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When Jesus told His disciples that He would be leaving them shortly, they did not know what He meant. There was no modern transportation in those days, so their perspective was different from ours. We today might mean that we will be taking a plane across the ocean, but in those days they might travel for a month and go just a short distance (as we reckon it).
Jesus did not tell them, “Look, Peter, I have decided to preach the gospel in India, but I will come back to you in three years.” Neither did He say, “John, I will ascend to heaven from the Mount of Olives and will remain there for many centuries.”
Jesus’ language was not plain at all, even though we today know what He meant, since we read John’s account with knowledge from the future that they did not have. When John wrote his gospel, he too knew much more than they knew at the Last Supper. He included all the obscure hints that Jesus had said at the time, but we should keep in mind that the disciples remained confused and even hurt by these hints.
John also knew that his gospel would be read by many new people who did not know how the story would end. So he kept them in suspense as well. In John 16:16-18 Jesus told the disciples,
16 “A little while, and you will no longer see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me.” 17 Some of His disciples then said to one another, “What is this thing He is telling us, ‘A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me’; and ‘because I go to the Father’?” 18 So they were saying, “What is this that He says, ‘A little while’? We do not know what He is talking about.”
In the short term, Jesus disappeared from view when He was buried. He reappeared after His resurrection. He ascended at the third hour of the day to be presented to the Father as alive from the dead and then returned to the disciples periodically for the next 40 days.
But when He said, “because I go to the Father,” it seems that He was speaking more long term of the time after His final ascension to the Father in Acts 1:9.
When He told the disciples of his disappearance and reappearance in John 16: 16, 17, they may have wondered if He was going to become invisible in some way. “You will no longer see Me” can mean this, and indeed this was precisely what He meant. They would see Him no longer, but yet He would be present with them and in them after the day of Pentecost by the agency of the Holy Spirit.
Then at His return, they would again see Him in person when the Pentecostal Age ended and the Tabernacles Age began. I believe that we ourselves live at this transition of the ages, so these words have more relevance to us today.
Jesus was deliberately vague, and it seems that He wanted His disciples to question Him further. They were reluctant to do this, however. John 16:19 says,
19 Jesus knew that they wished to question Him, and He said to them, “Are you deliberating together about this, that I said, ‘A little while, and you will not see Me, and again a little while, and you will see Me’?”
It seemed that Jesus was tantalizing the disciples with vague statements, but on the other hand, He seemed to be prodding them to ask for an explanation. Yet no one dared to do so. Perhaps they did not want to show their ignorance. Perhaps they were used to Him speaking obscurely.
When He speaks to us today by the Spirit, He often speaks in mysteries, revealing and hiding truths at the same time. At such times, I have found, we are not ready to hear more and are unprepared to get further understanding. He does want us to question Him further, but usually it takes time and growth to be able to receive those details.
His desire is that we ponder and meditate upon His words to prepare our hearts for further revelation. Yes, we should even seek to know and understand His revelation, but He seldom spells it out for us ahead of time. Revelation is usually His way of making us dimly aware of things coming in the future, so that when they come to pass, we will know that He caused it and was not taken by surprise.
When the revealed events take place, it is almost always somewhat of a surprise to us, in spite of earlier revelation, because revelation always seems to hide the actual manner of its fulfillment. We are given the theme and perhaps the overall purpose of what is coming, but the actual events usually remain a mystery. Nonetheless, when the revelation is fulfilled, we ourselves are not taken totally by surprise, yet it is clear that God is the One who did it by His own will.
In other words, revelation is an aid to being watchful. We anticipate without presumption. It is dangerous to think that we truly understand exactly what is coming, so we must be careful about sharing our understanding as if it were the revelation itself. Our understanding usually remains incomplete and partial, regardless of the clarity of the revelation itself.
John 16:20 introduces a further concept into the mystery of His leaving and returning.
20 “Truly, truly, I say to you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will grieve, but your grief will be turned into joy.”
There is more than one level of meaning to this, as usual. This additional information did little to give the disciples any understanding of what was coming, and it certainly did nothing to comfort them. What was coming that would make them “weep and lament”? In fact, why would the world rejoice? These were just more riddles that confused the disciples at the time, although they would certainly understand later.
