As we begin the reading of John 16, it is evident that the break with the previous chapter is arbitrary. The Lord is pursuing the same theme: he is preparing the apostles for the time when he will no longer be with them, but when they will have the guidance of the holy spirit. The Lord makes it clear what will be required of them and that the consequences will be a serious challenge.
Earlier in the ministry, the Lord had addressed warning words to the twelve, a fact too easily overlooked. They were then being commissioned to go to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6). Even so, they would be sheep in the midst of wolves (v. 16). What is especially significant is the Lord already mentions their witness to the Gentiles (v. 18).
Earlier preparation of the 12
There is no indication of what was the reaction of the twelve at that stage. Perhaps the words carried little meaning for them. They certainly encountered opposition and must have become increasingly aware of the hostility in high places to their Master. But he was still with them, and he possessed remarkable powers. We do know that relatively late in the ministry the thought of the Lord’s rejection and death was unthinkable for Peter (see Matt. 16:22). But as the Lord spoke on the way to Gethsemane, the situation was to change dramatically, and the Lord’s declaration concerning his death was soon to be realized. Doubtless later, after the Lord’s ascension, the apostles would recall his earlier words.
For the moment, we return to John 16. There the Lord discloses the purpose of his warnings, lest they should be offended (v. l). During their coming ministry, they would be excluded from the synagogues, thus effectively becoming rejects of Jewish society, a situation which certainly had arisen in some places even when the Lord was with them (see John 9:22). Even worse was to befall them, however, for those who put them to death would consider themselves to be doing God’s service.
Christ’s words dramatically fulfilled
As so often, what the Lord said to the eleven on the way to Gethsemane anticipated what happened in Acts: James, John’s brother, was executed by King Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:2) and the king then sought to bring about Peter’s death. Paul, in one of his apologies, reveals how he had approved of the death of Jewish disciples (Acts 26:10). In what he said to the eleven, the Lord reveals the reason for the persecution they would experience: “And these things will they do, because they have not known the Father, nor me” (v. 3).
Here, once more, we take note of a recurring theme in these chapters of John. In an earlier disputation with the Jews, the Lord had accused them of not knowing either himself or his Father (John 8:19). Then he mentioned that ignorance of God motivated the actions of the Jews (15:21).
To a much earlier generation, Hosea had sounded a clarion cry: “And let us know, let us follow on to know the Lord” (Hos. 6:3), a sober reminder that the acquisition of the knowledge of God is an ongoing process. Micah, too, in a justly famous passage, had spoken of knowing the righteous acts of the Lord, and went on to show what was pleasing to the Almighty (Mic. 6:5-8). In John 17, we shall see how the moving prayer offered by the Lord mentions the connection between knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ, and eternal life (17:3).
We can perceive, therefore, why the Lord is so concerned, in these last scenes in the company of the eleven, with the importance of their grasping the link between acceptable behaviour and a true understanding of the name of the Father and the Son whom He sent.
The Lord’s departure inscrutable to disciples
In John 16:4, the Lord declares yet again that what he is telling them is preparing his followers for the way ahead. He knows so well, from personal experience, the formidable nature of the opposition his apostles will encounter. As we sometimes say, “forewarned is forearmed.”
There is here a new urgency about this warning, for he will no longer be with them in person. At that precise juncture, the idea of the Lord leaving them and going to the One who had sent him was utterly beyond the comprehension of his hearers.
Because of the simple fact that the Lord had spoken of leaving them, sorrow filled their hearts (v. 6). Yes, they would miss the Lord, his company, his teaching, his love, understanding of their occasional lapses. But there is much more to it than that: was he not their Messiah, the king of Israel, the inheritor of the great prophecies of the Old Testament, with which they were so familiar? Had they not abandoned their former calling in the light of this conviction? How then can the Lord so insist on the fact he is to leave them?
Yet this truth of his departure cannot be hidden from them (v. 7). Though the words may baffle them, the Lord proceeds to explain how his departure is in their interests, as he has already told them they are to receive the Comforter (14:16, 26).
We must note the connection of thought in this verse: the gift of the holy spirit is contingent upon his leaving them, an apparent paradox which is resolved when we turn again to Acts 2:33. There, with his understanding enlightened Peter declares that the Lord, exalted to God’s right hand, has received from the Father the holy spirit which he is then able to pour forth on his apostles. The departure of their Lord will indeed be an all-important stage in the apostles’ development. So dependent before, upon the company of their Lord, they demonstrate in Acts what great work they can carry out in his absence and on his behalf.
