Please explain: How can Jesus be our friend if he isn’t physically here on earth?

Please explain: How can Jesus be our friend if he isn’t physically here on earth?

Simeon carried baby Jesus in his arms. John reclined next to Jesus during their last Passover together. Others reached to touch him. What a blessing it was for Jesus’ family, friends, and followers. Their friend and helper was right there with them. But it was only a short glimpse in history that God himself was physically present on earth.

He’s not here anymore . . . not in the physical way he once was. What kind of a helper can Jesus be for us who live after his ascension? How can he be our friend when we can’t see him or touch him?

The promise of the Holy Spirit

Jesus anticipated the time he would leave this earth. On the night before his death, he spoke multiple times about his leaving. He assured his close followers that it was good for him to leave this earth and return to heaven. Jesus’ departure meant an additional gift or blessing: “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).

Jesus fulfilled that promise for those disciples in a spectacular way on Pentecost. What a remarkable change we see in the disciples after Pentecost. While Jesus was physically present with his disciples, they often appeared misguided and sometimes timid. But after Jesus left and sent the Holy Spirit, the disciples were filled with unmatched zeal and courage for their ministry.

In ways beyond our understanding, Jesus has promised his own presence with us still today.

Like the post-ascension disciples, we no longer have Jesus’ physical presence, but we do have his promise of the Holy Spirit. Through the good news of Jesus’ forgiveness preached in the Word, poured out in Baptism, and proclaimed in the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Spirit still does his powerful work of “calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying” the church. Sitting at the right hand of his Father, Jesus continues to make sure that nothing less than divine power and grace are showered on us through the Holy Spirit whom he promised to send.

Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Comforter or Counselor. As Jesus predicted, the Holy Spirit spends his time testifying about Jesus (John 15:26). When we need help to overcome our guilt, the Holy Spirit whispers “Jesus” into our hearts. When we need a friend to lean on, the Holy Spirit reminds us of the love Jesus has for us

It is true that Jesus is no longer here like he once was. But we believe him when he says his departure was for our good. And how can we disagree when our friend and helper daily supplies us with the Holy Spirit?

The promise of his own presence

Jesus’ gift of the Spirit does not mean that Jesus has abandoned us. In ways beyond our understanding, Jesus has promised his own presence with us still today.

Let’s begin with Jesus’ most general promise of his presence. At his ascension Jesus made a series of stunning statements about his power, our purpose, and his presence. Among other things he said, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus, the God-man, can be present everywhere. Therefore, even though we can’t walk or talk with Jesus like his disciples once did, he is present with us. Whether we are in the United Arab Emirates or the United States of America or any place in between, Jesus is with us. How’s that for a friend and helper?

Jesus also promised his special presence to his church. At the end of a discussion about sin and forgiveness, Jesus said, “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). The best friend we can have is one who cares for our eternal souls. When God’s people gather to call human hearts to repentance and faith, Jesus is with them.

Jesus saves his most sublime presence for the individual in the Lord’s Supper. Within the celebration of the Lord’s Supper Jesus promises, “This is my body,” and, “This is my blood of the new covenant.” At the altar, in, with, and under bread and wine, Jesus gives us his real presence. It looks and tastes like bread and wine, because it is bread and wine. But Jesus gives us himself, present in a way we can comprehend only by faith, but present, nonetheless. The Lord’s Supper is real; we can smell it, taste it, touch it. The Lord’s Supper is personal; Jesus says, “For you.” When troubles mount or guilt intensifies, we need friends who won’t hesitate to show us the depths of their care and concern. In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus tells us in the most personal way that he loves us and forgives us. He doesn’t send a proxy to say it on his behalf. He comes with his real presence.

The presence of his power

I am looking forward to the day when I get to shake Jesus’ hand—literally shake his hand—and thank him for the eternity he secured for me. I’m guessing you are too. But that day isn’t today! Unlike the people of Jesus’ day, we will have to wait until judgment day to walk and talk with our best friend.

But I’m not sure which Jesus I would rather have: the Jesus whom people could see, suffering and dying on a cross, or the Jesus whom people cannot see, sitting at the right hand of his Father.

The resurrected Jesus did not ascend into the heavens for a vacation. No, he is busy at work. Your friend and helper hears your prayers and answers them according to his Father’s will. “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:13,14). He intercedes for you before the heavenly Father, reminding him of the cross and the empty tomb and all that those mean. “Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). He has prepared heaven for you with an eye toward that time when you will join him. “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2,3).

We may envy those New Testament believers who held Jesus in their arms, walked with him along the dusty roads, or listened to his preaching. But Jesus has not left us alone. In so many ways Jesus has promised us his presence. He is still Immanuel, God with us.

Read more about the Holy Spirit and his work here.

Author: John M. Koelpin
Volume 107, Number 05
Issue: May 2020

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