The tiny four-year-old boy approached the big-league ballplayer, held out a baseball, and asked for an autograph. Most players, if they sign at all, will barely acknowledge those making such requests. This player was different. "I'll sign your ball," he responded, "if you'll sign my bat. This way, when you get to the big leagues, I'll already have your autograph."
The boy was flabbergasted. What must have run through his head? He approaches this big, important person for an autograph. And this big, important person wants his autograph? Unheard of! The player not only acknowledged the boy, he valued him. He saw the boy as someone who was important, even though he wasn't big. The boy was blown away by the way the player looked at him.
How does Jesus look at us? Does he notice us at all? Does he barely acknowledge us? If he sees us, does he look away in disgust? In John 16:16-24 Jesus sees us, and he doesn't look away in disgust. In fact, there is something in the way he sees us that has the capacity to blow us away. Being seen by Jesus turns sorrow into joy.
In the previous section, John 16:5-15, Jesus told the disciples that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all the truth, which means the truth about Jesus. The Holy Spirit, then, leads us to Jesus. In John 16:16-24 we find out what we'll see when we come to Jesus.
THE QUESTION THAT LEADS TO JOY
(16) "A little while, and you will no longer behold Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me." (17) Some of His disciples therefore said to one another, "What is this thing he is telling us, 'A little while, and you will not behold Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me'; and, 'because I go to the Father'?" (18) And so they were saying, "What is this that He says, 'A little while'? We do not know what He is talking about." (19) Jesus knew that they wished to question Him, and He said to them, "Are you deliberating together about this, that I said, 'A little while, and you will not behold Me, and again a little while, and you will see Me'?"
Verses 16, 17, and 19 contain an identical refrain that concerns first not beholding Jesus shortly, and then seeing Jesus shortly. (Knowing John's fondness for synonyms, it would seem that distinctions in meaning should not be assigned to the words "behold" and "see.")
All along in the Upper Room Discourse, Jesus has spoken of his departure to the Father. In 13:1, John wrote that Jesus knew that the time had come for him to "depart out of this world to the Father." Jesus told the disciples this in John 14:12, 28 and 16:10. Through the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, he was returning to the Father, the One who had sent him. Therefore he tells the disciples that in "a little while" they will no longer behold him.
Then in a little while they will see him again. When will this be? All along, he's been speaking of returning to them in the person of the Holy Spirit. In John 14:17 Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would be "in" the disciples. Then in the following sentences, using language reminiscent of the wording in this passage, he said, "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. After a little while the world will behold Me no more; but you will behold Me" (John 14:18-19). Seeing Jesus, then, is equated with the coming of the Holy Spirit, who arrived for the disciples on the Day of Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 2. The immediate context favors such an interpretation, because the subject of the preceding section (John 16:5-15) was the Holy Spirit.
The disciples, however, don't understand what Jesus means. They are confused by Jesus' earlier statements concerning his departure to the Father (John 14:12, 28; 16:5). They have connected his statement in John 16:16-"A little while, and you will no longer behold Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me"-with his statements concerning his departure to the Father. Well they should, for his departure to the Father means both that they will not see him when he leaves, and that they will see him when he sends the Holy Spirit from the Father (John 15:26).
But because they don't understand it all yet, they deliberate among themselves. In John 16:5, they didn't question Jesus about his destination, though he apparently understood that they had every reason to. They were too absorbed in their own fear to question Jesus then. They were afraid of the answer. They are moving forward now in that they are asking each other. But fearing the answer, they haven't asked Jesus directly.
Jesus, however, either overhears them or observes them and discerns not only that they are confused but that they wish to question him. Again, the disciples are moving forward. They're still too afraid to question him, but now they at least want to question him.
Recognizing this, the Lord enables them to take the final step. He himself gives utterance to their unasked question. He says, in so many words, "This is what you want to know, isn't it?"
