We are studying John 14:1-14 for Sunday, July 26 – the famous and familiar opening of Jesus’s “farewell discourse,” a text we have probably heard read at funerals and memorial services many more times than once. [Here are some questions on the text.] Here are some notes on the text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The text is part of John’s gospel, or “the Fourth Gospel.” We might think of it as “one of four gospels,” but we all know it is remarkably different from the other three. John frames the story differently, with a cosmic prologue and mysterious, unique conclusion; tells Jesus’s story differently; has a different timeline, features mostly different events, puts LONG didactic speeches in Jesus’s mouth, and carefully arranges and repeats key symbols, in particular light and dark (and night and blindness and ignorance, vs. day and sight and knowledge). The text is a carefully-composed whole. According to the entry on John in the Jewish Annotated New Testament, John is both the most Jewish and the most anti-Jewish of the gospels, incorporating MANY references to Jewish practices, observances, the Second Temple, and drawing on Jewish symbolism and meanings; it also repeatedly and relentlessly refers to “the Jews” as Jesus’s antagonists.
[On this score, there’s a fascinating video interview online with Adele Reinhartz, whose book Cast Out of the Covenant, which deals specifically with this topic, is coming out in paperback in a week or so … if you have about an hour to devote to learning something about the gospel of John, and are willing to have to think about some profound and possibly disturbing questions about how to read the gospels. On Facebook Live. (Of special note to members of our class, Stewart Penwell and his dissertation will come up at around 25:30!)]
The question of the relationship of “the Jews” to Israel, Jesus, and Christians will matter for us, and for looking at and thinking about Sunday’s text, because of the way John 14:6 has functioned, and still functions, as the central proof text for Christian exclusivity. We will probably want to discuss that.
Historically, the received wisdom is that John’s gospel is the latest of the gospels to be written – somewhere in the interval 80-120 CE – and seems to reflect the consciousness and piety of a specific “Johannine community.” That community seems to be defined specifically in opposition to some existing religious community that doesn’t share the Johannine community’s perceptions and commitments, in particular about Jesus.
In the plot of the gospel, Jesus’s long “farewell” speech takes place on the night before Passover, at a meal, after he has washed the disciples’ feet and announced his betrayal. Judas has gone out into the night, and Jesus has articulated his new commandment and told the remaining disciples that where he is going they cannot follow now, but will follow afterward. That statement, Peter’s objection, and Jesus’s prediction of Peter’s denial, sets up Jesus’s opening statement in our text. The speech ends at the end of chapter 17 with a very long prayer for the disciples, and those who will believe in Jesus “through their word” (John 17:20). Then, the text moves on into the arrest and passion narrative. That makes this section Jesus’s final teaching moment for his disciples, and the philosophical and theological calm before the storm.
We ourselves probably have personal histories with this text. Mine, for instance, goes at least as far back as fourth grade, when this text was one of the longest ones on the memory work list at Sunday school. I remember being very puzzled about how mansions, which are bigger than ordinary houses, could be inside Jesus’s Father’s house. That’s a big house. The text’s pre-inclusive language King James accents of “no man cometh unto the Father but by me” would be indelibly etched on my memory even if it were not for my grandmother’s memorial service, and the comforting thought of one of those many mansions being a place she would really enjoy. This is aside from all of the heated arguments I have overheard about what this text clearly means must mean can only mean verily verily absolutely means about who can and can’t and will and won’t be saved. As well as the vivid memory of sitting in a class with Professor Kathryn Johnson when someone tried to start one of those arguments. She asked “What is the context of that verse? What question is Jesus answering there?” So we may need enough self-awareness on Sunday to deal with all our baggage.
This text comes up every three years in the lectionary, on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, so people are likely to have heard it interpreted from the pulpit, more background we might want to keep in mind.
CLOSER READING: Verse 2 uses two different words for “house,” oikia and monai; the first is common, and can mean a lot of things “house” means for us, in addition to an actual building: family, household, estate. The second is rare in the NT; it shows up twice, both times in this chapter. “Mansions” is poetic, evocative, and attractive, but the word doesn’t seem to be as precise as that; it could cover “rooms” or “dwellings” or “homes” (as it is translated in v23)!
There is a lot of repetitive language, especially of verbs, which gives the text a hypnotic quality. Jesus goes and goes and goes. The disciples know and know and do not know and will know and do know, and believe and believe and must believe and believe.
Verses 5-7 may intentionally play two distinct Greek words for knowing off against each other. Jesus says the disciples “know1 the way to the place where I am going.” This is the eidō kind of knowing, the kind we ourselves do when we “see what that means.” Thomas – in this gospel known mainly for his blunt willingness to name the elephant in the room – says in response to Jesus’s assertion that the disciples don’t know where he’s going, so they can’t have the power to know1 the way. Jesus comes back with verse 6, “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father if not through me,” and furthermore (verse 7) “if you had known2 me, you would also have known1 the Father. From now on you do know2 Him and have seen him.” The second kind of knowing is the ginoskō kind, the kind that includes various forms of immediate and personal knowledge, from “knowing” in “the Biblical sense” to “getting it” intuitively.
Is it a mistake to think word choice is likely to be on purpose, for some reason? I doubt it.
As verses 5-7 are a dialogue with Thomas, verses 8 and following are a dialogue with Philip, who takes up the theme of seeing the Father. Once again, the disciple identifies a lack – this time with a plea to “show us the Father.” Once again, Jesus invokes knowing2 him (Jesus) as the equivalent of having seen the Father.
Philip, and the others, would see or know this if they believed that “I am in the Father and the Father is in me,” a fundamental relationship Jesus mentions twice (verse 10, 11).
This mutual indwelling informs Jesus’s words, and works, which are the Father’s.
The mutual indwelling might also make us think again about what Jesus meant by the many mansions in his Father’s house back in verse 2.
The paradigm of mutual indwelling might also give us an idea about how Jesus will do things the disciples ask in Jesus’s name. Maybe in much the same way the Father does the Father’s works in or as the works Jesus does.
The text selection(s) for Sunday encourage us to compare Jesus’s speech in John 14 with Wisdom’s speech at the end of Proverbs 8 (32-36) and with the description of Wisdom’s ways as “ways of pleasantness; all her paths are peace” in Proverbs 3:17. The idea seems to be that Jesus’s self-description in John 14 shares some features with Wisdom’s self-description in Proverbs 8. And if we think of both texts as talking about “the word from on high,” whether that word is Torah or Christ, we may be inclined to agree with that comparison.