In the previous note, we examined the concluding words of Jesus in the Last Discourse (16:33); today, I wish to look more closely at the final discourse-unit (vv. 16-33) as a whole. The unit itself follows the Johannine discourse format:
Here is the central saying/statement by Jesus:
“A little (while), and you (will) no longer look on me; and again a little (while), and you will (look) at me (with open) eyes.”
This repeats an important theme of the Last Discourse: the departure of Jesus from his disciples (and from the world). The theme is stated several different ways, most notably at the beginning of the Discourse (13:33, par 7:33-34), and again in the discourse-unit 14:1-4ff, where a saying by Jesus regarding his going away leads into the dialogue with his disciples. In all of these passages, the difficulty for interpretation is that Jesus’ departure can be understood on a least two different levels:
- His death and burial, which would be the most immediate point of reference based on the narrative context (i.e. the Passion setting of the Discourse).
- His (final) departure back to the Father, which appears to be the better sense for the Discourse as a whole.
Along with this, the disciples’ seeing Jesus, and his coming (back) to them, can be interpreted on three different levels:
- His appearing to them after the resurrection
- His end-time appearance from heaven, and
- His presence in the interim, through the Spirit
All of this is further complicated by the fact that, apparently, Jesus ascends/returns to the Father shortly after the resurrection (implied in 20:17ff), while his ultimate ascension/return is not narrated in the Gospel at all.
From the standpoint of the Passion Narrative, the tendency would be to read 16:16 in terms of Jesus’ impending death and burial (a fitting subject for Holy Saturday), yet confusion remains regarding the true point of reference. Within the narrative (the discourse), the disciples were also confused by this (vv. 17-18): “What is this that he says to us?…”. The key, of course, lies in the exposition by Jesus (vv. 19ff), though often in the Johannine Discourses Jesus does not provide the sort of conventional, straightforward explanation that his audience is expecting.
Let us briefly examine the first part of this exposition, beginning with verse 20:
“Amen, amen, I relate to you that you will weep and mourn, and (by contrast) the world will delight; but (yet) your sorrow will come to be delight.”
The reference to weeping (vb klai/w, loud crying/wailing) and mourning (vb qrhne/w) connotes funerary practices in the ancient world. Indeed, qrh=no$ can be a technical term for a funeral dirge or lament. As such, this would certainly be appropriate for the death and burial of Jesus. The “delight” (xara/) that the world (ko/smo$) might feel regarding his death simply reflects the fundamental idea that the “world” (i.e., the order of the things in the current Age of wickedness) is opposed to God, hostile to Him and to His Son, Jesus. This is all part of the Johannine theological vocabulary.
The message of encouragement for the disciples is that the “sorrow” (lu/ph) they experience from his death/departure will be changed into (“will come to be”, genh/setai) their own true delight. The use of the verb gi/nomai (“come to be”), which can connote coming to be born, along with this juxtaposition of sorrow-joy, leads into the illustration of childbirth in verse 21:
“When a woman should produce (a child), she holds sorrow, (in) that her hour (has) come; but when the child comes to be (born) [gennh/sh|], she no longer remembers the distress [qli/yi$], through the delight (she feels) that a man [i.e. child] (has) come to be (born) into the world.”
Almost imperceptibly, this illustration blends together aspects of Jesus’ suffering/death with the eschatological suffering that believers will experience following his death and departure. As previously discussed, the use of the word “hour” (w%ra) likewise encompasses (and combines) both of these aspects. Moreover, the motif of the woman in labor was commonly used as an eschatological image, though it could just as well serve as a general symbol of the suffering that is characteristic of the human condition.
In the Old Testament, childbirth was frequently used as a metaphor for human suffering, either in the negative sense of pain (and possible death) or the positive sense of the joy which replaces the pain when the child is delivered (such as in Jesus’ illustration here). Of the many relevant passages in Scripture, cf. Gen 3:16-17; Psalm 48:6; Mic 4:9-10; Isa 13:8; 21:3; 26:17-19; 42:14; 66:7-8; Jer 4:31; 22:23; 48:41; 49:22ff; Gal 4:19. In the Genesis Creation narrative, the pains associated with childbirth are part of the “curse” —the suffering and ‘evil’ —that marks the current Age. In a similar sense, the pains of women also serve to symbolize the suffering that comes in relation to God’s Judgment—Psalm 48:6; Mic 4:9-10; Isa 13:8; 21:3; 26:17; 42:14; Jer 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 30:6; 48:41; 49:22, 24; 50:43.
The illustration used by Jesus suggests the idea of deliverance from pain/suffering—Mic 4:10; 5:3; Isa 65:23ff; 66:7-9—which also can have an eschatological significance. Perhaps the closest Old Testament parallel is in Isa 26:17-18, though 66:7-8 expresses a similar idea. In several other New Testament passages, the motif of childbirth, and the pains associated with it, are unquestionably used in an eschatological sense or context. Most notably, we have Jesus’ prophecy (in the Eschatological Discourse [Mk 13 par]) of the coming events/phenomena that mark the end-time period of distress; he describes all of these signs in vv. 5-8 with the declaration that “these (are the) beginning of (the birth) pains” (a)rxh\ w)di/nwn tau=ta). Other eschatological references of note are:
- The suffering of Judea/Jerusalem predicted by Jesus in Luke 23:28-31.
