How the Gospel Changes Everything | John 16:16-33
Brian Hedges | October 24, 2021
Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles to John 16.
How many of you have heard of the philosopher’s stone? Does that ring a bell for anybody, the philosopher’s stone? Not very many hands are going up. Haven’t you read Harry Potter? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was originally entitled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in the U.K.
The philosopher’s stone is a legend that reaches back into ancient Greece and then the medieval world. The philosopher’s stone was something that philosophers and scientists were searching for which had to do with alchemy, the transformation of base metals into gold. So anyone who found the philosopher’s stone would have great power, because they could take anything that was relatively worthless—a scrap of metal—and they could turn it into something that was of great value.
It’s interesting that the philosopher’s stone is an image or illustration that used to be used pretty often by preachers in their sermons. This is often found as an image or illustration in the writings of the Puritans. For example, John Flavel, writing a little meditation on Romans 8:28 (“And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose”), essentially said that if this is you, if you are called by God, this is the philosopher’s stone that turns all the bad things into your life for good. Because if the gospel is true and if you are in Christ, the gospel has so much power that it transforms the seemingly insignificant and worthless things in our lives into things of great significance, and it transforms the hard things in our lives into great blessing.
I think it’s a fitting image with which to begin this message today, because what Jesus teaches us in this passage, John 16:16-33, is how the gospel changes everything. He’s really showing us here the radical, life-transforming, and perspective-changing power of the gospel.
Let me remind you of the context. It is the night before Jesus’ crucifixion, this is in the upper room with his disciples. This is the last section of the upper room discourse or sermon, this sermon that Jesus preached or this teaching he gave to his disciples there in the upper room. His hour has come, the hour for which he was born, the hour of crucifixion. It’s right on the eve. He’s going to be crucified the next day.
He has been telling his disciples the things most essential for them to know and to understand to get them through this period they’re about to enter, and then to prepare them for the mission to which he has called them. He’s told them that in a little while he is going to the Father and they’re going to see him no more. They are confused by this.
In this passage, verses 16-33, Jesus clarifies what is going on, what’s about to take place, and as he’s doing so he is sharing with them the life-transforming power of the gospel, his death and resurrection, and what is about to take place.
Let’s begin by reading the passage, John 16, beginning in verse 16. If you don’t have a copy of God’s word you can follow along on the screen, or you can read in one of the Bibles in the chair in front of you; it’s page 902. John 16:16. Jesus says,
“‘A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.’ So some of his disciples said to one another, ‘What is this that he says to us, “A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”; and, “because I am going to the Father”?’ So they were saying, ‘What does he mean by “a little while”? We do not know what he is talking about.’ Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, ‘Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, “A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me”? Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father. In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.’ His disciples said, ‘Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech! Now we know that you know all things and do not need anyone to question you; this is why we believe that you came from God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do you now believe? Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.’”
Amen. This is God’s word.
These are the last words of teaching that Jesus will give to his disciples before Gethsemane, betrayal, trial, crucifixion. What follows in John 17 is Jesus’ high priestly prayer; that’s also very instructive. But this is the end of his direct teaching, his direct words to his disciples; the last thing he shares with them, his last will and testament before his betrayal and crucifixion. He’s about to go to the cross.
What he shares with them, while it may seem a little confusing—you might have felt that way when you read this, and frankly, this has not been an easy sermon to prepare; it was somewhat confusing for me—but we’re in good company. The disciples were confused. You can see that in those first few verses. They were confused. But Jesus begins to clarify what he’s talking about.
I think that when you get down to the very essence of what Jesus is saying here, he is showing us the life-transforming power of the gospel. He’s showing us how the gospel changes everything, and we can see it in three specific ways: the gospel promises joy from our sorrows, the gospel strengthens our confidence in prayer, and the gospel sustains us with peace in our trials.
Let’s look at each one of those in turn.
1. The Gospel Promises Joy from Our Sorrows
Look at verses 20-22. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.”
In the context, the sorrow here is especially the sorrow the disciples will feel when they see Jesus crucified, when they lose Jesus, when Jesus leaves them for a little while.
