Solving the Riddle of John 16:16

After Jesus said, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me” (John 16:16), the disciples were confused (16:17-18).  The significance of “a little while” was not clear in their minds.  What did such a phrase refer to?

Considering that Jesus’ Farewell Discourse (John 13–16) and High Priestly Prayer (John 17) occur right before his arrest (John 18) and death (John 19), the first “little while” probably refers to the time leading up to his death when they will “see me no more.”

Then, according to John 20:14–21:25, the disciples encountered Jesus again after his resurrection.  So the second “little while” probably refers to the time between the cross and the resurrection when they would “see me” again.

Some scholars have unnecessarily read John 16:16 from the viewpoint of the Gospel of John’s 21st century readers.  Some of them say that “in a little while you will see me no more” refers to Jesus’ ascension, and “then after a little while you will see me” refers to seeing Jesus at his second coming.

But there is one huge problem with saying that 16:16 refers to Jesus’ ascension and second coming.  Jesus told his eleven disciples the night before he was crucified that “after a little while you will see me.”  So the “seeing” Jesus in 16:16 must have been fulfilled in the experience of the disciples, and therefore 16:16 is an already-past-event.

The question is, then, how would the disciples have experienced the fulfillment of 16:16?  While the disciples could not immediately discern the meaning of Jesus’ twofold use of “a little while” in John 16:16, the post-resurrection readers of John’s Gospel have the best vantage point to understand what Jesus meant by breaking the riddle into four parts:

(1) “In a little while”=The time between speaking those words and Jesus’ death

(2) “You will see me no more”=Jesus’ death

(3) “Then after a little while”=The time between Jesus’ death and resurrection

(4) “You will see me”=Jesus’ appearances to his disciples after his resurrection

 

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