The Sunday lectionary gospel reading for Easter 5 in Year A is John 14.1–14. When I read this text, I cannot help but feel it has a slightly strange, dream-like quality to it, and I think that is for several reasons.
- The whole discourse (which begins at John 13.31 and continues to the end of chapter 16) is dotted with apophthegms which are highly memorable—and often remembered out of context.
- There are often abrupt changes of subject and sharp contrasts, even from one sentence to another (Judas leaving, but Jesus being glorified in John 13.31; Peter betraying Jesus, but the encouragement not to be troubled in John 14.1, and so on).
- There is no obvious linear structure or progress in the discourse; instead, subjects are repeated, circled around, and returned to.
- Jesus’ comments are often obscure or ambiguous, and the disciples are baffled—something that happens throughout the gospel between Jesus and his dialogue partners.
- The disciples are experiencing Jesus’ comments from their own position, prior to Jesus’ death, and still without a clear understanding of what is happening and how it will be resolved. We are reading from a completely different, post-resurrection position, in which we know how the story ends. It gives us quite a different sense of engagement—a little like the difference between watching a film the first time, and being caught up in the emotion and drama of the characters as the story unfolds, and watching the second time through where the emotion has been dissipated because you know how it will end. This is particularly the case for us as we read in the Easter season, having been particularly focussed on the resurrection.
A further challenge in reading is that, for all these reasons, some of Jesus’ sayings have been commonly interpreted in a way that the whole passage does not really allow; we need to take the different elements together as we read the whole text.
Three larger questions are worth bearing in mind when reading this passage. The first is that there is no mileage in dismissing these chapters as unhistorical constructions by the gospel’s author, because of their contrast with the Synoptics. The Synoptic accounts of this period, especially Mark’s, are incredibly brief, and if we followed them we would need to believe that Jesus said almost nothing for the whole of the evening! There is one key point of contact: all the gospels believe that Peter denies that he will fall away, like the others, out of which Jesus predicts his denial. Given that the Fourth Gospel is quite separate source, and given that this would be a serious embarrassment to the early Christian community, it satisfies every test for being authentic.
The second thing to note is that the Farewell Discourse as a whole includes all the things that both ancient and modern readers would expect from such a speech.
- The parting is necessary and for the best (John 14.1–4, 15.13)
- It takes place only after careful consideration and at the appropriate time (John 16.6–7)
- Those who are present have been one community (John 15.1–8)
- The relationships that have been forged will be sustained (John 14.15–21, 23–26, 15.15, 16.15)
- The purpose or work of the community has been noble ((John 15.8, 10)
- Its purpose or work will be an enduring venture (John 14.11–14) (Jo-Ann Brant, Paideia commentary, p 209)
Brant goes on to compare this with a modern example, that of George Washington’s speech announcing he would not stand for re-election in 1796. But it can also be compared with Socrates’ final words before he took hemlock (Phaedo, 114–177; Mark Stibbe, Readings commentary, 1993 pp 152–153 offers a detailed comparison) or Seneca’s farewell address (Tacitus, Annals, 15.62). But what this illustrates is that Jesus here offers all the things that, humanly speaking, we might need as consolation in the face of apparent disaster and loss. In that sense, the consolation that Jesus is here offer to the inner circle of disciples in the anticipation of his death become for us words of consolation in the face of any tragedy we face, if we too have been incorporated into this inner circle by our belief in him. The brevity and the ambiguity of Jesus’ apophthegms allows us to re-appropriate them in our own context.
Thirdly, although there is no linear logic or progression, the passage does have a fairly clear shape:
Jesus’ announcement that the time of departure has now come (John 13.31f)
The issuing of the love commandment (John 13.34)
Peter interrupts—Jesus predicts his denial (John 13.36)
Consolation: Jesus is returning to the Father (John 14.1)
Thomas interrupts—Jesus reaffirms his divine agency (John 14.6)
Philip interrupts—Jesus reaffirms his relationship with the Father (John 14.8)
Assurance that God’s work will continue after Jesus’ departure through the work of the Paraclete (John 14.11)
[The other] Judas interrupts—Jesus reiterates the promise of the Paraclete (John 14.22)
Consolation: rejoice because I am returning to the Father (John 14.27) (Brant, p 211, Stibbe, p 155).