The disciples' question ultimately concerns their relationship with Jesus. "Beholding" and "seeing" Jesus mean being with Jesus, knowing him and relating to him. They're afraid to ask the question concerning their relationship with Jesus because the answer might be that they won't be with him.
Some of the biggest questions in life revolve around our relationship with Jesus-questions such as: "Is he real?" "Is he here with me now?" "If he's here now, why does he seem so distant?" "Will he leave me?" "Am I good enough for him?" "If he knows all there is to know about me, can he really be with me?" These are deep questions-so deep, in fact, that we may not even know that we entertain them. We've buried them, because we're afraid of the answers.
But Jesus surfaces them. He led the disciples along, first by telling them that they weren't questioning him (16:5), then by confronting them with further truth (16:16), and finally by raising the question that by this time was just below the surface (16:19). He does the same with us, eventually giving definition to our unasked questions about our relationship with him.
The scenario for many of us looks like this. At some point in our life, we started hearing, "Jesus loves you." Perhaps we've sung, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,"1 about a million times. They tell us this in Sunday school, in youth groups, in Bible studies, in church. And, of course, we read it ourselves in our Bibles. We underline the verses and commit them to memory. We believe it. Or so we think. Then something happens that causes us to take a look at the way we're living. We see that we are desperately looking for acceptance and safety and significance. And then we think, If Jesus loves me, how come I'm living as if he didn't? So we wonder, Maybe I don't believe it. And we begin to ask the question: "Jesus, do you love me?" Jesus surfaces those deep questions that we're afraid to ask.
The Lord, of course, doesn't surface such deep questions without answering them. And as we might suspect, if Jesus is giving the answers, we need not fear them. The questions, in fact, lead to joy.
THE ANSWER THAT BRINGS JOY
(20) "Truly, truly, I say to you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned to joy. (21) Whenever a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she remembers the anguish no more, for joy that a child has been born into the world. (22) Therefore you too now have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one takes your joy away from you."
In this section, the noun "sorrow" and the verb translated "be sorrowful" appear four times, while words with similar meanings ("weep," "lament," and "anguish") appear three times. The noun "joy" and its verb, "rejoice," appear five times. Each time a word associated with sorrow is used, it is contrasted with joy. In 16:16-19, not beholding Jesus and seeing Jesus were paired. In this section, sorrow and joy are paired. Not beholding Jesus causes sorrow; seeing Jesus causes joy.
Jesus tells them that they will "weep and lament." These words are associated with mourning a death in Jeremiah 22:10 and in Luke 7:32, where "sang a dirge" is the same word for "lament" (threneo). No longer beholding Jesus, then, is cause for agonizing grief. The death of Jesus will devastate the disciples.
Far from mourning the death of Jesus, the world will rejoice. The world's "joy" is dependent on the absence of Jesus. His presence forces them to confront the painful truth of their rejection of God, so they run from Jesus. How sad, when he is the only one who can give them true joy.
The disciples, on the other hand, will grieve over the absence of Jesus, but their sorrow will be turned to joy when they see Jesus again, initially after the resurrection and continually in the person of the Holy Spirit, once he comes to dwell in them.
To illustrate the sorrow and joy that the disciples will experience, Jesus speaks of childbirth. This illustration has messianic overtones, for Isaiah pictured Israel as a woman in travail (Isaiah 26:17-19; 54:1; 66:7-10), and John himself refers to Israel as such (Revelation 12:1-6). Jesus sees the disciples, all Jews, as faithful Israel on the verge of giving birth. The disciples will experience the birth pangs of bringing forth the Messiah.
Over and above the messianic implications of the illustration is the simple application of sorrow and joy associated with childbirth. The sorrow and anguish of a woman in the first century was even more acute than it is now. There was no easing of the pain with drugs, no surgical options if complications developed; and childbirth then often meant the death of the mother or the infant. Such anguish, though, melts into the background when a child is born. Joy overwhelms sorrow.
