Our Lord Jesus, for the comfort of his sorrowful disciples, here promises that he would visit them again.
I. Observe the intimation he gave them of the comfort he designed them, John 16:16. Here he tells them,
1. That they should now shortly lose the sight of him: A little while, and you that have seen me so long, and still desire to see me, shall not see me; and therefore, if they had any good question to ask him, they must ask quickly, for he was now taking his leave of them. Note, It is good to consider how near to a period our seasons of grace are, that we may be quickened to improve them while they are continued. Now our eyes see our teachers, see the days of the Son of man; but, perhaps, yet a little while, and we shall not see them. They lost the sight of Christ, (1.) At his death, when he withdrew from this world, and never after showed himself openly in it. The most that death does to our Christian friends is to take them out of our sight, not out of being, not out of bliss, but out of all relation to us, only out of sight, and then not out of mind. (2.) At his ascension, when he withdrew from them (from those who, after his resurrection, had for some time conversed with him), out of their sight; a cloud received him, and, though they looked up steadfastly after him, they saw him no more, Acts 1:9, 10; 2 Kgs. 2:12. See 2 Cor. 5:16.
2. That yet they should speedily recover the sight of him; Again a little while, and you shall see me, and therefore you ought not to sorrow as those that have no hope. His farewell was not a final farewell; they should see him again, (1.) At his resurrection, soon after his death, when he showed himself alive, by many infallible proofs, and this in a very little while, not forty hours. See Hos. 6:2. (2.) By the pouring out of the Spirit, soon after his ascension, which scattered the mists of ignorance and mistake they were almost lost in, and gave them a much clearer insight into the mysteries of Christ’s gospel than they had yet had. The Spirit’s coming was Christ’s visit to his disciples, not a transient but a permanent one, and such a visit as abundantly retrieved the sight of him. (3.) At his second coming. They saw him again as they removed one by one to him at death, and they shall see him together at the end of time, when he shall come in the clouds, and every eye shall see him. It might be truly said of this that it was but a little while, and they should see him; for what are the days of time, to the days of eternity? 2 Pet. 3:8, 9.
3. He assigns the reason: “Because I go to the Father; and therefore,” (1.) “I must leave you for a time, because my business calls me to the upper world, and you must be content to spare me, for really my business is yours.” (2.) “Therefore you shall see me again shortly, for the Father will not detain me to your prejudice. If I go upon your errand, you shall see me again as soon as my business is done, as soon as is convenient.”
It should seem, all this refers rather to his going away at death, and return at his resurrection, than his going away at the ascension, and his return at the end of time; for it was his death that was their grief, not his ascension (Luke 24:52), and between his death and resurrection it was indeed a little while. And it may be read, not, yet a little while (it is not eti mikron, as it is John 12:35), but mikron—for a little while you shall not see me, namely, the three days of his lying in the grave; and again, for a little while you shall see me, namely, the forty days between his resurrection and ascension. Thus we may say of our ministers and Christian friends, Yet a little while, and we shall not see them, either they must leave us or we must leave them, but it is certain that we must part shortly, and yet not part for ever. It is but a good night to those whom we hope to see with joy in the morning.
II. The perplexity of the disciples upon the intimation given them; they were at a loss what to make of it (John 16:17, 18); Some of them said, softly, among themselves, either some of the weakest, that were least able, or some of the most inquisitive, that were most desirous, to understand him, What is this that he saith to us? Though Christ had often spoken to this purport before, yet still they were in the dark; though precept be upon precept, it is in vain, unless God gave the understanding. Now see here, 1. The disciples’ weakness, in that they could not understand so plain a saying, to which Christ had already given them a key, having told them so often in plain terms that he should be killed, and the third day rise again; yet, say they, We cannot tell what he saith; for, (1.) Sorrow had filled their heart, and made them unapt to receive the impressions of comfort. The darkness of ignorance and the darkness of melancholy commonly increase and thicken one another; mistakes cause griefs, and then griefs confirm mistakes. (2.) The notion of Christ’s secular kingdom was so deeply rooted in them that they could make no sense at all of those sayings of his which they knew not how to reconcile with that notion. When we think the scripture must be made to agree with the false ideas we have imbibed, no wonder that we complain of difficulty; but when our reasonings are captivated to revelation, the matter becomes easy. (3.) It should seem, that which puzzled them was the little while. If he must go at least, yet they could not conceive how he should leave them quickly, when his stay hitherto had been so short, and so little while, comparatively. Thus it is hard for us to represent to ourselves that change as near which yet we know will come certainly, and may come suddenly. When we are told, Yet a little while and we must go hence, yet a little while and we must give up our account, we know not how to digest it; for we always took the vision to be for a great while to come, Ezek. 12:27. 2. Their willingness to be instructed. When they were at a loss about the meaning of Christ’s words, they conferred together upon it, and asked help of one another. By mutual converse about divine things we both borrow the light of others and improve our own. Observe how exactly they repeat Christ’s words. Though we cannot fully solve every difficulty we meet with in scripture, yet we must not therefore throw it by, but revolve what we cannot explain, and wait till God shall reveal even this unto us.
