The Illustrative Parable
Truly, truly, I say to you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will grieve, but your grief will be turned into joy. Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world. Therefore you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you. (16:20–22)
The solemn phrase amēn amēn (truly, truly) underscores the importance of what the Lord was about to say to the disciples (cf. v. 23; 1:51; 3:3, 5, 11; 5:19, 24, 25; 6:26, 32, 47, 53; 8:34, 51, 58; 10:1, 7; 12:24; 13:16, 20, 21, 38; 14:12; 21:18). Jesus’ followers would soon weep and lament over His death (cf. 20:11; Luke 24:17–21) but the world, the Jewish leaders, and the apostate nation which had so bitterly opposed Him would rejoice.
But Christ’s enemies’ joy over His death would be short-lived. The Jewish leaders had mockingly promised to believe in Jesus if He came down from the cross (Matt. 27:42). But when He did the far greater miracle of rising from the dead, they refused to believe. Instead, they hastily concocted a scheme to cover up the resurrection, bribing the soldiers to spread the lie that Jesus’ body had been stolen while they were sleeping (Matt. 28:11–15). Then the Jewish leaders tried desperately, but futilely, to suppress the apostles from preaching the resurrection (Acts 4:1–21; 5:17–18, 27–42).
While the world’s joy over Christ’s death would turn to dismay, just the opposite would be the case with the disciples. Your grief, Jesus assured them, will be turned into joy. The Lord was not saying that the event causing their sorrow would be replaced by an event producing joy but rather that the same event (the cross) that caused their mourning would be the cause of their joy. The dark shadows of sorrow and grief cast by the cross fled before the brilliant, glorious light of the resurrection and the coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4–47). That light also caused the disciples to view the cross in its proper perspective, making it an unending source of joy for them (cf. v. 22; Acts 13:52). As Paul exulted, “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). The cross is foundational to all Christian joy, because it is the basis of redemption.
A vivid example of an event that initially causes pain but ultimately brings joy is childbirth. The reality that a woman … in labor … has pain stems from the Edenic curse that God pronounced on Eve in the aftermath of the fall. Genesis 3:16 records that “to the woman [God] said, ‘I will greatly multiply Your pain in childbirth, in pain you shall bring forth children’ ” (cf. Ps. 48:6; Isa. 13:8; 21:3; 26:17; Jer. 4:31; 6:24; 22:23; 49:24; 50:43; Mic. 4:9–10; 1 Thess. 5:3). Yet after a woman gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish she has been through. The intense anguish and suffering of labor in giving birth fades in the face of the consuming joy that a child has been born into the world.
In the same way though the disciples would have grief in the short-term, they could take comfort in the Lord’s promise, I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice. In verses 16 and 19 Jesus spoke of the disciples seeing Him; here He told them that He will see them. His knowledge of believers is more important than and foundational to their knowledge of Him. “You have come to know God,” Paul wrote, “or rather to be known by God” (Gal. 4:9). The reality that no one will take the disciples’ joy away from them indicates that more than just seeing Jesus after the resurrection is in view, since that lasted only forty days. The Lord’s reference, as noted above, is to the coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost to permanently indwell them. The disciples’ Spirit-produced joy (Gal. 5:22; cf. Rom. 14:17; 1 Thess. 1:6) would be permanent. Nothing can undo the work of grace wrought in believers’ lives through the power of the cross.
Joy in the Morning
“In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”
Some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.”
Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”
Are you one of those people who always wakes up in the morning with a smile on your face and a buoyant spirit in your heart? I am not. So I confess that when I come to a verse like Psalm 30:5—“Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning”—I have to understand it in poetical terms. It is worth trying to do this, however, for the idea of joy after a nighttime of sorrow is an important biblical theme. We have it in the passage we come to now: “I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.”
