In The Biblical Theological Introduction to the New Testament Dr. Bruce Lowe states the following, “In ancient times a responsible leader who knew he might leave his post would stitch stability into the social fabric of his followers in places where he thought tears might occur because of his departure. This meant presenting a farewell speech for the gathered community and family leaders, in which the bonds of relationship were reiterated, a pointed prayer might be offered, the need for humble other centered thinking was expounded, the prospect of a social tear was announced, emotions were managed, and love and unity for the community’s future were urged.”
As the greatest leader of all, our Lord Jesus Christ weaved all of these items and more into His farewell address found in John 13-17.We’ve seen much to be thankful for in it thus far and today as we continue on in John 16, we’ll see more of the same as Jesus, who has been speaking about the Spirit who’ll come after His departure, returns in v16 to the subject of His own departure and sorrow that will plague the disciples because of it. Though their sorrow will linger for the present, Jesus promises it will turn to an invincible joy when He sees them again. The joy that will emerge will be so permanent no one will be able to take it away from them.
To these things we now turn.
The Perplexity (v16-18)
In v16 Jesus says, “A little while, and you will see Me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see Me.”
This verse is perplexing. Twice we read the phrase ‘a little while’ and so we’re to understand two short periods of time are in view. But what are they and when are they going to occur? Is Jesus speaking of the time between this very moment with His disciples and His death on the cross and then the time between His death and the resurrection? Or is Jesus looking further out speaking of the time between this very moment with His disciples and His ascension and then the time leading up to His coming in the Person of the Spirit at Pentecostor even His return at the second coming?Others see a third option, that Jesus is intentionally unclear as to what events He was speaking of because while He was really speaking of His near death and resurrection He was also really speaking of those events to give the disciples a kind of paradigm that would prepare them for His ascension and much later second coming. Perplexing as it was for the disciples and for modern interpreters today, I think because Jesus says ‘a little while’ a shorter time rather than a long time is implied, which leads us to see this as applying to His near death and resurrection.
Look at v17-18, “So some of His disciples said to one another, “What is this that He says to us, ‘A little while, and you will not see Me, and again a little while, and you will see Me’; and, ‘because I am going to the Father’?” So they were saying, “What does He mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what He is talking about.” Try to imagine what this was like for the disciples as they were hearing this. Jesus has just told them that in a short time (which was in reality less than 24 hours) He would be dead and in the grave where they couldn’t see Him, and couldn’t get to Him because of the large stone and the guards. But then after three days He’d appear again as He bursts forth from the grave and reveals Himself to them in resurrection power. Jesus has told them of these things before, so this isn’t new but that they’re perplexed at this reminds us that the disciples still didn’t have a category for the kind of Messiah who would bring His Kingdom to power by willingly laying down His life.
I think we get it though, for us much is clear on this side of the cross, but for them on the other side of the cross all was mysteriousand cloudy as if they were looking into a fogged mirror after a hot shower. Their understandable confused state not only shows their weakness and inability to understand the meaning of these weighty realities without the Spirit of God, it also confirms what Jesus said about them earlier in 16:12, that though He does still have much to tell them, they aren’t able to bear those things now. One day they will be able to bear it when the Spirit of Truth drives the truth deep within their hearts…but for them that day hasn’t come yet.
One more thing here in these first opening verses. It’s interesting to see who they bring their confusion to in v17 isn’t it? In their confusion they talk to one another about their confusion instead of Jesus. See that? “So some of His disciples said to one another…” Never do they ask Jesus what this means. In v19 we see that they wanted to ask Him but held back from asking. Why? Perhaps it’s because many of them have already asked questions during this farewell discourse. Peter, Thomas, and Philip have done so before, why aren’t they doing so now? Jesus did correct them in these moments when they asked their questions, and through those moments they and we learned a great deal did we not? But maybe they’re a bit gun shy to ask anything else now thinking Jesus will scold them for doing so. But is that like Jesus? Have they forgotten His great care and love for them? Bottom line: it’s their unbelief that moves them to not ask Jesus about this and ask one another instead…and isn’t it our own unbelief that does the same to us? Tempting us to doubt the goodness of God? Tempting us to believe Jesus would rather not hear from us? Tempting us to think God is constantly disappointed with us? Tempting us to believe God doesn’t have what’s best for us in view? Tempting us to think God is harsh instead wonderfully faithful despite our faithlessness? Tempting us to think worldly entertainments are more satisfying than He is. Unbelief fogs what is flawless, blemishes what is beautiful, and clouds all that is clear. When we’re tempted toward unbelief and struggling with thoughts of unbelief we must fight to remember that the sun is still shining when dark clouds cover the sky. That God in Christ has loved us with an “everlasting, never giving up, always and forever love.”And that because of that love He, while guiding “…reigning above bends to hear our every prayer with sovereign power and tender care.”
