Reflections on John 16: In this world you will have trouble. But take heart I have overcome the world

*this is the transcipt for a sermon I gave on John 16 on Sunday, March 6th, 2022.

Back in the summer of 2021 Jen and I took advantage of the recently opened provincial borders to travel to Eastern Canada. We were definitely feeling the isolation of the last year with the ongoing pandemic. We were packed and overly excited even just to cross a provincial border. We actually ended up crossing two, deciding to do a loop through Ottawa up to Quebec City and then back down to Toronto to visit my family, stopping at a few fromageries along the way. One of the reasons we chose Quebec was for the culture shock. After over a year of being cooped up at home we needed something to shake us out of our slumber. And if you have never been, travelling to Quebec is like stepping off the plane in Europe, only in our own backyard. Not speaking a word of French meant needing to rise to the challenge of communicating across a cultural divide channeling something other than my middle grade french class where I have forgotten more than I learned. Although thank goodness for the universal language of coffee and poutine. Although we were good to go on the food front with Jen having trained under a french chef. It didn’t take long to find ourselves pushed out of our comfort zone.

I tell this story simply to underscore the challenge of entering into a context foreign to us This is also true for coming to the text. The text for this morning is John 16, and more specifically I wanted to focus in on verse 33, arguably its most familiar verse, where it reads- “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart I have overcome the world”.

It should not be surprising that this reads as a comforting word for many in the face of whatever it is that is giving them trouble. Where I started to struggle with this verse though is when it came to filling in the blank of this ambiguously labeled thing called the world. It’s one thing to internalize it and to speak of my own troubles as one who exists in this world- this is good and necessary. Many use the verse in this way. Where it gets tricky is when we use it to then make sense of the stuff that troubles us out there in the world. The world then becomes the enemy and the word overcome begins to take on the flavor of necessary opposition, something we must oppose and/or escape. Where this gets more difficult is when I found myself using this to justify my own opinions about what I find troublesome in this world. And yes, I have opinions. I make sense of the world by filling in that blank with the stuff that I think is wrong and that I don’t like based on those beliefs and ideas. This of course can become the source for all manner of division and us and them categories, including between us and God, when focused on my opinions of what is wrong rather than Christ as the one who overcomes. This feels especially cautionary given the state of things in our world today, divided by a global pandemic and now trying to find unity as we are watching a literal possible world war unfold in Ukraine.

When I chatted with my pastor about my struggles leading up to preaching on this subject- as in given this word and these times, how do I preach on this- he had a helpful word- don’t stand above the text with our own context. Far better to let the text read you, to allow it mean what it means and say what it says and then ask what it has to say to us today. When I did this it became immediately clear that this view I was assuming, or at worst imposing, didn’t quite fit with what I had been reading in the Gospel of John thus far, a Gospel that sets itself up in the opening chapters as a new Genesis, of a God who created this world and called it good, a God who entered into this world that He so loves, the God who did not come to judge the world but to save it. As N.T. Wright puts it in his book Broken Signposts, reflecting on John 16:

“This is one of the reasons John begins his gospel with such a clear echo of Genesis : “In the beginning…” (What would have) leaped off the page to anyone in ancient Israel, or for that matter in ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, or Babylon, where all kinds of different theories about the origin of the world were rife (is that) according to the Genesis story… the point is that the world was made very good, by a very good God.”

N.T. Wright (Broken Signposts)

As well, the more I dug into this passage the more it appeared to me that such a comforting and hopeful word was actually pushing me out into the world where the troubles supposedly are, not away from it, as that is precisely where we find Christ. Much easier to locate trouble in the world than to embrace a troubled world. Especially when I have opinions. Did I mention I have opinions?

This is my prayer for a passage that, I think, is very much about the spirit’s revealing work, which I know I need. This chapter is a call to humility, and then to service. To demonstrate this I figured what I would do this morning is simply attempt to work backwards from this familiar passage with a concern for locating what John means by the “world” and subsequently what it means for Jesus to say he has “overcome” the world, with an interest in shifting our vantage point to standing in the text rather than above it, hopefully learning how to see the world as Jesus does. Let me read from the words of Jesus in chapter 17 as a prayer to this end “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.”

