The Ministry of the Holy Spirit (John 16:12-33)
Over 25 years ago, Jeannette and I moved into our first home. The house was exactly what we had hoped for. (It even had a fireplace. I confess, we turned on the air conditioning and lit a fire in the fireplace, just to try it out.) A number of our friends from church helped us move in, and we wanted to show our appreciation by having an open house after church on a particular Sunday evening. As you might imagine, that Sunday Jeannette was most eager to get home from church as quickly as possible, before our guests started to arrive.
I was on my way out of the church when Howard Prier, a highly respected elder, stopped me in the hallway. He wanted to engage me in a discussion, and I was not about to refuse. He led me into the sound and tape room, off the main hall, and then proceeded to ask me what I thought of a certain Greek preposition in a particular text. Jeannette and the girls were out in the hall, eager to get home. Every once in a while, I would look past Howard, where I could see my wife waiting for me in the hall. She would catch my eye and I knew exactly what she was trying to communicate: “Come on; let’s get going. We have company waiting at our house!”
Eventually, the Greek grammar discussion ended, and we hurried out to the car. It was obvious that we were late, but I just could not seem to disengage Howard from the conversation. We were a bit distressed, to say the least, when we finally arrived home. We discovered many more cars there than we had expected—indeed, than we had invited. You see, while we had been planning a gathering for our friends, these same friends had been planning a celebration for us. Mr. Prier and his wife Ann were there, a little late as well.
Suddenly, it all became very clear to us. So that’s what the discussion about Greek prepositions was all about. Howard had been assigned the task of delaying me, so that all our friends could arrive at our house first to surprise us. Jeannette and I now looked upon that discussion and our delay in an entirely different light. We had no earthly idea what Howard Prier really had in mind. All I could think of on the way home was that some of our friends were waiting at our house, wondering where we were. It appeared that Howard was keeping us from something we really wanted, but in truth he was preparing us for something even better (they surprised us with a new refrigerator). Once we realized it was all a part of a ploy so that we would be delayed and our friends could surprise us, we understood everything. Jeannette and I were no longer distressed—we were delighted!
This is the way it was with the disciples of our Lord as well. In John’s Gospel, as the time of our Lord’s death draws near, He seeks to prepare them for the future. The Upper Room Discourse contains a significant portion of our Lord’s preparatory teaching. As we read the things which Jesus told His disciples, it all makes sense to us. Of course, He was speaking of His crucifixion, death, resurrection, and return to the Father in heaven. But what is clear to us in retrospect was not at all clear to the disciples in prospect. They were confused and greatly distraught by Jesus’ words. They did not understand what He was talking about, and what they thought they understood, they did not like.
What a change a few days will make! Once the disciples see Jesus, raised from the dead, their sorrow turns to joy. When the Holy Spirit comes, our Lord’s teaching will seem obvious, and when compared to the events which will have occurred by then, they will see that Jesus foretold and fulfilled all this precisely. We must recall that when John writes this Gospel, he writes in retrospect, looking back on the events he is describing with understanding. But within the timeframe that John is writing about, the disciples are in a complete fog. They do not understand what is happening, or what Jesus is saying. And what they think they do understand, they don’t. What they think and say they grasp, they do not like.
Lest we suppose we are dealing only with matters of history, let me remind you that in many ways, our circumstances today are very similar to those of the disciples so many years ago. They were concerned with our Lord’s departure, as He had spoken of it to them. We are concerned about our Lord’s return, as He has described it as well, in His Word. Much of what our Lord has said of His return is unclear to us, just as much of what He said to them of His departure was unclear. Even with the Holy Spirit’s presence, our understanding of spiritual things is partial and imperfect: “For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
I would say this is particularly true of “things to come”: “Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. But we know that whenever it is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is” (1 John 3:2).
Just as Old Testament saints awaited the coming of the Messiah and the disciples looked forward to the departure of our Lord, so we wait for His final return and the consummation of all things. Our Lord’s words of instruction and comfort to His disciples apply to us on at least two levels. First, they speak of blessings which are future for the disciples, but which are present for us. Second, they instruct us how and why we should live in the present, in light of the certainty that His purposes and promises will be fulfilled. Therefore, let us heed the Lord’s words in our text, knowing that they are as important to us as they were to those men, so many years ago.
The Spirit of Truth
12 “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. For he will not speak on his own authority, but will speak whatever he hears, and will tell you what is to come.72 14 He will glorify me, because he will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you. 15 Everything that the Father has is mine; that is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you.”
While all Bible students do not agree on this point, it would seem that the Lord and His eleven disciples are no longer in the Upper Room. It appears to me that they have left, immediately after the question and answer discussion of chapters 13 and 14: “Get up, let us go from here” (John 14:31b).
