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Lesson 87: Overcoming Spiritual Failure (John 16:25-33)

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March 22, 2015

It’s a tribute to a musician when he can take an imperfect instrument and use it to play great music. It’s a tribute to a surgeon when he can perform a difficult operation in primitive conditions at a remote mission station without all of the sophisticated medical devices that are available in America. Even more so, it’s a tribute to our Lord that He uses imperfect instruments to establish and build His kingdom. Even the apostles, who were the foundation of the church, were not strong, brilliant, unusually gifted, men. They were weak men who often failed. Sometimes they are so spiritually clueless that when you read the accounts in the Gospels, you wonder, “How could they be so dull?”

But, as C. H. Dodd observed (cited by D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 549), “It is part of the character and genius of the Church that its founding members were discredited men; it owed its existence not to their faith, courage, or virtue, but to what Christ had done with them; and this they could never forget.” I would modify his comment by saying that it is not the church that should get the credit, but rather the Lord Jesus Christ. The fact that the church still exists today, in spite of the many failures of its members, is to the glory of our Lord.

Our text contains Jesus’ final teaching before His arrest to His disciples, all of whom are about to fail spiritually. As He tells them (John 16:32), “Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home, and to leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.” The disciples were about to desert Jesus in His moment of greatest need.

But they didn’t even see it coming. Earlier in the evening, Peter had declared that he was ready to lay down his life for Christ, but Jesus had predicted that before the night was over, Peter would deny Him three times (John 13:37-38). Now, the disciples all think that they understand Jesus clearly and believe in Him (John 16:29-30). But Jesus knew otherwise and let them know that they all will desert Him.

But He tells them these things so that their spiritual failure would not be final. He’s equipping them to overcome their failure and go on to serve Him. They would lose the battle that dark night, but they wouldn’t lose the whole war. His encouraging theme is (John 16:33), “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” We can sum up His message:

To overcome spiritual failure, be encouraged by God’s love and grace that is found in Jesus Christ.

We can be encouraged by five aspects of God’s love and grace that our Lord outlines in this text:

1. To overcome spiritual failure, be encouraged that there is always hope in Christ for future spiritual growth (John 16:25).

John 16:25: “These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; an hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figurative language, but will tell you plainly of the Father.” “These things” refers to the upper room discourse as a whole, and perhaps to His entire three years with them. The word translated “figurative language” (used elsewhere in John only in 10:6) refers to language where “the meaning does not lay on the surface, but must be searched for and thought about” (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 709). So the Lord recognizes their confusion over many of the things that He had said, and promises a time in the near future when He would speak about the Father in a way that they would understand. So in spite of their present spiritual confusion, He is giving them hope for future spiritual growth.

In John 2, after Jesus cleansed the temple, the Jews challenged Jesus for what He had done. He answered (John 2:19), “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John explains that Jesus wasn’t talking about the temple in Jerusalem, but rather about the temple of His body. He adds (John 2:22), “So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.” They were confused, but later gained spiritual understanding.

There are other instances where Jesus’ words and action were a mystery to the disciples at the time, but later they understood. For example, when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet and Peter protested, Jesus said (John 13:7), “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” They didn’t grasp the spiritual truth that Jesus was teaching at that moment, but later it became clear to them.

When Jesus refers to the hour that is coming (John 16:25), He may be speaking about the time after the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit would indwell them permanently and guide them into all the truth about Christ (John 16:13-14). But more immediately, He was referring to the 40 days after His resurrection, when (Luke 24:45), “He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” This was especially true with regard to the Scriptures about His suffering before He returned to His glory with the Father (Luke 24:26). Before the cross, the disciples couldn’t conceive of a crucified Messiah. Afterwards, God’s whole plan of salvation opened up to them.

But, you may wonder, why does the Lord speak in mysterious terms so that we’re left in the dark for a time? Why doesn’t He just make everything in the Bible clear to begin with? John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 156) remarks that the Lord allows us to “be stupefied for a time” so that we will learn our own spiritual poverty, before He brings clarity to us. If it were all easy, we’d take credit for our own brilliance, rather than humbly seek the Lord for understanding. When we recognize our own spiritual dullness and seek the Lord for insight, then, when the Lord gives us light, we glorify Him, not ourselves. Also (as we saw in John 16:12-13), the Lord knows how much we can bear at whatever stage of growth we’re in. As a patient father, He teaches us gradually as we’re able to learn.

Also, note that Christ promises to tell the disciples plainly of the Father. Calvin (ibid.) observes that Christ’s aim is “to lead us to God, in whom true happiness lies.” The only way we can know the Father is through His Son. As Jesus said (Matt. 11:27), “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” John 1:18 states, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” So we need the Holy Spirit to disclose the things of Christ to us (John 16:14) and we need Christ to reveal the Father to us. We are dependent on the Triune God for all spiritual understanding.

