by Corey Markum
“But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”
- John 16:7
While visiting a church recently, I was struck by the verse above, which was alluded to as part of a broader discussion of the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2. Specifically, this question intrigued me: Why was it necessary for Jesus to remove himself in order for the Spirit to come?
I understand this is not a novel question, and that various answers have been surmised related to other textual statements. For example, the Spirit had to teach all things, and Christ’s time was finite; or that the Spirit’s role was to comfort and advocate, and He could not perform that function without Christ dying and going to the Father. But these and similar answers do not seem, in my view, to satisfactorily deal with why Jesus Himself could not also remain. Why does Christ emphasize so strongly the importance of succession?
I welcome feedback to this question, particularly from those more qualified and experienced in the theology of the Spirit than I (that should encompass virtually all readers!). In my own brief musings on the issue, however, I’ve been drawn to an answer inspired by my historical background (or, perhaps more accurately, my historical baggage).
It seems to be ingrained in our historical psyche to segment and compartmentalize the past into particular epochs. Examples abound: the Ancient period, Classical period, “Middle Ages,” Early Modern era, etc. Even within particular histories, this is our trend: Colonial era, Revolutionary period, Early National period, Antebellum era, Old South, New South, and so on. In many ways, such compartmentalizing of history is a functional necessity, and historians are increasingly skilled in preserving the “messiness”—the blurring and blending—of various events and interactions in and between these eras. The categories, nonetheless, remain.
Drawing on this conception of categorizing the past, then, I find a possible solution in a Trinitarian epochal division of history. Through a significant part of the Old Testament, the Father maintains a physical presence with humanity. The Gospels narratives shift to the incarnation of the Son on earth. And upon the return of Christ to the Father, the Spirit establishes His presence in physical form among creation.
How does such a hypothesis help to answer the why? In my mind, it all comes down to the glory revealed in the New Creation. Could it be possible that God simply wants to surprise us with Himself at the end? G.K. Chesterton envisions a God who exults in the little things; a God who raises the sun each day out of the innocent joy and excitement of providing light for the universe. Surely there is an excitement and anticipation that God has in preparing for the final redemption. Humanity has experienced God throughout history in the various persons of the Trinity. Not until He makes all things new, however, will His creation experience the fullness of His relationship. In the glory of His revealing, we will, for the first time, discover as one the completion of fellowship with our Creator. If our God is a God of surprises, there is little doubt that the greatest ones await us when all is redeemed. Perhaps this is one of them.
Just a hypothesis, but one I find personally quite appealing. As mentioned, I welcome any comments, questions, or general feedback.
Grace and peace-