Where is Jesus now?

Note: This is part 2 of a 3 part series on Jesus now—read part 1, ‘Who is Jesus now?’, or part 3, ‘What is Jesus doing now?‘.

Where is Jesus now? It is the sort of question we can imagine the seven-year-old asking her Sunday School teacher. And in one sense this is quite an easy question to answer. The New Testament is very clear that Jesus is now in heaven at God’s right hand. In Acts 1:9, we read about the disciples watching as Jesus ascends into heaven. In Hebrews 8:1, the author specifically tells us “we have… a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven”. In 1 Thessalonians 1:10 Paul tells us that we are waiting for God’s Son from heaven who will deliver us from the wrath to come. In fact, in a sermon in Acts 3, Peter tells the crowd that Jesus must remain in heaven until God restores all things. So, the New Testament is crystal clear: Jesus is in heaven.

But that is not all the New Testament says. Paul, who is very clear that Jesus is in heaven, can also say in Galatians 2:20 that “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”. Similarly, in Ephesians 3:17 Paul prays “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith”, and in Romans 8:10 he tells the Romans that “Christ is in you”. Likewise, before he ascends into heaven, Jesus promises his disciples “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). So, the New Testament is crystal clear: Jesus is in us and with us.

Jesus is in heaven but he is also with us; he is at God’s right hand but he is also in our hearts. How do we resolve this seeming tension?

One possibility is that we might argue that since Jesus is God and God is everywhere, then we would expect Jesus to be in heaven and in our hearts. There is no tension or problem at all! That answer sounds plausible. The only problem is that the New Testament doesn’t just locate Jesus in heaven but implies that because he is there he is absent from us. So, in Philippians 1:23, Paul says that he desires to depart and be with Christ. Later, in 3:20, he says that as Christians we are waiting for Christ to come from heaven. In 2 Corinthians 5:6, Paul states that if “we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord”. In other words, for Paul, there is a sense in which Jesus is not here with us. We are away from him and long to be reunited with him. But if Jesus is in us, how can we be away from him?

It seems that we have a tension between what we might call the absence and the presence of Christ. Christ is absent in the sense that we are away from him and we wait for him to come from heaven. Christ is present in the sense that he is in us and with us. How do we hold these together?

There are a few passages we could go to in order to answer this question, but I think it is one that might not be all that obvious that is the most helpful: 1 Corinthians 5. In this chapter, Paul is appalled at the behaviour of the Corinthians. They are not only tolerating the behaviour of a man in their congregation who is sleeping with his stepmother, but simultaneously they have a high view of their own spiritual status. Paul is not going to sit back and do nothing. The problem is that he is in Ephesus, about 1500 kilometres overland from Corinth. However, this absence does not prevent him from acting: “For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as present,1 I have already pronounced judg­ment on the one who did such a thing” (v. 3). Paul understands himself to be absent in body but present in spirit and he expects the Corinthians to act in the light of his presence: “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (vv. 4-5). Though bodily located many miles away, Paul’s spirit is with the Corinthians. He is absent in body and present in spirit.

I think this is a helpful way of thinking of Jesus’ presence and absence. (In fact, it may be that Paul’s view of his own presence and absence is modelled, in some sense, on that of Jesus.) Like Paul, I think we can view Jesus as absent in body and present in spirit.



1. Jesus is absent—because he has a body

Writing from prison, in Philippians 1 Paul reflects on the fact that there is a real chance that he may die. This doesn’t faze him, because “for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (v. 21). Though staying alive would mean that Paul could continue to help the Philippians, on balance his “desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (v. 23). Paul, like every believer, is not with Christ. He is separated from him and so longs to be with him. Even though Jesus is God and so is everywhere, even though Jesus dwells in our hearts by the Spirit, and even though he is with us until the end of the age, he is also absent from us. We are separated from him.

The reason he is separated from us is because, as well as being God, Jesus remains a human being. He is a human being with a body (albeit an exalted one), which means that, like any other human being, his location is fixed. He is not everywhere. This comes out in chapter 3 of Philippians. Here Paul warns the Philippians to beware those who live as enemies of the cross: “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (v. 19). He then continues: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (vv. 20-21). Unlike these enemies of the cross who have their minds on earthly things, the Christian’s citizenship is in heaven. Our gaze is directed to heaven because we are waiting for Jesus to come, and he will come from there with a “glorious body”. Jesus remains a human being and he retains a human body. It is this body that means he is absent from us.

In terms of the specific location of Jesus, I don’t think we can say any more than that he has a body and that he is in heaven. There is really nothing gained by trying to pinpoint where in the universe Jesus is. Paul simply says that when Jesus ascends into heaven he is exalted “far above all the heavens” (Eph 4:10). The doctrine of the absence of Christ stresses the fact that he is not with us because he has a body and is somewhere else—beyond the realms of this universe. As such, we don’t need to think of Christ being ‘in heaven’ as somehow contradicting modern cosmology—as is often claimed by those who say the Bible writers were constrained by ancient cosmological thinking. This doctrine actually places Christ beyond the realms of our universe. Modern science (since Copernicus and Kepler) has sought to describe the inner structure of the universe itself. It cannot say anything meaningful about existence beyond the created universe (or multiverse, if you prefer) and so does not stand in tension with the idea of Christ in heaven.

Positively, we need to remember that while Jesus is absent from us, he is with God. Therefore we can be encouraged that he has gone before us and prepared a place for us (John 14:3) with God. Because our risen Lord is with God as a human being, we know that one day we will be too.

In the meantime we are absent from Christ. The pain of absence is something that perhaps we don’t feel as acutely in the modern world. It is very easy to keep in touch with people, even on the other side of the world. Two people who live in London and Sydney can phone, email, Skype, text or Facebook any time they like, and so the sense of absence can be diminished. And yet the absence still remains. ‘Skyping’ someone is not the same as being with them in person. You might be able to see them and speak with them, but you are still not with them in the fullest sense. We will see below that Christ is with us by the Spirit. As good as that is, it is not everything. The Christian life is one of waiting to be reunited with our Lord and Saviour. It is a life of separation and longing. Jesus is not here, and we are not with him in the fullest sense. We are not in his physical presence. We are absent from him.

One important implication of remem­bering the absence of Christ is that it reminds us of his authority. Now, that might seem a bit counterintuitive. After all, if someone is absent doesn’t that mean their authority is diminished? No, Jesus is absent but he will return. Think of the teacher who tells the class he is going to the admin office, and that they are to get on with exercise 3b.2 That teacher may be absent, but he exercises authority over the class. The students know if the teacher returns to find they are not doing exercise 3b that they are going to be in trouble. When we remember Jesus’ absence, we are meant to also remember his future coming. If we forget his absence and concentrate only on his spiritual presence with us, we can all too easily forget the fact that he is coming back. Some people have argued that Jesus rose only in a spiritual sense. They believe that he sort of dissolved into the heavens so that he is everywhere at the same time. Not only is this untrue, but it diminishes his authority. As soon as you dissolve Jesus’ presence, you dissolve his authority. Jesus simply becomes vague and abstract and not much of a threat. But the absent Jesus rules as king from heaven. All God’s authority is concentrated in him. As such, there is a focus to God’s authority that means that every king, every president, every prime minister is under Christ. Their authority is only a derived authority. The true king of the world is in heaven. He may be absent, but one day he will return.


2. Jesus is present—through the Spirit

What exactly do we mean when we say that Jesus is present in or through the Spirit? It is one of the phrases that we can easily rattle off without pausing to think about exactly what it means. Romans 8 helps us to think more carefully. Paul starts the chapter by spelling out the differences between walking in the Spirit and walking in the flesh—one leads to life and the other death. He then moves to reassure the Roman Christians in verses 9-11:

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

The Christian is someone who is in the Spirit and in whom the Spirit dwells. Paul describes the Spirit as the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ (v. 9). Then in verse 10, it is not just the Spirit who is in the believer but Christ himself. But by verse 11, Paul has reverted to saying that it is the Spirit who dwells in them. So, the Spirit can be described as the Spirit, the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of Christ. And as well as the Spirit living in us, Christ himself is in us. How do we understand all this variation?

