“But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. 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.” (John 16:5–7, ESV)
Jesus had spoken of His leaving before. His disciples had even been told where He was going and His disciples had expressed their desire to go with Him. In response He told them that they could not at this time, but that later they would be together. The discussion must have been getting quite intense, and His disciples were likely quite shaken by what He was telling them, especially in telling them that there would even be those who would take their lives. Apparently they were so overwhelmed or self-focused on their own futures that they lost sight of what was about to happen to Jesus himself. They were so absorbed by their sorrow that they did not see the pain or even the glory that laid ahead for Jesus.
Jesus responded to them by drawing their attention back to the fact that what was about to happen was a good thing. He had come from the Father and He was soon to return for the Father. But in their misery they did not see the joy that laid ahead for Him nor the blessing that would even result for themselves. They did not stop to inquire about where He was going, what was to happen, and how wonderful it was that God was completing in Jesus the very purpose for which He was sent. Rather, their focus was on their own loss and the potential threats that lie ahead.
At the heart of this is likely one of the greatest struggles that man knows, the struggle between seeing a loved one leave them for the presence of God against having them remain and benefiting from their presence, their love, their help, and so much more. It is the tension between carrying on without the individual even knowing that the individual has left for the greatest gift that man could know. In separation there is a hole left in our hearts as well as countless life adjustments that must be made. It may even mean increased hardship as a result, especially if the one leaving was the source of provision and protection or encouragement and stability. We rely on those we love and when they leave we no longer have them there to rely upon. It truly is a difficult time and oftentimes there is little that can be done to change the physical consequences.
Knowing their reliance on Him and the future of persecution that lie ahead for His disciples, Jesus pointed out to them that they had let their sorrow cloud their hope. Sure, He was going to leave, but He was going to leave to return to the presence of the Father who had sent Him. The work of salvation was to be completed and Jesus was to return with His mission accomplished. And in His returning He was going to enjoy the Father in a way that was limited in His taking on the form of man. Though He could have had this at any time, He knew that there was going to be a time—the right time, when this work was going to be completed and He would return. It was now that time. This was a very good thing. It was the perfect plan of God to redeem man from His sins and to draw him back into the relationship for which he was created.
And with His return the work of God was not to be completed. Jesus may have finished the work of salvation on the cross, but not everyone was yet saved nor was everyone safely ushered into the presence of God. The disciples were left for this work. It was them who were chosen, selected, and charged to remain after Jesus’ return to do even greater works which result in the salvation of countless (from our side) numbers of people. Sure, they would endure persecution and even death, but as a result of them being left people were going to be saved. Through them the good news of salvation in Christ was going to be spread. Through them the Word of God was going to be completed so that even today we can hold it in our hands and know its truth. And, through them God’s plan would continue to unfold until such time that He brings it to completion in the return of Christ and the final judgment of sin and Satan.
This was a huge task, and in order to accomplish it Jesus had to return to the Father and the Father was to send another Helper—the third person of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit comes, He told them, they would get what they needed to do this incredible work. And even for us today, knowing that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of the Father interceding on our behalf and that the Spirit permanently indwells, enables, and empowers believers today, we are strengthened in difficult times to continue until we also are fully joyed to enter His presence. He makes us to stand and even to withstand.
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