In general terms, we understand what this means. It means that for a Christian, sorrow endures for just a time and then is replaced by a joy that no one can take from us. Unfortunately, when we study the entire passage more specifically, we soon find that there is some uncertainty as to what Jesus is referring. The first part of this passage speaks about “a little while” when the disciples will not see him and then “a little while” after which they will see him. But because this has several possible applications, it is probable that having read that passage we find ourselves in the position of the disciples, who said, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying” (v. 18).
As I look at these words I suspect that this ambiguity is intentional. It is not that the Lord is vague in his teaching, of course. He makes things as clear as he can possibly make them. It is rather that by means of such ambiguity he suggests more than one meaning. Here the Lord is talking about a little while when he will not be seen, a time marked by sorrow, and then after that space of time, another time in which he will be seen again and which will therefore be joyful. This apparently deliberate ambiguity suggests three different levels of interpretation. First, it can refer to Jesus’ death and the days of his entombment, during which time he was not seen, and then the resurrection that follows with its renewed sight of him. Second, it can indicate the periods before and after Pentecost, for now, because of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we see him in a spiritual way that was not possible previously. That is suggested by the tie-in of these verses with those preceding. Finally, it may describe the church age, this short time in which we do not see Christ with our physical eyes, but after which, when the Lord will return in glory, we will see him face-to-face and have earth’s sorrows transmuted into eternal joy.
I would like to take each of those meanings, show how it is supported by the context, and trace its importance.
Death and Resurrection
First of all, then, these verses refer to the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the first and most obvious interpretation simply because Christ is here speaking to his disciples, trying to comfort them on the eve of his arrest and separation from them. They are going to sorrow, but he wishes to show them that very soon, following his resurrection, they will again be joyful.
Jesus has already talked along those lines. For example, in John 13 the Lord had been talking about his glorification, saying, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him” (v. 31). This refers to his exaltation to heaven by his crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension. But it is immediately followed by the words: “I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come” (v. 33). Peter understood this “little while” to be imminent even though he did not comprehend much more than that, for he asked, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replied, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later” (v. 36).
When we take the passage in this sense, we recognize that this was precisely the experience of these early disciples. Jesus was their friend. They loved him with a love that had grown intense because of his love for them and fellowship with them over the three-year period of his ministry. Then, although he had tried to prepare them for it, he was suddenly taken from them and crucified. They were plunged into despondency and near disillusionment.
There were multiple reasons for their great sorrow. First, they sorrowed because of their personal loss. They were warmly attached to him, and he was gone—gone forever, so they thought. Since they had left all to follow him and since he had become their all in place of what they had lost (and much more besides), they were left with a vacuum in their lives. This was comparable to the kind of sorrow we have at the death of one greatly loved. Yet it was far more intense, because in this case it was the Lord of glory, Jesus Christ, who was removed.
Second, they sorrowed additionally because of the world’s attitude to Christ’s crucifixion. The Lord alludes to this in John 16:20, saying, “You will weep and mourn while the world rejoices.” In other words, the sorrow of the disciples would be intensified because the world, far from sorrowing at the loss of Jesus, actually rejoiced that he was now out of their way and would no longer be a bother to them. As the disciples sorrowed during this interim they knew that the scribes and Pharisees, those who represent the spirit of the world, were actually rubbing their hands in glee. They were saying, “At last we’ve gotten rid of him; we won’t have him exposing us anymore. Things will get back to normal.” The sorrow of the disciples was intensified because of that.
Third, their sorrow during those days must have been particularly acute because of their disappointments. Every time we catch a glimpse into what they were thinking about during this interim we are impressed with how disappointed they were. There is the story of the Emmaus disciples. They were on their way home. The Lord appeared to them on the way and asked why they were downcast. They told him about Jesus, explaining how he had been crucified by the leaders of the people. Then they uttered what is certainly one of the most poignant lines in Scripture, “But we had hoped he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). They had put so much of their hope in him and he had been taken away from them. Their hopes had been crushed.
