The Exalted Christ and His Joyful, Prayerful People
Passage: John 16:16–24
Sermon from John 16:16-24 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on December 14, 2014
This text really couldn’t have come at a more fitting time for us. One of the things we celebrate in the Christmas season is the joy that comes to the world because of the birth of Christ. Of course, when we say that—when we sing that—we don’t mean the world all at once becomes a joyful place. We still experience grief and sorrow. What we mean is that joy is ultimately bound up with the person of Jesus and the joyful end to which we know he is bringing the world. We get into some of that today as Jesus speaks to the disciples’ sorrow turning into joy.
This text also really couldn’t have come at a more fitting time for me. The Lord has seen that I encounter a handful of circumstances this week that have brought me great sorrow over sin and its consequences in people’s lives. And I imagine there are many things that cause you great sorrow as well. Whether the issue rests deep inside you, whether you witness it in the church, or between you and your family members, or even in the world at large—you wonder whether you have permission to sing, “Joy to the World.” My hope is that the words we read today will strengthen your confidence in the joy Jesus provides, even amidst the sorrows of this age. Verse 16,
16“A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” 17So some of his disciples said to one another, “What is this that he says to us, ‘A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’; and, ‘because I am going to the Father’?” 18So they were saying, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about.” 19Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, “Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me’? 20Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. 21When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. 22So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. 23In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. 24Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.
As we come to our passage today, we find the disciples in a state of confusion over Jesus’ words, “a little while longer.” As if his departure wasn’t confusing enough, now his departure seems like it’s not as simple as Jesus being translated immediately to heaven. The pathway seems a bit more broken up. Jesus says, “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me” (16:16).
This is at least the fifth time they’ve heard Jesus say something related to “a little while” (7:33; 12:35; 13:33; 14:19), but his words are still throwing the disciples off. “What is this that he says to us, ‘A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’; and, ‘because I am going to the Father’ [something else Jesus mentioned earlier, 14:13; 16:10]?”
So we’ve got these three details the disciples don’t understand: “a little while, and you will not see me”—that’s one; “again a little while, and you will see me”—that’s two; and “because I am going to the Father”—that’s three.
Now, as readers who stand on this side of the cross and resurrection, we get what Jesus is saying. Just by reading elsewhere in John’s Gospel, we can piece together the picture in ways the disciples didn’t yet have access to. And what Jesus has in mind in terms of his departure are the three massive events that stand at the heart of the gospel—his death, his resurrection, and his ascension.
“A little while, and you will not see me”—that’s Jesus’ death (cf. 12:32-35; 14:19). The disciples are only hours away from Jesus being arrested, tried, and crucified; and when he’s crucified and buried, they won’t see him. “Again a little while, and you will see me”—that’s his resurrection (cf. 14:19; 16:22). He won’t stay in the tomb forever, but only a little while, and the disciples will see him again. And what about this “because-I’m-going-to-the-Father” business? Well, that’s his ascension (7:33; 16:5, 10).
So, he’s essentially saying, “Listen, I’m going away to the Father, but you need to realize that I’m going via the cross and resurrection.” In some ways, Jesus is tying these events together. They stand as a unified whole in his work to save us. And, according to Jesus, they secure great joy for us. Or better, Jesus secures great joy for us through these events. This comes across in a couple of interrelated ways.
1. Jesus’ Death & Resurrection Secure Our Joy
First of all, we see that Jesus’ death and resurrection secure our joy. Verse 20 says: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.” Any run through John’s Gospel makes it abundantly clear that the world hates Jesus. It doesn’t like Jesus’ light exposing its darkness (3:18-21); it doesn’t like Jesus’ words exposing its evil (7:7); it doesn’t like Jesus’ righteousness exposing its slavery to sin (8:31-34). And by the end, the world’s hatred leads them to kill Jesus, to crucify him. The world is going to rejoice, because they will think they’ve finally shut him up by killing him. But Jesus reassures the disciples—that’s not the end of the story.