He then gives them an illustration of a very important spiritual principle. He says, “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come.” Don’t miss the significance here, maybe even a play on words. Jesus’ hour has come, right, and he’s using this illustration. A woman when she is giving birth has sorrow because her hour has come, “but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish for joy that a human being has been born into the world.”
We have to remember that in the ancient world there were no epidurals, there was no anesthesia. Many women even died in childbirth. So childbirth, every time, was painful. There was anguish. Some of you women are thinking, “Brother, it’s still anguish! It’s still painful.” So you know.
What Jesus is saying is that there’s anguish, the birth pangs leading up to this moment of birth; anguish. It’s really hard, the travail of bringing a child into the world. But when the child comes, when the child is there, the sorrow is forgotten and is turned into joy.
Then Jesus says in verse 22 (here’s the application to the disciples), “So you also have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” The gospel promises joy from our sorrows.
Here’s the thing you have to catch and not miss from this illustration. Jesus is not simply saying that there will be joy after the sorrow. Now that in itself would be wonderful, but that’s not what he says. He says, “Your sorrow will be turned into joy.” In the illustration of the woman giving birth, it’s the very thing that brings her sorrow that also brings her joy. That points to a very important spiritual principle in discipleship and an aspect of the power of the gospel.
Let me let theologian Sinclair Ferguson explain. I think this is very helpful. Ferguson says, “Jesus’ illustration is intended to teach a yet deeper truth, a principle that governs all discipleship. The joy that a child has been born does not merely follow the pain of the labor, it is through the pain of the labor that the joy of the birth comes. True, the relationship between the disciples’ pain and their joy will be chronological, but it will also be causal. The pain produces the joy. This is the consistent New Testament teaching about the relationship between tribulation and joy, suffering and glory. True, there is suffering now and there will be glory then, but more than that, the glory is produced out of the raw materials of the suffering, just as out of the woman’s labor pains comes the joy of new life.”
Now, if that is true, it changes everything about the suffering and sorrow that we face in this world. What Sinclair Ferguson is saying, drawing this principle from Jesus’ teaching, is that for every believer God takes the raw materials of our pain, of our suffering, of our sorrow and he uses that very pain, that very suffering, that very sorrow to produce the greatest joy and the greatest good.
This is profound. This changes everything if it’s true. The reason we believe that it’s true is because of the gospel, because you think about this, this is the worst thing that ever happened in the history of the world to a single person, Jesus’ crucifixion. He was the most righteous, the most innocent, the least deserving of this kind of death, and he was tortured, he was crucified, he was treated as a criminal. He suffered an incredible act of injustice and evil. He was murdered, and he was the least deserving of it of anybody. It’s the worst thing that could have happened. Not only that, he was God incarnate, the word made flesh, God crucified. The worst thing that could ever happen, the cross. But it’s through the very cross that he brought salvation to the world, and it’s through and after following the cross that he enters into his glory, the glory of resurrection.
This is a pattern. The sorrow is the raw material for joy, the suffering is the raw material for glory, the cross leads to resurrection, death leads to life.
If you grasp that and if you believe that and apply that to your life, it will change the way you handle the cancer diagnosis or Alzheimer’s or a tragic car accident, the inopportune death of a family member, and every little frustration and loss and heartache that you face this side of heaven. News flash: we’re all going to face a lot! This world is marked by suffering. We’re going to face a lot of suffering. But if this is true, then for the believer, the suffering, though it is not good in and of itself, the suffering is always used by God to produce that which is good.
A beautiful illustration of this is seen in the life of George Matheson, 1842-1906. When George Matheson was 20 years old he was engaged to be married, deeply in love, but he started going blind. It was going to be irreversible, he was going to have total blindness, and he told his fiance. Though she cared about him, she could not endure the thought of spending her life as a caretaker, and so she broke off the engagement.
George was obviously heartbroken, but he was a believer, trusted the Lord, gave it to the Lord, continued to walk with God. He was actually a brilliant man, and some say that if he had not gone blind and had stayed in the academy he would have been the greatest theologian Scotland ever produced. But he became a minister, a preacher, and for 20 years as a blind pastor was preaching to 1500 people a week, and all the while he lived with his sister, something of a spinster but a very close companion to him, and she helped take care of his household and helped take care of him. Twenty years of this, and she fell in love and decided to get married.
On the night before the wedding, George Matheson was all by himself, facing the prospect of losing now his best friend, this sister who had helped take care of him for so many years, probably remembering the loss of his own hopes of marriage and love 20 years before. He was wrestling with all of that and took it to the Lord, and in a moment—in fact, the stories tell us that he did this in about five minutes—he wrote some of the most beautiful words that have ever been written. The stories say he wrote this in five minutes and never edited it. These are the words that flowed from his heart.
“O love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee,
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
“O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee.
I trace the rainbow through the rain
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.
“O cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee.
I lay in dust, life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.”
Brothers and sister, the gospel means that there is no sorrow that is final, there is no suffering that is wasted, there is no pain that does not ultimately work for your good and lead to your joy, there is no cross that is not followed by resurrection. If you get ahold of that, that gets ahold of you, it will change your life. The gospel promises to turn our sorrows into joys. That’s first.
2. The Gospel Strengthens Our Confidence in Prayer
Look at verses 23-24. “In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy may be full.”
Now, those words may seem a little confusing, but it’s really Jesus teaching here about the distinctive new covenant privileges that the believer has in prayer. Up until this point, the disciples certainly prayed. Jesus had taught them to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name . . . .” They had prayed, but they had not prayed in Jesus’ name. Something new was taking place, a new kind of confidence, a new kind of access.
Even Jesus’s teaching about God as the Father was new and radical in the Jewish mind. Only occasionally in the Old Testament is there a reference to God as Father, and when there is it’s a simile, but not calling God Father, or it’s God as the Father of the nation of Israel. But Sinclair Ferguson (I believe it was him) pointed out that in the Sermon on the Mount there are more references to God as Father than in the whole Old Testament put together. This is how radical Jesus’s teaching was. He’s pointing his disciples to the reality of who God is, God as their Father, and to the privilege that they will have to come to the Father in Jesus’ name, so that this gives them a new kind of confidence. Up to this, they have not asked in his name; now they will ask in his name.
There are two parts here to the confidence in prayer.
It’s, first of all, confidence, because we pray in Jesus’ name. You ask, “What does that mean? Well, it means to come to God identifying ourselves with Christ. It is to come to God clothing ourselves in the righteousness and obedience of Christ. It is to come to God in the name of Jesus Christ, claiming his merits, his obedience, his righteousness, his worthiness as belonging to us that gives us access into the presence of God.
You have to remember that in the Old Testament, this was not how the saints prayed. They certainly prayed, they worshipped, but when they would worship, they didn’t have access to the immediate presence of God in the way we do. They would go to the temple, they would go to the tabernacle, but always there was a sacrifice, and always there was a mediator. They couldn’t go into the inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest did that, and only once a year.
But Jesus is saying something here. He is saying, “You will come to the Father, and you will come in my name.” Why? Because of what he is going to do, because of the gospel.
So when we pray in Jesus’ name, brothers and sisters, that’s not just an incantation to attach to the end of your prayer, right? It’s not. When you’re praying in Jesus’ name, you are praying with this deep consciousness that though you are unworthy as a sinner, you have been made worthy through the Savior; that though you have no right in and of yourself to come to God, you have been given the rights of children through Jesus Christ. He has invited you to come to the Father in his name, and that gives us great confidence in prayer.
Here’s the second part of the confidence in prayer. In verses 26-27 Jesus says, “I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf, for the Father himself loves you.” It’s not just that Jesus gives us access through his merits and obedience, it’s also that the Father himself loves you.
Listen, don’t ever get the idea that somehow Jesus twists God the Father’s arm to get him to love you and to listen to you, that Jesus somehow bought God off. That is not the meaning of the cross. It is true that Jesus paid for our sins by dying as our substitute on the cross, it’s true that he paid the debt that we owed, but he didn’t do that in order to get God to love us, he did it because God already loves us. “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son . . . ”
Jesus here is saying something to assure his disciples of their security in the Father’s love. He’s saying, “I won’t even have to ask the Father on your behalf, for the Father himself loves you. You can go directly to him. The Father loves you.” Knowing that gives you confidence in prayer, confidence to come and to ask for what you need.
There’s a great story about Alexander the Great, that emperor who conquered so much of the world. He was insanely wealthy, and he told a friend in his court that if he ever needed anything from the imperial treasury, all he had to do was ask and it would be given, because Alexander loved this man.
One day the man had a great need. He brought it to the treasurer, he asked for the bill to be paid, and the treasurer refused. It was too much; he wasn’t going to do it. He went to Alexander, and Alexander said in reply, “Pay the money at once. The philosopher has done me a singular honor. By the largeness of his request he shows that he has understood both my wealth and my generosity.”
It was John Newton who said,
“Thou art coming to a king;
Large petitions with thee bring,
For his grace and power are such
None can ever ask too much.”
Confidence in prayer, and confidence to bring our deepest needs, the large requests of our heart and our life to him. Now, praying in Jesus’ name [must be] consistent with his character.
Let me apply it in this way. Listen, if your prayer life is infrequent, hesitant, if your prayers are small, the reason is because you have not yet realized how much the Father loves you.
I’m not trying to guilt you into praying more. I don’t think guilt produces prayer. I’m not going to guilt you into praying more. What I want, rather, is for us to be so deeply convinced through the gospel of God the Father’s deep and profound love for us that the impulse of our hearts is to go to him, because he loves us. Listen, even when you’ve blown it, even when you have sinned, even when you have completely messed up, the moment you turn to the Father, you know what his heart towards you is? It’s the father in the story of the prodigal son. He comes running with arms wide open, ready to receive you, ready to throw the party, put on you the best robe, a ring on your finger, because “my child has come home.” That’s the heart of God.
I don’t think we get it. I think it takes a real work of the Spirit pushing the gospel deep into our hearts for the lights to come on, so that we begin to really be convinced that God the Father loves us that much and that we can have that much boldness and confidence in prayer. The gospel will produce that. The gospel will strengthen your confidence in prayer, coming to the Father in Jesus’ name.
3. The Gospel Sustains Us with Peace in Our Trials
One more thing, number three. The gospel also sustains us with peace in our trials. Look at verse 33. Jesus says, “I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but take heart, I have overcome the world.”
This is continuing with a theme already mentioned in this upper room sermon. In John 14:27 Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”
Again, get the context. The disciples are about to be scattered, they are about to run, scared for their lives, as Jesus is arrested, tried, and crucified. Then, even after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples will face tremendous persecution. Church history tells us that most of them died a martyr’s death, and yet, in the face of all of that trial, all of that suffering, Jesus says, “I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace,” peace that sustains our hearts even in our trials.
I think there are two sources to this peace. There is, first of all, peace from his teaching. Notice that Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you that you might have peace.” What are “these things”? I think it’s everything in this sermon, it’s everything in the upper room discourse, it’s everything from John 14-16.
Just think about the themes that we’ve been studying together in this series, the themes that are in these three chapters. These are the things that will give you peace, the promise of Jesus’ second coming, that he is coming again. He’s going to his Father to prepare a place for us, but he’s coming again so that we might be with him where he is. The hope of heaven! “In my Father’s house are many rooms.” The privilege of abiding in Christ as branches abide in the vine, so that we bear fruit. The significance of our mission in the world. As Jesus goes into the world and was sent into the world by the Father, so we also are sent. Then the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
All these things Jesus taught, these things will give us peace. One of the things this means is that if you want to experience this kind of gospel peace in your life, the way you get there is by deep and regular meditation on the teaching of Jesus. You have to let the word of Christ dwell in your heart richly if you want to experience this kind of peace. Peace comes from his teaching.
Secondly, peace comes from the triumph of his work. “In the world you will have tribulation; but take heart, I have overcome the world.” That word “overcome” is the verbal form of our word for victory, for triumph. Jesus triumphs over the world. How did he do it? He did it through his work.
