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Sermon for the Third Sunday in Easter, John 16:16-23
A Sermon by Martin Luther; taken from his Church Postil.

[The following sermon is taken from volume III:73-85 of The Sermons of Martin Luther, published by Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, MI). It was originally published in 1907 in english by Lutherans in All Lands Press (Minneapolis, MN), as The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther, vol. 12.  This e-text was scanned and edited by Richard Bucher, it is in the public domain and it may be copied and distributed without restriction.]


1. Here in this Gospel we see how the Lord comforts and imparts courage to his children whom he is bout to leave behind him, when they would come in fear and distress on account of his death or of their backsliding. We also notice what induced the evangelist John to use so many words that he indeed repeats one expression four times, which according to our thinking he might have expressed in fewer words. There is first of all presented to us here the nature of the true Christian in the example of the dear apostles. In the second place, how the suffering and the resurrection of Christ are to become effective in us. 

2. We also see that Christ announces to his disciples, how sorrowful they should be because he would leave them, but they are still so simpleminded and ignorant, and also so sorrowful on account of his recent conversation at the Last Supper, that they did not understand at all what he said unto them; yea, the nature of that which Christ presents to them is too great and incomprehensible for them. And it was also necessary that they should first become sorrowful before they could rejoice, even as Christ himself was an example to us that without the cross we could not enter into glory. Hence he says in Luke 24, 26 to the two, with whom he journeyed to Emmaus: "Behooved it not the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into his glory?" If therefore the dear disciples were to have joy, they must first of all pass through great sorrow. But this joy came to them through the Lord Jesus; for it is decreed in the Gospel, that without Christ there is no joy; and on the other hand, where Christ is, there is no sorrow, as is plainly stated in the text. Hence when Christ was taken from them, they were in great sorrow. 

3. And these words here in this Gospel Christ the Lord spake unto his disciples after the Last Supper, before he was apprehended. Let us look at them: 

"A little while and ye behold me no more, and again a little while and ye shall see me, for I go to the Father." 


A. Contents Of This Sermon. 

4. "A little while," he says, "and ye behold me no more," for I shall be taken prisoner and they shall deliver me to death. But it will not last long, and during this short time ye shall be sorrowful, but only remain steadfast in me and follow me. It will soon have an end. Three days I will be in the grave; then the world will rejoice as though it had gained a victory, but ye shall be sorrowful and shall weep and lament. "And again a little while, and ye shall see me; and, Because I go to the Father." That is, on the third day I will rise again; then ye shall rejoice and your joy no man shall take from you, and this will not be a joy of only three days, like the joy of the world, but an eternal joy. Thus the Evangelist John most beautifully expresses the death and resurrection of Christ in these words, when Christ says, "A little while, and ye behold me not; and again a little while, and ye shall see me; and, Because I go to the Father." 

5. An example is here given us, which we should diligently lay hold of and take to heart; if it went with us as it did in the time of the apostles, that we should be in suffering, anxiety and distress, we should also remember to be strong and to rejoice because Christ will arise again. We know that this has come to pass; but the disciples did not know how he should be raised, or what he meant by the resurrection, hence they were so sorrowful and so sad. They heard indeed that they should see him, but they did not understand what it was or how it should come to pass. Therefore they said among themselves, "What is this that he saith to us, A little while? We know not what he saith." To such an extent had sadness and sorrow overcome them, that they quite despaired, and knew not what these words meant and how they would see him again. 

6. Therefore we must also feel within us this "a little while" as the dear disciples felt it, for this is written for our example and instruction, so that we may thereby be comforted and be made better. And we should use this as a familiar adage among ourselves; yea, we should feel and experience it, so that we might at all times say, God is at times near and at times he has vanished out of sight. At times I remember how the Word seems neither to move me nor to apply to me. It passes by; I give no heed to it. But to this "a little while" we must give heed and pay attention, so that we may remain strong and steadfast. We will experience the same as the disciples. We cannot do otherwise than is written here; even as the disciples were not able to do otherwise. 

7. The first "a little while" in that he says, "A little while, and ye shall behold me no more," they could soon afterwards understand, when they saw that he was taken prisoner and put to death, but the second "a little while" in that he says: "And again a little while, and ye shall see me," that they could not understand, and we also cannot understand it. Yea and when he says: "Because I go to the Father," that they understand still less. Thus it also goes with us: although we know and hear that trials, misfortune and sorrow endure but a little while, yet we see that it constantly appears different than we believe. Then we despair and waver, and cannot be reconciled to it. We hear and we know very well that it shall not last very long, but how that result shall be accomplished we can never understand, as the disciples here cannot understand it. 