So, speaking to men who were confused and whom He knew would fail spiritually before that night was over, the Lord promises hope for future spiritual growth. And for all who have failed spiritually (which is all of us!), the Lord gives us hope for future spiritual growth. If we seek Him, He will tell us plainly of the Father.

2. To overcome spiritual failure, be encouraged by your privilege in prayer (John 16:26).

John 16:26: “In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I will request of the Father on your behalf; …” Jesus has repeatedly (John 14:13; 15:16; 16:23-24) told the disciples that now they are to ask the Father in His name. Here, He is clarifying further what that means. It does not mean that the Father will be distant and removed from the disciples, so that they have to work their way up the chain of command before He will listen to their requests. Rather, it’s quite the opposite. Because they now can come to the Father in Jesus’ name, they have direct access to the Father who, as Jesus adds, loves them because they love His Son.

There is no contradiction here with the passages that speak of our Lord’s perpetual intercession on our behalf (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25; 1 John 2:1; cf. Morris, p. 710). Our approach to the Father rests on Christ’s finished work on our behalf, which He continually pleads on our behalf. To pray in Jesus’ name means to come to the Father on the basis of all that Jesus is and all that He has done for us on the cross. It means to ask in line with His purpose and for His glory.

But what Christ here is teaching is that He doesn’t have to persuade a reluctant Father to be gracious to us. Rather, the Father Himself loves those who love and believe in Jesus. So through Christ, we now have direct access to the throne of the loving Father. Calvin exclaims (ibid., p. 158), “This is a remarkable passage, by which we are taught that we have the heart of the Heavenly Father as soon as we have placed before Him the name of His Son.”

If you fail spiritually, it may be because you haven’t prayed. But even when you’ve failed, you can still come to the Father and ask in Jesus’ name, not on the basis of your performance, but for His purpose and glory. Satan will come to you at a time of spiritual failure and tell you, “You have no right to pray! God is sneering at your hypocrisy! Don’t bother Him with your phony prayers!” Those are lies! Jesus encourages these men who are about to fail with the promise that they can go directly to the Father who loves them and He will hear them because of Christ’s finished work on the cross. That’s His promise to you when you fail spiritually!

3. To overcome spiritual failure, be encouraged by the Father’s special love and grace (John 16:27).

John 16:27: “For the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came forth from the Father.” Note that love for Christ and faith in Him are inextricably bound together. At first glance, this verse sounds as if God’s love for us is conditioned on our love for Christ and our faith in Him. But many other Scriptures contradict such a notion. First John 4:10 states, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” First John 4:19 adds, “We love [some manuscripts add, “God,” or “Him”], because He first loved us.” Paul states (Rom. 5:8, 10) that God loved us when we were still sinners and His enemies. So our love for Him is the result of His prior love for us.

The thought here is the same as we saw in John 14:23, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.” Or, as Jesus said (John 15:10), “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” He’s talking about a special love relationship that the Father has with all who love His Son. God loves the whole world (John 3:16), but He especially loves those who love His Son.

To illustrate, if my father had met Marla before I met her, he would have loved her as a younger sister in Christ, as he would have loved any Christian woman. But after Marla married me, my Dad had a special love for her because she loved his son. And if you love Jesus and believe in Him as the One sent from the Father, then the Father has a special love for you.

In this context, the Father’s special love is for men who were about to fail spiritually. So the encouragement for those who have failed is: Be encouraged by the Father’s special love and grace for you. Like the father of the prodigal son, the heavenly Father is eagerly waiting for you to return to Him. When you come home, you don’t get a lecture; instead, He throws a party!

Thus, to overcome spiritual failure, be encouraged that there is always hope in Christ for future spiritual growth; be encouraged by your privilege in prayer; and, be encouraged by the Father’s special love and grace.

4. To overcome spiritual failure, be encouraged by God’s sovereign plan of salvation (John 16:28).

John 16:28: “I came forth from the Father and have come into the world; I am leaving the world again and going to the Father.” Christ here succinctly summarizes God’s sovereign plan of salvation. Leon Morris (ibid., p. 711) states,

Here we have the great movement of salvation. It is a twofold movement, from heaven to earth and back again. Christ’s heavenly origin is important, else He could not be the Savior of men. But His heavenly destination is also important, for it witnesses to the Father’s seal on the Son’s saving work.

“I came forth from the Father, points to Christ’s eternal glory with the Father before the world began (John 17:5). As John (1:1) begins his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:13), “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.” (See John 6:38; contrast with John 8:14; 9:29.)

“I have come into the world.” Jesus came into the world to reveal the Father to us (John 5:19; 8:38, 40; 14:24). As we saw (John 1:14), “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Jesus testified to Pilate (John 18:37), “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth.” (See John 6:14; 11:27.)

“I am leaving the world again ….” He left the world by way of the cross. He went to the cross voluntarily, not because the Jewish leaders forced it on Him (John 10:17-18). The cross was the very reason that He came into this world. As He told Nicodemus (John 3:14), “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

“I am going to the Father.” This points to His resurrection from the dead and His ascension into heaven. Jesus would not have been raised from the dead and He could not have returned to the Father if the Father had not approved of His finished work on the cross.

How does this encourage us when we’ve failed spiritually? It helps us realize that the entire plan of salvation did not originate with us, but with the Triune God before the foundation of the world. As Paul states (Eph. 1:4-6),

He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

From start to finish, our salvation does not depend on our perfection, but rather on God’s sovereign love and grace. Again in Paul’s words (Phil. 1:6), “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” Finally,

5. To overcome spiritual failure, be encouraged that ultimately your peace is in Christ, not in your performance (John 16:29-33).

The disciples mistakenly thought that they understood now, but Jesus gently challenges their presumption. (The NIV’s translation of John 16:31, “You believe at last!” is not correct in light of the context.) But in spite of their lack of understanding and in spite of the Lord’s knowledge that they will shortly be scattered and leave Jesus alone, He concludes with a wonderful promise (John 16:33): “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

When the Lord chose you, He knew everything about you. He knew all of your secret sins. He knew all the awful thoughts you’d ever have. He knew all of the rotten words that you’d ever say. He knew all of the times when you’d arrogantly think that you knew, but you really didn’t know. He knew the times when you should have stood boldly for Him against the forces of darkness, but you’d turn and run. And yet He still chose you to be His child and He still offers you His peace in this troubled world!

With one exception (when the multitude spoke to blind Bartimaeus to encourage him that Jesus was calling for him; Mark 10:49), every time the words, “Take courage,” appear in the New Testament, they come from the lips of our Lord. In Matthew 9:2, He tells a paralytic, “Take courage, son; your sins are forgiven.” In Matthew 9:22, He tells the suffering woman who touched the hem of His garment, “Daughter, take courage; your faith has made you well.” In Matthew 14:27, He tells the frightened disciples who see Him walking on the water, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” After Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem, when he didn’t know how his future would turn out, the Lord appeared to him and said (Acts 23:11), “Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also.” And, here He tells the disciples, who are confused and about to fail, to take courage because in Him they have peace.

We could sum up these instances by saying that we can be encouraged by our Lord’s pardon (Matt. 9:2); His power (Matt. 9:22); His presence (Matt. 14:27); His purpose (Acts 23:11); and, His peace (John 16:33). Even when we fail, we can experience peace in our Savior who has overcome the world!


One reason I have gained so much by reading Christian biographies (and encourage you to read them, too) is that so many of the saints who did heroic feats for the kingdom also failed miserably at times. In my article, “Mining for Gold” (on the church web site), I mention that some of the greats, such as John Wesley and William Carey, had difficult marriages. David Livingstone was a loner who had numerous conflicts with fellow workers. He virtually abandoned his wife and children, who suffered greatly without him. Yet God used Livingstone to open Africa to the gospel!

C. T. Studd, famous for the quote, “If Christ be God and died for me, no sacrifice is too great for me to make for Him,” left his wife in poor health and went to Africa, returning to see her only once in the final 16 years of her life. He worked 18-hour days and expected everyone else to do likewise. His intense dedication to the cause of Christ made him intolerant of anyone who wasn’t equally committed. He alienated everyone around him, including his daughter and son-in-law. The mission that he had founded finally dismissed him.

Bob Pierce loved the world but abandoned his family. He was gone in ministry an average of ten months each year! He preached the gospel to huge crowds in the Far East and saw thousands respond. He founded World Vision to help the many hurting children he encountered. Yet his oldest daughter committed suicide. He and his wife were separated at several points in their marriage. He never tamed his explosive temper. Eventually, World Vision fired him. Yet he loved and served the Lord to the end of his life.

My point is not to take pot shots at these servants of the Lord nor, by pointing out their sin, to excuse my own. But seeing their shortcomings and failures helps me to realize that when I’ve failed spiritually, I can be encouraged by God’s love and grace that are found in the Lord Jesus Christ. If you’ve failed, there is hope for you if you take refuge in the loving and gracious Savior!

Application Questions

  1. Sometimes those who fail are encouraged to “forgive themselves.” Why is this unbiblical advice? What should they do?
  2. How can we accept God’s grace in our failures without turning it into license to sin again (Jude 4)?
  3. How can our spiritual failures strengthen us and be used to strengthen others? Consider Luke 22:31-32 in your answer.
  4. When does a person who has failed need exhortation versus encouragement? What guidelines apply?

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

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