John (Part 60): Understanding Plainly (ch 16)
Chapter 16 closes the conversation. This last topic—about the fact that Jesus’s normal speaking in figurative language would soon change to plain speech—follows from the last point concerning not seeing him and seeing him again from verses 16 through 24. In verse 23 of that section, Jesus had emphasized that in the day when they would see him again (the time after his victory in accomplishing redemption when they—and we—would see him within our spiritual covenant), they would no longer ask him anything. Although Jesus is saying that redemption, with its corresponding benefit of the Holy Spirit living within them, would provide greater understanding to what Jesus has done for them, his point is mainly that the process of the Father directing the Son as to what to teach, and the disciples confusion prompting questions of Jesus, would no longer be needed because he was bringing them directly to the Father. So we see that contrast in the one verse (16:23) of not asking Jesus anything, but asking the Father in Jesus’s name and receiving directly from him. Through that direct communication we will continue learning guided by God.
Jesus tells the disciples that he has been speaking to them in figurative language. This word in Greek is paroimia. It is the same word we encountered in John 10. It is a kind of figurative language—more technically an extended metaphor as opposed to the Synoptics’ more common parable (extended simile). Jesus says that a time is coming when he will speak plainly. This, then, makes us wonder why he had been speaking to them in figurative language. Certainly this probably brings to mind another familiar spot in Mark in which Jesus mentions speaking in parables. In Mark 4, Jesus had just provided the parable to a large crowd about sowing seed. In it, seed had fallen along the path, on rocky ground, among thorns, and in good soil. In explaining the parable later to his disciples, Jesus began by saying that he spoke in parables to fulfill the Isaiah 6 prophecy: “They may look and look, yet not perceive; they may listen and listen, yet not understand; otherwise, they might turn back—and be forgiven” (Mark 4:12; Is 6:9-10). At first read, the point would seem almost shocking because of its marked difference from what we would normally expect Jesus to want—repentance from the people so that God actually would forgive. But we must remember that at this point, Jesus is not just an OT prophet calling for repentance. Furthermore (and importantly), he is also not a current-age preacher, simply providing an illustration for his congregation to gain and apply a principle to their lives. He is the final revelation from God of God's redemptive plan to effect rescue for all humankind—a rescue that had been spoken of in progressive revelation ever since the Garden.
God’s people had been a nation—Israel. But among the purposes for this nation (and there were several) was for it to provide a picture (an image, a likeness, a shadow, a figure) of the covenant kingdom of God that was to come—a kingdom initiated by Jesus which was not like the world’s kingdoms (John 18:36). Israel, the nation would produce the Messiah. But Israel the nation fell often into national sin (usually because of being led by a bad king) that would require national repentance so that God would then forgive the nation and lead the nation out of captivity (where they had been as a result of their national sin). However, in this case, the plan of God was for Israel the nation not to repent—to continue in their hardened condition—and by that (Israel’s hardening), Jesus would be brought to the cross. And in that way—with redemption accomplished—both Israel and the world could come to true covenant of life union with God. But, again, it required that Jesus go to the cross, and to go to the cross, it required Israel, as a nation, NOT to repent nationally and be forgiven (as they had been in the past), because if they did repent, God would forgive the nation and the fulfillment of the redemption plan would then be delayed. This is why Paul explains in Romans 11 that a partial hardening had occurred to Israel, but that through the redemption then wrought, the full number of the Gentiles and also Israel would be saved.
So this is why Jesus means exactly what he says about speaking in parables. He spoke the truth, but in veiled language. Individually, the disciples would hang on to his sayings. What they didn’t understand then, they would later understand when the Spirit came to remind them of those things and to lead them into the truth of them (John 14:26). But, if we try to manipulate the Mark 4 recounting of the Isaiah prophecy in any other way (just to make it appear not to be what Jesus is actually saying), we lose the definite implication of God's sovereign control over Israel, which is his intent for the parable. God would definitely bring about redemption through Jesus, and it would be accomplished through Israel's hardening that made them seek his death. Therefore, Jesus DID, in fact, speak in veiled language INTENTIONALLY to keep them from understanding so that they, the nation, would NOT repent (yet) and be forgiven.
As Jesus revealed the meaning of the parable, we can readily recognize how Israel the nation had responded to God’s prophetic revelation. The seed and soil certainly is not simply talking about salvation in our age (as we may have heard numbers of times). It is about Israel the nation—at times ignoring God’s prophets, at times saying yes to God only to seek other means of protection when persecuted (as trying to make alliances with Egypt or Babylon when Assyria was threatening), and at times of peace and prosperity, ignoring the further will of God.
Therefore, we don’t have to urge mental gymnastics to figure out what in the world Jesus might have meant in wanting individuals to remain unrepentant to the gospel. This section is not about God shunning individuals. It is all about the infinite knowledge and control of our sovereign God in working all things perfectly well and perfectly good to accomplish his will—this time in the hardening of Israel so that the Messiah’s mission would be accomplished. This hardening was not intended to send a single person forever away from God. But God did use the hardness of the Jews at that time to accomplish his will—the salvation of all who would in faith come believing.
In John 16, the disciples don’t fit the category of the unbelieving, hardening national leaders of Israel. But the use of Jesus’s figurative language is somewhat for the same purpose—the accomplishing of God’s perfect will. Jesus told the disciples in 16:12 that he was not telling them everything yet because they couldn’t bear it. That means they time to digest and help to incorporate new revelation with that which they already received. Jesus promised that the Spirit, dwelling in them, would do that for them. But additionally, when the Spirit came, Jesus would have already accomplished his redemptive mission. The disciples would be in immediate communion with God. They would have the Spirit; they would receive directly from God; and they would be told plainly. And all of this was for greater and greater understanding for the sake of relationship. John 16:27 tells us that the Father is not some distant authority that may pronounce edicts for them to learn and obey. The Father LOVES them. The Father wants and will embrace a love relationship with them.
All of this understanding and plain speaking and loving embrace hinges on Jesus—the mediator, the redeemer, the rescuer—coming from the Father and now returning to the Father. He was perfect. He remained perfect. He goes back to God perfect. And the way he goes back prepares the way for the disciples to follow, to see God, to embrace God in perfect relationship as well.
When Jesus says this, the light clicks on for the disciples. They see. They understand. They believe.
The point of belief that the disciples bring up is interesting. They had been wondering among themselves what Jesus was talking about regarding them not seeing him and then seeing him. But it was a question they had mulled over by themselves. (Perhaps—and likely—this conversation was taking place on the walk over from the upper room to Gethsemane. There was plenty of time in this lengthy walk to have this discussion. And there was plenty of opportunity for the disciples to be discussing among themselves outside the hearing of Jesus. Imagine twelve people on a road at night, partially strung out in the slow movement out of Jerusalem, up and down hills—probably at least a mile—to their destination.)
But when the disciples receive an answer to their question about Jesus’s going away—the not seeing him and then seeing him—they understand, are immediately satisfied, but even more are impressed that Jesus answered them without them even having to ask him outright. This seems to verify to them the fact that Jesus is from God. He didn’t hear their question, but he already knew what they were wanting to know. He had no need for them to ask him outright because he already knew. And so they are satisfied. For him to know their questions before they even asked—he must be from God.
Now, the point is that the disciples did understand that fact. They knew Jesus was specially sent from God as the means to bring them to God. They knew Jesus was now going back to God. And they knew that in his going back he was making a way for them. They did not know everything. They didn’t know exactly how he was bringing them to God. But they believed in him, and that this was God’s plan to accomplish this covenant union.
Jesus said in verse 31, “Now know.” Most translations form that into a question: “Do you know believe?” or something of that sort. But the Greek doesn’t necessarily imply a question. It could simply be an affirmation of agreement that, yes, “you now know” this one, vitally important fact that God is providing rescue through Jesus. But, Jesus seems to imply, since you don’t know everything yet, the coming hour(s) would be overwhelmingly difficult. They would—even in their belief—be scattered, running, fearful, overwhelmed by the “authority” of the Jewish leadership.
But Jesus gives a final statement of encouragement and hope. Ending his teaching, Jesus tells them that when they come to their senses—when they reflect back on the fact that he told them all this would occur—they should recognize, then, that it actually IS all of God’s plan for the rescue. They should find courage in this. They should KNOW that in this—even this seeming darkness and overwhelming besiege of the enemy—Jesus HAS CONQUERED the world!