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The Life of Jesus - Series 12: Episode 17

Jesus prepares his disciples for his death

| Martin Charlesworth
John 16:16-33

Jesus uses the metaphor of childbirth to describe the pain and joy the disciples are going to experience. He seeks to reassure them ahead of the events of his death, resurrection and ascension.

Jesus uses the metaphor of childbirth to describe the pain and joy the disciples are going to experience. He seeks to reassure them ahead of the events of his death, resurrection and ascension.


Hello welcome to Series 12 and Episode 17 in which 'Jesus prepares his disciples for his death'. We are studying in John's Gospel as we have been in the last few episodes. We are in John 16: 16 - 33.

Introduction and Recap

If you have been following Series 12, you will know that we have been in the middle of the last week of Jesus' life. This second part of Series 12 has been focused on the events in the upper room in Jerusalem, where Jesus shared the Last Supper with his twelve disciples. It was a very eventful and intense meal in which many things happened. We are coming towards the end of the meal, and all the events and discussions that took place within it. If you have been following the wider narrative and you have been with us since Series 11, you will know that we are now on Thursday evening in the middle of the final week of Jesus' life, the climax of everything in his life, and which is written about far more extensively by the Gospel writers than any other period of Jesus' ministry because of the significance of everything that has happened. In a moment, we will go over the events of the Last Supper briefly to put this particular passage in context, but before we do that, the wider context of those last few days runs approximately like this:

If we take the events of Series 11 and the beginning of Series 12, we find that it starts with the Sunday, at the beginning of the week, where Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time, with a huge crowd following him. There have been massive expectations as he had been approaching Jerusalem, which we looked at at the end of Series 10. Series 11 finds Jesus coming into Jerusalem, almost like a triumphal hero. Many people think he is the Messiah; that he is coming to make a fundamental change in the Jewish religion, maybe overturn the Temple authorities, or the political leaders, the Romans, and make big changes in the nation. In fact, Jesus is preparing for a final confrontation with the religious authorities, which has been a major theme of the Gospels and the key theme of this last narrative of the last week of his life. The Triumphal Entry really was a demonstration of Jesus' claims to be the Jewish Messiah and made the authorities feel very nervous.

They felt even more nervous on Monday when Jesus returned to the Temple area and challenged them directly by overturning the tables of the people trading in the Temple area - trading and money changing, buying and selling animals for sacrifices. This is a very confrontational gesture, by which Jesus was accusing the religious authorities of being financially corrupt. On Tuesday, he came back to the Temple area again - a big compound with huge walking areas around the main building, with plenty of room for lots of people. Crowds came to him, and many different groups came and challenged him with difficult questions - Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, chief priests, lawyers - representatives of the authorities all came and challenged him. He left the Temple area after managing to refute their questioning, and spoke to his disciples as he left the city about forthcoming judgement on the nation of Israel, and also about his Second Coming. We looked at that material in Matthew, 24 and 25, at the beginning of Series12, but the story moved on very quickly from there.

On the Wednesday, almost certainly, in Bethany, the village where Jesus was probably staying just a few kilometres outside the city, there was a meal, to which Jesus was invited and at which he was anointed with oil by Mary of Bethany, who lived there with her sister Martha and whose brother Lazarus had been raised from the dead. This event was the critical moment that triggered the final crisis. This was the time when Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus' twelve disciples, made the final, irrevocable decision that he was going to switch sides. He was going to move from Jesus' team over to supporting the religious authorities. He was going to betray Jesus. He went to see the authorities; promised them that he would lead them to Jesus in a quiet place where they could arrest him out of view of the crowds. They promised him money in return. From that moment onwards, on the Wednesday of that week, the certainty of Jesus being arrested was now clear.