Disappointment explains the attitude of Thomas, who said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it” (John 20:25). It was not that Thomas was particularly disbelieving. None of the other disciples believed either until they had seen Christ. It was only after he appeared that they had come to faith. But Thomas, in a bitterness born of acute disappointment, said, “You’re not going to overcome my grief by some mystical story of a resurrection. I’m the one, let’s not forget, who said, ‘If he goes up to Jerusalem, he will die; if we go with him, we must be prepared to die also.’ I warned you about it. He died. So don’t try to put me off with fairy tales.” It was disappointment that made him speak that way.
The disciples experienced acute sorrow because of their loss, the joy of the world, and disappointments. But then came the resurrection, and their sorrow was changed into joy. It was not that their sorrow was followed by joy, that joy came afterward but what was sorrow still remained. No, the sorrow was itself changed into joy so that what had been the cause of their sorrow before was now in equal measure joyous. Before the resurrection the death of Christ appeared to be a total tragedy. It was meaningless to the disciples because they did not understand that this was God’s atonement for the sin of the world. It was only the death of one they deeply loved. But when Jesus rose from the dead they understood that the cross was not a tragedy but a triumph. Did you ever notice as you have read the New Testament that the cross of Christ is never referred to in a tone of sorrow? It is true that when the disciples tell about their own feelings during the three days between the crucifixion and the resurrection, as they do in the Gospels, they reflect in a historical way that they sorrowed then. But afterward whenever they wrote about the cross they spoke of it not as a cause for sorrow but as a cause for joy. Paul even speaks of the cross as his “glory” (Gal. 6:14). If there were nothing but the crucifixion, glorious as that might be, we would not understand it and it would be a cause of sorrow for us. But having had a resurrection, having known that the One who was crucified and buried rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures, as the Bible itself tells us, we rejoice in that the cross is now seen to be a victory.
This incidentally, is why Lent should not have the extraordinary and exaggerated character that it does in some circles. For some it becomes a kind of mock funeral for Christ in which they try to work themselves into a depressed state leading up to Good Friday. That is all artificial. There is nothing genuine about it. For Jesus is living, not dead; and although we must remember the cross and its agony, we remember it as that great act that procured our salvation, and we rejoice in it.
Second, we must refer these verses to Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit for the church age. This is not reading something into the passage, because it is suggested to us by the context. In the first part of this chapter the Lord has been talking about the Holy Spirit. He has talked about the ministry of the Holy Spirit, first, to the world—bringing some to faith in Christ, convicting them of sin and of righteousness and of judgment (vv. 7–11)—and then, second, also to the apostles in a special sense so that they might become vehicles of the New Testament revelation as they remembered, understood, interpreted, and recorded what Jesus had done (vv. 12–15). The verses end by saying that when the Holy Spirit comes he is not going to speak of himself but rather is going to speak of Jesus and make him known. Then, immediately following that and in the same context, the Lord begins to speak of the little while when we will not see him and then the little while after which we will see him. In this context we, therefore naturally think of the church age in which the Holy Spirit makes the Lord Jesus Christ visible to Christian people, not physically but spiritually, as he reveals the Lord to us in the pages of the Word of God.
Someone will perhaps say at this point, “But I do not see the Lord Jesus Christ even in a spiritual way. There are times when he is far from me. I would like to see him, to feel him close, but I am afraid that the Lord seems far away. He seems to be locked in a previous age of history.” If that is the case, then you have to approach the Lord in the only way he can be found in this age, that is, through a study of the Word. This is really the burden of the passage as I understand it.
Moreover, there is a second part to that, for it is not enough that we just come to the Scriptures in a certain academic way and study them, important as that may be. Rather, as we find the Lord presented to us in the Scriptures, there must be that personal interaction with him that brings us face-to-face with his holiness and causes us to turn from sin in order that we might go his way.
