An Understanding HeartErwin W. Lutzer | September 17, 2000
Selected highlights from this sermon
Have you ever started reading a book by going to the last page to see how it ends? When sorrow comes into your life, go to the last page. There you will see the risen Christ and “your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away.” Never underestimate God’s ability to turn sorrow into joy.
There is a story about a boy who was reading a novel in the living room. His mother said to him, “Johnny, come do the dishes.” He said, “No mom. I can’t because right now I am in chapter five and the hero is in trouble. It looks like the villain is going to win, so I have to see how the story turns out.”
But as most mothers do, she persisted. And knowing that he had to go, he flipped to the last page of the book and read it. And as the boy went into the kitchen that day he said, “You know, the villain is doing fine in chapter five, but is he ever in for a shock when he gets to the last page.”
When Jesus wanted to comfort His disciples when He was going away and they would no longer see Him, what He said to them in effect was “Just read the last page.” And if you read the last page, you will discover that it will turn out right. It doesn’t look like it now, but trust me it will.
The text is the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, John chapter 16. And Jesus in context liked to sometimes say things that made His disciples puzzled. Jesus would speak to them in parables and sayings, so that they could ponder what He was saying, and that took a little bit of thinking. So, the disciples were discussing what He might mean.
It says in chapter 16, verse 17 of John’s Gospel, “Some of His disciples said to one another, ‘What does He mean by saying ‘In a little while you will see Me no more, and then after a little while you will see Me; and because I am going to the Father.’ They kept asking, ‘What does He mean by 'In a little while?' We do not understand what He is saying.’”
Actually, from the standpoint of looking back now we know exactly what Jesus was saying. The reason the disciples were finding it so difficult is because they did not have any categories in their mind for a Messiah who was actually going to die on a cross. They thought that Jesus would establish the kingdom, that He would overcome the Romans by brute force. That’s what they expected the Messiah to do. So all of this was very, very confusing to them.
What Jesus meant I think was this: He was saying “In a little while you will no longer see Me.” And by that He meant He was going to die. “And then after a little while they would see Him again, and their hearts would rejoice and their joy no man would take from them.” After the resurrection they would see Him again and their joy would be complete.
But it’s in this context that Jesus makes a remarkable contrast between two different ways to view His death. And today by the way, I speak to those who are sorrowful even as Jesus did to His disciples. I want to speak to those of you who have sorrow because of the breakup of your family, maybe because of a death in the family. I speak to those of you who have sorrow because of unfulfilled dreams that have come crashing down to the ground. You have been bitterly disappointed because you meant so well, but it has all come down, and you don’t know where to turn because of personal sorrow.
But also we are going to be encouraged today, and I promise through the words of Christ we will be. We might even have sorrow for our country. I’m sure you feel as I do when you watch the news and when you see what is happening, we as a country and as Christians within this country are losing every single battle, it seems. The battle for truth, the battle for justice, the battle for righteousness, the battle for Christ seems to be lost in a welter of conflicting opinions. Religiously and morally we become more and more a minority in this culture.
Well, I want to give us hope today, because if Jesus were here today He would give us hope. I believe if Jesus were standing at this pulpit He would both rebuke us, but He would also give us hope. And today we will see that hope as we look to the last page.
But first of all, the contrast as to how His death would be viewed, and then the great reversal that Jesus talks about. What is the contrast? First of all, and I am picking it up now at verse 20, “I tell you the truth, that you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices, you will grieve, but your grief will be turned into joy.”
First of all, notice the sorrow of the disciples. It is short-lived, but it is bitter, bitter sorrow. You will be sorrowful. The disciples will be sorrowful because as I mentioned, they do not understand that Jesus is going to die and that this was part of the plan. They just don’t get it!
So, they are sorrowful because to them Jesus was a friend. We sing “What a friend of sinners,” and we noticed earlier in this upper room discourse that Jesus said to them, “No longer do I call you servants, because a servant does not know what His master is doing, but I have called you friends. I have brought you into the inner circle.” They served together.
The disciples were there when Jesus performed that miracle and took five loaves and two fish and fed 5,000 people. They were there when Jesus came to them walking on the Sea of Galilee. They were with Him when He was despised and rejected, and people tried to push Him over the brow of a hill. It is sometimes said that you may forget people whom you have laughed with, but you will not forget people with whom you have wept. These disciples’ hearts were bonded to Jesus. And so they are going to weep and lament because He was a friend to them.
But also more than that, they believed that He was the Messiah. They put their trust in Him. They thought that He was going to bring the deliverance that the prophets had promised. They did not understand this church age.
