Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)
A Well-Known Principle, But…
A lot can change in a few brief seconds, right? Jesus, here in our passage is talking about things changing pretty rapidly for his disciples. “In a little while… and again in a little while’ (verses 16, 17, 18, and 19). There’s lots of repetition in those first verses, to make a point. Things can change quite quickly in life, in the blink of an eye—whether that be for the better or for the worse. Perhaps you’re in financial hardship, and suddenly you receive a sizeable check in the bank or in the mail moments before you fall into ruin. Or perhaps a boy turns into a man “in the blink of an eye” when he sees that girl he just knows he wants to marry (and he eventually does). Those stories happen. We love to tell them, and they can change the course of a person’s life.
Then again, things can quickly change for the worse. Loved ones pass away. A devastating bill comes in the mail. A child or parent or family member or best friend is diagnosed with cancer. In a moments’ notice, anything can change for the worse.
Just to get us thinking—what hope does the world out there cling to in moments like this? When hit by sudden suffering, what does our world cling to? It clings to something, right? Rarely do we find someone who is consistently nihilistic about life—that is to say, someone who genuinely believes there is absolutely no meaning or purpose to life and to life, and they are consistent in that belief. Especially when suffering hits us hard, rarely do we find someone say “it doesn’t matter, there’s no hope because there’s nothing to hope for, or hope in.” We can be nihilist and say “there’s no purpose or no cares” concerning our morality, abortion, sex, drugs—but when it comes to suffering, our western world suddenly draws the line. “There has to be meaning for some things.”
When a child is killed in a car accident, and a mother’s life is changed in the blink of an eye, we don’t’ say “it doesn’t matter, there’s no purpose, do what feels right.” What do we say? The exact opposite, folks. The world often says “There’s a reason for everything.” Our world will say, “There’s a reason for everything. Good can come out of this. It has to.” In fact, that motivates people deeply in our world today to do amazing things. “I have to go through the sorrows to get to the glory.” Or, people might say in the weight room, “no pain, no gain!”.
As we open to our passage this morning, we see Jesus say something which—generally speaking—the world strives to believe. It’s right there in verse 20, and it’s really the central matter that Jesus is talking about with his disciples in this passage. In a little while, “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy.” It’s a temptation as Christians to hear Jesus say this and think, “Yeah, only Christians believe this!” Folks, we need to be honest with ourselves. If I take what Jesus is saying, there in verse 20, and put it on a sign and hold it up at the end of a marathon race, do you think people will be motivated? “Your sorrow will turn to joy.” The world gets this. Put verse 20 on a sign and walk around town, and people will say “thanks for the motivation, I needed that”. Say it to a woman in labor, it’ll be a motivation to her. “Your sorrow will turn to joy”—it has to, right?
What’s unique about this passage isn’t that Jesus is saying “sorrow turns to joy”. The world gets that, and hopes for that, generally speaking. It’s literally the American dream. “Rags to riches.”
How Jesus’s Sorrows and Joys are Different
What we need to see this morning, folks, is what makes the Christian hope different. What makes the Christian hope through sorrows more hopeful and more certain and more glorious than the world’s hope through sorrows?
That’s where we’re going this morning, as we walk through this passage together. We’re going to see how Jesus sets himself (and us as we trust in him) apart from the world, as he describes joy coming after sorrows.
Difference #1: His Sovereign Control and Purposes
Look at verse 16 with me. Jesus is speaking to his disciples (the remaining 11 disciples as Judas has already left to betray Jesus), and he says:
“A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.”
That’s what he says, there in verse 16. We’re talking about things that will happen in “a little while”—things that will immanently take place. “Pretty soon, disciples, you won’t be seeing me. But again a little while, you will see me”. What does Jesus mean by that?
We know where we’re at in John—Jesus is just hours away from his crucifixion. So yes, presumably, he’s talking about his death and resurrection—I don’t think that’s a secret to any of us as we’re reading this gospel. He’s saying “in just a little while, you won’t see me any more (I’ll be in the grave, dead); and again, in a little while (like in 3 days time), you will see me. You’ll see me as the resurrected savior”. That’s what he’s saying, here, albeit in a cryptic way.
So, why does this matter to us this morning, as we’re thinking about suffering and joy, and all that?