First, we know from looking back at the story that Jesus’ death on the cross would make the disciples “weep and lament,” but that their grief would turn to joy when He rose from the dead and appeared to them on the third day. This layer of meaning also defined “a little while” as being just a few days.
The world’s reaction to His death on the cross would be the opposite of what the disciples were to feel. The world would rejoice at His death—not that very many people actually knew of His death at the time, but that those putting Him to death would rejoice, thinking that they had been victorious. We see the same type of reaction at the death of the two witnesses in Rev. 11:10, where we read,
10 And those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and celebrate; and they will send gifts to one another, because these two prophets tormented those who dwell on the earth.
In whatever way one interprets this passage about the two witnesses, it is clear that this celebration is to be compared with the crucifixion of Christ Himself, where the chief priests rejoiced at His death, because Jesus caused them a lot of grief and anguish. Jesus “tormented” them by the good that He did for the people and by His words of truth. The overall prophetic conflict, of course, was over the right to rule, seen earlier in the story of Absalom’s usurpation of the throne of David.
We ought to view this conflict also in light of Psalm 2, which Peter quoted in his defense in Acts 4:25-28,
25 who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Your servant, said, “Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples devise a futile thing? 26 The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against His Christ.’ 27 For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles [ethnos, “nations”] and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.
In other words, it was prophesied that Christ’s right to rule was spiritually opposed by the entire world and not just by the chief priests in Jerusalem. While most of the world knew nothing of what was going on in Jerusalem or of the conflict prophesied in Scripture, the world has indeed opposed Jesus Christ’s right to rule the earth. Governments of the world want to rule by their own laws; individuals want to indulge in their own carnal ways of life.
Only relative few—even in the church—can say with David in Psalm 119:97-99,
97 O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. 98 Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever mine. 99 I have more insight than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation.
So we see that the world and those who are worldly do indeed oppose Jesus Christ and the laws of His Kingdom. Jesus’ assertion that the world would rejoice at Christ’s death while the disciples wept and lamented described the heart condition of the world since the beginning of time to the present day.
Another way to look at this statement is from the divine perspective. The world will eventually rejoice over Christ’s death for a very different reason. In the restoration of all things, when all submit to His rightful rule, they will rejoice that He died for the sin of the world. While that day seems to be yet a long way off, it is but “a little while” from God’s perspective.
Finally, we can look at this “little while” in terms of the interim between Christ’s ascension and His second coming. During the Pentecostal Age, there would be much persecution and “grief” among the believers, for millions were martyred during this time for their faithful witness. After this time of “grief,” however, Christ will appear at the time of the feast of Tabernacles, wherein those who “keep” the feast (in the New Covenant manner) rejoice in its fulfillment.
Jesus said further in John 16:21, 22,
21 Whenever a woman is in labor, she has pain because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world. 22 Therefore you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.
The birth of the Kingdom at the appointed hour is well known in Scripture. Jer. 30:6, 7 says,
6 Ask now and see if a male can give birth. Why do I see every man with his hands on his loins, as a woman in childbirth? And why have all faces turned pale? 7 Alas! For that day is great, there is no one like it; and it is the time of Jacob’s distress, but he will be saved from it.
Jacob’s time of “distress” is compared to the pains of childbirth just before delivery. Jacob had two times of “distress,” each 21 years in length, which worked out in long-term prophecy as two cycles of 210 years. (Hence, 21 is the biblical number for “distress.”) I wrote of these prophetic things in chapter 14 of my book, Secrets of Time. On this prophetic level, a man like Jacob can indeed give birth, for he represents a nation or a kingdom.
We see this theme again in Isaiah 66:7-9, Micah 4:10, and, of course, the well-known prophecy in Revelation 12, where the woman clothed with the sun gives birth to a Son. In every case, the birth is preceded by birth pangs that are compared to tribulation prior to the birth of the Kingdom.
The good news is that once the birth has taken place, the mother’s pain is forgotten in the joy of seeing and holding her child. Having delivered four of my own children by myself at home, I learned this principle by personal observation.
Jesus told His disciples that their “grief” was comparable to a woman’s birth pangs and that this would precede their time of rejoicing when the Kingdom would be brought to birth. The first day of Tabernacles is the time of birthing, and the eighth day of that feast is the appointed time for the presentation of the sons of God, according to the law in Exodus 22:29, 30.