Remember the two of them walking on the way to Emmaus so sad, and it appeared as if they would never smile again. And Jesus walks along with them, and they do not know that it is Jesus. And He begins to talk with them and says, “Why are you so sad?” They said, “We hoped that it would have been He who delivered Israel. But now we’ve been deeply disappointed because He’s dead, and this is now the third day that these things have taken place.”
For them it was the tragic end of a very beautiful life, but it was over. May I suggest that the higher your hopes, (and they had high hopes for Jesus) the deeper the pain of disappointment and discouragement. And they thought that they would cry forever. Disappointment. Jesus was gone.
Well, let’s look at how the world interpreted those three days when Jesus was away from them. The world had joy; “I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices.” When Jesus was on the cross, the world said “Good riddance. The One who irritated us is gone. He is the one who exposed our sin and disrupted the very core of our lives and He is no longer with us. Now we can feel comfortable in our continued selfish, greedy ways. He’s gone.”
Yes, Jesus exposed their sin. If fact, if you read the twenty third chapter of Matthew, it is absolutely amazing the things that Jesus said. We have such a distorted view of Him thanks to our contemporary culture, where you have the meek and mild Jesus.
Well, I’ll tell you, read Matthew and you discover that He calls them “white-washed sepulchers.” He speaks of how dirty they are inside, though they have cleaned the cup, and they appear to be good to men. But to God they are full of rot. No wonder they were glad to see Him on the cross.
Parenthesis: have you ever wondered why it is that Christianity is so despised today in our post-Christian culture? Other religions are not. You can belong especially to any religion that you like, especially if it is an Eastern religion. People are willing to absorb it, people are willing to live with the syncretism, and they’re willing to take those points of view and to accept all of them in some kind of a contradictory mish-mash. And everybody is perfectly happy.
But the minute you talk about Jesus being the only way, the minute you begin to talk about Jesus as painted in the New Testament, then that’s the horse of a different wheel base. Things begin to happen at that time. Why the difference?
Check it out: the other religions allow you to be very comfortable with your sin… very comfortable. The gods of the East are like books on a shelf. You pick them up when you want to pick them up, and you use them the way you want to use them. They will never come to you, they will never invade your life and tell you that you need to get rid of the selfishness, and the greed, and the idolatry of your mind and heart. Those gods don’t do that kind of thing. But the God of the Bible and the Christ who reveals Him does.
Somebody said that, “Today we have sheep for wool, cows for milk, and a god to come along and to affirm us in every depraved craving; a god just for us.” No wonder people feel so comfortable with alternate religions. But Jesus exposes us for who we are. So they despised Him because He exposed their sin.
They also despised Him because He exposed their ignorance. Jesus loved to make a nuisance of Himself. For example, He would ask questions like this: “The baptism of John, tell me, was it from men or from heaven?” And they didn’t know how to answer. Because, if they say it is from heaven then Jesus would say, “Then why didn’t you believe him and repent?” And if they say it’s from man, then they feared the people because everybody believed John was a prophet. So the Bible says, “They didn’t answer Him.”
One day Jesus said to them, “You know, the Messiah, whose Son is He?” And they said, “Well, the Son of David.” He said, “Well, that’s interesting. Why then in the Psalms did David call the Messiah ‘Lord’?”
You see the connection? Jesus wanted them to admit the Messiah was God based on the Old Testament. And again they resented it and they would not answer, and that bothered them. Now He was dead. There He was on the cross. It was like having an aching tooth yanked from the jaw, and finally you sense this great relief because He is finished.
You know, it’s interesting that in the book of Revelation we have an interesting story of what could be called “The Devil’s Christmas.” Did you know that the devil has his Christmas too? I’m just going to pick it up in chapter 11 very briefly where two witnesses, maybe a Moses and Elijah, are put to death.
And it says in chapter 11, verse 7 of Revelation, “Now when they had finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the abyss (that is, when the two witnesses had) he will attack them and overpower them and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the street of the great city, which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt where also the Lord was crucified.” (That’s an interesting expression, by the way.)
“For three and a half days, men from every people, tribe, language, and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets who had tormented those who lived upon the earth, they were now dead.” Let’s have a party!
Interesting, three and a half days later they arise from the dead also, and 7,000 people die in an earthquake. And everybody realizes, “You know, we partied too soon.” And that’s what the world discovered when Jesus died on the cross, “We partied too soon.” Because there He was, and you have to put up with Him again, and again, and again. You can’t keep Him dead.
Well, let’s look at the contrast. The disciples sorrowful because they loved Him, the world glad because they hated Him. But then we have what I call “The great reversal.” You know there are reversals in Scripture. You remember how Jesus told that story about the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man had all of the things that one could have. He was dressed in purple, he had fine food, he lived in a palace, the whole bit.
And here’s Lazarus, this poor guy, to be distinguished, by the way, from the other Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead. And this poor man would come and he would eat with the dogs. And then in eternity, everything got reversed.
The rich man was in torment in Hades, and he cried up and said, “Send Lazarus that he may drip some water on my tongue.” Remember because he was able to communicate with Abraham who was next door, though there was a great gulf between the two. Isn’t that interesting? And Lazarus was there with Abraham in paradise, in bliss… the great reversal.
And the people who think they have done away with Jesus will discover that they have not done it, because He will come back in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that no not God and that obey not the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, who will be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power. You just can’t do away with Him. Even when you think you have, there He is.
What about the disciples? Well, Jesus said their sorrow is going to be turned into joy. We are back here in the sixteenth chapter of John, where He gives this remarkable illustration in verse 21: “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come. But when her baby is born, she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.”
Let me give you a personal, observed illustration of Christ’s words in verse 21. When our daughter who is now 26 years old, was born, my wife was actually in the same room pre-delivery with another woman. This young woman, bless her heart, was from Appalachia.
And this young woman didn’t quite know what was going on. So, she cried out continuously, “Kill me, kill me! Somebody just take a hammer and kill me!” (Laugher) I thought, “Oh, wow!” So our daughter was born. She was born at 1:00 if I remember correctly, and I walked down the hall later that afternoon and I kept hearing this woman through the door saying, “Kill me, just kill me!”
But the next day we were able to meet with her and rejoice that indeed a child had been born into the world, and she was glad that no one had “killed her.” (Laughter) Don’t take people up on some of the things that they request that you do.
Now I don’t want you to miss Christ’s point, and this is what it is: Jesus is not just simply saying that joy is going to come after the sorrow. What He’s saying is that the very thing that caused the sorrow, namely the birth of this child, is the very thing that brings the joy. The very death that caused the disciples to be grieved is the very death from which blessings would flow. Only God can do that.
When I was a teacher at Moody Bible Institute many, many, many years ago, I used to sometimes ask the students in the classroom a question. In fact, I will ask it to you today, and you can raise your hand at this point. “How many of you think that the crucifixion of Christ was evil? Can I see your hands please? How many of you are willing to say that the crucifixion of Christ was evil?” Oh my goodness, about two, three, four? Oh wow, oh my goodness, am I seeing correctly? The Bible says in the book of Acts, “Evil, wicked men nailed Him to the cross.”
How many of you think that the crucifixion of Christ was good? A few more timid people. (Laugher) What are we going to do with these folks, Daryll? My friend, you should have gladly, enthusiastically, and instantly raised your hand in answer to both of those questions. It was evil, but it is also good.
“In the cross of Christ I glory, God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ by whom the world is crucified unto Me and I unto the world.” We delight in the cross today. But, it is only God who can take something that is evil, and take that very same thing and turn it into good; that from it blessing might flow. And so that is what we have here. Jesus is saying, “That your sorrow will be turned into joy.”
Remember the story of Joseph? Joseph, maligned by his brothers. Some of you come from dysfunctional families. Now there is a dysfunctional family! Four different brothers from four different mothers, or was it two different mothers? At any rate, a very motley crew thrown together, trying to work together, trying to herd their sheep together.
And then they take this one boy whom they really hated, Joseph, and they want to sell him, and they think that he’s dead. And then they lie to their father about his whereabouts. And yet when it all comes together, Joseph says this: He said, “You sold me,” he says to his brothers when he is reconciled to them, “but God sent me.”
The selling was evil, but the sending by God to get him to Egypt was good. “You meant it for evil,” and absolutely as a result of that you will be judged for that evil, “but God meant it for good. That’s the way God always works, the sorrow can be turned into joy. Think of your sorrow. Some of the purest joys you will ever have are sorrows that have been transformed by God into joys.
Many years ago in Los Angeles there was a woman who was raped. A teenage girl raped; a child was born. They decided this child, this little baby girl, would be called Ethel. Well, you probably know the rest of the story. She was to grow up and to become a soloist, and bless the hearts of tens of thousands of millions of people. She was Ethel Waters, who used to sing at the Billy Graham crusades, “His eye is on the sparrow.”
Was the rape evil? You’d better believe it was evil-indescribably evil. Can God take that which is evil and from it bring blessing? Yes, He does it all the time. Do not ever underestimate God’s ability to take a sorrow and to turn it into a joy. He does do that today, even for you and for me.
Let’s nail this down to some bottom lines. First of all, the sorrows of today, or let me put it this way: temporary grief leads to permanent joy. Is that not what Jesus said? I’m looking at the last part of verse 22: “So with you now is the time of your grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice. (And now notice) Your joy no one will take from you.” Temporary sorrow; permanent joy.
I need to tell you today, those of you who sorrow, that this too will pass. God in His grace may bring from what you are going through something beautiful. Hang in there; the joy becomes permanent.
Many years ago one of the greatest theologians and pastors in all of America, probably I think America’s best theologian, Jonathan Edwards, was voted out of his church in North Hampton, Massachusetts. The controversy was because he believed that only those who should participate in communion were believers. And his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, had said that it’s okay to have unbelievers come. And so this created controversy within the church.
I was at that church in North Hampton just a couple of weeks ago. I couldn’t get in, unfortunately, but I walked around it and thought about what happened there. And so the congregation had a vote. A shirt-tailed relative decided that he would use it to get Jonathan Edwards out, and created all kinds of friction.
And so the vote, if I remember correctly, was 230 opposed to him and 32 were in favor of him. So Jonathan Edwards left the church, the great revivalist who had preached with such power and such glory in the First Great Awakening.
How would you handle that? Have you ever been in place where because of slander, because of misconceptions that people are so willing to believe, you have personally suffered your reputation, who you are, your position, all because of the evil of others? Have you been there? His biographer said of Edwards, and here’s the phrase now, “That his happiness in God was beyond the reach of his enemies.” There is such a thing as being happy in God, which your enemies cannot take away. “Your joy,” said Jesus, “no man takes from you.” They can’t get at it.
And also, it’s a complete joy. Because Jesus says in the next verse, in verse 24, “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive and your joy will be complete,” permanent and complete.
Second, I want to say that the greater the sorrow, the greater the joy. Today as you walk through that valley that seems so dark, and you do not see the end of it, this is what the apostle Paul would say to you: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” If I interpret this correctly, what he’s saying is the more sorrow, the more glory. So hang in there, because the day is coming when you will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
Perhaps there is a final lesson. And that is that everyone has to confront Christ at some point in their existence. The world thought that they had gotten rid of Him because He was on the cross. There was proof that He was finished. No, He rises again; there He is again. The world today thinks that they have done away with Christ, but He’s there again and He’s coming again. For those of you who don’t know Him as Savior, it’s going to be a terrifying experience unless you believe on Him. Because, this Christ is one with whom you have to deal. You cannot get around it.
But meanwhile, those who know Him can hang in there because we’ve read the last page. We don’t have to win the battles. We know that the war has been won. And we try to win the battles, and we encourage the people to win the battles, but we are not disappointed because of what happens around us, or what happens within our own souls or in our immediate circumstances. Because we know there is another Day coming. As Tony Campolo says, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.” It’s on its way.
Visualize a concentration camp. Here you have men who have been starved, people who are walking around almost like skeletons. Some within their camp are dying every single day. And then suddenly a song begins to break out with some of the prisoners. There were some whispers, and then they began to sing together, and a smile came to their faces.
Now, what sense does that make? Why would anyone rejoice in those circumstances that are so depressing, demoralizing, painful, and almost impossible? Where does that come from? Where does the singing come from? Well, someone in that concentration camp had a little radio. And he had been listening to the news and discovered that the war was over. Germany had surrendered unconditionally, and help was on the way.
What Jesus is saying is, “Look, in the world you shall have tribulation,” in fact He ends this section saying that. He says, “In the world you shall have tribulation,” verse 33 of this chapter. “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.” The war has been won. You and I can read the last page; help is on the way.
Let’s pray together. Our Father, we do want to thank You for this assurance from the lips of Jesus. We thank You today that it is He who can take the deepest of sorrows and bring hope to that situation. We thank You today that nothing has escaped His attention, and that the greatness of our God extends to all the knowledge we might have. And we thank You that He has perfect knowledge.
And we ask today that You will pour grace into the lives and hearts of those who grieve. We ask today that those who have never trusted Christ might know that they cannot eternally and continuously live without Him, for they too shall meet Him. And we pray, oh Father, until we see Him face to face, grant us the ability to believe and to trust. In Jesus name we ask, Amen.”