John XVI. 16-23.
1. These words of the Lord, when He says, "A little while, and ye shall no more see me: and again a little while, and ye shall see me; because I go to the Father," were so obscure to the disciples, before what He thus says was actually fulfilled, that they inquired among themselves what it was that He said, and had to confess themselves utterly ignorant. For the Gospel proceeds, "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? They said therefore, What is this that He saith, A little while we know not what He saith." This is what moved them, that He said, "A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again a little while, and ye shall see me." For in what precedes, because He had not said, "A little while," but only, "I go to the Father and ye shall see me no more,"1 He appeared to them to have spoken, as it were, quite plainly, and they had no inquiry among themselves, regarding it. But now, what was then obscure to them, and was shortly afterwards revealed, is already perfectly manifest to us: for after a little while He suffered, and they saw Him not; again, after a little while He rose, and they saw Him. But how the words are to be taken that He used, "Ye shall no more see me," inasmuch as by the word "more"2 He wished it to be understood that they would not see Him afterwards, we have explained at the passage where He said, The Holy Spirit "shall convince of righteousness, because I go to the Father, and ye shall see me no more;"3 meaning thereby, that they would never afterwards see Christ in His present state of subjection to death.
2. "Now Jesus knew," as the evangelist proceeds to say, "that they were desirous to ask Him, and said unto them, Ye inquire among yourselves of that I said, A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again a little while, and ye shall see me. Verily verily, I say unto you, That ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice; and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy:" which may be understood in this way, that the disciples were thrown into sorrow over the death of the Lord, and straightway were filled with joy at His resurrection; but the world, whereby are signified the enemies that slew Christ, were, of course, in a state of rapture over the murder of Christ, at the very time when the disciples were filled with sorrow. For by the name of the world the wickedness of this world may be understood; in other words, those who are the friends of this world. As the Apostle James says in his epistle, "Whosoever will be a friend of this world, is become the enemy of God;"4 for the effect of that enmity to God was, that not even His Only-begotten was spared.
3. And then He goes on to say, "A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. And ye now therefore have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you." Nor does the metaphor here employed seem difficult to understand; for its key is at hand in the exposition given by Himself of its meaning. For the pangs of parturition are compared to sorrow, and the birth itself to joy; which is usually all the greater when it is not a girl but a boy that is born. But when He said, "Your joy no man taketh from you," for their joy was Jesus Himself, there is implied what was said by the apostle, "Christ, being raised from the dead, dieth no more; and death shall have no more dominion over Him."5
4. Hitherto in this section of the Gospel, whereon we are discoursing to-day, the tenor of everything has been, I may say, of easy understanding: a much closer attention is needful in connection with the words that follow. For what does He mean by the words, "And in that day ye shall ask me nothing"? The verb to ask, used here, means not only to beg of, but also to question; and the Greek Gospel, of which this is a translation, has a word that may also be understood in both senses, so that by it the ambiguity is not removed;6 and even though it were so, every difficulty would not thereby disappear. For we read that the Lord Christ, after He rose again, was both questioned and petitioned. He was asked by the disciples, on the eve of His ascension into heaven, when He would be manifested, and when the kingdom of Israel would come;7 and even when already in heaven, He was petitioned [asked] by St. Stephen to receive his spirit.8 And who dare either think or say that Christ ought not to be asked, sitting as He does in heaven, and yet was asked while He abode on earth? or that He ought not to be asked in His state of immortality, although it was men's duty to ask Him while still in His state of subjection to death? Nay, beloved, let us ask Him to untie with His own hands the knot of our present inquiry, by so shining into our hearts that we may perceive what He saith.
5. For I think that His words, "But I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you," are not to be referred to the time of His resurrection, and when He showed them His flesh to be looked at and handled;9 but rather to that of which He had already said, "He that loveth me, shall be loved of my Father; and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him."10 For He had already risen, He had already shown Himself to them in the flesh, and He was already sitting at the right hand of the Father, when that same Apostle John, whose Gospel this is, says in his epistle, "Beloved, now are we the sons of God; and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall be manifested, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is."11 That vision belongs not to this life, but to the future; and is not temporal, but eternal. "And this is life eternal," in the words of Him who is that life, "that they might know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent."12 Of this vision and knowledge the apostle says, "Now we see through a glass, in a riddle; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."13 At present the Church is in travail with the longing for this fruit of all her labor, but then she shall bring to the birth in its actual contemplation; now she travails in birth with groaning, then shall she bring forth in joy; now she travails in birth through her prayers, then shall she bring forth in her praises. Thus, too, is it a male child; since to such fruit in the contemplation are all the duties of her present conduct to be referred. For He alone is free; because He is desired on His own account, and not in reference to aught besides. Such conduct is in His service; for whatever is done in a good spirit has a reference to Him, because it is done on His behalf; while He, on the other hand, is got and held in possession on His own account, and not on that of aught besides. And there, accordingly, we find the only end that is satisfying to ourselves. He will therefore be eternal; for no end can satisfy us, save that which is found in Him who is endless. With this was Philip inspired, when he said, "Show us the Father, and it sufficeth us." And in that showing the Son gave promise also of His own presence, when He said, "Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me?"14 Of that, therefore, which alone sufficeth us, we are very appropriately informed, "Your joy no man taketh from you."
6. On this point, also, in reference to what has been said above, I think we may get a still better understanding of the words, "A little while, and ye shall no more see me: and again a little while, and ye shall see me." For the whole of that space over which the present dispensation extends, is but a little while; and hence this same evangelist says in his epistle, "It is the last hour."15 For in this sense also He added, "Because I go to the Father," which is to be referred to the preceding clause, where He saith, "A little while, and ye shall no more see me;" and not to the subsequent, where He saith, "And again a little while, and ye shall see me." For by His going to the Father, He was to bring it about that they should not see Him. And on this account, therefore, His words did not mean that He was about to die, and to be withdrawn from their view till His resurrection; but that He was about to go to the Father, which He did after His resurrection, and when, after holding intercourse with them for forty days, He ascended into heaven.16 He therefore addressed the words, "A little while, and ye shall no more see me," to those who saw Him at the time in bodily form; because He was about to go to the Father, and never thereafter to be seen in that mortal state wherein they now beheld Him when so addressing them. But the words that He added, "And again a little while, and ye shall see me," He gave as a promise to the Church universal: just as to it, also, He gave the other promise, "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world."17 The Lord is not slack concerning His promise: a little while, and we shall see Him, where we shall have no more any requests to make, any questions to put; for nothing shall remain to be desired, nothing lie hid to be inquired about. This little while appears long to us, because it is still in continuance; when it is over, we shall then feel what a little while it was. Let not, then, our joy be like that of the world, whereof it is said, "But the world shall rejoice;" and yet let not our sorrow in travailing in birth with such a desire be unmingled with joy; but, as the apostle says, be "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation;"18 for even the woman in travail, to whom we are compared, has herself more joy over the offspring that is soon to be, than sorrow over her present pains. But let us here close our present discourse, for the words that follow contain a very trying question, and must not be unduly curtailed, so that they may, if the Lord will, obtain a more befitting explanation.