The first thing we need to see here, folks, is that Jesus knows exactly what’s about to happen to him. He’s predicting his death, once again, here in this passage. He’s speaking about his death and resurrection as if he was in control of it, both when it will happen (in a little while) and how it will happen. He’s in control of his sufferings and sorrows—and lest we miss it, that’s what is in view here. We’re talking about his sorrows, his death, happening perfectly according to his plan.
“In a little while, you’ll see me no longer.” He’s describing his suffering, there. That’s the greatest euphemism in the history of the world, folks. You know euphemisms—when we soften our language so that a hard truth isn’t so harsh. We do it all the time when we’re speaking of death. We don’t say “your friend is dead”. We say “your friend is deceased”, or “he has fallen asleep”. Sometimes, a doctor will simply say “I’m so sorry, we did everything we could”. We soften the language to be more sensitive, or cryptic.
Jesus says, here, “in a little while, you’ll see me no longer” as he’s speaking about going to the cross to die for the sins of his people. He’s literally about to absorb God’s infinite wrath against his people over the course a few hours on the cross. It’s the mystery of all eternity, how God’s infinite wrath against our sin could ever be emptied at all, much less in a singular moment upon a human person on a cross. He himself had to be infinite God, folks, lest he be consumed by God’s infinite wrath. If he wasn’t God, he wouldn’t be able to say to his disciples, “and again in a little while you’ll see me”. Do you realize how much is going into that statement? “You won’t see me, and then you’ll see me again.” It’s the mystery of all ages, folks. It’s a miracle, and a mercy.
It was a misery, too, for Jesus. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, he says as even the light of day darkened to the darkness of midnight, at high noon. Commenting on Daniel 9:26 which says that the Messiah “shall be cut off, and shall have nothing”, one man says “In that hour of blackness He had nothing, nothing but the guilt of sin of all those for whom He died.” I might add, “nothing but the guilt, and God’s unbearable wrath”—and Jesus emptied it. “In a little while you won’t see me”—what a statement of purpose, confidence, resolve, trust. He’s not anxious. He’s in control of his sorrows, speaking of them not in reference to his sorrows but in reference to his disciples’ not seeing him.
In fact, what’s shocking about our passage this morning is that Jesus never explicitly speaks of his sufferig, here. I mean—really, folks. Whose suffering is Jesus talking about in this passage? Whose suffering is he concerned about? He’s taking all this time to talk about his disciples’ upcoming misery in all this. He’s taking time to prepare them for the misery they will experience as he’s going away to the cross—and he’s not at all interested in seeking their comfort or their help to prepare him. He’s the leader in this, folks. He’s the servant. He’s not seeking to get prepared or get their sympathy or tears. In a word, quite simply, he’s already prepared. He’s completely ready and prepared, with a perfect understanding of what’s coming his way. He knew wholeheartedly what was coming his way, he sovereignly prepared and orchestrated it all, and he had a resurrection to look forward to.
So yes, folks, that’s the first matter which separates Jesus from the world. He knows all suffering and all miseries, with complete control over them all—and that begins with his own sufferings. “A lot can change in a few seconds”, we say—and by that, we mean “a lot can unexpectedly change in a few seconds”. Things can happen to you that are completely outside of your control. Not so with Jesus. Nothing takes him by a surprise, and nothing happens outside of his control.
Just think of how John has used this “in a little while” language throughout this gospel. Back in John 12:35, he said to the Jewish crowds who would soon rise up against him “the light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest the darkness overtake you.”—and yes, he said this just after he said “when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself”. When he’s ascended to glory, and to be with them no longer, he’ll draw all people to himself. He’ll overcome the world. “The light is among you for a little while longer”, he says—"then it’s going up, you won’t see it anymore. Believe while you have the light lest the darkness overtake you.” That’s John 12:35. It seems like Jesus is in control, here. He’s intending to go away, to be “lifted up”—and by that, scholars think he’s referring to either being lifted up on the cross, or up to glory in the ascension, or that he’s intentionally referring to both.
Then there’s John 7:33, also addressed to the Jews who would eventually crucify him. “I will be with you a little longer, and then I am going to him who sent me. You will seek me and you will not find me. Where I am you cannot come.”
Then there’s John 13:33, where Jesus is talking with his disciples. “Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you. Where I am going you cannot come.”
We keep seeing this in John, don’t we? He never planned to stick around for 40 years of ministry. Just a few years, and “in a little while”, he’d be gone according to his purposes and his timing.