I am sure that this is what the author of Hebrews had in mind when, in the twelfth chapter, he talks about our “looking to Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.” Hebrews 11 is the great chapter on faith. You would think that by the time the author had come to the end of that chapter, having cited the great heroes of faith of the Old Testament, he would have stopped, taken a deep breath, and perhaps gone on to something entirely different. But that is not the way he was thinking. Rather, he thinks of a present application according to which we, like those previous heroes, should turn from sin and pursue that which is set before us by Jesus: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and say down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1–2).
If being aware of Jesus is to turn sorrow into joy in the present age, it must be based, first, upon a study of the Scriptures, and second, upon a deliberate turning from anything that would hinder discipleship. It is turning from sin in order that we might press on to what is ahead.
When we talk along those lines it is almost impossible not to think also of that chapter in Philippians in which the apostle Paul says almost the same thing in giving his testimony. He has already said in the third chapter what it meant for him to become a Christian. It meant to have come to know Christ. Now he expresses his desire to know him even better: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowshiip of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (3:10). He concludes that section by saying, “Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (3:13–14).
Our Blessed Hope
Third, there is also a sense in which this applies to the Second Coming. Even with the vision of Christ through the Holy Spirit in this age there is still often great cause for sorrow, because we have disappointments, personal loss, and sin; and that keeps us from God. But it is not permanent. Jesus is coming. It is only a little while. Then sorrow will be turned into joy. We tend to think that the return of Jesus Christ is delayed—it is because we are locked in time—but that is why that phrase “a little while” is so important. It seems to us at times, as it always seems to skeptics, that “everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4). But this phrase says that the present state is only temporary. It is short, and after it is over all present sorrows will be turned into joy. The phrase “a little while” is mentioned seven times just in this one passage.
There is an obvious progression here. First, there is the revelation of the Lord at the time of the resurrection, a revelation that went beyond anything that the disciples had previously known. Second, there is the revelation of Jesus to his people during this age. This is even better. Jesus said, “It is for your good that I go away. Unless I go away the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). Finally, there is that perfect revelation of Jesus when he returns in his glory at the end of time. If the progression applies in that historical sense, it should also apply to our own personal relationship to and knowledge of Jesus. We should know him better this year than we did last year, and better next year than this year. That is what we should desire. Let us see that it is fulfilled as, by the grace of God, we study the Bible and seek to enter into a full knowledge of our Lord.
In a Little While
“A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” (John 16:16)
One of the most helpful things to know about biblical eschatology is that the Bible organizes history in two ages: “this present age” and “the age to come.” The present age is one in which mankind lives in rebellion to God, God’s Messiah is opposed, and God’s people are frustrated by persecution, hardship, and disappointment. This is why the apostle Paul described it as “the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4), and why John said that this present world “lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). The hope of God’s people lies not in this world, or this age of the world, but in the age and world to come. Jesus taught that everyone who leaves family and comfort to follow him will receive “in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:30).
It is clear that Jesus’ disciples believed that the age to come had arrived in his ministry. In important ways, their belief was correct. Jesus began his ministry, proclaiming, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15), which is another way of speaking about “the age to come.” His miracles involved an inbreaking of heaven’s healing and liberating power. Through his teaching, Jesus was able to say, “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21).
We can see why the disciples, governed by this expectation, were so dismayed at Jesus’ teaching in this Farewell Discourse about going away from them. Now he added, “You will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice” (John 16:20). It is no wonder that “some of his disciples said to one another, ‘What is this that he says to us?’ ” (16:17). If the Messiah had come, why would there still be sorrow, if only for “a little while”?
Jesus answered the disciples’ perplexity by explaining how the Bible’s two-age eschatology would be mirrored in his own experience. “A little while, and you will see me no longer,” he said, “and again a little while, and you will see me” (John 16:16). The disciples wondered what this meant: “they were saying, ‘What does he mean by “a little while”? We do not know what he is talking about’ ” (16:18). Jesus’ reply explained how he and they would first suffer through the cross, but how this sorrow would give way to salvation joy after a little while: “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’? 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” (16:19–20). This same pattern defines our situation as believers, for a little while longing for Jesus’ coming and again in a little while rejoicing when he has returned to take us into heaven.
