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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
John 16

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-33

Chapter 16

WARNING AND CHALLENGE (John 16:1-4)

16:1-4 "I have spoken these things to you in case you should be caused to stumble in the way. They will excommunicate you from the synagogue. Yes, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think that he is rendering a service to God; and they will do these things because they did not recognize the Father or me. But I have spoken these things to you, so that when their time comes, you will remember that I spoke them to you."

By the time John was writing it was inevitable that some Christians should fall away, for persecution had struck the Church. Revelation condemns those who are unbelieving and fearful (Revelation 21:8). When Pliny, the governor of Bithynia, was examining people to see whether or not they were Christians, he wrote to his emperor Trajan to say that some admitted "that they had been Christians, but they had ceased to be so many years ago, some as much as twenty years ago." Even amidst the heroism of the early Church, there were those whose faith was not great enough to resist persecution and whose endurance was not strong enough to stay the course.

Jesus foresaw this and gave warning beforehand. He did not want anyone to be able to say that he had not known what to expect when he became a Christian. When Tyndale was persecuted and his enemies were out for his life because he sought to give the Bible to the people in the English language, he said calmly: "I never expected anything else." Jesus offered men glory, but he offered them a cross as well.

Jesus spoke of two ways in which his followers would be persecuted.

They would be excommunicated from the synagogue. This for a Jew would be a very hard fate. The synagogue, the House of God, had a very special place in Jewish life. Some of the Rabbis went the length of saying that prayer was not effective unless it was offered in the synagogue. But there was more to it than that. It may be that a great scholar or a great theologian does not need human company; he may be able to live alone and solitary, keeping company with the great thoughts and adventures of his mind. But the disciples were simple folk; they needed fellowship. They needed the synagogue and its worship. It would be hard for them to be ostracized, with all doors shut against them. Men have sometimes to learn, as Joan of Arc said, that: "It is better to be alone with God." Sometimes loneliness among men is the price of fellowship with God.

Jesus also said that men would think they were rendering a service to God when they killed his followers. The word Jesus uses for service is latreia (Greek #2999), which is the normal word for the service that a priest rendered at the altar in the Temple of God and is the standard word for religious service. One of the tragedies of religion has been that men have so often thought that they were serving God by persecuting those whom they believed to be heretics. No man ever more truly thought that he was serving God than Paul did, when he was trying to eliminate the name of Jesus and to wipe out the Church (Acts 26:9-11). The torturers and judges of the Spanish Inquisition have left a name which is loathed; yet they were quite sure that they were serving God by torturing heretics into accepting what they considered to be the true faith. As they saw it, they were saving men from hell. "O Liberty." said Madame Roland, "what crimes are committed in thy name!" And that is also true of religion.

It happens, as Jesus said, because they do not recognize God. The tragedy of the Church is that men have so often laboured to propagate their idea of religion; they have so often believed that they have a monopoly of God's truth and grace. The staggering fact is that it still happens; that is the barrier to union and unity between the Churches. There will always be persecution--not necessarily killing and torture, but exclusion from the house of God--so long as men believe that there is only one way to him.

Jesus knew how to deal with men. He was in effect saying: "I am offering you the hardest task in the world. I am offering you something which will lacerate your body and tear out your heart. Are you big enough to accept it?" All the world knows Garibaldi's proclamation at the siege of Rome in 1849, when he appealed for recruits in these terms: "I offer neither pay, nor quarters, nor provisions; I offer hunger, thirst, forced marches, battles and death. Let him who loves his country in his heart, and not with his lips only, follow me." And join they did in their hundreds. When the Spaniards were conquering South America Pizarro presented his men with a choice. They might have the wealth of Peru with its dangers, or the comparative poverty of Panama with its safety. He drew a line in the sand with his sword and he said: "Comrades, on that side are toil, hunger, nakedness, storm, desertion and death; on this side is ease. There lies Peru with its riches; here lies Panama with its poverty. Choose, each man, what best becomes a brave Castilian. For my part, I go to the south." There was silence and hesitation; and then an old pilot and twelve soldiers stepped across to Pizarro's side. It was with them that the discovery and the conquest of Peru began.

