I don't know if you've heard of Teresa of Avila. She lived 500 years back in Spain, and founded some Christian communities. And she was riding to visit one of them when, crossing a river, her saddle slipped and she found herself beneath the donkey, getting soaked and and muddy. And her journal records how, while dangling under the donkey, she said to God, 'Lord, why do you let this kind of thing happen?' And she sensed that God's reply was, 'Those whom I love, I discipline [which is a Bible verse]… this is how I treat all my friends.' To which she says she replied in prayer, 'Then it's no wonder you have so few.'
And we've all asked the same question, haven't we? 'Lord, why do you let this happen to us when we're on your side?' Why, for example, is the church in our part of the world such a pathetic minority? Why is the Christian worldview dismissed while the atheist worldview seems to have won the day? Why do the rights of other minorities trump the rights of Christians in our society? Why is Christianity mocked by the media while other religions are shown respect? And why are Christians, of all people in the world today, statistically most likely to be persecuted?
You see, our view of God may be that he'll protect us from bad treatment – because after all, we're on his side. Or our view of God may be that his side should always be strong and successful – because otherwise, it'll reflect badly on him, won't it? But in our sermon passage tonight, Jesus says: that view of God is dangerously simplistic and lays us open to massive disillusionment and doubt. And instead, we need to get our view of God from the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
So would you turn with me in the Bibles to John 16.25? We're in a series on John 16 and 17, which is a sequel to a series this time last year on John 14 and 15. And those chapters – John 14 to 17 – record what Jesus taught his disciples on the Thursday night before the Friday when he died on the cross. So at this point, Jesus knew with total clarity that he was heading for the cross and resurrection – and why, whereas his disciples didn't understand that at all – which laid them open to massive disillusionment and doubt as the events of that first Easter unfolded.
So what Jesus did was to explain to them as far as he could what was about to happen. And I say 'as far as he could' because the fact is that, at this point, they couldn't really understand it. Because Jesus' death and resurrection was the kind of thing you could only understand after the event. That is the first point from tonight's passage:
1. The cross and resurrection could only be understood after they'd happened.
That may sound a slightly academic point – but hang on in there and you'll see how relevant it is. So look down to John 16.25, where Jesus tells his disciples:
"I have said these things to you [which means everything so far in John 14 to 16] in figures of speech. [But, read on:] The hour is coming [by which he means the time after his death and resurrection] when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father."
Now the word translated 'in figures of speech' means 'cryptically' or 'in a veiled kind of way'. So Jesus was telling them, 'I've said these things to you cryptically, in a veiled kind of way.' That may make you feel slightly puzzled and even cross. It's certainly made me feel slightly cross from time to time. Because over the years, I've studied and studied this part of John – as I've known instinctively that it's such an important part of the Bible. And yet it still seems to slip through my fingers – I still don't get it all, and what I thought I'd got last year I find I'm not so sure about this time round. And I find myself saying to the Lord, 'Couldn't you have made this clearer?' Do you ever ask that as you're reading the Bible?
Now wherever we are in the Bible, part of the answer is that the communication problem doesn't lie in God; it lies in us. Because when you stop to think about it, you have to say that God is the perfect communicator – because, thanks to being completely sovereign, he's able to communicate exactly how he wants, in the best possible way. So I need to tell myself that the Bible couldn't possibly be improved on – even when my struggles to understand it make me feel God could have done a better job. The truth is that the communication problem lies in us – in our sinfulness and our finiteness. And those are the two big reasons why we find God's Word hard to understand.
Now that's true wherever we are in the Bible, but in John 14 to 16, there's the added fact that Jesus was talking about events that could only really be understood after the events. So he wasn't trying to make it difficult for them, by being cryptic and veiled. He was explaining as far as he could things that could only really be understood afterwards.
Let me give you an example. I remember the time we took our children to have their first vaccinations. Now how do you explain those to a toddler before the event? You could say, 'Look, we're going to take you to the doctor's and they're going to stab your arm with something like a big needle and squirt some stuff into you.' In Jesus' terms, that would be speaking plainly. But what would that do? It would freak them out, and probably make them try anything to stop it happening. They'd be terrified. So alternatively, you could just say nothing beforehand, so as not to alarm them – and do all the explaining afterwards when you're back in the waiting room. But then you haven't prepared them at all. And what are they going to think of you as the needle suddenly comes their way and their eyes meet yours – and you do nothing to save them? So, what we actually said was, 'Look, we need to take you to the doctor's so they can give you some special medicine. But you can't take it on a spoon, it has to go into your arm.' Which, in Jesus' terms, was somewhat cryptic and veiled. But that wasn't to stop them understanding. It was to help them understand as far as they could something you can only really understand afterwards.
