John 16:20-24 (Christian Standard Bible)

I will see you again. Your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy from you” (John 16:22b).

We sing this hymn every Christmas, but it was not originally written as a Christmas Carol. In fact, the song is more about the second advent than the first. What is it? It is “Joy to the World” by Isaac Watts.

joy banner

Watts originally wrote this hymn as an interpretation of Psalm 98, which says “Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth; Break forth and sing for joy and sing praises” Psalm 98:4 NASB).

It is appropriate for us to sing about joy at Christmas though. The Christmas cards remind us of that.

During Christmas, we share the joy of giving and getting gifts. We share the joy of life together with friends and family. Also, because it comes at the end of the year, we can know the joy of stepping back and seeing the year in the big picture. Even if we have had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year, we can usually find some reason to be joyful.

The New Testament associates the story of the birth of Christ with joy.

  • When the wise men saw the star “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10).

  • The angel Gabriel told Zechariah that he would have joy and gladness, and many would rejoice at his son’s birth (Luke 1:14).

  • And that baby himself, John the Baptist – leaped in his mother’s womb for joy when his mother heard Mary’s greeting (Luke 1:41,44).

  • And who could forget what the angels told the shepherds “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10).

The New Testament also associates the Christian life with joy.

  • The apostle Paul said “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).

  • He listed joy as one of the evidences of the Spirit’s presence – what he called the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).

  • The apostle James encouraged his readers to “consider it all joy” when they encounter various trials, because those trials test our faith and are perfecting us (James 1:2).

  • The apostle John once reflected on his writing ministry. He said “these things we write, so that our joy may be made complete” (1 John 1:4). Passing on the gospel message comes with its own joy.

I struggled with using this text from John 16 because I think it is usually misunderstood. When people comment on Jesus’ words to the disciples, they think he is explaining about his resurrection. So, let me go back a few verses to get the context. Jesus had just told his disciples that it was for their benefit that he is going away, because if he didn’t go away, the Holy Spirit would not come (16:7).

The Holy Spirit did not come while Christ was in the tomb. So, he is not talking about the interval between his death and resurrection here. He is talking about the interval between his ascension and the second coming.

Secondly, Jesus had told his disciples in the same discourse that he was going to the Father.

  • I am going to the Father and you will no longer see me” (16:10).

  • I came from the Father and have come into the world. Again, I am leaving the world and going to the Father” (16:28).

The reason most people misunderstand what Jesus is talking about here is that they think Jesus went to the Father when he died. He did not. He went to the grave when he died. He went to the Father at his ascension.

Remember, after his resurrection, Jesus told Mary “Don’t cling to me … since I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). That is when he went to the Father.

So, the joy that Jesus is predicting in John 16 is not the joy of Jesus’ resurrection. It is the ultimate joy of the return of Christ in his glory at the second advent.

when our ultimate joy comes, we will forget our sorrows

Truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice. You will become sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain because her time has come. But when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the suffering because of the joy that a person has been born into the world” (20-21).

Jesus is talking about a period of mourning while the world rejoices. He is talking about a time when the world celebrates, but Christians suffer.

The good news that Jesus is sharing is that the period of suffering will end. It will be like labor pains. The joy of the newborn child will overtake the memory of the suffering that preceded it.

Jesus described that period of birth pangs in his eschatological discourse in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21.

before our ultimate joy comes, we can find joy through prayer

In that day you will not ask me anything. Truly I tell you, anything you ask the Father in my name, he will give you. Until now you have asked for nothing in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete” (23-24).

I think the “that day” that Jesus refers to in verse 23 is today: the day of the interval between the ascension of Christ, and his return. Nobody on earth can see Jesus, so we cannot ask him for anything directly. But Jesus assures us that we can ask the Father for things in his name. In fact, he wants us to pray so that our joy can be complete today.

We are in the time of sorrow and suffering, but prayer is that tool that Jesus prescribes to give us joy during this time. In other words, until Jesus returns, every day is Christmas day, but only for people who are in the habit of praying. Joy is available, but it is not going to come automatically. Even if you have faith, you will not necessarily experience joy. Joy comes to those who have the audacity to ask for it.

Just like wisdom. It is not automatic. James says “if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).

Joy is literally ours for the asking. God loves us and wants us to have it. All he asks is that we ask. In fact, our joy is always going to be incomplete unless we start asking. Jesus said “Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete” (24).

when our ultimate joy comes, it will be permanent

So you also have sorrow now. But I will see you again. Your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy from you” (22).

It is important for me to once again state that Jesus is talking about the interval between his ascension and his return here. It is true that Christ’s resurrection gave his disciples joy. But Jesus also knew that they were going to experience a long period of sorrow. He was preparing them for that.

We are living in that time. We can have joy in fellowship with God and each other in this time. We can even have a more complete joy by asking for it. But our ultimate joy still awaits.

What Jesus told his disciples, he is also telling us. He is saying “you also have sorrow now. But I will see you again. Your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy from you.” No one will be able to take away that joy because it will be permanent.

The gifts we get this Christmas cannot give us ultimate joy, because they will not last. Even the good times we share with friends and family will not last. But our ultimate joy is coming, and when he comes, he is coming to stay.

Author: Jefferson Vann

Jefferson Vann is pastor of Piney Grove Advent Christian Church in Delco, North Carolina. You can contact him at marmsky@gmail.com -- !

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