“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 NIV)
I’ve always been a little confused by Jesus’s assertions in John 16:7. Jesus saved weddings, healed sick people, and raised the dead! He taught his followers with great patience and told off hypocritical religious leaders with great wisdom. How could it be better for us to be without him? I am speculating, but the reason, I think, is twofold: for the mission of God and for our character.
The first benefit is that Jesus’s absence includes us in his mission. People have a tendency to defer to experts or authorities. In the church, this tendency can manifest as a propensity for thinking ministry is for “the professionals.” We might fear that we don’t know enough to tell others about Jesus, so we leave evangelizing to the pastor. Or we feel like we don’t have enough time, so those whose career is church work can care for the poor.
Now just imagine how much worse that tendency would be if we still had Jesus walking around with us. How could we help but feel inadequate to the task of ministry compared with the very Son of God? Jesus and precious few of his followers would be alone to attend to the needs of the whole world. Yet Jesus was only one man (albeit also God incarnate). He was subject to human limitations. He got tired and hungry. Even in his perfect resurrected body that never broke down or aged, he could be in only one place at a time. Of course, he could have materialized food and teleported around the world, but that would have violated his calling – to be the great High Priest who sympathizes with our human weaknesses.
Since he’s not here, we know that his followers have to take on the work he started, because there’s no one to whom we can defer it. We are the plan. He promises, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12 NIV).
The second benefit from Jesus “going away,” as he puts it, might be for our faith. Even in the few years he was in ministry on earth, he had a problem with people worshiping his miracles instead of him. For example, after Jesus fed the crowds with loaves and fish, the people followed him across the lake. When he saw them, he said, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill” (John 6:26 NIV).
Jesus also had a problem with his disciples jockeying for position in his inner circle, rather than focusing on the mission. If he had stayed longer on earth, he’d be contending with more people looking to increase their social status rather than learning about God. With Jesus out of the physical picture, he doesn’t have to worry about becoming a sideshow attraction, whose fame of the wrong kind distracts from his message. He can speak into the lives of all of his followers through the Holy Spirit instead of a few people at a time in person. Until we can all be in his presence in Heaven, this method is quite a bit more efficient.
Combining the two, I think Jesus left us because we learn best by doing. We need the inward/outward/together rhythm of growing in our relationship with God, caring for and teaching others, and joining in community. In a broken world, we need a mission, a greater purpose for which to live our lives. God knows – and he should, he made us – that our faith and character will develop better if we have work to do, but work that we can’t do on our own. And when we do it right, in the will of God and together with our fellow Christians, then indeed we can do more cumulatively than Jesus could do alone.