“Yes, but only for a little while.”
These words of comfort were spoken to me at the graveside of much beloved and dear friends. As I hugged the brother of one of the deceased and said, “We are going to miss them so much,” he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Yes, but only for a little while.” It surprised me then as it does now how much his simple words helped.
You have to love God’s timing. It was not until five years later to the very day that, as I read John 16 to prepare for this blog post, that I connected my friend’s brother’s words to those of Christ’s—no wonder his words had such power. “A little while” is a phrase that pretty much jumps off the page, repeated seven times in four verses (John 16:16-19).
Jesus tells his disciples, “A little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me” (RSV). A little while is a twinkling of an eye. It is no time at all. It is a gentle but deliberate phrase given to prepare and reassure his disciples, so they will endure the darkness of what is to come with the confidence and hope of what is ultimately to come.
Jesus says all this, in the final hours of his ministry, to keep his disciples from falling away. He gives them a glimpse of what was going to happen, not just in the next few days, but in the years to come. It is a perspective that the disciples will need to persevere in the faith.
Before his arrest, Jesus asks them, “Do you now believe?” knowing that, although they think they do believe, they will soon scatter in the face of danger at Gethsemane. For Jesus’ hour has come. “A little while and you will see me no more and again a little while and you will see me.” As all the details of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection are actually borne out, the disciples find comfort in remembering that it all was as he told them it would be. Peter would later write in I Peter 1:3-4, “By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven” (RSV).
Forty days after the resurrection, as his disciples stood looking on, Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9, RSV). At that moment, they must have had a deep, living hope in Jesus’ promise, “A little while and you will see me no more and again a little while and you will see me.” These men who were so quick to scatter became men who did not flinch in the face of persecution, tribulation, or even death. The metamorphic transformation of the disciples from the Gospel accounts to the book of Acts is truly remarkable. They finally understand and know – as Jesus prayed for them to know (John 17).
Their testimony and faith inform and form our faith. Like them, our confidence is in God. We share their sure and living hope that his Word and promises are true. So, we stand at the graveside and grieve, but not as those without hope, for our Lord has told us that he will swallow up death forever and will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
We take Jesus at his Word, believing that he has gone to prepare a place for us and that he will come and take us to himself. Like the disciples we want to know when this will take place. And we have Jesus’ answer: in a little while.