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Earlier Jesus told the disciples he would be with them only a little longer (13:33) and encouraged them not to mourn. Now he points to the time in the future when their grief will be turned to joy. Earlier Jesus' statements had triggered questions by the disciples (13:36—14:8). His teaching on the Paraclete also raises questions, but instead of asking Jesus what he means, the disciples question one another (vv. 17-18). They want to ask him (v. 19) but hold back. Perhaps they despair of getting an answer that makes any sense. Throughout the Gospel Jesus has spoken cryptically, as he is about to admit (v. 25). And here in the farewell discourse he has piled on more lessons that are beyond their understanding at this point, as he is well aware (v. 12). The word used for asking (zeteo, v. 19) means to seek. The disciples are seeking insight in the wrong place, for they have no answers to offer one another.
He has been speaking of the Paraclete who will come to them, but he has also spoken of his own coming to them (14:3, 18-19, 23, 28). His focus on his going to the Father, combined with his statement that in a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me (v. 16), confuses them, especially the phrase a little while (mikron, v. 18). This Greek word is repeated seven times in these four verses (vv. 16-19), giving it great emphasis. This adds to the disciples' anxiety because they do not know what he is talking about, but it is clear that whatever he is speaking of is imminent. All they know is that something very big is about to happen that involves Jesus' departure from them.
Jesus is referring to his death and resurrection. A number of interpreters think the coming of the Spirit and Jesus' second coming are also included in his meaning, but the context suggests Jesus is describing the climactic events of his revelation, which will indeed literally take place in a little while. Jesus has just said that the Paraclete will tell the disciples "what is yet to come," which is a reference to his crucifixion and resurrection (v. 13). Now the explanation he offers (vv. 20-22) indicates that the resurrection will be the point at which he sees them again, the time when he inaugurates for the disciples a qualitatively new life and relationship with God (vv. 23-26).
Jesus' explanation begins with the solemn I tell you the truth (v. 20), literally, "amen, amen" (see note 1:51). It is certain that the disciples will weep and mourn (v. 20). The word mourn (threneo) clearly refers to grief at a death (cf. threnos, "dirge"). Weeping need not refer to grief at a death, but in John it is only used in such a context (11:31, 33; 20:11, 13, 15). Thus, Jesus is referring to the grief they suffer at his death. The world thinks it has conquered its enemy and rejoices. The disciples' grief will only last a little while and then will be turned to joy. The world and the disciples are utterly opposed, which means one will be grieved and the other filled with joy. These responses clarify which "coming" Jesus is referring to. Both the joy of the world and the grief-turned-joy of the disciples are more appropriate in response to Jesus' death and resurrection than in response to the coming of the Spirit or Jesus' second coming.
Before applying his point directly to the disciples Jesus uses an image to interpret their grief and its cause (v. 21). The pain a woman experiences at childbirth is predictable, brief (though it may not feel that way at the time) and followed by joy. It is predictable because it is following an established order. Jesus refers to the time of birth and its pains as her "hour" coming upon her (hora; NIV, time). Jesus has spoken throughout this Gospel of his own hour, meaning his death and the resurrection and new life that follows. So the theme of birth pangs and of new life entering the world speaks powerfully of the significance of what is now taking place in him and his disciples.
The disciples might have grasped something of this significance because the image of childbirth is used in the Old Testament to refer to God's actions. In particular it is used, with both its pain and joy, to refer to God's decisive future act of salvation (for example, Is 66:7-14; Brown 1970:731; Beasley-Murray 1987:285-86). Isaiah 26:16-21 even includes reference to resurrection of the dead and mentions the phrase "a little while," which itself is often used in such eschatological material (for example, Is 10:25; Jer 51:33; Beasley-Murray 1987:285-86). Such Old Testament material is also echoed in Jesus' reference to the woman's anguish, since that word (thlipsis) is often used of the tribulation that will come when God acts decisively (for example, Dan 12:1; Zeph 1:14-15, Brown 1987:285-86). So Jesus' imagery and language speak of God's climactic act of salvation. He is providing an interpretive framework in which the disciples can make sense out of what he and they are about to experience (Jn 16:33). They are in the midst of the event for which so many within Judaism were longing (cf. Lk 2:25, 38; 23:51; 24:21). The pain will be intense but limited. It will be what J. R. R. Tolkien labeled a "eucatastrophe," "the sudden joyous `turn'" in the midst of catastrophe, which is at the heart of the Gospel story (1965:68-73).