In our exploration of Jesus’ last words, we are now moving into some words of Jesus which the Church has leveraged as a polemic against the culture. Church history is almost entirely built upon a tribal “conversion strategy” which ironically, is not in the same zip code as the missionary work of Paul and the early church, (which you can access HERE). This conversion strategy was codified when the Church became the propaganda arm of the State under Constantine in 313 CE. Since then it has taken many forms but has evolved into Evangelical Christianity today.
This is an important point of clarification, because unless we are able to extract Jesus words from our modern framework, we cannot successfully interpret them in the context in which they were given. My goal in this study is to strip all the shellack off of these words so that we can hear them again for the very first time. I know that for some of you listening this is an uncomfortable deconstruction process, but hang in there, as I believe it will allow us to place our faith back into it’s rightful Center.
After Jesus revealed he would be betrayed and that he would be leaving the disciples he gave them these words:
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 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 if 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. And you know the way to where I am going. Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:1-5)
The ESV translation (above) is one of the better word for word versions of this passage, but even it varies from the Greek direct translation which I think holds some vital nuances:
“Let not your inner self be distressed believe in God believe also in Me in the house of my Father there are many rooms and if not would I have said to you that I am going to prepare place for you; and when I go indeed I will prepare place for you I come again and I will take you along to Myself so that where I am also you may be indeed where I’ll go you know the way. Thomas says to him Lord we do not know where you go how can we know the way?”
Remember, the Greek has no indefinite articles, punctuation and many of the words have multiple definitions. Thus the goal of translating is never a straightforward process. I like translations that seek fidelity to the word for word rather than those translations (Message) that try and capture the “thought.” Weak translations lead to weak theologies and weak faith.
Before we unpack this, let me ask you a few questions:
- Is Jesus depicting Heaven as it is depicted in the modern evangelical narrative? Or in Hollywood?
- What does Jesus mean when he tells the disciples that they “know the way” to where his is going?
- What is the main thrust of this passage? Would you agree that he saying, “Don’t be sad, I’m leaving.”
- Is he not a bit cryptic? Is he saying that after he dies, he will return to divine union or the dwelling place of God the Father, from where he came?
- Secondarily, would you agree that he is saying he is making a similar place in this dwelling and coming back to take the disciples back to be with him in the Father’s dwelling.
If we double click into this passage we can see the ontological centerpiece of what he is saying. First off, he is appealing to the “inner self” or “kardia” (v.1). He is establishing first the fact that dying is not the end, it is not stopping and it is not the end of his kingdom nor his work. Theologically, the true self, the inner self, is the eternal, lasting self that is made in Gods image, that has existed with God from the foundations of all existence.
Jesus is opening up the disciples minds to a reality that their religion hadn’t fully considered. At best, they believed in Sheol (resting place of the dead) where they would be “gathered to their fathers” but never have they considered eternally dwelling in divine union with Yahweh as part of His very Being. To be fair it’s a hard thing to consider, thus Jesus exhorts them to “Believe in God, believe also in me.”
(As a side note, this differentiates the Christian faith from Eastern traditions where death is seen as a drop of water joining an ocean. In Eastern traditions, that means the end of the “drop”.) By contrast, this is telling us that we each maintain our unique ontological identity as distinct, yet within God. “My Father’s house has many rooms.” The abiding place of God cannot be completely other than himself. Thus the Presence of God is the abiding place of God. Jesus is about to really build on this theme in the coming verses within this chapter. Christ is “with the Father” or “in the Father” and his admonishment to the disciples is that they will be with Christ, in the Father and that he is ensuring that by making a place, providing each their own dwelling in God.
Our Ontological center can only be in God. This is why John Calvin, in his institutes, taught that the search for God and the search for ones self are indistinguishable. Every search for ones self is ultimately a Theological pursuit, even if we fail to recognize it at first. To not know God is to not know ones self.
Jesus clearly knows he will be killed at the hands of Religion and State. He knows it’s unavoidable, and he knows that it isn’t the end, but that it is a doorway through which union with his spiritual Father is not limited by the constraints of human flesh. When Jesus tells his disciples that “they know the way…” he is referring to the fact that they know they will also have to die to follow him. In going where he is going, we likewise must experience this physical decline and death, but the promise is that this is not our end either. Interestingly, there is mass agreement among people that life goes on after death.
This Spiritual union is inclusive, “many rooms” (monai pollai) the nominative sense means this is a present, ongoing, active adjective describing the dwelling of God. Still no discussion of Heaven as Church history, Hollywood, or poets have described it. While divine union is clearly Heaven, what is described here is the naked essential reality. Divine union is Ultimate Reality, not what is seen or experienced here on earth. Yet this is accessible here and now, just not fully or perfectly experienced.
Today we’ve seen how the first five verses of this passage set up Thomas’s question to Jesus: “How can we know the way to where you are going?” If we miss this vital set up, we will follow church history along one of it’s greatest and most long-standing misinterpretations of scripture.