III. The further explication of what Christ had said.
1. See here why Christ explained it (John 16:19); because he knew they were desirous to ask him, and designed it. Note, The knots we cannot untie we must bring to him who alone can give an understanding. Christ knew they were desirous to ask him, but were bashful and ashamed to ask. Note, Christ takes cognizance of pious desires, though they be not as yet offered up, the groanings that cannot be uttered, and even anticipates them with the blessings of his goodness. Christ instructed those who he knew were desirous to ask him, though they did not ask. Before we call, he answers. Another reason why Christ explained it was because he observed them canvassing this matter among themselves: “Do you enquire this among yourselves? Well, I will make it easy to you.” This intimates to us who they are that Christ will teach: (1.) The humble, that confess their ignorance, for so much their enquiry implied. (2.) The diligent, that use the means they have: “Do you enquire? You shall be taught. To him that hath shall be given.”
2. See here how he explained it; not by a nice and critical descant upon the words, but by bringing the thing more closely to them; he had told them of not seeing him, and seeing him, and they did not apprehend the meaning, and therefore he explains it by their sorrowing and rejoicing, because we commonly measure things according as they affect us (John 16:20): You shall weep and lament, for my departure, but the world shall rejoice in it; and you shall be sorrowful, while I am absent, but, upon my return to you, your sorrow will be turned into joy. But he says nothing of the little while, because he saw that this perplexed them more than any thing; and it is of no consequence to us to know the times and the seasons. Note, Believers have joy or sorrow according as they have or have not a sight of Christ, and the tokens of his presence with them.
(1.) What Christ says here, and in John 16:21, 22, of their sorrow and joy, is primarily to be understood of the present state and circumstances of the disciples, and so we have,
[1.] Their grief foretold: You shall weep and lament, and you shall be sorrowful. The sufferings of Christ could not but be the sorrow of his disciples. They wept for him because they loved him; the pain of our friend is a pain to ourselves; when they slept, it was for sorrow, Luke 22:45. They wept for themselves, and their own loss, and the sad apprehensions they had of what would become of them when he was gone. It could not but be a grief to lose him for whom they had left their all, and from whom they had expected so much. Christ has given notice to his disciples beforehand to expect sorrow, that they may treasure up comforts accordingly.
[2.] The world’s rejoicing at the same time: But the world shall rejoice. That which is the grief of saints is the joy of sinners. First, Those that are strangers to Christ will continue in their carnal mirth, and not at all interest themselves in their sorrows. It is nothing to them that pass by, Lam. 1:12. Nay, Secondly, Those that are enemies to Christ will rejoice because they hope they have conquered him, and ruined his interest. When the chief priests had Christ upon the cross, we may suppose they made merry over him, as those that dwell on earth over the slain witnesses, Rev. 11:10. Let it be no surprise to us if we see others triumphing, when we are trembling for the ark.
[3.] The return of joy to them in due time: But your sorrow shall be turned into joy. As the joy of the hypocrite, so the sorrow of the true Christian, is but for a moment. 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 Cor. 6:10), had sorrowful lives and yet joyful hearts.
(2.) It is applicable to all the faithful followers of the Lamb, and describes the common case of Christians.
[1.] Their condition and disposition are both mournful; sorrows are their lot, and seriousness is their temper: those that are acquainted with Christ must, as he was, be acquainted with grief; they weep and lament for that which others make light of, their own sins, and the sins of those about them; they mourn with sufferers that mourn, and mourn for sinners that mourn not for themselves.
[2.] The world, at the same time, goes away with all the mirth; they laugh now, and spend their days so jovially that one would think they neither knew sorrow nor feared it. Carnal mirth and pleasures are surely none of the best things, for then the worst men would not have so large a share of them, and the favourites of heaven be such strangers to them.
[3.] Spiritual mourning will shortly be turned into eternal rejoicing. Gladness is sown for the upright in heart, that sow tears, and without doubt they will shortly reap in joy. Their sorrow will not only be followed with joy, but turned into it; for the most precious comforts take rise from pious griefs. Thus he illustrates by a similitude taken from a woman in travail, to whose sorrows he compares those of his disciples, for their encouragement; for it is the will of Christ that his people should be a comforted people.