Jesus offered, and still offers, not the way of ease, but the way of glory. He wants men who are prepared with open eyes to venture for his name.

THE WORK OF THE HOLY SPIRIT (John 16:5-11)

16:5-11 "I did not tell you these things at the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going away to him who sent me, and none of you asks me: 'Where are you going?' But grief has filled your hearts because I have spoken these things to you. But it is the truth I am telling you--it is to your interest that I should go away, for If I do not go away the Helper will not come to you. But when he has come, he will convict the world of sin, and convince it of righteousness and judgment; of sin, because they do not believe in me; of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and you no longer see me; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged."

The disciples were bewildered and grief-stricken men. All they knew was that they were going to lose Jesus. But he told them that in the end this was all for the best, because, when he went away, the Holy Spirit, the Helper, would come. When he was in the body he could not be everywhere with them; it was always a case of greetings and farewells. When he was in the body, he could not reach the minds and hearts and consciences of men everywhere, he was confined by the limitations of place and time. But there are no limitations in the Spirit. Everywhere a man goes the Spirit is with him. The coming of the Spirit would be the fulfilment of the promise: "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Matthew 28:20). The Spirit would bring to men an uninterrupted fellowship for ever; and would bring to the Christian preacher a power and an effectiveness no matter where he preached.

We have here an almost perfect summary of the work of the Spirit. The word that John uses of the work of the Spirit is the word elegchein (Greek #1651), translated convince by the Revised Standard Version. The trouble is that no one word can translate it adequately. It is used for the cross-examination of a witness, or a man on trial, or an opponent in an argument. It has always this idea of cross-examining a man until he sees and admits his errors, or acknowledges the force of some argument which he had not yet seen. It is, for instance, sometimes used by the Greeks for the action of conscience on a man's mind and heart. Clearly such cross-examination can do two things--it can convict a man of the crime he has committed or the wrong that he has done; or it can convince a man of the weakness of his own case and the strength of the case which he has opposed. In this passage we need both meanings, both convict and convince. Now let us go on to see what Jesus says the Holy Spirit will do.

(i) The Holy Spirit will convict men of sin. When the Jews crucified Jesus, they did not believe that they were sinning; they believed that they were serving God. But when the story of that crucifixion was later preached, they were pricked in their heart (Acts 2:37). They suddenly had the terrible conviction that the crucifixion was the greatest crime in history and that their sin had caused it. What is it that gives a man a sense of sin? What is it that abases him in face of the Cross? In an Indian village a missionary was telling the story of Christ by means of lantern slides flung on the white-washed wall of a village house. When the picture of the Cross was shown, an Indian stepped forward, as if he could not help it: "Come down!" he cried. "I should be hanging there not you." Why should the sight of a man crucified as a criminal in Palestine two thousand years ago tear the hearts of people open throughout the centuries and still today? It is the work of the Holy Spirit.

(ii) The Holy Spirit will convince men of righteousness. It becomes clear what this means when we see that it is Jesus Christ's righteousness of which men will be convinced. Jesus was crucified as a criminal. He was tried; he was found guilty; he was regarded by the Jews as an evil heretic, and by the Romans as a dangerous character; he was given the punishment that the worst criminals had to suffer, branded as a felon and an enemy of God. What changed that? What made men see in this crucified figure the Son of God, as the centurion saw at the Cross (Matthew 27:54) and Paul on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-9)? It is amazing that men should put their trust for all eternity in a crucified Jewish criminal. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is he who convinces men of the sheer righteousness of Christ, backed by the fact that Jesus rose again and went to his Father.

(iii) The Holy Spirit convinces men of judgment. On the Cross evil stands condemned and defeated. What makes a man feel certain that judgment lies ahead? It is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is he who gives us the inner and unshakable conviction that we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God.

(iv) There remains one thing which at the moment John does not go on to mention. When we are convicted of our own sin, when we are convinced of Christ's righteousness, when we are convinced of judgment to come, what gives us the certainty that in the Cross of Christ is our salvation and that with Christ we are forgiven, and saved from judgment? This, too, is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is he who convinces us and makes us sure that in this crucified figure we can find our Saviour and our Lord. The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin and convinces us of our Saviour.

THE SPIRIT OF TRUTH (John 16:12-15)

16:12-15 "I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth has come, he will lead you into all the truth. For he will not speak on his own authority and out of his own knowledge, but he will speak all that he will hear, and he will tell you of the things to come. He will glorify me, for he will take of the things which belong to me, and will tell you of them. All things that the Father has are mine. That is why I said that the Spirit will take of the things which belong to me, and tell them to you."

To Jesus the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, whose great work is to bring God's truth to men. We have a special name for this bringing of God's truth to men; we call it revelation, and no passage in the New Testament shows us what we might call the principles of revelation better than this one.

(i) Revelation is bound to be a progressive process. Many things Jesus knew he could not at that moment tell his disciples, because they were not yet able to receive them. It is only possible to tell a man as much as he can understand. We do not start with the binomial theorem when we wish to teach a boy algebra; we work up to it. We do not start with advanced theorems when we wish to teach a child geometry; we approach them gradually. We do not start with difficult passages when we teach a lad Latin or Greek; we start with the easy and the simple things. God's revelation to men is like that. He teaches men what they are able and fit to learn. This most important fact has certain consequences.

(a) It is the explanation of the parts of the Old Testament which sometimes worry and distress us. AT that stage they were all of God's truth that men could grasp. Take an actual illustration--in the Old Testament there are many passages which call for the wiping out of men and women and children when an enemy city is taken. At the back of these passages there is the great thought that Israel must not risk the taint of any heathen and lower religion. To avoid that risk, those who do not worship the true God must be destroyed. That is to say, the Jews had at that stage grasped the fact that the purity of religion must be safeguarded; but they wished to preserve that purity by destroying the heathen. When Jesus came, men came to see that the way to preserve that purity is to convert the heathen. The people of the Old Testament times had grasped a great truth, but only one side of it. Revelation has to be that way; God can reveal only as much as a man can understand.

(b) It is the proof that there is no end to God's revelation. One of the mistakes men sometimes make is to identify God's revelation solely with the Bible. That would be to say that since about A.D. 120, when the latest book in the New Testament was written, God has ceased to speak. But God's Spirit is always active; he is always revealing himself. It is true that his supreme and unsurpassable revelation came in Jesus; but Jesus is not just a figure in a book, he is a living person and in him God's revelation goes on. God is still leading us into greater realization of what Jesus means. He is not a God who spoke up to A.D. 120 and is now silent. He is still revealing his truth to men.

(ii) God's revelation to men is a revelation of all truth. It is quite wrong to think of it as confined to what we might call theological truth. The theologians and the preachers are not the only people who are inspired. When a poet delivers to men a great message in words which defy time, he is inspired. When H. F. Lyte wrote the words of Abide with me he had no feeling of composing them; he wrote them as to dictation. A great musician is inspired. Handel, telling of how he wrote The Hallelujah Chorus, said: "I saw the heavens opened, and the Great White God sitting on the Throne." When a scientist discovers something which will help the world's toil and make life better for men, when a surgeon discovers a new technique which will save men's lives and ease their pain, when someone discovers a new treatment which will bring life and hope to suffering humanity, that is a revelation from God. All truth is God's truth, and the revelation of all truth is the work of the Holy Spirit.

(iii) That which is revealed comes from God. He is alike the possessor and the giver of all truth. Truth is not men's discovery; it is God's gift. It is not something which we create; it is something already waiting to be discovered. At the back of all truth there is God.

