What Jesus communicated to His disciples in John 16 brings out certain important principles for us His followers as we remain in this world to fulfil His mission in the church.
“But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you….” (vv5-7a).
“I still have many things to say to you,but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth,…” (vv12-13a).
There are many issues that can be considered from these communications but there is one major principle that is important to be looked into more closely.
That has to do with looking and reacting to circumstances from God’s viewpoint and perspective. Practically, this would help us react and respond in a way that is consistent with what God desires of us.
Notice first of all that the disciples were filled with sorrow: they were focusing on the departure of their Master rather than on what the Master had to say regarding what will follow after His departure, and why the need for this departure.
Jesus was departing to fulfil the mission entrusted to Him by the Father – that involves the cross, the resurrection and the ascension (returning to the Father and His former glory at the right hand of the Father). If somehow, the disciples had been listening, not just at that point of time, but throughout the years Jesus was with them, they would have perceived to some degree that the Master was returning to the heavenly Father and that He had to go to Jerusalem and die. Dying at the cross for the sin of fallen humanity, destroying the work of the devil, redeeming humanity, returning to the heavenly Father – all these were central in God’s cosmic plan of salvation from before the creation of the world. This has repercussions not just for the known world but for eternity, and also in the spiritual and heavenly realm.
If they could perceive even a little of what this means, they may be ‘sad’ to experience the short departure of the Master but they would have been glad and full of joy to see the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation. But alas, this could only happen if they were able to see the situation from God’s viewpoint.
If Jesus remained with them, He would be limited by His physical presence and not be able to be present with all believers from all over the world and throughout all generations. But if Jesus is present in the spirit through the ministry of the Holy Spirit (who is also described as the Spirit of Jesus), then He would be available to many at any one time and at any place.
Also Jesus wanted to share much more with them but He noted that they could not bear them at that point in time. But when the Holy Spirit comes, He would be in a position to share more with them and to guide them into all the truth.
Jesus’ departure is to the disciples’ benefit. His departure means that the Spirit is coming. If Jesus goes, then He can send the Spirit to them. The Spirit has a work to do with reference to the world (Jn. 16:8-11) and with reference to the disciples (Jn. 16:13). The disciples’ capacity to appreciate what Jesus says will be enhanced when the Spirit of truth comes to them. The Spirit will guide them into all the truth associated with Jesus’ ministry, speaking as He will from the things He will hear and not by His own authority – the Spirit speaks as Jesus had. There will come a time when these witnesses to Jesus will understand what He was all about because the Spirit will declare these things to them, including ‘things to come’. The Spirit will glorify the Son; He will point to the Son just as the Son had pointed to the Father. So Jesus reveals that the mutual union between the Father and the Son extends to and through the Spirit, who in turn will become more actively present among Jesus’ disciples.
Granted that the disciples could not have seen all these fully from God’s viewpoint, but when Jesus told them that His departure was to their advantage, did they attempt to understand what the Master meant? Could they at least receive by faith what the Master said, and trust Him for His viewpoint and perspective? Do they realise the great impact and consequences that will take place when Jesus departs from them? No, they were more concerned that the Master would no longer be present with them physically, and they were ‘nursing their wounds’, as it were, being sorrowful when they noted that one of them would betray the Master and that persecutions would come and they themselves would fail to stand by the Master.
They were sorrowful at heart and concentrated on their feelings and their disappointment, and focused on the impending departure. Is this not how we often respond in our lives? When we encounter any set back in life, we feel distressed and wonder why God does not intervene. It never occurs to us what God is doing or what He intends for us in such a situation. When sickness strikes, for instance, our immediate reaction and response is to ask for healing and deliverance from the ailment. Do we ever wonder what God is communicating to us in our sickness? How does God look at this illness and what lessons does He have for us to learn? Note that the response and reaction concentrate on the situation at hand and on ourselves and how we feel about it.There seems to be no consideration for how God looks at it, and we miss valuable lessons He intends for us if only we were to look to Him for His perspective and viewpoint in that context. This also takes place when we evaluate the circumstance of another believer; by concentrating on how various ones generally would look at the situation, we come away missing what we can benefit if we were to prayerfully seek to see how God views it and what are some of the important principles we can glean from Him.
Take the case of Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 7). Stephen was noted to be full of grace and power, doing great wonders and signs among the people. He testified boldly before the high priest and the Jews about the Messiah. At the end of his powerful testimony, they were enraged and they cast him out of the city and stoned him to death.
