God has promised a lot of amazing things to his people. People who trust in Christ are restored to God, righteous, forgiven, loved: they are children and fellow-heir with Jesus of God’s perfect kingdom. They are people who belong to a place and a people not through their own achievements. It’s been given to them entirely as a free gift.
Jesus has come to earth and done all the necessary work of salvation on the cross, and has risen again, with him we too have conquered sin and death. It is certain, it is done.
As Christians we know that this is true. And yet we still live in a world that is broken in every way, full of suffering that we have to watch and that hurts us. We ourselves are physically and mentally broken and all of our thoughts, words and actions are shot through with sin. The things Jesus achieved on the cross are unseen and often seem far from certain. We don’t feel righteous and perfect, it doesn’t seem at all that we have conquered sin and death and decay still seems to reign in everything around us.
What can we possibly make of this situation? How can we reconcile living in these two states?
He has gone to prepare a place for us
The disciples faced the same questions when Jesus tells them he has to go away. These are recorded particularly in John’s gospel. Jesus tells Peter he’s going where they can’t follow him. Peter understandably doesn’t want to face any distance from Jesus. If to get to where Jesus will be, you need to die, that’s what Peter wants to do. ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you’ (13:37).
But Jesus tells them not to be worried because he is going to his Father’s house ‘to prepare a place for you’ and will therefore ‘come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also’ (14:3). Moreover, Jesus will not simply abandon them until he comes back for them. He says he will ask the father to ‘give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth’ (14:15).
Jesus prepares the disciples, and us, for the fact that seeing him will change. We won’t see him physically anymore until he comes back but we will see him and know him because he is not going to leave us alone. He will send the Spirit to guide us in the truth. We are with him even when it doesn’t seem like it.
Peace with God not with the world
Jesus then talks more about what we can expect from the life we live between him being away and him coming back.
Jesus promises peace. But ‘my peace,’ that is to say, ‘not as the world gives.’ Jesus doesn’t promise the peace that the world seeks – freedom from sickness or loss, or war and affliction, or even a feeling of contentment or calm or purpose within all these trials, as much of the Eastern and now Western world have sought. Jesus promises none of these things, but the peace Christ alone brings, the peace of man with God, the peace of being one with God and part of his kingdom through Christ. We have this already because through the Spirit both Father and Son have made their home with us.
Jesus says that ‘in me you... have peace’ but that ‘in the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world’ (16:33). He says that we will suffer all of the tribulation – all of the trials, and pain, and affliction – that everyone in the world has. Christians aren’t in any way going to be exempt from these. That’s not what Jesus promised.
Not only that, but as Christians our relationship with the world becomes less rather than more peaceful than everyone else. This understanding of where peace that really matters is to be found and where it is not creates a stark divide between the followers of Jesus and everyone else. This is how he describes it, ‘because you are not of this world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you’. People don’t really want to be told there is no peace where they’re looking for it.
Jesus reminds the disciples – and us – that both are promised. The peace and the tribulation. The peace and the persecution. None of this is supposed to make us doubt that what Jesus has achieved is certain and definite. We are experiencing all the things Jesus told us beforehand that we would. Now in the world we suffer, but we have peace with God through Christ who will come back: there is an end to this time of peace but no peace.
Jesus again reminds the disciples of the glorious day when he will see them again properly, when all the trials and afflictions are finally over, when ‘your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you’ at all. In that day we will ’ask nothing’ of him because ‘our joy [will] be full’ (16:22-24).
Until then, Jesus doesn’t ask for the Christians to be ‘taken out the world’ of tribulation and persecution: we have been sent into this world like Jesus, though we belong elsewhere. He asks the Father ‘keeps them from the evil one.’ And what will be our protection from the devil, and our guarantee that we will get safely home to our God and Father? Truth in form of the Spirit, sent by the father, who will ‘teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you’ (14:26)
As a Christian, we will not have freedom from trials in this world - the difficulties and pain will still come, and in fact, we will face greater suffering from the persecution of the world that hates us. Although we have have peace with the Father and are with Jesus in the Spirit, our current experience in the world was never meant to be any easier or improved in any tangible way. It’s only going to be fixed when we are brought to the place Jesus is preparing for us. Suffering doesn’t question the reality of Jesus’ victory. Suffering shows us we aren’t home yet.