In a Little While: Sorrow at the Cross
There is some debate among scholars as to Jesus’ reference in this passage. Some, like John Calvin, think that Jesus refers to his bodily absence after ascending into heaven, followed by his coming at Pentecost, when he would dwell in the disciples by faith. This is possible, since so much of this Farewell Discourse deals with Christ’s sending of the Holy Spirit. Others, such as Augustine, believe that Jesus speaks of the church age followed by Christ’s second coming. It is most natural, however, to take Jesus’ “in a little while” as referring to his crucifixion on the next day, since this dramatic event was immediately before them. Jesus was preparing the disciples for what they would experience literally within hours: “A little while, and you will see me no longer” (John 16:16).
Jesus said that his death would occasion weeping and lamenting. It is indeed not difficult to see why the disciples would be staggered by what was about to happen. First was the terrible injustice and horror of the crucifixion. For three years, the disciples had known Jesus to be the master of every circumstance, more than equal to the threats and plots of the religious leaders. But after his arrest later that evening, they would witness the shocking injustice of his mock trial, when Jesus stood mutely while falsely charged with blasphemy (Matt. 26:57–65). Jesus was handed over to Pilate, who had him scourged with whips, beaten by pitiless soldiers, and presented in mockery before the people (John 19:1–3). When Pilate then declared Jesus innocent, the Jews called out regarding the long-awaited Messiah, “Let him be crucified!” (Matt. 27:15–23). Charles Spurgeon writes: “Might not angels wish to weep in sympathy with him? Who can forebear to sorrow when Jesus stands insulted by menials, reviled by abjects, forsaken by his friends, blasphemed by his foes? It was enough to make a man’s heart break to see the Lamb of God so roughly handled.”
Most shocking of all were the horrors of the crucifixion itself. Jesus’ arms and legs were nailed in torment to the wooden beams, and then he was lifted up in shameful condemnation. The Gospel records do not dwell on the details of his physical agony, but simply state Jesus’ awful torment. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cried (Matt. 27:46). How much of this the disciples witnessed we are not told, but the very least of these scenes must have broken their hearts.
Looking back on Calvary today, we, too, can feel sorrow and lament for Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Moreover, we can only continue to lament Jesus’ treatment by this world. We hear his name spat out as a curse. We sorrow for the casual disregard of his claims on mankind, and we mourn for hard-hearted contempt of the truth and righteousness for which Jesus lived and died.
The fact of the cross was not the only reason for sorrow: second, the cause of Jesus’ crucifixion should also break our hearts. Why should God’s perfect Son suffer and die? The answer is that Jesus was crucified because of our sins. Spurgeon cries: “The sword which pierced his heart through and through was forged by our offences: the vengeance was due for sins which we had committed, and justice exacted its rights at his hands.” The chief reason why Christians do not accuse the Jews or malign the Roman soldiers for their role in Jesus’ death is that we are overcome with grief for our own primary role in the crucifixion of God’s Son. What a horror it is to awaken to the reality that my sins caused Jesus Christ to suffer and die!
The disciples would also sorrow because of the loss that Jesus’ removal would mean for them. All through the Farewell Discourse, they express alarm over this prospect. Peter earlier asked, “Lord, where are you going?” adding, “Lord, why can I not follow you now?” (John 13:36–37). This shows that for all their failings, the disciples loved Jesus, and the thought of being parted from him grieved them. They had left all to follow Jesus, and his absence would leave a void in their lives. Christians today feel some of this anguish. As we learn of Jesus in the Bible and as his grace grows in our lives, we love Jesus more and more. He is with us powerfully by the Holy Spirit, yet we long to see him face-to-face. Our hearts yearn for fuller communion with the Lord when we have passed through death to him or he has returned in glory to us. For all the joy we have as believers, for this “little while” our hearts are sorrowful over Jesus’ bodily absence from earth.
A fourth reason for the disciples’ sorrow was given by Jesus: “you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice” (John 16:20). How galling it was for the Pharisees and scribes to stand gloating over Jesus’ sufferings! Matthew recorded their mocking words: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.… He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross” (Matt. 27:40–42). James Montgomery Boice observes, “The world, far from sorrowing at the loss of Jesus, actually rejoiced that he was now out of their way and would no longer be a bother to them.” So it remains today that people are glad for Jesus not to be in the world, preferring his crucifixion to his righteous reign.
Fifth, the disciples would sorrow because of their disappointment over Jesus’ apparent failure in establishing God’s reign and salvation. We gain insight into this disappointment through the words of the Emmaus road disciples: “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Many Christians today are likewise disappointed over the frustration often involved with serving Jesus in this world, and sometimes the apparent failure of gospel ministry. It seems that the more devoted we are to the cause of Christ and the spread of the gospel, the more difficult our lives are and the more disappointment we experience.
Again in a Little While: Joy in the Morning
There are Christians who seem to think that the grief and apparent failure involved with the cross of Christ is a kind of scandal on Christianity. Such people struggle over the failure, frustration, and suffering that believers experience through following Christ in this present world. But Jesus did not look on the cross as his defeat—for all the sorrow and grief that it entailed first for him and then for us—but rather as the instrument of his victory. It was true that in “a little while” he would be taken from the disciples and they would weep and lament while the world rejoiced. But it would also be true that “again [in] a little while” they would see Jesus, and then, he said, “your sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16:19–20). Jesus refers to his triumphant resurrection from the grave. David sang, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps. 30:5). So it would be for the disciples and then also for all who trust in Christ in this present world. “A little while, and you will see me no longer,” Jesus said; “and again a little while, and you will see me” (John 16:16).
Notice that Jesus did not say that our sorrow would be compensated by a subsequent joy or even that our sorrow would be replaced by joy. Rather, he said, “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16:20). In this way, the resurrection does not do away with the crucifixion. Rather, it turns the sorrow of the cross into our joy and glory. This is why, when the apostles wrote in the Epistles regarding Christ’s atoning death, they always expressed themselves with wonder, praise, and joy. It is not that they no longer felt the anguish of what Jesus suffered, but rather that the resurrection had transformed the very despair of the cross into delight.
This is why Christians today speak with unashamed happiness over the suffering death of Jesus and why true gospel churches rejoice in the cross, never ceasing to speak of Christ’s death to redeem us from our sin and singing lusty songs of joy about the shedding of Christ’s blood. This is why the apostle Paul resolved to preach nothing that was not centered on the cross (1 Cor. 2:2), and exclaimed, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14). This is why Peter exulted in the “precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:19). This is why the apostle John quoted the worship-song of heaven, with its joyful refrain to Jesus: “Worthy are you …, for you were slain” (Rev. 5:9). Far from undoing the cross, putting away the cross, or negating the cross, Jesus’ resurrection has transformed the grief of Jesus’ death into everlasting salvation joy.
Just as there were five causes for sorrow in Jesus’ death, there are five reasons for great joy in his resurrection. First, by this means God the Father overturned the unjust verdict of mankind and publicly vindicated his Son before all history. After being indwelt by the Holy Spirit, Peter explained to the people of Jerusalem:
The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One …, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. (Acts 3:13–15)
With what joy did the disciples greet the resurrection of Jesus, falling at his feet to worship him (Matt. 28:9)! Paul wrote that in the resurrection and ascension, “God has highly exalted him,” and when Jesus returns in glory, how great will our joy be when “every tongue confess[es] that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:9, 11).
