Trials, Tribulations, and Trials: John 16
In Summary: John 16 continues the last night’s teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. In this chapter, we get the promise of the Holy Spirit, the promise of trials, and some warning about Jesus’ visible departure. Working backwards, the chapter ends with Jesus telling the disciples that they will be scattered. This is a tough warning: these men have been together through a great deal for at least three years. Possibly more—and they are about to see that fellowship broken.
Coming to the middle, the main focus is prayer in Jesus’ name. This is not placed in a vacuum, but is in the context of His departure to the Father. The idea here is not that we get anything, but reflects that the disciples will have direct access to the Father rather than having to pass through Him. Keep this connected to the concept of a throne room or an emperor: typically, you need someone to carry messages, unless you’re important. Jesus is telling the disciples they may have access because of Him. It’s not a guarantee of grant so much as a guarantee of an audience.
Then we see the area that we will take in focus today: trials, tribulations, and trials. Jesus assures the disciples, as He did in John 15:18, that the world is not on our side.
In Focus: John 16:1 opens our focus discussion. Jesus summarizes the teaching of John 15 by telling the disciples that the intention is that they not lose faith when trials come. Whatever else one can say here, we cannot say that Christians will not suffer trials.
In truth, we need to consider the statements of this chapter. Jesus warns the disciples that they will be sundered from the center of religion and community for following Him. Now, in theory, we should not be sundered from the Christian Church for following Christ—that should be impossible. But some assemblies of men label themselves churches, and will throw a follower of Jesus out as quickly as any other worldly gathering.
The disciples will be betrayed by neighbors and friends, family and associates—all of whom will think they are serving God, or whatever gods they have concocted. It will be considered a service to humanity to dispose of Christians. It long has been, depending on which region of the world you live in.
We must be cautious not to expect that Christianity will always flow free and easy for us even in nations that have long harbored that freedom. Even countries founded to allow religious freedom will eventually turn against the followers of Christ. How do we know? Because Jesus tells us, and He has not been wrong. Ever.
In Practice: So, what can we do? Do we practice tribulations and trials? I do not think that is as much the answer as we might expect. After all, Jesus does not run the disciples through a mock tribulation. He does not have them practice sneaking quietly to church or gathering in the catacombs.
These skills and practices have served the Church. They serve the Church, and will serve the Church. Practical methods to preserve life in the face of tyranny are always good things to know how to do. A stockpile of canned goods and bottled water has rarely been a bad thing for someone.
However, let us consider how Jesus prepared the disciples for trials, tribulations, and more trials. He taught them the truth. He built their understanding of Him, the Father, and the Holy Spirit.
He gave them the information to assimilate into their faith. Faith that would last, that would hold them. He does not dumb anything down. He also does not talk about strategies for keeping the world a little happier a little longer.
He plainly speaks of the enmity of the world for Him and His ways.
So, what do we do?
More than learn to make the world a better place, we learn to draw near to Jesus. If through that, we make the world a better place, so be it. Yet let us not lose sight of how He prepared the disciples, and let us prepare the same way.
In Nerdiness: Wrestling with John 16:5 in comparison to John 13:36 and John 14:5 gives some difficulties. Does anyone ask where He’s going or not?
Perhaps the solution is in one of these:
First, it could be focused on that moment. Before He started this teaching, they asked. Now that He’s talking about suffering, they don’t ask. Or:
Second, it could be focused on the destination. When speaking earlier, the disciples are interested in the final destination: heaven. Now, they are not interested in asking about the Cross, or where they are headed that night. The disciples were men, after all, and we are prone to miss the forest for the trees. Or:
Third, it could be focused on the details. Jesus is giving them more precise details, but now that they realize He is definitely going, there’s no questions, no protests. It’s as if they have just accepted, blankly, and don’t really care where He is going, since He is going.
What do you think? Because it appears to be a conundrum for many scholars…
In text nerdiness: it is possible that the issue comes from John’s Gospel being theological rather than chronological, and that the chapter order for John is not timeline-oriented. Therefore, the questions of 13 and 14 could be farther removed from 16 than they appear. I’m not fond of this idea, personally, but it is out there.