John 16 concludes Jesus’s final discourse to the Apostles, who number 11 after Judas’s departure from the Last Supper.

Unfortunately, the second half of this chapter does not appear in the standard three-year Lectionary. This makes it part of my ongoing series, Forbidden Bible Verses, which are also essential to our understanding of Scripture.

Today’s reading comes from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

John 16:16-24

Your Sorrow Will Turn into Joy

 16 “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” 17So 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’?” 18So they were saying, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about.” 19 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’? 20Truly, 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. 22 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. 24Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.

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In verse 16, Jesus appears to speak obliquely. What is He really saying? We can interpret this in three ways: 1) He will be crucified and believed dead only to rise again on the third day (Easter), 2) He must die in order that the Holy Spirit can come not only to the Apostles on Pentecost but to all of us and 3) although He will ascend to Heaven and send the Holy Spirit to guide us throughout the End Times (from Pentecost until His Second Coming), all believers shall be with Him again in glory at the Final Judgment.

The remaining 11 Apostles do not know what to make of His statement (verses 17 and 18), although they remember His exact words enough in order to ask each other for an interpretation.

Jesus, who knows the heart of everyone, knows that they are having difficulty — even if they had not spoken of it. So, He asks them to confirm their lack of understanding (verse 19).

His response (verse 20) might appear equally confusing.  However, He is saying two things. First, whilst the Apostles will feel great sorrow at losing their Master and Friend, the carnal world of great sinners, tireless mockers and fearless unbelievers will rejoice. This ‘world’ also includes the Pharisees who argued endlessly with our Saviour. The world belongs to Satan. Yet, through His death and resurrection, Jesus will conquer it as He cleanses His people of sin and promises them eternal life. Second, the Apostles’ sorrow will become joy once they see Him again.  They will be joyful when they see Him on Easter Day and again when He ascends to Heaven when the Holy Spirit will be with them presently and, finally, on the Last Day when they will share eternity with Him.

Jesus uses the analogy of a woman about to give birth (verse 21). The King James Version’s word is ‘travail’ — taken from the French for ‘work’ and ‘labour’ and still used today.  This is something which the Apostles can somewhat appreciate. They know that a woman endures severe labour pangs and pain when she is delivering. However, once her child is born, she is delighted to see that child and rejoices. What went before is but a memory. What matters now is her newborn baby.  The excruciating pain and agony give way to excitement and love. This is very similar, Jesus says, to what the Apostles will experience before long.

Of course, death is still a difficult and sad concept. No one wants to contemplate a loved one — relative or friend — dying.  Yet, this state for believers is but a temporary one. As the hymn says:

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone.

For Jesus, the time lapse will be quite short.  For us, the separation between loss and reunification will seem longer. However, on the Last Day, that sorrowful and painful length of time will be but a short one in retrospect.

For the Apostles, as Matthew Henry notes, His resurrection and gift of the Holy Spirit would indeed be a fillip to their faith and their ministries:

The disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. His resurrection was life from the dead to them, and their sorrow for Christ’s sufferings was turned into a joy of such a nature as could not be damped and embittered by any sufferings of their own. They were sorrowful, and yet always rejoicing (2 Co. 6:10), had sorrowful lives and yet joyful hearts.

Therefore, they would rejoice although Jesus’s public ministry was finished. He would meet with them privately for the 40 days after Easter.  Then, He would ascend to Heaven. Ten days later, the Holy Spirit would descend at that first Pentecost.  It was then that, suddenly, their gifts for preaching, prophesying and healing would come to the fore with great confidence in the risen Christ, enabling His bride the Church to increase and thrive in an unbelieving world.

However, this is not just about the Apostles. Jesus is also revealing something of His human nature here. John MacArthur preached on this passage in the early 1970s and analysed it as follows:

What a volume of fantastic things he could have shared with them. But in their selfishness they couldn’t see past their own nose. And he needs to tell them; he needs to open his heart to them. He doesn’t like to look at the cross. He needs to look beyond the cross with them and see the joy that’s going to be his. That’s the reason he went to the cross … the Bible says, for the joy that was set before him. The joy wasn’t necessarily in the cross; it was after the cross and what it accomplished. And so rather than caring about himself and accepting their indifference toward him, he just decides, well, I’ll just comfort them; bring them joy. And I think in his own heart he wanted to do it because I think it helped him look past the nails and past the thorns and past the spear and past the cross and see the victory coming to them in the Spirit. I think he looked past Calvary as much as he possibly could because it was anguish.

