BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is our last in a series of lessons from John’s gospel, with all its unique characteristics [as we’ve previously noted].
These particular verses are embedded in a long section of the gospel often known as the Upper Room Discourse, variously described as John 13-16 or John 13-17. The whole section constitutes Jesus’ farewell discourse to the disciples. This section includes Jesus’ act of washing the disciples feet, his articulation of the “new commandment” to “love one another as I have loved you,” his provision of a perfect text to read at Christian funerals, his last I AM statement, and a lot about the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit – which begins in our text.
John’s passion narrative begins in chapter 18.
So, within the narrative, we are reading part of a long lecture Jesus is addressing to the disciples on his last chance to prepare them for what’s about to happen – and to some extent, also beyond.
From outside the narrative, we have a long, integrated presentation of theology, that keeps circling back to the activity of the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit, in Jesus’ own words. (Specific references to the Spirit show up in John 14:15-17, John 14:25-27, John 15:26-27, John 16:7-15, and arguably, John 17:17-19 as an implicit reference.)
Portions of the discourse are featured in the Revised Common Lectionary, on the Sixth Sunday of Easter (A), Sixth Sunday of Easter (C), and as the Gospel selection for the Day of Pentecost (C). Between all those, a regular churchgoer could have heard this entire text in church, with the exception of verse 22:
Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?”
That seems like an important preamble, though, to the next verses (23-24, and following), which presumably shed some light on the nature of revelation:
Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words, and the word that you hear is not mine but is from the Father who sent me.”
This might remind us of the famous slogan “I believe so that I may understand.”
Also, it seems, I do so that I may understand – Jesus seems to be saying in verse 23 that practice – keeping the word – will lead to intimate familiarity with Jesus and the Father. That, in turn, sounds like it points to the Orthodox Christian notion of theosis, and to the relationship of the risen Christ to the practical life of the Christian, the preoccupying question of the early church [For which, see Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity.]
CLOSER READING: This whole text is direct speech by Jesus, with the exception of v22 – direct speech by Judas (not Iscariot). Jesus presumably answers Judas’ question, beginning in v23, and doesn’t stop speaking again until 16:29-30.
Verse 15 starts off with a conditional that points back to Jesus’ new commandment in 13:34, the meaning of which was illustrated in his object lesson of washing the disciples’ feet.
Love is a major theme here. Some form of the verb “to love” (agapē) occurs nine times in these verses. Four of those in verse 21. Love is closely linked to keeping Jesus’ commandments or word, to divine love, and to revelation, by means of divine abiding with those who love Jesus and keep his commandments. Recalling that Jesus’ most recent commandment is to love, this probably pushes us to meditate on the relationship between loving [other people] and experiencing the love and loving presence of the divine.
[If that’s correct, then the Paraclete – Spirit might look here like the effective agent of the loving activity, that creates the loving environment, that characterizes the relationship of Jesus with the Father, and the relationship of Jesus, the Father, and the disciples. This all could be something to meditate on.]
On Jesus’ part, he will ask the Father to send the Paraclete – “advocate,” “comforter,” also a technical term for a legal advocate or supportive witness, with the connotation of intercessor. That is, the role of the Paraclete seems to include activity on behalf of people, as well as activity that works to enlighten people.
In v17, the Paraclete is described or identified as “the spirit of truth.” The spirit’s truthful constitution may be the main reason the world cannot receive, see, or know the spirit. Or, the spirit may be inaccessible to the world for other reasons. Either way, the world is deprived of this spirit of truth. This does not speak well for the veracity or reliability of the world!
In v18, Jesus promises “I will not leave (future tense) you orphan (adj).” We might read that “orphan” or “orphaned” as “alone,” or “without parents,” or “without support.” And also, “I am coming/come (present tense) to you.” That specific arrangement of tenses might be significant, or we might think “coming” is implicitly a future oriented verb. We use it both ways in English. Something else to ponder.
In v19, Jesus life is the condition for the disciples’ living.
In v20, the fulfillment of that condition will reveal the mutual interconnection of Father and Jesus, and of the disciples. Suggesting that the mutual interconnection itself is implicated in this [loving] form of life.
It is probably no coincidence that the explosion of love in v21 comes next. Also no coincidence that this explosion of love is explicitly linked to revelation, which prompts Judas to ask his question about how this private – that is, to the disciples but not to the world – revelation is going to work. And no coincidence that Judas’ question prompts Jesus in v23 to emphasize once again that the keeping of Jesus’ word and the relationship to love of that keeping and the way that all permits divine home-making in the disciples.
In v27, we might want to ask ourselves how the world gives – which is not how Jesus gives. Peace makes its first appearance. Something else the world cannot give.
In v28, because Jesus is going and coming, Jesus’ going to the Father may be linked to Jesus’ coming to the disciples. That coming may contribute, or perhaps should contribute, to the disciples rejoicing that Jesus is going to the Father. The rejoicing comes from love for Jesus, but it may also come from Jesus’ then coming with the Father to the disciples. That might help explain the “because the Father is greater” clause in that verse. Going to the Father is greater for Jesus, AND for the disciples, ultimately.
Overall, these seem particularly like verses to meditate on – that is, to hold in mind, turn over and over, and let sink into consciousness in search of echoes in life.
We believe, and do, in order to understand.