Well, it’s clear the disciples are having trouble and stand in need of further clarification from Jesus. And that is exactly what He gives them next.
A Clarification (v19-21)
In v19-20 we read, “Jesus knew that they wanted to ask Him, so He said to them, “Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while and you will not see Me, and again a little while and you will see Me’? Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.”
In v19 Jesus repeats verbatim what their struggling to understand. Specifically, that the disciples do not understand what He said to them in v16. Now, Jesus could have known of their confusion because of His omniscience (He is God incarnate), but I don’t think He needed to. The disciples weren’t being secretive with their question but were speaking openly with one another in v17. So it seems more likely that Jesus knew of their desire to ask this question because of their conversing with one another or maybe it was just all the perplexed looks that had to be on their faces at the moment.Either way, we know from this that Jesus knows their struggle. But look at how He responds to it. He doesn’t answer their question about the meaning of His earlier statement, no; He addresses the underlying issue at play. The issue they should be asking about and inquiring into. We see this in v20, because of His departure there will be both sorrow and joy. First they will fall into deep sorrow as the world rejoices, but soon afterwards their sorrow will break and turn into joy.
It’s like golf. Experienced golfers will tell you that every stroke on the golf course makes someone happy. If it’s a good shot the one who made the shot will be happy but if it’s a bad shot the opponent will be happy because it works to his or her advantage.In much the same way, when the supreme conflict between Jesus and the world – the flesh – and the Devil comes into view there will be both sorrow and joy. Jesus’ death and burial would begin a merry celebration among those who hated Him, planned His death, and carried it out. While they’re throwing their hands in the air rejoicing the disciples will be lamenting, grieving, and despairing over the greatest of losses. But, in a little while it all would change. A little while is a short time, but when it’s painful ‘little while’ it can seem like a long while. Eating a wonderfully enjoyable meal can seem like a brief time, but spend that same amount of time in traffic or in a doctor’s office that little while can seem like an eternity. In a little while the tide of sorrow will turn when the Son of God walks out of the tomb. The world’s rejoicing will turn to a shocked and fear filled befuddlement while the disciples sorrow with turn into joy inexpressible. It is important to note that Jesus does not say their sorrow will be replaced by joy, but that their sorrow will turn into joy. This is important because the way true joy is spoken of here is as if sorrow were the seeds of it. As if true joy can only come from the soil of sorrowful despair. That true joy is only created by or can come into existence by deep grief. I think this rings true, because as glorious as the resurrection was, it didn’t do away with the crucifixion.Not at all. The cross was a scene and an image of horror to the disciples, but as the resurrection occurs the same image of the cross would’ve dramatically and powerfully turned into a sign and symbol, not of defeat, but of the greatest of victories.This is why the Apostles would later say ‘Christ crucified’ was all they had to preach and all they wanted to preach. That they would boast in nothing but this cross, where Jesus’ precious blood saved, secured, and still satisfies them.
In v21 Jesus illustrates this for them, “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.” Any woman who’s given birth, any parent, and anyone around a newborn baby can speak to the truth of this illustration. The birth process is not easy, nor is it pain free. It can be nerve wracking and very dangerous for both the mother and the child. But when the child is born all the turmoil turns into a thankful joy as we see the newborn baby and hold him or her in our arms. Jesus uses this illustration, not because it just came to His mind in this moment, but because throughout the Old Testament God spoke this way about the suffering of His people and the dawn of the Messiah’s Kingdom. One such example is the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 26:17 God says the sufferings of Israel are like the cries of a woman in birth pangs. This is speaking to the sorrow of Israel’s condition before the coming of the Messiah. But a few verses later, in v19, birth, hope, and resurrection is anticipated as God speaks of what it will be like when the Messiah comes, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!” Later on in Isaiah 66 the same things are being discussed and God says though pain may be their present state, when the coming King arrives their ‘hearts will rejoice.’
All of this leads us to believe Jesus had more in mind than mere pregnancy pains in John 16:21. Yes the pattern of sorrow turning to joy will be the disciples experience, but more so, and wonderfully so, Jesus is speaking of what His work will bring to God’s people. The whole of His redemptive work is the culmination of all the birth pangs before. Long has the battle been between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, but darkness, grief, and sorrow will be the soil of the Messiah’s life that gives birth to the greatest of all joys known to man as the ‘hour’ of the God-Man comes and He comes forth in resurrection power from the womb of the tomb. He then becomes “…the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent…” (Col. 1:18) leading forth a host captives from death in Him.
But as wonderful as this is, Jesus isn’t done. He expands on this and applies it directly to the disciples and to you and I.
The Promise (v22)
“So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
Yes sorrow may reign for a time, but when…wait, when what? When they see Him again? When yousee Him again?No, when Hesees them again, when His work is finished and He in His redeeming grace meets them again, what will occur? Quoting Isaiah 66:14 exactly Jesus says their “…hearts will rejoice and no one will take your joy from you.”
See the promise of invincible joy in Jesus above all things.
Just as Israel had sorrow and was supposed to have joy at His coming, just as Jesus Himself had sorrow in His humiliation and joy in His exaltation, so too we will have passing sorrow turn to permanent joy, not when we see Him, but when He sets His gracious eye on us. This joy will be a permanent joy because this is joy independent of the world, the world didn’t give it so the world can’t take it! God gave it, so despite what the world throws at the disciples or throws at us our joy in Jesus above all things not only can remain, it will remain!
Learn here Church, Jesus Christ the Lord and Giver of abundant life creates a lively people by turning our sorrow to joy in the gospel. Our God is a happy God who delights in Himself and delights to share Himself with His people, and when He shares Himself with His people, His people become a holy and happy people. And in becoming this joyous, heaven to come begins in the here and now. But don’t mishear me. The joy Jesus speaks of in v22 isn’t joy in general or joy in an abstract manner of speaking, as if it’s little more than an general entertained contentment, no, it’s a gospel centered joy. Think about it. On the cross He wore our crown, the crown of thorns; we now wear His crown, the crown of glory. On the cross He wore our robes of nakedness and guilt, we now wear His royal robes of righteousness. On the cross He bore our shame, we now bear His honor. On the cross He expired and was laid in the tomb in death and rose again in power, that we might rise from the dead, dwell in His power, and be filled with the same resurrection life!
Therefore (and I think this is the point of our passage – the point of the turn from sorrow to joy in the gospel, whether for the first time at conversion or the many times afterwards we must remember this and be called back to this) to be in Christ is to be alive in Christ, no longer dead or disinterested but delightedly fully alive!
That is a wonderful reality is it not? But be sure to note that when the Apostles heard these words they did not fully understand what this promise meant, and more so, they probably didn’t realize that in this promise their deepest problems had been solved.Do you? As I look out at you here this morning I do wonder if any of you feel like that today? Perhaps you’ve sat here patiently this whole time waiting for encouragement in the midst of your own sorrows, and yet, you’re puzzled that sorrow still lingers and hasn’t yet turned to the invincible joy in Jesus that Jesus promises here. Is that you? Honestly this is all of us at one point or another. So what are we to do?
I say this. If you feel more dead or disinterested than delightedly fully alive, you must look to Jesus and remember what Jesus says. “In a little while…your sorrow will turn to joy.” The pattern within this gospel promise of invincible joy isn’t a pattern promising immediate relief. Just as the resurrection doesn’t get rid of the crucifixion so too the promise of invincible joy doesn’t get rid of sorrow. No, the crucifixion had to occur before resurrection, and sorrow must occur before joy. It is the birth pangs of resurrection, and remember birth pangs are only present because something is truly being birthed! Immediate relief? No. Ultimate relief, yes! “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
Bruce A. Lowe, A Biblical Theological Introduction to the New Testament: The Gospel Realized (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2016) page 285-286.
D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John – PNTC (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1991) page 542.
Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John – NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1971) page 702.
Grant R. Osborne, John – Verse by Verse (Bellingham, Washington: Lexham Press, 2018) page 380.
Godet, quoted in Morris, page 703-704.
This is the main refrain throughout the whole of Sally Lloyd Jones’ Jesus Story Book Bible.
All Praise To Him, Prayers of the Saints – Live, Sovereign Grace Music (2017).
Morris (704-705) and Carson (page 543) believe Jesus didn’t need to employ His divine omniscience to know this, that He could just look and listen to them to know their confusion. Osborne disagrees and believes Jesus knew this on the basis of His divine omniscience (page 381). Though Osborne could be correct, I believe Morris and Carson are closer to the meaning in the passage.
R.C. Sproul, John – Saint Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Orlando, Florida: Reformation Trust, 2009) page 307.
Richard Phillips, John 11-21 – Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2014) page 357.
Charles Spurgeon, quoted in Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2018) page 120.