As I read through Jesus’ long goodbye to his disciples, I continue to be struck by how he adjusts his words to their state of mind. He wants them to continue his mission after he’s gone, but knows that they’re so filled with anxiety and grief that they can’t hear or absorb much of what he’s saying. Jesus is no drill sergeant barking orders; he’s not commanding the disciples to take a hill. He is their friend and mentor, and commands them to love each other and to abide in his love for them.
And one expression of that love is how he communicates what he wants them to know. He seems keenly aware of their internal state:
I didn’t say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I go away to the one who sent me. None of you ask me, ‘Where are you going?’ Yet because I have said these things to you, you are filled with sorrow. (John 16:4b-6, CEB)
He hasn’t given the details of their coming trials until now, partly because they would only happen after his departure. That time has now come. The disciples are so overwhelmed that they don’t ask the most obvious and important question: “Where are you going?”
But wait: didn’t Peter ask exactly that question earlier, after Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:36)? Didn’t Thomas say, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going” (14:5)?
Well, yes. But Peter’s earlier question wasn’t really a request for information; it was a protest at Jesus’ leaving. It’s like a child anxiously watching his parents dress to go out on the town, following them around and asking, “Mommy, where you going? Daddy, where you going?” The parents could answer the question — “We’re going out to dinner with friends, Petey dear” — but it wouldn’t matter, because the child isn’t really asking for information. The question is an expression of his distress at being left behind.
The disciples even now could ask for more information. They could try to understand better what it means for Jesus to return to the Father. But they’re in no shape either to ask the question or hear the answer. Their hearts are filled with sorrow, and Jesus knows it.
Indeed, he’s known it all through the Farewell Discourse. “Don’t be troubled,” he’s told them (14:1, 27), “I won’t leave you as orphans” (14:8). Even though his words are upsetting, Jesus knows that he must tell them in advance what’s going to happen, so that when it does happen they’ll be better able to endure, knowing that God is still in charge (14:29; 16:1, 4).
And most importantly, Jesus knows that there is still time for the disciples to learn what they need to learn. “I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now,” he says. “However, when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth” (16:12-13). There’s no need for Jesus to cram in more instruction than the disciples can handle; the Spirit will finish the lesson. And if the book of Acts is any indication, the lesson will indeed be learned.
Jesus is their Lord and Master — and yet as such exhibited an extraordinary amount of patience and understanding when telling his disciples something they really needed to hear. So here’s the question: can we be similarly patient with others when we need and want them to hear us?