I take it that the disciples are now winding their way through the narrow streets of Jerusalem, making their way toward the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane.73 Judas has long since left the group and is at this very moment making arrangements to hand Jesus over to the authorities (Jewish and Roman). Jesus can now speak freely and frankly, preparing His disciples for what lies ahead. He has spoken to them about the ministry of the Holy Spirit to the world (verses 8-11); now He speaks of the Spirit’s ministry to His disciples (16:12ff.).
Jesus has much more to say to them, but this is not the time to do so. I would like to suggest that we often wish God would tell us all that He is doing, or is about to do, at the time we wish to know it. And yet how gracious God is to withhold from us those things we do not need to know, those things which would only cause us needless anguish if we did know them. Jesus withheld information from His disciples for their own good. It was another manifestation of His grace not to tell them all they wanted to know. God is gracious, both in what He reveals, and in what He conceals. I wonder if this is how we view the “unknowns” in our life. “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29, NKJV).
We should also see from our text an example of the fact that God reveals truth to us progressively. Jesus had much to say to them, but not at that moment. Jesus will teach them after His resurrection and before His ascension (see Luke 24:13ff.), but most of the teaching will be done by the Holy Spirit, after our Lord’s departure. This is the subject of verses 13-16. While Jesus will be physically absent, the Holy Spirit will be present among and within them. The things which the Spirit teaches them are the things which Jesus will be teaching them. The reason Jesus can say this is that the truth which the Spirit is teaching is the truth which He hears from our Lord. The Spirit’s teaching comes from and glorifies the Lord Jesus (verses 3-4), just as our Lord’s teaching came from and glorified the Father (John 8:26, 40).
We should take note of the important fact that Jesus is speaking to His disciples here. He promises to reveal truth to them through the Spirit. He does not make a general statement, that new truth will be revealed to an indefinite number of people, over an indefinite period of time.74 He informs them that He will reveal His truth to them. I believe that this promise of future revelation through the Holy Spirit is a promise that pertains to the New Testament apostles75 and is not a promise which can be claimed by men today. By future revelation, I mean revelation which claims to be Scripture and which has authority as Scripture (i.e., the Bible). It seems clear to me that the apostles, through whom the New Testament Scriptures were given, were viewed as a distinct group, confined to New Testament times. Those who were to be regarded as true apostles were accredited by the “signs of a true apostle”:
1 Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:1-4).
16 For we did not follow cleverly concocted fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; no, we were eyewitnesses of his grandeur. 17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father, when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory: “This is my dear Son, in whom I am delighted.” 18 When this voice was conveyed from heaven, we ourselves heard it, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 Moreover, we possess the prophetic word as an altogether reliable thing. You do well if you pay attention to this as you would to a light shining in a murky place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you do well if you recognize this: no prophecy of scripture ever comes about by the prophet’s own imagination, 21 for no prophecy was ever borne of human impulse; rather, men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Peter 1:16-21).
Indeed, the signs of an apostle were performed among you with great perseverance by signs and wonders and powerful deeds (2 Corinthians 12:12).
A further observation should be noted. Jesus promises to reveal all truth to the apostles. We know that this does not mean that He will reveal all knowledge. How could the omniscience (all-knowing) of God be revealed to men? John makes clear that his Gospel, as all the others, is but a sampling of the things Jesus said and did: “This is the disciple who testifies about these things and has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. There are many other things that Jesus did. If every one of them were written down, I suppose the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:24-25).
Jesus must therefore mean that all the truth which is necessary for the church will be revealed through the apostles, and that there will be no lack to be made up later on. The words of Paul seem to support this conclusion as well:
18 When they arrived, he said to them, “You yourselves know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears, and with the trials that happened to me because of the plots of the Jews. 20 You know that I did not hold back from proclaiming to you anything that would be helpful, and from teaching you publicly and from house to house, 21 testifying to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus. … 25 And now I know that none of you among whom I went around proclaiming the kingdom will see me again. 26 Therefore I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of you all. 27 For I did not hold back from announcing to you the whole purpose of God. 28 Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. 29 I know that after I am gone fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Even from among your own group men will arise, teaching perversions of the truth to draw the disciples away after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that night and day for three years I did not stop warning each one of you with tears. 32 And now I entrust you to God and to the message of his grace. This message is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:18-21, 25-32).
In this text, Paul claims to have taught the Ephesians all the truth they needed to know. If they were taught all they needed to know, then there is no need for further revelation. Beyond this, Paul warns that false teachers will seek to convey “new truth,” which is nothing more than “man-made teaching” that appeals to fleshly desires and which will attract a following.
Peter’s words also imply a completeness concerning that which our Lord will reveal to and through His apostles:
3 I can pray this because his divine power has bestowed on us everything necessary for life and godliness through the rich knowledge of the one who called us by his own glory and excellence. 4 Through these things he has bestowed on us his precious and most magnificent promises, so that by means of what was promised you may become partakers of the divine nature, after escaping the worldly corruption that is produced by evil desire (2 Peter 1:3-4).
