Every reader of the Bible, casual or serious though they may be, seems to have a favorite passage. To many it is the 23rd Psalm. Although John 3:16 is one of the most often quoted, I would venture to say that fewer would call it a favorite passage than would quote it. Others, when asked what their favorite passage would be, might answer that it depends on the day, or even the hour. Their favorite depends often on their mood or circumstances. I have long considered the first part of John 14 to be one of my favorites. I even risked my teaching career, short-lived as it turned out to be, before it even started by doing an interpretive reading of that passage before a speech class I was student teaching.
We don’t always know exactly why a passage resonates with us. I think, though, that I like this passage for the promises Jesus gives us in it, and the hope. I wish, therefore, to look at the passage in detail, and show why so many people have taken comfort and hope in it.
Let not your hearts be troubled
Jesus begins what will be his final discourse with what some interpret as comfort and others as a command. “Let not your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.”
It is not uncommon for Jesus to tell his followers not to worry. Anxiety seems to be the antithesis of Jesus' teachings.
“Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matt 6:34)
“And he [Jesus] arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?” (Mk 4:39-40)
His disciples continued these thoughts. Listen to the words of Paul.
“Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.” (Php 4:6)
Some people would say that the opposite of faith is unbelief. This is not entirely true. Jesus says the opposite of faith is worry. The reason for worry is a lack of faith. The reason he gave his apostles for them not to be troubled here in John 14 was, “you believe in God.” If you believe in God, and subsequently in Jesus, you have no reason to worry. “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31)
Faith/trust is possible because “my father is bigger than your father.” Worry is an indication that, at least for a moment, we have stopped believing that. We stop believing in the ability of Jesus to walk on water, to heal the sick, or to come out of the grave. At the time Jesus said this he had not yet revealed the power of resurrection. However, that would soon be evident to the apostles. Within days of this command not to be troubled in heart, he proved why he could ask it of his followers.
Because the Greek language generally does not use as much punctuation as English, there are two common translations of the next section of John 14. I am not thoroughly convinced that it makes a big difference which version you prefer, but I present them both here.
In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. (KJV)
In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you. And when I go and prepare a place for you I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (RSV)
The first thing Jesus says here is a matter of comfort to many. If many others believed it, it would be a matter of concern. He says his father’s house has many rooms/mansions/dwelling places. The word he uses to describe the dwellings is the same word Paul uses to tell us that the Holy Spirit dwells within us.
In the medical and hospitality industries, the number of beds is an important statistic. Hospitals are rated by the number of beds. Hotels may advertise the number of beds or the number of rooms. In fact, the more rooms a hotel has, the higher the room rate we generally let them get away with. Jesus says that God’s hospital is a many-bed facility. His hotel has enough rooms for everyone who may check in; there is never a “no vacancy” sign.
Occasionally somebody plans a big event, such as a wedding. When there are a lot of out-of-town guests they have to worry about housing them all. If someone decides at the last minute to attend they may worry that there will not be housing. Jesus says we don’t need to worry about that. His Father has a large enough house for everyone.
There are groups that say that heaven will house 144,000 souls, and the rest of us will live on a new earth. If that were true, I would worry about whether the number for heaven was filled up a few hundred years ago. After all, I would rather be in the group that lives close to God, rather than those who don’t. Jesus says I don’t need to worry about that. Even a latecomer will find room in God’s house. Moreover, if someone decides at the last minute of life that they want to go there, there is room.
Whichever of the two translations you accept, the next point is that we can trust what Jesus says, and he said that as surely as that he was going, he would come again for his followers. Just as God is trustworthy, Jesus could be believed. Whichever thing he was talking about, the fact of the abode or the fact of his going, if it were not so, Jesus would have told us the truth.
As comforting as the fact of a place of abode may be, that is meaningless without two other facts. Jesus will go, and he will come again.
There could be all possible room for us in heaven, but if Jesus had not gone to prepare a way then it would be as empty as a ski lodge in summer. When Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place,” the word generally translated “go” has a very specific meaning. Instead of just meaning “to go” it carried the idea of completing a mission, and usually meant departing this life. The literal meaning is to lead over. So here Jesus is predicting his death in a couple of days. More importantly, he is saying that his death, as a sacrifice for sin, will open the way for us to go where he is going. Because he was going to die, we could live. Because he was going to lead the way, we could follow him home
Jesus was going to God. The way there was through death. The way for us to follow Jesus to God is through the likeness of his death.
Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection. (Rom 6:3-5)
Not only would he die, he would come again. He will come again to judge the world. What he may have been telling his apostles, though, was that he would not only die, but rise from the dead. Just as his death gave us the forgiveness of sins so that we can be with God, so also his resurrection lets us know that we may live again. “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.” (1 Cor 15:17)
You know the way
“And you know where I am going, and you know the way there.”
Thomas spoke for most of us in answer to this statement. “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Like many of us, Thomas was confused. He thought in concrete terms. If you are going somewhere, we can’t know where unless you tell us.
The word for “go” in this verse is different from the one in the previous verse. Where that meant to lead over, this time it means to lead under, or simply depart. Now he is not talking about how he was to go, but is emphasizing the path. After his talk of death, this was confusing to Thomas.
Jesus said they knew the way, because he was the way. If you don’t know Jesus, you don’t know the way to God. It is that simple. He continued, “No man comes to the Father but by me.” That is pretty specific. No man means nobody. There are not many paths to God. There is only one. If that is narrow-minded, then I am glad to be narrow-minded, because God is.
Jesus offered his disciples comfort. Comfort is a place to come home to. Comfort is a friend to open the door. Comfort is a well-traveled path to the door. Jesus offered, and offers all these. No wonder he said, “Let not your heart be troubled.”