Jesus began these final verses with a statement “concerning his true nature, his heavenly origin, and his heavenly destiny, that is profound but, at the same time, so simple that the disciples listening to him were led to exclaim, ‘Now you are speaking clearly.’[i] As Jesus recounts the basic facts of his life and ministry, we are struck that he spoke not as one acting under compulsion, but One who came and went by his free will and sovereign choice: John 16:28, “I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.” This statement sets forth Jesus’ first coming in four great movements. He came from the Father, came into the world, is now leaving, and will return to the Father. These are vital facts that structure the truth of Jesus’ person and redeeming work.
First, Jesus speaks of his eternal and divine origin, saying, “I came from the Father.” This was a truth that the disciples clearly grasped, saying, “We believe that you came from God” (John 16:30). William Hendriksen explains, “This refers to Christ’s perfect deity, his pre-existence, and his love-revealing departure from heaven in order to dwell on the sin-cursed earth.”[ii] Here is a direct claim to deity on the part of Jesus, presented as an essential element of saving faith.
Second, Jesus emphasizes his incarnation, the great miracle by which God the Son was born in the virgin womb and took up a human body and true human nature. It is noteworthy that Jesus spoke of his departure from heaven in the past tense, as a completed action. But he refers to his incarnation in the perfect tense, that is, as a past action with continued effects. “I have come into the world,” Jesus says (John 16:28). This includes his virgin birth, his sinless life, and his ministry with its miracles and teaching. Most importantly, Jesus came into the world to lay down his life as an atoning Sacrifice for sin. “The Son of Man came, “Jesus stressed “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). Donald Grey Barnhouse illustrates Christ’s purpose in the incarnation with a judge who imposes strict justice on a convict, but then steps down from the bench to pay the fine himself. He does this because the guilty part is his own beloved child. Likewise, though very God, Jesus stepped down from heaven to pay in his blood the debt that his own divine justice demanded for our sins.”[iii]
Moreover, Jesus came to reveal the glory and grace of the Father in His own person and work. We see why the perfect tense is rightly used for Jesus’ incarnation: though he has departed from our world, his coming produced effects that not only continue today but will endure forever.
Third, Jesus moves to the present—the action that he was about to initiate saying–, “Now I am leaving the world and going to the Father” (John 16:28). Notice again that Jesus’ death and departure was not thrust on him by some outward compulsion. Earlier, he had told the disciples, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:17-18). According to the New Testament, Jesus left the world via the cross in order to remove completely the guilt of his people’s sins. Psalm 103:12 sings of him: “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
Fourth, and last, Jesus declares that after departing the world, he is “going to the Father” (John 16:28). Jesus’ resurrection from the grave reveals God’s acceptance of His atoning death, so that we may be certain that satisfaction has been made for our sins. Moreover, in returning to the Father, Jesus assumed the place from which he can dispense spiritual gifts and blessings to His people. Most important of these gifts is our new birth into saving faith by means of God’s Word (1 Peter 1:23). Finally, Jesus went to the Father that He might take up His ministry of intercessory prayer for all believers. Paul write that Christ “is at the right hand of God..Interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). There, Jesus displays in His body the marks of His atoning sacrifice, presenting our covenant claims through His blood. We sing:
Arise, my soul, arise, shake of f they guilty fears:
The bleeding Sacrifice in my behalf appears;
Before the Throne my Surety stands,
Before the throne my Surety Stands,
My name is written on His hands. (Charles Wesley, “Arise, My Soul, Arise” (1742).
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[i] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 4:1234
[ii] William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel according to John, 2 vols., New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1953), 2:339
[iii] Donald Grey Barnhouse, Let Me illustrate (Westwood, NK: Revell, 1967), 170.