- Paul’s statement in Romans 8:22: “we see that all creation groans together and is in pain together until now”.
- The vision of the Woman and the Dragon in Revelation 12.
In fact, the eschatological motif is traditional; the time of suffering, marking the end of the current Age, came to be referred to as “the birth pains of the Messiah”.
The other clear eschatological allusion in Jn 16:21 involves the use of the word qli/yi$ (“distress”), which came to be a technical term in early Christianity for the end-time ‘period of distress’ that will come upon humankind, and which will entail, specifically, the persecution and oppression of believers. Such use of the word derives primarily from the Greek version (LXX) of Daniel 12:1 (cf. also LXX Zeph 1:14-15; Hab 3:16). Jesus uses it in this sense in the Eschatological Discourse (Mk 13:19, 24 par), and it occurs repeatedly in the book of Revelation (1:9; 2:22; 7:14 etc). Other references, by Paul, and elsewhere in the New Testament, are almost certainly eschatological as well, though less explicitly so—e.g. 1 Thess 3:3, 7; 2 Thess 1:4, 6; Rom 2:9, etc.
The illustration of the woman in labor is applied to the situation of the disciples in verse 22:
“And so you, (on the one hand) now you hold sorrow, but (on the other hand) again I will (look) at you with (open) eyes, and your heart will have delight, and your delight no one takes (away) from you.”
In verse 16, the vantage point was the disciples seeing Jesus; here the same relationship is established from the opposition direction—Jesus will see the disciples again; in both instances the future sense of seeing is expressed by the verb o)pta/nomai (“[look] with [open] eyes”), i.e. Jesus and the disciples will gaze at one another. Does this refer to an initial post-resurrection appearance (20:19-23) by Jesus, or does it reflect the eschatological dimension of v. 21, or both? The idea that “no one takes” away the disciples’ delight suggests something more permanent than the initial joy of seeing the resurrected Jesus again—is it an allusion to the presence of the Spirit (20:22)?
The expression “in that day” (vv. 23, 26), also occurring earlier in 14:20, might perhaps clarify the context of Jesus’ statement further; however, the same ambiguity attends its use in the Discourse. The immediate Passion setting of the narrative suggests that it refers to the day of Jesus’ resurrection, but its use elsewhere in the New Testament rather indicates that it has an eschatological connotation—cf. Mark 13:11, 32 par; Matt 7:22; Luke 6:23; 17:31; 2 Thess 1:10; 2 Tim 1:18; 4:8. Since here in vv. 23-27, the focus is on what God the Father will do for believers in Jesus’ name—i.e. when they pray and make request to him—the context would have to be the time after Jesus’ (final) departure/return to the Father, while he remains present with his disciples (believers) through the Spirit. Thus the eschatological sense of the expressions “that day”, and “(the) hour” (that is coming), is best understood in terms of the New Age that believers in Christ experience now, in the present, following the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the “realized” eschatology that dominates the Johannine Gospel—believers experience the end-time events of the resurrection, passing through the Judgment, and inheriting eternal life, in the present, through the Spirit.
According to the early Christian eschatology, the period during which believers experience the New Age, through the Spirit, would be relatively brief; Jesus’ was expected to return very soon, to deliver his people (believers) and to usher in the Judgment. The imminence of this eschatology is not nearly so prominent in the Gospel of John, and is offset by the emphasis on the present (“realized”) aspect. Even so, the early Christian outlook, involving (1) the death and resurrection of Jesus, (2) the New Age realized for believers as they live in the world during the period of distress, and (3) the return of Jesus—all understood as end-time events—was much tighter and closely-knit than it would be for believers living centuries later (or today, after 1900+ years).
Let us consider the thematic outline of Jesus’ exposition, in light of our study so far:
- The sadness and mourning that will be experienced initially as a result of Jesus’ death and burial (v. 20)
- Illustration of the woman in labor (v. 21)—the sadness they experience is part of the pain/suffering they will have during the end-time period of distress
- At the same time, with the resurrection, they will have joy, and it will continue all through the time of distress (v. 22); they will see Jesus again, both immediately after the resurrection, and through the abiding presence of the Spirit
- While Jesus is with the Father, he will remain present, united with believers through the Spirit, giving them access to the divine/eternal life and power of God; this is explained in terms of:
This exposition comes between the initial statement in v. 16 and restatement of it, in terms of Jesus’ return back to the Father, in verse 28. It bridges the gap between the moment of his death, and his exaltation/return to the Father. Jesus returns to the moment of his death in the conclusion to the discourse (verse 32), as he establishes again the idea that his Passion begins the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$) for believers. Yet, even at the darkest point of this suffering, we can be assured that, as believers, we also share in the joy and victory that Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished.