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Lesson 86: Sorrow Turned into Joy (John 16:16-24)

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March 15, 2015

The late Scottish preacher, Alexander Whyte, observed that we all tend to hang heavy weights on the thinnest wires (source unknown). He meant that we hang our happiness on fragile things that easily and quickly can be taken from us: health, mates, children, jobs, homes, or possessions. These are all good blessings from the Lord. But they’re inadequate as a foundation for lasting joy, because they’re all so uncertain and transitory.

While any major loss is emotionally painful, it’s crucial that we learn how to work through such losses biblically, because we’re all going to face them. Peter (1 Pet. 5:8-9) indicates that it is precisely in times of suffering that the devil seeks to destroy our faith. I’ve seen many believers who have wiped out spiritually because they didn’t know how to face suffering biblically.

For example, some have the mistaken notion that because they believe in Jesus, He will protect them from major suffering. When tragedy hits, they feel that God had abandoned them. Others were taught to claim healing by faith. When that didn’t work, they were told that they didn’t have enough faith. Others have been under the impression that it is unspiritual to grieve or shed tears. So they tried to smile and say, “Praise the Lord,” around other Christians, but they were dying inside.

In our text, Jesus is preparing the disciples for the overwhelming sorrow that they would experience in the next few hours as they watched Him be arrested, mocked, scourged, and crucified. Their world would come crashing down around them. They had put their hopes and staked their futures on their belief that Jesus was the promised Messiah of Israel. The previous Sunday, their hopes were high as Jesus rode into Jerusalem to the “Hosannas” of the crowd. But now, everything that they had hoped for would come to a sudden, shocking end as they watched their Lord suffer and die. Jesus prepares them (and us) for suffering by teaching that:

The risen Lord Jesus will turn our sorrows into lasting joy as we look to Him in faith and prayer.

Jesus says (John 16:16), “A little while, and you will no longer see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me.” This caused confusion among the disciples, and it has caused confusion among Bible commentators! Some argue that the first “little while” refers to His ascension, whereas the second “little while” refers to His second coming. Others take the second “little while” to refer to the disciples “seeing” Jesus spiritually when He sent the Holy Spirit to them on the Day of Pentecost.

But it seems obvious to me from the context that the first “little while” refers to Jesus’ death, whereas the second “little while” refers to His resurrection. When Jesus was crucified, the disciples would weep and lament, while Jesus’ enemies would rejoice. But after the disciples saw the risen Lord, their sorrow would be turned to lasting joy, which no one could take from them (John 20:20). But we need to face reality:

1. We will have sorrows in this fallen world.

God decreed death as the penalty for sin. Although Christ has taken away the sting and victory of death (1 Cor. 15:54-57), He has not yet taken away the fact of death and the emotional pain that we feel when someone that we love dies. So we need to recognize:

A. Being Christians does not insulate us from experiencing deep sorrows.

The deeper that we have loved, the deeper our sorrow will be when the loved one is taken from us in death, especially when the death is unexpected. But the point we all need to understand is that there is nothing unspiritual about feeling deep sorrow and grief at a time of loss. True, our grief is different than that of the world, in that we have ultimate hope in Christ (1 Thess. 4:13). And yet, we still grieve. Isaiah 53:3 describes our Lord Jesus as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” It is not ungodly to grieve.

G. Campbell Morgan was a godly pastor and Bible teacher. When he was 30, he and his wife lost their little daughter in death. Forty years later, when he was preaching on Christ’s raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead, he made reference to the loss of their little girl, who in spite of their prayers, was not healed. He said (A Man of the Word [Baker], by Jill Morgan, p. 83), “She has been with Him for all those years, as we measure time here, and I have missed her every day; but His word, ‘Believe only,’ has been the strength of all the passing years.” Six months after his daughter’s death he wrote in his diary (ibid.), “Today I am thirty-one years old. Surely goodness and mercy have followed me all the days of my life! There have been no accidents. All under the Father’s government, and all best.”

