In the last verse of the appointed Gospel reading for this week, Jesus makes two big promises Christians need to hear. The latter is more popular and, at first glance, more comforting. It is the kind of promise people put in the signature line of their emails. The former is just as certain, however, and equally significant for faithful Christian living. It is also comforting, but in a different way.
In last week’s reflection I noted how the Gospel readings in the season of Easter are divided into two parts: post-resurrection appearances and Maundy Thursday flashbacks. This week we continue with a flashback to Jesus’ words to the disciples in the upper room. The preacher on this sermon has several choices to make, as this reading could be used to go several different homiletical directions. Verses 23-26 invite consideration of prayer and requests to God in the name of Jesus. Verses 27 and 29 invite consideration of Christian love for and faith in Jesus. Verses 28 and 31-32 describe Jesus’ mission from, to and with the Father. You could take a sermon on this text in any of these directions.
But I would suggest focusing on verse 33 and Jesus’ two big promises. He spoke them to His disciples just before His death and resurrection, but they apply to all followers of Jesus. We will start with the first promise.
Promise #1: “In the world you will have tribulation.”
Jesus begins by talking about the world (ὁ κόσμος). He said a lot about the world in the upper room that night: it cannot receive the Spirit of truth (14:7); it does not give peace as Jesus gives (14:27); it hates Jesus and will therefore hate His disciples (15:18); Christians are not “of the world” and are chosen “out of the world” (15:19); the ruler of this world is judged (16:11); and the world rejoiced when the disciples mourned (16:20). Then comes 16:33, where Jesus promises the disciples that, in the world, they will have tribulation (θλῖψιν). “Tribulation” has both a literal and a figurative meaning. In the literal sense it means physical pressure (the verb form θλίβω means “to press” or “to squash”). This pressure is not the good kind. Think pressure cooker. The kind of pressure you experience when life squeezes you or when circumstances beyond your control press down on you. It is when the weight of the world bears down and threatens to crush you. Christians should expect this kind of pressure (see, for example, Acts 11:19, 14:22, and Romans 12:12).
When you are not experiencing this kind of tribulation, the promise of “you will” hardly seems comforting. But when you are in the midst of it—when the pressure of this world is bearing down on you—it is comforting to know it has not caught God unawares. It is comforting to know God has not abandoned you. Indeed, experiencing the unpleasant fulfillment of this first promise drives us toward dependence on the second promise.
Promise #2: “Take heart, I have overcome the world.”
This was not the first time Jesus told people to “take heart” (θαρσεῖτε). He said the same to the disciples during the storm (Mark 6:50), the paralytic (Matthew 9:2), and the bleeding woman (Matthew 9:22). Jesus invites those who follow him to be “of good courage” (2 Corinthians 5:6-8) even amid extreme pressure.
On what basis? His victory. He has overcome (νενίκηκα) the world which opposes Him. The verb tense is significant here. Νενίκηκα is the perfect, indicative, active form of the verb νικάω (to conquer). The perfect suggests completed action with enduring results. Note when Jesus made this promise. It was before Easter. Even before He rose from the dead, Jesus had overcome the world. His resurrection confirmed His victorious lordship of the world opposing Him. This is no small thing, for it reminds us how His victory over the ongoing pressures we face is already completed, even before we finish enduring them.
A sermon on John 16:33 would do well to proclaim both of these promises. The first will prepare the hearers for pressures to come and assure those currently feeling the pressure they are not abandoned and should not be surprised. The second promise will point the hearers toward Jesus’ victory over all the world. His resurrection from the dead stands as the confirmation of this promise, the hope for their own resurrection, and the source of their courage in this world.
Concordia Theology: Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching John 16:23-33.
Lectionary Podcast: Dr. David Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through John 16:23-33.