Sorrow Turned into Joy (John 16:16-24)
By Andrew E. Courtis
What would it have been like for the disciples when they saw their Lord betrayed, arrested, tried and crucified? I don’t know everything that would have been going through their minds, but one thing is for sure, they experienced great sorrow.
Just before the betrayal takes place, Jesus said to His disciples, “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me” (16:16). What did Jesus mean by these words? Where was He going and when is He coming back? Commentators provide three main views when it comes to understanding these words. One view says that the first “little while” refers to His death and the second “little while” refers to His resurrection. The second view agrees concerning the first “little while”, but says the second “little while” refers to the coming of the Holy Spirit. A third view says the first “little while” refers to the ascension of Christ and the second “little while” to the Second Coming of Christ. I think all three of these are a part of what Jesus is saying. The resurrection of Christ is the initial fulfillment, the Holy Spirit is a partial fulfillment, and the Second Coming is the ultimate fulfillment.
It is interesting that we find it hard to understand this text because that is exactly what the disciples experienced. John records,
So some of his disciples said to one another, “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’; and, ‘because I am going to the Father’?” So they were saying, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about” (16:17-18).
Sometimes it is nice to know that we are not alone in our inability to understand some things. Knowing that they were struggling with this, Jesus asked, “Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me’? (16:19). Jesus doesn’t answer their question by telling them specifically what the “little while” refers to too. Rather, He tells them what they need to know. This is often the way in which Jesus deals with His disciples and us today.
As we walk our way through this passage, I would like to consider three truths and lessons to remember as we live out our lives in this world as Christians. We will see the reality of sorrow, the reward of joy, and the resource of prayer.
1. THE REALITY OF SORROW
Jesus warned His disciples of the reality of sorrow. For them it will be a unique kind of sorrow in which they will see their Lord and Saviour crucified. Jesus told them “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice” (16:20a). The events surrounding the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ would have been horrific. Their Master was being treated harshly and the enemies of Christ were celebrating. The minions of the Devil were out in full force and for the disciples this was a dark hour.
It is important to note that trouble and sorrow does come into the lives of God’s people (Job 14:1). Jesus has already made it clear that the disciples are to expect hardship and hostility. What was the cause of their sorrow?
They Experienced Uncertainty
Though Jesus told them what was going to happen, they didn’t understand and grasp what was happening. As Jesus was tried, crucified and then died, they were unsure of what was going on. When it comes to the many hardships that we experience in this life we often are confused and uncertain why it is happening. Such uncertainty often leads to sorrow.
They Experienced Loss
Jesus was their Master, and then suddenly He was gone. I can only imagine how rapid the events of His betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion and His death were in their eyes. One moment they were walking and talking with Him, next moment He was gone. The experience of loss flawed them and drained them of energy and made them sorrowful.
They Experienced Fear
With their Master gone and with the enemies of Christ celebrating and revelling in His death, the disciples experienced fear. This fear was demonstrated by the fact that they hid themselves behind locked doors for fear of the religious leaders (John 20:19).
As persecution toward the people of God increases, so will the battle against fear. This is why our Lord said to the church in Smyrna “Do not fear what you are about to suffer…but be faithful until death” (Rev. 2:10).
2. THE REWARD OF JOY
Now let us consider the second important truth in this passage. Jesus promised His disciples the reward of joy. He said, “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy (16:20b). The darkness of their sorrow changed as the light of joy shined brightly. What happened? Three days after His death, one the first day of the week, in the midst of evil revelling from the enemies of Christ, Jesus Christ arose from the grave. He appeared to His disciples and they saw the resurrected Christ. John records their response to the sight of the resurrected Christ,
“Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord” (20:19b-20).
The word “glad” in verse 20 is the same word Jesus used in 16:20. Here is the initial fulfilment of what Jesus promised them. Notice that their sorrow is not replaced with joy, but rather their sorrow is turned into joy. This is illustrated by the example of a woman in labour. Jesus said,
“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, and no one will take your joy from you” (16:21-22).
The point of this illustration is to show how the very occasion, which is viewed as painful, becomes the very thing that is viewed as joyful. The apostles got to see the resurrected Christ with their own eyes. However, we don’t share the same experience as they did. What then does this mean for us? Using very similar words Peter wrote to suffering Christians,
“6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Pet. 1:6-9)
The day will come when we will experience perfect praise, glory and honour when the Lord Jesus Christ is revealed at His Second Coming. In the meantime, though we do not see Him we believe in Him and experience a foretaste of this joy now as we behold Him with the eyes of faith.
3. THE RESOURCE OF PRAYER
The third important truth in this passage that I would like to consider is the resource of prayer. Sometimes we may wonder why God would have us pray and ask for things when we know that He is sovereign. Knowing that He is sovereign, why should we pray? Among many reasons, we pray because prayer is a privilege God has given us. It is a gracious means in which God has chosen to accomplish His purposes.
Jesus said to His disciples,
“In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (16:23-24)
Here Jesus calls His people to make much of personal prayer. We are to seek the glory and honour of Jesus Christ in what we ask for. Prayer then becomes a means in which we experience joy. Prayer is a precious companion at all times, it carries a particular precious value in times of sorrow and sadness.
In this passage of Scripture Jesus has provided for His disciples precious truths we must know and hold onto. As the people of God, we are not to lose focus of what the Lord has told us and how we should respond. Let us look to Him for the grace and strength to walk the pathways before us in a way that honours and exalts Him.