8. But since they are unable to understand it why does Christ relate it to them or why is it written? In order that we should not despair but hold fast to the Word, assured that it is indeed thus and not otherwise, even though it seems to be different. And although we do at times depart from the Word, we should not therefore remain altogether away from it, but return again, for he makes good his Word. Even though man cannot believe it, God will nevertheless help him to believe it, and this he does without man's reason or free will and without man adding anything thereto. Yea, the Evangelist tells us that the disciples could not understand the words the Lord spake to them; how much less could they understand his works which followed afterwards. So very little does the free will and understanding of man know of the things pertaining to the salvation of the soul. These temporal things the free will can perceive and know, such as the cock crowing, which he can hear and his reason can also understand it; but when it is a question of understanding the work and Word of God, then human reason must give it up; it cannot make head or tail of it, although it pretends to understand a great deal about it. The glory thereof is too bright, the longer he beholds it the blinder he becomes. 

9. This is presented very plainly to our minds in the disciples who, though they had been so long with the Lord, yet they did not understand what he said to them. Well, neither will we be able to learn nor to understand this until we experience it; as when we say, Such and such a thing happened to me; this I felt and thus it went with me, then I was in anxiety; but it did not last long. Then I was encompassed by this temptation and by that adversity, but God delivered me soon out of them etc. 

10. We should take to heart and firmly hold fast to these words and keep them in mind when in sorrow and distress, that it will not last long, then we would also have more constant joy, for as Christ and his elect had their "a little while," so you and I and everyone will have his "a little while." Pilate and Herod will not crucify you, but in the same manner as the devil used them, so he will also use your persecutors. Therefore when your trials come, you must not immediately think how you are to be delivered out of them. God will help you in due time. Only wait. It is only for a little while, he will not delay long. 

11. But you must not lay the cross and sorrow upon yourself as some have indeed done, who chose for themselves death and imprisonment, and said, Christ willingly entered into death; he willingly permitted himself to be apprehended and delivered. I will also do the same. No, you dare not do this. Your cross and suffering will not long delay coming. These good people did not understand it. The dear disciples also said in Mt 26, 35 that they would remain with Christ and die with him. Peter said in John 13, 37 he would not deny Christ, or would give his life for him; but how was it in the end? Christ went into the garden, trembled and quaked, was apprehended, put to death; Peter however forsook him. Where was now this great confidence, this boldness and courage of Peter? He thought Christ would die with joyful courage, and he would also follow him, but alas he was badly mistaken. 

12. Here you easily see that the sorrow and sufferings, in which we expected to remain permanently, were of our own choosing, but when the hour finally comes, of which you never thought before, you will hardly be able to stand, unless you become a new man. The old Adam despairs, he does not abide, he cannot abide, for it goes against his nature, against his purpose and against his designs. Hence you must have your own time, then you must suffer a little. For Christ withdraws himself from you and permits you to remain in the power of sin, of death and of hell. There the heart cannot accomplish very much to calm the conscience, do whatever it will, for Christ departs and dies. Then you will have the refrain, "A little while, and ye shall not behold me." Where will you go? There is no comfort. There is no help. You are in the midst of sin; in the midst of death; in the midst of hell. If Christ would not come now independent of any merit of your own, then you would be compelled to remain in this tribulation and terror eternally, for thus it would have happened also to the disciples, if Christ had not risen from the dead and become alive. Therefore it was necessary for him again to arise from the dead. 

13. Now this everyone must experience and suffer, either now or upon his deathbed when he dies, but how much better it is to experience it now, for when at some future time we shall be cast into the fire for the sake of the Gospel and be counted as heretics, then we shall see of what profit this is; for if the heart is not strong at such a time, what shall become of us, for there our eyes shall see the torture and the terror of death. Whither shall we go? Therefore if Christ is not present, and if he should then withdraw his hand we are already lost; but if he is with us to help, the flesh may indeed die, but all is well with the soul, for Christ has taken it to himself. There it is safe, no one shall pluck it out of his hand. Jn 10, 28. 

14. But this we cannot accomplish with words, an experience is here needed for that. Well it is for him who experience this now, then surely it will not be hard for him to die. It is very perilous indeed if we must learn this upon our deathbed, namely, how to wrestle with and conquer death. Therefore it was indeed a great favor and mercy of God, which he showed to the holy martyrs and apostles in whom he had first conquered death, then afterwards they were prepared without fear to suffer everything that could be laid upon them. 

B. This Sermon Of Comfort Explained. 

15. All this is presented to us in our Gospel, but since the disciples could not understand what he meant in that he said "A little while" and he noticed that they were desirous to ask him, he continues and explains it to them in these simple words and says, 

"Verily, verily, I say unto you, ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice; ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy." 