Second, we rejoice greatly in the resurrection because it proved God’s acceptance of the redemption achieved by Christ’s atoning death. Yes, it grieves us to realize that our sins nailed Jesus to the cross. But this very grief is transformed into joy when the resurrected Christ declares our guilt removed forever and God’s justice satisfied once for all. Jesus did not regret dying for our sins. Hebrews 12:2 makes the remarkable statement that Jesus “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame.” His joy was nothing less than knowing that his blood would redeem his people from the curse and power of death. Spurgeon writes: “Heartily do we lament our sin, but we do not lament that Christ has put it away nor lament the death by which he put it away; rather do our hearts rejoice in all his atoning agonies, and glory at every mention of that death by which he has reconciled us unto God.… It is a joy to think that he has taken on himself our personal sin and carried it right away.”
Third, after “a little while” the resurrection restored Christ’s personal presence to the disciples. They grieved in his absence, but rejoiced in his restoration. Here is where Christians rejoice in the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost, for while we do not have Jesus’ bodily presence, we do have his Spirit dwelling within us. We therefore do not gaze on the Scriptures as a dead page, but with the Emmaus disciples after Jesus had taught them, we exclaim over the burning of our hearts through the Word of Christ (Luke 24:32). In yet a little while longer, our faith in Christ will give way to sight, transformed into so great a joy that we cannot begin to imagine it now. Job, who suffered so greatly in this present evil age, rejoiced at this mere thought:
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me! (Job 19:25–27)
So great will be that transforming sight of Jesus in glory that, according to John, it will perfect our sanctification in glory: “we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
Fourth, the disciples grieved for the world’s rejoicing over Christ’s death, but now in the light of his resurrection we rejoice in the conversion of many people from all over this same wicked world. The disciples would see many of the very men who conspired in Jesus’ murder come to saving faith (see Acts 6:7), and even the chief of his persecutors would be won by the power of the risen Lord and, as Paul the apostle, would preach salvation grace to the very ends of the ancient world.
This is why the fifth cause of our grief in the cross has also been transformed into resurrection joy. Do we minister in weakness? Do we experience frustration and apparent failure? Do we ourselves fail to live up to our creed? The sad answer to all these is yes. The remedy for our disappointment as failed believers is the resurrection power of Christ, which transforms it all into joy. Paul thus writes that “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7). Jesus showed the apostle that his resurrection power was great enough to overturn the greatest sorrow. When Paul prayed for his thorn to be removed, Jesus answered: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” No longer sorrowful, Paul rejoiced: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (12:9).
The Transforming Joy of New Life
To make his point clear to the disciples, Jesus concluded this promise of transforming joy with an illustration: “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” (John 16:21–22).
Jesus often referred to the coming cross as the arrival of his “hour” (John 2:4; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23; etc.). Here he compares his hour to the arrival of birth pains to a pregnant woman. Like an expectant mother, Jesus had been nurturing this defining act all through the years of his ministry, frequently speaking of it to the disciples. Long beforehand he had said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised,” he had told the disciples (Luke 9:22). Now would come the crisis of suffering, not merely for him but for his disciples as well, and it would be dreadful beyond their fears. For “a little while,” Christ and his people would suffer death and apparent defeat in the cross.
The resurrection changed this sorrow into great joy, just as the sound of a crying baby drives all thoughts of pain from its mother’s heart. “When she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world” (John 16:21). It was through struggle that the joy was born, even as the birth ends even an awareness of the labor. In like manner, Jesus said, “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice” (16:22).
This illustration supplies us with valuable applications from Jesus’ teaching. What was Jesus’ pastoral purpose in telling this to the disciples, and through John to us? First, Jesus reminds us not to be overthrown when our faith exacts a price in this present evil age. Just as Jesus foretold the necessity of his own death, he clearly told us about the cross that we must bear, not to atone for sin but to follow him in a world that hates his gospel. “If anyone would come after me,” Jesus said, “let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Yet however greatly the cross might press down on our shoulder, we are strengthened to persevere by knowing that in “a little while” Christ will receive us into eternal glory. There, God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). As the beloved hymn tells us, “The sands of time are sinking” and “the dawn of heaven breaks.” Realizing this, we can sing:
I have borne scorn and hatred, I have borne wrong and shame,
Earth’s proud ones have reproach’d me, for Christ’s thrice-blessed name.