Disciples will convince men of sin
The Lord, in John 16:8-11, foretells the tasks which the spirit will enable the apostles to carry out. The purpose of the spirit in the apostles will be threefold. First and foremost among their tasks will be that of convincing men and women with regard to sin. Barrett, in his comment on the Greek term employed here, states it means “to expose,” for example, sin or error; hence “to convict”.1 The apostolic preaching will therefore have as a primary aim to bring home to men and women their standing before God, as sinners.
There is a reluctance in humankind to recognize sinfulness. As we read in John 3:20, “For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.” The term encountered here is the same as in 16:8. “Expose” is appropriate and there is no way of escaping the divine scrutiny.
The fundamental sin is the rejection of the Lord Jesus, the failure to believe in him (v. 9). As God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, the rejection of the Lord Jesus means that men are still in their sins. The Lord spelt this out in his disputation with the Jews: “I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for except ye believe that I am he, ye shall die in your sins” (John 8:24).
We turn again to Acts to see the fulfillment of the Master’s words. There Peter presses home to his Jewish audience the enormity of their sin in crucifying the Lord Jesus (Acts 2:23), whom God had certified as true by raising him from the dead (v. 24). The power of Peter’s preaching and the evidence of the empty tomb, so near to where they found themselves, pricked the conscience of Peter’s hearers (v. 37).
After the consciousness of sin had been awakened, and they now humbly wished to know what they should do, Peter responded: they were to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of their sins, and they would receive the gift of the holy spirit.
The Lord’s ascension proved his righteousness
As for righteousness, this (John 16:10) is linked with the fact Jesus would go to the Father. His resurrection on the third day to eternal life, thus making him the firstfruits (cf. I Cor. 15:20) was in itself a vindication. As Peter testified, it was impossible that God’s holy one should be permanently claimed by death (see Acts 2:24; 3:14).
Yet God’s approval of His Son went further, for he ascended to the Father’s right hand, as the psalm had foretold centuries before (Psa. 110:1). This unique prospect was unquestionably the joy set before our Lord as he faced the supreme crisis in his life (cf. Heb. 12:2). It was thus that by a series of events unparalleled in history, the divine seal was placed upon the character and life of the Lord Jesus, and led to his being given the name above every other (Phil. 2:9-10).
King sin is judged by Jesus
Finally, in this section, the last function of the holy spirit will be that of judgement (John 16:11), and the reason for this is that “the prince of this world” will already have been judged. Judgement can clearly carry the sense of condemnation but, earlier in John, we are told God sent His Son into the world, not to judge or condemn the world but to save it (John 3:17). The great irony lay in the tragic fact the world did not want to be saved on God’s terms. The coming of Jesus inevitably led to a division in the response to him, and this is brought out by the Lord himself when he says he has come for judgment in this world (John 9:39).2 As he said during his ministry, “He that is not with me is against me” (Matt. 12:30).
The token of human rejection of God’s grace in Christ, was his crucifixion, yet, ironically, that was God’s way of saving men and women. This was achieved by the Lord’s triumph over sin in his own person, and as it governed the behaviour of his enemies.
Sin indeed was, and is, the prince of this world as Paul so impressively demonstrates in Romans 6: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey the lusts thereof” (v. 12). Thus while Jesus fully shared our nature (cf. Heb. 2:14), he triumphed over its promptings, and was able to say to his followers, “I have overcome the world” (16:33). When one thinks of the forces arrayed against him, and sees him as a lonely figure, abandoned by his followers, his position seemed hopeless. Yet, after all that he suffers, he is able to pray on the cross, the symbol of his rejection by the world, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
When we reflect upon the wonder of these words, we must echo the estimate of the officers in John 7:46, “Never man so spake.” The crown of thorns was to be replaced by an imperishable crown, one associated with glory and honour (Heb. 2:9).
Tom Barling, Teignmouth, England
1 See C. K. Barrett, “The Gospel According to St. John,” SPCK, London, l958, p. 405
2 In John 9:39 the Greek term krima corresponds to “judgement.” This is the only occurrence of the word in John’s gospel, although the term is found frequently elsewhere in the NT. The term normally used by John and which corresponds to “judgement” is krisis, as in 3:19. This does not necessarily carry the sense of condemnation, as the Lord shows in 8:16; “my judgement is true.” Alas, because of what mankind is, the term can have the meaning of “condemnation:” submitted to divine scrutiny, men and women can be found wanting.