Then comes the Last Supper and that is our focus for this talk and the second part of Series 12. Quite a lot of things have happened already, before we get to the very crucial teaching that Jesus gives here. We have already found out about how the Last Supper came about in the upper room, how Peter and John prepared for the meal, and how Jesus was the host of the meal. Then we discovered in Episode 10, how Jesus suddenly washed the disciples' feet - the actions of a servant, to indicate the nature of his leadership. We see him establishing, in Episode 11, the Lord's Supper, or Communion, or the Eucharist. This is the commemoration of Jesus' death, using bread and wine, that has become part of Church life. Then we see Jesus teaching, in Episode 12, about servant leadership and in that episode also Judas finally left. Having been part of the meal for the first half, he suddenly departed. This is the moment that he is going to the authorities and telling them the exact whereabouts of Jesus and where Jesus is likely to go as soon as he leaves the upper room. Judas will come back into the story very soon when he will be with a group of soldiers and militia and a crowd of people from the religious authorities who come to arrest Jesus.

Then we moved into John's Gospel and I pointed out, in Episode 13, that John adds a lot of extra material here - material from his own recollection. He was almost certainly the disciple described in John 13 as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, who was next to Jesus at the table of the Last Supper. John decides to tell us the rather more intimate things that Jesus said to the remaining eleven disciples during that critical time in the second half of the Last Supper. Jesus was preparing and equipping his disciples for the sudden dramatic and traumatic events that were about to take place within a few hours of that particular moment. In Episode 13, Jesus comforts his disciples saying he is going to the Father but preparing a place for them to come in heaven. In Episode 14 and in Episode 16, we had two parts of Jesus' teaching about the coming of the Holy Spirit and all the things the Holy Spirit is going to do in the lives of the disciples. That is very exciting and encouraging teaching. In Episode 15, Jesus uses the metaphor of the vine and the branches to explain how God the Father will shape the lives of the disciples, sometimes through difficult circumstances, or even opposition, but he is going to make them very fruitful and effective in God's Kingdom.

Previous Prophecies about Jesus' Death

All the way through this narrative, there have been constant indirect references to Jesus' death. At this particular point, Jesus is going to be much more specific and talk about his death and resurrection in very direct terms. Jesus was a great teacher; he knows that when you are teaching people you have to repeat things; you have to give them as much truth or information that they are capable of dealing with; and you have to give people time to absorb information, especially difficult things. One of the things that he was aware of, was that the concept of him dying and then rising again from the dead was so difficult for his disciples to comprehend that he needed to spend a lot of time preparing them for this reality. He had in fact been doing it for some time. It was at the time when he left Galilee, after the time spent on the mount of transfiguration; it was at that time that he began to warn his disciples that he would go to Jerusalem - he would suffer, die and be raised again from the dead. He would die at the hands of the authorities. At that particular time, the disciples were completely confused by that. They didn't believe it. They didn't understand. They didn't really know what he was talking about. It just didn't make sense to them at all, so Jesus knew he had quite a difficult task ahead of him.

Their anticipation was that Jesus' Kingdom, which he had brought in, would grow and grow, and become more and more powerful and influential, and one day he would go to Jerusalem and literally take over the whole nation: get rid of the Romans; get rid of the corrupt authorities in the Temple; purify the religion; bring in the Gospel and the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit to the whole nation; and then to the Gentile nations beyond. That was their rather simplistic view of what might happen and they also thought they would get positions of authority in such a Kingdom. The idea that this wonderful movement that they had been part of for three years was going to come to a sudden, terrible and critical crisis through Jesus dying was incredibly difficult for them to understand. Bear in mind that here we are on Thursday of the last week of Jesus life. It was only four days ago, on the Sunday, that he entered Jerusalem with an enormous crowd, supporting and encouraging him and welcoming him as the Messiah. They have got all these contrary things going on in their thoughts and in their emotions, and it is now at this particular point in Jesus' teaching, right towards the end of the Last Supper that he is more explicit and clear with them about his death and resurrection.

Jesus' Explicit Teaching about His Death

Let us read this passage in sections and reflect on it as we go through. John 16: 16 - 18,

‘Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you'll see me.” At this some of his disciples said to one another, “what does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’? They kept asking, “What does he mean by, ‘a little while’? We don't understand what he's saying.”’

John 16:16-18, NIV

Jesus is being a little enigmatic here. He is describing three realities - ‘you'll see me no more’ that is a reference to his death. ‘After a little while you'll see me,’ - that is his resurrection. Then ‘I'm going to the Father’ - that is his ascension. Looking at the text from the point of view of knowing the end of the story, we think that is fairly obvious but the disciples were confused, asking questions. They couldn't quite work out what he meant. 

