John 14:1-11, Way, Truth, Life
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast July 22, 2007
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction Good morning and welcome to the Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you. I drove 4 times to the mountains in 8 days this week. We went canoeing one day in West Jefferson, which was a lot of fun. Then I took Sarah to camp. On Tuesday I returned to camp to do a monolog as John Hus. I carefully avoided the fire. Then I had to pick Sarah up at camp. In the between times I finished my paper for the conference I’m attending in England. So, it was a busy week.
Farewell Discourse In our lesson for this week, we are turning our attention to the 14th chapter of John and a verse that has become very controversial in recent years. First, let me give you a little background to larger context of ch. 14. This is part of a long section of John’s Gospel commonly called the Farewell Address of Jesus. Some scholars limit the Farewell Address to ch. 14-16; others include ch. 13 and 17. Ch. 17 is actually a long prayer of Jesus. The old Moravians used to call this Jesus’ Last Will and Testament, and it does have some of that quality to it. This was his final summation of his ministry and his instructions for what the church should be. Here we read central aspects of Jesus teaching, but he is also promising an inheritance to his spiritual descendents. They will receive the Holy Spirit and eternal life if they fulfill the covenant Jesus has established.
If you have been following these lessons all year, it will come as no surprise that there are a host of interpretative problems in this section of John. Scholars have widely different opinions on how to handle these problems, some of which involve translation of the Greek text. Read it straight through yourself, and you will probably notice some of the difficulties. In verse 14:31, for instance, Jesus tells the disciples to get up because he is leaving, but then he talks for another three chapters. In all, he gets up to leave three times before he actually does. Now, this could be one of those honest historical details that show Jesus changing his mind like we all do. My family jokes that you have to tell my mother that you are leaving three or four times before you can actually leave. But most scholars think is more likely that 14:31 marked the end of Jesus’ farewell address in the original version of John’s Gospel. In other words, the other chapters were added later.
We also have the curious fact that Peter asks Jesus where he is going in 13:36, but three chapters later Jesus says that no one has asked him where he is going. If this was reported accurately, Peter was probably wondering why his question didn’t count – or whether Jesus had forgotten it. Again, it seems more reasonable to assume that ch. 16 was not originally in the Gospel and when it was added the editor did not change what had come before.
There are also some strange shifts in the tenses of the verbs in this Farewell Discourse. At times Jesus is speaking of the future as if it is already past. Keep in mind that these chapters were written for people who already knew Jesus had been resurrected. They were not taken down by a stenographer at the Last Supper. It is not surprising that many of these passages are read in church on the Sundays following Easter since they make most sense after Easter. Remember as well that John’s Gospel was written and edited by people who believed that Jesus was alive and still guiding the church.
There is a general consensus among scholars that the Farewell Discourse brings together at least two versions of Jesus’ last words to his disciples and includes a number of sayings that were given at other times in his ministry. It may even include teachings given after the resurrection. We do not have time to list all of the parallel passages, but many of the statements in ch. 14 can be found in slightly different form in the following chapters. There is lot of repetition in this section. It appears that the Farewell Discourse was stitched together from a number of sources, and we can still see some of the seams. That does not mean that this is not authentic material from Jesus. It simply means that the evangelist has assembled these materials into a single long discourse and intentionally included in the last supper because these teachings are the apex of Jesus’ ministry and the foundation of the church.
Keep in mind, however, that the different units in this long discourse were shaped by those who preserved them. In other words, we can trace some different theological perspectives that reflect the diverse ideas of the early Christian preachers and scholars who preserved these teachings. If we knew enough about the dating of the different units, we might even be able to discern the process of theological development in the church, particularly as the church moved away from apocalypticism.
Farewell Genre One thing is fairly certain. This Farewell Discourse is an example of a particular type of Jewish literature: the last words of a great man before his . Each of the major figures of the OT has such a scene: David, Elijah, the patriarchs. The entire book of Deuteronomy is one long farewell discourse by Moses, and it was probably the inspiration for this section of John’s Gospel. Moses summarizes the history of the Exodus, repeats the commandments of the Torah, and urges his followers not to be afraid as they go into the Promised Land without him.
