The final part of the discourse directs the disciples' attention to what they are about to experience as a result of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. Soon their grief will be turned to joy (vv. 16-21) as they see him again (v. 22) and enter into a new level of intimacy in their relationship with the Son and the Father (vv. 23-28). The disciples respond with an affirmation of faith (vv. 29-30), but it is premature, for they have not yet encountered the greatest revelation or the greatest suffering (vv. 31-32). Jesus does not conclude on this down note, but instead he assures them of peace because he has conquered the world (v. 33).
Jesus Promises That After a Little While the Disciples' Grief Will Turn to Joy (16:16-21) 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).
Their joy is primarily rooted in their restored relationship with Jesus, but there will be changes in that relationship. Something of these changes will become clear in the postresurrection encounters, but already Jesus refers to a change in their patterns of asking (vv. 23-26). There are two different Greek words translated ask in verse 23. One, erotao, can be used of asking for something but often is used for asking questions. The other, aiteo, usually refers to petitions. The NIV captures this distinction nicely, though the distinction is easily missed if one is not paying attention: you will no longer ask [erotao] me anything. I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask [aiteo] in my name. By adding the words no longer (not found in the Greek) the NIV draws out the connection that exists with the context. The disciples have been asking Jesus a lot of questions in the farewell discourse, but they have not been petitioning him. Because erotao can refer to petitions it is possible that Jesus is only referring to this kind of question. But the context of the disciples' questions, combined with the solemn "amen, amen" that separates the two halves of the verse and the "and" (kai) that connects verse 23 to verse 22 (omitted in the NIV), suggests there are two types of asking in view.
Thus the first change of relationship that will be a source of joy is reflected in their no longer needing to ask Jesus questions (v. 23). This does not mean the disciples will have no questions in the future. We believers have plenty of them even now. But the things the disciples have been asking about will become clear once they see the Lord's death and resurrection and receive the help of the Paraclete to sort it all out (cf. 1 Jn 2:20). That is, the disciples will have an understanding of Jesus that gives them the heart of the truth. They may come up with interesting questions, some of which are inappropriate and thus not answered (21:21-22), but they will have all they need to live the divine life now made available.
The second change of relationship will be their sharing in Jesus' work as his friends (vv. 23-24). This is the reality behind Jesus' reference to asking the Father in his name (cf. 14:13; 15:7, 15). They have not asked in his name up to this point because they have not dwelt in him and he has not dwelt in them. This will soon change, and then they will share in the eternal life that Jesus has with the Father, which includes being taken into the work of God in the world. Such prayer is based on the love that is obedience (15:7-17; 1 Jn 3:22) and therefore is directed toward God's will being done and not toward one's own will apart from God (1 Jn 5:14-15). This work is the same as seen in Jesus and as described in regard to the Paraclete, namely, the revelation of the love of God in word and deed. This revelation will be manifest in each disciple's life and especially in the quality of life of the community as a whole. John later promotes such life in the community through sharing in the life that has been revealed, which brings fullness of joy (1 Jn 1:1-4).
These two types of asking, then, speak of the new intimacy with God that the disciples are about to experience. The communication will go both directions. The disciples will be able to hear from God with understanding, and they will be able to pray to God in accord with his own purposes (cf. Michaels 1989:287). The key to both types of communication is listening. Unless the disciple listens he or she will neither receive the insight into Jesus and his revelation nor be able to enter into God's purposes in prayer. Thus, at the center of the disciples' intimacy with God is the humility depicted throughout this Gospel. This humility is a docility and openness toward God that receives life from God and all the outworkings of that divine, eternal life.