Let's read on, verses 19 - 22,

‘Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so said to them, ‘“Are you asking one another what I meant when I said ‘in a little while you'll see me no more and then after a little while you'll see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn when the world rejoices. You will grieve but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: now is your time of grief but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”’

John 16:19-22, NIV

Jesus again is teaching by a metaphor. He is teaching by an analogy. He is teaching prophetically. He is describing his death and resurrection and their emotional response to it in a similar way to childbirth, from the point of view of the mother of the child coming into this world.

‘A woman giving birth to a child has pain because the time has come, but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of the joy that her child is born into the world.’

John 16:21, NIV

In human experience, this is one of the greatest mysteries of our lives - the incredible mixture of suffering and joy a woman experiences giving birth to a child. The suffering is intense, the pain can go on for many hours and the joy is overwhelming; probably the like of which there is no other joy. It is a very intense human experience and one that men look on and see, as I have done at the birth of my children, in wonder. You feel something similar, but you don't have the same fundamental experience, certainly not the suffering. Jesus is using a metaphor, a way of thinking that is very vivid. He is basically saying, you are suffering now because you are entering into the time that is leading up to my death but you will rejoice. You will get through the other side because this death is not the end. The suffering of the woman in labour is not the end. It isn't an end in itself; it will lead to something totally different. The pain subsides, the baby arrives and joy is overwhelming. 

Let's keep reading, verses 23 - 27,

‘“In that day, you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you've not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive and your joy will be complete. Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father. In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.”’

John 16:23-27, NIV

In his human life, the disciples could ask Jesus for things directly. They could ask for miracles; they could ask him questions about information; they could ask him about provision for their lives; and they could ask him for help with their families. Jesus is pointing out that they are going to have the ability to ask the Father as vividly and directly for their needs as they asked Jesus in the human life that they shared together. In the name of Jesus, they can approach the Father. They can ask the Father to do miracles, ‘Ask and you will receive and your joy will be complete.’

This is another transition that he is trying to help them understand. They interpreted their discipleship as following Jesus in a human relationship where they were together and they lived in a community together for about three years on the road. Everything was based on direct human contact, direct discussion, shared experiences, listening to what Jesus had to say, and he needed to prepare them for the fact that, when he wasn't there, they could pray to the Father with that same intimacy and openness and faith and expectancy that they had with him. He is encouraging them that they are going to be very well-resourced when he is not there. He has already spent considerable time explaining to them the Holy Spirit will come.

‘The advocate, the Spirit of truth is coming, when I leave he will come to you he will reveal everything to you that you need to know’. (John 16)

He will guide you. He is saying that through that Spirit's presence, and in the name of Jesus, you can come to the Father; you can ask him things. He is going to provide for you. If you want to extend the Kingdom of God, you can pray and those prayers are going to be answered in one form or another. 

The Disciples' Response

Verses 28 - 30, Jesus said,

‘“I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.” Then Jesus' disciples said, “Now you're speaking clearly and without figures of speech. Now we can see that you know all things and that you do not even need to have anyone ask you questions. This makes us believe that you came from God.”’

John 16:28-30, NIV

Finally, at the very end of this conversation, after using some indirect language, figures of speech, metaphors, Jesus is speaking plainly. He has told them clearly he is going to die; he is going to rise again from the dead. After having risen from the dead, he is not going to be staying with them for a prolonged period of time. He is returning to his Father. They are a little bit more settled now. They have got it clear in their minds what Jesus is talking about. This has been a very important conversation between Jesus and his disciples in the upper room, recorded at length by John. So much needed to be discussed, so much reassurance needed to be given to the disciples. Guidance needed to be given to them concerning the events that were just about to unfold. It was very hard to prepare them for the trauma of the arrest of Jesus, which is going to take place in a few hours. They are going to be witnesses to something terribly traumatic and then there will be something even more traumatic of course when he is crucified and publicly executed the following day in public view, just outside the gates and walls of the city of Jerusalem, where he had been received with such rapturous acclamations by the crowds just a few days earlier. It is a tremendously difficult thing for them to come to terms with, but Jesus doesn't want them to be scattered; he doesn't want them to fall away; he doesn't want them to lose heart; he wants to implant into their memories things that he has said here that they will remember, and which will be able to consolidate their faith. They will be able to remember on Good Friday and on Easter Saturday, when Jesus' body is in the tomb. They will be able to remember the things that he said, that yes he is going to die but he is going to rise again, and he is going to go to the Father. It is not the end of the story. 

