The Spirit is not just a representative or a substitute for the absent Jesus. Where the Spirit is, there is the Father and the Son. The Spirit does not just represent Jesus. Rather, because of the nature of their relationship, he actually brings Jesus with him. Because of the work of the Spirit, Jesus really is with us. If you are a Christian, he really is in you.
In Colossians 3:1-2 Paul exhorts his readers to ‘seek’ and ‘set’ their minds on ‘the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God’ (ESV). To think, in other words, about the risen and ascended Christ. However, it is probably fair to say that most Christians tend to think more about the cross, resurrection or return of Christ rather than Christ as he is in his exalted state. Further, considering the nature of the exalted Christ may seem to be a subject more obviously suited to systematic theology rather than biblical theology. However, apart from the ongoing need to show the interconnectedness of these two disciplines, considering the temporal structure of the Bible’s revelation helps us to see the relevance of this topic to biblical theology.
There are as many proposed ‘structures’ of the Bible as there are biblical theologians. Graeme Goldsworthy, building on the earlier work of Donald Robinson and Gabriel Hebert, has popularized the schema that is now associated with Moore College. He argues that the organizing principle of the Bible is the ‘kingdom of God’, and divides the Bible into four main epochs, which each provides development in the revelation of the kingdom of God: the kingdom of God revealed in Israel’s prehistory (Gen. 1-11); the kingdom of God revealed in Israel’s history (Abraham to Solomon); the kingdom of God revealed in prophetic eschatology (Solomon to the end of exile); and the kingdom of God revealed in Jesus Christ (the NT).
Goldsworthy further subdivides this final epoch into three aspects:
(1) What Jesus did for us in the past, historical gospel event in fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament.
(2) What the word of Jesus and his Spirit go on doing in us as we live in the present our life of faith and in the world as the gospel is proclaimed.
(3) What the end-time consummation with us will be when Jesus returns in glory to judge the living and the dead and to bring in the fullness of his kingdom.
Whether or not we accept Goldsworthy’s overall structure, this delineation of the New Testament era helpfully distinguishes the different aspects of Christ’s work for us. However, in this schema there is a subtle tendency to downplay the ongoing significance of Jesus. Whereas in points 1 and 3 Jesus is presented actively (‘what Jesus did for us’ and ‘Jesus returns’), in point 2 the Spirit and Jesus’ ‘word’ are presented as the active agents.
Undoubtedly the NT affirms the work of the Spirit (e.g. Rom. 8:14) and the power of Jesus’ word (e.g. Acts 6:7); however, it also affirms that Jesus himself remains active. For example, he intercedes (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25), he enables Christians to persevere (Rom. 14:4; 1 Cor. 1:7-8) and he continues to speak through his apostles (2 Cor. 13:3). Yes, the focus of the NT is on the past (and future) work of Christ but it is by no means silent on his present work.
Further, Goldsworthy’s scheme implies that this is a period of Christ’s absence. However, the picture across the New Testament is more complicated than simply saying that Jesus leaves and the Spirit comes. For a start, what are we to make of Jesus’ famous promise in the great commission, ‘Behold I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matt. 28:20; ESV)? According to this verse, this age is fundamentally the age of the presence of Jesus. Again, as he concludes his high-priestly prayer in John 17, Jesus expresses the desire that the love the Father has for him may be in the disciples, and that he himself ‘may be in them’ (17:26). Even though Jesus is leaving and sending the Spirit, he himself will ‘be in them’.