And that's what Jesus was doing on this Thursday night before Good Friday. So he didn't say, 'Look, tomorrow I'm going to be crucified at 9am, dead by 3pm and laid cold in a tomb by nightfall.' Partly because that would have freaked them out, and maybe made them try to stop it happening. But also because Jesus knew they could only really understand the cross after the resurrection.
So Jesus knew that before the resurrection, the cross would look like a total disaster – as if his claims had been proved wrong, and as if the world that crucified him had been proved right. But he knew that after the resurrection, they'd see that God had stepped in to reverse that. Because raising Jesus from the dead was God's way of saying, 'You got rid of him because you thought he wasn't my Son – but I've now raised him to show that he is.' And Jesus knew that from there, the disciples would work back to the cross and see that if he was the sinless Son of God, and yet had undergone the judgement of death, then he must somehow have been taking that judgement instead of others – which was what the Bible says was happening so that we could be forgiven back into relationship with God.
So that's why, on that Thursday night, Jesus didn't speak plainly about the grisly detail to come. Instead, he spoke cryptically – for example, about, 'going away to prepare a place for them in his Father's house.' Because for one thing, he wanted to put his death and resurrection together in their minds –and in ours – because you can't understand the one without the other. And for another thing, he wanted to leave them – and us – with a set of keys to understanding his death and resurrection and what they achieved for us.
So that's the first point from this passage: the cross and resurrection could only be understood after they'd happened, which is why Jesus could only really be understood after they'd happened, as well. There was no fully Christian faith before the cross and resurrection. But then the second point from this passage is that:
2. We can only know God as Father through the cross and resurrection.
Look down to verse 25 again. Jesus says:
"I have said these things to you in figures of speech [or cryptically, in a veiled way. But, read on:] The hour is coming [that is, after his death and resurrection] when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father."
And that word translated 'plainly' has the idea of being fully open, revealing everything. Now Jesus doesn't mean that after his cross and resurrection we're going to understand God completely – we can't. What he means is that through his cross and resurrection, we can know God more fully than people ever did before.
For example, back in Old Testament times, God revealed himself as both loving and just. So the old caricature that 'the God of the Old Testament is a God of justice, but the God of the New Testament is a God of love' is rubbish. – God is both loving and just in both testaments. And in the Old Testament, you see those sides of his character in tension, as he related to his people, Israel. Because on the one hand, he was committed to them in love – so he was patient and forgiving and didn't give up on them. But on the other hand, they were ongoingly sinful, which he had to judge – so he was angry with them, and brought judgments on them – including the ultimate judgment of the exile. And Jesus says here that we now know God more fully because of the cross and resurrection – because the cross shows how God finally resolved the tension between his love and justice. So we look at the cross and see his love in giving up his Son to die for us. And we also see his justice, falling on Jesus instead of us.
And that's how he finally resolved the tension between his love and justice – which means he can now commit himself as a Father to sinners like us – and never give up on us. Because the thing about the father-child relationship is that you never stop being your father's child. There are times when my children drive me up the wall, committing the same misbehaviour that I've just pulled them up for five minutes ago, ten minutes ago, and half an hour ago. But they never stop being my children. And what Jesus did on the cross means that those of us who trust in him never stop being accepted as God's children – even though we misbehave and fail daily, hourly, ongoingly. And that leads on to what Jesus says next. Look on to verses 26-27:
"In that day [in other words, after the cross and resurrection] you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf [as if he's reluctant to listen to you, but will listen to me pass your prayers on. No:]; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God."
So that's talking about prayer. And Jesus says that, this side of his cross and resurrection, we'll now ask 'in his name', which just means we'll approach God on the basis of what Jesus has done for us on the cross, on the basis of the forgiveness he's paid for.