The answer is the doctrine of the Trinity! Very briefly, the doctrine of the Trinity tells us that the Bible teaches that there is one God who is three persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When I was a young Christian one of the illustrations I heard for the Trinity was that of a shamrock (or three-leaf clover). Just as there is one clover but three leaves, there is one God and three parts that make up God—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is a very simple illustration… but its main flaw is that it is totally wrong. God is not a group of three people like the three leaves of a clover. It is not as if you could point at part of God and say, “there is the Father”, or another part of God and say, “there is the Spirit”. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct, but they are not separate individuals like three human beings. No, their relationship is of a totally different order. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not three individuals but are three divine persons who dwell in one another. That means that the Father is in the Son, the Son is in the Spirit and the Spirit is in the Father. So, the Trinity is not one God in three parts; it is one God, and that one God is three persons in the closest possible relationship with one another. That means that when you have the Spirit you have the Father and the Son. The Spirit is not the Father and he is not the Son, but the nature of their relationship is that if you have the Spirit you have the Father and the Son too.

That is exactly what we see in Romans 8. Paul switches between the Spirit and Christ—because if the Spirit is dwelling in you, then Christ is in you. We get a very similar thought in John 14. As Jesus teaches the disciples before his departure, he promises them that he will send the Spirit to them (vv. 16-17). But he immediately interprets this to mean that he himself will come to them (v. 18). The Spirit coming means that in some sense Jesus too comes to them.

In other words, the Spirit is not just a representative or a substitute for the absent Jesus. He is not simply an ambassador. When an American ambassador is present, we say that he comes representing the President, but we don’t think of the President himself actually being present. But it is different with God. 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. It is very difficult for us to understand this because it is not the way human relationships work. In a sense, however, it should not surprise us that God is beyond our understanding! Because of the work of the Spirit, Jesus really is with us. If you are a Christian, he really is in you.

And that is important for at least three reasons.

Firstly, remembering that Christ is in us by the Spirit means that our gaze should be upward and forward, not simply inward. The Spirit in us points us to the Christ who is currently absent in heaven but will one day return. Ironically, the presence of Christ in us by the Spirit reminds us that we are absent from Christ. And so the spiritual person is the person who is focused on the coming Christ rather than themselves.

Secondly, the presence of Jesus by the Spirit helps us think of the role of churches in the world. You may have heard this poem:

Christ has no hands but our hands to do His work today

He has no feet but our feet to lead men in His way

He has no tongue but our tongue to tell men how He died

He has no help but our help to bring them to His side

Now, there is an element of truth in this. As we have seen, Jesus is bodily absent. We know that we are to point people to him. However, it is all too easy to take this to the extreme and forget that the church is not the presence of Christ in the world but the Spirit is. We need to remember that the church is under Jesus. He is our Lord and our head. We are dependent on him—he is not dependent on us.

Finally, remembering that Jesus is present to us by the Spirit should be a great encouragement to us. Even as we long for the full bodily presence of Christ when he returns, or when we go to be with him, we are not left as orphans. He really is with us through the Spirit. It is not like being separated from a relative on the other side of the world. Jesus’ promise to the disciples still stands. He will never leave us or forsake us; he is in us, he is with us, and we are not alone. Perhaps you have read the Gospels and thought, “I wish I was there. I wish I could have seen Jesus like the disciples saw him. I wish I could have heard him preach and seen him perform miracles.” But actually, the Christian today is in a better position than the disciples were. If you are a believer in Jesus, you have the Spirit of Christ in you, and it is the Spirit who enables you to grasp who Jesus is. When you read the Gospels, you see that time and time again the disciples just couldn’t grasp who Jesus was. It was only as the Spirit was given that they could understand his identity. So it is with us. Because we have the Spirit of Christ, we have the Spirit who makes Christ present to us, so we can grasp who Jesus is. We can recognize that he is the Lord of all; we can recognize that he is not here but that one day he will come back and change us so that we are like him.


As with many things in the Christian life, as we think about where Jesus is we need to hold things in tension. We need to remember the absence of Christ; he is not here, we long for his coming, we long to be with him in body as well as in Spirit, for that will be better by far. But we also need to remember the presence of Christ: through the Spirit he really is with us.

Where is Jesus? He is exalted at the right hand of God, and one day he will come and take us to be with him, but in the meantime we know that through the Spirit he dwells in our hearts. The spiritual presence of Christ is not everything that we long for, but we need to remember that he has not left us as orphans and he is with us now.


1 The ESV is unhelpful here. It translates this “as if present”, but the Greek simply says “as present”.

2 This is not an original illustration! I have heard it in a few different talks on the return of Jesus.

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