Many, including believers, may lament that his death was a tragedy. Here was a young man, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, dying at such a young age when there were so many prospects for ministry ahead of him – what a waste, some may conclude.
But Stephen died courageously. He said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (v56)/
And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do do not hold this sin against them” (vv 59-60). And Stephen’s testimony of courage and love (as he requested God to forgive his attackers) continues to make a powerful impact on believers throughout many generations. His witness could have been powerful if he did not die at the hands of the Jews, but his witness is even more powerful and lasting because of his martyrdom.
Note that the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. This was the same Saul who later became Paul the Apostle. It seems likely that Paul must have been greatly impacted by the testimony and courage of Stephen: here was a man who, in all likelihood, was ‘unlearned’ in the ways of Torah, yet seemed to be so full of wisdom and boldness. Saul instead was trained under Gamiliel and was a pharisee who followed and upheld the Torah conscientiously; yet he honestly knew that he did not possess the quality of wisdom and knowledge of God to the same degree as Stephen. This incident must have troubled Saul for a long time until he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. In some ways, Paul’s subsequent apostolic ministry has been contributed by Stephen’s life, but not in a way expected from man’s point of view but certainly noted and prepared by God in His perspective and wisdom.
Coming back to John’s gospel, Jesus exhorted the disciples not to be troubled but to continue to trust in God and Him: regarding His departure, the Master assured them of their place in heaven and His coming back to bring them with Him – a viewpoint and perspective far far ahead to the future – in that light, the disciples need not be anxious or troubled at heart (John 14:1-3).
In John 16, the Master told the disciples that their sorrow will be short lived – it will turn into joy, referring probably to His coming resurrection and possibly to the day of Pentecost.
In verse 33, the Lord remarked, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world”.
How is it possible to have peace for the disciples when the Master is departing? How is it possible to take heart in the midst of tribulation? “I have overcome the world” may be referring to the completion of His mission and His defeat of the devil at the cross and with the impending resurrection, ascension and the renewal of a new humanity in God’s kingdom. But all these are only taking place in the future with reference to the context of the disciples – here is a vivid illustration of how God (Jesus) views the circumstances before and after the fulfilment of the mission and task of the Son. The focus was not on the impending departure of Jesus from the disciples, not even on the cross at hand, but on the victory and vindication of the Son and God the Father which stretches to the future of the church and to the ‘new heaven and new earth’ and the second coming of the Lord Jesus.
In all our struggles, setbacks, agony and pain as believers, do we react and respond to the immediate circumstance, giving ground to our emotional upheavals, doubts and fears? Have we learned, increasingly, to look at circumstances from God’s viewpoint and perspective and to experience joy in the midst of pain, victory in the midst of tribulations? Are we learning, increasingly, to walk by faith and not by sight? If we do, it would help us greatly not to be troubled, not to be discouraged and distressed, even though the enemy seems to have his day for the moment – we know the end for him and for all those who seek to follow him and to deny God and the Master.
Looking at circumstances from God’s viewpoint and perspective requires faith
We have considered John 16 and noted how the disciples failed to look at the impending departure of the Master from His viewpoint and perspective. This is one major reason for their sorrow of heart and depressed disposition.
One pertinent point for our learning as believers is to know that to do this, it requires faith in God, His being, His revelation and promises.But faith is a big subject for us to digest in a short sharing.
The following is an attempt to pinpoint certain aspects of faith that may be helpful for us in times when we are perplexed, disillusioned with queries and ‘doubts’, accompanied by ‘struggles’ and ‘discouragement’.
We must first understand that God does not profess to answer in Scripture all the questions that we, in our curiosity, would like to ask about Scripture. He tells us as much as He sees we need to know for our life of faith. Hence, our faith need not ‘crumble’ just because we do not have all the answers we desire from the Bible or from perplexing circumstances.
He leaves some problems unanswered and ‘unsolved’ (from our point of view) and this He does to teach us how to humbly trust Him ( a manifestation of faith in Him.
Hence we should not abandon faith in anything God has taught us just because we cannot solve or answer all the problems which it raises. Our own intelligence and understanding is not the test and measure of divine truth – we should not stop believing because we lack understanding, or to postpone believing until we fully understand. All apparent contradictions in the Scripture and in the outworking of the Christian life may not be understood perfectly at this point of our life but this should not prevent us to commit ourselves to faith in the Triune God and in all He has done and revealed.
