by Alan Summers, Scotland
THE LORD’S REASSURANCE – vv.1-6
THE SPIRIT’S REPROOF – vv.7-11
THE SPIRIT’S REVELATION – vv.12-15
THE DISCIPLES’ REJOICING – vv.20-28
Chapter 16 is the forgotten chapter in the ‘Upper Room Ministry’ of John chapters 13 to 17. Chapter 13 is famous for its foot washing, and chapter 14 for its promise, “I will come again”. Chapter 15 is famous for its teaching about the “true vine”, and chapter 17 for the High Priestly prayer. But chapter 16 is not famous, except perhaps among those preachers and commentators who wrestle with its contents. Among the questions that perplex them are: “How does the Spirit reprove the world?” and “What does the Lord Jesus mean by saying He will be gone for a ‘little while’?” While these are intriguing questions, they do not endear the chapter to the ordinary reader. The complexity of the chapter, the lack of a striking motif and the chapter’s absorption with sorrow combine to make chapter 16 the least well known of this quintet of chapters.
However, “all scripture is given by inspiration of God” 2Tim.3.16, and on that account alone chapter 16 deserves our attention. More than that, it repays careful study. There is an extensive discussion of the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the new dispensation He will inaugurate. The Lord describes the Spirit’s ministry: “He will guide you into all truth” v.13, and “He shall glorify Me” v.14. These are words of extraordinary beauty.
The chapter ends with the words “be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” v.33. These words brim with comfort for the Christian.
THE LORD’S REASSURANCE – vv.1-6
“These things have I spoken unto you.” “These things” refers to the Lord’s explanations for the “hatred” of the world.1 See the end of chapter 15 and the beginning of chapter 16 (15.18-16.4).
- 1. This word “hate” has a wide range of meaning, from strong animosity to mild forms of aversion (see for example Matt.6.24; Gen.29.31).
“that ye should not be offended.” The word “offended” (skandalisthete) has shifted its meaning. In contemporary English it refers to a state of emotional upset. When the A.V. was translated it had a broader meaning and included the thought of being ‘discouraged’ or ‘put off’. The Greek literally means ‘to put a snare or stumbling block in the way’. What sort of stumbling did the Lord have in mind? Many translators and commentators consider that He is concerned that the hatred of the world and its persecution would cause the disciples to lose their faith. They translate the word as “fall away”. In my view, this goes too far. I do not consider that the Lord thought the disciples could or would abandon the faith; rather, He could see that persecution might cause them major discouragement, for example, Jn.6.61. That being so, I think the word should be given a softer shade of meaning. I believe the Lord was concerned that they might be ‘discouraged’.
“They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.” It is evident from the Lord’s reference to the “synagogues” and “do[ing] God service” that the persecution in question is the religious persecution of the Eleven by their fellow countrymen. This prophecy was fulfilled in the persecution described in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, Acts 4.1-3; 6.12; 7.54-60; 9.1-9. Clearly the Lord is not speaking about the persecution that Paul and his companions would experience once the gospel had spread to Europe, Acts 18.12-17, and the persecution at the hands of the Romans during Nero’s reign. Nor does it refer to the persecution of believers in the Middle Ages by Christendom or the persecution that continues to this day in various parts of the world. It is nevertheless true that the Lord’s teaching here provides useful guidance to all Christians who suffer persecution for the cause of Christ.
That He chose to give them such specific warnings is unusual. The Lord rarely provided individuals with personal information about their own future. Usually when He spoke about the future it was to give broad outlines, usually in the context of prophecies about the destiny of Israel and the world. This, by contrast, is a word specifically for the apostles and what they would experience when He left them. It is similar in that respect to His prophecy about Peter’s death, Jn.21.18,19.
As with Peter, the explanation for the Lord’s disclosures lies in His sympathy for their situation and His desire to help them face those difficult days. He may also have considered it strategically necessary to offer support, knowing the vital role these men would play in the establishment of the Church. He understood their predicament. They loved their nation and still hoped that their fellow-countrymen would recognise Jesus as the Messiah. He knew that their hopes would be dashed in the days that followed the events of Acts chapter 2. His words were designed to make them realise that, although matters were not turning out as they wished, they were nevertheless under God’s control. He might have left them to trust in Scripture. Scripture teaches that God is in control, for example, Dan.4.25,32. But He evidently knew that they needed a personal word of re-assurance. He could foresee the risk of discouragement and despair. With this in mind He tells them to remember His words, 16.4. He made no promise to remove the persecution. It was sufficient to know He had allowed it. The knowledge that He had permitted it to happen was intended to help them endure. All who suffer at the hands of the world because of their faith should take courage from these words.
