Here are my notes for John 16:16-24. This is a neat little passage and I hope it is encouraging to you!
16:16-18 “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” 17 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’?” 18 So they were saying, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about.”
Has it all been for nothing?
Jesus is winding down His farewell and so He says quite plainly that very soon they won’t see Him. But, as with everything else He has said, there is a silver lining! They will see Him soon after He goes away.
There is some dispute about whether Jesus is referring to the time between His ascension and His second coming (so Ryle), or whether He is referring to the short time between His death and resurrection (so Morris and Carson). I have a tendency to think it is the latter because of the context of the entire passage seems to demand it, and because it is the easier reading – not that there can’t be some future allusions here, but I think Carson is right that this is the most natural understanding of the text. This should become more plain soon.
One of the things that marks this passage is the sense that once again the disciples are confused about something Jesus is telling them. Many are the sayings of Jesus, and their depth is sometimes difficult to plum (Rom. 11:33-36). Therefore, it makes a great deal of sense that given all that we read thus far about the disciples that they would react this way. We have taken months and months to dive into each section, each verse, and sometimes each word of what Jesus has been saying in this farewell discourse. The disciples, however, did not have that much time to contemplate these things. Their minds were being tormented emotionally as well.
And receiving one truth statement after another all in such a short period of time must have been really difficult – in fact it seems that its all they can do to slow Jesus down with these questions and try to figure out what in the world is going on here. I think their reactions are based in fear, and unbelief at what they’re hearing. They simply can’t process this information at the pace Jesus is giving it to them – combine that with the fact that they don’t really want to process and accept what He’s telling them and you have a recipe for anxiety.
Put yourself in their shoes and remember that these disciples have lost everything – they have left everything as well (Matt. 19:27-30). They thought that they were doing this for a reason, but now in their fear they begin to wonder if the last three years was completely wasted. Have they forsaken all for naught?
So in a heightened state of nerves and fear the disciples now say question “what in the world is He saying?” It looks like they are saying this amongst themselves because John tells us in verse 19 that “Jesus knew” which seems to indicate that He knew either by supernatural means (Morris disagrees) or by simply knowing His disciples well enough to have understood/put together what they were saying from what He heard (for He was an excellent judge of character!).
Lastly, we ought to note that their inability to understand the sayings of Jesus has a great deal to do with which side of the cross they are on. That is to say that everything we understand now, they did not see very easily.
We recognize now with the eyes of the Spirit what was so opaque to the disciples. This is what was predicted in Jeremiah 31:34:
And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34)
It is the Spirit who now teaches us the depths of God’s truth. As Calvin comments, “The prophet (Jeremiah) assuredly does not take away or set aside instruction, which must be in its most vigorous state in the kingdom of Christ; but he affirms that, when all shall be taught by God, no room will be any longer left for this gross ignorance, which holds the minds of men, till Christ, the Sun of Righteousness (Mal. 4:2), shall enlighten them by the rays of His Spirit.”
After Pentecost everything changed, however, and the apostles were great explainers of the mysteries of God. Calvin continues, “Besides, though the apostles were exceedingly like children, or rather, were more like stocks of wood than men, we know well what they suddenly became, after having enjoyed the teaching of the Holy Spirit.”
16:19-21 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’? 20 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. 21 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.
The Gracious Privilege of Knowing the Lord
The first thing that strikes me about this passage and the whole of these discourses when taken together, is that graciousness of the Lord to give us knowledge of any part of His plan. We talked a little about this when we studied chapter 15, which says:
No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15)
It is a very special thing to be called a “friend” of the Lord. And one of the things that indicates we are friends is His graciously letting us in on the general scope and many details of His plan for salvation and mankind.
Abraham and Moses all experienced this privilege to some degree (Gen. 15:15; Ex. 33:11), but partakers in the New Covenant have an even greater revelation, thus our privileges have been enriched. To that end, we just looked at Jeremiah’s prophecy that says pretty much the same thing in a different way – “they will all be taught of the Lord.” The gift of the Holy Spirit is not only the mark of Adoption it is the mark of friendship. The Spirit conveys to us the wisdom of the Lord as revealed in His Word. This is a very very special privilege, which Paul understood when he stated:
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:8)
The Analogy of Childbirth
Any father or mother knows the anxiety and stress and pain that precede the birth of a child. The fears, the nerves, and the unknown are constantly pressing upon you. But you also know that in that moment, when the baby comes into the world, everything else fades and the joy that fills your heart is so powerful, so overwhelming, that nothing can overcome it.
How beautiful this is analogy is to us, and its beauty is not simply found on the surface, one has to realize that for Jesus to make this analogy He has to know a great deal about the nature of humanity – that same nature is an imprint of the original nature…His nature!
What this means is that Jesus knows what it is like to experience the birth of a new child – because as Creator He experiences this over and over and over again! Jesus loves His creation.
Now, I think that Jesus’ immediate meaning here is that the disciples will experience great joy upon His triumph over the grave – in this way He is telling them something that will immediately come to pass so that, as with other verses in His farewell discourse, they will believe and have their faith boosted when those things come to pass (think John 20:20 for instance).
I don’t think its wrong to also to see a secondary truth here in that, as Paul says, the whole world is in travail (see Romans 8) until He returns, and our longing and our pain will all subside and be replaced by an inexpressible joy upon His return! (Perhaps Is. 13:6-13 esp. vs. 8 is a good reference here…) But the primary reference must be in the immediate joy the disciples felt upon the resurrection of the Lord. Carson explains:
Arguments to the effect that this joy refers to the ecstasy Christians will experience at the parousia necessarily presuppose that grief characterizes them throughout this age until Jesus returns. That will not square with Jesus’ promise of joy to his disciples throughout the Christian era (15:11), still less with John’s report of the disciples’ reactions when they saw the resurrected Christ: ‘The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord’ (20:20).
During this age Jesus is giving new life – through the new birth (John 3) to millions upon millions of souls. And the joy expressed (Luke 15:7) over the re-birth of each soul reverberates through the heavenly kingdom as the joy of a child’s birth echoes in the hearts of new parents.
There is a joy to be found here on earth – in the salvation of souls, the birthing of spiritual babes who have had their eyes opened and will one day be received into the Father’s arms. But even more so is the joy we will have on that day when our images are restored, when the consequences of our union with Christ are borne out in view of all, and we enter into eternal peace with our eternal Father.
Excusus: One of the things I would note here is that the Greek word “world” above is once again Kosmos, and once again it takes on another type of meaning. In this instance the author doesn’t have the entire universe in mind, nor the entire population of the world, but rather that group of people who rejoiced at the demise of Christ – those who shouted “crucify! Crucify!” might be in mind…So when people jump to the conclusion that Jesus died for the entire world, I would once again point to verses like this and remind them that proper interpretation methods demand us to closely examine the context of the word in order to determine its meaning.
16:22-24 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. 23 In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. 24 Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.
A few things to note here – first, Jesus plainly predicts that there will certainly be sorrow upon His departure. And this is rightly so. Who would not be sorrowful upon the loss of their Lord? Even though the disciples should be rejoicing, their perspectives are dimmed by their fallen nature and the words of Jesus are not penetrating or taking hold yet. Only when the Spirit comes will those words transform them into a people who will gladly meet every sorrow for the joy that is set before them. We have spent some time speaking to this already.
You Won’t Need to Ask…But Ask!
It seems on the surface that Jesus is contradicting Himself in the same paragraph! He says that the disciples won’t need to ask anything of Him, but then He goes on to urge them to ask for things in His name. So what is the deal here?
First, the reason that “in that day” they will not ask anything of Jesus is not because they will have no questions, but rather because what He is saying to them concerning His death, burial and resurrection will be made clear to them. He is contextually addressing the current work He is about to take upon Himself, not saying that they will never have questions ever again – one has to assume that during His 40 days here on earth the disciples asked many questions. For He stayed with them and taught them as we read in Acts:
He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3)
Second, He goes on to urge them to “ask” the Father for things in His name. So we can rule out that they won’t have needs or questions in yet another way. Though this second saying is more oriented toward our petition to the Father for all the needs of this life post-Christ’s ascension and less about the specific questions the disciples may have for Him concerning the sayings in this discourse.