(iv) Revelation is the taking of the things of Jesus and revealing their significance to us. Part of the greatness of Jesus is his inexhaustibleness. No man has ever grasped all that he came to say. No man has fully worked out all the significance of his teaching for life and for belief, for the individual and for the world, for society and for the nation. Revelation is a continual opening out of the meaning of Jesus.

There we have the crux of the matter. Revelation comes to us, not from any book or creed, but from a living person. The nearer we live to Jesus, the better we will know him. The more we become like him, the more he will be able to tell us. To enjoy his revelation we must accept his mastery.

SORROW TURNED TO JOY (John 16:16-24)

16:16-24 "In a little while you will not see me any more; and again in a little while you will see me." Some of his disciples said to each other: "What is the meaning of this that he is saying to us--'In a little while you will not see me, and again in a little while you will see me'? And what does he mean when he says: 'I am going to my Father'? What does he mean when he talks about 'A little'? We do not know what he means." Jesus knew that they wished to ask him their questions, and he said to them: "You are discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said: 'In a little while you will not see me, and again in a little while you will see me.' This is the truth I tell you--you will weep and you will lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be grieved, but your grief will turn into joy. When a woman bears a child she has grief, because her hour has come. But, when the child is born, she does not remember her pain because of her joy that a man is born into the world. So you too for the present have grief. But I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. In that day you will not have any questions to ask me. This is the truth I tell you--the Father will give you in my name whatever you will ask him. Up till now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may stand complete."

Here Jesus is looking beyond the present to the new age which is to come. When he does, he uses a conception deeply rooted in Jewish thought. The Jews believed that all time was divided into two ages--the present age and the age to come. The present age was wholly bad and wholly under condemnation; the age to come was the golden age of God. In between the two ages, preceding the coming of the Messiah, who would bring in the new age, there lay the Day of the Lord; and the Day of the Lord was to be a terrible day, when the world would be shattered into fragments before the golden age would dawn. The Jews were in the habit of calling that terrible between-time "the birth travail of the days of the Messiah."

The Old Testament and the literature written between the Testaments are both full of pictures of this terrible between-time. "Behold the Day of the Lord comes, cruel with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it" (Isaiah 13:9). "Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble; for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness" (Joel 2:1-2). "And honour shall be turned into shame, and strength humiliated into contempt, and probity destroyed, and beauty shall become ugliness" (2Baruch 27). "The Day of the Lord will come as a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up" (2 Peter 3:10). Such was the picture of the birthpangs of the coming of the Messiah.

Jesus knew the scriptures and these pictures were in his mind and memory. And now he was saying to his disciples: "I am leaving you; but I am coming back; the day will come when my reign will begin and my kingdom will come; but before that you will have to go through terrible things, with pain like birthpangs upon you. But, if you faithfully endure, the blessings will be very precious." Then he went on to outline the life of the Christian who endures.

(i) Sorrow will turn to joy. There may be a time when it looks as if to be a Christian brings nothing but sorrow, and to be of the world brings nothing but joy. But the day will come when the roles are reversed. The world's careless joy will turn to sorrow; and the Christian's apparent sorrow will turn to joy. The Christian must always remember, when his faith costs him dear, that this is not the end of things and that sorrow will give way to joy.

(ii) There will be two precious things about this Christian joy. (a) It will never be taken away. It will be independent of the chances and changes of the world. It is the simple fact that in every generation people who were suffering terribly have spoken of sweet times with Christ. The joy the world gives is at the mercy of the world. The joy which Christ gives is independent of anything the world can do. (b) It will be complete. In life's greatest joy there is always something lacking. It may be that somehow there lingers some regret; that there is a cloud no bigger than a man's hand to mar it; that the memory that it cannot last is always at the back of our minds. In Christian joy, the joy of the presence of Christ, there is no tinge of imperfection. It is perfect and complete.

(iii) In Christian joy the pain which went before is forgotten. The mother forgets the pain in the wonder of the child. The martyr forgets the agony in the glory of heaven. As Browning wrote of the martyr's tablet on the wall:

"I was some time in being burned.

At last a hand came through

The flames and drew

My soul to Christ whom now I see;

Sergius a brother writes for me

This testimony on the wall.

For me--I have forgot it all."

If a man's fidelity costs him much, he will forget the cost in the joy of being for ever with Christ.

(iv) There will be fullness of knowledge. "In that day," said Jesus, "you will not need to ask me any questions any more." In this life there are always some unanswered questions and some unsolved problems. In the last analysis we must always walk by faith and not by sight; we must always be accepting what we cannot understand. It is only fragments of the truth that we can grasp and glimpses of God that we may see; but in the age to come with Christ there will be fullness of knowledge.

As Browning had it in Abt Vogler:

"The evil is null, is nought, is silence implying sound;

What was good shall be good, with, for evil, so much good

more;

On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven, a perfect round.

All we have willed or hoped or dreamed of good shall exist;

Not its semblance, but itself; no beauty, nor good, nor power

Whose voice has gone forth, but each survives for the melodist

When eternity affirms the conception of an hour.

The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard,

The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky,

Are music sent up to God by the lover and the bard;

Enough that he heard it once we shall hear it by-and-by."

When we are fully with Christ the time of questions will be gone and the time of answers will have come.

(iv) There will be a new relationship with God. When we really and truly know God we are able to go to him and ask him for anything. We know that the door is open; we know that, his name is Father; we know that his heart is love. We are like children who never doubt that their father delights to see them or that they can talk to him as they wish. In that relationship Jesus says we may ask for anything. But let us think of it in human terms--the only terms we have. When a child loves and trusts his father, he knows quite well that sometimes his father will say no because his wisdom and his love know best. We can become so intimate with God that we may take everything to him, but always we must end by saying: "Thy will be done."

(v) That new relationship is made possible by Jesus; it exists in his name. It is because of him that our joy is indestructible and perfect, that our knowledge is complete, that the new way to the heart of God is open to us. All that we have, came to us through Jesus Christ. It is in his name that we ask and receive, that we approach and are welcomed.

THE DIRECT ACCESS (John 16:25-28)

16:25-28 "I have spoken these things to you in sayings that are hard to understand; but the hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in sayings that are hard to understand, but I will tell you plainly about the Father. In that day you will ask in my name. I do not say that I will ask the Father for you, because the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came forth from the Father. I came forth from the Father, and I came into the world; I am leaving the world again, and I am going to the Father."

The Revised Standard Version has it that up till now Jesus has been speaking to his disciples in figures. The Greek is paroimia (Greek #3942); it is the word used for Jesus' parables, but basically it means a saying that is hard to understand, a saying whose meaning is veiled to the casual listener, a saying which demands thought before its meaning can become clear. It can, for instance, be used for the pithy sayings of wise men with whose pregnant brevity the mind must grapple; it can be used for a riddle whose meaning a man must guess as best he can. Jesus is saying: "So far I have been giving you hints and indications; I have been giving you the truth with a veil on it; I have been saying things which you had to think your way through; but now I am going to speak the truth in all its stark clarity." Then he tells them plainly that he came from God, and that he is going back to God. Here is a tremendous claim--that he is none other than the Son of God and that the Cross is not for him a criminal's death, but the way back to God.

Then Jesus says something we must ever remember. His men can approach God direct, because God loves them; he does not need to take their requests to God; they can take their own. Here is the final proof of something which must never be forgotten. Often we tend to think in terms of an angry God and a gentle Jesus; what Jesus did is presented in a way which seems to mean that he changed the attitude of God to men, and made him a God of love instead of a God of judgment. But here Jesus is saying: "You can go to God, because he loves you," and he is saying that before the Cross. He did not die to change God into love; he died to tell us that God is love. He came, not because God so hated the world, but because he so loved the world. Jesus brought to men the love of God.