Jesus does basically the same thing in John, except he tells his disciples that he is going ahead of them to prepare the way. This genre of farewell discourses or -bed pronounements was very popular in the period following the OT. Many Jewish apocryphal books, such as Enoch, Jubilees, and the Testament of the Patriarchs are farewell discourses. Such books are fictional, but they show us that Jewish scholars around the time of Jesus were comfortable writing about theological matters in this way. To what extend the author of John’s gospel put his theological reflections in the mouth of Jesus in this Farewell Discourse is impossible to determine. Keep in mind, though, that the author of John’s Gospel believed that the Holy Spirit was guiding him and the other disciples into deeper understandings of Jesus even after he had gone away.
Do not be Troubled: You may have recognized the opening verses from the funeral liturgy of many churches. This is an appropriate reading at the time of since it urges followers of Christ not to be too troubled by . Throughout the gospel, we have seen that faith is the antidote to fear, including the fear of . Three times Jesus’ own spirit was troubled in John, each time in a confrontation with . According to John, the admonition to not let your hearts be troubled was given by someone who had experienced this kind of inner turmoil and pain. This verse is a word of encouragement and consolation for those who are facing the reality of and grief. Having faith in Christ does not erase all of the pain, but it can help overcome the fear.
Dwellings The famous statement about there being many dwelling places in the Father’s house in verse 2 is very hard to translate. The key word could be translated as room rather than dwelling. The Greek word has its root in the word for remain, by way; thus, it is a place where you remain. Some of you may remember this verse in the KJV as speaking of many mansions, which has led to the belief that heaven is like Beverly Hills or Bermuda Run. In the 17th century, though, the word mansion simply meant a place to remain or stay. Regardless of how we translate this verse, the basic point is clear. There will be room for Jesus’ followers with the Father in eternity. This is the consolation. Jesus will be returning to the Father to prepare for a place for his followers. will be the path to greater life.
The Greek word translated as place here is tropos. There is an interesting bit of Moravian history related to this word. Zinzendorf argued that Jesus was preparing many places, not just one. There would be different dwellings for his disciples. This indicates that there will be pluralism in heaven. According to Zinzendorf, the different churches and nationalities will each have their own place or tropos in heaven with Christ.
This “tropus concept” was the basis of Zinzendorf’s controversial ecumenism. Moravians, Lutherans, Reformed, Anglicans, Mennonites, Catholics, Orthodox, and Coptic Christians all have a place in the house of the Father. This broad view of the church was attacked by many during Zinzendorf’s lifetime. One writer was horrified that Zinzendorf “maintained, that the Pope was not the Antichrist. He has sent a Deputation to the Patriarch of Constantinople, which has been very well received.” Based on John 14:2, Moravians believe that it is Christ who prepares a place for us with the Father, not the Pope, patriarch, or preacher.
Return of Christ: According to verse 3, Jesus promised that he would return and take his disciples with him to the Father so they may be with him forever. This is probably a very old statement since it implies that Jesus would be returning before the disciples died. There is evidence that many early Christians expected that Jesus would return soon from heaven. Maranatha, or Come Soon, Lord, was a prayer in the early church. Paul had to deal with the fact that Christians were dying before the return of Christ. This verse in John seems to support the view that Christ would return shortly to claim his followers, but we will read other statements in the Farewell Discourse that indicate believers are already united with Christ and the Father without the need for a Second Coming. It is possible that this statement in 14:3 does not refer to a literal return of Christ but to his coming in spirit to dwell with all believers.
What Way? Clearly, the disciples were just as confused by these sayings of Jesus as we are today. Thomas challenges what Jesus has said by pointing out that the disciples did not know where Jesus was going. It is possible that Thomas has made the mistake of literalism and assumes that Jesus is talking about going for a trip. But it is also possible that Thomas knows that Jesus is speaking of his journey back to the Father, but is reminding the teacher that there are lessons yet to be taught. Thomas is the most inquisitive and honest of the disciples in John’s gospel, and his question provides the opportunity for one of the core teachings of the book.