The stress on this exhortation is on His mediatorial role. He is saying one the one hand that what He is about to accomplish will be made understandable to them soon, and when they see Him again they will “get it” (Luke 24:8 for one, but much more so post-Pentecost). On the other, He is has stated that there will be troubles and He won’t be with them physically to bar the door, rather He will be interceding in Heaven on their behalf. So it is right that He would urge them to “Ask” for what they will need from the Father.
Excursus: Let me also just mention that Jesus is not saying, “you need to end every prayer ‘In Jesus name, Amen’, (see Grudem’s Systematic Theology chapter on Prayer) rather He is addressing the hearts and intentions of His disciples. They (and we) need to understand that when we address the Father in prayer, we do so because we have the right to do so, and that right has been won for us by our great Mediator, Jesus Christ.
As Calvin comments, “We are said to pray in the name of Christ when we take him as our Advocate, to reconcile us, and make us find favor with His Father, though we do not expressly mention his name with our lips.”
Lastly, Jesus urges them to “ask” that their “joy” may be made full. This ties it in together. There will be trials, there will be difficulties, He will not physically be with them. BUT, He will be mediating for them, He will be available to them, and the Spirit will teach them all things so that they will understand better the “why.”
This shouts of the heart Christ has for His children. He desires for His own to have joy. He does all these things for our benefit. The trials, the struggles they are for our joy. But so is the availability and mediation of the Son. Without the latter the former would be joyless. But because of the promise of eternal life, which the Spirit bears witness to, we can “face tomorrow” as the old hymn goes.
Union with Christ means joy despite tribulation here on earth, with the promise of eternal joy when we are united with Him for eternity.
A New Era
One final thing to note here is that in saying that “until now” you have not asked anything in my name Jesus is saying that a new dispensation, a new kingdom, a new time is upon them. Something different is about to be ushered in – an entirely new era. As Ridderbos says, the saying “thus marks the change of dispensations: though Jesus has from the beginning pointed out to them the way to the Father and has himself been that way, up until now he has been with them on earth, the place from which their prayers have gone up. HE has not yet been in heaven, the place from which the prayer are answered.”
The entire metaphor of childbirth (a popular metaphor at that time) harkens us back to Isaiah and especially chapter 26 where we read the following:
O Lord, in distress they sought you;
they poured out a whispered prayer
when your discipline was upon them.
17 Like a pregnant woman
who writhes and cries out in her pangs
when she is near to giving birth,
so were we because of you, O Lord;
18 we were pregnant, we writhed,
but we have given birth to wind.
We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth,
and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen.
19 Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
and the earth will give birth to the dead.
20 Come, my people, enter your chambers,
and shut your doors behind you;
hide yourselves for a little while
until the fury has passed by.
21 For behold, the Lord is coming out from his place
to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity,
and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it,
and will no more cover its slain. (Isaiah 26:16-21)
Carson remarks on the passage with brilliant insight:
…‘The birth pains of the Messiah’ refers to a period of terrible trouble that must precede the consummation. It is not unlikely that this verse alludes to this eschatological theme, only here the intense suffering is borne by the Messiah himself. This interpretation is strengthened by the use of hora (properly ‘hour’ or ‘time’): the word is pregnant with meaning in the Fourth Gospel, and is regularly related to Jesus’ death and the dawning of a new age. This means Jesus’ death and resurrection are properly eschatological events.
Furthermore, the role of Christ as mediator of our personal appeals through Him as our Savior whose blood has provided a way into the holy of holies indicates a time when the temple of the Lord is no longer in Jerusalem but inside His children. This coming directly to the Father through the righteous blood of Christ is a distinction of the church age.
Practically speaking this means we ought to count it precious that we have the privilege of prayer in this way. It is an awesome gift, and a tool that we ought not to neglect or take lightly. As J.C. Ryle says, “Let the lesson sink down deeply into our hearts. Of all the list of Christian duties there is none to which there is such abounding encouragement as prayer. It is a duty which concerns all.”