like a hammer (Jeremiah 23:29) and bring them to “Godly sorrow” (II Corinthians 7:10), or it will harden them still further in their obduracy because of their stubborn resistance to His earnest efforts to save them (Romans 9:31ff.).
2) “He will reprove [i.e. convict] the world¼of [concerning] righteousness” (vv. 8 and 10). The hymnwriter correctly paraphrases and summarizes Romans 3:10-20 and 26-28 and Galatians 3:11, singing: “All righteousness by works is vain; the Law brings condemnation” (TLH 375, 4). What the world considers to be righteousness, namely, the perfunctory observance of the letter of the Law (imperfect though it be) apart from faith in Christ Jesus, is an abomination in the sight of God. The only righteousness that avails before God is the righteousness of Christ, the righteousness which He earned for every man (Romans 5:19b), the righteousness that God, for Christ’s sake, declared to be His free gift to all the world when He unilaterally and judicially (forensically) reconciled it unto Himself (II Corinthians 5:19). “Because I go to My Father, and ye see Me no more” (v. 10), because Jesus accomplished His mission to this world of sin, namely, His work of redemption, and was exalted from the grave to the right hand of the Father as evidence that God accepted His sacrifice for the reconciliation of the world (Acts 2:36; Philippians 2:9), the only righteousness that saves is the righteousness of God, received by faith (Romans 3:23-28). The children of this world reject Christ’s righteousness in unbelief, cling to (and rejoice in) their own unrighteousness, and thus are convicted and ultimately lost by their own fault (II Thessalonians 2:12).
3) “He will reprove [i.e. convict] the world¼of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged” (vv. 8 and 11). Because Christ by His vicarious atonement crushed the head of the Serpent in fulfillment of divine prophecy (Genesis 3:15), destroyed the works of the devil (I John 3:8; Hebrews 2:14), and “deliver[ed] them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:15), those who make common cause with the devil (John 8:44) in impenitence and unbelief, who serve the devil’s purposes by rejecting Christ as their Savior and leading others to do likewise, will share the devil’s judgment (Matthew 25:41) in the fires of hell. This unabashed reproof of wickedness and unbelief the Spirit pronounces by means of His Word, while all true believers will be reprieved from that judgment by the Comforter, who assures us even now that the gates of hell shall not prevail against them (Matthew 16:18b).
4) “He will guide you into all truth” (v. 13). Already on the occasion of the first Christian Pentecost, “the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4 and 11b) to speak boldly, powerfully, authoritatively and convincingly both the Law in its fierceness and the Gospel in its sweetness as the mouthpieces of their Lord (Luke 10:16) and His ambassadors (II Corinthians 5:20) to bring three thousand souls “to the knowledge of the truth” (II Timothy 2:4), to “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Corinthians 4:6) unto salvation. That blessed truth we have in the Holy Scriptures, “in the words which the Holy Ghost teacheth” (I Corinthians 2:13), “which are able to make [also us] wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 3:15). What an advantage, both to Jesus’ disciples, and to us and to all the world, to have His truth in its purity, to continue in it, to speak it, preach it, teach it, and apply it faithfully (John 8:31-32; Jeremiah 23:28; Ephesians 2:19-20; II Timothy 4:2ff.; etc.) for our own eternal welfare and for the salvation of many others for whom our Savior died and whom God justified for His sake!
5) “He shall glorify Me” (v. 14). Is this not, after all, the glory that excels all other glories (II Corinthians 3:10)? It is the glory of God’s grace in Christ Jesus to poor sinners before the world began, the glory of the eternal decree of redemption according to which His only-begotten Son was given to be the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, the glory of God’s unilateral reconciliation of the world unto Himself in Christ, that is, in view of Christ’s perfect atonement for sin and His satisfaction of divine justice on behalf of every sinner, the glory proclaimed to all eternity in the exaltation of our Savior to the right hand of His Father, the glory manifested to sinful men in the blazing light of the Gospel! You see, we don’t need Christ’s visible presence to confirm to us all of this marvelous glory. In fact, it was to our advantage that He took away that visible presence so that we could be “blessed” by believing without seeing (John 20:29b), by confiding in the truth of His Word manifested to us by the Spirit of Truth, the Comforter, our Savior’s precious Gift who establishes, edifies, nourishes, and preserves His Church through “the Word of His grace” (Acts 20:32).
