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Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

204. Sorrow and Joy (John 16:16-33)

Once again Jesus gave himself to the unpalatable duty of preparing the minds of his apostles for the disappointments and shocks they were soon to be subjected to: "A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go the Father."

This was too enigmatic for them-as indeed it has been for later generations of disciples. The idea appears to be this:

'There is coming a little while during which you will not see me (the time of my death and burial). Then there will be another little while (the forty days) during which you will see me. But it will be only a little while (compared with what you would wish) because then I ascend to the Father'.

With hindsight this reading is relatively easy, but it is easy to understand how the disciples, still unwilling to believe in the death of their lord and certainly without any concept of his resurrection and ascension, were mystified.

They were probably all the more puzzled because Jesus made a deliberate change in the word for "see", the second time using a word which very frequently (and especially in John) signifies seeing a divine manifestation (e.g. 1:18; 5:37; 6:46; 8:38; 20:18, 25, 29). If, as suggested here, Jesus was referring to the "little while" of his resurrection appearances, this is specially appropriate.

A parable of travail

The repetitious query of the disciples shows that they were bewildered rather than enlightened by this saying. So there is perhaps some excuse for uncertainty in the minds of disciples today.

Although the request for more light was not put to Jesus directly he knew well enough how much it was needed. So he sought to help them by means of a little parable: "A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world." The reference beforehand to his own resurrection is fairly obvious. At Pentecost Peter was to use the same figure (harking back to this?) when he spoke of God "loosing the birth-pangs of death" when Jesus was raised up (Acts 2:24).

This idea, of the resurrection of Jesus as the birth of the New Creation, can be traced in various Messianic Scriptures. He is "the firstborn of all the (new) creation . . . the first born from the dead" (Col. l :15,18). It is with reference to his resurrection that the Second Psalm has the Father saying: "Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee" (Ps.2 :7 is quoted in Heb.5 :5 with reference to the priesthood of Christ, and in Heb.1 :5 with reference to his exaltation to divine glory).

Isaiah 66 is particularly interesting in this respect because of the sustained similarities with the language of John 16, so as almost to suggest that Jesus was speaking with this in mind: "Hear the word of the Lord, ye that tremble at his word; your brethren that hated you, that cast out your name as evil... they shall be ashamed, but he shall appear to your joy... Before she travailed, she brought forth; before her pain came, she was delivered of a man child ... Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her... and when ye see this, your heart shall rejoice" (ls.66 :5,7,10,14). But it should be noted here that Jerusalem's time of suffering was to come after the birth of the Man-Child. And this is how it happened, for Jerusalem's travail, as distinct from the distress of the Lord's disciples, came in retribution for the rejection of Christ.

The details of purification at child-birth, as laid down in the Law of Moses, chime in neatly with the figure Jesus used. After the birth of a male child, circumcision must be on the eighth day and the period of purification was to run to the fortieth (Lev. 12 :2-4). Apparently, the eighth day after his resurrection Jesus appeared to the disciples for the last time in Jerusalem, restoring faith in Thomas, the last of the twelve to be convinced, and his personal presence with them ended on the fortieth.

Help promised

"In that day (the time of his resurrection appearances) ye shall ask me nothing"-that is, nothing about this little parable, because the event was to make its meaning clear and obvious. The statement can hardly be taken absolutely, because during the forty days they certainly asked him plenty of questions, including especially: "Wilt thou at this time, restore again the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1 :6). The answer to that was: "It is not for you to know the times or the seasons . .."

But with the blessing of the Holy spirit, "whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you." Clearly, this was not an absolute promise, free from all limitations. The words are to be taken in some restricted sense. But what? The immediate context suggests prayers to God for fuller understanding. But on the other two occasions when Jesus made the same promise (14 :13; 15 :16), he was fairly evidently referring to the disciples' preaching after his ascension. Then perhaps here also is an extension of Messiah's privilege to those who help with his work: "Ask of me, and I shall give thee the Gentiles for thine inheritance" (Ps.2 :8)-the words follow immediately after: "this day have I begotten thee" (the Lord's own parable). This first century reference of the psalm is suggested by its apostolic use in Acts 4:25-28. "Ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be fulfilled" seems to imply the fulfilment of a prophecy—Psalm 2, or perhaps Isaiah 66, just quoted.

Almost all through this discourse Jesus had spoken by figure of speech and Old Testament allusion, and the disciples groped uncertainly for his meaning. Yet how could he put it otherwise? A bald matter-of-fact declaration of what they were to experience in the next few days was more than their powers of comprehension could rise to and more than their spirits could endure. For the same reason Scripture uses metaphor and idiom to inform those sharing the Hope of Israel about the glories and joys of Messiah's kingdom. How is it possible to describe the wonders of a sunset to a man who has never had sight? So, necessarily, Jesus was talking to his disciples now more for future benefit than present enlightenment.

In yet another way their spiritual education would be furthered: "The time cometh (in the forty days) when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall shew you plainly of ff» Father." The walk of the two disciples to Emmaus with their unrecognized risen Lord was a sample of this when a marvellous illumination flood-lit clouded intelligence. All those encounters with Jesus up to the day of ascension must have been crowded with exciting experiences comparable to that of the blind man at Siloam.