16. This is spoken to all Christians, for every Christian must have temptations, trials, anxieties, adversities, sorrows, come what may. Therefore he mentions here no sorrow nor trial, he simply says they shall weep, lament, and be sorrowful, for the Christian has many persecutions. Some are suffering loss of goods; others there are whose character is suffering ignominy and scorn; some are drowned, others are burned; some are beheaded; one perishes in this manner, and another in that; it is therefore the lot of the Christian constantly to suffer misfortune, persecution, trials and adversity. This is the rod or fox tail with which they are punished. They dare not look for anything better as long as they are here. This is the court color by which the Christian is recognized, and if anyone wants to be a Christian, he dare not be ashamed of his court color or livery. 

17. Why does God do this and permit his own to be persecuted and hounded? In order to suppress and subdue the free will, so that it may not seek an expedient in their works; but rather become a fool in God's works and learn thereby to trust and depend upon God alone. 

I8. Therefore when this now comes to pass, we shall not be able to accommodate ourselves to it, and shall not understand it, unless Christ himself awakens us and makes us cheerful, so that his resurrection becomes effective in us, and all our works fall to pieces and be as nothing. Therefore the text here concludes powerfully, that man is absolutely nothing in his own strength. Here everything is condemned and thrust down that has been and may still be preached about good works; for this is the conclusion; where Christ is not, there is nothing. Ask St. Peter how he was disposed when Christ was not with him. What good works did he do? He denied Christ. He renounced him with an oath. Like good works we do, when we have not Christ with us. 

19. Thus all serves to the end that we should accustom ourselves to build alone upon Christ, and to depend upon no other work, upon no other creature, whether in heaven or upon earth. In this name alone are we preserved and blessed, and in none other. Acts 4, 12 and 10, 43. But on this account we must suffer much. The worst of all is, that we must not only suffer shame, persecution and death; but that the world rejoices because of our great loss and misfortunes. This is indeed very hard and bitter. Surely it shall thus come to pass, for the world will rejoice when it goes ill with us; but this comfort we have that their joy shall not last long, and our sorrow shall be turned into eternal joy. Of this the Lord gives us a beautiful parable of the woman in travail, when he says: 

"A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come, but when she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish for joy that a man is born into the world." 

C. This Sermon Of Comfort Is Illustrated By A Parable. 

20. With this parable be also shows that our own works are nothing, for here we see that if all women came to the help of this woman in travail, they would accomplish nothing. Here free will is at its end and is unable to accomplish anything, or to give any advice. It is not in the power of the woman to be delivered of the child, but she feels that it is wholly in the hand and power of God. When he helps and works, then something is accomplished, but where he does not help, all is lost, even if the whole world were present. In this God shows to the woman her power, her ability and her strength. Before this, she could dance and leap; she rejoiced and was happy, but now she sees how God must do all. Hereby we perceive that God is our Father, who also must deliver us from the womb and bring us forth to life. 

21. Christ says here to his disciples, So it will also go with you. The woman is here in such a state of mind that she is fearful of great danger, and yet she knows that the whole work lies in the hands of God; in him she trusts; upon him it is she depends; he also helps her and accomplishes the work, which the whole world could not do, and she thinks of nothing but the time that shall follow, when she shall again rejoice; and her heart feels and says, A dangerous hour is at hand, but afterwards it will be well. Courage and' the heart press through all obstacles. Thus it will also be with you, when you are in sorrow and adversity, and when you become new creatures. Only quietly wait and permit God to work. He will accomplish everything without your assistance. 

22. This parable of the woman is a strong and stubborn argument against free will, that it is entirely powerless and without strength in the things pertaining to the salvation of our souls. The Gospel shows very plainly that divine strength and grace are needed. Man's free will is entirely too weak and insignificant to accomplish anything here. But we have established our own orders and regulations instead of the Gospel and through these we want to free ourselves from sin, from death, from hell, and from all misfortune and finally be saved thereby. A great mistake. 

23. Here you see in this example, that if a man is to be born the mother must become first as though she were dead; that is, she must be in a condition as though she were already dead, she thinks it is now all over with her. Thus it shall be also with us. If we want to become godly, we must be as dead, and despair of all our works, yea, never think that we shall be able to accomplish anything. Here no monastic life, no priest-craft and no works will be able to help; but wait thou patiently and permit God to do with you according to his will. He shall accomplish it; permit him to work, We shall accomplish nothing ourselves, but at times we shall feel death and hell. This the ungodly shall also feel, but they do not believe that God is present in it and wants to help them. Just as the woman here accomplishes nothing, she only feels pain, distress and misery; but she cannot help herself out of this state. 