In chapter 15 the set up for seeing the world that Jesus overcomes is a world that it says will hate us for following Jesus. This seems to tell us that the world, however we define it from our vantage point, often bringing in our own context, will be our opposition. What I would like to propose though is beginning with a broader and more cosmological view of the “world” which at its root speaks of order or arrangement. This is in keeping with the notion of John as a new Genesis invoking the creation of the world described in Genesis 1. The broader narrative that John’s Gospel begins to invite us into is then one of order given to disorder, compelling us to turn our attention to what it means to trust, or believe, that this disordered world is being put back to proper order.
It is within this broader cosmological view that John frames our attention not on the world- Jesus did not come to judge the world but to save it- but on the prince of this world, a figure, an entity, a reality, an idea that emerges in chapter 12:31-32 “now is the time for judgment of this world, now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all humanity to myself.” Note where the attention shifts here in terms of the opposition- away from the world and its occupants and towards the prince of this world and towards Christ. Again the prince emerges in 14:30, in line with the thief of John 10, and in 16:11 when it talks about one of this passages central themes- the work of the coming spirit, which it describes in 16:9-12 as convicting the world on three accounts- sin (disorder) and righteousness (order), and the judgment of the prince of this world (that which sows disorder). Notice too the emphasis here on division and Jesus drawing us back together. In John 16: 32 its says a result of Prince’s presence is that they will scatter, divided, leaving Christ alone in His time. Christ draws us together, unifying us in this simpe truth that He has driven out the Prince of this world.

The question then becomes, what are we being drawn together for. John Stott frames the larger context of this passage in a way that I found helpful by using the following literary structure- the crucial call to discipleship (15:1-17), the cost of mission (15:18-16:4), and the resources available to us in the work of mission (16:5-33). We are being drawn together in order to then go out into the world, the same world it says will hate us.

So the framing passages here are 14:15 and 15:17 which presents the conflict between love and hate as two ways of being in the world. In 14:15- “If you love me you will obey what I command”, followed by 14:24- “they who do not love me will not obey my teaching”- culminating in “this is my command. Love each other.” (15:17) Love becomes the clear word that informs this move then from disorder- what is not right- to order- what is wrong being made right, reflecting this transition from the command to love to the expectation of the worlds resistance to this love. Here it is important to reapply that cosmological view seeing the root of hate in the prince of this world and the root of love in Christ. This protects us from slipping into us and them categories in a world that we all occupy and share together.
This becomes the basis for chapter 16’s focus on the disciples grief. This comes in response to Jesus saying “in a little while you won’t see me” 16:16 (which connects to Jesus’ prediction that “they will leave him all alone” in 16:32, a reference to the cross, the trouble he is about to face. Keep that in mind). To which the disciples say, What does he mean?” We don’t understand. Speak plainly please. For the record, my wife Jen say this to me all the time. How can this possibly be good news that you are leaving us precisely when we need you the most? In any case, I felt a little less alone in wrestling with this passage.

This is where Jesus moves them towards something more hopeful by adding “and then after a little while you will see me.” (16:16). This carries a present and future sense- invoking the coming death and resurrection, but also speaking of ascension and awaited return and describing what it is to face any manner of trouble in a world where Christ, or in Christs case the Father, might appear absent. In all of these cases Jesus locates the hopeful word in these two truths- Christ is going ahead of us facing the trouble alone 16:32- they left Christ as they scattered. And second Christ is bringing the scattered together through a promise that the thing that divides us has been dealt with. The question then becomes not how do we live opposed to the world but how do we live opposed to that which tears our world apart, be that internally or externally. This is where Jesus goes ahead of us to show us the way forward, how to live according to this new reality when it seems like the Prince still has a grip.