“And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor Me.” The cause of the world’s antagonism in chapter 15 is hatred for Christ. Here He looks behind their hatred and examines its cause. The cause lay in the fact that they have not known the Father, nor Him. The word “know” does not mean “know about”. Many would probably have known quite a lot about Christ. In John’s Gospel and throughout the remainder of the New Testament “know” can mean to know personally and intimately. It refers to the existence of a close relationship between the disciple and the Saviour. Although the religious Jews would have claimed to believe in Jehovah they would have denied that it was possible to have a close personal relationship with Him. This in turn explains their refusal to call Him “Father”. The Lord is, therefore, saying that their opposition stems from the fact that they have never been converted and come to know Christ. When we suffer for Christ’s sake we should remember this. Persecution, whatever form it takes, is often an inevitable consequence of the difference that God has made between the Christian and the world.
“But these things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them. And these things I said not unto you at the beginning, because I was with you.” The reason for telling the apostles that they would be persecuted is set out in v.1. Verse 4 returns to that explanation and explains that His words were intended to fortify them when “the time shall come”. The word “time” is hora, translated “hour” in, for example, 12.23; 16.21. The English Standard Version translates “when their hour comes”. Much of John’s Gospel is occupied with His (the Lord Jesus’) “hour”: His death, resurrection and ascension are described as “Mine hour” 2.4; “His hour” 7.30; 8.20; 13.1; “the hour” 12.23; 17.1; “this hour” 12.27. The word “hour” can mean a period of sixty minutes, for example 1.39, but it often refers to longer periods of time. Once His hour was past, a new hour would begin. The expression “their hour” refers to a period of time after Pentecost when Jewish opposition would transfer from Christ to His representatives in the form of the Church, 16.2. It would not last forever. One of the key persecutors, Saul of Tarsus, was converted on the Damascus Road. This was a severe setback to the Pharisees and Sadducees. In addition, the gospel began to spread far from Jerusalem into regions where Jewish influence was weaker. There, the best the Jewish opposition could do was recruit the help of the Roman authorities, a strategy that did not always succeed. “Their hour” would ultimately come to an end with the destruction of Jerusalem and the collapse of Jewish religious authority.
“But now I go My way to Him that sent Me; and none of you asketh Me, ‘Whither goest Thou?’” The punctuation of the Authorised Version should be noted. It places a semicolon after the words “… Him that sent Me”. The English Standard Version inserts a full stop. Although other translations use a comma, I consider that there should be a stop or pause in the narrative. The idea is that after He says that He is going to the Father, He stops or pauses His conversation. In that pause the disciples do not ask Him where He is going, as they had before, or ask a series of questions, 13.36,37; 14.5. This time when He mentions the subject there are no questions, 16.5. This lack of curiosity or interest is noted by the Lord.
“But because I have said these things unto you, sorrow hath filled your heart.” The spectre of persecution has removed any thought of Christ’s departure from their minds. The grief they feel is not grief at His departure, but rather because they will be permitted to go through the persecution He has described.
THE SPIRIT’S REPROOF – vv.7-11
“Nevertheless I tell you the truth.” In moments of distress the truth is sometimes difficult to accept. But Christ knows that they need to hear it. Christians need to hear the truth.
“It is expedient for you that I go away.” The word sumphero is translated “expedient”. But the word also carries the thought that it is advantageous for them if He goes away. It is translated “better” in Lk.17.2 and “profitable” in Acts 20.20.
“for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you.” The troubles that are hardest to bear are those that come unexpectedly and which we do not understand. He could have explained that it was necessary for Him to die, rise from the dead and return to the Father. He could not, as ordinary humans do, live into old age. Instead He focuses on God’s programme for the future. In each epoch of human history at least one Person of the Godhead has made His presence on earth known. In the period up to the Incarnation it was God the Father. In the period up to Pentecost it was the Lord Jesus. In the Church age it is the Holy Spirit. Hence the Lord Jesus explains that He had to return to heaven so that the Spirit could come. 2Thess.2.7 indicates that the Spirit will be removed from the world after the Rapture of the Church. The fact that no Person of the Godhead is ‘present’ on earth may explain in part why the days of tribulation are so dreadful. In the period after the Tribulation the position changes. In the Millennium the Son reigns on earth, Rev.20.4, and the Spirit is poured out on all flesh, Joel 2.28. In the eternal state the Father and Son reside with man, Rev.21.3,22,23; 22.1,3.
The Spirit is here described as the “Comforter”2. This designation of the Spirit is found in 14.16,26; 15.26. Observe the discussion of this title in earlier chapters. Here the One Whose designation means literally ‘called alongside’ does exactly that and “comes” to the disciples to assist in the great task of continuing the spread of the gospel. In everyday life when the Gospel was written, a parakletos could come alongside and help in a variety of ways. Here the Spirit is sent by the Son to help in the spread of the gospel.
