“You deserve better.”
Have you ever been dished this line in a breakup? It’s one of the classics, right up there with “I just need some space” and “It’s not you, it’s me.” It’s meant to soften the blow, although most people can read between the lines; “You deserve better” means something more like, “I deserve better.”
Strange that Jesus gives a line like this to the disciples. It shows up in what’s called the “Farewell Discourse” in the gospel of John, a long speech that comes after the last supper but before his arrest. Jesus tells them that he’ll be leaving them shortly, and he can see that they’re upset over this. So he says:
“Nevertheless I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).
In shorthand: “You deserve better.”
But, like any soon-to-be-ex who gets thrown this line, we might have our doubts about the truth of this. Surely Jesus isn’t leaving because the disciples can do better than him. Who is better than JESUS? Is there anything better than Jesus Christ, the Son of God, being here with us to teach us and lead us?
Let’s take a moment and assume that Jesus was telling the truth (which is usually a good approach). We really are better off without him.
Because when Jesus leaves, we get the Holy Spirit.
John likes to use the Greek word Paraclete to refer to the Holy Spirit. In your Bible it might show up as Advocate or Counselor, or sometimes, Comforter. Paraclete pulls its meaning from a noun (someone called in to assist) and a verb (to give comfort or counsel). This name for the Holy Spirit tells us that it comes in Jesus’ absence to assist us, to comfort us, and to counsel us.
Paraclete had a legal association in Jesus’ day, with connotations of a defense attorney. In John 16, though, this Paraclete attorney is a prosecutor; the unbelieving world is the defendant. Hear John 16:8-11 again, and try to picture the Holy Spirit acting as legal counsel:
“And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”
So the Paraclete is like a lawyer.
But lawyers – poor lawyers – they get a bad rap, right? We dread any situation where a lawyer might get involved. There’s an endless list of lawyer jokes; in fact, this sounds like one of them. Jesus tells the disciples, “You deserve better,” and then sends them…
But before we moan and groan, we ought to clarify: What kind of lawyer? There’s all sorts of kinds. There’s the billboard kind and the you-can-only-find-me-in-the-white-pages kind. There’s the courtroom kind and the paper pushing kind. The old school seer-sucker suit kind and the new school blazer with jeans kind. What kind of lawyer is our Paraclete?
Mack is an attorney in our congregation. When I asked him to read over this passage, he thought of the different ways of handling the client. The classic approach is for an attorney to do what the client wants, even if it’s not what they think is right. They present all the information and advise them one way or another – “take the deal,” for example. But the client might insist on their complete innocence and say they don’t want to take the deal. Then, although it’s not what they think is the smartest approach, the attorney will refuse the deal like the client wants.
This is not always the situation, though. Mack says he does a good bit of work as Guardian Ad Litem. In these cases, he’s called in to represent the best interests of someone who is not able to make decisions on their own: children, the unborn, an adult who is no longer competent. In these cases, Mack’s job is not necessarily to do what his client wants, but to advise what he thinks is in their best interest. A minor, for instance, might think they are old enough to manage their own estate. Mack might disagree, and advocate for a guardian to care for them and help make big decisions. If the minor persists, then they can get a different attorney advocate to assert their position – but Mack will stay his ground, argue his side.
Our Holy Spirit sounds a lot like a Guardian Ad Litem, the kind of lawyer that doesn’t just do what we tell him, but advocates for the right thing. I think of Romans 8:26, where Paul points out that we don’t even know how to pray as we should, but the Holy Spirit steps in and helps us communicate with God. Our Paraclete is working for what we need, not just what we want.
Let’s go back to the courtroom scene to see this in action (verses 8 to 11). The Paraclete is proving the world wrong on some things, showing the world what’s right whether it likes it or not. Maybe the Paraclete’s closing argument is something like this:
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, look around you! You can see that things aren’t quite right. Something’s off; something’s missing. I know what that something is. Do you want to know?
“Your sin is your lack of faith in Jesus Christ. You’ve tried putting your faith in money, and relationships, and careers, and health… Can’t you feel that none of it really lasts?
“There is a righteousness – a rightness, a justice – that you’re missing. You think Jesus was defeated on the cross, you think that proved him wrong. It’s the complete opposite! Jesus was right on the cross, he won! And as proof: Where is he now? What do you make of that empty grave?
“There is a judgment that’s been passed. Can’t you feel it rattling down in your soul? The rulers of this world – Satan, and all those who would work for evil – have been defeated. Jesus has judged them and declared them done. If you’re still throwing in with them, then can’t you feel that you’re choosing the wrong side?
“Choose Jesus Christ. Choose faith and righteousness and fair judgment.”
This is what the world needs to hear. This is what we need to hear. This is what’s worth Jesus leaving so that we could receive it.
But… why does Jesus have to leave? I mean, couldn’t we just have our cake and eat it, too? Have Jesus AND the Holy Spirit here to guide us?
Ever notice how a majority of the Gospels has to do with Jesus’ death and resurrection? In John, the “last supper” with the disciples starts in chapter 13. The following nine chapters describe his Farewell Discourse (that we’re in now), betrayal, death, and surprise ending of an empty tomb. The time and detail spent on that part of Jesus’ ministry tells us just how important it is; it’s what Jesus was sent to do. If Jesus hadn’t died on the cross, there would be no new understanding of sin to convict the world about. If Jesus hadn’t rose again, he wouldn’t have proved himself right, delivering justice in an unexpected way. If he hadn’t ascended to be with God, he wouldn’t have taking the seat necessary to be the judge of all.
There would be nothing for the Holy Spirit to proclaim if Jesus hadn’t finished his work. And Jesus couldn’t finish his work without going away.
In other words: “You deserve better.”
Unlike a bad breakup, Jesus is telling the truth. He isn’t leaving us high and dry, thinking that he deserves better. Jesus really is doing what’s best for us by completing his work and leaving us the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes I wish Jesus was here with us now, flesh and blood, telling us exactly what to do and not to do. But if Jesus was here, one single human being, we wouldn’t all have personal access to him. We could see him on TV, maybe, but otherwise we’d be stuck in a crowd like those first-century Jews, trying to overhear a word or catch a glimpse of their Messsiah.
Not so with us. Anytime we need an advocate, in any moment when we need some counselling, there’s the Holy Spirit. He’s our Paraclete, our perfect attorney, the one who doesn’t just do what we want but what we need. He’s the one shining a light on sin and righteousness and judgment.
This really is to our advantage:
Jesus died, rose again, and ascended to God’s right hand.
Jesus left us, but then:
The Paraclete arrived.