Jesus then expounds on these aspects of the coming intimacy, returning first to the theme of future insight and knowledge. He says he has been speaking figuratively (v. 25). He is not referring merely to the image of the woman in childbirth (v. 21), but to the general cast of most of his teaching throughout the Gospel. His subject has always been the Father. Even when he has spoken of himself it has been as the Son who is revealing the Father. Jesus has said that his opponents' inability to understand him is due to their lack of faith and their alienation from God. But his own disciples have had a hard time keeping up also, as Jesus has recognized (6:60-69; 16:12). Jesus has promised to them the Paraclete, who will instruct them (14:26; 15:26; 16:13-15), but now he says that he himself will also speak to them (16:25). Because Jesus has been speaking of his resurrection, this plain speaking could refer to his teaching after his resurrection and before his ascension. But the references to prayer in his name (vv. 23-24, 26) extend beyond the resurrection period, so this further instruction probably does so as well. But if the Son himself will continue to teach the disciples, then it seems that, although the Son and the Paraclete are distinct from one another, the presence of Jesus with the disciples will be mediated by the Paraclete (see comment on 14:16, 23-28). Jesus' teaching will become clear to the disciples because the revelation will be complete, with the cross and resurrection giving the deepest insight into Jesus' identity and the significance of his ministry. But even these climactic events would not be clear without the new birth through the Spirit that enables them to share (as much as is possible for human beings) in the very life of God that Jesus shares (17:21-23). Thus, these verses speak of Jesus' resurrection and the new life there begun.
Jesus returns to the theme of asking in his name (v. 26; cf. vv. 23-24), adding a very powerful point. Asking in his name is not a matter of their asking him and then his asking the Father on their behalf. He is indeed a paraclete before the Father (1 Jn 2:1) and the one who intercedes (Rom 8:34; Heb 7:25). But such texts "deal not with petitionary prayer but with the status of the Christian before God, a status which rests entirely upon the eternal consequences of the priestly work of Christ" (Barrett 1978:496). The very fact that Jesus is our mediator means we have direct access in him to the Father. So in him we can pray to the Father, and at the same time Jesus himself prays for us. He prayed for Peter (Lk 22:32), and we will hear in the next chapter his amazing prayer for the apostles, and all disciples, spoken as if he were already in heaven.
The fact that we need a mediator could imply that the Father is aloof or hateful toward us. But Jesus makes it clear that such is not the case. Jesus need not pass on our requests to the Father, "for" (gar, left out of the NIV) the Father himself loves you (v. 27)--here we have the key revelation of the whole Gospel in a bumper sticker. Everything Jesus has been about reveals this Father and this love.
The reason the Father loves the disciples is because they have loved Jesus and believed he came from God. This does not mean God's love is dependent on our initiative or that it is not universal (see comment on 14:21). "We love because he first loved us" (1 Jn 4:19). This speaks instead of the fulfillment of that love in those who love and believe in the Son. Both the love and the belief are significant. The Son must be received as he is in truth, as the one who has come from God. John must deal later, in his first letter, with those who claim to know and love the Father and the Son but who do not receive the Son as he truly is. Neither love for a Christ of human invention nor a mere correct rational assessment of Jesus are in view here. A right relationship includes both the right understanding of who Jesus is and an attachment of love.
If the crucial revelation of the Father is his love, the key revelation of the Son is his relation to the Father, summarized in the fact that he has come from God (cf. 1 Jn 4:14, 16). Jesus unpacks this core affirmation in a four-line chiasm (v. 28; cf. Brown 1970:725):
A I came from the Father
B and entered the world
B' now I am leaving the world
A' and going back to the Father
This chiasm connects the belief the disciples already have--that Jesus came from the Father--to the point that has been causing them grief--his return to the Father. The chiasm's focus is the Son's relation to the Father and his mission to the world: his incarnation and ascension are viewed in the first and last lines in relation to the Father and in the middle lines in relation to the world (Brown 1970:725). This statement is "at once a summary of Johannine Christology and the heart of this Gospel" (Beasley-Murray 1987:287).
Thus, in verses 27 and 28 we have the fundamental grounds for the climactic salvation Jesus has been speaking about. At the heart of this salvation is the Father's love, the relation between the Father and the Son and the Son's entrance into the world. On the human side the response that brings one into intimacy with God is love and faith toward the Son as sent from God. The centrality of this view of Jesus as the one sent from God has been evident throughout the Gospel (especially 8:42-47) and is seen again in its repetition by the disciples (16:30) and its affirmation by Jesus in his concluding prayer (17:8).
Earlier, in the face of very cryptic teaching, Peter had made essentially the same statement: "We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God" (6:69). Despite this affirmation the disciples have been full of questions until now, when they think they finally get it. But they have not yet seen the cross, and therefore they do not yet know the Father's heart of love revealed in the laying down of the Son's life. So in fact their expression of knowledge reveals their ignorance. How often even today, with the new birth and the Spirit, we think we have something figured out, only to have God reveal to us yet further riches about himself and the life he shares with us.