So he knew the sustaining grace of the Lord, but he also felt his loss every day for the rest of his life! Although he was a godly man, he wasn’t insulated from experiencing deep sorrow over his loss. Like him, we should seek comfort in the Lord, but recognize the reality of our sorrows.

B. Our sorrows may be caused by many different factors.

There are far more causes than I can list here, but in our text we see several sources for the disciples’ sorrow:

1) Sorrow can stem from disappointment when something doesn’t go as we had hoped.

The comment of the men on the Emmaus Road to the risen Lord (whom they did not yet recognize) was no doubt one that all the apostles would have agreed with (Luke 24:21): “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel.” They thought that the Messiah would come and establish His reign over Israel, bringing in times of peace and blessing, as prophesied in the Old Testament. The disciples had forsaken everything to follow Jesus in the hopes that He was this promised Messiah. But now, contrary to all their hopes, He was falsely accused and executed. They were deeply disappointed. In the same way, when you have hoped and prayed and worked for something that you believed to be God’s will, but it didn’t happen, you will experience sorrow.

2) Sorrow can stem from confusion over something in the Bible or in our circumstances.

The disciples were confused over what Jesus was telling them, but they would be more deeply confused in the next few hours as they watched their beloved Lord suffer the most shameful, painful death imaginable. In spite of Jesus’ repeatedly telling them that He was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die, the disciples didn’t get it. They couldn’t conceive of a Messiah who did not come to establish His kingdom and reign (Ps. 2:6-9; 68:18; 110:1). They understood part of the Scriptures, but not all of them (Ps. 22; Isa. 53). In the same way, it’s easy for us to get confused because we do not understand the totality of the Bible’s teaching on something. We have our preconceived ideas about how things should turn out and when they don’t go that way, we are confused and sorrowful.

3) Sorrow can stem from the seeming triumph of evil people.

People with perverted values seem to prevail, while the righteous suffer. Jesus tells the disciples that the world would rejoice over His death. The smug religious leaders congratulated one another over finally getting rid of this pesky preacher from Galilee who threatened their power. In our day, when we see the horrific evil of the Muslim extremists as they gloat over killing innocent men, women and children, we feel deep sorrow and grief.

4) Sorrow can stem from living in this fallen creation.

Because of Adam’s sin, the whole creation was subjected to futility and death (Gen. 3:17-19; Rom. 8:20, 22). Although Christ conquered sin and death at the cross, we still live in a fallen world in bodies that are subject to disease and death. We still have to fight against the flesh, which is prone to sin, with its painful consequences. When others sin against us, we suffer sadness and sorrow. Sometimes the deep pain takes years to work through. Being Christians does not insulate us from experiencing such sorrow and pain. But …

2. The risen Lord Jesus promises to turn our sorrows into lasting joy.

I want to ask and answer three questions: (1) What kind of Savior is He? (2) How does He turn our sorrow into joy? (3) Why does He turn our sorrow into joy?

A. What kind of Savior is He?

Limiting myself to these verses, we see that …

1) The Lord Jesus is a sensitive Savior.

He knew that the disciples were confused about His comments. Even though He rightly could have chewed them out for being so slow to understand what He had repeatedly said, He graciously and patiently acknowledged their confusion and assured them that after a short season of sorrow, they would soon experience His lasting joy. Even though the Lord knew the future before it happened, He didn’t deal with the disciples in a cold, mechanical manner: “Buck up, guys, it’s all predestined to work together for your good!” As Psalm 103:13-14 states, “Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.”

2) The Lord Jesus is a suffering Savior who willingly went through unimaginable sorrow on our behalf.

In just a few moments, Jesus would sweat great drops of blood in the garden as He agonized in prayer over the thought of bearing our sins. Hebrews 5:7 says that “He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears ….” On the cross, He cried out in great agony the words of Psalm 22:1, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” He willingly “endured such hostility by sinners against Himself” (Heb. 12:3) on our behalf for the joy set before Him of bringing many children to glory (Heb. 2:10; 12:2). So (Heb. 4:15), “We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.”

3) The Lord Jesus is the risen Savior, who triumphed over sin and death.

