The Incredible Transformation of Sorrow (John 16:16–33)

Read John 16:16–33.

Over the years, I’ve attended more than a few funerals, though thankfully not as many as some have. Whether serious and solemn or warm and celebratory, funerals are never comfortable. Saying goodbye to someone we’ve known and loved is a difficult thing. That’s because we were not made for it. Nothing in our DNA was designed to process a forever goodbye. Losing someone dear is not “just a part of life,” as some would have us believe. Death is a vile invader, a diabolical stranger who wreaks havoc on our world. He does not belong.

That’s why, in our experience, grief does not magically turn into joy. It may dampen, weaken, and dull with time, but it does not transform itself into joy. At least it hasn’t yet. So, when Jesus says to His disciples, “You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy” (John 16:20), He’s not speaking of the so-called “natural” order of things, what our experience tells us is true. He’s telling His friends about the kingdom way. In the kingdom of heaven, broken things are made new, tragedies are undone, and grief does indeed turn to joy.

In short order, the disciples will get their first taste of this supernatural recycling that renders sorrow into joy. Jesus will die at the hands of brutal, unjust men. He will first be tortured, and then He will allow Himself to be silenced by asphyxiation on a cruel Roman cross. His cold and pierced body will be placed in a tomb, and He will be surrounded by darkness when a large stone is rolled into place to cover the entrance. All hope will appear lost. The disciples themselves will be confused and afraid, trapped in shock and the deepest sort of mourning there is.

There won’t be much distance from this “funeral”; time won’t have the chance to numb this pain. Instead, before the weekend is out, life will triumph over death and set right the order of creation God established at the beginning of time. Grief will be snuffed out as the goodness and justice of God take their rightful place at the center of the story. Joy—take-your-breath-away, can’t-hold-it-in joy—will fill the hearts of Jesus’ friends.

In the meantime, however, there will be dark days. And since there won’t be the chance to talk again, Jesus wants His disciples to understand who He is in the simplest of terms: “I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father” (v. 28).

It’s what John has been telling us—his readers—from the start: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (1:1, 14). Jesus came from God the Father, and their union is such that to know Jesus is to know the Father. That’s why Jesus also tells His friends, “The Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God” (16:27). It’s why those who know Jesus are privileged to approach the throne of heaven directly (vv. 23–26).

This is the story we now find ourselves in. God’s love burst through the gates of heaven and came to earth to capture our hearts and make us one with Him, paying the price for sin so that such a union could be possible. That is why grief’s days are numbered. It is why eternal life has the final word over death. It is why the goodness of creation is being restored and God’s people are being made new.

Jesus says to His friends, “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” (v. 33). As He said these words, Judas was already on the move. The high priest and the other members of the Sanhedrin were already plotting Jesus’ death. The cross had already been fashioned.

The lasting peace of the Christian life is not found in the present; it’s found in the assurance that there is coming a day when our grief really will be transformed into joy. 

What’s this all about?

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