Just as a woman experiences birth pangs, the disciples have sorrow, and will have more sorrow, over the departure of Jesus. On the other hand, just as the rapturous mother of a newborn does, the disciples will experience joy when Jesus sees them again.
Up until this point, we've expected the joy to be connected with the disciples' seeing Jesus because of the repeated words "you will see me" (16:16, 17, 19), just as we've expected the sorrow to be connected with their not seeing Jesus. But that's not what Jesus says. He doesn't tell the disciples, "You will see me," but rather, "I will see you." And he says that when he sees them, their "heart will rejoice" (chairo). Here Jesus is probably invoking Isaiah 66:14: "Then you shall see, and your heart shall be glad" (chairo in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament). But in quoting it, he changes the subject of the first clause from "you" to "I." What's important here is not so much seeing Jesus as being seen by him.
How is being seen by Jesus a source of joy? How does being seen by anybody affect us? It all depends on how we perceive that person's seeing us. If we think someone is happy to see us, we'll be happy. If we think someone is sad to see us, we'll be sad. It's usually not that difficult to tell; their face gives away how they feel.
Jesus tells the disciples that they will rejoice when he sees them again. What will happen between now and when he sees them again, first in his resurrected state and then continually in the person of the Spirit? The disciples will abandon him, and Peter will deny Jesus (John 18:27). So we might think that when Jesus sees his disciples again, he will be disappointed in them, that they will perceive the disappointment and that they will be sorrowful. Yet nothing in the way Jesus looks at them will cause sorrow. In fact, the way Jesus looks at them will cause joy. Jesus will be happy to see them.
Why? First, he loves them, regardless of what they have done or will do. Second, he will see them after his crucifixion and resurrection, after he has won their freedom. The feeling in his heart, born out of the knowledge that those whom he loves have been cleansed of their sin, must glow in his face. Think of the feeling in your own heart when you do something special for someone you love. The feeling beams in your face. This kind of feeling will beam in Jesus' face when he sees the disciples again.
Deep within each of us is the desire to be seen and known. Yet we are terrified of being known, because all our lives people have found things wrong with us. So we protect ourselves. We build walls. We hide from that which we want most, because we're afraid if people really see who we are, they'll be disappointed with us or they'll gossip about us or they'll leave us.
Jesus sees who the disciples are. He sees their flaws. He sees that they will abandon him. Yet he says that when he sees them again, after the worst failure of their lives, they will not grieve but rejoice.
How do we feel about being seen by Jesus? What are our failures? What is our sin? Have we too, like the disciples, abandoned Jesus in one way or another? We may be sorrowful, feeling somehow that Jesus is far away, if he were ever here in the first place. We may perceive him as being offended by something distasteful in us. We may perceive him as having a derisive scowl on his face. This causes us deep-seated anguish that we may not be able to articulate, too afraid to truly ask any questions pertaining to our relationship with Jesus. But Jesus surfaces the questions and gives us the answers. Yes, you're wondering what he thinks of you. Yes, as a matter of fact (if you belong to him), he is delighted to see you. He loves you, regardless of what you have done or will do. He has cleansed you. As Philip Yancey says, "There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. There is nothing we can do to make God love us less." (2) The love of Jesus for you, intensified by his having won your freedom, beams in his face. And if you see his face in this way, your "sorrow will be turned to joy."
C.S. Lewis writes in his essay The Weight of Glory:
"I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except insofar as it is related to how He thinks of us. It is written that we shall 'stand before' Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God...to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness...to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son-it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is." (3)
How God sees us is more important than how we see God. How does God see us? Jesus, God incarnate, tells us by the way he looks at us. He delights in us. Lewis also writes in the same essay, "If God is satisfied with the work, the work may be satisfied with itself...." (4)
The writer of Hebrews presents a wonderful scene of Jesus' speaking to his people. The writer says that Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and that he will proclaim the name of the Lord to us, in the midst of the congregation, the people of God who have gathered together (Hebrews 2:11-12). That means we can picture Jesus among us right now, proclaiming the name of the Lord to us and in a very public sense calling us his brothers. And here's the amazing part: It causes him absolutely no shame to do so. It further means that we can picture Jesus walking among us right now and pointing to us one by one and proudly proclaiming to anyone within earshot, "This is my brother. This is my sister."