Jesus says (John 16:22), “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.” The dramatic change in the disciples from grief to lasting joy was founded on seeing the risen Savior. Everything about the Christian faith—everything—rests on the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead. As Paul boldly states (1 Cor. 15:17), “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” The apostles were transformed from fearful, defeated, confused men into bold witnesses who were willing to suffer and die because they saw the risen Lord Jesus. Since He has been raised from the dead and ascended into heaven, He is coming again to conquer and reign. At that moment, all our sorrows will instantly be turned into eternal joy!

B. How does the Lord turn our sorrow into joy?

Briefly, in four ways:

1) The Lord turns our sorrow into joy by showing us the glory of the cross.

To have seen their beloved Lord beaten and bloodied, hanging on the cross, was the most horrible and shocking event of the disciples’ lives. I deliberately have not seen the popular movie, The Passion of the Christ, because I read a review by the late film critic, Roger Ebert, in which he said that it was by far the most violent movie he had ever seen. Since he had reviewed some pretty violent movies, I thought, “I don’t want that graphic violence burned into my brain!” But the disciples saw it in person and it must have sent them into deep shock.

But the amazing truth is that in all of their writings, they didn’t portray the cross in depressing, mournful tones, but rather as something glorious and triumphant. It was the center of their apostolic preaching because it was the basis upon which God could forgive our sins (Acts 2:23; 3:15; 4:10; 5:30; 1 Cor. 2:2). Paul even wrote that he gloried or boasted in the cross (Gal. 6:14).

The significant thing here (John 16:20) is that Jesus doesn’t say that the disciples sorrow would be replaced by joy, but rather that He would turn their sorrow into joy. He uses the analogy of a woman in labor (John 16:21). In that day before anesthesia, you could hear a woman crying out in anguish one minute and a few minutes later she was beaming with joy over the very thing that had caused her such anguish, namely, her newborn baby.

Paul wrote (Phil. 3:10-11) that our sufferings bring us into fellowship with Christ in His sufferings and so we attain to the resurrection of the dead. He said (Rom. 8:18) that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed to us. Hebrews 12 tells us that as we fix our eyes on Jesus and His suffering, we can then submit to God’s discipline in our lives, which yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. The Lord turns our present sorrow into joy as we get a deeper understanding of the glory of His cross.

2) The Lord turns our sorrow into joy by giving us an eternal perspective.

The Lord didn’t answer the disciples’ question on the spot, so that they then faced the cross the next day with clear understanding. But He did give them instruction that enabled them later to look back on this traumatic event with clarity and understanding. After the resurrection, as He opened the Scriptures to show them how the Messiah needed first to suffer and then enter His glory (Luke 24:26, 46-47), they got the big picture of what God was doing in history. That eternal perspective enabled them later to endure suffering for the sake of His kingdom.

In Psalm 73, the psalmist was confused and depressed as he saw the seeming prosperity of the wicked, while at the same time he was chastened every day. He was about to despair until he went into God’s sanctuary. Then he perceived the end of the wicked and how God was the eternal portion of the godly. That eternal perspective turned his sorrow into joy.

3) The Lord turns our sorrow into joy by being our Mediator to the throne of grace.

Jesus repeats (John 16:23-24) the promise to answer the disciples’ prayers offered in His name (see John 14:13-14; 15:7, 16). As we’ve seen, to ask in Jesus’ name is to ask in line with His will for that which will further His kingdom and His glory. It is to ask for what Jesus would want, based not on our merit, but on His blood and righteousness. When we ask and He answers, our joy will be made full.

As I explained when I spoke on John 14:13-14, there will be many times when you ask for something in Jesus’ name that you think will further His kingdom and glorify His name, but He doesn’t answer as you asked. At such times, we have to trust that He will work in ways that are beyond what we could ask or even think (Eph. 3:20). He often accomplishes His purposes in ways that seem backwards to us. Since we don’t understand all that God is doing and He doesn’t usually explain it to us, we may go to our graves not knowing why He seemingly didn’t answer our prayers. But when we pray and He answers, it floods us with great joy.