- 2. Parakletos, lit., ‘called to one’s side’, i.e. to one’s aid. “Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words”. Thomas Nelson, p.111.
It is noteworthy that the Lord Jesus speaks of “sending” the Spirit, v.7; 15.26. The Lord Jesus had been “sent” by the Father, 13.20; 14.24; 15.21; 16.5. These words are consistent with the idea that the Son submits to the Father and the Spirit submits to the Son. Servants are sent in order to do their master’s bidding and to represent their master’s interests. These words evidently refer to the descent of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, ten days after the Lord’s return to heaven and fifty days after His death on the cross.
“And when He is come, He will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” These words have proved difficult to interpret. The first issue is what the word translated “reprove” (elenxei, from the root elencho) means. It can mean to ‘bring to light or expose’, to ‘convict’ or to ‘correct’ or ‘punish’. The last of these can be discounted. There is no hint in Scripture that the Spirit comes to punish.
Some understand elenxei to have a legal meaning. They argue the Spirit is a prosecuting counsel seeking to convict the world. Consistent with this idea, they also argue that the word parakletos in v.7 should be translated ‘advocate’, as in 1Jn.2.1, rather than “Comforter” so as to make it clear that He is performing a legal role. They argue that the purpose of this passage is to teach that the world, which is about to convict Christ before Pilate, will in due course be convicted by the Spirit.3 While it is an attractive theory and espoused by many commentators, I doubt if this is the teaching of the passage. Its basic flaw is that it allocates to the ‘advocate’ a role He cannot perform. Advocates do not convict. Judges convict.4 As the various trial narratives of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles disclose, the task of bringing charges before a court was usually for an accuser who would state his complaint. In the trials of Christ, the religious authorities accused Him. Before Gallio, Festus and Felix, Paul was accused by the Jews. No ‘advocate’ performed the role of prosecutor, although accusers did on one occasion hire an orator called Tertullus, Acts 24.1, to present their complaint in a polished way. Given that advocates were an occasional rather than established feature of criminal trials at the time John wrote, it is unlikely that there is a forensic element to this conviction. That said, there is a sense in which every time the Scripture speaks of reproof in connection with sin, righteousness and judgment, the background is Divine law and man’s responsibility for transgressing God’s law. However, it does not seem likely to me that an express connection is being made between the trial of Christ and the Spirit prosecuting the world. Nowhere in Scripture is the task of convicting, in the sense of judging, committed to the Spirit. That role is reserved to the Father, Who has delegated it to the Son, Gen.18.25; Jn.5.22. In John’s writings, words having a legal meaning are used for non-legal purposes. Good examples of this are the words “testimony” and “witness”. They are legal terms. But when John speaks of a person being a witness, for example Jn.1.7; 12.17, or bearing testimony, for example Jn.2.25; 13.21, he merely means that his words are true and that people can depend on them.
- 3. This view or variations on it is taken by a few commentators, e.g. J.C. Ryle: “I venture to think, no man who sits down and calmly weighs the meaning of words can fail to see that … inward conviction is certainly not the meaning of the word rendered ‘reprove’. It is rather refutation by proofs, convicting by unanswerable argument as an advocate, that is meant.” “Expository Thoughts on John, Vol. 3”. Banner of Truth, Ed. 1987, p157.
- 4. The use of juries to try crimes emerged in Anglo-Saxon England and became an established part of Court procedure in the reign of Henry II. The jury, not the judge, had the power to convict of crimes.
The other meaning of elenxei is ‘to bring to light’ or ‘expose’. The “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament” says that the word means ‘to show someone his sin and to summon him to repentance’,5 a definition that includes both the idea of exposure and repentance. If this is so, we may not be forced to choose between ‘expose’ and ‘reprove’ or ‘convict’. In Jn.3.20 it is stated, “every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved [elenchthe]”, that is, exposed and brought into the open. In Jn.8.46 Jesus asks his opponents, “Which of you convinceth [elenchei] Me of sin?”, that is, exposes Me as a sinner. I conclude that the idea here is that the Spirit exposes and convicts people of sin, of righteousness and judgment.6 The word “reprove” may not carry the thought of repentance, but it carries the thought of exposure and so that may be the best translation.
- 5. Kittel, G. “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament”. Eerdmans, p.474.
- 6. The verb in its root form occurs twenty-two times in the New Testament (Matt.18.15; Lk.3.19; Jn.3.20; 8.9, 46; 16.8; Acts 18.28; 19.27; 1Cor.14.24; Eph.5.11,13; 1Tim.5.20; 2Tim.4.2; Titus 1.9,13; 2.15; Heb.11.1; 12.5; Jms.2.9; 2Pet.2.16; Jude 15; Rev.3.19).
