In the middle of Jesus’ discourse on the Holy Spirit in John 14-16 He suddenly says this about Himself:
“A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me, because I go to the Father” (John 16:16).
His disciples are confused so they repeat the statement:
“A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me’;and ‘because I go to the Father” (John 16:17)
Finally, Jesus repeats the statement again before not answering their questions about it (see Proverbs 25:2):
“A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me” (John 16:19)
When something is repeated 3 times in the space of 3 verses you would expect that the Holy Spirit is trying to draw our attention to something. However this is one of those places where the English translations generally miss something important: The first word translated “see” in each verse above is not the same in the original Greek as the second word translated “see”.
The first word translated “see” is the Greek word θεωρεῖτέ (thee -or- rei-te) and is often used in the sense of beholding something with your physical eyes.
The second word translated “see” is the Greek word ὄψεσθέ (ops -es-te) which is often used in the sense of perceiving something.
I am no Greek scholar and, anyway, it is not good to make a doctrine out of a single Greek word difference. But let’s look at a possible distinction in some other ways.
It is of course well known that seeing something can have different depths to it. For example, I might see my wife sitting at the table and perceive that she is very happy about something. Someone else seeing her might not perceive that about her. That person might just see her sitting at the table.
The context of the verses is also very important of course. For all the earlier part of Chapter 16 Jesus had been explaining the role of the Holy Spirit. He explained how (in verse 7) it was to the advantage of the disciples that Jesus went away. By going back to the Father He could send the Holy Spirit. He also explained (in verses 13-15) that the Holy Spirit would speak whatever He hears from Jesus.
So this is what these thrice repeated verses mean: In a little while Jesus was going back to heaven and the disciples would not see Him in the same way again. A little while later (after Pentecost) they would see Him again but this time it would not be physically but in the form of the Holy Spirit. This would require them to see differently since now they needed to perceive and hear some One spiritual. They would no longer have in front of them Jesus in the flesh.
Paul confirms this in 2 Corinthians 5:16b:
“Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer.”
Again, the context is important.
A Relevant Application
In the first half of the same verse Paul has this very relevant and important application for our lives, particularly in the context of the current upheavals since the murder of George Floyd:
“Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh.” (2 Cor. 5:16a)
The crucial thing is that we perceive the underlying Spirit (or spirit) and character of the people we meet. We ought not to regard people according to their outward appearance including the colour of their skin (see also 1 Samuel 16:7 and Gal. 3:28).
Martin Luther King Jr. made it clear that this was his aspiration also for all people (in his “I have a dream” speech from 1963) :
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day
live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color
of their skin but by the content of their character”
I used to think that that was the whole answer to the race problem – ignore the outside and act according to the inside of someone – but I don’t think that is enough. Now I think we ought to be more aware of the fact that the outside of some people determines how they get treated and think all their lives. Now I think we need to be more proactive as a church and those who call themselves by God’s name in addressing why this is. May God give us all wisdom and much love while we work through this together.
In the end though if we are to consistently see the Bride of Christ as she really is, and all humans as they really are, we have to see them according to their spirit or character and not according to their external appearance.