Now there are all sorts of reasons why we don't pray. But the most common one is that we don't feel worthy to come to God – because we're conscious of our sin. Well, here's how Don Carson answers that in his book on prayer:
"[We] may set aside… time to pray, only to find... we feel too discouraged [or sinful] to pray. But hidden behind this is the monstrous assumption that how acceptable I am to God in prayer is tied to how I feel [or how I'm doing]. But is God especially impressed with us when we feel particularly [godly]? Isn't the basis of any Christian's approach to our heavenly Father the sufficiency of Christ's work on the cross, on our behalf? Isn't this part of what we mean when we pray 'in Jesus' name'? And aren't we casting a terrible slur on the cross when we act as if the… acceptability of our prayers depends on how we feel [or how we're doing]?"
My brother works for Vodafone and gets me a phone on a Friends and Family account. And a few years back he was horrified to find I was still using this old, Nokia brick – and hadn't even heard of smartphones. So he announced that he was getting me an iPhone. And sure enough he sent an email which said, 'It's all sorted and paid for. It'll be delivered to Northumberland Street. All you have to do is go and collect. Just ask in my name.'
And that's what Jesus is saying here: he's saying, 'Your acceptance by my Father and your access to my Father is all sorted and paid for by the cross. All you have to do is to make use of it. And you never are worthy to come to him – but don't let that make you stay away. Just ask in my name.'
So that's the second point: we can only know God as Father through the cross and resurrection. And we need to say to ourselves, 'Because of the cross, I never stop being his child – however I'm feeling, however I've been doing. And because of the cross, I can always come to him in prayer – however I'm feeling, however I've been doing.' And then the third and final point from this passage is that:
3. Faith is only stable when it's rooted in the cross and resurrection.
Look down to verses 26-28 again. Jesus says:
"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."
And that's the clearest summary of what he's already done and what he's about to do that Jesus gives in John 14-16. So, verses 29-30:
"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.""
And that's one of the clearest professions of faith that the disciples have made in John so far. But look how Jesus responds to it in verses 31-32:
"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."
So Jesus' point is that within hours, they'll all have abandoned him – because whatever faith they did so far have, it wasn't faith that understood the necessity of the cross. In other words, it wasn't faith that's rooted in the cross and resurrection – and sees everything from that viewpoint. But Jesus says here: that's the only kind of faith which gives real spiritual stability in the face of trouble and suffering, in the face of all the world can throw at us. So look to end with at verse 33:
"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."
Now 'peace' there means peace of mind or heart. It's the opposite of feeling troubled, or feeling afraid that you might be on the wrong side after all and turn out to be the loser. And, coming back to where we began, the world can easily rob us of our peace as it makes us wonder: Why is the church such a pathetic minority here? Why does atheism seem to have won the day? Why do others' rights trump our rights? Why is Christianity most mocked? Why are Christians most persecuted? Why does it look, at least in our neck of the woods, as if the world is right and Jesus is wrong, as if the world has won and Jesus has lost? And that's where we need faith that's rooted in the cross and resurrection. Because look at the end of vese 33 again, where Jesus says:
"But take heart; I have overcome the world."
And when he says 'I have overcome the world,' he means that through his cross and resurrection, he has won the decisive battle in the spiritual war we're in. So on Good Friday, at the cross, it looked like he'd lost and the world had won. But on Easter Sunday, God reversed all that and raised Jesus way above everything and everyone, which means the truth is that Jesus is Lord, that he is in control of everything, and that he could overthrow all the opposition to him right now. And if he doesn't, it's because of his patience in giving more people more time to hear and respond to what he's done for them. But one day he will bring all opposition to an end, when he comes again to judge and separate those who wanted to be in his kingdom from those who didn't.
And it's seeing things from that viewpoint which means we can take heart. Because that viewpoint says: there's only opposition to Jesus and to Christians because he allows it. But the opposition is never in overall control, the opposition never really has the upper hand. And that viewpoint says: the opposition will actually, in the end, be the losers – so there are no reasons to envy them their apparently easier life, or be intimidated by their apparently greater numbers and strength, or think that we're the ones who are missing out. And that viewpoint also says that although the world can hurt us, it can't ultimately harm us – because Christians will have a place in Jesus' kingdom beyond this life, and it will compensate more than we can imagine for any of the costs of following Jesus now.
C. S Lewis once wrote:
"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because, by it, I see everything else."
(Is Theology Poetry?, essay by C.S.Lewis)
And what Jesus has been teaching us here is that the heart of Christianity is his cross and resurrection. And that once we've seen that, we'll be able to see everything else – to see him as Lord and Saviour, to see God as Father, to see the world for what it really is, and to see that we, ultimately, really are on the winning side.
"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."