So Jesus, in his love for them, must give them a reality check. His statement You believe at last! (v. 31) could actually be a question, "Now you believe?" But Jesus is not doubting their faith. Instead he is telling them they have not yet taken the final exam for this course, so their celebrations are premature. Their faith will be tested and deepened enormously in the next few days. Everyone of them, without exception, will be scattered (v. 32; cf. Zech 13:7). John himself will return to Jesus and be at the cross, but he, like Peter, will not remain close enough to Jesus to be in harm's way (see comments on 18:12-14; cf. Carson 1991:549). They will all be scattered until they are gathered again beyond the cross by the resurrected one, after the "little while."
They will all abandon Jesus, but the Father will still be with him (v. 32). How does this correspond to Jesus' cry of abandonment on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34)? When Jesus took our sin upon himself on the cross, he who had always known complete intimacy with the Father experienced, for the first time, the gulf that separates God from sin, light from darkness. But something deeper was also at work. This abandonment and its experience do not mean Jesus lacked faith in God. In fact, the cry of abandonment is a quote from the beginning of Psalm 22, "and the whole meaning of the Psalm is that God does not desert His suffering servants" (Hoskyns 1940b:582). His cry expresses both the reality of what he was undergoing and his faith in its outcome. If Abraham could offer up Isaac in the hope of resurrection (Gen 22; Heb 11:17-19), how much more could Jesus have confidence in God, whom he knew far better than Abraham did, and in the power of God's life, which he understood far better than Abraham did. Rather than contradicting the Synoptic accounts, Jesus' statement in verse 32 helps us interpret them correctly (cf. Hoskyns 1940b:582).
While Jesus must warn the disciples that the suffering is far from over, he does not end on that note. Now, as he has throughout the farewell discourse, Jesus warns them ahead of time so they will be prepared. He has told them not to let their hearts be troubled (14:1) but to receive his peace (14:27). This peace, as he now emphasizes (v. 33), is found in him, not in the world. The world will give them trouble, that is, the opposition that comes from those who are in rebellion against God (thlipsis; cf. v. 21). But they can take heart because he has overcome the world; he has met it in battle and conquered it (nenikeka). The theme of conflict has been present throughout the Gospel, since the beginning of the prologue (1:5), but this is the only place this word occurs. The peace and salvation spoken of throughout the Gospel all depend on his having conquered. His conquest, in turn, enables the disciples themselves to conquer the evil one, as John stresses in his first letter (1 Jn 2:13-14; 4:4; 5:4-5; cf. Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 21:7). Thus, this is indeed a fitting line for the conclusion of Jesus' teaching.
Until death itself becomes a revelation of God the disciples can be troubled in the world, the place of death. Their joy cannot be stable and secure until they see him again (v. 16, 19) and he sees them (v. 22). Then will they reap the benefits of his conquest by becoming one with him as he pours out the Spirit. They will not ask him, but rather they will be one with him, asking the Father in his name. So their joy will be full--the joy of union with God in Christ by the Spirit. They will know God's glory and will manifest his glory as they, in union with the living Christ by the Spirit, bear fruit as Jesus did, asking for what Jesus did. Their focus and source will be God, and thus they will have peace no matter what the world may throw at them.
About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
Starting your free trial of Bible Gateway Plus is easy. You’re already logged in with your Bible Gateway account. The next step is to enter your payment information. Your credit card won’t be charged until the trial period is over. You can cancel anytime during the trial period.
Click the button below to continue.
You’ve already claimed your free trial of Bible Gateway Plus. To subscribe at our regular subscription rate of $3.99/month, click the button below.
It looks like you’re already subscribed to Bible Gateway Plus! To manage your subscription, visit your Bible Gateway account settings.
For the best Bible Gateway experience, consider an upgrade to Bible Gateway Plus. For less than the cost of a latte each month, you'll get reduced banner ads and a huge digital Bible study library. Try it free for 30 days!
Three easy steps to start your free trial subscription to Bible Gateway Plus.