He tells them that his work is done. He came from the Father, and now, by way of the Cross, he goes back. And for every man the way is open to God. He does not need to take their prayers to God; they can take their own. The lover of Christ is the beloved of God.

CHRIST AND HIS GIFTS (John 16:29-33)

16:29-33 His disciples said: "See! now you are speaking clearly, and you are not speaking in hard sayings. Now we know that you know all things, and that you do not need that anyone should ask you anything. Because of this we believe that you came forth from God." Jesus answered them: "So you believe at this moment? See! the hour is coming--it has come--when each of you will be scattered to your own homes, and you will leave me alone. And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. I have spoken these things to you that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have tribulation. But courage! I have conquered the world."

There is a strange light here on how the disciples finally surrendered to Jesus. They suddenly leapt into full belief because they realized that Jesus did not need to ask any man anything. What did they mean? Back in John 16:17-18 we find them puzzled by what Jesus had said. Beginning in John 16:19 Jesus begins to answer their questions without asking them what they were. In other words he could read their hearts like an open book. That is why they believed in him. A traveller in Scotland in the old days described two preachers whom he had heard. Of one he said: "He showed me the glory of God." Of the other he said: "He showed me my whole heart." Jesus could do both of these things. It was his knowledge of God and his knowledge of the human heart which convinced the disciples that he was the Son of God.

But Jesus was a realist. He told them that, in spite of their belief, the hour was coming when they would desert him. Here is perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Jesus. He knew the weakness of his men; he knew their failure; he knew that they would let him down in the moment of his direst need; and yet he still loved them; and what is even more wonderful--he still trusted them. He knew men at their worst and still loved and trusted them. It is quite possible for a man to forgive someone and, at the same time, to make it clear that he is never prepared to trust that person again. But Jesus said: "I know that in your weakness you will desert me; nevertheless I know that you will still be conquerors." Never in all the world were forgiveness and trust so combined. What a lesson is there! Jesus teaches us how to forgive, and how to trust the man who was guilty of failure.

There are four things about Jesus which this passage makes very clear.

(i) There is the loneliness of Jesus. He was to be left alone by men. And yet he was never alone, because he still had God. No man ever stands alone for the right; he always stands with God. No good man is ever completely forsaken, for he is never forsaken by God.

(ii) There is the forgiveness of Jesus. Of that we have already thought. He knew that his friends would abandon him, yet at the moment he did not upbraid them, and afterwards he did not hold it against them. He loved men in all their weakness; saw them and loved them as they were. Love must be clear-sighted. If we idolize a person and think him faultless, we are doomed to disappointment. We must love him as he really is.

(iii) There is the sympathy of Jesus. One verse here at first sight seems out of place: "I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace." The point is this--if Jesus had not foretold the weakness of the disciples, afterwards when they realized how they had failed him, might well have been driven to utter and absolute despair. It is as if he said: "I know what's going to happen; you must not think that your disloyalty came as a shock to me; I knew it was coming; and it does not make any difference to my love. When you think about it afterwards, don't despair." Here is divine pity and divine forgiveness. Jesus was thinking, not of how men's sin would hurt him, but of how it would hurt them. Sometimes it would make all the difference if we thought, not of how much someone has hurt us, but of how much the fact that they hurt us has driven them to regret and the sorrow of an aching heart.

(iv) There is the gift of Jesus--courage and conquest. Very soon something was going to be unanswerably proved to the disciples. They were going to see that the world could do its worst to Jesus and still not defeat him. And he says: "The victory which I will win can be your victory too. The world did its worst to me, and I emerged victorious. Life can do its worst to you, and you too can emerge victorious. You too can possess the courage and the conquest of the Cross."

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on John 16:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/john-16.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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