4) The Lord turns our sorrow into joy when we see Him risen from the dead through eyes of faith.

Jesus said (John 16:16, 17, 22) that the disciples would see Him again and then their hearts would rejoice and no one could take that joy away from them. They saw the risen Lord physically, which we can’t do. But we can see Him spiritually as we believe the apostolic witness. Peter wrote to suffering Christians (1 Pet. 1:8), “And though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory ….” It’s often in times of suffering that you see the Lord Jesus more clearly as the Holy Spirit opens up the riches of Christ to your soul in fresh ways. And, of course, our ultimate, eternal joy will sweep all of our sorrows away forever the instant we see Christ return in power and glory!

Thus Jesus is the sensitive, suffering, and risen Savior. He turns our sorrow into joy by showing us the glory of the cross; giving us an eternal perspective; being our Mediator to the throne of grace; and letting us see Him risen from the dead through eyes of faith. Finally:

C. Why does the Lord turn our sorrow into lasting joy?

1) He turns our sorrow into lasting joy because we grow to be like Him through the process of suffering.

James (1:2-5) exhorts us to consider it all joy when we encounter various trials because through those trials, we will become more like our Savior. Paul says something similar in Romans 5:3-5, where he says that he exults in his tribulations, knowing that they produce perseverance, proven character, and hope. You might say, “Couldn’t we just skip the sorrow part and move directly into the joy?” But Hebrews 5:8 says that even our Lord learned obedience through His sufferings. It’s not that He (like us!) was disobedient and had to learn to be obedient. But through suffering, He experienced what obedience is all about. Through our sufferings, we learn to be more like Him if we trust Him through the process.

2) He turns our sorrow into lasting joy so that we will be able to point others to His all-sufficiency.

It is only when the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies that it brings forth much fruit (John 12:24). Paul said (2 Cor. 1:4) that God comforts us in our affliction so that we will be able to comfort others in their afflictions with the comfort with which we are comforted by God.

Many years ago, a Salvation Army officer was preaching in Chicago when a man spoke out in front of the crowd, “You can talk about how Christ is dear to you, but if your wife were dead, as my wife is, and you had babies crying for their mother, you couldn’t say what you are saying.”

A few days later, that preacher’s wife was killed in a tragic train accident. At the funeral service, the grieving husband stood beside her casket and said, “The other day when I was preaching in this city, a man said that if my wife were dead and my children were crying for their mother, I couldn’t say that Christ was sufficient. If that man is here, I tell him that Christ is sufficient! My heart is crushed, bleeding, and broken. But there is also a song in my heart and Christ put it there. The Savior speaks comfort to me today.” The man who had raised the objection was present, and he surrendered his life to Christ. (From, “Our Daily Bread,” 1980.)


I conclude with two applications and a final observation:

First, in times of suffering, spend more time in God’s Word. A time of sorrow and grief is not the time to neglect your Bible. Of course, you should be seeking the Lord before such trials hit, so that you’ll already have the wisdom you need to get through the storm (see Prov. 1:20-33). But you also need to increase your time in the Word when you’re in the midst of the trial.

Second, in times of suffering, spend more time in prayer. It’s in the context of suffering that James (1:5) says, “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” Here, in the context of the disciples’ sorrow, Jesus again tells them to ask the Father in His name, promising that He will answer.

Finally, note that the flip side to these verses is that the world’s joy that comes from things that perish is temporary. Their joy will be turned to sorrow when those things perish and they face God in judgment. But when our risen Lord returns, our temporary sorrows will be turned to eternal joy!

Application Questions

  1. Where is the boundary between appropriate and inappropriate grief? When and how should a grieving person move on?
  2. I mentioned three faulty approaches to suffering. What are some others that you have encountered?
  3. What does biblical joy look like? Does it mean always being upbeat and smiling? If not, then what does it mean?
  4. If suffering is for our ultimate good, should we try to avoid it (through prayer, medicine, better circumstances, etc.)? Why?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation


Related Topics: Resurrection, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

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