“Why did Jesus just up and leave us??” That question suggests that our Savior deserted us when we needed Him most. He did just the opposite, as we have seen. It was “expedient” for us that He go away, that He remove from our sight His visible presence, and that He fill that seeming void with the omnipresence of the Comforter, who, through His Word of Truth would make and keep us His believing children unto life everlasting, and be the great cause for our perpetual joy and gladness as we patiently await His return in glory.
At the same time, let us never doubt our exalted Savior’s sure and certain promise: “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus did not “up and leave us” AT ALL, just because He removed from us His visible presence. When He ascended up into heaven “and a cloud received Him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9), the disciples craned their necks to keep Him in view. But He was from then on just that: “Out of their sight.” He was not out of their presence, He was not out of their reach, He was not out of this world —locally enclosed, that is, physically locked away, in heaven according to His human nature and thus only with us “in spirit,” as the Reformed would have us believe who deny the personal union of the divine and human natures in Christ and the communication of His divine attributes to His human nature. They hold that the next time Jesus will be with us according to His human nature is on the Last Day when He returns visibly in glory with His holy angels (Acts 1:11; Matthew 16:27; 24:30; 25:31). They, like Thomas, equate reality with that which can be seen.
St. Paul, writing to the Ephesians, chapter 4, testifies that the exalted Christ, also according to His human nature, “ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things” (v. 10). The Reformed, whose rationalistic axiom states that “the finite is not capable of the infinite,” that a finite human body cannot be made capable of infinite omnipresence or of a repletive presence, seem to forget about whom they are speaking when they restrict our exalted Savior, very God of very God, the King of kings and Lord of all lords, to the laws of “nature.” Would they (of course they would!) dare to pencil in between the lines of Holy Writ extra words to limit the promises of God?? “He ascended up far above all heavens [with His true human body, according to His human nature] that He might fill all things [but only according to His divine nature]??” “Lo, I am with you alway [not with My human body, of course, since I’m not really able to pull that off, but just in spirit], even unto the end of the world??” And yet they apparently have no problem with Revelation 1:7 — “Behold, He cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see Him, and they also which pierced Him.” Then His true human body will be able to be seen by all men on all sides of the globe at the same time!! How will Jesus be able to pull that one off??? Their rationalism destroys their confidence in Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of God” (Matthew 26:63; 16:16), “with [whom] nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37). “Is anything too hard for the Lord??” (Genesis 18:14); or are there exceptions?? For the Reformed, there are!
But Jesus’ words stand for themselves, just as His words to the disciples on Easter evening: “Behold My hands and My feet that it is I Myself; handle Me and see, for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see Me have” (Luke 24:39). “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20) — “this same Jesus,” the glorified and exalted, risen and ascended God-man, Jesus Christ, is “with [us] alway,” He assures us; and the Apostle Peter adds for our comfort and joy: “Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see Him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory” (I Peter 1:8). Do we love Jesus only in spirit?? Do we believe in Him only spiritually?? Do we rejoice in Him, but not in His blessed body?? What utter nonsense! “Blessed are they have not seen and yet have believed!” (John 20:29). Jesus did NOT just up and leave us! He only removed Himself from our physical sight so that we could concentrate on the spiritual sight He has given us in His Word by the operation of His Holy Spirit!
And, when our earthly race is run,
death’s bitter hour impending,
then may Thy work in us begun
continue till life’s ending;
until we gladly may commend
our souls into our Savior’s hand,
to rest in peace eternal!
(TLH 293, 3)
—D. T. M.