It should be noted that the phrase “He will reprove the world” describes the activity of the Spirit, not the response of the world. The word elenxei does not require any consciousness of guilt on the part of the persons reproved. It is true of course that the purpose of the reproof is to awaken a consciousness of sin. The best example of this is what occurred on the Day of Pentecost. When the disciples preached, the people were personally convicted of their sin in crucifying the Lord Jesus: “Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’” Acts 2.37. Given that Luke’s purpose is to record what happened when the Spirit was given to the Church, it is hard to resist the inference that this is an example of what the Lord Jesus said would happen in Jn.15.26,27. The Spirit was now convicting men and women through the preaching of the apostles. I do not see any contradiction between saying that the ministry of the Spirit is inter alia to reprove the world of its sin, and acknowledging that very few in the world have any sense of their guilt.
Leon Morris states that this is the only place in Scripture where the Holy Spirit is said to perform a work in the world.7 This is not entirely true. The Spirit performs a restraining role in the world, 2Thess.2.7. Gen.6.3 indicates that the Spirit strives with people in the world.8 I do not think there is any reason to be wary of the idea that the Spirit can reprove unsaved people. I do not consider that Scripture teaches that someone needs to be saved before the Spirit can reprove them.
- 7. Morris, Leon. “The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel According to John”. Eerdmans, p.618.
- 8. Translations of Gen.6.3 vary but most proceed on the basis that the verb ya-don means that the Spirit is capable of “reproving” mankind. The verb is variously translated “strive” (A.V., N.K.J.V.), “plead” (J.N.D.), “contend” (N.I.V.), while some translate “abide” (E.S.V.) and “remain” (N.E.T.).
Some argue that the Spirit has no active ministry towards the unsaved. In my opinion a major difficulty for this view is that it is inconsistent with the flow of the Lord’s teaching. In Jn.15.26,27 He describes the work the Spirit will undertake after His departure. The Spirit’s work will be to “testify of Me”. Jn.15.27 explains at least in part how that testimony is to be borne. It will be through the apostles who “shall bear witness”. The words “shall testify” v.26, and “shall bear witness” use the same Greek word martyreite, thus emphasising that the work of the Spirit is the work of the apostles. As the Lord Jesus had preached and harrowed the conscience of the unbeliever, so after Pentecost the Spirit carried on that work. I accordingly reject the idea that He “reproves” the world merely by being in it. While there is a sense in which His presence in the world is a passive, objective reproof of the world, that is not the teaching of this passage.9
- 9. e.g. William MacDonald: “The Holy Spirit condemns the world by the very fact that He is here. He should not be here, because the Lord Jesus should be here, reigning over the world. But the world rejected Him, and He went back to heaven. The Holy Spirit is here in place of a rejected Christ, and this demonstrates the world’s guilt.” “Believer’s Bible Commentary”. Nelson, p.1520.
Some have sought to say that the “world” here is the Jewish religious world, Jn.15.18. There may be some force in that since the immediate context is the testimony of the apostles to the Lord’s opponents. That said, it would be unwise to confine the scope of the ministry of the Spirit to the world of religious Jews. As John’s Gospel makes plain, the Lord’s ministry to the world was universal, for example 1.29; 3.16, and so it would follow from the fact that the Spirit continues the Lord’s ministry that the Spirit’s ministry was equally extensive. Moreover, the references to the world in the upper room ministry go far beyond the religious world of the Jew, for example, 14.30; 16.11. The meaning then is that the Spirit has a ministry of conviction towards the world. I have no difficulty in asserting that this is capable of including personal conviction. Plainly the Lord is not speaking of the world as a system but a world of individuals. That is why He says, “they believe not on Me” v.9.
“Of sin, because they believe not on Me.” What exactly is involved in the work of reproving or exposing sin? Some dispute that the Spirit is here exposing individual acts of sin or convicting a sinner of his sinfulness. They consider that these words show that the Spirit is intent on showing that the real nature of sin is rejecting the Lord Jesus, as opposed to other definitions of sin that focus on law-keeping or ritual observance. But I consider these words are not designed to explain what sin is but to explain why the Spirit is engaged in the task of convicting of sin. It is because “they believe not on Me”. If He had said, “of sin, in that they believe not on Me”, matters would be different.
“Of righteousness, because I go to My Father, and ye see Me no more.” Verse 8 states that the Spirit reproves the world of “righteousness”. Some argue that “righteousness” (dikaiosynes) should be translated “innocence”. In other words, they argue, the Spirit convicts the world that Christ was innocent and should not have been crucified. This view is in part inspired by the idea that these words have a legal context. But this interpretation misses the mark. John’s writings, and indeed Scripture as a whole, never support the idea that proving Christ’s innocence of the charges He faced has ever been a purpose pursued by the Spirit through the agency of the apostles or the Church.
