John 14:1-7 — an exegesis

May 19, 2008 at 9:35 am Leave a comment

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

The context of this pericope – its Sitz zim Leben – is a night-before-Passover eve meal shared among Jesus and his followers in an upper room following a sequence of events: those gathered with him have just witnessed his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and are aware – and probably fearful – of what his declaration as Messiah might entail. Jesus, who had himself been “troubled in spirit” as he contemplated betrayal (13:21), has scandalously washed their feet, announced that any one of them is about to betray him, warned them that where he is about to “go away” to they cannot go, and has singled out Peter as the one who will deny him. It is noteworthy, then, that Jesus would begin his Passover discourse by telling his disciples not to have or experience trouble in their collective heart (kardi÷a), for those reclining at the table had every reason to be agitated and on edge. The author’s use of tarasse÷sqw – to be stirred up, terrified or disturbed – must have been especially poignant to the first listeners; subsequent readers in early Christianity, aware of the remainder of the story: Jesus’ arrest, beatings, crucifixion and death, may have heard council to not be troubled during times of persecution. When Jesus later urges them against being fearful, the writer uses “troubled” (tarasse÷sqw) and “afraid” (deilia¿tw) in close proximity in verse 27 . The central message may be “whatever it is that is causing you to feel troubled or afraid in your hearts, do not let this undermine your believing.” On an extended level, they are addressed to those readers beyond the immediate experience and anticipate and answer the questions of concerned followers about what he is saying and what he means. Earlier in chapter 7 Jesus provoked similar questions from the Pharisees and the Priests: “Where does this man intend to go that we will not find him? What does he mean by saying, . . . ‘Where I am you cannot come’?”

The meta-narrative of John’s Gospel is also worth considering as an important background to receiving this pericope: Christian communities are in apparent conflict and debate with leaders of a local Jewish community who have expelled – or are threatening to banish – one or more Jewish-born Christians from the synagogue if they confess Jesus to be the Messiah.

Literary Analysis

The genre of “Farewell Speech” is a familiar rhetorical device throughout Hebrew scripture and is found in the speeches of Jacob to his children, Joshua to the Nation of Israel, and David to Israel. Each of these discourses share a common theme: a prominent person gathers his followers and gives them final instructions before either leaving or dying. These instructions almost always equip those about to be left behind to prepare to cope in the absence of the speaker. The most instructive comparison for Jesus’ “Farewell speech” in John 14, suggests Gail O’Day, may be that of Moses in Deuteronomy. As a literary device, she suggests, the writers and redactors of John evoke the traditions of Sinai and Moab in a re-presentation of Moses’ farewell speech. Deuteronomy, she writes, written centuries after Moses uttered the words, invited the readers of eighth- and seventh-century BCE Israel to “imagine themselves” on the plains of Moab. By using this widely known convention, the authors of Deuteronomy gave “Mosaic sanction” to their work. Similarly, the writers of John invoke the gravity of all previous farewell speeches, an easily recognized convention to first-century listeners, when they construct Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 14 in the form and style of Hebrew scripture.

Textual Analysis

The phrase “Believe into (ei˙ß) God” (v. 1) is an unusual Johannine idiom and difficult to parse into modern English. The verbs can be translated as either an imperative command – “You believe now!” (as in this very instance) or an indicative statement of fact – “You now believe” (as in you are presently in the habit and act of such belief.) The writer could have intended to evoke the idea of the value of trusting in God over believing in God. A paraphrase of the sentence encompassing both meanings might read “You are believing and trusting in God; now believe and trust in me.” It is this relational nuance in Jesus’ opening statements in his farewell discourse that suggest that the author may have has a specific characteristic of the relationships of ancient Mediterranean societies in mind. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh posit such a view when they suggest that:
Collectivist persons become embedded in one another. A unity and loyalty is involved that is extremely deep. Since personal identity in collectivist cultures is always the result of the groups in which one is embedded, that too is involved. John’s peculiar idiom [pisteu/ete ei˙ß to\n qeo\n] (the Greek tense used connotes ongoing or continuous action) suggests exactly this kind of long-term solidarity with Jesus.

This idea of collective relationship, this “embedding” of one nature in one another, may be further reflected in the author’s use of oi˙ki÷aˆ in all the richness of its semantic breadth: house, family unit, property, structural dwelling, and descendants. If she intended the meaning of “household” – as in a unit or a “community of people” the writer would be signifying a relationship between the people and God, who, in Jewish tradition lived in a high and heavenly place: YHWH is traditionally “seated on high” looking down on the earth from his throne in heaven. The semantic richness of oi˙ki÷a does not equate well with such a notion of “heaven.” The reference to the Father’s house (e˙n thØv oi˙ki÷aˆ touv patro/ß) needs to be read first in the context of a mutual indwelling of God and Jesus, a form of “residence” that has been repeatedly stressed from the opening verses of the Gospel, the mystical indwelling and incarnation of the lo/goß in the Fourth Gospel’s opening hymn of the Word. Throughout the Gospel, the writers use location consistently as a symbol for relationship. In doing so, they suggest that to know where Jesus is from is to know his relationship to God.

It is difficult, however, to know for certain what the writers meant, or for that matter what the first listeners heard. Certainly, for many contemporary readers, the notion of a community within a boundary-defined household is a compelling image. The writer may employ oi•kon here as “House of the Lord” to evoke ideas of the Jerusalem Temple (as used in 2:16), further suggesting an intimate, set-apart household and a poignant reminder of its destruction in the living memory of many first-readers. O’Day suggests that them Johannine author has Jesus uses this domestic language to infer “My return to God will make it possible for you to join in the relationship that the Father and I share.” Such an interpretation, then, does not imply that Jesus is preparing a section of physical property in a heavenly realm, but a place of relationship within a family – perhaps through adoption – and one just as close and as intimate as that of Jesus to the Father. The “place” (to/pon) Jesus goes to prepare in verse 3 would then suggest a familial position rather than physical place.

Jesus’ going away is here cast in positive terms. He is not going to leave his followers orphaned (14:18). He is going ahead in preparation for a time when he will come back and when the first listeners – and the subsequent readers – will be with him and his Father. The present break from the synagogue, the polarization of communities, must surely have heightened the way first-listeners and early readers would have responded to this “relational” language of community. As one scholar has pointed out , the community the writer of John is addressing is reflected in a sentiment from Isaiah 63:16: “For you are our father, though Abraham does not know us and Israel does not acknowledge us.” At a time when claiming Jesus as Messiah came at the price of being expelled from the synagogue, a dissolution of the faith-family and a discontinuity of traditional relationships and affiliations, Jesus’ words must have been poignantly moving.

Earlier in the week Jesus has said that “. . . where I am, there will my servant be also (12:26). Jesus makes it clear earlier in 7:34 that while his followers will search for him, they will not find him and that “. . . where I am, you cannot come.” This probably refers to his death and resurrection, not his ascension. He reiterates the notion of going ahead and alone in 8:21 and in 13:33: “where I am going, you cannot come.” In 13:36 the author of John has Jesus saying “Where I am going you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” The “where” of Jesus’ going may have been intended by the authors to demonstrate the relationship between Jesus and the Father rather than denote a physical destination, and serves as a further elaboration on Jesus as the “way” to get to the “where” and the “how” as a gate, more literally a door (qu/ra), in John 10:9: “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me shall be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture” (italics mine).

