Calvary Road Baptist Church

“What Is This That He Saith Unto Us?”

John 16.16-18 

My text is John 16.16-18. Take note of the Lord’s disciple’s perplexity in the passage. Verse 16 begins with the Lord Jesus Christ speaking to His eleven remaining disciples the evening before His crucifixion: 

16 A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father.

17 Then said some of his disciples among themselves, What is this that he saith unto us, A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me: and, Because I go to the Father?

18 They said therefore, What is this that he saith, A little while? we cannot tell what he saith. 

With all that had happened to those men over the previous few minutes, we can understand their perplexity. In rapid succession, the Lord washed their feet, hosted their celebration of Passover, announced the presence of a betrayer, instituted the communion of the Lord’s Supper, and told them He was leaving them, but they could not follow Him.

What is somewhat challenging to understand is how our Lord dealt with their perplexity as they walked from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane. If you are curious to investigate, verses 16-33 of John chapter 16 is the account of the Lord taking His men through the process of preparing them for what lies ahead.

As a setup to what we are about to examine, let us be mindful that you and I have a natural tendency to view our lives as snapshots, as do most human beings who live in what we broadly term the West. Westerners, Western Europeans, and those who live in the Western hemisphere tend to live our lives in the present and mostly focus our attention on the present. Hence, the snapshot reference.

That said, life is better understood in many respects to be more like a video than a snapshot, with our present awareness of reality being a continuum that began in the past and proceeds through the present to the future. A snapshot’s limitation is that it captures the present and seems to have little connection to the past or the future. That disconnection does not always serve us well. The video analogy is a better description of our awareness because life is a continuum with an ever-changing present that proceeds from past to future.

Lost people, much like little children in so many ways, mostly lost people in our Western culture, tend to focus on the present, on the immediate, and typically do so with little regard for the future and minimal regard for the past. It is an immature and unrealistic approach to life. This is especially true concerning spiritual matters.

However, the child of God is being pulled by God, by His Son, by His Spirit, and by His Word, from the present into the future by faith and hope. Second Peter 1.4 is one of the so many passages that emphasize this reality: 

“Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.” 

I suggest that you look for that being done in our Lord’s dealings with His remaining apostles in the rest of chapter 16.

As well, I suggest you reflect on how God works in your life in much the same way, provoking you to not so much live in the present for the present but to live in the present for the future. Consider our text once more: 

16 A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father.

17 Then said some of his disciples among themselves, What is this that he saith unto us, A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me: and, Because I go to the Father?

18 They said therefore, What is this that he saith, A little while? we cannot tell what he saith. 

I will separate these three verses for our consideration. First verse 16, then verses 17-18: 

VERSE 16: 

“A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father.” 

Notice the phrase that appears twice in this verse, “a little while.” Each time it translates a single Greek word, mikrὸn, from which is directly derived our English word micron. The term refers to that which is relatively small, either a small amount of time, a small amount of matter, or a small space.[1] Obviously, in this context, a brief period is in view by our Lord. That understood, we have three parts to this verse: First, a small amount of time will pass until “ye shall not see me.” Next, a small amount of time will pass until “ye shall see me.” Finally, “because I go to the Father.”

Why does the Lord seem to tease these men? Why doesn’t He come right out and state clearly what He means? Remember, the Lord is tugging on them to think differently, not to be so dug into the present, but to think more about the continuum of life moving from the past, through the present, into the future. They need to begin thinking this way to deal with the life He will set before them, not only resulting from His crucifixion but also with their suffering and ministries in mind. “A little while, and ye shall not see me.” Clearly, in retrospect, this refers to His impending crucifixion, which will occur less than twelve hours after these words were spoken. After that, His body will be taken from the cross and placed into the tomb, and they will not see Him. “and again, a little while, and ye shall see me.” As I said, the first little while was about twelve hours. The second little while was three days and three nights. But they did then see Him again, did they not? He rose from the dead, and they saw Him numerous times in His post-resurrection appearances, before His final ascension to heaven.

The verse concludes with the words “because I go to the Father.” The Son of God, the eternal Son of the Father, who came from heaven to become a man, to die for sins, would rise from the dead and then ascend to His Father, from whence He came. The ending of the verse is somewhat more clearly stated than the first and second portions. However, this clarity creates a bit of befuddlement for the eleven. Christ ascended to heaven several times before He finally ascended to the Father to be enthroned at His right hand.

The first phrase of the verse they did not grasp, but 12 hours later, they would figure it out. The second phrase they also did not fathom, but three days and three nights later, they had figured out. But with this third phrase, they knew exactly what He was talking about, so they were confused by what He said to them. The Lord’s men were not confused because He was trying to confuse them. They were confused because they were time-bound men operating within a thought process paradigm that drew conclusions about life as if it were snapshots, just like almost every human being looks at life, and practically every Christian looks at life.

I am not suggesting that viewing life that way means you are not a Christian. But once you are a Christian, understand that there are influences brought to bear on you from God the Father, from God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, using the Word of God to influence you, so that you begin to step out of that paradigm box of looking at life like it is a series of snapshots. It is part of the renewing of your mind the Apostle Paul refers to in Romans 12.2. You start looking at life as though you are on the continuation of something that started here but is going to progress to there.

Looking at life this way removes much of the self-destructive condemnation that many Christians are tempted by our spiritual adversaries to wallow in. You stop taking snapshots of your life, particularly in your worst moments, which is a good thing. Imagine a woman whose mental image of her physical appearance is what she looks like when she first looks in the mirror every morning. What it is like to go through the day fixed in your mind that you look like you looked when you looked at yourself for the first time, with your fright wig hair and pillow face. Men do that, as well, but with fewer remedies for the problem at hand.

I had a classmate in high school in Florida. She was a nice girl. Her name was Sidney. One day, in the science class, the teacher started up a Van de Graaff generator.[2] When Sidney put her hand on the generator, and it was turned on, her naturally dry and somewhat frizzy hair bristled into a fright wig because of the build-up of static electricity being generated. Did we laugh? Can you imagine Sidney picturing herself that way all the time? Not a good image. Yet so many Christians use the worse take of their lives to focus their attention on. that is not good.

We all tend to take snapshots of our life. I would suggest to you that it might have been okay for you to do it yesterday. You didn’t know any different yesterday. But now you understand that looking at your life as a series of snapshots freezes you in time in your mind, in your perception of yourself. You are seduced into convincing yourself that you will never be different than when that poorly timed snapshot was taken. However, if you see your life as a video on the move that it is, spiritually, from where you were through the present of where you are to where you’re going to be according to the promises of God, how much better off you will be. This approach to living is reflected in Philippians 1.6, where the Apostle Paul writes, 

“Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” 

There Paul expands the concept we see the Savior beginning to develop with His men. Do not fixate on a single event, on an instance, or even on a personal failing or shortcoming. Not that sins and failures and moments are unimportant, but they are part of a continuum, a process, and a promised destination. 

VERSES 17-18: 

17 Then said some of his disciples among themselves, What is this that he saith unto us, A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me: and, Because I go to the Father?

18 They said therefore, What is this that he saith, A little while? we cannot tell what he saith. 

The disciple’s question in John 16.17 brings to an end the longest uninterrupted record of our Lord’s comments in John’s Gospel. The remaining eleven apostles have not been heard from since the other Judas’s question way back in John 14.22 when one of them remarked to the Lord,[3] 

“Judas saith unto him, not Iscariot, Lord, how is it that thou wilt manifest thyself unto us, and not unto the world?” 

Ask yourself if these two verses are not in line with what we observed in John 13.36-38, when Simon Peter ignored the Lord’s new command for them to love one another, and instead challenged the Savior with questions about why Simon Peter could not come with Him? They chose to ignore the important and focus on the trivial. Do we not also do that so often?

The Lord Jesus Christ was teaching many important things to prepare His men for His departure using the cross, yet they quibble on the meaning of the phrase “a little while.” Really? That’s the first observation I want to call to your attention. Let’s keep the main thing the main thing.