Leon Morris therefore issues a sober warning:
Believers should be very careful here, for from time to time through the history of the Christian church, people have arisen who have said that they had new revelations and they have led people astray. It is important for us to keep a firm hold on the truth that the definitive revelation has been given in Scripture. Christian teaching is the teaching God gave through Christ and Christ’s apostles. Nothing can claim to be authentic Christian teaching that does not agree with this.76
Allow me to point out one more observation. The revelation which our Lord promises the apostles is not only from Christ, it is Christ-centered: “He will glorify me, because he will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you. Everything that the Father has is mine; that is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you” (John 16:14-15).
The revelation which is promised is that truth which has come from the Father, to the Son, and through the Spirit. It is thus our Lord’s teaching. But it is not merely the teaching of (i.e. from) our Lord; it is the teaching concerning our Lord. False revelations are those which appeal to man’s fallen desires (2 Timothy 4:1-4; 2 Peter 2:18-22), which elevate men (Acts 20:30; 1 Corinthians 1:10ff.), and which draw men’s focus away from Christ (1 Corinthians 1:22-31; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 2:18-25). Any teaching which claims to be divine revelation and does not exalt Christ is false teaching. A preacher friend of mine used to say, “All false teaching is either the Bible plus, or the Bible minus.” False teaching either seeks to add to or to take away from Scripture. I think one can also say, “All false teaching is either Christ plus, or Christ minus.” Paul would say, “True teaching is Christ only.”77
The Disciples’ Joy78
16 “In a little while you will see me no longer; again after a little while, you will see me.” 17 Then some of his disciples said to one another, “What is the meaning of what he is saying, ‘In a little while you will not see me; again after a little while, you will see me,’ and, ‘because I am going to the Father’?” 18 So they kept on repeating, “What is the meaning of what he says, ‘In a little while’? We do not understand what he is talking about.” 19 Jesus could see that they wanted to ask him about these things, so he said to them, “Are you asking each other about this—that I said, ‘In a little while you will not see me; again after a little while, you will see me’? 20 I tell you the solemn truth, you will weep and wail, but the world will rejoice; you will be sad, but your sadness will turn into joy. 21 When a woman gives birth she has distress because her time has come, but when her child is born, she no longer remembers the suffering because of her 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 away from you. 23 At that time you will ask79 me nothing. I tell you the solemn truth, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.80 24 Until now you have not asked81 for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive it, so that your joy may be complete.
Jesus made a comment about the future, which His disciples found impossible to understand: “In a little while you will see me no longer; again after a little while, you will see me” (verse 16). No one seemed willing to address their questions to Jesus. Instead, they spoke among themselves. It would appear that this took place as the disciples wound their way through the narrow streets of Jerusalem, on their way to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. How and why would they not see Jesus? To what period of time was Jesus referring by the expression, “a little while”? How and when would they see Jesus after a little while? What did He mean by saying He was “going to the Father”?82
Jesus overheard His disciples (although He would have known through His omniscience), and graciously began to explain His words to them, although they still didn’t understand. Jesus lets them know that He is answering the questions which they had just discussed among themselves. Soon, they will “weep and wail,” while the world will rejoice. The term “weep” is frequently employed for the mourning that occurs due to the death of someone (see Mark 5:39; Luke 7:13; 8:52; John 11:31, 33). Indeed it is used in Mark 16:10 for the disciples, who wept over the death of our Lord. Jesus is therefore telling His disciples that they will momentarily experience great sorrow over His death. At this same period of time, the unbelievers (the world) who have crucified Jesus will rejoice over His death. It will seem like their hour of triumph. At last, they are rid of Jesus, or so it appears. The disciples’ time of sorrow will be short, and then their sorrow will be turned to joy. How great the joy of the disciples was when they learned that Jesus had been raised from the dead (Luke 24:41, 52).83
It has been observed that Jesus does not tell His disciples that their sorrow will be replaced by joy, but rather that their sorrow will be turned into joy. There is a very significant difference. Many wish to have joy, but they want to have it without sorrow. If joy is sorrow which God has transformed into joy, then we must endure the sorrow to experience the joy. This truth is illustrated by our Lord’s words which follow in verse 21. What a blessing it is for a woman to be able to bear a child … and, what a pain! She must first endure the pains of childbirth before she can enjoy the pleasure of holding that child in her arms. The birth of a child comes only through the pain of childbirth. So it is with suffering and sorrow in the lives of our Lord’s disciples. There is a short time of pain, but that very pain is transformed into eternal joy. Paul describes it this way:
16 Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
As it is for a woman in childbirth, so it will be for the disciples. They will experience great sorrow because of the death of Jesus, but they will see Him again, raised from the dead. This will turn their sorrow into everlasting joy, a joy that no one will ever be able take away from them.