First, Here is the similitude or parable itself (John 16:21): A woman, we know, when she is in travail, hath sorrow, she is in exquisite pain, because her hour is come, the hour which nature and providence have fixed, which she has expected, and cannot escape; but as soon as she is delivered of the child, provided she be safely delivered, and the child be, though a Jabez (1 Chron. 4:9), yet not a Benoni (Gen. 35:18), then she remembers no more the anguish, her groans and complaints are over, and the after—pains are more easily borne, for joy that a man is born into the world, anthropos, one of the human race, a child, be it son or daughter, for the word signifies either. Observe,
a. The fruit of the curse, in the sorrow and pain of a woman in travail, according to the sentence (Gen. 3:16), In sorrow shalt thou bring forth. These pains are extreme, the greatest griefs and pains are compared to them (Ps. 48:6; Isa. 13:3; Jer. 4:31; 6:24), and they are inevitable, 1 Thess. 5:3. See what this world is; all its roses are surrounded with thorns, all the children of men are upon this account foolish children, that they are the heaviness of her that bore them from the very first. This comes of sin.
b. The fruit of the blessing, in the joy there is for a child born into the world. If God had not preserved the blessing in force after the fall, Be fruitful and multiply, parents could never have looked upon their children with any comfort; but what is the fruit of a blessing is matter of joy; the birth of a living child is, (a.) The parents’ joy; it makes them very glad, Jer. 20:15. Though children are certain cares, uncertain comforts, and often prove the greatest crosses, yet it is natural to us to rejoice at their birth. Could we be sure that our children, like John, would be filled with the Holy Ghost, we might, indeed, like his parents, have joy and gladness in their birth, Luke 1:14, 15. But when we consider, not only that they are born in sin, but, as it is expressed, that they are born into the world, a world of snares and a vale of tears, we shall see reason to rejoice with trembling, lest it should prove better for them that they had never been born. (b.) It is such joy as makes the anguish not to be remembered, or remembered as waters that pass away, Job 11:16. Haec olim meminisse juvabit. Gen. 41:51. Now this is very proper to set forth, [a.] The sorrows of Christ’s disciples in this world; they are like travailing pains, sure and sharp, but not to last long, and in order to a joyful product; they are in pain to be delivered, as the church is described (Rev. 12:2), and the whole creation, Rom. 8:22. And, [b.] Their joys after these sorrows, which will wipe away all tears, for the former things are passed away, Rev. 21:4. When they are born into that blessed world, and reap the fruit of all their services and sorrows, the toil and anguish of this world will be no more remembered, as Christ’s were not, when he saw of the travail of his soul abundantly to his satisfaction, Isa. 53:11.
Secondly, The application of the similitude (John 16:22): “You now have sorrow, and are likely to have more, but I will see you again, and you me, and then all will be well.”
a. Here again he tells them of their sorrow: “You now therefore have sorrow; therefore, because I am leaving you,” as is intimated in the antithesis, I will see you again. Note, Christ’s withdrawings are just cause of grief to his disciples. If he hide his face, they cannot be troubled. When the sun sets, the sun-flower will hang the head. And Christ takes notice of these griefs, has a bottle for the tears, and a book for the sighs, of all gracious mourners.
b. He, more largely than before, assures them of a return of joy, Ps. 30:5, 11. He himself went through his own griefs, and bore ours, for the joy that was set before him; and he would have us encourage ourselves with the same prospect. Three things recommend the joy:—(a.) The cause of it: “I will see you again. I will make you a kind and friendly visit, to enquire after you, and minister comfort to you.” Note, [a.] Christ will graciously return to those that wait for him, though for a small moment he has seemed to forsake them, Isa. 54:7. Men, when they are exalted, will scarcely look upon their inferiors; but the exalted Jesus will visit his disciples. They shall not only see him in his glory, but he will see them in their meanness. [b.] Christ’s returns are returns of joy to all his disciples. When clouded evidences are cleared up and interrupted communion is revived, then is the mouth filled with laughter. (b.) The cordiality of it: Your heart shall rejoice. Divine consolation put gladness into the heart. Joy in the heart is solid, and not flashy; it is secret, and that which a stranger does not intermeddle with; it is sweet, and gives a good man satisfaction in himself; it is sure, and not easily broken in upon. Christ’s disciples should heartily rejoice in his returns, sincerely and greatly. (c.) The continuance of it: Your joy no man taketh from you. 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 Cor. 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.