One of the persistent problems many Bible students face is the fact that we know too much. Perhaps that sounds silly, like no problem at all. How can we know “too much”? “Aren’t we supposed to be increasing in our knowledge of God all the time?” Yes, certainly, but our knowledge, at times, does us a disservice. By “knowing too much,” what I mean to say is that we “assume too much, too quickly.” We’re the benefactors of a completed canon. We have the revelation of the Christ of God in our hands (and on our phones). Which means, at any given moment, we can read the entire story of the Father’s work through his Son to reconcile a world full of sinners to himself. Those within the story of Scripture itself weren’t so privileged.
Case in point: the apostles in John 16, in which they brandish their density in a variety of ways. I’m actually thankful for that, though. I appreciate the canonized “thickheaded-ness” of the twelve because it lets me know that they were just like me. As the crucifixion nears, and Jesus begins unraveling more of the mysteries of his coming and the specifics of his mission, his followers are, seemingly, caught in a state of near constant confusion. “What does that mean, Jesus? What do you mean by that? How can that even be possible? What’s happening again?” Such questions reflect the mindset of the apostles in those final hours. And I think we are a little too quick to insert our knowledge of the cross as a way of answering their trembling inquiries. That’s not to say that the cross is not the answer, because it is. However, it’s to say that the true comfort of Jesus’s words in that hour is realized when we put ourselves in their place of impairment.
For a moment, pretend you know nothing about the cross or the empty tomb. Imagine you’ve never sung a single hymn exalting the majesty of Calvary or the triumph of Golgotha. The apostles, certainly, knew nothing of such things. To them, the cross was a symbol of horror and shame, a fate reserved for the worst-of-the-worst class of criminal. In their minds, a cross was not an emblem of victory but of appalling violence. It was reprehensible, not redemptive. And yet, coloring nearly every conversation between Jesus and his apostles during those last days are hints at his own impending demise, most pronounced, perhaps, in John 12:23–33.
But what did this shorthand for “being crucified” have to do with Jesus? (John 12:32–33). And how did that play into his plans for the heavenly kingdom he was so famous for talking about? They had gradually come to the conclusion that their teacher was the Messiah, but now he was talking about dying, and being “lifted up,” and going away. This didn’t make any sense at all to the apostles. They could not wrap their minds around these new truths their teacher was relaying. And such is why chapters 13 through 16 of John’s Gospel are filled with comforting words that sound like they’re on repeat.
If you skim these narratives, it’s quite revealing to note how closely they resemble each other. And it’s especially resonant to keep in mind that Jesus’s aim is to comfort his beloved apostles (John 14:1). How, then, does Jesus comfort his followers as they edge towards crisis? And, furthermore, how do Christ’s words comfort us in our present crisis?
The Consequence of Our Allegiance.
Jesus doesn’t want his apostles to miss what he has to say. These, of course, are critical hours for everyone. Such is why, as he explains, he’s been speaking to them in such a blunt way (John 16:1). Following him wouldn’t be a walk in the park. The apostles understood that, to a certain degree, seeing as they’d already witnessed how their Teacher had been treated by the religious elite of the day. Here, though, Jesus pointedly reveals that they, too, will endure intense hardship for his name’s sake — so much so that their persecutors will think that they are doing “God’s will” even as they inflict untold torture and torment (John 16:2–3). In all likelihood, the apostles’ faces were paralyzed with fear, each of them doing their best deer-in-the-headlights impression. Jesus had just informed them that a world of hatred awaited them (John 15:18–19). Now he proceeds to tell them that the vanguard of hatred would come for them not only from “the world,” but even the religious folks and their immediate families would have it out for them.
