Summary: An exegetical paper on John 14, encouraging a balanced view of experience and evidence in evaluating one’s walk with Christ, especially as it regards the work of the Holy Spirit.
“Past Presence and Future:
Jesus’ Assurances in the Face of
His Disciples’ Anxieties in John 14”
In this passage the two most familiar verses (14:6 and 14:12) have often obscured the context, the flow and the purpose of Jesus’ address to His disciples’ concerns. The theological banner most often hung from14:6 asserts the exclusivity of the Gospel Message (“No one comes to the Father but through Me.”) upon what Jesus includes as a parenthetical aside from His main response (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”) to Thomas’ concern in 14:5. At least the controversy over Jesus’ words in 14:12 (“Greater works than these he will do.”) comprises a distinct and important element of Jesus’ teaching in its context.
Therefore, this passage demands careful consideration as a whole in light of Christians’ tendency today to ascribe disproportionately greater importance to one secondary clause (14:6b), and to buttress their lack of obedience to Jesus’ clear expectations in 14:12 with presumed uncertainty about the nature of such “greater works.” The conclusion often seems to be that since Christians question how such works could be “greater” than those done through Jesus, so long as one’s salvation is received (as only through Jesus), The Church may then excuse with impunity the absence of any such works as He and His disciples did.
This paper is presented in hopes of clarifying and correcting this perception.
Basic Socio-Historical Contexts of John’s Gospel
The author of this Gospel is almost certainly John, the beloved, one of Jesus’ inner-circle of three among the twelve apostles, the closer, more intensely discipled group within the larger corps of disciples. He would, then, be the brother of James, thus the son of Zebedee, also referred to with James as “Sons of Thunder” for their aggressive ambition and (perhaps) fiery temperament, according to Green, McKnight and Marshall.
Some have undertaken a wide-ranging search for John’s intended audience, seeking to interpret it by application to specific communities. Most notably, Rudolf Bultmann’s studies in the Fourth Gospel address Gnostic concepts evident in Mandaean and Manichaen myths, despite those being traced to documentation only after the Seventh Century A.D., and certainly existing no earlier than the late Second Century A.D. As deSilva points out in contrast to all such suppositions, “We are almost entirely dependent on the text of the Gospel itself for indications of the life circumstances and burning questions of those it was addressed to.”
The key issue in those life circumstances is proclaimed by John in the purpose statement for his gospel: “Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:30-31). John’s overall themes and structure repeatedly echo the imperative found in Jesus’ words at 14:1, “Believe in God; Believe also in Me.”
Chronologically, the place of 14:1-31 within John’s Gospel seems clear from the immediate contexts. Although the discourse may have taken place entirely in the Upper Room or in transit from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane, its position as the immediate precursor to Jesus’ arrest, trials and crucifixion clearly influences the subjects Jesus addresses with His disciples. But when one looks beyond the immediate context and begins to consider the structural and thematic assembly of this Gospel, Carson’s comments give great comfort when he says, “Like many other facets of the Gospel of John, its basic structure seems fairly simple until one starts to think about it.” Despite the assurances of Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman that “John imposes a strict and orderly framework on his narrative,” deSilva’s assessment resonates more genuinely when he says, “probing the setting and purpose of the Fourth Gospel is a shadowy venture,” and “This has become even more shadowy in the light of recent suggestions that limiting a Gospel’s audience to a small circle of readers whose exact circumstances can be identified is based on a flawed model of how the Gospels were written and disseminated.” Therefore, one may find a better perspective to be gained by considering 14:1-31 as situated among John’s intertwined themes.
In John 14 the author interweaves two of Painter’s seven identified themes, one a Revelation Theme (a category comprised of Origin, Light and Life, Festivals, and Truth and Witness), the other a Response Theme (comprised of Seeing/Believing/Knowing, Signs, and The Dark Side). Jesus’ return to the Father is an element of His Origins, a Revelation Theme focusing on Jesus’ identity. He portrays Himself, though, equal to the Father in order to elicit a definite Response from His disciples. His emphasis on Seeing/Knowing/Believing is evident in 14:7-15, but clearly continues beyond, as He expresses in 14:17 that the world cannot know the Holy Spirit because it does not see the Holy Spirit.