16 “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” 17 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’?” 18 So they were saying, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about.” 19 Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, “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’? 20 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. 21 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. 22 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. 23 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. 24 Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”
— John 16:16-24, ESV
Romeo and Juliet were old school, according to their creator, William Shakespeare. They did not sleep together while they were dating, partly out of fear of God, partly out of fear of their feuding families. When late night came, Romeo went to his place and left Juliet at hers.
The silver-tongued Romeo had a slick way of saying goodnight, though. “Good night, good night, parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.” Juliet swooned. But what is so sweet about sorrow?
That’s the question Jesus disciples had in mind on their last night together. They had left the upper room and Jesus was about to leave them. The next stop would be the garden of Gethsemane. There was time for a few final words and a prayer before betrayal, denial, and death.
It was not a happy moment when Jesus bid them goodnight. It was full of sorrow. But it was a sweet sorrow, for the sadness of death and loss would soon be overcome by the gladness of resurrection and a renewed relationship with God.
The Sorrow of Death
“A little while and you will see me no longer” meant Jesus was “going to the Father.” What do you call a person who has gone to be with the Lord? On earth you call them dead.
Jesus had been telling them for years that the reason He came to live in the world was to die for the world. Simon Peter had even rebuked Jesus for saying so, then Jesus turned around and rebuked Simon Peter for making such a selfish, satanic, statement. On this night as they walked from the upper room to the garden, Jesus was plainly telling them, like a jailor on death row, it’s time.
To add final insult to fatal injury, Jesus said, “The world will rejoice” when He dies, meaning the lost world of self-righteous Pharisees, self-serving politicians, and selfish people. Meanwhile, His followers, those who know Him and love Him and believe in Him, will “weep and be sorrowful.”
There is nothing but sorrow in death, at first. The dead are gone and we cannot see them. We can see their shell, but we cannot see them. We loved them. We depended on them. We enjoyed them, their wisdom, their virtue, their good humor. Nothing is left but tears, at first.
In this moment the disciples did not know enough to cry. But Jesus, as always, was teaching them, preparing them, loving them. In a matter of hours the tears would come.
They still should. The sorrow of death is an inseparable part of the telling of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to know that Jesus died. We need to feel that Jesus died. We need to understand why Jesus died.
Jesus died because people hated Him. Like His counter-person, the Holy Spirit, Jesus had told them they were sinners. He had told them they were not righteous, or right with God by their own supposed good works. He had told them they would face judgment, the indignation and separation foretold by the prophets before Him. You’d hate Him, too, and in fact you and I once did.
Jesus died because people sinned against Him. Judas betrayed Him. Peter denied Him. Herod made fun of Him. Pilate would not stand up for Him. Soldiers beat Him and drove the nails through Him. You and I, at some point, did all of those things, too.
Jesus died to forgive them, us, you, and me, if we truly believe in Him. Salvation is sweet, but you cannot drink it until you properly taste the sorrow of death. Today’s church is too busy being positive and entertaining to drink this cup. But it is part of the gospel, part of Christian worship, a major reason for partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Take a moment to absorb and experience the sorrow of the death of Jesus Christ, then prepare yourself for the sweet.
The Sweetness of Life
“Again in a little while, you will see me … and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
Once again we can see higher than the hill those first disciples were standing on in that moment. We have read the rest of the book. We know Jesus did die, and we know that on the third day afterward, He rose from the dead, actually, literally, bodily, visibly, eternally.
What we don’t know is how the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy felt to Peter, James, John, and the others. What was it like to see the resurrected Jesus? What was it like to rejoice with Him?
It must have been like playing football for Boston College when Doug Flutie through the Hail Mary that beat Miami. It must have been like the person who reads the winning PowerBall numbers in the morning paper and find they match the ones on her ticket. It must be like going to the doctor and finding out your terminal cancer has disappeared.
Jesus likened it to something far more exciting, childbirth. I’d like to hear a woman preacher address this text sometime. I’m sure she could do it more justice. But I’ve been in the room. There is great pain, accompanied by fear, especially if it is the first time. Then there is great joy, a cessation of suffering, a flood of endorphins. Finally, there is new life.
That’s how the disciples would feel like when they experienced the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The pain and sorrow of His death would give way to the joy and sweetness of His resurrection. Their lives, then at the end of this three-year gospel project, would be made new.
Post-Christ Christendom cannot be exactly the same, since none us were there two millennium ago. But it is effectually the same and it will be eternally the same. We see Jesus, with eyes of faith, crucified as Savior, killed by and for our sin. We see Jesus, in faith, resurrected as Lord, doing what only God can do, granting forgiveness, inputing righteousness, providing life.
Then one day, we will see the glorified Jesus with our own glorified eyes. We will see the scars. We will embrace His living, breathing, glorified body with our own glorified bodies. We will escape the sorrows of this earth, forever and bask in the sweetness of the new heaven and new earth, forever.
The Space in Between
Those first disciples were saved by grace through faith in the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, just like we living Christians. They are now in Paradise with the Lord, where we will go when our left behind loved ones will, for a little while, see us no more. But there is this space in between we call the Christian life, and Jesus tells us how to live it.
The whole Bible is filled with such instructions to which we do well to take heed. In this precise moment, Jesus mentions only one. But, it is an astounding promise. We are to “ask of the Father in my name [and] he will give it to you.”
Let us be constrained by the context. In this text, Jesus is telling His disciples what to do in between their justification by faith in the cross and their glorification at the end of life, when the rest of their eternal lives will be spent in the presence of God. He is talking about sanctification, this Christian life, the space in between our new life in Christ and our new life with Christ.
While we are being sanctified, Spirit-filled and word-taught and fit for service to Christ and His church, we can ask God for anything we need, for our sanctification, and He will give it to us.
This is not a blank check for prosperity gospel preachers to obtain planes, yachts, and two-thousand dollar tennis shoes. This is not a name-it-and-claim-it promise to you from some genie in a bottle. This is a serious promise from our Savior and Lord that anything you request to glorify Jesus’ name and make you more like Him, God will give it to you.
So, what do you want? Money, houses, automobiles, fame? Would these things glorify Christ and make you a better witness for Him? To the contrary. Do you want healing from any and all sickness, hair growing back on the top of your head, a slimmer figure? Would a better looking body make you a better member of the body of Christ? Not necessarily.
Ask for salvation, and God will give it to you. Ask for a good Bible and a good understanding God’s word, and God will give it to you. Ask for a faithful church, and for the perseverance to be a faithful member of the church, and God will give it to you. Ask for God to use you, in this short life, to influence others toward eternal life with Christ, and God will give it to you. Ask for the gospel to spread to the ends of the earth to pave the way for the second coming of Jesus Christ, and the gospel will go and Jesus will come again. Ask for the sorrow that comes with faithfully following the Lord Jesus Christ, and God will give you the sweetness of everlasting life with Christ. That’s sweet sorrow.