In fact, in verse 28 you have really a simple summary of what Jesus did. In one verse you have a simple summary of the work of Jesus Christ. Listen to what he says. “I came from the Father and have come into the world. Now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.”
Just take that apart. Think about that for a minute. “I came from the Father,” because Jesus existed before he came into the world. He is the word who was with God and the word who was God. He is the Son of the Father. He is the one who forever was at the Father’s side and now has made the Father known. He is the only begotten Son of God.
“I came from the Father and I have come into the world.” There’s his incarnation. “The word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only son with the Father, full of grace and truth.” God sent his Son into the world. Jesus came, God was manifest in the flesh! He came into the world.
Now Jesus says, “I am leaving the world.” How is he leaving the world? He’s leaving through his death on the cross, which is about to take place as he goes to the cross for our sins. His hour has come; he will bear the sins of the world, he will take the judgment that we deserved to give us the salvation that we need.
Then he says, “And I am going to the Father,” his resurrection, his ascension, and his now abiding presence at the right hand of God as he intercedes for us. I mean, it’s a short, simple summary of the gospel, of Jesus’s work on our behalf, and it is through that that we get this peace.
Let me end by sharing from a letter of Martin Luther. I’ve been reading a lot in Luther and about Luther this month because next Sunday is Reformation Day, and so next Sunday night I’m giving this talk on the life of Martin Luther. I came across something this week that I thought was so good.
In 1531 Martin Luther received a letter from his brother James telling him that their mother was really sick. Now, of course, the lifespan in that time period was much shorter than it is now, and there was the very good possibility that this was a fatal illness, as it, indeed, proved to be. So Luther’s facing this. His mom is sick, possibly, probably going to die.
Now, I’ve been through the death of a parent about a year ago, and many of you have faced this as well, so you can imagine Luther had all the same emotions that we have when we face something like this. He wrote a letter to his mom, and the letter is really just a meditation on John 16:33. I want to read to you just a portion—this isn’t nearly all the letter, but it’s a part of what he said.
“Dear Mother, you know the real basis and foundation of your salvation, on which you must rest your confidence in this and all troubles: namely, Jesus Christ the cornerstone, who will not waver or fail us, nor allow us to sink and perish, for he is the Savior and is called the Savior of all poor sinners, of all who face tribulation and death, of all who rely on him and call on his name. He says, ‘Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.’ If he has overcome the world, surely he has overcome the prince of this world with all his power. What is his power but death? Should any thought of sin or death frighten us, let us lift up our hearts and say, ‘Behold, dear soul, what are you doing? Dear death, dear sin, how is it that you are alive and terrifying me? Do you not know that you have been overcome? Do you, death, not know that you are quite dead? Do you not know the one who has said to you, “I have overcome the world”?’ With such thoughts and none other you may set your heart at rest, dear mother.”
What is Luther doing here? He is preaching the gospel to his mother in the face of death. I’ll tell you that the gospel, even in the face of death, can make even the dying pillow sweet, because the gospel tells us that death has been overcome.
There is no death for the Christian that is not followed by resurrection. Do you see how the gospel changes everything? The biggest existential threat that every single one of us face is our own mortality. You’re going to die someday, but if you die as a believer in Jesus Christ, if you die in the Lord, your sins forgiven, all the worst things in your life will be used for your good and lead to your salvation. Let’s pray together.
Gracious God, how we thank you for these truths, how we thank you for the words of our Lord Jesus and for what he did for us in his death on the cross and in his resurrection from the dead. Lord, this gives us hope, it gives us comfort, it gives us confidence. It shows us that this world is not all there is and that the sorrows of this world do not have the final word. Lord, we place our trust and our hope, our confidence in you this morning because of the gospel, because of this truth. I pray that you would, by your Spirit, burn it deeply into our hearts, so that it would hit us today with life-transforming power.
Even as we come to the Lord’s table to celebrate and to commemorate the death of our Lord, may we come with our eyes wide open to what Jesus did and with our hearts reaching out to him in faith and in trust. We pray that you would draw near to us in this time of worship, prayer, and reflection; that you would be glorified; and that our hearts would be helped as we turn to Christ, in whose name we pray, amen.