In 16:5, Jesus seems to mildly rebuke His disciples for not asking Him any more questions about where He is going. They did not ask for all the wrong reasons. They didn’t want Jesus to know they didn’t understand. They didn’t want to admit their ignorance. They didn’t want to look bad. But when they see Him again, raised from the dead, then they will not ask Him anything (16:23), because they will not need to. At that time, whatever they ask84 the Father in the name of the Son will be given to them. Jesus commands them to pray in His name, assured that they will receive what they have requested, and in so doing, their joy will be made complete.
Consider the inference of these words. Christian joy is not to be found in having everything you’ve ever wanted. Joy is not the lack of want,85 but rather in having needs so great that only God can fill them, and then in seeing Him provide for us in response to our prayers. The Father will give us what we have requested, so that we may experience great joy. In other words—words which we have heard before—joy is the result of abiding in Christ.
Though the disciples will experience great sorrow for the next few days, their hearts will rejoice when they see Jesus once again. This joy cannot be taken from them. The disciples were concerned because Jesus was going away, where they could not follow. They thought they were losing Him, but in truth they were gaining Him. His promise is that He will never leave them nor forsake them (Hebrews 13:5). Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, our Lord will continue to dwell among them, in a more intimate and permanent way. Since their joy is in Him and He will never leave them, no one will ever be able to rob them of their joy in Him.
The disciples have not yet begun to enjoy the benefits of this new relationship. They have not yet petitioned the Father for their needs in the name of Jesus Christ. They are now encouraged to do so. Jesus assures them that when they make their requests in His name, the Father will provide for them, and in this they will experience an even greater joy than they have known up to this point in time. It is not getting worse for the disciples, as they fear; it is getting better and better.
Is this promise of our Lord’s presence, of answered prayers, and of permanent joy not ours, as well as the disciples who first heard Jesus speak of it? Why is it, then, that we find so many joyless Christians? I would suggest it may be because we are looking for joy in all the wrong places. It is His joy that we are to pursue (see John 15:11). This is not the “joy” that the world seeks. The world seeks for a “joy” that is rooted in the absence of trials and suffering, that delights in the promotion of self-interest, and often in the downfall of one’s rivals. First and foremost, our joy is knowing for certain that Jesus is alive, risen from the dead (see Matthew 28:8; Luke 24:41, 52). Our joy is in the abasement of self, in the exaltation of Jesus Christ (see John 3:29), and in sacrificial service (Philippians 2:17). Our joy is in the Lord, in His salvation, and His working in the lives of others (Acts 15:3; Romans 15:13; 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20; 1 John 1:4; 3 John 4).
If we abide in Him, what pleases Him pleases us; what grieves Him grieves us; what gives Him great joy becomes our joy as well. When false teachers come, they seek to turn us from Christ, and to the degree that they are able to do this, they rob us of our hope, our joy, our love, and all that comes from Him. No wonder Paul is so emphatic about the sufficiency and centrality of Christ:
1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for as many as have not met me face to face. 2 My goal is that their hearts, having been knit together in love, may be encouraged, and that they may have all the riches of full assurance in their understanding of the knowledge of the mystery of God, namely, Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 4 I say this so that no one will deceive you through arguments that sound reasonable. 5 For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit, rejoicing to see the order and the firmness of your faith in Christ. 6 Therefore, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and firm in your faith just as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. 8 Be careful not to allow anyone to captivate you through an empty, deceitful philosophy that is according to human traditions and the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him all the fullness of deity lives in bodily form 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head over every ruler and authority. 11 In him you also were circumcised—not, however, with a circumcision performed by human hands, but by the removal of the fleshy body, that is, through the circumcision done by Christ. 12 Having been united with him in baptism, you also have been raised with him through your faith in the power of God who raised him from the dead. 13 And even though you were dead in your transgressions and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, he nonetheless made you alive with him, having forgiven all your transgressions. 14 He has destroyed what was against us, a certificate of indebtedness expressed in decrees opposed to us. He has taken it away by nailing it to the cross, 15 and disarming the rulers and authorities, he has made a public disgrace of them, triumphing over them by the cross (Colossians 2:1-15).
The Disciples’ Peace
25 “I have told you these things in obscure figures of speech;86 a time is coming when I will no longer speak to you in obscure figures, but will tell you plainly about the Father. 26 At that time you will ask in my name, and I do not say that I will ask the Father on your behalf. 27 For the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. 28 I came from the Father and entered into the world; but in turn, I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.”
29 His disciples said, “Look, now you are speaking plainly and not in obscure figures of speech! 30 Now we know that you know everything and do not need anyone to ask you anything. Because of this we believe that you have come from God.”
31 Jesus replied, “Do you now believe? 32 Look, a time is coming—and has come—when you will be scattered, each one to his own home, and I will be left alone. Yet I am not alone, because my Father is with me. 33 I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In the world you have trouble and suffering; but have courage, I have conquered the world.”
You can see that verses 25-33 are an interchange between Jesus and His disciples. In verses 25-28, Jesus makes His disciples a very encouraging promise. He knows that they are mystified about all that He has been saying to them about the future. He is speaking in vague terms so that they will not understand immediately, but also in order that they will understand in the future. They will soon look back and recall that the very things that had happened to them were the things Jesus foretold.
Jesus promises that a time is coming when His obscure speech will be replaced by very clear teaching. At that time, He will tell them plainly about the Father. At that time, they will ask in His name, and their petitions will be granted. He has already promised this, but here He indicates a substantial change. It is but another one of those “improvements” which the disciples are about to experience in the future, because of His going away. When they petition the Father in the name of the Son, they will not merely receive the answer to their prayers through the Son. They will receive the answers to their prayers directly from the Father. Jesus will have an intercessory ministry on our behalf, but His work on the cross will bring about a personal, intimate relationship between the Father and all who trust in His Son. No wonder the veil was torn asunder when Jesus died on the cross (Matthew 27:51). We now can come to God directly, because of the Son:
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the fresh and living way that he inaugurated for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in the full assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. 23 And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy. 24 And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, 25 not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:19-25).
The Father will personally attend to the prayers of Jesus’ disciples, because of His love for them, a love which is the same as His love for the Son (14:23; 17:26). He will do so because of the Son’s coming to this earth (to die for our sins) and because He has returned to the Father. These benefits are the fruit of our Lord’s coming and leaving. Once more, it is better for them that He should depart (John 16:7).
What incredible blessings Jesus promises His disciples! But they didn’t understand a thing He was saying, as John makes very clear by the words of verses 29 and 30. Paraphrased, the disciples seem to be saying:
“Why didn’t you say so sooner? Now we get it. Okay, it’s all clear to us now. You’re no longer speaking in riddles, but plainly. Now we see that You really do know everything, so that we don’t have to ask You any more questions, to help You clarify any points. And because we now see this clearly, we believe that You have truly come from God.”
Notice what they are saying here. They have not repeated any of the content of Jesus’ latest words. They have not told Him what they think He has just said, so that He can confirm the accuracy of their interpretations. They have only told Him that they understand, and because of this, they won’t need to question Him further. This is a very neat way of giving the impression you know something that you don’t and of explaining why you are not asking any questions.
No doubt they did believe that Jesus had come from God. I do doubt that they grasped what His return to the Father was all about, and I’m virtually certain they don’t have a clue as to what He has just told them. They are embarrassed at their ignorance, and they want to look good in His eyes. They want His approval, and at the same time, they want Him to think they understand everything He is saying so that He won’t be frustrated by their confusion. The simple fact is that no matter what they profess to grasp, they cannot and do not understand what Jesus has been telling them. He has, in fact, been telling them that they would not understand what He was saying to them, not now anyway.
Jesus patiently and lovingly deals with His disciples at this moment of ignorance and confusion. He did not expect them to understand. However, He does not allow their pretense to stand, unchallenged. He is the One who is all-knowing, and this includes His knowledge of what they claim to know, and yet do not. And so He says to them (loosely paraphrased):
“I know you really don’t understand, and the level of your present belief is far from impressive. Time will tell. There is a time coming, coming very soon, when you will all abandon Me and scatter, hiding out in your own homes. You will leave Me alone, but I won’t really be alone because the Father is with Me. The reason I have told you these things is not with the expectation that you would understand them immediately (as you have professed to do), but so that you may have great peace in the future, when you see how all these things of which I have spoken take, just as I said. You will then see that all things are under My control. You will see how this tribulation of mine was purposed to bring about great blessing for you. Thus, in the midst of your tribulations on My behalf, you will have courage, knowing that I have conquered the world.”
Jesus lets His disciples know that they have not put anything over on Him, that He knows full well that they still do not understand what He is saying, or what is about to take place. The belief they profess is not nearly as strong as they suppose. The events of the next few hours will prove this, for virtually every one of them will abandon Him. And when these traumatic days pass and the words of our Lord come to pass, then they will be greatly strengthened in their faith, and empowered to live courageously in a hostile world, knowing that Christ has won the victory over the world.
We need to exercise caution in the application of this passage because it applies directly to the eleven disciples, and indirectly to us. We are the benefactors of much that Jesus has foretold here, and which has subsequently come to pass. We will never face some of the things which the disciples did. We will never know the sense of loss and defeat that the disciples did when Jesus died on the cross of Calvary. Neither will we experience the relief and joy at seeing Jesus, raised from the dead (John 20:20). We will not be those through whom the gospel was defined and by whom the New Testament Scriptures were written. Nevertheless, while we are not apostles as these men were to become, we are His disciples, and thus this text applies to us as well.
We are able to read these words of our Lord in the light of their fulfillment. We can understand what completely confused the disciples. We will never know the bewilderment and apprehension that they did, simply because our Lord’s words were a puzzle to them at that moment in time. But we can identify with the disciples in this sense: there are things yet future for us, which are declared in Scripture, but which we do not fully understand. We live at a time when we do not yet “fully know” all that God has in store for us and for the future. We, too, “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), but then we will know (cf. 1 John 3:2).
Why did Jesus tell the disciples things that they could not understand at the moment? Why do the Scriptures contain many prophecies which we do not understand at the time? One reason is to remind us that we don’t fully understand. That is what it means to be a disciple. We are learners, who learn at His feet as we abide in Him. He knows. He is the Truth. And it is clear that He does not reveal everything we might wish to know at one time. He reveals what we need to know and conceals what we should not know (Deuteronomy 29:29). As these prophecies are fulfilled and we look back on our Lord’s words, we will see that He has done just as He said He would. This will be even further basis for praising Him.
While our Lord’s words will, in the future, be understood in all their particulars, they have a message for us now, in general. From what Jesus was telling the disciples, one should discern that He knows the future, indeed, that He controls the future. His life will not be taken from Him; He will lay it down, voluntarily, and He will take it up again (John 10:14-18). We know that what is yet to happen is not only for His glory, but for our good. We know that He will sustain us through our times of trial and tribulation, just as we know that He will bring us to glory. If we know that He is in control, and that His plans are for our good, why should we worry? We don’t need to know the details of what He has for us in the future. We need only to trust in Him who is in control of the past, the present, and the future.
Let me illustrate what I am saying by calling your attention to the Book of Revelation. Who would dare to say that they understand every detail of this great book, penned by the same author—John? We do not understand many of the details, but there are certain truths which should leap out at us. First, Jesus is in heaven, exalted and glorified, and magnificent, so that one like John, who used to recline on His breast, falls before Him as a dead man (Revelation 1:17). Second, we know that the church will face many temptations and trials, and that our faithfulness will be tested and rewarded (see chapters 2 and 3, for example). Third, we know that a time of great satanic activity and resistance is coming, when saints will undergo suffering unlike anything the people of God have ever experienced before. Fourth, we know that our Lord is in complete control of every event in the future, and that in the end He will put away sin and Satan and death for all time. He will judge the wicked and usher the righteous into His kingdom, a kingdom beyond our ability to fathom now (compare 1 Corinthians 2:9). Is this not enough to know from the Book of Revelation, even if the details of that book perplex us? I think that it is.
We should be admonished by the puffed up claims of the disciples. The disciples claimed to fully understand Jesus, His ministry, and His message. They most certainly did not. We should be very careful about assuming that we “have it all together” in matters which we may not understand as well as we claim. The fundamentals should be clear to us, but there are many other things which we will only “know” clearly and completely “then.” We should especially be wary of those who would seek to teach us, claiming they have a full and complete grasp of God’s truth. The most brilliant scholars and students of Scripture that I know are still the best students, ever seeking to understand His Word better, and willing to listen to the insights of other students of Scripture. Those who know it all do not need to learn any more, they think. They need only to teach, and not to be taught.
This passage teaches us that those things which are most perplexing, and even most distressing, are often the things which God transforms into His richest blessings. In the Bible, some of man’s darkest moments were transformed into times of blessing. The curse of death which came because of Adam’s sin became the cure when Jesus Christ, the “last Adam,” died in the sinner’s place. Abraham and Sarah were as good as dead, humanly speaking, so far as child-bearing was concerned. They tried to figure out some way to produce a child on their own, which only led to trouble. Finally, God gave them a child in a miraculous way, glorifying Himself and bringing about good for Abraham and Sarah. Think of how difficult it must have been for Noah to have spent many years of his life preparing an ark, when he may not have even seen rain up to this point in time. Think of all the people in the Gospels who suffered from blindness, demon-possession, being lame, and leprosy. It was these suffering saints who experienced God’s gracious hand, and many of them came to saving faith. No wonder our Lord could say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. Blessed are those who mourn, because they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:3-4).
In your darkest moments, when life makes no sense, and you have no idea what God is doing, you can rest in the simple fact that God is infinitely good, infinitely loving, and infinitely powerful. He can and will cause “all things to work together for good” to those who are His chosen, to those who trust in Him (see Romans 8:28). God delights in transforming those things which seem most threatening, most unpleasant, and most dreaded, into blessings. He took death and the fear and bondage it produces and defeated it on the cross (see Hebrews 2:14-15). Now, all that death can do is usher us into the presence of God (see 1 Corinthians 15:54-58; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23).
If there is one thing that has most struck me from this text, it has been this realization: It is the cross of Jesus Christ which puts everything in focus. The disciples had no idea what was about to happen. They were completely perplexed about what Jesus was telling them. The cross was the goal of our Lord’s life and the means by which He fulfilled the Father’s (and His) purposes and promises. After the cross, the disciples understood what Jesus’ mission was all about. They understood what He had been teaching them. It is the cross which makes Jesus’ teachings clear. It is the cross which is the key to understanding all of the Bible, Old Testament or New. Take away the cross of Calvary, and the Bible makes no sense at all. It is from the vantage point of the cross that the message of the Bible becomes clear. Is this not what Paul was saying in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians?
7 But if the ministry that produced death, carved in letters on stone tablets, came with glory so that the Israelites could not keep their eyes fixed on the face of Moses because of the glory of his face (a glory that was fading away), 8 how much more glorious will the ministry of the Spirit be? 9 For if there was glory in the ministry that produced condemnation, how much more does the ministry that produces righteousness excel in glory! 10 For indeed, what had been glorious now has no glory because of the tremendously greater glory of what replaced it. 11 For if what was fading away came with glory, how much more has what remains come in glory. 12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we behave with great boldness, 13 and not like Moses who used to put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from staring at the end of the glory that was fading away. 14 But their minds were closed. For to this very day, the same veil remains when they hear the old covenant read. It has not been removed because only in Christ is it taken away. 15 But until this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; 16 but whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is present, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:7-17, emphasis mine).
The cross is the test of orthodoxy. Those who would turn us from the cross of Christ are false teachers, who should be avoided (see 1 Corinthians 1; Colossians 1 & 2). The cross of Christ is what removes the “veil” of blindness from the eyes of unbelieving Jews, and Gentiles too. Have you come to the cross? Have you trusted in Jesus Christ as the Holy One of God, who died on the cross of Calvary for your sins? Once having come to the cross by faith in Jesus Christ, we must always stay near the cross. It is the view from the cross which brings everything else into focus. This is why, in our church, we observe the Lord’s Table weekly. We must always, daily, come back to the cross. It is by means of the cross that Jesus saved us. It is by means of the cross that all of His promises will be fulfilled. It is the cross which should shape our perspective (we should take up our cross daily). It is in the light of the cross that the Scriptures become clear. No wonder the disciples could not yet grasp what Jesus was saying about the future. For them, at that moment, the cross was still future. How different it will soon be for them, as they look back from the cross and the empty tomb. How different it should be for us, looking ahead from the cross and the empty tomb!
72 I do not think that the expression “what is to come” refers primarily (or at least exclusively) to distant prophecy. The verb “tell” here is elsewhere (John 4:25) rendered “explain” by the NIV. I believe that Jesus is telling His disciples that when the Holy Spirit comes, He will enable the disciples to understand the events surrounding His death, resurrection, and ascension. Is this not clear to Peter in Acts 2 and afterward?
73 “Are Jesus and his eleven disciples still making their way along narrow streets and paths toward the Kidron Valley? Are the men clumping together in little groups of various combinations as the confines of the way rearrange them again and again? Is this what prompts the questions to flit around the group? Perhaps so; it is difficult to be certain of the physical setting at this point.” D. A. Carson, The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus: An Exposition of John 14-17 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), p. 156.
74 In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul speaks of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, whereby He enables Christians to understand spiritual truth, but this is not the same as having the ability to reveal truth which is regarded as Scripture.
75 It is self-evident that more than the twelve were known as “apostles” in the New Testament. It is also apparent that a number of the New Testament books were not written by one of these apostles, but by other New Testament “apostles” (e.g., Mark, Luke, Acts, Paul’s Epistles). In my opinion, all the New Testament authors should be viewed as “apostles,” and in a distinct category from anyone else, from that time on.
78 “… the first century was a time of sadness. Maurice Jones wrote of the ancient world: ‘It was a world where the burden of sin and of human misery was intensely realised.’ Stoicism was a grim creed, pessimistic at its heart. And Epicureanism, with its pursuit of pleasure, denied that the gods had any concern for mortals in their troubles—we are left to do the best we can for ourselves. Other philosophies and the religions of the day were little better. They brought no certainty of divine help, and people were conscious that their efforts did not measure up. There is evidence of widespread dissatisfaction with life but no solution to the quest for better things.” Leon Morris, Reflections on the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), vol. 3, p. 549.
“New Testament Christianity introduced something new into the world of religion—the note of real and deep joy. Few things are as important for an understanding of Christianity (and few things are as little noticed) as the recognition that the note of joy runs right through the New Testament. A. M. Hunter speaks of ‘that radiant optimism which began with the coming of Christ and which fills the pages of the New Testament from the four Gospels to the Revelation of St. John the Divine.’ William G. Morrice has a book entitled Joy in the New Testament, in which he examines twenty-four words the New Testament writers used to convey this sense of joy, words that occur a total of 326 times. Joy is not a minor part of New Testament Christianity but something that runs through and through the whole. It was not that the early Christians had it easy. Far from it, their lot was often a very hard one indeed. But they had learned that joy can be all-pervasive, so that it persists even in suffering (Rom. 5:3; Col. 1:24; etc.). It is this aspect of the Christian way that comes before us in the passage that forms our present study.” Morris, vol. 3. pp. 549-550.