The truth is, Jesus was not uttering these words to discourage or dishearten his apostles. Rather, these words were delivered for their comfort. He wanted to strengthen their faith that they might “remember” and not be surprised when “these things” come about (John 16:1–4). Contrary to some modern ways of thinking, Jesus never promised those who followed him a carefree existence. He never said that those who were his would never face hardship. In fact, just the opposite is true. He is explicit that his disciples should expect an amalgam of trouble, trial, turmoil, and tribulation to fall upon them at some point. These are not matters of “if,” only “when.” Such is the lot for those who put their faith in Christ alone. “These things I have spoken unto you,” the Lord asserts, “that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
And what’s the impetus for all this “trouble”? What’s the reason for “these things”? Jesus tells them: “These things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me” (John 16:3). The world was set to hurl its worst at them because of who they stood for. H. A. Ironside puts it like this: “The world hates Christ, the world hates God, and the world hates the gospel of God” (687). Indeed, when trouble and tribulation afflict our road, we are afflicted precisely because of the Savior under whose banner we stand. When we suffer for the sake of the gospel, we carry our cross, just as he did. Such is the consequence of our allegiance. It is the “happy” lot of those who belong to Jesus to share in his sufferings, to associate with him even in his affliction (1 Pet. 4:12–14; Acts 5:41). We need not be surprised, then, when grievous circumstances fall upon us. When they do, we have a Savior, a Comforter, an Advocate to fall upon.
The Comfort of Our Advocate.
The overriding thought clouding the apostles’ minds during those hours was the notion that their beloved Master was leaving them. Their first hint that he wouldn’t always be with them comes shortly after the Lord washes the feet of his disciples (John 13:30–33). A wave of panic surely filled their hearts and minds. “Wait, you’re leaving us? But where are you going? Why are going away?” A flurry of confused and perplexed murmurings flooded the room as the apostles exchanged baffled looks. Jesus, however, answers their trouble with immensely comforting words: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you. If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it come to pass, that, when it is come to pass, ye might believe” (John 14:27–29).
He tells them where he’s going that they might rest and rejoice in those words. But, as previously noted, the apostles were pretty dense. They didn’t quite get it. Their thoughts were still ravaged by the notion that Jesus would no longer be with them (John 16:5–6), a notion which filled their minds with untold sorrow. Soon, Jesus would be gone. Along with the grief of broken personal attachment, this also meant that all their theories about the Messiah and the kingdom of heaven were, apparently, mistaken. “The apostles,” notes A. W. Pink, “were prejudiced. Their hearts were set on the establishment of the Messianic kingdom. They could not tolerate the thought of Christ leaving them and returning to the Father . . . There was no place in their theology for His leaving them and returning to the Father” (2:58, 66). If Jesus was the Messiah why would he go away? The promise of the kingdom felt so close! And now he was, seemingly, letting all of that go to waste.
And such is when Jesus declares a most remarkable truth: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you” (John 16:7). In response to the apostles’ horror at the prospect of their Teacher leaving them, he offers the assurance that he will not leave them alone. In fact, he tells them that when he goes away, he would actually be closer to them than ever before. This, to be sure, sounds very confusing, which is surely what the Twelve were feeling right about then. According to their Master, it was “expedient” that he go away. It was better, profitable, beneficial for him to leave. “It is pure gain that I depart,” Jesus says. “It’s to your advantage that I go away.” These words sound like a severe contradiction. Jesus’s words do not feel at all possible, let alone true. How does that make sense? How would it be “better” for him to leave?
Our first thought is very much in line with Jesus’s followers in that moment. There’s nothing “good” about an absent Jesus. We’re often inclined to make the same conclusion, that things would be so much better if we were only alive when Jesus was on the earth. While we might think that, Jesus tells us, point blank, that that is false. You and I live in a better age of faith than when the Lord’s apostles were with the Lord himself. As hard as that is to imagine, that’s exactly what Jesus is here saying. When he departs, he will send “the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost” in his stead (John 14:16–18, 25–26; 15:26–27). His followers wouldn’t be comfortless because they would have the Comforter always with them.
To grasp the full solace, significance of these words we have to think of it this way. Jesus is, of course, alluding to Pentecost (Acts 2), that moment when the Scriptures would be fulfilled and the Holy Spirit would be fully poured out on those who believe, signaling a new era of faith (Joel 2:28–32). Previously, the experience of God’s presence was gifted at special times to specific individuals. There are numerous references throughout the Old Testament of the Holy Spirit “coming upon” folks, with an equal number of references to the Spirit being taken away. That was about to change, for good.
