After announcing the ruler of this world had been judged, Jesus acknowledged there was so much more to tell them, but he knew they could not absorb it. It was too much to carry in their minds and hearts, so he reassured them another was coming who would help them understand and even to one day live and teach the new way, the revealed truths, that God held in store for them.
Yet, the next thing Jesus had to say must have sounded really puzzling, “I am going to disappear, and then I am going to reappear.” The disciples must have looked at each other in wonder. What does Jesus mean?
There was not a single part of it they could understand.
- What was this about not seeing Jesus anymore, but then seeing him again?
- What is this about going to the Father?
- And what is this about “a little while”?
All good questions! When you are studying a passage, what kind of questions do you ask yourself? How about especially when you are looking for the answers to life’s questions, or maybe even just answers for what you are going through right now!
So, what does this passage mean? How does it tie in with our relationship with God? And how long is this going to last?
Jesus Will Disappear, Then Reappear
Amen, amen, I say to you, that you all will cry out in lament, in grief and sorrow, you yourselves will mourn, but the world will be rejoicing—you yourselves will be distressed, but your grief and sorrow will become joy.Jesus to his disciples, John 16:20
Possibility #1: It is possible Jesus was referring to being buried in the tomb, then rising from the dead. “A little while” would be the three days Jesus was gone. During those three days Jesus’ followers were overcome with grief, but the resurrection would turn their mourning into rejoicing.
Possibility #2: Jesus could also have been talking about rising up in the clouds after he had risen from the dead and spent forty days with his followers, opening the Hebrew scriptures to them. At that time, the angels told the disciples that one day Jesus would return in exactly the way he left, coming back in the clouds. In that case “a little while” is, so far, two thousand years, but compared to eternity, that still is not a very long time.
Possibility #3: Or, Jesus might have been referring to the disciples no longer seeing him with their physical eyes, after he went to heaven to be with the Father. But, they would come to see spiritually when the Holy Spirit came to inhabit their bodies on the Day of Pentecost. As they looked at each other in that moment, each saw a tongue of flame over each others’ heads. In this case “a little while” would be the ten days the disciples waited in the upper room, as Jesus had asked them to do.
Jesus Promises Joy
It was important that Jesus go back to the Father because then not only could he send the Holy Spirit, but he would also remain as both High Priest and Advocate, praying and interceding for every believer, and restoring believers when they confess their sin.
But Jesus did not really answer their questions so much as he explained what was going to happen to them so they would be reassured.
When the woman is [in labor], she has grief and pain, because her hour came, but when bringing forth the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish and trouble because of the joy that a person has come into the world.
And so now on the one hand you have grief and sorrow, but I will behold you again, and then your hearts will be rejoicing and not even one person will take your joy away from you.Jesus to his disciples, John 20:21-22
Jesus was giving a basic principle about how God works in our lives: God brings joy not by substitution but by transformation. The illustration Jesus used explains how. A woman is in labor, and that involves great effort and pain.
But, the source of the pain becomes the source of the joy: the baby. It is not the Lord’s way to substitute something else to relieve pain. Instead, God uses what is already there, but transforms it.
How does that work?
Glory and Good
Think of all the times that you and I have asked God to change something. “God, please get rid of the problem, or fix the problem.”
- Please God, cure my beloved one’s terminal illness.
- Please God, help me find the money to pay these bills.
- Please God, give me a friend to ease this aching loneliness.
- Please God, remove this hurtful person from my life.
- Please God, save this marriage.
- Please God, save this job…or home…or person…
If God exists, and God is all the Bible seems to describe God to be . . . then why would God permit all this anguish and pain? Why do these prayers seem so often to go unanswered?
Because God is writing every story in every life, and the intersection of human choices and the cosmic story God is writing for eternity often include suffering. Jesus taught that God will provide what is needed, but that is not necessarily what we want. God has our ultimate good, our eternal good, in mind, as well as glory and God’s ultimate plan of restoration and transformation for all creation.
Every prayer is weighed against glory, and this good.
So very often, if it were not for the bad experiences—failure, humiliation, tragedy—sometimes the very best experiences would never have happened.
Even as I write those words, though, I think of some of the truly terrible things that have happened in my own life. I cannot see any good coming from them at all.
Maybe I can trace good from losing a job, when I see how that started a string of events that brought one to a better job. Or, I can see all the many ways a loving community surrounded a family after they lost their house to foreclosure, or a fire. Or, how good character, compassion and empathy, and wisdom can be formed through hardship. Though I could never see those events as good, I could maybe trace goodness in the aftermath.
But, what about the physical, emotional, and spiritual scars that come from abuse, neglect, molestation, or even simply random violence (wars) or cataclysmic events (earthquakes, forest fires, tsunamis, hurricanes)? What about the loss of a child, or the love of one’s life? What about becoming permanently disabled or suffer some other permanent loss?
There are not clear answers for those things.
But we can know that the Lord has already shown God can bring great good out of great evil because that is what happened at the cross.
The ruler of this world has been judged.
The people have been set free.
The work of restoration and transformation has begun.
From Anguish and Pain to Joy
There is a great lesson for you and me in that. If God is able to turn the worst kind of evil into the best kind of good, then God can certainly turn lesser kinds of evil into good as well. God can certainly take the bad things in our lives and bring some kind of blessing out of them, and that is the transformation principle that God uses in our lives —the source of the pain becomes the source of joy.
God transforms you and me from the inside out so that we can experience God’s joy and see God’s glory, and understand God’s good in every circumstance.
Amen, amen, I say to you, whatever you all ask the Father, he will give to you in my name. Until now, you have not asked anything in my name: Ask! And take hold! In order that your joy has been being made full.Jesus to his disciples, John 20:23-24
The good may not always be obvious. You and I may not see it right away. We may not see it for a long time. But it will be there.