He goes on to say, “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.” He doesn’t say, “your sorrow will be replaced by joy;” he says, “your sorrow will turn into joy”—as if to say the sorrows of the cross itself somehow turn into a cause for rejoicing. How could that be? How could the sorrows of a cross become cause for joy?
Verses 21 and 22 tell us: “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.” The joy of a baby doesn’t come apart from the anguish of labor—nearly every mother can testify to that. The joy of receiving a child is bound up with entering and going through labor. The same is true of Jesus’ cross: he must enter the sorrows of a cross—sorrows the disciples themselves will experience—but the sorrows will eventually become cause for great celebration, cause for joy.
An Image with Old Testament Roots
And that cause for joy becomes all the more clear when we consider that it’s really normal for Jesus to use illustrations that have roots in the Old Testament. And I would submit to you, that he’s picking up a fairly common Old Testament image and using it to make a really important point. You see, several places where this image occurs in the Old Testament set forth promises or trajectories for God to bring massive deliverance and abundant joy for his people and the whole world.
Isaiah 26:16-21 portrays Israel as a woman writhing and crying out in childbirth, hoping for some kind of deliverance. But all the nation gives birth to is wind. Israel can’t produce any deliverance on her own. And the further proof of her helplessness is that death remains a problem—death plagues the nation of Israel and the whole world because of sin (cf. Isa 25:6-8). We die, because we are sinners.
But then the Lord promises the woman in labor that the dead will one day be revived with shouts of joy (Isa 26:19). Even though Israel can produce no salvation on her own, the Lord will eventually do so himself. And so Isaiah then picks up the same image of a woman in labor later, but this time it’s to point out the abundance of God’s deliverance. A Servant will be born to Israel. And he would deal with sin, remove the sting of death, extend his rule to the ends of the earth, and send all nations into rejoicing as a result (Isa 53:1-12; 54:1-5; 66:7-14; cf. Hos 13:13-14 with 1 Cor 15:54-55).
Old Testament Longings Answered
I think Jesus walks his disciples into similar imagery here—only now, the promises and the trajectories of the Old Testament are materializing. All the promises of deliverance and joy are finding their completion in Jesus. But he had to enter the sorrow of the cross first, before he could bring the joy of eternal life to his disciples. It’s as he said before, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (cf. 12:24). Same here: deliverance and joy come only by entering the sorrows of a cross.
And this is where he brings the disciples back into the picture: “So also you have sorrow now”—meaning you feel sorrow now and you’re going to keep feeling it through my death. Your sorrow will be like a woman travailing in labor, and none of it will be in vain, because—get this—“I will see you again.” “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again”—meaning at his resurrection three days later! “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you”—exactly what happens in 20:20. Jesus comes to them; they see him in his resurrection body; and the disciples are glad. And from the way things play out in the Book of Acts, the gladness stays for the disciples and the church, even in the face of affliction (Acts 2:46; 8:8; 11:23; 13:52; cf. Rom 14:17).
Now, why will they be so glad? Why will their hearts rejoice? Why should our hearts rejoice with theirs? Our hearts should rejoice, because of what the resurrection means for everything Jesus achieved through the cross and for everything Jesus set in motion for the kingdom of God.
Resurrection and the Meaning of the Cross
If Jesus had stayed in the grave—as 1 Cor 15:17 tells us—then we would still be in our sins. Death can only hold sinners in the grave (cf. Acts 2:24). Death is God’s judicial sentence on sinners (Rom 5:12). And so if Jesus has entered death and risen again, then he must have died for sins that were not his own. He died for our sins.
These types of things start clicking for the disciples once Jesus rises from the dead (cf. 2:22; 12:16; 16:23). Piece-by-piece all that Jesus did and taught them will start making sense. His resurrection vindicates Jesus’ life as righteous. It tells us the cross achieved the forgiveness of God’s people. This is how the sorrows of a cross become cause for rejoicing. The sorrows of Jesus’ cross would remain mere sorrows with no purpose and no redeeming power had Jesus stayed in the grave. But with Jesus standing before them alive, the sorrows of his cross turn into the joys of deliverance from sin and death.