Although the second consolation could be seen as introducing the next section, on abiding in the vine, the change in vocabulary and imagery, and the repeating at the end of chapter 14 the phrase with which it began (‘Do not let your hearts be troubled’) suggests that this forms an inclusio which gives the chapter its shape.
The opening words of Jesus in chapter 14 ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled’ come as such an abrupt change of focus from his prediction of Peter’s betrayal that it is easy to see why a chapter division has been added here. But in the narrative, the one follows on from the other in a quite startling way. Jesus’ personal assurance triumphs over even the most unexpected and catastrophic of human failures. (Interestingly, this perspective ties in closely with the comment in Luke 22.32, that when Peter ‘comes back’ he is to ‘strengthen your brothers’.)
Jesus follows this with a typically rhetorically shaped invitation: ‘Believe/trust in God; in me also believe/trust’. It is usually smoothed out in English translations in such a way as to miss the emphasis on believing or trust at the beginning and end of the saying. There is no need to infer from this statement on its own the identification of Jesus with God; after all, the people ‘believed’ in Moses as God’s emissary and agent in Ex 14.31, and there is no implication of identity there.
The language of Jesus ‘going’, ‘coming back’ and ‘preparing a room’ has commonly been read as referring to eschatological or post-mortem reality. When we die, there will be a place prepared for us to go to in God’s presence—and this is the most common interpretation for most ordinary readers. But there are a number of reasons why that cannot be the case.
First, Jesus is speaking to the disciples in the first instance, and only to us in derivation from that. The language of ‘going’ is a common metaphor for death; Jesus is saying that he will return to the disciples after having died, which we now must take as a reference to his returning to them after the resurrection.
Secondly, Jesus is going to ‘prepare a place’ for them, and there are ‘many rooms in my Father’s house’ (not ‘much room’ is in the TNIV). The word for ‘room’ is mone and it is a comparatively rare word in Greek, occurring only in John 14.2 and 23. It has the meaning of ‘lodging place’ and is the root behind our word ‘monastery’. Fr that reason, some have suggested that it points to an interim ‘resting place’ with God after death but prior to the final resurrection of the dead.
But note: in John 14.23 it is not the disciples who find their mone in the Father, but the Father and Son who make their mone in the believer! Jesus has previously referred to ‘my Father’s house’ as the Temple in John 2.16—but he immediately goes on to redefine the temple as his own body. And although mone is a rare term, it is cognate with the verb meno, meaning to lodge, stay or abide—and it has huge significance in this gospel as it characteristic moves from having a literal sense to a metaphorical and theological sense. The first disciples ask Jesus ‘Where are you staying?’ apparently being curious only about Jesus home (John 1.38). But by the time we reach chapter 15, Jesus is exhorting the disciples to ‘Stay, abide, remain in me, and I in you’ (John 15.4), using the same verb.
If we are to abide (meno) in him, and he in us, then the only way to make sense of our lodging place (mone) in him and his lodging place (mone) in us is to understand this in the same way with reference to the same thing. As Stibbe comments:
The realized eschatology in the rest of John 14 suggests that this house is not so much an eternal home in heaven as a post-resurrection, empirical reality for true disciples… To these true ones [the obedient disciples], Jesus promises both a home and a father. No wonder Jesus declares, ‘I will not leave you as orphans’ (John 14.28) (p 160).
The second interruption, from Thomas, leads to Jesus articulating the sixth of the seven ‘I am’ statements in the gospel: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (the seventh following closely in chapter 15 ‘I am the vine’). Although, from the second part of the claim ‘No-one comes to the Father except through me’ we are inclined to understand ‘way’ in terms of access, in its Jewish context the idea of ‘way’ also includes wisdom for right living, the halakah. This fits closely with the gospel’s focus on Jesus our example; not only does Jesus make the Father known, but he also offers us a way or pattern of life in relationship with the Father that, with the help of the Spirit, we are to emulate.
The third interruption, from the other Judas, follows on quickly, and leads into the discussion about Jesus’ relationship with the Father, and the implications for believers when Jesus is gone. Once more, we need to be cautious about inferring ontological identity between Jesus and the Father based on the language of Jesus being ‘in’ the Father and the Father ‘in’ him, since similar language is used of the believers and both Father and Son. Instead, we should see this as one contribution to the wider portrayal of Father, Son and Spirit in the gospel.
There are two contentious and disputed issues arising from these verses. The second, and easier to deal with, is Jesus’ promise that ‘I will do whatever you ask in my name’ (John 14.13). Typically, this is an idea that the discourse circles around and returns to more than once, in John 15.7, 16 and John 16.23–24; but, as with much of the language here, it is not unique to the Fourth Gospel, since we hear it in the Synoptics in Matt 18.19, 21.22, Mark 11.24, as well as James 1.5–6 and 17.
It is clear that this cannot be taken as an invitation to ‘name it and claim it’ in the way of the ‘prosperity gospel‘ because of the immediate context. First, the result of both the request and the answer will be to glorify the Father in the Son, and not simply to enrich and comfort the one making the request. Secondly, Jesus immediately (though in an apparent shift of focus) states that ‘If you love me, you will obey my commandments’. So the whole context of this encouragement is that of love for and submission to Jesus. But, thirdly, we also need to note the meaning of ‘in my name’; this is not about uttering a closing formula in a prayer, but about acting as Jesus’ representative, whilst about his business—just as Jesus himself came in his Father’s name (John 5.43, 10.25). It involves prayer ‘in keeping with his character and concerns and, indeed, in union with him’ (Craig Keener, John vol 2 p 949, quoting Whitacre).
The other contentious issue is the meaning of the promise that ‘all who have faith in me…will do greater works than [I have been doing]’ (John 14.12). Andrew Wilson helpfully sets out the main options here:
- The standard Pentecostal approach, that all believers will do great signs and wonders.
- A variation on this: believers will now do even greater miracles than Jesus, such as miraculous ‘teleporting’ (as apparently happened to Philip in Acts 8), instant weight loss, long periods of absolute fasting, and so on. If that is not the everyday experience of you and me, well, that shows up our poor level of expectation.
- ‘Greater’ here means greater in quantity, rather than in degree, now that the Spirit has been poured out on all disciples.
- Jesus here is only addressing the Twelve (Eleven) and not all disciples. So it is about the apostolic miracles, for example recorded in Acts, but which no longer happen.
Wilson mostly agrees with the first interpretation (being part of a Neo-Pentecostal denomination, NewFrontiers), but puts a rather important gloss on this, from the text of the gospel itself:
Jesus talks about “greater works” or “greater things” in two other places in John, and they help us significantly when it comes to establishing what he means in this case:
1:50-51: Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
5:20-21, 24-29: “For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will …
So in the two other places in John where Jesus (or anybody) speaks of greater miracles, the context is the vindication of the Son of Man, and his prerogative to judge the world and give eternal life to anybody who believes…
In saying this, Jesus isn’t disparaging miraculous healing or prophecy; far from it. It’s wonderful that Nathanael was known, the crippled man was healed and Lazarus was raised (and that we, as Jesus’ followers, get to do the same sorts of works between us). Throughout John’s gospel, great emphasis is placed on these things as “signs” of who Jesus really is. But it’s even more wonderful that those who believe in him, by our proclamation and embodiment of the gospel, are able to minister eternal life to people, such that they will certainly be raised up on the last day. That, I think, is the impact of his statement in John 14:12. “I’m telling you the truth, if anyone believes in me, they’ll do the sorts of things I’ve been doing – miraculous healings, prophetic revelation, feeding the hungry and laying their lives down for others out of love – and they’ll even do the “greater things” I’ve been talking about, like bringing resurrection life to people who are dead to the Father and dead to me, so that they pass from judgment to life. My works have repaired people temporarily, and that ministry must and will continue amongst my followers, as signposts to my glory and my love for them. But when the Spirit comes, those who follow me will repair people eternally, by transferring them from death to life through faith in me. That’s even greater.”
Altogether, then, this Farewell Discourse of consolation to the inner circle really does become a word of consolation to us, facing different kinds of challenges and tragedies. But Jesus is not so much consoling us by setting out what the ultimate future will look like when he comes again and restores all things. In line with the rest of the Fourth Gospel, he is clear that that ultimate future has broken into the present because of his resurrection. The future home with God is found now in the present, as we take our place amongst the people of God and as he makes his home with us now, by the Spirit. And by the Spirit we will see great things happen, as the ‘eternal life’ of the future is manifest in us, as well as in those who come to believe because of what we share with them.
Join Ian and James as they discuss these issues in the weekly video: