"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 12 The Last Supper and Farewell Discourses

12.2 Table Talk (Jn 13.21-16.33): 12.2.10 Sorrow to Joy (Jn 16.16-24)


Throughout this long section of "table talk", beginning with Jn 13.21, John shows Jesus repeating himself many times, both to reassure the disciples and to emphasise his previous teachings, because he expects the disciples will need to remember them during the succeeding several days. This subsection is no exception. Jesus' words, as quoted by the disciples in vv17-18, reflect previous teaching and conversations about Jesus' destination with the Father and reassurances that, although Jesus will be leaving the disciples in a short time (as he has been predicting since at least ch7 vv33-4), he will return. There are relevant discussions in 13.33 and 36, 14.1-4 and 18-21, and 16.1-11. The disciples are here being prepared not just for the crucifixion, followed by the resurrection, but also for the ascension, followed by the sending of the Advocate, and a spiritual presence with them that is never fully explained. Jesus concludes by calling on the disciples to ask of the Father in his name: "ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete". Throughout this passage, the disciples are led through a transition from sorrow to joy.

Jesus answered the disciples' questions in vv17-18 with a short parable likening their experience to that of a woman in childbirth. Just as she has to undergo the pain of labour before she can experience the joy of having had a child, so they must undergo the pain of separation from Jesus before they can experience the joy of his return. But there is more to this figure than that - elsewhere in the Scripture this figure of a woman in childbirth whose birth-pains are forgotten when her child is born alive occurs in contexts in which the woman seems to stand for God's people (or for Zion, the people of Judah in particular).

Some of these passages reflect an apocalyptic milieu, in which the child's birth signifies the victory of God's people over her enemies (as in Isaiah 66.8-14) or the final coming of the Messiah to confront God's foes (as in Revelation 12). So here it is significant that Jesus uses this figure as a way of speaking about the grief and distress which the disciples will experience soon, which will be transformed in a short time to joy. It does seem that, to John, the Parousia - the future appearing of the Messiah in all his glory - is either entirely or in large measure accomplished by Jesus' glorification, that is, his saving death, return to the Father, and sending of the Advocate. That is to say, based on this and various other clues in the text, many scholars have concluded that for John the so-called second coming of Jesus has already happened, at the time of his resurrection and subsequent return to the Father. So the underlying message of the comparison to a woman in childbirth connects the disciples' joy to the accomplishment of Jesus' glorification and his Parousia. This is made even more clear to the reader in the original Greek, where the word translated 'distress' in v21 is 'thlipsis' (which is a pain to say in and of itself) but in Biblical Greek is often specifically applied to the sufferings that will be experienced at the end of the age, that is the end times described in Daniel 7 or in the Olivet Discourses in the synoptic gospels (Mark 13 and parallels in Matthew 24-5 and Luke 21).

In the final passage of this subsection it is not immediately clear what Jesus means by talking about asking the Father. Jesus uses words that can mean either to ask a question, or to ask for something -- even a benefit or a gift. Clearly in v19 it means to ask a question - that's what the murmuring of the disciples amounts to, but they won't come out and question Jesus directly. The problem is with vv23-4 - does Jesus mean that the disciples have not asked the Father for things in his name before, and now they should? That does not seem likely. Or at least not as probable as that Jesus is telling them that after his resurrection they will not ask him any more questions - they will not need to because they will then be a position to ask the Father in Jesus' name any question that they want. Part of what Jesus will accomplish by his glorification is to establish a new relationship between his followers and the Father (as discussed in the Prologue (Jn 1.12-13) and the parable of the Vine (Jn 15.1-11). Based on this new relationship, the disciples will be able to ask the Father questions in Jesus' name. But we should not completely ignore the possibility that in that new relationship they will also be able to ask the Father for gifts in Jesus' name, as he says elsewhere. See the comment on John 14.13 for a further discussion.

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