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What is the most frequently heard verse in John’s gospel? John 3:16 may come immediately to mind: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son . . .”

Or can words from the prologue (1:1–18) lay claim to this title? They are, after all, read every year at Christmastime.

But perhaps the most likely answer is John 14:1: “Let not your hearts be troubled . . .” They are read at almost every Christian funeral service.

This may help explain two things:

1. We rarely hear and reflect on these words in their original context. If you were to ask even regular churchgoers, “Tell me when Jesus said these words, and what happened before and after He said them,” they might struggle to give an answer.

2. We tend to hear and read them as if they were spoken directly to us.

This is the way that many—perhaps most—Christians always read the Bible. Of course, it is relevant to us today. But it is important to remember that—like everything Jesus said in the upper room—while these words may apply to us, they were spoken only to the Apostles. We were not there.

Here, then, is a fundamental principle of Bible study: we reflect first on what the words communicated to those who heard them; then we work out, with the help of the Spirit, how they apply to us.

When we do that, we may find ourselves asking questions that we might otherwise overlook and that in turn may help us penetrate further into the meaning of the passage.

Here, for example, thinking about the original context of John 14:1 raises this question: How could Jesus say to His disciples, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled”? Doesn’t that break a basic rule of counseling? After all, their problem was that they were troubled, and apparently for good reasons.

If troubled people could relieve themselves of their troubles, they would. Isn’t telling them not to be troubled simply a counsel of despair? Did not Jesus know better than that?

Since He knows and understands what it is like to be troubled, He can sympathize with us.

But Jesus was a master counselor, so there must be something in the context here that helps us understand what He is doing.

In addition, if we read passages in their context, we are more likely to notice significant details. There is an important example here. John has just told us that “Jesus was troubled in his spirit” (13:21; the same descriptor is used in 14:1). A “troubled” Jesus is telling His disciples not to be “troubled.” Isn’t this “the pot calling the kettle black”? A cynical reader might say, “Physician, heal yourself” (Luke 4:23).

Paradoxical? Yes, but this paradox provides a clue to help us understand Jesus’ exhortation to His disciples. In fact, in its own way, it points us to the very heart of the gospel. Because Jesus was troubled, His disciples, both then and now, do not need to be. For what causes this trouble—His betrayal, arrest, shame, crucifixion, abandonment—is that He is bearing the burden of our deepest troubles: our guilt, our shame, and the death that is the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23). Since He knows and understands what it is like to be troubled, He can sympathize with us. Because He was troubled, in Him our troubled hearts can find peace.

The strength of Jesus’ counsel lies in the way He explains why and how His disciples’ hearts need not be troubled. For while there are reasons for their hearts to be troubled, there are greater reasons for not letting them be troubled. As the conversation unfolds, He will explain this further as He addresses the questions of two troubled disciples in particular.

What, then, is Jesus’ counsel for the troubled heart? He is speaking here not about trivial upsets but about turmoil. He has been deeply agitated in spirit, and now His disciples are deeply agitated too. Their world is falling to pieces. They are feeling overwhelmed, and they have no control over the situation. How is it possible, under these circumstances, to have an untroubled heart? And is it possible, by way of application, for a Christian today to experience such heavenly poise?

counsel for troubled hearts

What is the problem for the troubled heart? It is this: the circumstances that threaten us seem bigger and stronger than our resources to cope. We are like the disciples caught in the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Our skills and experience are not adequate for the situation.

Because Jesus was troubled, His disciples, both then and now, do not need to be.

Have you ever thought that Jesus was being a little unkind to His disciples when He asked them, “Why are you so afraid?” They surely had every reason to be—they were drowning. In fact, Jesus is gently diagnosing the problem. He asks: “Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40). In other words, there were resources available to them in the boat, someone stronger than the winds and the waves, and they had ignored Him—or, to be more accurate, failed to trust Him.

You board an airplane. The bags are being loaded into the hold—fifty pounds per bag for perhaps two hundred economy fares. Into the cabin come the passengers themselves, each weighing multiple pounds. You glance out the window at the massive engines. Do you ever think, “How do planes ever get off the ground?” It is not because they are lighter than the air or because the law of gravity no longer exists. No, it is because the laws of aerodynamics are brought into operation: lift and thrust overcome weight and drag. Something analogous is true for Christians. We are weighed down with trials and difficulties, perplexities, and deep sorrows. Being a Christian does not grant immunity from them. But there is another law at work. We have resources to overcome in Jesus Christ.

This is the point Paul makes: “we are more than conquerors” not because of our own strength but “through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37).

Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples did not imply, “Foolish disciples, you are seasoned fishermen and should have trusted your experience.” No, it implied, “You had the Son of God in the boat, the Creator of Galilee and Ruler of the wind and the waves, but you did not trust Me.” Their circumstances blinded them to the presence of their Savior. They were filled with fear rather than with faith.

having faith

We too often think of faith as passive—perhaps because we talk about “receiving” Christ. But there are active dimensions to faith. Our wise spiritual forefathers used to speak about “acting faith”—that is, exercising faith, taking hold of God’s promises, fixing our gaze on Christ and all He is (Heb. 3:1; 12:2).

Notice, then, the counsel Jesus gives to troubled hearts: “Believe, trust in God; trust also in Me.”

The power of faith lies not in ourselves or even in faith itself but in Christ and the logic of the gospel. And even weak faith has this strong Christ as its object.

Do not let your hearts be troubled. First, because God is your security: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe” (Prov. 18:10); “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). No wonder Martin Luther used to say to his younger friend Philip Melanchthon whenever they were discouraged, “Come, Philip; let us sing the forty-sixth psalm!” No surprise, then, that his paraphrased application of it, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” became the anthem of the Reformation.

There is a logic implied in Jesus’ words to the disciples: “Trust in God—therefore trust also in Me.” God will be their refuge— they already know that; they have known Psalm 46 since they were children. But now they have been with Jesus for three years. They have every reason to trust Him, too, and to find their security in Him. They have seen the mighty works that have authenticated Him as the promised Messiah; they have heard Him speak of His unique relationship to His Father in heaven. Just as He came into the world to save them (John 3:16), He is leaving the world to prepare a place for them in His Father’s presence: “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (14:2–3).

Follow the power of our Lord’s logic here—for the strength of faith resides in grasping it:

  • Jesus’ action: I am leaving you.
  • Jesus’ explanation: I am going to prepare a place for you in My Father’s house.
  • Jesus’ conclusion: I am therefore going to return for you to take you home.

See the logic? What theologians call Christology (who Jesus is and what He does) is the foundation for soteriology (how His work is savingly applied to our lives). It is worth underlining the point: the power of faith lies not in ourselves or even in faith itself but in Christ and the logic of the gospel. And even weak faith has this strong Christ as its object.

What patience and poise our Lord displays here in the context of overwhelming trouble. Such is His love for His disciples that He seems to be more concerned about their distress than He is about His own. This is the reason they—and we with them—can trust Him without reservation.


Editor’s Note: Excerpt adapted from Lessons from the Upper Room by Sinclair B. Ferguson.

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