This is why John can write a Gospel after Jesus’ resurrection and say things like, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). “If the Son sets you free from [slavery to sin], you will be free indeed” (8:36). “Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who were scattered abroad” (11:51-52). He declares these things about what the cross achieved, because Jesus appeared to him victorious over sin and death. And this is cause for great rejoicing.
One thing to note is that weeping in John’s Gospel is often associated with death. People are weeping over Lazarus’ death. The disciples will weep and lament Jesus’ death. Mary is found at the tomb weeping because death has taken her Lord. And folks, many of us too weep over death—whether it’s the death of a loved one or the death we see plastered all over the news. We weep because death keeps telling us the world is broken because of sin. Jesus is the answer to all that weeping over death! He died to forgive sins that would have otherwise held us captive and send us to hell. Then he rose to snap death’s power over his people—and that’s you and me if we believe in his name.
Resurrection and the Coming Kingdom of God
Jesus’ resurrection also set in motion the final days of God’s deliverance. It not only looked backwards to Jesus’ cross; it ushers in the overlap of the ages—God’s final kingdom breaking into the present. All the travails behind Old Testament hopes were now giving birth to redemption. Hopes of a new creation were now coming to fruition. Jesus would stand before the disciples as the first of many more to receive their resurrection bodies (1 Cor 15:20). Longings for the plague of death to be snapped were now answered as Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life, stood before them never to die again (John 11:25). Promises of God visiting the earth like a Shepherd to gather the nations were now coming to fruition. Just like he said, the Good Shepherd laid down his life and took it up again, so that he might gather all his Father’s sheep from among the nations (John 10:18).
These are the sorts of things set in motion by Jesus’ resurrection, and they are cause for great rejoicing. It’s the very things Abraham rejoiced to see in Jesus’ day. He saw them coming and was glad (8:56)—now they were here. It’s the final days John the Baptist was thrilled to see when he heard Jesus-the-Bridegroom’s voice coming to win his bride (3:29). It’s what Jesus himself was trying to get the disciples excited about, when he showed them how peoples from all nations were beginning to come to him. It’s a day for sower and reaper to rejoice together in the harvest of souls (4:36).
This is why the disciples would rejoice. Jesus resurrected would mean the cross is powerful to save and God’s final kingdom was on its way in. This is why nothing and no one would be able to take their joy from them. The resurrection would open their eyes to glory after glory of God’s redemption.
It would also open their eyes to the folly of the world. The world that rejoiced at Jesus’ death—that rejoiced at shutting him up—would be proven futile and stupid. While they were proudly rejoicing, God was powerfully redeeming; and the resurrection stands as a testimony against the world’s pursuits. No one—no human or demon—in the world would be able to rob them of joy, because the risen Christ would stand victorious for the disciples—victorious over every joy-robbing power, whether sin, death, or the devil and his cohorts. Jesus’ victory wouldn’t be like many of the fleeting victories we experience in this world—you know, like when our favorite team wins and then loses. Jesus always wins. He’s not just undefeated; he’s undefeatable. And so there’s never a reason for our joy to give way. It’s rooted in the always-victorious Christ.
Pursue the Joy Secured in the Cross & Resurrection
Now, let’s pause there for a minute. If this joy has been secured for us through Christ. Why are so many counterfeit joys from the world so attractive to us? Or why from time to time do we seek to fabricate our own joys when God gives us these things in Christ so freely? It’s true; we experience hardships in this world when we know that we were made for joy. The big problem is that we’re tempted to chase down joy in the things outside of Christ.
Folks, our passage is clear. The world cannot produce true and lasting joy. Verse 20 shows us very plainly that it can only produce superficial rejoicing, a hollow joy. And our joy will be just as hollow if it’s not grounded in the person and work of Christ. His cross and resurrection are cause for our rejoicing. And one of our biggest temptations is to start thinking that we can either find joy elsewhere or fabricate something of our own that will move our souls. But joy that has no root in Christ will be short lived.
