Life + Culture

No One Will Take Your Joy from You: Why Jesus Had to Leave the Earth

No One Will Take Your Joy from You

As his death approached, Jesus became increasingly focused on stabilizing the joy of his disciples in the face of the looming crisis. He deals with two main threats to their joy in John 16:4–24. First, he is leaving them and going to the Father. Second, he is going to die soon. Both seem to undermine lasting joy.

In answering their perplexity, Jesus speaks in a way that reaches across the centuries to stabilize our own tottering joy. This is not incidental. It is what he meant to do: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

1. Your Sorrow Will Be Short

First, he is leaving them. This is not good news in their ears. “Now I am going to him who sent me. . . . Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart” (John 16:5–6). This sorrow is owing to love and ignorance. To love: because their joy is in him. To ignorance: because they have no idea how his physical absence could be to their advantage.

So Jesus seeks to solidify their joy in his absence not by diminishing the love, but by removing the ignorance. He says, “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. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). Among the many reasons this is to their advantage, the main one is that the Spirit is going to make the glory of Jesus more real. Yes, more real than if he were there in the flesh: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. . . . He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine” (John 16:13–15).

This is breathtaking. Do we see what this means to the disciples and to us? How many Christians today say, “If only I could have been there and seen him face-to-face!” Or: “If only I could have a vision of Jesus as he really was in history — something tangible!”

Such longings betray a grave ignorance of the advantages we have, precisely because Jesus died, rose again, and is not here in bodily form, but present by his Spirit. The Helper, the Spirit of truth, that the Father sends is the Spirit of the risen Christ. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18). When the Spirit comes, Jesus comes. And this presence, he says, is better than the bodily presence of his earthly days.

To have the Spirit of Christ at work in us, glorifying the risen Christ and making real for us all that the Father is for us in him and in his triumph over death — this is a wonder vastly superior to what the disciples knew in their lifetime. There is no greater glory than the glory of God in the face of the risen Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). The fuller we are of the Holy Spirit, the more clearly we see and enjoy this glory.

That is the first way Jesus sought to stabilize their joy in these last, dark hours before his death. Though there is a long-term departure coming, he will be with them in a way better than if his earthly stay were extended indefinitely.

2. Real Sorrow for a Little While

The second way Jesus stabilizes their joy is just as remarkable. His disciples thought they heard him correctly when he said, “I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer” (John 16:10). This departure, they understood to be for a long time, probably their lifetime.

But suddenly Jesus said these unexpected words: “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me” (John 16:16). Now they are confused. He had said, “I go to the Father.” He had said that in his place he would send the Spirit of truth. He had not spoken of a quick turnaround. So they began to question, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about” (John 16:18).

Every time Jesus had tried to explain to the disciples that his pathway to the Father was through horrific crucifixion, they had been resistant or baffled. “They did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9:32). But this is what he would now address. They do not yet grasp how great will be the threat to their joy in the next three days. If their joy is to be stable and lasting, he must prepare them for this.

He does so by warning them that sorrow is on the way. He does not try to stabilize their joy by telling them their life will be without sorrow. On the contrary, the sorrow will be intense. And it is coming very soon — in just “a little while.” So he says, “A little while, and you will see me no longer.” This is the source of their sorrow. What he does not say directly is: “You won’t see me because I am going to be dead.” But that is what he means. He calls his indirect words “figures of speech” (John 16:25).

The way he makes the realism of their sorrow serve the stability of their joy is first by saying that the sorrow will be short (“ . . . again a little while, and you will see me”), and then by contrasting their sorrow with three things: (1) the joy of the world, (2) their own future joy, and (3) the joy of a mother after giving birth.

1. Real Sorrow Compared to Immortal Joy

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.” (John 16:20)

Why does Jesus say this in the final hours of their sorrows? Because hard things are less likely to rock your world if you know they are coming. This is Jesus’s way of saying: The world is going to rub salt into the wound of your sorrow at my death. Through your heaving sobs, you will hear the scoffing voices, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (Luke 23:35)

The disciples need to know this. It is part of God’s design for their deliverance. Herod’s mocking game of dress-ups with Jesus was part of the everlasting plan (Acts 4:27–28). This “rejoicing” of the world at the death of Jesus did not take Jesus off guard. He knew the miseries of his dying would be compounded by merciless ridicule. “The world will rejoice.”

The disciples need to know this. Knowing it does not make them less liable to sorrow. But it does make them less vulnerable in sorrow. Now they know that even the scoffing joy of the killers is part of God’s plan. And Jesus is saying to them: Though it is sure, it will be short.

2. Their Own Future Joy

“You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.” (John 16:20)

This is Jesus’s interpretation of the saying they found so baffling: “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me” (John 16:16). In a few hours, he would die and be buried. They would see him no longer, and they will be sorrowful. Intensely sorrowful. Then in three days, they would see him. “Again a little while, and you will see me.” And “your sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16:20).

On the other side of my death, he says, is my resurrection. On the other side of your sorrow is your joy. When you see the horrors tomorrow morning, don’t forget that I have told you this. Let your love for me break your heart with sorrows. But do not let your ignorance break your hope.

The rejoicing of the world will be suddenly altered. What made the world happy and you sad will be no more. I will be alive. They will have failed. It is you, not they, who will be rejoicing now. Your sorrow must come, just like my death must come. But you will no more remain in sorrow than I will remain in the tomb.

3. A Mother After Giving Birth

“When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.” (John 16:21)

There is more going on in this “figure of speech” than the obvious fact that the joy of birth follows the pains of labor. That is true and significant. First pain, then joy. It will be true for Jesus and the disciples in the next three days.

But labor pains don’t just precede a child; they produce a child. It’s not as though there are labor pains, and then right on schedule a stork flies through the window with a baby. The baby doesn’t just come behind the labor pains. The baby comes by means of the labor pains.

So it is with this new joy on the other side of Jesus’s death. The labor pains of the mother in this “figure of speech” refer not just to the disappearance of Jesus (“you will see me no longer”), but to the distresses of Jesus. Not just to his parting, but to his pain. Therefore, the joy on the other side is not just coming behind that pain; it is coming by means of it. The pain of Jesus on the cross did not just precede the new rejoicing; it produced it.

Jesus emphasizes this by the wording he uses in verse 20. He says, “Your sorrow will turn into joy.” He does not say your sorrow “will be replaced with joy,” but literally “will become joy.” Henry Alford puts it like this: “Not merely changed for joy, but changed into so as itself to become — so that the very matter of grief shall become matter of joy; as Christ’s Cross of shame has become the glory of the Christian, Galatians 6:14” (Greek New Testament, vol. 1, 870).

From where we stand on this side of the cross and the resurrection, how the agonies of the cross actually become our joy is more plain. The sufferings of Christ remove our sin and God’s wrath, and bring us to God and joy. “Christ also suffered once for sins . . . that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18), and “in your presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11). “Through him [that is, his sufferings] we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2).

So when Jesus says that after the birth of a child, a mother “no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world,” he means that the labor pains have been transformed from remembered anguish into bringers of joy. So it is with Jesus’s sorrows and their effects on the disciples. Jesus wanted them to know this ahead of time to stabilize their joy: All this sorrow “will turn into joy” (John 16:20).

There is one more stunning thing Jesus says about their joy that should make them stable enough to weather the coming storm of Good Friday. The child born to this woman in the “figure of speech” represents Jesus after the resurrection. And Jesus, after the resurrection, could never die. “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again” (Romans 6:9). When the labor pains of death give birth to life, that life is immortal.

This means that the joy Jesus promises is immortal joy. “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22). This indestructible joy is because “I will see you again.” I will rise from the dead. I will be alive and with you, by my Spirit, forever. Your joy cannot be taken from you because I will not be taken from you. I am your joy (John 15:11; 17:13). “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18).

No One Can Take This Joy

We can scarcely hear too often that it was better for us that Jesus leave us and go to the Father. “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

To be sure, the Holy Spirit — the Helper — was active in the world before Jesus went to the Father. But one thing he never did before the resurrection of Jesus: he never glorified the risen Lord of the universe! Now this is his main work in the world. “He will glorify me!” (John 16:14). He does it daily, and he does it sovereignly, in all the children of God. Whenever we see the glory of Christ, here’s why: “This comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Without this, we would all make shipwreck of our faith.

By means of this Christ-exalting work, the Spirit fulfills the promise of Jesus that no one will take our joy from us (John 16:22). Think of that! The skeptics and scoffers cannot take your joy. The doctor with the biopsy report cannot take your joy. Your adulterous spouse cannot take your joy. Your straying children cannot take your joy. The political climate, and global terror, and school shootings, and racial injustice, and financial disaster, and unemployment, and theological controversies, and unfulfilled dreams, and the memories of your own failure — they cannot take your joy. No one can.

“I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22). Meaning: I will rise from the dead. I will verify this by looking you in the face. Then I will go to the Father. Then we will pour out my Spirit on you. And until I come again, my Spirit will make my glory so real to you that no one will take your joy from you.

Not Only Joy

Jesus does not promise only joy. “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Take heart indeed! How can we not! Not only has he overcome the world — and hell and the devil and death — but he remains with us and in us like a mighty warrior against all our foes. “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

So, yes, there will be tribulation. Sorrows of so many kinds in this fallen world we can’t count them. But the world that makes us so sorrowful will not have the last word. Therefore, the watchword of the Christian in this world is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Through every grief, we are being kept by the power of the Helper. Therefore, “you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials” (1 Peter 1:6).

You may be tempted to cry out, “Oh, that I could go back and see him as he was in the flesh!” But remember, you see more of him now by his Spirit in his word than the disciples did during his earthly life. And you will see him again. But not the way he was. His face will be “like the sun shining in full strength” (Revelation 1:16). Take heart from Peter’s words: “Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and glorified” (1 Peter 1:8–9). This is the joy that cannot be taken from you.

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