In days to come, when high responsibility in the ecclesia accentuated their sense of need for guidance, yet more help would be fully available: "At that day ye shall ask in my name: and do I not say unto you that I will pray the Father for you?"—this assurance should surely be read as a rhetorical question, giving an implied promise of intercession on their behalf in heaven (1 Jn.2 :1). And (Jesus further implied) my prayers for you will be heard for the added reason that "the Father himself loveth you (here is the Greek word for "affection"), because ye have loved me and have believed that I came out from the Father." Those Greek perfect tenses emphasize more strongly than their English counterparts their continuing loyalty through the past into the present.

The order of the words here is noteworthy. Their personal affection for Christ came first, and afterwards by slow degrees their faith in him as the Redeemer and Messiah. Even now their understanding was at best fragmentary and unsure. Yet the Father accepted the partial character of their faith because of their loyalty to His Son.

Often enough since those early days the experience of the apostles has been repeated-that a man has come to know and love Christ before ever he has gained a sound understanding of his atoning work and royal destiny. But if indeed a man does truly love Christ, the rest is almost sure to follow in due course.

Jesus now attempted a summary of what he hoped the apostles would recognize and appreciate regarding him: "I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again I leave the world, and go to the Father."

First, then, his divine origin. In the early days they naturally thought of him as "Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph" (1 :45), but, with all their privileges of closeness to him, to stay there would evince a blindness almost or quite matching that of the rulers. In his birth he "came forth from the Father" (cp. Lk.l :35), and with a unique God-sent mission he had "come (out of the obscurity of Nazareth) into the Jewish world." Soon he was to leave all in order to be personally present with (pros) the Father.

The reaction of the disciples was rather extraordinary: "Lo, now speakest thou plainly, and speakest no parable. Now we are sure that thou knowest all things, and needest not that any man should ask thee." This is strange, for the entire discourse of Jesus since they left the upper room had been taken up with illustration and type, Old Testament allusion and enigma. Then, by "speaking no parable/'did they mean that now at last it had dawned on them that their Jesus was God's great Reality, the fulfilment of every typical foreshadowing portrayed in their Scriptures? But if so, one is left wondering what Jesus had just said to bring this sudden enlightenment.

Alternatively, and oppositely, their declaration is to be taken as their most blundering demonstration yet that "they so little understood him as not even to understand that they did not understand." The gentle irony of their Master's reply, and his evident concern for them in the trial of faith suddenly to come on them gives more credence to this view.

Scattered, yet Sustained

"Do ye now believe? (the Lord surely spoke in irony again). Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone"-a very different outcome from what their confident words might give promise of: "By this we believe that thou earnest forth from God."

Like Peter's violent assertions of unfaltering loyalty, this declaration of faith in Jesus had its backlash: "ye shall be scattered every man to nis own." The allusion to Zechariah 13 :7 was appropriate: "Smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered." Within a couple of hours, "all the disciples forsook him, and fled" (Mt.26 :57). Even after the discovery of the opened tomb, "the disciples went away again unto their own homes" (Jn.20 :10). The two leaving Jerusalem for Emmaus on the day of resurrection provide yet another illustration of this(Lk.24:13).

Notwithstanding his inevitable deep disappointment in the disciples, Jesus was able to speak, both for his own reassurance and theirs, of a spiritual fortifying against adversity which none could deprive him of: "I am not alone, because the Father is with me". It was the seventh time within a short while that he had said this (13 :31; 16:33). At the crucifixion there were to be open signs of this sublime truth.

"These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace." Even the aftermath of wretchedness, when they came to reflect remorsefully on how they had let him down, was not to rob them of ultimate satisfaction. "In the world (of Jewry) ye shall have tribulation"-he had already spoken to them at length about this (15 :19-21) and it was clearly foretold in the Zechariah prophecy he had alluded to (13 :9)-"but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world." Since the agony of Gethesemane still lay before him the past tense here would be no small difficulty, but for the specialised restricted meaning which John's gospel so often has for the word /cosmos. Although Jesus still had before him the final struggle against his own human weakness, the other victory against the external powers of evil-the men of the Sanhedrin—was already won. They had already proved it by their plot to get him crucified. "The victory of the Jews was, in fact, their defeat" (Hoskyns). The same bitter opposition to the apostles would be a continuing demonstration of an intensifying victory of Christ. So let the paradox of it teach them good courage!

Notes: Jn. l6:16-33

16.
A little while. An alternative interpretation depends on reading this part of the Lord's discourse as spoken near the end of the forty days: A little while -that is, before the ascension; ye shall not see me-the ascension; again a little while-the forty years before the Second Coming (an expectation strong in the NT. writings); and ye shall see me – at his return (hence v.l7: "because I go to my Father").
17.
The repetition here is a strong mark of apostolic bewilderment.
23.
Ask. The form of the Gk. verb tends to support the interpretation suggested in the text.
33.
Overcome the world. So also the disciples: 1 Jn.4:4; 5:4, 5

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