And this is even true for our community with one another. If our joy is ultimately rooted in the latest fads and best diets and newest books and clever gadgets—if our fellowship keeps handing each other man-made philosophies on how to be happy—then we will never know true and lasting joy together.
So pursue the glories of the cross and resurrection together. Make them your meditation day-in and day-out. Preach them to one another again and again. Never content yourself with just reporting what’s going on—declare what the death and resurrection of Jesus means for your soul and your eternal happiness in God. Jesus appeared to the disciples for your joy too; so that your joy may never be taken away.
Killing Pessimism with the Joy of the Cross & Resurrection
Moreover, if this joy flows out of the cross and resurrection to us, then far be it from us to become Okay with pessimism—always stressing the gloomiest possible view about everything. Churches shouldn’t be full of curmudgeons and killjoys but people who’ve had a personal encounter with the crucified and risen Christ, whose work sends them souring into song. If anybody should be pessimists, it’s the world. We have Christ; the world has nothing. Part of our witness to the world is joy: “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). Pessimism is not welcome in the church, because pessimism fails to acknowledge what Jesus’ cross and resurrection mean for the future and today.
One pastor put it this way,
The sin of pessimism is the sin of ignorance [i.e., of the gospel]. The man who is well-read and well-informed as to the ways of providence and grace is never troubled with pessimistic views. They never enter his mind or darken his soul, never becloud his thought or disturb his peace. “I cannot hinder the birds,” once said Luther, “from flying over my head, but I can keep them from building a nest in my hair.” This is true of us all. We cannot hinder the existence of pessimism. It is here, but we can keep it out of our lives. Knowledge will do it. I know that my Redeemer live[s]. I know whom I have believed. I am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed to him. There is no room, either in the mind or heart of him who is filled with such deep and positive convictions as these, for any pessimistic views. They are of necessity driven out, even as the darkness of night is driven out when the shutters are thrown open and the morning light fills the heart and home. This is what every soul needs. It needs more light, light of a higher order, even that which comes from a deep, personal acquaintance with Christ the light of the world. Give the soul an abundance of this light, and pessimism, that foul vulture that feeds upon darkness and despair, will take to itself wings and fly away like bats and owls before the rising sun (John D. Countermine, "The Sin of Pessimism," in The Westminster [28 March 1908], 13).
Bring Your Sorrows to the Cross & Resurrection
I’m not saying that we then resort to a kind of naïve optimism—we are taught to be sober-minded about all things. I’m also not saying that we will never know sorrow in this age. We very much will; Jesus tells us so in John 16:33. But the deep-seated joy we find in the cross and resurrection puts our temporary sorrows in perspective of Jesus’ victory and the age to come. We take our cancer to 2 Cor 4:17, “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” We take our sorrow over injustice to a place like 1 Cor 15:26-28, where we see God putting all Christ’s enemies under his feet. We take our trials to Rom 8, and see how all our trials conform us to Christ’s image and will eventually cease in a new creation, all the while Christ’s love holds onto us. We take our discouragement to the cross and let God have the final word over us.
The deep-seated joy we find in the cross and resurrection puts our temporary sorrows in perspective of Jesus’ victory and the age to come. When we take our sorrows to the cross and resurrection, God teaches us how to view them. Even when it’s through tears, God will show us joy amidst sorrow—a joy that never changes, because it’s a joy rooted in a God who never changes. And he has brought us into his joy through the cross and resurrection. So let us hold fast to him always.
2. Jesus’ Exaltation Ensures Our Ongoing Access to Joy
That’s the second thing I want to look at briefly—holding fast to God in prayer. Jesus’ exaltation ensures our ongoing access to joy—and not just any joy, but his joy. Remember from 15:11 that Jesus speaks that his joy may be in us, and that our joy may be full. Fullness of joy only comes when you’re united to Jesus. And here we see that as Jesus is exalted, we come before God in prayer that our joy may be full.
Walk with me now through verses 23-24. Jesus says, “In that day.” So there’s a day that’s kick-started by Jesus’ resurrection; and that day will last until Jesus returns at the Second Coming (14:20; 16:26; cf. Mark 13:11; Acts 2:18).
“In that day, you will ask nothing of me [i.e., as they’ve been doing in person, 14:5, 8, 22; 16:17-18]. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”
Now, all kinds of things can be said about asking in Jesus’ name. And we even walked through some of the abuses of this, when we covered 14:13. It’s not a magical formula to get whatever we want. It’s also not an empty, mechanical expression we tag on the end of our prayers. What we concluded was this: Asking “in Jesus’ name” means imploring the exalted Christ with adoration—he rules over all—with confidence—he’s able to provide—with humility—we don’t deserve to be here, asking—and with the Spirit’s help—because Jesus sent him—to give us all we need to obey him and bear fruit for God’s glory. That was our definition of what it means to ask in Jesus’ name.
Well, all of that was built on Jesus linking asking “in his name” to his going to the Father in 14:13. Jesus is just continuing the same line of thought here—only he adds the part about how our joy is served through prayer. So we pray to the exalted Christ; God gives us what we need to glorify him; and when he does, joy is the result. “Ask, and you will receive [And what’s the goal?], so that your joy may be full” (16:24).
Meaning, Christ’s exaltation isn’t merely to help you do things for him, but to help you enjoy him in all he provides for your doing. Joy in Jesus’ presence is the goal of our prayers, not mere supplies for the mission. He commands us to ask the Father—to lean on God in prayer—because he knows where true joy is found. It’s as David says in Ps 16:11, “in your presence [Lord] there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” We ask, we implore, we cry out, and God supplies all we need to make our joy be full.
Have you ever thought that Jesus sits at God’s right hand for your joy? That right now he reigns in heaven to give you every confidence to sing “Joy to the World.” And as long as he sits there—which is forever—we have access to fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore.
Why then does prayer so often take a back seat in our lives? Why is prayer so often the last thing we squeeze into our meetings? Why’s it so low on our list of priorities? Why can we sit for three hours in front of a football game and can’t hardly sit for three minutes with Heaven’s Joy? It’s because we don’t know God and we don’t know the world and we forget where true and lasting joy flourishes.
God is the Fountainhead of joy. Jesus gives us access. Prayer is how we drink. Joy flourishes with God and his provision for our lives in Christ. And prayer is our means of laying hold of it. Prayer is the soul’s pursuit of joy in God through Christ; and the one who prays little can expect to know little of true joy.
So, I’d actually like us to spend some time pursuing our joy in God right now through prayer. I know the holidays are crazy right now, and it’s likely that some of you will take this home and forget it over lunch while you’re lining out your week. But I want this to sink into your souls a bit more, and what better way than for us to take time right now to ask God to make our joy full, by helping us live for the exalted Christ.
I’d encourage you to pray in concentric circles, beginning with your own joy in God. Plead with God to make you joyful in Christ. Then pray that it be so for your family, and then out to this church—that our church would throw away anything that’s hindering joy in Christ. That God would deliver us from our idols, that we might find our total satisfaction in him. And then ask God to make that joy spread through you to others in the world. Some of you will be seeing unbelieving family members and friends this Christmas. Ask God to use you in bringing them the joy of Christ’s cross, resurrection, and ascension. So, do this with the folks around you.
If you’re not a Christian, you don’t have to participate. But I’d sure love for you to share that with someone during this time. And if you’re a member of Redeemer, spend this time talking with our non-Christian guests about questions they may have. And then point them to cross and resurrection of Jesus. We’ll go for about 15 minutes, and then I’ll come close us at the end.
More in The Gospel According to John
May 24, 2015Eyewitness Testimony to the Greatness of Jesus
May 17, 2015Loving Jesus & Feeding His People at All Costs
May 10, 2015Believing the Apostle's Testimony When Not Seeing Jesus