The writer employs “way” (oJdo/n) in verse 4 in relation to the “place” where he is going. The “way” might refer to a physical road or a path to facilitate a journey, or it might denote a non-physical way – a means – of getting to a destination. Earlier in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus inferred the mystical claim that he was a type of ladder upon which even the angels of God (implying that humans would do so as well) would ascend and descend upon (e˙pi)« the Son of Man , the vehicle or means of their travel. Verse six indicates that Jesus is in fact “the oJdo\ß” suggesting that if one knows the person of Jesus, one will intuitively know the “way” to being reunited with him whether that be through a physical path or spiritual means. The writers of John have Jesus declaring that his first-listeners knew what he meant by the phrase “the way” (14:4). Thomas’ question “How can we know the way?” is used as a rhetorical device for Jesus’ to expand his statement in which he asserts that he himself is the road, the truthfulness and the way towards (pro\ß) the Father.

The writers use of “I AM” in Jesus’ declaration evokes the name of God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14-15. The writer of John has Jesus use the “e˙gw» ei˙mi÷” phrase 10 times within the Gospel as a metaphor for himself: Bread (6:35, 41, 48, 6:51), Light (8:12, 9:5), Shepherd (10:11), Resurrection (11:25) and Vine (15:1). Jesus makes a further “I am” statement in 8:58 which many see as a declaration of pre-existence: “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” First century Christians and Jews familiar with the Old Testament would have had little difficulty in understanding this code-language of the Old Testament. This is not a Johannine invention, but a careful employment of a formula found in Jewish texts and familiar to Palestinian-Jews. Paul’s inclusion of an early Christians hymn in his letter to the Philippians, as an important example, speaks of God exalting Jesus by giving him “. . . the name that is above every name” after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The writer of John records Jesus claiming the Divine Name for himself during his lifetime: “. . . protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (italics mine). For modern readers, Dennis Bratcher concocts this lengthy paraphrase of the “I AM” code:
Before Abraham came into being, God was already at work in human history, and it is this same God that has worked throughout human history to reveal himself as a God of salvation, deliverance, and grace who stands before you now in Jesus the Christ.
The “I am” sayings of the Fourth Gospel define Jesus in terms of who he is in relation to God the Father, and what he does for humankind. A verse that speaks to this idea is obscured in the NRSV translation: “Jesus said , “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own.” It is quite clear in the Greek: “ to/te gnw¿sesqe o¢ti e˙gw¿ ei˙mi.” (Then you will come to recognize that I am.)

The Gospeller’s self-described purpose for writing is declared in 20: 31: that readers may come to “believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God”, and that through this believing readers may “have life in his name.” The same God who was at work through history with the Israelites, the writer construes, is then (and by extension now) again at work in human history through the life and work of Jesus Christ who “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him” (1:7). This is the type of believing the Johannine writer places in Jesus’ invitation to believe in him and God (14:1).

The Problematic of John 14:6b

Many scholars see that John 14:6 consists of two grammatically independent sentences. John Westminster finds 14:6b redactional, a mirror of “. . . the struggles of two Jewish communities who, in their attempts to establish and defend their own existences, spewed out invectives upon others . . . . Thus John 14:6b is a relic of the past. It is not the Word of God for our time.” John 14:6b, contends Westminster, is a reflection of interpretation that fosters “. . . Christian heresy, anti-Judaism and supercessionism.” Categorical statements like 14:6b, he argues, were probably designed to exclude claims being made by other Jews on behalf of Moses and the Law given through him as an independent “way” to God, i.e. as a way that attempts to get around Jesus. Fernando Segovia, in a study of how the text may have evolved over time, sees a semantic seam occurring at 14:6a and 6b marking “ongoing and developing messages to the [Jewish-born Christians].” The challenges between themselves and the local synagogue authorities over claims about Jesus, and the recent memory of breaking apart and walking separately from their former “mother” organization where they no longer experience welcome, surely find their root in Jesus’ claims to be not only the son of God but, in a radical reinterpretation of Monotheism, God himself incarnate.

Paraphrase of John 14:1-7

Don’t trouble yourself. I am going somewhere you cannot be, and the very purpose for me going is so that I can prepare a place where we can be reunited. Trust me. I will return, and I will bring you to be with me. But not now. Because of what I am about to do – where and why I am going – you can be assured of your place with me and each other when I come to bring you into relationship with God.

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