Whereas before the experience Jehovah’s presence was confined to a specific place or to certain times, Jesus’s announcement is that his Spirit, his presence, would always be accessible and available. Instead of Jesus’s power and presence remaining localized, his power and presence would burst upon the face of the entire world, with all who believe having the Spirit of Christ in them, with them, wherever they went. “Thus Jesus told these men that it was better, not only better, it was best, the only right thing, that He should go,” comments G. Campbell Morgan. “This physical intimacy is a poor thing compared to that which begins when the Comforter comes” (260). Such is our quintessential comfort in crisis.
Dark and dreary though these days may be, we are not left to our own devices. Jesus has not abandoned us to navigate these times of trouble on our own. Instead, he promises to always be with us, guiding us, ministering to us the great and glorious work he has accomplished on our behalf (John 16:13–14). “He is nearer us when He leaves us,” Alexander Maclaren declares, “and works with us and in us more mightily from the throne than He did upon the earth” (11:92).
The Courage of His Assurance.
But that’s not all. As Jesus doesn’t leave his friends without leaving them with the the assurance of his return. This he tells them in a proverb: “A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father” (John 16:16). Understandably, this leaves the apostles stumped. “What in the world does that mean?” they inquire amongst themselves (John 16:17–18). But Jesus, perceiving their hearts, proceeds to tell them how they might be comforted during this “little while” (John 16:19–22).
In “a little while” the apostles would be sorrowful, but they could take heart because their sorrow would soon — in “a little while” — be “turned into joy.” Jesus likens this promise to a mother’s experience of childbirth, which, in the moment, is full of much travail. But as soon as the newborn babe is put in her arms, the pain is “remembered no more.” Joy and delight subsume the room. Similarly, the apostles are assured that the sorrow on the horizon would in “a little while” give way to unspeakable joy. Joy which nothing and no one could ever take away. Jesus has in mind, of course, his death and resurrection, which, for the apostles, was only “a little while” off. In a few short hours, they would witness the sorrowful sight of their Lord hanging lifeless on a Roman gibbet. But that sorrow wouldn’t last. Soon, it would be reversed by their Lord’s resurrection. In “a little while,” they would not see him. “But,” he assures them, “I will see you again.”
We, too, have this comfort of the “little while.” Like the apostles, we are living in the “little while” between Jesus’s ascension and return. And, for the moment, we watch as the world rejoices at God’s apparent defeat and interminable absence. This, surely, stirs no shortage of worry inside us, perhaps even leading us to inquire about the days ahead much like Samwise Gamgee inquires of Gandalf: “Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?” Until then, we cling to his assurance. We await the day when the trumpet of heaven will signal “the Return of the King,” when he who is not seen will then be seen forevermore. On that day, all our sorrow will be “turned into joy.” On that day, our faith will give way to sight. On that day, every wrong will be made right. On that day, everything sad will be made untrue. On that day, death and decay will be reversed. On that day, we will begin our chorus of eternal joy.
Our comfort in this seemingly endless age of crisis after crisis is the inexhaustible hope of Jesus’s reversal. He and he alone can take all elements of our ruinous world and craft something beautiful out of them. Such is what Christ indicates on the cross. “It was not only that their sorrow should give place to joy, but be ‘turned into joy,’” A. W. Pink affirms. “Their sorrowing became joy! The very cause of their sorrow — the death of Christ — now became the ground and subject of their joy! Grief would not only be replaced by joy, but be transmuted into joy, even as the water was turned into wine! The Cross of Christ is glorified into an eternal consolation” (2:69–70). Thus, we find ourselves at the foot of the cross, indulging in the bloody comfort which flows from Christ’s gaping side. In these days of ash and ruin and tooth and claw, there is only one solace which diffuses the gloom. It is that which is found in the death-defeating death of the Christ of God.