In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (Jn. 14:18). In Hebrews, the apostle writes: “Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” (Heb. 13:5).
While it seems likely that the writer of Hebrews is alluding to Jesus’ promise of the Spirit in John 14, it is more specifically a quotation of Deuteronomy 31:6, 8, and Joshua 1:5. In those places, Moses is assuring Joshua that God will continue to be with Joshua, and after Moses’ death, the Lord confirms that promise to Joshua, to be with him as He has been with Moses: The Lord specifically says, “No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (Josh. 1:5).
But of course this is precisely the sort of comfort Jesus is promising His disciples. Jesus says that even though He is leaving, He will not leave them as orphans. He will still come and be with His disciples. Just as Moses went up to Mount Nebo to the top of Pisgah and was taken away from the people of Israel, so too Jesus went up on the mount of ascension and was taken away from the disciples.
In all of these cases though, the presence of God is not merely for comfort in general; it is comfort for leaders in particular. Joshua is the new leader after Moses, the disciples will be the new leaders after Jesus, and in Hebrews the specific command may be directed at leaders or followers but his warning is about covetousness and the following section includes an exhortation to remember those who rule over them and have taught the word to them.
The presence of Jesus in the person and work of the Holy Spirit is particularly a spirit of leadership and in the context of the promise in Joshua, the promise of the Spirit is a guarantee against naysayers and threats: “No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life…” You will be invincible, God promises. This isn’t a promise of sinless perfection, but it is a promise of effective leadership. The complainers, the whiners, the dissidents, the cranks, and the gossips will not be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Joshua had plenty of enemies. He spent a good bit of his life in conquest and warfare, but the promise of God was that no man would stand against him to make him fall.
And for those who are tempted to covet another man’s calling, Jesus warns them, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” You are not orphans. You are not out there leading on your own. You are not an orphan leading other orphans. You are a son in the Beloved Son leading other sons to their Father. To covet another man’s position is to pretend that you have no Father, that you are an orphan, that the orphanage of the Church is not run by the Faithful Son. But the Spirit has been poured out. You have been called. You have been equipped. He will never leave you nor forsake you. And all your critics will not be able to stand before you. The promise of the Spirit, the promise of the Ascension of Jesus is the promise of God, “Just as I was with Jesus, so I will be with you. I will never leave you or forsake you.”
The Ascension of Jesus is like the death of Moses and the ascension of Elijah: if we have seen Him taken away from us, we can be assured that a double portion of His Spirit has been poured out upon us and He will not leave us.