Sermon – May 24, 2020

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John 16:16-24 – Grace and Pain in Childbirth (mp3)

(A brief note: there was slightly too much packed into this particular sermon to adequately summarize below. This is just a brief sketch to give the reader some idea as to what the sermon contained. If interested, I would ask that you listen at the link given above!)

Many times, when we hear the disciples having trouble with a saying of Jesus, we are surprised, and wonder how they could have missed the easy meaning of the text. Yet, today in John 16, we find ourselves in the same boat with them. What, exactly, does Jesus mean when he says “a little while?” And, what’s more, what might we take away from the prominent use of child-birth as a metaphor for what the disciples were going to be going through?

First, let’s try to determine the meaning of “a little while.” The two uses, in context, most naturally mark out Jesus’ ascension to the Father, with the later “little while” referring either to his return in Glory, the disciples’ death and entrance into glory, or to the coming of the Spirit. But the meaning of the phrase “a little while” doesn’t work well for the entirety of someone’s life or the 2,000+ years that have passed since Jesus’ ascension. We could see the “sight” in the second instance a figurative “seeing” of Jesus in the Spirit’s coming during Pentecost. Yet, that reading means interpreting “sight” both literally and figuratively back-to-back, which makes little sense. But, if we reject this, and accept that the time-frame is probably based on his death and resurrection, we find ourselves swimming against the current of the text – and we’d better have good reason to do so. This is a difficult decision, but I humbly suggest that seeing the text as referring to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Briefly, let’s list five reasons why we should:

  1. We should not fully separate out Jesus’ death and resurrection from his ascension. One is the logical conclusion of another. Here, Jesus just narrows in on a factor in his ascension.
  2. Interpreting the time between the “little whiles” as referring to the three-days of Jesus’ descent to the dead makes the best sense of the normal expression “little while.”
  3. Seeing Jesus’ death and resurrection here allows us to take both uses of “see” literally
  4. The fact that John will say that they rejoice when they see Jesus in John 20:20 gives this prediction a fulfillment in the resurrection
  5. The fact that their joy is never removed seems to stand in line with what we read in Acts.

But, even if that is so – what are we to make of this passage? I think that we can make much of it by focusing on the metaphor of childbirth. Genesis sets up the pattern of this biblical theme from its very beginning. The curse of death is upon Adam and Eve for eating the apple, yet, when God curses the snake he makes it clear that Eve’s seed will destroy the very one who has set himself to destroy them. But, such a seed will not come outside of suffering – the very next verse makes this clear. Eve will have her child, but only through pain.

But, Eve knows that this is not her own doing. In Genesis 4, we read that she understands God’s help in attaining a child. Here, then, is the beginning of the theme: God will make good on his promises to both make and deliver his people, but he will do so through the suffering and pain of the curse.

Abraham, who receives the blessing of children, thinks against Eve that he can make them from his own efforts. The provision of Isaac through the barren and menopausal Sarah makes it clear that God’s promises come true only through his help.

The rest of the OT comes back to this theme frequently. Often, it does so through the provision of children to barren women – children of importance (Sampson, Samuel). Isaiah, along with other prophets, develops this theme and extends it to the very bride of God – the nation Israel.

But, even in Isaiah, the efforts of the people do not attain their deliverance, but only a birth of wind (Isaiah 26). Yet still, God will give them the seed promised. As Jesus is indeed that seed, he calls the 12 disciples as a newly formed Israel who will undergo the great pain of losing a teacher, friend, and the very locus of all their hope when he dies. Yet, in being born from the tomb, like a new Adam, a new Isaac, like the prophecy of Isaiah 26, Jesus shows that there is a new humanity formed in his resurrection.

Thus, with the curse now destroyed, the new Genesis and creation of a new mankind now established, God will now not use the pain of the curse to bring forward or to deliver his people. The deliverance has happened; now the production of his people is only through the promise and grace of Jesus Christ.

Praise his name! The curse is gone, the pain is gone, the suffering of his people is no more. Behold, the new has come and the old is done away with. This is what this small metaphor means in John, at least in part. What a wonderful promise!