79 “The verb here means ‘ask a question’ rather than ‘ask for something.’ In ‘that day,’ once Jesus has risen from the dead and the Holy Spirit has been bequeathed, they will no longer need to ask the questions with which they ply Jesus and demonstrate their profound confusion. They will enjoy a fullness of understanding which will swallow up their present confusion in joyful comprehension.” D. A. Carson, The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus: An Exposition of John 14-17 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), p. 162.
80 “We should bear in mind that, with small variations, this promise is repeated six times in this discourse (14:13, 14; 15:16; 16:23, 24, 26; cf. also 15:7). Quite clearly Jesus means his followers to take prayer with much greater seriousness than we often do.” Leon Morris, Reflections on the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), vol. 3, p. 555.
81 “The verb for ‘ask’ in this text means ‘ask for something’ rather than ‘ask a question’: the thought has moved on from 16:23a. But the real stress lies on the phrase ‘in my name.’ Of course, the disciples could not yet have asked for things in Jesus’ name: the mediatorial role of Christ in this regard turns on his cross-work. Now, however, in anticipation of that completed work, they are invited to ask the Father for things—to ask in Jesus’ name.” Carson, The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus: An Exposition of John 14-17, pp. 162-163.
“The meaning of these words [in verse 23] is not beyond dispute for, while the verb ask can mean ‘ask a question,’ it can also mean ‘ask in prayer.’ In the next sentence Jesus refers to prayer, and some scholars think that he is doing that here and simply using two different words for prayer. But the strong expression ‘you will ask me nothing’ is against this. In point of fact the disciples did pray to Jesus, so if this refers to prayer they did not fulfill it. It seems more likely that we should take the verb in its more usual sense of asking a question. The disciples had been asking quite a lot of questions in the Upper Room, but the resurrection would answer so many of them that they would be in a completely new situation.” Leon Morris, Reflections on the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), vol. 3, p. 554.
82 The disciples found themselves struggling to grasp what these words meant, not unlike the way we struggle to understand prophecies of “things to come” for us. At least they honestly admitted their ignorance.
83 Some dispute the interpretation that Jesus is speaking of the disciples’ sorrow and their joy as being related to our Lord’s imminent death and resurrection. Carson forcefully defends the view that this is, indeed, what our Lord is saying:
“There are, however, several indications which argue strongly that the passage … refers simply to Jesus’ departure by the death of the cross and his return by resurrection. The following points should be noted: (1) Only John 16:16 adds the phrase ‘after a little while’ to the promise ‘you will see me.’ This is not accidental. (2) The picture of the disciples weeping and mourning while the world rejoices (16:20) fits only the period during which Jesus is in the grave. After the resurrection, John is careful to point out, the ‘disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord’ (20:20). Acts attests that the early Christians after Pentecost experienced great joy (Acts 13:52; cf. 5:41; 16:25). Only while Jesus’ body lay in the tomb were the disciples overwhelmed with grief. (3) The analogy of the woman giving birth likewise fits best into the sharp, short agony of the three-day period immediately ahead. (4) This interpretation fits best into the Farewell Discourse. Jesus’ departure and subsequent return at the parousia have already been treated, as also has his return by the Spirit; but so far Jesus has said nothing unambiguous about the three-day departure into death.” D. A. Carson, The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus, p. 158.
84 It is important to note that in the NET Bible, the first word translated “ask” in verse 23 is erwtaw, while the second “ask” is a translation of the Greek word aitew. The NAB reflects the distinction in these verbs and their meaning by this rendering: “In that day you will not question Me about anything. Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you” (emphasis mine). After our Lord’s resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples will no longer need to question our Lord about the meaning of His words and the events which are taking place. They will, however, be constantly asking Him to provide for their every need.
85 It may occur to someone that in Psalm 23:1 the psalmist says, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” We must surely see that this is no “blank check,” assuring us that we can have whatever we want (athough Asaph at one time wrongly supposed so—see Psalm 73), whatever we ask for (see James 4:2-3 here), but rather we will never lack anything we truly need, anything which is for our good and His glory.
86 “Our passage begins with an expression difficult to translate exactly. I have rendered it ‘I have said these things to you figuratively’ (v. 25), but the problem is in the words translated ‘figuratively.’ More literally they mean ‘in dark sayings,’ which might be understood as ‘in parables’ or ‘in metaphors’ or ‘in figures of speech.’ The expression could be used for a parable (though it is not the normal word in the New Testament for this way of teaching), or it could be used for a proverb or for almost any kind of ‘wise saying.’ It has quite a range of meaning, but essentially it points to a way of speaking in which the meaning is not obvious. It requires some hard thinking to get through to the truths being expressed.” Leon Morris, Reflections on the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), vol. 3, p. 557.
Related Topics: Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit)