In the second half of John 16:20, Jesus gives his disciples a warning along with some strange-sounding words of hope. He says, “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.”

The warning is that sorrow is coming. The hope is that this same sorrow will somehow turn into joy. Hmm. I’m not sure that the disciples would have known what to do with a promise like this, especially regarding Jesus’ talk of his impending death. How in the world could the sorrow of death be turned into joy? This is a question that would have boggled their minds in a way that we don’t understand.

You see, we are not shocked by this promise because we live in a society in which the idea of an afterlife is taken for granted. Pew Research tells us that 73% of Americans believe in Heaven and another 7% believe that there is some other form of afterlife. That means that 80% of Americans believe that there is some sort of hope after the sorrow of death (and those are numbers from 2021). We see it all the time. When a celebrity dies (regardless of their convictions about religion or even morality), people just assume that “they are in a better place.” Of course, this notion may be comforting for people to hear, but it is often an unfounded hope that is based on the culturally accepted assumption of an afterlife. However, Jesus’ disciples did not grow up in such a society.

In fact, if you read the Old Testament alone (the Bible of Jesus and his disciples), it is quite hard to find firm assurance of an afterlife at all. There are a few passages that we can point to, but the OT evidence about heaven is not overwhelming. The real hope of heaven is something that was introduced by Jesus. The Jews of the day had debates about whether or not there would be a resurrection one day, but this was a distant, almost foggy hope for them. This means that Jesus’ disciples would have no basis for understanding how the sorrow of death could in any way lead to joy. For them, death was the end, and whatever hope they had beyond that was vague at best. This is why Jesus’ statement here is so profound: “Your sorrow will turn into joy.”

What they didn’t know at the time was that in a few days, Jesus would give them a real reason for joy. He would remove all fogginess about what happens after death and give them a real reason to hope for joy, by conquering death and rising to life. This was new! It was unheard of! And it was the basis for all our joy moving forward. Now, we too can even find joy amid the worst sorrow, because we know that Jesus has overcome!

Josh Rose
Discipleship Pastor

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