Thank the Lord that Jesus was generous enough to die on our behalf. Can you imagine facing a crucifixion to end all others? I cannot. Yet, as Jesus told the Apostles in the beginning of this chapter, life would not be easy for them as His followers (John 16:2):

They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.

They, too, would die. We read about what would happen to St Peter, martyred for the one true Christian faith.  And St Peter and the other martyrs, from his fellow Apostles to the saints today accept this death for their Lord in faith and with gladness, for they know their promise is sure.

So, Christ says what He does for them, as words of comfort (verse 22).  Note, particularly, that He says:

no one will take your joy from you.

In other words, ‘whatever happens, be of good cheer — we will see each other again in glory’.  Henry writes:

Men will attempt to take their joy from them; they would if they could; but they shall not prevail. Some understand it of the eternal joy of those that are glorified; those that have entered into the joy of the Lord shall go no more out. Our joys on earth we are liable to be robbed of by a thousand accidents, but heavenly joys are everlasting. I rather understand it of the spiritual joys of those that are sanctified, particularly the apostles’ joy in their apostleship. Thanks be to God, says Paul, in the name of the rest, who always causes us to triumph, 2 Co. 2:14. A malicious world would have taken it from them, they would have lost it; but, when they took everything else from them, they could not take this; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. They could not rob them of their joy, because they could not separate them from the love of Christ, could not rob them of their God, nor of their treasure in heaven.

The ‘day’ referred to in verse 23 concerns Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Henry explains:

In the story of the apostles’ Acts we seldom find them asking questions, as David, Shall I do this? Or, Shall I go thither? For they were constantly under a divine guidance. In that weighty case of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, Peter went, nothing doubting, Acts 10:20. Asking questions supposes us at a loss, or at least at a stand, and the best of us have need to ask questions; but we should aim at such a full assurance of understanding that we may not hesitate, but be constantly led in a plain path both of truth and duty.

Yet, Jesus says that whatever the Apostles ask of God in His name will be granted. Now, that is not to say that every single prayer we pray will be answered the way we think it will, but that sorrow of an unanswered prayer — failure to mend a broken relationship or a much-needed job interview gone wrong — can well turn into joy many times over when we see what God provides us in time: in this instance, a wonderful spouse and a job of which we could have only dreamt.  Faith, prayer and a closeness with Christ will see us through dark days.  All too often we agonise over things which really aren’t good for us.  God has better things in store for us.

So, don’t be afraid to pray for yourself or for others. Sometimes, even articulating the prayer may cause you to ask yourself if that’s what you really want.  Don’t be afraid to change the request and to ask for help in discerning the right choice and, perhaps more importantly, the patience to accept the providential decision.

In verse 24, Jesus articulates that, up to now, the Apostles have not asked anything in His name as Mediator and Advocate with God the Father.  They have been viewing Him as being a secular redeemer instead of a divine one.  However, MacArthur cautions us against misinterpreting this verse (emphases mine):

He’s not bawling them out. He’s giving them the character of the new age. Hitherto you’ve asked nothing in my name. Now, keep on asking ‑­- linear verb ‑‑ and ye shall keep on receiving, that your joy may be full …

I mean when you really tap God’s resources and you see God move in your life, that’s cause for joy. And the Christians that go around kind of mealy mouth, down in the mouth, grip[e]y, bitter, cynical, they are that way because they haven’t ever activated the power of God in their behalf and are not basking in it in a praying‑without‑ceasing kind of life where God is moving and doing miracles that are bringing joy. If you want joy you find it on your knees; that’s where you find it. Deep communion with God. Just to pray to him. Just to talk to him. Boy, what joy. Just to be in his presence. That’s joy. Your cup of joy will overflow in prayer as you see God answer and you behold his grace and you behold his love and you’re overflowing with joy. And so what Jesus is driving at in this passage isn’t theology; it’s joy. He’s saying, guys, you know, you’re going to have joy. You’re just going to have joy because you’re just going to see the cross. But you can have ‑‑ watch this one ‑‑ full joy by constant communion with the Father. Now we can all have joy, a measure of joy, can’t we? By the cross. And maybe we can even see the circumstances turning into joy, but there’s that full joy when we pray without ceasing. When in everything with prayer and supplication we let our requests be made known to God.

Next time: John 16:25-33