John 16:16-33

John 16:16-33     Responding to the Future

16 “In a short while you will no longer see me,
and in another short while you will behold me.”
17 Consequently, the disciples were saying to each other,
“What is this that he is saying,
 … in a short while you shall not see me,
and in another short while you shall behold me; and also,
… because I am going to the Father’?”
18 So they said, “What is this short while he is talking about?
We do not know what he is talking about.”

The Beloved Disciple brought the disciples back into dialogue with Jesus.  It would seem that their distress at the thought of Jesus’ departure had rendered them unable to come to terms with what he had been explaining to them.  His mention of a short while confused them further. 

19 Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him,
and he said to them,
“You are enquiring among yourselves because I said,
‘In a short while you will no longer see me,
and in another short while you will behold me.’

By referring to Jesus’ ability to know the disciples’ minds, the Beloved Disciple highlighted, by contrast, the disciples’ inability to know the mind of Jesus.

A short while referred to the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the era of salvation which they would usher in.  The first use of the term referred to the interval before the time of Jesus’ death, the second to the period after his resurrection.

Sorrow into Joy

20 I tell you clearly that you will wail and lament,
while the world will rejoice.
You will grieve,
but your grief will become joy. 
21 A woman grieves while she is giving birth,
because the moment has come for her.
But when the child is born
she no longer remembers her pain
for her joy that a human being has been born into the world.

There is a resonance in the passage that is not immediately obvious in the translation.  The text uses three words that do not quite fit the giving-birth experience but do have apocalyptic connections that fit the disciples’ experience: pain (the word refers not so much to physical pain as to emotional grief), the woman’s moment, and her experience of pain (the word will be translated as persecution later in the text [verse 33]).  Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the profound grief and dislocation they will occasion in the minds and hearts of the disciples, will usher in the new era of life and salvation.

22 So you now have your grief.
But I shall see you again
and your hearts will rejoice,
and no one will take from you that joy of yours.

Jesus’ departure would, indeed, be to the disciples’ good [verse 7], not only because it would allow the Spirit’s coming to the world [verses 7-15], but also because their grief would lead both to unbounded personal joy for the disciples and to the further joy associated with the coming era of salvation.

Jesus would see them again after his resurrection from death, and they would, indeed rejoice [20:20]; as would disciples of succeeding generations, when he would make his home with them [14:23].

Irrepressible Joy

Jesus was speaking, primarily, of the experience of the community.  The same dynamic, however, would operate in the lives of individual disciples.  The joy which Jesus promised was not a shallow joy resulting from a triumphalist turning of tables.  It would require the disciples' determined cooperation, and would result from their acquiring a new insight into reality.  Jesus death and resurrection would illustrate clearly that death does not matter, indeed, that death can lead to greater life.  Once that insight has dawned, it becomes clear, also, that the mini-deaths occasioned by living a life of discipleship in an indifferent or hostile world do not matter.  Disciples learn that the ego does not matter.  The true self grows through every choice for integrity, at whatever the price.

What is important is that disciples, like Jesus, learn to face, confront and suffer reality, whatever shape it takes. Reality, along with the pain and diminishment which often accompany it, is to be embraced confidently and determinedly, and neither avoided nor fruitlessly controlled.  God is present only in the real.  By trusting in that loving and empowering God, present even in death, disciples learn and actualise love.  By taking reality to themselves, by letting it touch them, by suffering it, they begin to experience life to the full.  Fear and sorrow give way to joy, that even death cannot undermine.

Prayer Heard

23 On that day you will not ask me anything.

On that day referred to the post-death/resurrection era of salvation.  In the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the meaning of his life and message would become clear: the disciples would need to ask nothing of him – no more questions.

In fact I assure you that the Father will give you in my name
anything you ask of him.
24 So far you have not asked for anything in my name.
Ask, and you shall receive,
so that your joy may be complete.

(The words translated as ask in verse 23 and 24 were different words in the original.  The first word referred to asking questions (as in verse 5); the second to making requests.)

In the new era, when the pre-crucifixion now would become the post-resurrection on that day, the disciples would live the experience of union with Jesus and the Father, who would have made their home in them.  On that day, in that era of post-resurrection joy, their hopes and desires would be the hopes and desires of Jesus, who, in turn, had learnt them from the Father; and their prayer would be truly made in Jesus’ name.  Attuned to the heart and mind of Jesus, their joy would be complete.  It truly would be to their good that Jesus die and rise [verse 7].

25I have been telling you these things in metaphors.
The hour is coming when I shall no longer talk in metaphors,
but shall speak openly to you about the Father.

In speaking of their future to his actual disciples, the historical Jesus could use only words to stimulate their imaginations.  Not-yet-experienced reality can be approached only by image, metaphor and analogy.  Even when experienced, the disciples’ relationships to Jesus and to the Father could be spoken about best in metaphors.  The language of mystics has much in common with the language of poets.

The coming hour would be the post-resurrection era, and Jesus would speak of the Father to the post-resurrection disciples through their direct experience of his in-dwelling Spirit.

26 Then you shall ask in my name,
and I am not saying that I shall ask the Father on your behalf, 
27 because the Father himself loves you
because you have loved me
and have believed that I have come to you from God.

The intimate communion between Jesus and the disciples (which had been expounded at length in the preceding chapter [15:1-11]) would broaden out to include the Father.  To the extent that the disciples opened to the in-flowing of Jesus’ love, they would experience also the love of the Father, who was the empowering source of Jesus’ love for them and of their love for, and deep trust in, Jesus.  All their asking – their deepest desires – would originate ultimately in the heart of the Father: they would express what the Father was already intent on doing.  Jesus’ mediating role would be unnecessary.

28 I have come from the Father
and have come into the world.
Again, I am leaving the world
and am going to the Father.” 

The cycle would be perfected.  The Word, who was in the world and who had come to what was his own [1:10-11], who became flesh and pitched his tent among us [1.14], would return to the Father.  He would not return empty-handed; he had succeeded in what he had been sent to do, and would bring with him all those to whom he gave power to become children of God [1:12].

29 The disciples said to him,
“Look, now you are speaking clearly,
and are not talking in metaphors.
30 Now we know that you know everything,
and you have no need that we should have to ask you.
In all this, we believe that you have come from God.”

The narrative introduced a note of irony.  The hour had not yet come.  The disciples did not know that they could not know. They still had much to learn, not least through their imminent encounter with their own weakness.

The World Overcome

31 Jesus said to them in reply, “Do you now believe?

Jesus’ question, if it was a question, was rhetorical.  It revealed his wistful acceptance of his unavoidable inability to communicate the incommunicable.

32 Look, the hour is coming,
indeed has already come,
for you to be scattered each to your own devices,
and for you to leave me abandoned.

From the long-term view of the hour as the in-breaking of the age of fulfilment, the focus jerked back to the historical moment about to unfold. Jesus would be arrested and killed, and an immediate effect would be the defection of the disciples.  The intimate mutuality between Jesus and disciples would need to be complemented by his resurrection before it became reality.

Jesus’ choice of language echoed the comment of the prophet Zechariah:

Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered [Zechariah 13:7]

The Good Shepherd would, indeed, lay down his life for his sheep [10:15], but, in the interim, the wolf would carry off and scatter them [10:12].

… But I am not abandoned,
because the Father is with me. 

The Father’s faithfulness contrasted with the disciples’ loss of faith.

33 I have told you these things,
so that you might find peace in me.  
You will have trouble in the world.
But have courage, I have overcome the world.!”

Throughout the Discourse, Jesus had sought to strengthen the disciples by his constant promise of unimaginable intimacy with him and with the Father.  He had assured them of the continual presence of the Paraclete, the source of courage.  Though they would face persecution, indeed, in the very midst of persecution, they would still know the peace that was his special gift – a peace that was totally independent of external circumstances.

By means of the Discourse, the Beloved Disciple had sought to reassure the members of his community who were bearing the daily burden of opposition and exclusion.  Jesus’ proclamation, Have courage, I have overcome the world, was an assurance, not so much to the historical disciples, as to the later community of disciples.


Overcoming the World

The Gospel’s tight and compact vocabulary can easily mislead the superficial reader.  The text needs to be reflected on and its truth to be contemplated in order that the simple words deliver their deeper messages.  For the author, the world overcome by Jesus did not refer, in this instance, to the universe of people, but to the intangible, but powerful, energies released from the human psyche when people interact socially.

Jesus would not overcome people.  He loved people; he was sent by the Father to save people.  But his love, soon to be evidenced by his death and confirmed in his resurrection, would overwhelm the hatred and illusion abroad in the world.  His Spirit would redefine sin and righteousness and condemnation [16:8], and expose the world’s error.  With his hour under way, the new era of salvation was dawning.

Next >> John 17:1-11