So Jesus told the disciples, "I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice." His face will beam at them. What will this do for the disciples? In the book of Acts they will be acting completely differently. They will be acting like people who know they are loved by Jesus.
Jesus says no one will take away from them the joy that comes from his seeing them. Seemingly, the Jewish leaders are taking the disciples' joy away from them, because they are taking Jesus away from them. But when Jesus returns in the Holy Spirit, he will be with them forever (John 14:16). No one can take our joy away from us, because Jesus is the source of our joy, and no one can take him away from us. Observe the contrast between this eternal joy of being seen by Jesus and the "little while" of 16:16-19. After he departs, it will be only a little while before he returns. But when he returns, he will stay forever.
We often hear people saying, in reference to some accomplishment of theirs, perhaps clinging to the trophy symbolizing the feat, "They can't take this one from me." My response is usually, "Who would want to?" What is the accomplishment worth? How long will it last? How sad that something so fleeting is someone's greatest source of "joy," when the true and eternal source of joy is beckoning.
Listen to the prophet Isaiah, in reference to the Jews' expected return from exile (35:10):
"And the ransomed of the LORD will return,
And come with joyful shouting to Zion,
With everlasting joy upon their heads.
They will find gladness and joy,
And sorrow and sighing will flee away."
Being seen by Jesus brings joy. There is also something Jesus wants us to ask for that will fulfill joy.
THE REQUEST THAT FULFILLS JOY
(23) "And in that day you will ask Me no question. Truly, truly, I say to you, if you shall ask the Father for anything, He will give it to you in My name. (24) Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be made full."
"That day" is probably a reference to the Day of Pentecost. In that day, Jesus tells his disciples, they will ask him no question. Earlier, they wanted to ask a question about the meaning of Jesus' puzzling statement concerning his departure and return. When Jesus returns to them in the person of the Holy Spirit, that question will be answered-as will any question that pertains to his disposition toward them. All questions that pertain to our relationship with Jesus melt away in his presence. His presence gathers up all those questions and answers them with words such as, "I am here. Look at my face-I love you."
But Jesus encourages us to ask the Father for something. This doesn't mean we can't ask Jesus, but Jesus wants us to know that we have direct access to the Father as well. The indefinite pronoun ti, which is not plural but singular, is translated "anything" in the NASB and "whatever" in the NIV. But it can also be translated "something" or "a certain thing." Another possible translation value is "a certain one." At first glance this would seem unlikely, inasmuch as the gender of the pronoun is neuter, not masculine or feminine. But the word for "Spirit," pneuma, is also neuter. Jesus' return in the person of the Spirit is what will produce joy in the disciples (verses 20-22), and the result of asking the Father for this certain thing will also produce joy. Are we to assume that the source of joy in verse 24 is different from the source of joy in verse 22? Probably not. The source of joy in both cases is relationship with Jesus, and it is the Holy Spirit who brings this about. Jesus may simply be inviting the disciples to pray that the Father will send the Holy Spirit. The application of one of Jesus' parables included encouragement to pray that the Father would send the Spirit (Luke 11:13), and the Spirit may have been one of the prayer items in Acts 1:14.
The disciples are to ask for this thing in the name of Jesus. Jesus has spoken this way before in John 14:13-14; 15:16. It concerns our asking the Father for what Jesus wants.
Up until now, Jesus says, they haven't asked in his name, because they haven't fully grasped who he is and the fact that knowing him gives them direct access to the Father. Now, he encourages them to ask. Such asking will be answered by the Father's giving and their receiving. The final result will be the fulfillment of their joy.
If Jesus is telling the disciples to ask the Father to send the Spirit, how does this apply today to believers in Christ, who have already received the Spirit? The Spirit nurtures our relationship with God. Jesus says he will see the disciples again in the person of the Holy Spirit, creating joy in them. The Spirit is in us, and Jesus is seeing us as well. The Spirit desires to show us how Jesus is seeing us. We don't need to ask the Father to send the Spirit, but we can ask the Father to quicken the Spirit to show us Jesus.
Before, Jesus encouraged the disciples to petition the Father in his name for the bearing of fruit (15:16), which he defined as love for one another. Jesus told them about this so that their "joy may be made full" (15:11), the same words that are used in 16:24. Jesus wants us to ask the Father to give us love for one another and an intimacy with Jesus that understands his delight in us. Both requests, once granted, produce full joy. Joy is not the only thing the two requests have in common, for they are related to each other. The first is rooted in the second. We can love one another only insofar as we are intimate with Jesus.
So we are to ask for intimacy with Jesus. It produces joy that lasts, that no one can take from us, and that is full. Our joy won't be fulfilled by anything less than Jesus.
One of the amazing things about this is that we are to ask for this intimacy in the name of Jesus, meaning it's something that he wants, and it's something that he wants us to ask for. What we want most of all, though we may not know it, is intimacy with Jesus. He, of course, knows this, and more than that, he wants intimacy with us! He's inviting us to ask the Father for it. It's as if he's looking at us with a knowing smile, saying, "Go ahead, ask the Father," all the while knowing that this is what we want and that the Father will give it to us.
When I was six years old, the thing I wanted most in life was to ride in an airplane. My father came home from work one day and asked me if there was something that I really wanted to do. He already knew that I wanted to ride in an airplane, and he had the tickets in his pocket. But he wanted me to experience the joy of asking for it and then receiving it. Likewise, Jesus knows what we want-intimacy with him. And he can't wait for us to ask the Father for it, for he knows the Father will freely grant it and make our joy full.
JOY, JOY, JOY
Being seen by Jesus turns temporary sorrow into eternal joy. Jesus surfaces the deep questions that pertain to our relationship with him, ultimately leading to joy. Through the Spirit he enables us to see the way he sees us, which brings joy. And finally, he tells us to ask the Father for intimacy with him, which makes our joy full.
There is a wonderful scene in the movie The Elephant Man. The movie is an account of the life of John Merrick, who suffered from a terribly disfiguring disease that made his face a hideous mass of flesh. Merrick, played by John Hurt, loves the theater, but of course he is never able to attend a show, because he lives his life in the shadows, afraid of being seen. The character played by Anthony Hopkins takes him in, and he achieves some notoriety. One day Merrick is visited by a famous stage actress played by Anne Bancroft. All alone with Merrick in a closed room, she hands him a copy of Romeo and Juliet. She sits on the other side of the room, and she invites him to begin reading the part of Romeo. He reads softly, but with a quivering passion that is dying to be expressed. The actress in turn recites the lines of the part of Juliet. When it comes to the scene when Romeo and Juliet are to kiss, the actress gets up out of her chair, walks across the room to Merrick, and kisses him gently on the cheek. She pulls away slowly. "Oh, Mr. Merrick," she says, "you're not an elephant man; you're Romeo!" Merrick's eyes fill with tears at the thought.
We may feel terribly disfigured by sin. But Jesus gets up out of his chair, so to speak, walks across the room, kisses us on the cheek, and calls us beloved. He is not the least bit deterred by our ugliness. In fact, he kisses it away. When he sees us, he doesn't see an "elephant man." He sees a Romeo. Being seen by Jesus turns sorrow into joy.
1. Anna B. Warner, Jesus Loves Me text.
2. Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace? © 1997. Zondervan Publishing House. Grand Rapids, MI
3. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, © 1996. Simon and Schuster. P. 34.
Catalog No. 4568
April 26, 1998
Scripture quotations taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION are identified as such herein. © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers. All other Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE. © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
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