In our gospel reading, Jesus is in the upper room, on the night when he was betrayed, teaching his disciples. This is just a fragment of a much longer conversation. But, even in this fragment, we have a glimpse of something important. It is important not just for the disciples on the night their Lord was betrayed, but also for the Church, centuries later, as it confesses Jesus to be her Lord.
What we have in our reading is a picture of how God deals with a lack of understanding.
The disciples are not understanding Jesus. In fact, they are quite explicit in describing their problem. They say to one another, “What is this that He says to us?” and “We do not know what He is talking about” (16:18).
Have you ever seen confusion in a bible class? A Christian not able to understand a teaching and yet also afraid to raise her hand? How strange. Here is a Christian, gathered with other Christians around the Scriptures for the sake of learning and yet she is afraid to ask her question. Or how about the personal reading of Scripture? Have you ever known a Christian who reads something in the Bible that does not make sense? Then, when he looks at the study notes for help, he finds them unhelpful or confusing and the deep well of knowledge has suddenly run dry.
A Christian not able to understand a teaching and yet also afraid to raise her hand? How strange.
If you are aware of such moments for your people, then this moment from John’s gospel, however disjointed and scattered it might seem, is for you. John offers us a picture of how Jesus deals with a lack of understanding among His disciples. John tells us, “Jesus knew that they wanted to ask Him,” about what He was saying (16:19), but they did not. So, on the night when he was betrayed, Jesus speaks to His disciples who do not understand Him, and He offers us a picture of how God deals with the lack of understanding.
Jesus addresses a lack of understanding by offering a promise. He promises His disciples He will send His Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth (16:13). There are things they cannot bear to know now. But Christ promises to be with them during this time where they lack understanding and to send His Spirit to continue to guide them into truth.
Notice how Jesus does not offer immediate revelation and complete understanding of all the mysteries of God. There are things in the faith which are beyond our understanding. In this case, the meaning of His death and resurrection is beyond what they would have known or expected of the Messiah (16:20). But it does not stop there. For Peter, later in Acts, the meaning of the far reach of God’s mission, including Gentiles in His kingdom, is beyond what He could know. But for those who do not understand, Jesus has a promise. He will send His Spirit. Peter receives a vision, and through that vision and the guidance of the Spirit, Peter brings salvation to Cornelius and his household.
The Church does not demand that disciples have complete understanding of all of the ways of God. Instead, she trusts in the promise of Jesus. He will send the Spirit, who through the Word will lead people to all truth.
Jesus also does not ask the disciples to simply check their reason at the door. That is, He does not imply they should not seek to understand but simply blindly follow. He sees them questioning and encourages them to continue seeking the will and ways of God.
The Church does not demand that disciples have complete understanding of all of the ways of God. Instead, she trusts in the promise of Jesus.
This work of Jesus is important today as the Church encounters a culture which is farther and farther removed from the things of God. People can turn away from Christianity for the wrong reasons. They can assume it requires complete understanding in order for you to become a disciple or they can assume it requires you to set aside your reason in order to believe. To those who have made an idol of total understanding or willful ignorance, Jesus offers grace. We are not saved because we completely understand all things and we are not saved because we will blindly follow anything. We are saved because Jesus sees us in our confusion and has mercy on us in our time of need.
His love is made known in suffering. He suffers for the sins of those who believe they know the ways of God better than God (and therefore reject their promised Messiah) and He suffers for the sins of those who believe there is no truth we can comprehend when it comes to God (and therefore reject the promise of a Messiah). Jesus dies under our claims of total understanding and our acts of willful ignorance. But then, He rises because of God’s total understanding of what His people need and His desire to give it to them. Jesus dies and rises to bring the eternal mystery of salvation to His people.
Because this is a mystery, His people will always be in that tension of understanding but not completely. For such disciples, Jesus offers a promise. He will send His Spirit who will guide us into all truth. Such a promise helps us live in the tension. It keeps us learning as we grow in faith. Yet, it also offers us assurance as we encounter the mysteries of faith.
Whether we see or we do not see, one thing is true. Jesus sees us. And in that seeing, we take confidence in His care until He comes again.
“I will see you again,” Jesus says, “and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (16:22).
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching John 16:12-22.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. David Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through John 16:12-22.