The frustration that God is often slow in delivering His people is a frustration that many believers experience in the difficulties of life. Such trials cannot be soothed by the truism that it will all work out in the end. Such existential struggles involve the exercise of faith in a context where things do not always go smoothly even with a strong and loving God Pss. 13:1-2; 62:12). The wisdom books of Job and Ecclesiastes do give perspective on this problem and the wisdom psalms also teach a life of faith and fear of Yahweh.
But the lament psalms (and there are many) provide us with a model of practical trust – to express confidence in God even when life seems to have caved in and God seems not to hear our prayers. The lament psalms allow full expression of distress alongside a confession of continued trust in Yahweh.They affirm frustration, real pain, and deep disappointment in life without associating such honest turmoil with a lack of faith. The believer has the opportunity to believe God “in the dark,” not just in the bright times, and to promise him praise when the answer does not come. God is God and He will answer in HIs time and way – and, perhaps not the answer for which we prayed! But we are human, and as God’s creatures He does not chasten us for voicing our real complaint (to be distinguished from complaining!) or expressing openly to Him our deep pain and struggle. One way or another, our faith in Him will be vindicated.
There is a place for us to voice our real complaint but we must refrain from a complaining and grumbling spirit which only leads to unbelief and bitterness. Know that God knows us thoroughly and He even knows the depths of our struggles and pain, just as He grieves in seeing His Son suffering intensely at the cross. We are finite; God is infinite and transcendent – we do not see everything now or even the events of the future clearly. God does and He is perfect; perfect in His being, perfect in His love and perfect in His faithfulness. So brothers and sisters, let us continue to walk by faith and not by sight; let us continue to trust Him even though we do not fully understand all that is to be understood!
Looking at sufferings from God’s point of view and perspective
How do believers look at disasters, calamities, plagues, illnesses, persecutions, injustice and premature deaths? It might be helpful to look at a passage that addresses these issues from Jesus’ point of view, i.e. from God’s point of view.
” There were some present at that very time who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And He answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans,because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you,but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5).
Note that Jesus referred to two incidents: the first was suffering at the hand of the ruler of the state or the one in secular authority, and the other death from an accident.
Notice how Jesus addressed these incidents. First of all, He does not assume that those who suffered under Pilate or those who were killed in the collapse of the tower, did not deserve their fate. The fact that Jesus can tell His contemporaries that unless they repent they too will perish shows that Jesus assumes that death is in one way or another the result of sin and therefore deserved.
Secondly, He does insist that death by such means is no evidence whatsoever that those ‘victims’ are any more wicked than those who escape such a fate. The assumption is that all deserve to die – it is no more than they deserve. But that does not mean that others deserve any less. Rather, it is only God’s mercy that has kept them alive – there is no moral ‘superiority’ on their part.
Thirdly, Jesus treats natural disasters, physical sufferings not as items sto discuss the mysterious ways of God, but as incentives to repentance. It is as if He is saying that God uses disaster as a megaphone to call attention to our guilt and destination, to the imminence of His righteous judgement if He sees no repentance. Disaster, in other words, is a call to repentance; peace and tranquility, which we do not deserve, shows us God’s goodness, mercy and patience with fallen humanity.
We should recall in a previous sharing that our origin needs to be noted: we are all sinners in the first Adam, deserving of death (physical and spiritual) and condemnation (our destination is judgement and hell). It is God’s mercy and patience that allow us time to repent and ‘disaster’ and ‘suffering’ constitute one way God seeks to warn us to repent before it is too late.
This terrible state can only be reversed by God sending His Son to take the penalty of sin on our behalf and to destroy death, penalty and power of sin, and the dominion of the devil. Those who repent and believe in God’s gift of salvation are transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light; we are adopted as children of God and declared ‘righteous’ in Christ. Fallen humanity now becomes renewed humanity, recreated in Christ who is the second Adam and the head of this new community. It is the love of God who planned this before even the creation of the world and it is this love that puts us in a position where we can repent by faith and be regenerated.
It is a characteristic of our lostness to think we deserve the times of blessing and prosperity, and that the times of disaster, suffering (unjustly as we see it) are not only unfair but come close to calling into question God’s goodness and power – even perhaps His very existence. Jesus does not see it this way and we need to bear in mind His view and perspective, for they are the very view and perspective of God.
God’s discipline may include war, plague, illness, rebuke, ill-defined and rather personal ‘thorns’, bereavement, loss of status, personal opposition and much else beside. In such contexts, we may forget that God’s discipline comes from a perfect heavenly Father, who desires our good and holiness; He desires discipline to help us combat sin; He is training us to persevere and to mould us as His children to be like Christ. We never escape God’s sovereignty. Part of learning to live as God’s children is tied to trusting Himwhen He can at best be only dimly discerned behind events and circumstances.
During such times, we must not forget who God is and who we are in contrast. That is the reason why Paul queried who are we to question God the creator; how can the pot tell the potter how to mould the clay? The proper posture and position before God is paramount even though we do not understand all the reasons and why God allows certain events to take place. This calls again to trust a perfect God, perfect in His character, perfect in HIs goodness and perfect in His love.
A certain kind of spiritual maturity can only be attained through the discipline of suffering. During Jesus’ life on earth, He offered up prayers and petitions fervently to the Father who could save Him from death, and He was heard because of His reverent submission and obedience. Though He was the Son of God, the Bible tells us that “He learned obedience from what He suffered” (Heb. 5:7-9).
This is not to say that Jesus was disobedient before He suffered but that in HIs incarnate state as the perfect man, He too had to learn lessons of obedience, levels of obedience, that could only be attained through suffering. In that sense, He grew to “perfection”: not that He was morally imperfect before His sufferings, but that His human, temporal obedience to His heavenly Father could be attained only through the fires of suffering. The result: He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him; He also is able to ‘sympathise with our weaknesses and empathise with us as our High Priest since He HImself “has been tempted in every way just as we are – yet without sin. “(Heb.4:15)
If Jesus Himself in His incarnate state has to “learn obedience from what He suffered,” dare we assume that we should be exempted, given that we are still struggling with our indwelling sin and self-centredness?
Perhaps, as we consider what is happening to some believers in the church in the face of sickness, we may see this arrogant assumption on the part of some Christians as they approach the subject of healing and miracles.
The claim that since the kingdom of God has dawned, this should be manifested by deeds of miracles, healing and exorcisms in the name of Jesus. They come out with a theology of healing and power without an adequate theology of suffering; they stress the theology of victory without sufficient theology of the cross (which is central in God’s plan of salvation); there is the theology of life without proper reflection on the place of death. Such ones see the triumph of the kingdom when sickness is overthrown and healing takes place, and cannot see the triumph of the kingdom of God when people are transformed in the midst of sickness. They miss the point that God often displays His power in the context of continuing weakness (supremely manifested by Jesus at the cross and also seen in the lives of many godly saints); they uphold triumphant faith but forget that triumphant faith may be exactly what is displayed where there is raw perseverance in the face of incredible suffering (see Hebrews 11).
We must not forget that illness, bereavement, and suffering actually shape us; they temper us; they mould us. We may not enjoy the process (all discipline is painful); but they transform us. Rightly received, pain cleanses us from self-centredness, gives us insight into the nature of this fallen world, prepares us for death (and also for looking forward to our wondrous eternal future with God); makes us remember the sufferings of Christ and others. Experiences of suffering, illness and bereavement ‘build’ compassion and empathy in us and make us better able to help others (2 Cor. 1:3-5).
It is no wonder Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it'” (Luke 9:23-24). Denying yourself, taking up the cross daily would certainly mean facing pain and suffering daily; but this is in the context of following Jesus (who is our supreme example) and being faithful to Him.
Certainly, we are not saying that there is no room to ask God to heal, to deliver and to manifest His power; but let us realise that we need to submit to God’s sovereignty and wisdom and to know that we are still in a fallen world, the ‘already’ is here but there is also the ‘not yet’. For believers though, our death is not the penalty for our sin, for Jesus has died for us and taken the ‘curse’ on our behalf; death is in fact a portal for believers to pass through into the presence of our God and master – death is no longer a curse for believers but it is in fact a gift we can look forward to (thanks to God’s eternal plan of salvation applied to our lives). True – “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4) But until then, believers would still encounter pain, shed tears and die – but that is not the end of the story.
For Jesus said, “in my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:2-3)
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” (Jn. 14:1)
The vine that bears fruit gets pruned, so it may bear more fruit (John 15). If we refuse the loving hand of the Father (the gardener in John 15) who wields the pruning knife, then we wither and become dead branches. In other words, fruitfulness in Christian life must include suffering and pain, as God directs and undertakes.