The translators’ choice of the word “righteousness” in the Authorised Version signals their view that the issue is personal righteousness or holiness. This is the usual meaning of the word in Scripture, and that being so, in the absence of any express indications to the contrary, I agree with the translators of the Authorised Version that this meaning should be preferred. While it is true that John’s Gospel does not speak of righteousness very much, the word in its various forms and cognates is used regularly by John in his first Epistle, for example, 1Jn.1.9; 2.29; 3.7, so there is little reason to doubt that the Spirit is convicting the world of righteousness in the sense of holiness.
But whose “righteousness”? The text simply says the Spirit will reprove the world of righteousness. “Righteousness”, like “sin” and “judgment”, is a noun. It is not grammatically connected to anything. While the Spirit’s ministry might be to reprove the world of “righteousness” in the abstract, that would not fit with what precedes it. The Spirit does not reprove of sin in the abstract but of the specific sin of not believing in Jesus.
If it is not righteousness as an abstract principle, whose righteousness is in view? One possibility is Christ’s righteousness. Another possibility is the world and its righteousness. In the preceding clause it is not Christ’s sin that is in view, for, of course, He is totally without sin. In the succeeding clause it is not Christ’s judgment that is in view. That being so, it is better to interpret this section as relating to the world. Now of course it may be objected that the Spirit can scarcely reprove the world of its righteousness, since it has none. But that is to read the clause too narrowly. The Lord may be speaking of human righteousness in the same way as Isaiah: “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” Isa.64.6. In other words, the Lord may be referring to the world’s so-called righteousness. Alternatively it may mean that the Spirit impresses on the world its lack of righteousness. The word “reprove” requires this to be a condemnatory ministry. The Spirit is not commending the world’s righteousness. Hence the implication is that by His impressing on it the true nature of righteousness, the world is condemned thereby. I prefer the latter explanation, though both are viable.
The words “because I go to My Father and ye see Me no more” indicate that the reason the Spirit performs this ministry is because He is the successor to Christ. The Spirit takes over from the Lord Jesus the task of convicting the world of its false righteousness or its lack of righteousness.
“Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged.” Verse 8 states that the Spirit reproves the world of judgment. But what judgment? Some argue that the Spirit reproves the world because of its wrongful judgment of Christ. This is not an idea found elsewhere in Scripture, whereas the judgment of the world is a common theme. In this state of affairs it seems to me that it is better to interpret in accordance with the normal use.
The comment “because the prince of this world is judged” explains why the Spirit reproves of judgment. The Spirit will reprove the world because of the judgment of the “prince of this world” (a title of the devil, Jn.12.31) at Calvary. The word “judgment” signifies his condemnation. The death and resurrection of Christ were a “condemnation” of the devil in the sense that God thwarted the devil’s purpose and vindicated Christ by His resurrection. Although the cross superficially looked like a defeat for Christ, in reality it was the moment when the devil’s power was broken, Heb.2.14. The Lord said, “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me” Jn.12.31,32. These words clearly anticipate Calvary (see also 14.30). The execution of the judgment is still future. Unlike the dead, the devil is not arraigned at the great white throne and his works are not judged. He is summarily confined without “trial” Rev.20.1,2,10, in the “bottomless pit” for a thousand years and then placed in the lake of fire. Thus, while the verse does not say “judgment to come” (compare Acts 24.25), I think the Spirit is reproving the world of judgment which is in point of fact still to come.
I agree with Lenski’s summary: “… here the world’s conscience is to be impressed concerning its own judgment by what has already happened to its own ruler. The world is not yet judged, but it is to be convicted in regard to judgment. And that feature of the Divine judgment will be brought to bear upon the conscience of the world, which will effect this conviction. The Spirit will effectively point the world to its own ruler whose fate is already sealed. ‘He has been judged’, and that judgment, once rendered, stands fixed and irrevocable forever.”10
- 10. Lenski, R.C.H. “Lenski New Testament Commentary – The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel”. Augsburg Publishing House, p.1087.
Others see it differently. Ironside writes: “I find that men generally misquote verse 8 and make it read like this, ‘Of judgment to come’, etc. But that is not what it says … He is speaking of present judgment. The thought is this: When Satan stirred that crowd in Jerusalem to send the Lord Jesus Christ to the cross, he sealed his own condemnation. It was said of old that the serpent should bruise the woman’s Seed and her Seed should bruise its head. And at the cross Satan’s head was bruised and he has been judged by God, because of his attitude towards God’s blessed Son, and the world has been judged in its prince.”11
- 11. Ironside, H. “John”. Horizon Press, p.695.
I prefer to read this section as referring to the reproof of the world because of its judgment. While it is true that its “prince” was judged at Calvary, I think the judgment of the devil is used by the Spirit as a portent of the judgment of the world. This would be a natural consequence of the Spirit’s work in convicting the world of its sin and lack of righteousness.
It should be noted that the words “the prince of this world is judged” treat Calvary as a completed event. This is characteristic of the ‘farewell ministry of Christ’, where future events such as the Lord’s death, resurrection and ascension are regarded as accomplished fact, for example, Jn.17.4.
THE SPIRIT’S REVELATION – vv.12-15
“I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.” The Lord does not explain what the “many things” were or why they could not “bear them”. It cannot refer to the prospect of persecution. Although this caused them distress, He had just warned them of persecution in the near future, v.4. It is unlikely to be the great truths that relate to His Deity and Messiahship. Although they remained puzzled about the relationship between Jehovah and the Lord Jesus to the end, 14.5,8, the Lord’s final session of teaching cleared away the doubts, 14.9; 17.8. Possibly the “many things” they “could not bear” relate to the idea that Israel’s day of visitation was about to end. To the apostles the news that Israel was about to be side-lined would have been a shock. Although the Lord had already indicated that Israel’s day was passing, the disciples do not seem to have absorbed His teaching. Acts chapter 15 shows how Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, was used to impress this truth on the apostles, for example, Acts 15.2,4,12,22.
Speaking generally, there are many reasons why Christians are unable to bear the truth. Paul struggled in Corinth with Christians who could not bear certain truths because they lacked maturity. It is certainly the case that the Lord has to be patient with us and teach us gradually.
“Howbeit when He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth.” The Spirit would take over His role as Teacher. Instead of emphasising His role as Comforter he is designated the “Spirit of truth” 14.17; 15.26; 1Jn.4.6. In context this refers to the Spirit continuing the task of instructing the disciples. The Lord had led them as far as they could go. The Spirit, after Pentecost, would lead them into the truth they had not been able to receive. Although as a strict matter of interpretation these words are directed at the apostles, they can be applied to all believers. The Spirit assists the saint by revealing the truth to him or her, and in the task of discerning error, 1Jn.4.6. He “guides” into truth. Left to our own devices Christians would be prone to go astray but the Spirit is a guide ‘at our elbow’. This was a sacred promise for the apostles who had the task of defining the faith of the Church. Some manuscripts have the preposition en instead of the preposition eis. Thus some translate “He shall lead you in all truth”. This reading is rejected by most translations, including R.V., E.S.V., N.E.T., J.N.D. In my judgement “into” fits the context better since the Lord has been explaining that they have not been able to receive all He would have wished to teach them. Thus the point here is that the Spirit will bring that work to completion.12
- 12. Carson, in “The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary”, Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, p.539, implies that en has greater textual support than eis, citing Metzger’s “Textual Commentary” p.247, but the manuscript evidence varies and ultimately Metzger’s view, as with Carson’s, has more to do with interpretation than textual issues.
“for He shall not speak of Himself; but whatsoever He shall hear, that shall He speak.” The phrase “He shall not speak of Himself” does not refer to the Spirit speaking about Himself. It refers to the idea of speaking on His own initiative. The English Standard Version translates “He shall not speak on His own authority”. The context shows this to be the correct interpretation. It depicts the Spirit as a messenger carrying the message of His Master and delivering it in exactly the way He heard it.
“and He will shew you things to come.” The word “shew” may imply that the visions of prophetic oracles are in view. While no doubt the Spirit, after Pentecost, would reveal to the apostles the shape of future events and those can be brought within the scope of “things to come”, the greatest example of this is the vision John would receive on Patmos. The book we call Revelation is a vision of future days.
“He shall glorify Me: for He shall receive of Mine, and shall shew it unto you.” The Lord Jesus glorified the Father in His life and death. The Spirit would have the same ministry towards the Lord Jesus. “Receive of Mine” may refer back to v.13 and the idea that the Spirit carries truth as a messenger carries a message. Thus, He receives truth that is both from the Son and about the Son and passes it on. But he does more than pass on the message. The messenger is also the interpreter in that He “shew[s] it unto you”. In other words, He explains and discloses truth about the Lord Jesus to the apostles and to the saints by His ministry within.
“All things that the Father hath are Mine: therefore said I, that He shall take of Mine, and shall shew it unto you.” This verse is designed to avoid the risk that the Spirit’s ministry might be seen as glorifying the Son over the Father. The Father wishes all to honour the Son as they honour the Father, 5.23, and the Son desires the glory of the Father, 14.13; 17.1,4.