24. But when delivered of the child she remembers no more her sorrow and pain, but is as though she had become alive again. She could not before even think that her sorrow and pain should have an end so soon. Thus it is also with us in the trials of sin, of death, and of hell; then we are as though we were dead; yea, we are in the midst of death, and Christ has forsaken us. He has gone a little while from us. Then we are in great pain and cannot help ourselves; but when Christ returns, and makes himself known to us, our hearts are full of joy, even though the whole world be to the contrary. 

25. This no one can realize unless he has once been encompassed by death. He who has once been delivered from death must then rejoice; not that such a person cannot again fall and be sorrowful at times, but since this joy is at hand he worries about nothing. He also fears nothing, no matter by what dangers he may be surrounded. This joy can indeed be interrupted, for when I fall again into sin, then I fear even a driven leaf. Lev 26, 36. Why? Because Christ has departed a little while from me and has forsaken me; but I will not despair, for this joy will return again. I must not then continue and cling to the pope, nor endeavor to help myself by works; but I must quietly wait until Christ comes again. He remains but a little while without. When he then looks again upon the heart and appears and shines into it, the joy returns. Then shall I be able to meet every misfortune and terror. 

26. All this is said and written that we may be conscious of our weakness and inability, and that as far as our works are concerned all is nothing, all is utterly lost. But this joy is almighty and eternal when we are dead; but now in this life it is mixed. Now I fall and then I rise again, and it cannot be eternal, because flesh and blood are still with me. Therefore Christ says to his disciples: 

"And ye now have sorrow, but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you." 

27. All this David has described in a psalm in a most masterly and beautiful manner, when he says in Psalm 30, 1-8: "I will extol thee, 0 Jehovah, for thou hast raised me up, and hast not made my foes to rejoice over me. 0 Jehovah, my God: I cried unto thee and thou hast healed me. 0 Jehovah, thou hast brought up my soul from Sheol, thou hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit. Sing praise unto Jehovah, 0 ye saints of his, and give thanks to his holy memorial name for his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime; weeping may tarry for the night, but joy cometh in the morning. As for me, I said in my prosperity, I shall never be moved. Thou, Jehovah, of thy favor hadst made my mountain to stand strong: thou didst hide thy face; I was troubled. I cried to Thee, 0 Jehovah; and unto Jehovah I made supplication." Where is now the man who just said: "I shall never be moved?" Well, he replies, when thou, Jehovah, of thy favor didst make my mountains to stand strong, then I spoke thus. "But when thou didst hide thy face, I was troubled," I fell. If Christ were continually with us, I really believe we would never be afraid; but since he occasionally departs from us we must therefore at times be afraid. 

28. In this Psalm is beautifully portrayed to us how to recognize and experience a good conscience, for here David considers the whole world as a drop, and is not the least afraid of it, even though it should storm and rage against him, for he has the Lord with him. He has made his mountain to stand strong, but when he fell and the Lord hid his face from him, then he was afraid. Then were heart, courage, and mountain gone. Then was he afraid of a driven leaf, who before was not afraid of the whole world, as he also says in another psalm unto the Lord: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." Ps 23,4. Likewise in Ps 3,6 he says: "I will not be afraid of ten thousands of the people that have set themselves against me round about." Passages like these can be multiplied in the Psalms, all of which show how an upright good conscience stands, namely; when God is with it, it is courageous and brave, but when God has departed, it is fearful and terrified. 

29. Here we rightly understand now what the words of Christ signify, "I go to the Father." Before this no one understood them, not even the disciples. But this is the road: I must die, he saith, and ye must also die. Peter vowed boastfully; for according to the old Adam he wanted to die with the Lord, and we all think we want to die with Christ, as all the other disciples said that they would enter into death with Christ. Mt 26,35. But all this must perish in us. You must come to the moment of trial, when Christ does not stand by you and does not die with you, when you cannot help yourself, just like the woman in travail. When this takes place, then you come to the Father. That is, you are filled with his power, and be makes a new man of you, who thereafter is not afraid, whose character is already here a heavenly character, as St. Paul calls it in Phil 3, 20; and this has its beginning here, by faith. Then you become courageous and brave, and can say as the prophet in the Psalm, "I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people," and "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil." Why all this? Because you have come to the Father. Who can now overthrow God's omnipotence? No one. Aye, then no one can do anything to you or cause you any harm. 

30. This no one will understand until it has come to pass. Have you been encompassed by death and been delivered from it, then you will say, I was in death, and if the Lord had not delivered me, I would have remained in death's grasp forever. The entire thirtieth Psalm refers to this, which you will do well to examine thoroughly and consider faithfully. 

31. Here you have now the fruit and the example of the death and the resurrection of Christ, and how free will is nothing, and everything reason concludes regarding these things, which pertain to our salvation. May God give grace that we may lay hold of it and regulate our lives accordingly,  Amen.