But of course, he’s not so concerned and focused on his sufferings, is he? Again, he doesn’t expressly speak of the misery that he’s about to endure. He doesn’t go there. He’s rather speaking of his disciples’ misery, and he’s speaking of their suffering with just as much purpose and control as he’s speaking of his own suffering. “You, disciples, you won’t see me”—see how he isn’t even referencing his pain or his cross, there? He’s serving them. He’s reminding them that even as he’s in control of his suffering and his departure, he’s likewise in control of their suffering. “You won’t see me for a little while, and then you will see me”. Jesus is saying, “don’t worry, I have plan in all this.” It’s like he cares about the sufferings of his people—and he intends to prepare them for it and reassure them that joy will come out of it all.
Jump down to verse 20, where Jesus gets a little more specific. “Truly, truly” (he says for emphasis) “you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice”. That’s a misery. Jesus means to say “As you weep over my death, the world will rejoice over my death”. What a contrast, no? It’s a reminder that Christians are completely contrary to the world in our morals, and ethics, and values. It shouldn’t surprise us to see the world rejoicing over evil things like LGBT and abortion and other such evils when it would make us weep. They rejoiced over Jesus’s death—the most heinous crime in all of history. “Truly, truly, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy.”
Jesus is in control of both his sufferings and his disciples’, and he has a purpose to turn it all to joy. We don’t just say “no pain no gain” as Christians. We don’t simply say “this will make us stronger” or “things happen according to karma, or fate, or some other impersonal force that governs the universe”. We say “this suffering is from the purposed and planned by Jesus himself, who is sovereign over all—even the timing and events of his own death—and he has a purpose for joy in it all.”
Now, it’s worth saying that Jesus’s words here in John 16 are uniquely and most immediately applicable to these 11 disciples. They were the ones weeping for those 3 days when Jesus was not to be seen. They were the bewildered ones, lost and confused, uncertain of what to do as the world was rejoicing over the death of their Lord and teacher. That night, as Jesus was giving these final words to them, Jesus was uniquely interested in teaching and serving them for what they would uniquely go through, so they might be prepared and ultimately know he is the Messiah. Remember the refrain we’ve seen throughout this farewell discourse, in chapters 13–16?
“I am telling you this now, before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe I am he” (13:19)
“And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe” (14:29)
“But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you” (16:4)
In other words—“remember, remember, remember disciples—I told you all that was to take place before it took place. Remember that I’m in control of your sufferings. Remember that I have a purpose, a plan in all this.”
So yes, Jesus is showing us that he is in total control of this situation. That’s what separates Jesus’s words from the world’s words when he says “your sorrow will turn into joy”. He doesn’t mean “sorrow” which “just happens in the chaos of this world”. He means “sorrow which I have planned and purposed for you, and joy which I have purposed and planned for you.” There’s real purpose, meaning, and security in this passage, folks, all orchestrated by Jesus himself—and while this immediate passage is most immediately applicable to these disciples, the broader principle is true for us. I’m reminded of the church in Laodicea that was suffering persecution, and struggling to stay zealous for Jesus. Jesus tells them in Revelation 3:19, “Those whom I love I reprove and I discipline”—he does that through trials he orchestrates for the good of his people, and for his greater purposes.
Difference #2: Sovereign Even Over Our (Mis)Understanding
But here’s the catch. Did the disciples understand it? Jesus had all this purpose—he’s clearly speaking about their suffering with purpose and intent and control, here. Did his disciples understand what he was talking about? When the time came for them to “not see him”—he died on the cross, did they think, “aha! Jesus spoke about this!” They totally missed it, folks—all of it! It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? How often, when you’re in the thick of suffering, you completely miss the point that God just might be in charge, disciplining you, training you, working things together for your good and your joy? It’s easy to get lost in a tizzy, isn’t it? It’s so easy to let our flesh—or worldly concerns—discern and interpret what’s happening to us even when we have God’s word available to help us see more clearly.
Think about how the disciples are just at a loss of confusion in all this, here.
Jesus says in verse 16, “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” Then the disciples say in verse 17,
“What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about.”
It’s comical, folks—unbelievable and comical. Remember all the places I just cited from John, when Jesus talked about him leaving “in a little while”? Jesus has been speaking like this his whole ministry, and now at this last night, as Jesus is preparing them and talking to them about it, they’re still not understanding him. Jesus was so clear, folks. In fact, if you look at the other gospel, Jesus is cited as saying with complete clarity, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise” (Mark 9:31). Mark records three times when he predicts his death and resurrection like this, with this kind of clarity. So, it’s not like Jesus was only speaking in riddles to his disciples. He wasn’t only saying things like “you’re going to see me, and then you wont see me, and then you will again”. The disciples should have connected the dots. Why didn’t they?
Mark’s gospel tell us it was because of fear. Mark says after Jesus told them plainly of his death and resurrection, “But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him”. Have you ever been there? You know something hard is coming up—your son is going away to war, or your husband is about to go into a really hard meeting that will have massive consequences for your family’s life. You know and anticipate something really hard is coming up—it’s hard to talk about it. To talk about it means you might just press in and discover it’s worse than you thought. “Don’t go there. What will be will be”, we might think. Fear clouds our judgement. It makes us assume things.
So the disciples were afraid of the things Jesus was saying. That’s one reason they failed to understand Jesus.
They were also worldly in their thinking. Mark tells us that the first time Jesus predicted his death and resurrection, Peter rebuked him. “You can’t say that, Jesus, you’re supposed to be our king, and I’ll be your right-hand man in your beautiful palace!” Jesus says “Get behind me Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man”. Peter wasn’t thinking as God thinks. Their fear of what Jesus was saying, and their desire for worldly comforts and power clouded them from hearing and seeing Jesus.
Fear and worldliness, folks. They are two massive hinderances to understanding Jesus—and yes, understanding what Jesus has to say about our suffering and our hope in him. “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?” Jesus had been telling them the answer to that for 3 years—and even more clearly in the last several weeks leading up to his death. But then again, fear and worldliness will throw the best of us into a blind tizzy of anxiety and ignorance.
They just couldn’t understand. “Truly, 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.” “You will not see me… and then you will see me.” It was so confusing.
Then, of course, Jesus throws the metaphor of a woman giving birth into the mix. Jesus says, “it’s like this” (look at verse 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. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice.” That’s what Jesus says. He says “what I’m talking about is kind of like the sorrow and joy of a pregnant lady”.
Do you think that helped the disciples understand? Perhaps, with a surface-level understanding. I imagine they understood Jesus the way the world understands Jesus’s statements, here. “No pain, no gain. Something sad is about to happen, but God will work good and joy out of it. That’s great, Jesus.”
But Jesus is talking about something much richer, much deeper, folks. We read the promise in Isaiah, remember? Remember how God described the coming of the Messiah in Isaiah 26:16–21? This is what we read in Isaiah 26:16 (follow along if you want). Isaiah says—
16 O LORD, in distress they [your people, Israel] sought you;
they poured out a whispered prayer
when your discipline was upon them.
17 Like a pregnant woman
who writhes and cries out in her pangs
when she is near to giving birth,
so were we because of you, O LORD;
18 we were pregnant, we writhed,
but we have given birth to wind.
In other words, Israel on their own has not been able to give birth to the Messiah, to the new age of redemption and grace and justice. They have been pregnant with the promise of the Messiah for so long, and they’ve been powerless over their birth pangs. It’s like one of those two or three day labors that just goes on and on forever. We keep reading, as Israel confesses its own inadequacies—
We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth,
and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen.
Then comes a statement of trust, of faith. God will make the baby come out, and bring his promises to fruition. Verse 19—
19 Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
and the earth will give birth to the dead.
That’s awesome, folks. Israel is pregnant with the promise of new birth, new creation. “You who dwell in the dust [in the grave], awake and sing for joy!” God will make it happen, he’ll reverse death. The earth (or perhaps Israel) is pregnant with new creation—but, not without the birth pangs.
Folks, many point out that this passage (and others like it in the Old Testament) helped form the discussion in Israel during Jesus’s day concerning their hope for the Messiah. The Jews of Jesus’s day regarded Israel as pregnant with the Messiah, and that Israel would endure noticeable birth pangs of social or economic or political suffering before the Messiah came forth with new creation, new life, a new era of blessing for their kingdom.
So no doubt, all that was what was behind this metaphor of a pregnant woman in our passage. Jesus knew it was a religiously charged metaphor, and perhaps the disciples understood some of it. “Yes, the Messiah is coming—you’re the messiah, Jesus.” At best, they were hearing Jesus and thinking, “ok, people talk about the birth pangs we must endure before the Messiah comes. That must be what Jesus is talking about. Let’s endure them together Jesus, and then go overthrow Rome and make Israel great again.” Perhaps that’s what Jesus’s disciples were thinking.