And the final verses; verses 31 - 33;

‘“Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. 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.”’

John 16:31-33, NIV

Here Jesus predicts the scattering of the disciples. It is only a few hours before this actually happens. When Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane, as we shall see shortly, the disciples scatter. They are afraid; they disappear. One or two of them go up to the High Priest's house to try and see what is going on when Jesus is being tried. The rest of hem disappear to the places where they are staying nearby. They are scattered for a short period of time. Jesus knows they are going to be scattered, but he wants them to have peace, as he says in that final verse. He wants them to have peace, even though there is trouble. Once they have re-orientated themselves emotionally, they can re-engage with the story. That will begin to happen on Easter Sunday when Jesus appears to them. They gather again in the upper room. Although they are scattered in the middle of the night, between Thursday and Friday, they will have been gathered again by Sunday evening, and Jesus will appear to them. This is an incredible story that is shortly going to unfold, which we are going to follow with some eagerness, as we continue into Series 13 and Series 14.


Let us pause there for a moment and conclude this episode by thinking through some of the things that we are learning. I think the first thing to say is this is a remarkable bit of teaching and discourse that John records for us, that Jesus gave to his disciples in John chapters 14,15 and 16. How gracious of Jesus to prepare his disciples and teach them so many things that they needed to know at a time of great personal distress and need. He had that great sense of the imminence of his own suffering and I wonder whether you have had any experience where you know you are going to suffer in some particular way through some life circumstance, and that feeling beforehand is very difficult to deal with. Jesus had it on a massive scale because of the extent of his suffering. However, because of his love for his disciples, he showed tremendous love for them during the Last Supper: the love that even washed their feet at the beginning of the meal; and the love that attended to their emotional vulnerabilities by teaching them and reassuring them all the way through the meal.

There is a significant point here about prayer. Jesus has encouraged them - you can talk to the Father, through the Holy Spirit, in the same way you speak to me face-to-face in human contact. That is a wonderful privilege of all Christians that comes also to you and me. This passage speaks to us also about that paradox of joy and sorrow that is always present in the Christian life. It really is a truth that the Christian life is a combination of joy and sorrow in this world. ‘You will have trouble but take heart ‘I have overcome the world.’ The difficulties can come from financial pressures, poverty, sudden challenges, sickness, health and health issues, from direct opposition, from mental difficulties, from all sorts of problems and relational difficulties. Joy and sorrow exist for us but we are ultimately heading to be victorious over all the sorrows of this life.

My final comment would be this: a comment on this lovely statement ‘I have overcome the world’. Jesus has overcome three fundamental realities, three fundamental negative realities. Firstly, in dying on the cross, he overcomes the power of Satan to control humanity and keep them in bondage to sin. John 12: 31 speaking prophetically of his death, Jesus says ‘Now the prince of this world will be driven out’, the prince of this world being a title for Satan. 1 Corinthians 15:54 tells us, concerning the resurrection, 

‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where O death is your victory? Where O death is your sting? The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law, but thanks be to God he gives us the victory through Jesus Christ, Our Lord’.

1 Corinthians 15:54, NIV

Jesus has overcome Satan; he has overcome death through his resurrection; and he has also overcome the power of sin. 1 John 2: 1 - 2;

‘My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin, but if anybody does sin we have an advocate with the Father Jesus Christ, the righteous one. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.’

1 John 2:1-2, NIV

Jesus prophetically claims here what he is going to achieve through his death and resurrection 'I have overcome the world'. I hope you will join us again for the next episode.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Have you ever faced knowing a difficult situation was coming - an operation, a separation, a difficult decision. What did you think, feel and do at that time?
  • Discipleship
    1. Look at the different emotions and beliefs the disciples have at this time. How does Jesus try to help them? Do you think Jesus was successful in reassuring them?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. How does the victory won on the cross affect or impact your view on the present trials, suffering etc? Explain.
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