Dark, dark hath been the midnight, but dayspring is at hand,
And glory, glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land.
Second, we should realize that it is by our experience of the cross and through it the resurrection power that Christians most closely fellowship with Jesus in this life. In his memorable passage of Philippians 3:8–11, Paul spoke of his reliance on Christ’s righteousness for his justification, despising any merits or attainments of his own. He added that, having been justified through faith alone, he then desired to know greater fellowship with Christ by taking up his cross: “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Embracing the cross in our rejection of worldliness and sin, we know fellowship with Christ in this world through his resurrection life. In this way, though we are certainly too weak in ourselves, we receive Christ’s resurrection power to lead godly lives that are useful to the gospel. Another hymn expresses our resolve:
I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place;
I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of his face;
Content to let the world go by, to know no gain nor loss;
My sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross.
Finally, Jesus wanted his disciples to know, on the eve of his crucifixion, that their sorrows in this present evil age, the grief of his cross, would last for only “a little while.” Yet how different is the joy that comes through the cross by the resurrection. “You have sorrow now,” Jesus said, “but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22). Knowing this, Jesus calls his followers to persevere by his power.
The joy we receive through the sin-atoning death of Jesus and his glorious resurrection power is a joy that will never end. The sorrow of the cross, so real and painful now, belongs only to this present evil age. But resurrection joy, which comes to us in the wonder of the new birth, will have no end. Which of the two, therefore, should have the greater power over our hearts: worldly sorrow or resurrection joy? Which should govern our daily thoughts and attitudes as we face the circumstances of this present evil age? Which should the world see reflected in our lives? Should we be overcome by the bitterness of this world, or overwhelmed by the joy of resurrection grace?
In this present age, for a little while, we have tears, sadness, disappointment, frustration, and even anguish. “In the world,” Jesus will conclude, “you will have tribulation.” But by his resurrection life, which shone through the empty tomb and reigns in the hearts of those who look to him in faith, Jesus says, “Take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Is this not sufficient cause, is not the resurrection a sufficient power, for us to live now with joy, praise, and wonder with lives energized for the glory of Christ?
20 Following the solemn amēn amēn (NIV, “I tell you the truth”), Jesus contrasts the disciples’ distress with the rejoicing of the world. “You [hymeis is emphatic] will weep and mourn” but “the world shall rejoice” (KJV). Weeping and mourning (klaiō, GK 3081, is used in John only in connection with death: 11:31, 33; 20:11, 13, 15) combine the deep sorrow connected with death and the outward expression of that sorrow. Loud wailing was a regular part of the death and burial ritual in the Near East.
We are reminded of the scene from Revelation 11 when after the death of the two witnesses, “the inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts” (Rev 11:10). Whenever the prophetic voice is for the moment silenced, the enemies of God rejoice. It would seem that the “little while” of John 16:16 represents every period of time during which the world appears to have overcome God’s redemptive work in the world (e.g., the three days Jesus was in the grave, as well as the entire period leading up to Jesus’ victorious return).
The sorrow the disciples will experience when Jesus is taken away will be difficult to bear but it will not be permanent: “You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.” The crucifixion was a shocking experience for those who had left everything to follow Jesus. He had been their constant companion, and they had come to rely on him for all their needs. Suddenly he would be gone and their vision for the future shattered. Not yet understanding what rising from the dead would mean, they remained bewildered and afraid. How different it would have been if they had actually believed the promise of Jesus that their grief would be turned into joy. It is significant that Jesus does not speak of sorrow being replaced by joy but of sorrow being transformed into joy.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2008). John 12–21 (pp. 216–218). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 1221–1226). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Phillips, R. D. (2014). John. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (1st ed., Vol. 2, pp. 353–362). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Mounce, R. H. (2007). John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, pp. 592–593). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.