There is a passage in John 16 that is unusual for its repetition. This past Sunday it was the assigned Gospel in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. The expression “in a little while” is repeated seven times in the brief passage. In fact, its repetition is almost to the point of being annoying, such that the reader is tempted to say, “Alright, already! I get it! In a little while!” But obviously John, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit want to drill this into us. The “little while” of this passage is seemingly a critical perspective for us to lay hold of.
Let’s look at the whole passage:
Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.” At this, some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.” Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy (John 16:16-22).
OK, do you get it? A Little while! Clearly this text is a perfect illustration of the old expression repetitio mater studiorum (repetition is the mother of studies). “A little while” x 7. Obviously we’re supposed to lay hold of this; obviously it was significant to the Lord.
The Greek word translated here as “a little while” is even more evocative of brevity. It is μικρὸν (mikron), which at least in its English connotation, speaks of something very little.
Contextually, the Lord seems to be referring to the brief time between his death and resurrection. And indeed that time was brief. He was trying to prepare his disciples (in the hope?) that they might not lose faith and would be able to endure the passion. But it seems these and other words promising his resurrection “in a little while” (on the third day) had no real impact on them. All but John fled in fear, and all of them were astonished and incredulous at the resurrection when it first broke in to their reality.
But in a more extended and pastoral context, the words of Jesus are also intended for us. He wants us to grasp that “in a little while” we will see him.
This for us is a very important perspective to gain: life is short! And this truth is both consoling and challenging for us.
It is consoling because whatever pain we are going through we need to remember that we are going through it; if we are faithful, it is not our destination. And whatever the current difficulties, they will be over “in a little while.” An old African American Spiritual says, Hold on just a little longer, everything’s gonna be alright. Another old spiritual says, Trouble don’t last always. As most of us who are a bit older know, life passes quickly—so very quickly. And whatever our troubles, they will be over in a little while. And if we have been faithful, eternity dawns with far great glories than the trouble we have endured for just “a little while.”
We ought to expect that life here will be a little uncomfortable. We live in paradise lost. We live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures. We who are baptized now live in this world as strangers and aliens. We’re just passing through a world with strange customs and a strange language. We’re living out of a suitcase and have all the discomforts of travel. But in a little, while we get to go home—if we but hold to God’s unchanging hand.
Scripture speaks often of this aspect.
- In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Peter 1:6-7).
- Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:16-18).
And thus we ought to be consoled by this perspective that, whatever difficulties you’re currently going through, stay faithful. It will be over in a little while. And meanwhile it is producing and storing up glory for you.
It is also challenging to consider the “little while” of this life. Simply put, you are going to die and you don’t get to say when. You are not promised even the next beat of your heart. Tomorrow is not promised, so you’d better choose the Lord today. Do not delay your conversion to the Lord.
Life passes very swiftly. I am celebrating my 25th anniversary as a priest this year. Wow, how did that happen? I feel like I just got out of high school! Life goes so quickly. Scripture says,
- Our life is over like a sigh. Our span is seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong. And most of these are emptiness and pain. They pass swiftly and we are gone (Ps 90:9-11).
- But as for man, he is like the grass, of the flower of the field. The wind blows and he is gone and his place never sees him again (Ps 103:15-16).
- Remember your Creator—before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it (Eccles 12: finis).
Yes, life passes quickly and for most of us, the memory of our existence will linger but a generation here on earth.
But here comes the challenge. Life is short—prepare for judgment. Scripture says,
- It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment (Heb 9:27).
- For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10).
- Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Heb 4:13).
Jesus also warns:
- Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping! What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’ ” (Mark 13:33-37)
- I am coming SOON; hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown….Behold, I am coming SOON, bringing my recompense, to repay every one for what he has done (Rev 3:11; 22:12).
Yes, life is short. And, in a little while we must all report to the judgment seat of Christ for a very honest conversation. Prepare confidently with faith, but not presumption, which is a denial of the faith. The Lord has said that we must be sober, awake, and ready. In just a little while the moment will come. You will die, and you don’t get to say when. Get ready.
There it is—perspective. The consolation is that the troubles of this life pass in “a little while.” The challenge is to be ready, for in just a little while our time here is up and the question is called.
In a little while!
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming SOON.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20)