Now hear the hopeful word of 16:32 again in its full form: “You will leave me all alone, Jesus says, yet I am not alone.” This is where Father, Son and Spirit read as one. Read this back into the whole of chapter 16 and what rings true is the promise that “I will leave you alone, Jesus says, yet you are not alone.” The spirit is with us and this holds the power to draw the world together in love. This is not Jesus existing in contest with the created world but rather love existing in tension with hate, order in tension with disorder, light in tension with the darkness, with the intent to “reveal” the truth about this story, the truth of who Christ is. This is what it means to be chosen out of the world and why D.A.Carson argues that hate and love in these chapters is not primarily sociological but theological. As Stott adds, “we have been chosen “out” of this world, not as opposition to the world but as bearing witness to the work of Christ in redeeming it.” 17:18, where Jesus, speaking of the disciples, says “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” And 20:21 “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” As Stott goes on to say,

“The gracious indwelling of God with his people is not an invitation to settle down and forget the rest of the world: It is a summons to mission, for the Lord who dwells with his people is the one who goes before them in the pillar of fire and cloud.”

John Stott (The Gospel of John)

This is why, then, the coming Spirt matters so much in this chapter. This is why, Jesus says, he is leaving them alone in their division, is so the spirit can come and unify them through the call to love. And the spirits work, John says, is to convict, which can also be understood as to reveal truth in regards to:

  • Sin (what is wrong). Why? Because men do not believe in me
  • Righteousness (what is wrong being made right) Why? Because I am going where you can no longer see me- to the Father, so that you might believe
  • Judgement of the Prince of this World (This is how what is wrong is being made right)

Finally, coming back to verse 33: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (16:33) Here is something really cool. This should take us back to John 1:5: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” What is really interesting here is how one common translation of the word overcome might be more readily applied as comprehend, to know, to make sense of.”, which some of your translations will use. The “light is testified about, believed, and serves to enlighten.” This contrasts with the fact that they did not believe because they did not know. Jesus’ has comprehended the troubled world and has declared it good and loved. Jesus has comprehended our troubled selves and declared us good and loved. In the spirit Jesus has allowed us to comprehend the world from Jesus’ vantage point, as one who has decended from above, as one who then liberates the world from that which holds it divided in the way of self giving love.

This is the light that shines in the darkness, revealing to a world deeply divided and mired in this existing tension between what is wrong and what is being made right the different between love and hate, Christ and the Prince. Love will always stand in tension with hate, light with dark, unity with disunity. This is a battle that wages inside of us between these two natures- love and hate. It’s also a battle that wages in the world. True peace comes from entering into a troubled world with the hope that this tension can then reveal Christ, the one who has made sense of things so that we might believe and thus bring love to the world. I have overcome the world. Better yet, I have made sense of the world, so have peace, Christ is making all things new.

A couple practical notes given our present divided times:

  1. Yes, we can pray. This is the whole of Chapter 17 for a reason
  2. We can use this season of Lent to follow the way of Christ and descend into the tension and wrestle with it. Ask questions of it. Invite this to cause us to rail not against one another but against what is wrong in us and out there.
  3. We can follow Jesus into the world with this single measure as our guide- love. As the final chapter, at the cusp of Jesus’ ascencsion where he once again is leaving in the wake of the coming spirit, it says- “feed my lambs”, “take care of my sheep”. It doesn’t get more simple than that, but this requires us to enter into and embrace the world where the sheep reside.

“Even as I still believe that God calls us to help change the world, to make it more just, to make it more equitable, to make it more loving, I also believe that God empowers the world to help change us, to make us more just, to make us more equitable, to make us more loving. The stubbornness of my cynicism, it turns out, is no match for the resilience of God’s love or for the steady work of living water.”

Rachel Held Evans (Whole Hearted Faith)

“The biblical drama is the heaven-and-earth story, the story of God and the world, of creation and covenant, of creation spoiled and covenant broken and then of covnant renewed and creation restored. The New Testament is the book where all this comes into land, and it lands in the form of an invitation: this can be and should be your story, my story, the story which makes sense of us, which restores to sense the nonsense of our lives, the story which breathes hope into a world of chaos, and love into cold hearts and lives.

N.T. Wright (The New Testament in Its World)

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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