‘No longer Orphans’

Jesus is simultaneously the master theologian and the perfect pastor. He sets the deepest of truths before his people, but in a way that pastorally meets their deepest needs. This should give pause for thought for thought on different fronts.

It says something to theologians and those who love doctrine. The great truths God has revealed in his word are neither the preserve of the academy, nor the specialist. His truth is for all and he has made it known in a way designed to bring wide-ranging benefit to all. It sharpens our understanding of God and of salvation, enhances worship, deepens trust and encourages progress and perseverance in the faith. Grasping this will remind those who labour in the academy that they are ultimately the servants of the church – right down to the ‘lambs of the flock’.

It says something as well to pastors who don’t see the connection between doctrine and pastoral care. Too often those who are pastor-teachers seem divide the functions bound up with their office. In the pulpit or classroom they are teachers; but in their role as shepherds, they are therapists. If teaching is to be faithful to the Bible, it must have a pastoral dimension; and if pastoral care is to meet the deep needs of the God’s flock, it must be deeply rooted in God’s word. So the pulpit must always be pastorally informed and all pastoral care needs to be laced with God’s life-transforming truth.

It also says something to Christians (and people who are not yet Christians) who are suspicious of doctrine – perhaps because they have only encountered it in language and forms that seem remote from their world. Just as a house needs strong foundations if it is to withstand the elements, so the oikos [household/house] of faith needs a solid foundation to withstand the rigours of life. What we need is not more ‘How to…’ manuals for Christian living, we need a richer deeper of grasp of what it means to be a Christian.

We could quite literally dip in at random to any of Christ’s didactic utterances on the one hand, or his pastoral involvement on the other, to see how all of this is seen in his own ministry. But one instance in particular struck me recently, not least because it immediately brought me back to the moment it first caught my attention when I was a small boy.

It was the occasion in the Upper Room when Jesus – mid-flow in his initial explanation of the Holy Spirit’s coming – said, ‘I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you’ (Jn 14.18). There was something potent about Jesus’ choice of words that captured my imagination. At that time, books about orphaned children were fairly common so these words struck home with some force.

Of course, it has only been with the passage of time that the full weight of how Jesus chose to express himself to the disciples that night has begun to sink in more fully. This was potent language expressing potent truth that in turn was to provide potent comfort for these men who were beside themselves with fear.

Their fears had been fuelled by Jesus’ talk of his going away (13.33). It had been hard enough over that final year of Christ’s earthly ministry for them to cope with the growing opposition to their Master – even when he was with them – so the thought of his having to leave them was deeply troubling (14.1).

Jesus knew that a major factor in their unrest was a lack of knowledge. In part because they had yet to grasp the full depth and implications of what they had already been taught, but also because the climactic events of salvation’s history had yet to be revealed. But his response was not to subject them to an intensive course in Biblical and Systematic Theology in the hours that remained. (In one sense he actually did do that, but he did it in a way that only dawned on them after the event.)

The anchor points in the instruction Jesus gave that night were very personal. He consciously and deliberately reached for language and metaphor that touched their hearts in a way that would help engage their minds.

At that moment their minds were preoccupied with the fear, ‘We’re about to be all on our own!’ – ‘orphaned’ may have flashed into their thoughts, or even been muttered under someone’s breath – but Jesus anticipates this in his response. It is, however, the wider context of his response that gives it meaning and substance.

There was no way his little band of followers could have grasped or appreciated the full force of what Jesus was saying in that moment. He did not expect them to. Indeed he openly said that it would only be in the future, after the Spirit had been given, that they would begin to see. Nevertheless, there was immediate comfort in those words that would temper the horrors they would experience in the 72 hours that would follow.

The depth of Jesus words at that moment would ultimately reveal the depth of hope bound up the gospel of Christ in all its fullness. We see the clue in the way Jesus connects the coming of the Spirit with his own coming to them. He promises to send them ‘another Counsellor’ who would be with them ‘forever’ (14.16). But then, after the promise that they will not be orphaned, he goes on to say in relation to the Spirit’s coming, ‘I will come to you’ (14.18).

The conundrum in this was and is the connection between the gift of the Spirit and the coming of Christ on the one hand and when it would become a reality on the other.

The answer to the relationship question is not confusion between the Persons of the Trinity, but in the oneness and intimacy that exists between them. Christ’s reference to ‘another’ paracletos is ‘another of the same kind’. That is, as the One who had been his counsellor/comforter/stengthener and had upheld him throughout his earthly ministry. This same Holy Spirit would not merely be sent by the Father (14.16), but by the Son as well (16.7).  He is, as Paul would later say, ‘the Spirit of Christ’ (Ro 8.9). So as the Spirit is sent ‘in [Christ’s] name’ (14.26), he brings Christ to his people that is no longer limited by his physical incarnate presence on earth.

The answer to the ‘when’ question has been regarded by some as through the resurrection; but this fails to address the problem over the limits of Christ’s physical presence on earth. It is better, as noted by Calvin and those who follow him, to see this in the link between Christ’s ascension and Pentecost. Sinclair Ferguson summarises this well when he says, ‘not only has Christ become one flesh with us in the incarnation, but following his ascension and our baptism with the Spirit, we become one Spirit with Christ, and, forsaking this world, we ascend to the life of the world to come more and more.’[1]

There could hardly be a deeper truth; yet nothing can compare with it in terms of the depth of comfort it provides for fearful Christians. In Christ and by his Spirit we really are ‘no longer orphans’.

[1] Ferguson, S.B. Some Pastors and Teachers, (Banner of Truth; Edinburgh) 2017 p.131


Mark Johnston