John 14:6 has been the topic of much controversy in recent years in most churches. For many Christians, Jesus’ statement that “no one comes to the Father except through me” is the trump card in the debate about other religions. Some people have even gone so far as to assert that unless you believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation, then you yourself cannot be saved even if you have faith in Jesus. The debate has been acrimonious in many churches, particularly since 9/11. At times it has even been played out in the local paper as Moravians have discussed this issue.
As with all things in Scripture, we need to read John 14:6 in context and pay close attention to what it says and doesn’t say. I think it is important that this statement was given for Jesus’ disciples, not to the crowds in Jerusalem. This was a teaching for those who have already dedicated their lives to Jesus, who listened to his teaching, who have been taught to humble themselves in service. This was a teaching given at the Last Supper before Jesus was crucified. We should not read this as an abstract philosophical point given to the world at large. Jesus is reassuring his disciples that they will not get lost on their journey to the Father because they know him and are following his way. They will indeed come to the Father through him.
This statement was also a direct response to a question by Thomas. How can we know the way? Jesus answered that he is the way. This sums up much of the teaching of all four gospels and is the high point of John’s Gospel. How do we know what the Lord requires of us, the prophet Micah asked? John’s Gospel responds: by following the way of Jesus. He is the revelation of the Logos, the word of God in human form. We set up systems of sacraments or five-points of salvation, but the Gospel of John challenges us simply to follow the path of Jesus.
Think back on what we have learned in the gospel about the way of Jesus. This is the man who celebrated a marriage by turning ordinary water into abundant wine. This is the man who challenged the injustice and chaos of the Temple, who redefined devotion to God as devotion to truth. This is the man who took meager resources and fed the multitude, who enabled the blind to see, who brought life out of a situation where everyone else saw . The way of Jesus is the way of abundant love and selfless giving. This is God’s revelation in Christ. This is the path to the Father.
Truth and Life: Jesus said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.” There are many ways to interpret this. The Greek fathers believed that this meant that the way of truth leads to life. Other ancient theologians believed that Jesus is the way to both truth and life. There is much for us to meditate on in these words, but our time is short today. I want to emphasize that no matter how we interpret the way and the truth and the life, we should agree that the way of Jesus can never be the way of deception, lies, and . Our place in the Father’s house is not prepared through dishonesty or threats of . This is a lesson that the church has had trouble learning through the years, but John’s Gospel makes it clear that the way of Jesus is a way of truth, a way that brings life.
Conclusion There is evidence in the NT that early Christians called themselves “followers of the Way,” similar to the Essenes at Qumran who had called themselves “The Way.” This highlights the fact that Christianity did not begin as a set of metaphysical propositions or a systematic theology; it was a way of life. The teachings and example of Jesus were to help people on their pilgrimage through this world so that they could find the place prepared for them with the Father. The church is constantly in danger of losing this sense that the Way is a journey that leads to truth and eternal life.
The 14th chapter of John was not written to help modern Christians self-righteously condemn other religions (or other Christians); it was written to reassure the followers of Jesus that his way leads to the Father. His was not a tragedy that invalidated the good he said and did; it was part of the journey of salvation. He returned to the Father and showed us the path to follow. That path is loving service and life- , not condemnation of others. We are not going to solve the theological problem of other religions today. It is more complicated than you might realize, but I think at a minimum we must avoid the sin of claiming for ourselves the role of God. We are not the ones who determine who is saved. That authority belongs only to God, our judge. John’s Gospel tells us to focus on following the Way of Christ as disciples of Christ. That is challenge enough for a life-time. We can certainly proclaim the love of God in Christ and tell the world that Christ who opens the way to the Father. We can celebrate our conviction that it is Christ who prepares places for all us in the Father’s house.