With my friends—even with my wife—I sometimes find myself not “listening through.” I pick up on something the other person is saying and rather than listening to the whole of what he or she is saying, I draw my conclusions and form my opinions from only the first things I heard. Not surprisingly, I often end up misunderstanding rather than truly understanding.
I think this happens (all too often) when we read Scripture. We start reading our way through a passage and, having heard what we think is being said, we draw our conclusions and never listen through to the end. We don’t get the full message and, thus, we don’t get the full truth.
I was thinking about this as I reflected on Jesus’ ascension. He died, he rose, and he ascended. What happened because of his ascension? We find his before-the-event explanation in John’s Gospel: “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. But 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)
Listening to these words, it is common to think Jesus is speaking of his ascension and to recognize that his ascending to the Father will result in the sending of the Spirit (the “Helper”). Reading these words, it is also common to think that Jesus is offering his followers something like “God replacement therapy.”
The idea is that Jesus, being incarnate, could not be with all his followers at all times in all places. So, he was going to leave them and ask the Father to send the Spirit in his place. The Spirit would, in some sense, make up for Jesus’ absence in the lives of his followers.
It is true—because Jesus said so—that his ascension was part of the work he needed to do on behalf of his followers so that they would experience all he and the Father wanted for them. His ascension is one facet of Messiah’s great work and does bring about the era of the poured out Spirit (as Peter explained in his message in Acts 2).
But that we may not have “listened through” or read well is seen in the conclusion that is often drawn: The coming of the Spirit is “replacement therapy.” The disciples no longer have Jesus, but they do get the Spirit. But that may not accurately convey what Jesus was saying.
In speaking with his friends and followers during that meal in the upper room, Jesus said: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him” (John 14:23).
The word Jesus uses that is translated “abode” speaks of a “dwelling place.” (This particular word is found in only one other place in the New Testament; in John 14:2 Jesus says he is going to make a “dwelling place” for his followers.) This is not the language of a temporary visit—it is the language of ongoing relationship. It seems unlikely that Jesus was saying to his disciples that someone else was coming to take his place and that he was not going to be personally dwelling with them (even if it means he would be relating to them in a different kind of way).
The verbal root of this “abode” word comes up a few verses later: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in me. I [Jesus] am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4–5)
Is this “abiding in” Jesus an impersonal, “you-won’t-really-be-relating-to-me-but-only-to-my-stand-in” kind of life? It’s highly unlikely those who first heard those words would have heard it that way. Although their relationship with the Spirit would be enriched—it is not that they have had no prior relationship with the Spirit (see John 14:17)—this doesn’t mean that their personal relationship with Jesus would be coming to an end.
What do we find as we journey into the unfolding story of the life of the followers of Jesus post-ascension? Although they do have a rich and ongoing relationship with the promised Spirit, Jesus himself is not absent from their lives.
The closing verses of the Gospel of Mark tell us that after Jesus was received up into heaven he continued working with them (Mark 16:19-20). That continual active presence with his disciples is seen as we turn to Acts.
At the time of his martyrdom, Stephen did not seem to be relating to a far off and distant Jesus (Acts 7:54–60). Both Saul/Paul and Ananias had personal encounters—including conversations—with Jesus himself (Acts 9:1–17). When Peter reached out and took hold of Aeneas’ hand, he actually said that “Jesus Christ is healing you” (Acts 9:34), suggesting that Jesus was present in that moment. When Paul was need of encouragement after having arrived in Corinth, Jesus was the one who spoke with the apostle to strengthen him (Acts 18:9–10).
Some might insist that Jesus was “present” in some sense through the active presence of the Spirit. But the language of Acts doesn’t convey that. Stephen did not see the Spirit. Saul didn’t encounter the Spirit on the road to Damascus. Ananias wasn’t having a mediated conversation with Jesus. Peter didn’t attribute the healing of Aeneas to anyone other than Jesus. Jesus, not the Spirit nor the Father, spoke words of encouragement to Paul in Corinth.
Although the promise of the poured out Spirit was inaugurated through the physical ascension of Jesus, his ascension didn’t mean that he was no longer going to be in ongoing, intimate relationship with his followers. The Spirit wasn’t poured out as a substitute for Jesus.
When we don’t listen well, read well, or think well we could end up slipping into a “God replacement therapy” approach to the ascension and the sending of the Spirit.