But folks, this is the big question before us. Who endured the brunt of the birth pangs? Who endured the brunt of the birth pangs, which would bring forth the resurrection and the new creation for God’s people? Did Israel have to suffer it, or God’s people, in order that the Messiah would come? Did Israel have to “do penance” and “suffer a certain amount” before God sent the Messiah?
Folks, the amazing part of this passage is that, while the disciples did suffer a little, it was Jesus who suffered the birth pangs that ultimately brought forth the resurrection and the life. Jesus went into the the heart of the curse, into the grave. Jesus dealt with the sin and guilt of his people so that God might bless them with new life and new creation in the Messiah. Jesus suffered God’s wrath, folks, so we wouldn’t have to suffer like that. Yes, the disciples were sad and confused and lost for three days, but I’d hardly say that was anything close to birth pains which Jesus endured to bring about the blessings of the Messiah.
And yes, again, did the disciples understand what was going down in all this? Not even close, folks. They were so confused, so self-absorbed, and yet we see even more of Jesus’s mercy in that he still teaches them. He still prepares them “so that when these things happen, you may believe I am he” (13:19; 14:29; 16:4). Jesus is preparing them for to see and believe in his glory when the time is right.
This passage is just ripe with mercy, folks. We see Jesus in all his glory. He’s in control of all the suffering—his own and his disciples. He’s even in control of how and when they would understand these things. He’s not shocked that they don’t understand. He’s leaving them in the dark for a reason. Just in last week’s passage he said “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” (16:12). The glory and the good news and the joy which Jesus wanted to teach them was simply too great and manifold for them to take in at that moment. They needed to experience it all first hand. They needed to walk through the valley of the shadow of death to know the joy at the end of the valley.
This is just a small insight into God’s love and care for us, folks. No doubt we often don’t understand the suffering God puts us through. We may never understand it in its full until we reach glory. “God, why did you make me go through that?” It’ll all make sense one day, folks. I guarantee it, and you’ll have no complaints.
And, you’ll recognize that Jesus carried the heavier load, the heavier burden. He endured the birth pains for your joy. He endured God’s wrath so that you might look at your suffering and say “it’s the father’s discipline for my good and my joy”. I’m always fond of the last words Spurgeon ever preached from the pulpit, wherein he said after a long ministry of many burdens and sorrows,
The heaviest end of the cross lies ever on his shoulders. If he bids us carry a burden, he carries it also. If there is anything that is gracious, generous, kind, and tender, yea lavish and superabundant in love, you always find it in him.
That’s suffering with Jesus, folks—whether you see it or not. Imagine how the disciples felt, or what they thought, the moment they realized how different their 3 days of suffering was compared to the suffering Jesus experienced within that time period?
He’s in control of all the suffering—his own and his disciples, even ours. And, he’s even in control of how and when we would understand his purposes in our sufferings. He grows us in wisdom, he slowly reveals his purposes to us in his timing. It’s ok if it doesn’t make sense. Just remember that Jesus carried the heavier burden—and he’s still interceding for you as your high priest in heaven.
Difference #3: “No One Will Take Your Joy From You”
And yes, he’s giving you much reason to rejoice always. The last verse in our passage really secures it home for us, doesn’t it? Verse 22, after Jesus describes the forgotten sorrows of a woman with her new bundle of life and joy—
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.
When the risen Christ appears, he’ll appear with new life—everlasting life. He’ll appear with forgiveness of sins, victory over death, the new creation, and an offer of the same to his people who would receive him by faith. “No one will take your joy from you, so long as I live”, says the risen Jesus. He sees to it, you know.
We always have reason to rejoice, don’t we—even in deep sorrows. Jesus is alive. He’s working everything together for our good. By faith, we are literally members of the new creation—Jesus himself the firstfruits, and all of us after him. It changes everything for anyone who has eyes to see him as the risen Christ, by faith.
Brothers and sisters, our joy through sorrows isn’t just haphazard mantra “no pain no gain”. It’s a conviction that (1) Jesus is personally in control of all our suffering, (2) he’s helping us see and understand his purposes for our suffering according to his timing, and (3) he has certainly carried the heavier end of the cross for us as he dealt with our sin, rose from the dead and therefore we know that no one can take that joy from us.