Now for the second observation. They started asking each other questions about what that phrase meant and about what the Lord meant about going to the Father. But to whom are their questions directed? Indeed, not anyone with the answers. They asked each other questions that the Savior could only answer. Yet they did not ask Him, did they? And why was that, do you suppose?

Is it not likely that the Lord’s men did not ask the Lord those questions because they already knew He would not answer them more than He already had? Perhaps. Or maybe they knew at some level that He had already answered them as much as they could understand, meaning they did not ask those questions to understand or to get answers beyond what they already had.

Mark it down that, many times, when someone asks questions. It is not to receive excellent and accurate answers to the questions asked. Rather, the questions asked frequently are jump-off points to express disapproval, express disappointment, express frustration, or sow discord.

What those men did not understand, and the Lord could not explain to them because of their resistance to understanding, were truths that could be grasped only on the other side of the cross. This is because they had no concept of a Messiah who died for sins. They had no comprehension of a Messiah who was crucified, despite the predictions of Isaiah 53 and Zechariah 12.

Those men were prime examples of our inability to accept facts, even facts that we see and hear, that do not fit nicely into our view of how things ought to be, be it our worldview or our theology. We use our worldview and our theology to interpret facts, but we find it very difficult to accept the evidence to inform our worldview or our theology. 

This is an excellent place to conclude our consideration of the Scriptural text. Still, it is also an excellent place to make remarks related to our broader understanding of human beings’ nature, even the best examples of humanity, and after they had received the best training from the best teacher ever to walk the earth. Does their lack of comprehension not illustrate the profound need they have, and that everyone has, of an indwelling Spirit of God to illuminate one’s understanding of spiritual realities and divine truths?

This text we have just dealt with follows the Lord Jesus Christ’s explanation to His men of the coming Comforter immediately. In verses 7-10, spoken to those men only moments before, the Master spoke of the Spirit’s prosecutorial efforts aimed at providing evidence of the guilt of all mankind: 

7  Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.

8  And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment:

9  Of sin, because they believe not on me;

10 Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more;

11 Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged. 

But that is not all. Our Lord also declared to His men the Holy Spirit’s ministry to them, personally, in verses 12-15: 

12 I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.

13 Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come.

14 He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you.

15 All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you. 

What is our text then, verses 16-18, but proof positive that no human being, even if he has been selected and trained by the Lord Jesus Christ over three years, can comprehend the spiritual reality of truths we have been taught, unless and until the Spirit of the living God illuminates our faculties.

Meaning? Meaning you and I have only the barest comprehension of spiritual reality, no matter how much you have read the Bible, no matter how many systematic theologies or commentaries you have read, no matter how many sermons preached by the best men you have listened to, so long as the Spirit of God has not taught you. And may I further point out that the Spirit of God will not teach you anything beyond what is necessary to respond to the Gospel message until you have embraced the Gospel message and trusted Christ as the only Savior of your sin-stained soul?

What does that mean? It means you don’t get it. It means you do not understand. It means you cannot get it. It means you cannot understand. By yourself, and in your lost condition as one who is dead in trespasses and sins, you are woefully incapacitated by your sins and unable to understand anything more than the barest essentials of the Gospel.

God is real.

Your sins condemn you to eternal punishment.

You cannot save yourself.

Jesus, God’s Son born of a virgin, died on the cross for your sins and demonstrated His victory by rising from the dead and ascending back to heaven where He originally came from.

His saving work is the ground for the salvation provided by Him to sinners who turn from their sins in repentance and turn to Christ in faith.

When a sinner trusts Christ, his sins are cleansed, the Spirit of God births him and indwells him, and then begins to teach him how to live for, love, and serve God.

You will not earn your way to heaven.

You will not learn your way to heaven.

God’s plan is nonnegotiable and straightforward.

You must come to Christ.


[1] Bauer, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), page 651.


[3] Andreas J. Köstenberger, John - ECNT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), pages 474-475.

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