Tuesday, May 12, 2015

In a Little While (John 16:16-23a)

If you have ever traveled on a long road trip with children, you have undoubtedly heard the phrase repeated over and over again: “Are we there yet?” And if you are like me, your answer to that is probably something like, “We just have a little while longer.” In the vocabulary of road-trip dads, “a little while longer” could mean anything from ten minutes to ten hours. It’s a vague expression, for sure, but sometimes it can be an important one.

The fact that “a little while” occurs 7 times in these 8 verses indicates that there is something significant for us to understand about how Jesus uses the phrase here in this text. The phrase “a little while” here translates a single Greek word: mikron. It is used often throughout the New Testament, and not surprisingly, it just means “small amount” or “small in size,” either literally or figuratively. It is the word used for little children, a short distance, a small group, a low standing, and is even used as a nickname of one of the disciples: James the Less (referring to him as either the smaller or younger James). But here it has to do with time – a mikron of time – hence the translation, “a little while.” And like the words of a frazzled father on a long road trip, “a little while” can have a broad range of meaning. From the perspective of an eternal God who views one day as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day (2 Pet 3:8), and who views the span of a man’s life as “a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away” (Jas 4:14), any lapse of time on the earth could be defined as “a little while.”

Jesus said, “A little while and you will no longer see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me.” This statement was difficult for His disciples to understand. In verse 17, they say to one another, “What is this thing He is telling us?”, and in verse 18, “We do not know what He is talking about.” This is a demonstration of what Jesus said previously in verse 12, when He said, “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” But it is not as though we are so much better off than they are. A survey of the commentaries on this passage reveals that modern biblical scholarship still has a hard time understanding what He was talking about.

There are two “little whiles” in Jesus’ pronouncement. The first one seems simple enough to understand. When He says, “A little while, and you will no longer see Me,” is obviously a reference to His death, which at the time was only hours away. But, it may also encapsulate His ascension, after His resurrection, when He returned to the Father in heaven (Acts 1:9-11). The second “little while” has proven far more difficult for biblical interpreters. When Jesus says, “and again a little while, and you will see Me,” He may be referring to His resurrection, to the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, or to His return at the end of all things. Of course, there are also those who believe that all of these are in view, and this is the perspective that I am most inclined to accept. The vagueness of the statement and the vagueness of the explanation in these verses leads me to believe that Jesus did not intend for us to limit our understanding of these “little whiles” to a singular, specific moment, but rather to see His death, His resurrection, His ascension, the coming of the Spirit, and His return as events that are inseparably connected, and will occur (at least from His perspective) in just “a little while.”

In speaking of these things that will occur in “a little while”, Jesus is preparing His followers for what is to come, and anchoring them in hope for the future. Like them, we too must be prepared for what life in this fallen world will entail, and we must be secured by the sure and certain hope of His promises. So, let us look at the text and consider the things that Jesus said would happen “in a little while” and how those things impact us as His followers.

I. “A little while, and you will no longer see Me.”

Sometimes, death comes upon our loved ones by surprise and without notice. Other times, it is a long, slow departure with many warning signs. If Jesus’ disciples are alarmed by the fact that He is speaking of His death being imminent, it is only because they have not been paying attention to what He has been saying all along. He had spoken of His own death numerous times, sometimes in veiled speech and sometimes quite directly. He had told them, even just a few verses earlier (v10) that He was going to the Father and that they would no longer see Him. But the disciples had not understood what He meant by these things. Now, the final hour is approaching. In a “little while” – mere hours – He would be crucified and buried. The disciples would no longer see Him.

Jesus did not view His death as a sorrowful thing, but as a return to the heavenly home and the eternal glory which had been His for eternity past, with the Father, prior to His incarnation. His followers, however, from what little they could understand about it, were understandably sorrowful. And Jesus says to them here in verse 20 that they will weep, and lament, and grieve. They are rightful emotions for humans to experience when death occurs in our circle of loved ones. These disciples have left everything behind to follow Jesus and have spent nearly every moment of the preceding three years with Him. Assuredly, their weeping, lamenting, and grief are only natural and to be expected.