THE LORD’S RETURN – vv.16-19
“A little while, and ye shall not see Me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see Me, because I go to the Father.” Then said some of His disciples among themselves, “What is this that He saith unto us, ‘A little while, and ye shall not see Me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see Me:’ and, ‘Because I go to the Father’?” They said therefore, “What is this that He saith, ‘A little while’? we cannot tell what He saith.” Now Jesus knew that they were desirous to ask Him, and said unto them, “Do ye inquire among yourselves of that I said, ‘A little while, and ye shall not see Me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see Me’?” This section revolves around the expression “a little while” and does not require detailed scrutiny. It is an unusual section in that the Lord’s words in v.16 are repeated three times over: first by the disciples ad longem and then in abbreviated form by both the disciples and the Lord. The result is that the expression “a little while” occurs seven times in quick succession. John evidently wished the reader to take careful note of these words.
THE DISCIPLES’ REJOICING – vv.20-28
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, That ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.” The Lord does not answer their question about the meaning of “a little while” immediately. Instead He returns to the issue of sorrow. It is evident that this is not the same sorrow as in v.6. There the disciples are sorrowful over the thought of impending persecution. This sorrow has to do with the departure of the Lord for “a little while”. He also says that what causes them grief causes the world to rejoice. In point of fact the Gospel records do not discuss the reaction of the Pharisees and Sadducees to the Lord’s crucifixion. There is no record of their rejoicing. But the Lord here states that they will rejoice over His crucifixion. If He said so we can be sure that they did. This is an example of an occasion when the “world” refers to the Jewish religious world. Their joy was representative of the attitude to Christ of the world at large. The post-resurrection joy of the disciples is referred to in, for example, Matt.28.8; Lk.24.52; Jn.20.20.
“A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.” Here the Lord turns to answer their question about the duration of the “little while”. He does not answer it by giving them a calendar or diary-based explanation. Nor does He say, ‘You will lose sight of Me when I am taken down from the cross and buried but you will see Me again on Sunday morning’. Instead he uses a metaphor that draws a parallel between a cause of pain (the contractions of childbirth) and a cause of joy (the birth of a child). The implication is that His absence will be for a short period. He does not specify its duration, for example, by referring to three days and three nights. But the pains of childbirth are of limited duration and that is His point. There may be a parallel between the emergence of a child from the womb and the Lord’s appearance from the tomb.
“And in that day ye shall ask Me nothing. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in My name, He will give it you.” This is a crucial verse. Superficially the “day” in question seems to be the day He sees them again. But on closer inspection this cannot be so. The day has a feature that is linked with the period after the Lord had left them. It was only after the Lord Jesus returned to heaven that the disciples began to pray to the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus. This explains why they “ask [Him] nothing”. This does not mean that the disciples no longer have requests. It means that they have stopped asking the Lord Jesus and are now asking the Father. This presupposes His absence from earth and the commencement of an era where prayer is to the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus, v.23. “In that day” v.23, and “at that day” v.26, both refer to the time after the Day of Pentecost. In summary, therefore, this day occurs after the Lord sees the disciples following the resurrection. The “little while” cannot refer to the present dispensation nor can His promise “I shall see you again” refer to His second coming, to the air. This is because the day in question is a day when disciples will pray to the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus. That is true of the period after the Lord’s ascension.
“Hitherto have ye asked nothing in My name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.” This emphasises that the Lord Jesus is speaking of a time after He had left earth and before His return to earth. A direct approach is possible when He is on earth. But when in heaven requests are by means of prayer to the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus. A characteristic of the new dispensation would be the confidence with which the disciples would pray to the Father, 1Jn.5.14. Just as joy marked the appearance of the Lord after the resurrection, so joy would mark this new phase in the disciples’ relationship to God.
“These things have I spoken unto you in proverbs: but the time cometh, when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall shew you plainly of the Father. At that day ye shall ask in My name: and I say not unto you, that I will pray the Father for you.” The word “proverb”, as in v.29, is paroimiais, which means a ‘parable’ or ‘metaphor’. Some feel that this word indicates that this is a reference to the ‘parable’ of foot-washing in chapter 13 or the Lord’s metaphor of “the true vine” in chapter 15. But the Lord’s words here and the disciples’ contrast between speaking “plainly” and a “proverb” v.29, suggest that the word means a “veiled saying, figure of speech, in which especially lofty ideas are concealed.”13 The Lord Jesus says, “the time cometh” when He will “shew you plainly of the Father”. He adds that this will happen “at that day”. This refers to the same day as in v.23. He is referring to the period after the Day of Pentecost, when they would no longer ask Him directly or ask the Lord to “pray the Father” for them. Instead they would pray to the Father themselves in the name of the Lord Jesus.
- 13. “A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature”. University of Chicago Press, p.780.
“For the Father Himself loveth you, because ye have loved Me.” The disciples could be confident if they approached the Father. The Father loved them. The Father was willing to be approached if their prayers were brought in the name of the Lord Jesus. Hitherto the disciples would have shrunk from the idea that they could approach Jehovah confident that they were acceptable to Him.