As if to add insult to injury, in the face of their great sorrow, “the world will rejoice,” Jesus says, at the news of His death. This Jesus who has been a persistent threat to the powers and pleasures of those whose ambitions are entirely earthbound will have finally been silenced and eliminated, no longer to interfere with the sin and degradation of their carnal pursuits. They will be partying while the disciples are weeping. And the grief of the disciples will be exacerbated by the hatred and persecution that Jesus has promised that the world will inflict upon them. While He was with them, they did not face this. He absorbed the animosity of this world in Himself. But with His departure, that animosity is aimed at His Church. In this world that celebrates and flaunts its sinfulness, the faithful saints of the Lord Jesus will be oppressed, ostracized, maligned, and in many cases murdered. Jesus has warned them plainly of this even in the preceding passages.

In an indirect way, we can apply what Jesus is saying here to ourselves in the present day. Certainly, we do not live during the days of Jesus’ entombment. He is risen from the dead, and present in the world in the person of His Holy Spirit. There are certainly several ways that we can honestly speak of “seeing Him,” though it is a mediated vision of Him. We see Him most clearly in His Word and in His Church. But we do not see Him physically. Having conquered death by His resurrection, Jesus departed again to heaven after a period of 40 days with His disciples. And so, there is a sense – an indirect and incomplete one – in which can say that we “no longer see Him.” If we believe upon the Lord Jesus and love Him with heart, soul, mind and strength, then we must confess that we long to look upon His dear face. We long for this all the more as we endure the hardships of this world, including those which we suffer for the sake of His name. But we cannot do that here and now. We increasingly feel that this world is not our home, and we cry out with the Psalmist, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth” (Psa 37:5). The world puts its sinful passions and pleasures on parade before us, rejoicing and celebrating in what they perceive to be God’s ignorance or indifference to their sin, or else His complete absence from the world. The world threatens us if we refuse to sanction its folly, and we grieve, we mourn, and we lament.

Here we must confess our own faults. If the world believes that God is ignorant, indifferent, or absent, then it is an indictment on the Church of Jesus Christ. We are the ones whom Christ has commissioned to be the representatives of His presence in the world, and the mouthpiece through which God’s announcements concerning sin and salvation are spoken. But the church has, by and large in our own day, become complacent, comfortable, and silent! We have not been faithful to our assignment, and the world has heard an uncertain sound from the pulpits and pews of our churches which has led them to woefully mistaken conclusions. We must receive the world’s celebration of its sin as a call to repentance and revival, and a wake-up call to stand up and speak up for Christ with renewed fervor in this world, even it provokes the world’s ire against us for doing so!

Still, in the face of such things, the Christian today senses grief, mourning and lament – over the condition of the world, over the condition of the church, and over the moral decline in our culture. But this is where we must take comfort in the second promise Jesus makes here concerning what else will take place in “a little while.”

II. “Again a little while, and you will see Me.”

For those who love to travel, there is a double-joy in taking a journey. One is the joy of getting away, and the other is the joy of coming home. It is a sweet sight to see home in the rearview mirror as we drive away, and a sweet sight to see it through the front windshield as we pull back in the driveway. For Jesus, when He speaks of the things that will happen “in a little while,” He speaks with a much more profound sense of this double-joy. He looks forward to returning to His Father in heaven, and He looks forward to the joy of seeing His disciples again. For this reason, the writer of Hebrews says that it was “for the joy set before Him” that “He endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb 12:2). The agony of the cross was worth enduring because of the joy of what He knew would come after the cross. And so the writer of Hebrews says that we must “fix our eyes on Jesus” as we run the race of life in this world that is set before us (Heb 12:1). He is our example in enduring the hardships of this life, and the joy of knowing that we will see Him inspires us to keep on keeping on.

When Jesus says, “again a little while, and you will see Me,” as I have already mentioned, the scholars debate whether He is referring to His resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit, or His return at the end of the age. However, from the view of eternity, all of these things happen within the span of “a little while,” and it may be splitting hairs to make too much of a distinction between them here. There is a sense in which the “seeing” of Jesus after a little while encompasses all of the above and progresses from one to another.

For these disciples, “a little while” would pass until they saw Jesus again. It was a very little while in fact, just three days. On the third day after He was crucified, He rose from the dead and His disciples saw Him again. Jesus said in verse 20 that when this happened, their grief will be turned into joy.” He does not say that grief will be replaced with joy, but will be turned into joy. The same reality that provoked them to grieve will bring them joy. And of course, it is His cross that will bring them grief. Upon seeing Him again, risen victorious over sin and death, the cross will become the great object of joy for the disciples of Christ for it is the means by which Christ has reconciled humanity to God and provided eternal life for all who believe upon His name. In John 20:20, we find that it happened just as Jesus said it would (as if there was every any doubt!). “The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”

Their joy in the risen Lord may have been short lived, considering that just 40 days later, Jesus would ascend and leave them again. But Jesus had already told them that another Helper was coming to them, the Holy Spirit Whom He would send to them after He ascended. And just as He promised, ten days after His ascension, on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit came! Again, they would see Jesus, not in bodily form, but as He inhabited His people in the Person of His Spirit. His permanent indwelling within them means that they will never experience a moment of life in this world separated from the presence of God, because they carry His presence within them.

But still, in this world, there will be griefs and sorrows – those that are common to all mankind, and those that Jesus has promised that will be faced because of faith in Him. Remember that the context of this passage deals with the world’s hatred and persecution of believers. So, there is still this longing for something else, something better, than life here and now. Jesus’ promise extends beyond even the glories of His resurrection and the indwelling of His Spirit, marvelous and glorious though those realities are. We have the promise of seeing Him face to face when He returns or calls us to our heavenly home through death.

These promises apply to us as much as they did to those disciples who were with Jesus when He spoke them. In spite of the griefs and hardships of this world, we have a joy in our hearts, a joy that Jesus said no one will be able to take away from us. We serve a risen Savior, who has defeated sin and death on our behalf through His cross and resurrection. He has come in the Person of His Spirit to indwell us so that we are ever before Him, ever in His presence as He lives in and through us. And then there will come that day when we will see the Lord Jesus face to face in glory. Our confidence in these promises inspires us to endure the grief and difficulty of life in this fallen world – even with joy!

Jesus compared it to a woman who is in labor. I have had the experience of watching my wife endure labor twice. Like many of you, I suffer from chronic pain, but I have never had any pains that I could compare with what she experienced in those long hours. When Solomon was born, she was in labor for around 14 hours, and I think Salem was a little longer than that! And she was in agony. I will never forget it. But if you ask her about it, she won’t talk about the pain of the labor. She will talk about the joy of holding that baby in her arms. That’s what Jesus said here. “Whenever a woman is in labor, she has pain because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world.”

Jesus says that the time between these two “little whiles” is like that for His followers. Whether referring to the days between His death and resurrection, or the coming of the Spirit, or His return, life in this world is difficult and painful. It is difficult for everyone – Christians don’t have a monopoly on suffering. But, as followers of Christ, we are subject to the hatred and oppression that the world directs toward us on His account. Yet, Jesus says that these days are like labor pains. They will pass away and the pain of these sufferings will be transformed into the joy of beholding Him with our eyes.

Because of Jesus’ promise, we can have joy in our hearts even in this fallen world, and that joy can never be taken away from us, because we can never be severed from Him, and we will be with Him forever, face to face in His presence in the glory of heaven. As Paul said in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Again in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.” That hope, secured by the risen Jesus, ensured by the presence of the Holy Spirit, and culminating in the vision of His unspeakable glory, enables us to carry on in this world as our griefs are ever transformed into irrevocable joy.

Like the disciples, we too have trouble sometimes understanding all that Jesus has said about these things. He said this would all take place in a little while. Perhaps we would say, as they did, “What is this thing He is telling us? … What is this that He says, ‘A little while’? We do not know what He is talking about.” It seems like it is taking far longer than “a little while” for us to see Him face to face. But because of His resurrection and the ministry of His Spirit within us and in the Word which He has inspired, we can see Him even now – albeit just in faint and passing glimpses it seems. But from heaven’s perspective, it is still “just a little while” until He returns. Like the child in the backseat of the car, we want to ask, “Are we there yet?” And Jesus says tenderly to us, “A little while longer and you will see Me.” How much longer? Surely every day it is one day closer, but He alone knows, and He is content to say “just a little while longer.”

We have so many questions, but Jesus says, “In that day, you will not question Me about anything.” In that day, when we see Him in glory, we will not question the timing of His return, the toils we endured, or the meanings of His teachings. We will be with Him, and the unspeakably glorious joy of that experience will satisfy our hearts and minds for all eternity.

Are we there yet? How much longer? A little while. Be patient. Endure the difficult journey, fix your eyes on Him, and know that the destination will make it all worthwhile.

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