“and have believed that I came out from God. I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again, I leave the world, and go to the Father.” The disciples not only loved Him but also accepted Him as the One Who “came out from God” or “came forth from the Father”. As is often the case in Scripture, “God” means God the Father, as opposed to the Trinity. Although to “come from God” may at times merely signify a man with a mission for God, for example Jn.1.6, here it signifies the Lord Jesus’ Divine origin. Since Divine Persons alone have their origin in God’s presence these words emphasise the distinctive personhood of the Son as well as His corresponding Deity as the Son of God, 10.33,36. That Jesus came from God, 3.2; 13.3; 16.27,30; 17.8, into the world, 1.9; 3.17,19; 6.14,33; 9.39; 10.36; 11.27; 12.46; 17.18, and was returning to God, 13.1,3; 14.12,28; 16.10,17,28; 17.13; 20.17, are major themes in John’s Gospel. “I came forth” is in the aorist tense. “I am come” is in the perfect tense. The aorist tense indicates that the Incarnation took place at a particular moment in time and the perfect tense indicates its continuing effect. In describing His departure from the world, the Lord Jesus chooses to overlook the fact that He would “leave” it by way of the cross and the tomb.
THE LORD’S REBUKE – vv.29-33
“His disciples said unto Him, ‘Lo, now speakest Thou plainly, and speakest no proverb.’” It is difficult to know how to understand these words. As the verses that follow indicate, it is unlikely that they had grasped the meaning of the “little while” or the significance of praying “in [His] name”. That being so, the most charitable interpretation is that they understood what the Lord was saying but they did not understand its implications.
“Now are we sure that Thou knowest all things, and needest not that any man should ask Thee: by this we believe that Thou camest forth from God.” The disciples say they are now “sure” the Lord knew “all things”. This implies that they had doubted Him. Possibly they thought that events had demonstrated that He was not omniscient. They may have thought that if He were omniscient He would have foreseen and avoided the difficulties He had described. This verse may indicate a deepening of their understanding as to the true nature of the relationship between the Lord Jesus and Jehovah, 14.8. They now say they “believe” He came “forth from God”. This statement indicates that they believed that He was a distinct Person of the Godhead. They accept that He was distinct from the Father and yet one with the Father. The disciples were beginning to move from their orthodox monotheism to an acknowledgement that the Lord Jesus was Divine and yet a separate Person in the Godhead. But their claim of complete confidence in the Lord’s omniscience may be doubted in light of vv.31,32. It may be that in these words the disciples seek to conceal their confusion and take refuge in a ‘Jesus knows best’ attitude.
The words “and needest not that any man should ask Thee” require explanation. If the disciples were expressing their belief in the Lord’s omniscience why did they not say ‘and needest not that anyone should tell Thee’? Why would He not need anyone to “ask” Him? The answer may be that He could anticipate questions and answer them without being asked, for example, Matt.6.8.
“Jesus answered them, ‘Do ye now believe? Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave Me alone.’ The Lord Jesus’ words ‘Do ye now believe?’” refer back to their assertion that they now believed that He came from God. It seems to me that His words are designed to show that their belief in Him would not be strong enough to withstand the pressures of the betrayal and arrest. Instead of standing with Him, they will be scattered like sheep. This description links with Zech.13.7; Matt.26.31. “Each [Newberry margin] to his own” may mean the apostles returned to their families and homes in Galilee. Peter and John seem to have been the only ones to remain in Jerusalem. The rest seem to have melted into the night. With these words the Lord embarks on His prayer. As is evident, the exalted words of the High Priestly prayer were uttered on behalf of men who were weak in faith and weak in courage. In other words, He prayed for disciples who were just like us!
“and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.” These words are placed in the present tense although they relate to the future. This is an example of what is called the futuristic present tense. Its literary purpose is to bring the future into the present for dramatic effect. Strictly He would not be abandoned (in the next hour or so) and the Father would be with Him. By placing these words in the present tense His words have an immediate effect. He was “with” the Father in a u’nique way because of the relationship He had with the Father. He was both in and with the Father by virtue of eternal relationship. By way of application we can say that the Father is with every believer who faces the end without human companionship.
“These things I have spoken unto you, that in Me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” The phrase “these things” refers to His promise to return to them after the “little while” and the promise that the Father would answer their prayers. It is possible to have “tribulation” in the world and at the same time to enjoy God’s peace. “I have overcome the world” refers to His death and resurrection. Although the crucifixion and resurrection were at this time future events the Lord Jesus viewed them as accomplished fact. The opening verses of the High Priestly prayer likewise regard His death, resurrection and ascension as past events.
Thus chapter 16 closes with words of comfort and encouragement despite the weakness of the disciples. These words are a fitting doorway to the great ‘cathedral’ of truth in chapter 17.