Our passage is taken from the “Farewell Discourse” of Jesus contained in five chapters of John (13:1-17:56). In other words, we have but a few verses which are an integral part of a much larger passage. Accordingly, the Discourse can be outlined in a number of ways, though three main parts are fairly clear:
- The first part (13:31-14:31) focuses on Jesus’ departure and discusses the disciples’ relation to Jesus and their conflict with the world.
- The second part (15:1-16:33) develops these same themes, moving from the relationship of Jesus to the disciples, using the figure of the vine and the branches (15:1-17), to the conflict between the disciples and the world (15:18-16:15), and on to a promise to the disciples of joy in the future after the sorrow of this time of separation (16:16-33).
- In the third major part Jesus prays to his Father (17:1-26).
Throughout, the overall theme is the Father’s presence with the disciples and the Son’s and Spirit’s roles in mediating his presence. As a way of establishing a context lets first consider a wider view of at least a portion of our passage by considering the text surrounding Jesus’ departure (13:31-14:31).
Once Judas has left the light (13:1), Jesus begins to speak to his own, his dearest friends. Various disciples — Peter, Thomas, Philip, Judas (not Iscariot, possibly Thaddeus) — carry the discussion forward by the questions they pose. This enables us to break down the whole, hopefully to see it more clearly, by dividing it according to the characters who ask the leading questions.
- The first section (13:31–35) is simply an introduction. Judas’ departure has set in motion the events of the passion. Jesus will be glorified, God will be glorified, since God’s presence as infinite love is about to be fully manifested in Jesus. Jesus will leave, and that absence (or is it presence?) is the problem underlying this whole section. As he leaves, he leaves behind his one essential commandment: “Love one another” (v. 34). It is a new commandment because this mutual love must be modeled on something new — on the love that Jesus shows for his disciples. Mutual love must be the sign, the indispensable sign, of their discipleship.
- Peter (13:36–14:4) moves the discussion further: “Master, where are you going?” (13:36). This appearance of Peter permits the evangelist to present a bit of tradition shared, seemingly, by the whole church, that Jesus predicted Peter’s denial (13:37–38). Yet, though Peter would deny his Lord, he would also follow him in death (v. 36).
In the subsequent verses (14:1–4), the basic problems that control the rest of the chapter are touched upon. The disciples are troubled (v. 1, as also v. 27) — and so later will be John’s own community — because of Jesus’ departure. In response, Jesus insists on the necessity of faith, stating that he goes to prepare a place for them and will return to take them with him (v. 3). This sounds very much like a promise of Jesus’ future return as visible Lord of the world (the technical term for this is the parousia = coming). The early church awaited this with fervent hope (1 Thess 4:16–18). But John’s Gospel will now reinterpret such a futuristic approach. Jesus has not passed over a bridge that was subsequently blown up; there is a way to him, and they already know it (v. 4).
- So Thomas (14:5–7) asks, “How can we know the way?” Jesus’ answer states that Christian hope is not in a method, not in a procedure, but in a person. Jesus himself is “the way and the truth and the life” (v. 6). Through and in Jesus, one comes to the Father, knows the Father, sees the Father.
- Philip (14:8–21) seizes on that final phrase to ask: “Master, show us the Father ….” (v. 8). One can hear the sigh of weariness, almost of failure, in Jesus’ voice: “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (v. 9). And the discussion continues, pointing to the perfect union of Jesus with the Father: both his words and his works are the Father’s (vv. 10–11). With this, Jesus turns his attention to the disciples. They, too, will do the works that Jesus has done because he will respond according to their petitions, so that God will be manifested in the Son. The disciples’ love will bring from the Father another Paraclete, the Spirit of truth, to remain with them always (v. 16). In this sense, Jesus will come back; they will not be left orphans (v. 18).
At this point, the reader’s head should be spinning a bit. What is going on? What seemed to be a statement of Jesus’ future return to take his disciples to places prepared for them (14:3), a movement carrying believers into some future and unknown paradise, has subtly turned around like a boomerang targeting in on the place from which it was originally launched. Jesus goes, but he returns; and the dwelling places he prepares, which seemed to be located out there somewhere (v. 2), will be found, rather, within the believers themselves (vv. 20–21). In some way, this return is connected with another Paraclete (cf. 1 John 2:1, where Jesus is called the first one) who takes Jesus’ place as both advocate and revealer.
It is this movement — Jesus’ departure and consequent return through the Paraclete — that explains the “little while” in verse 19. Just as the disciples see Jesus now, so they will soon know of his union with the Father, which union he will share with them. The disciples who love will be loved by both the Father and Son, who (through the Paraclete?) will reveal himself to them (v. 21). All they could have hoped for in the future will soon be now.
- This provokes the Judas (not Iscariot) sequence (14:22–31). How strange that Jesus should speak of all this Spirit return, indwelling, union with Father and disciples, when what Judas and the others were expecting was a visible return in majesty accompanied by a fearsome display of celestial fireworks. “Master, [then] what happened that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” (v. 22). Jesus’ answer almost avoids the question as it merely insists on what has already been proclaimed. He and the Father will come to those who love and will dwell with them (vv. 23–24). (This, for John, is the all-important coming, parousia, of the Lord.) This coming is directly related to the Paraclete whom the Father will send to instruct and to remind. John’s community is clearly a Paraclete community, confident that the Spirit, Jesus’ Spirit, is with them still, reminding them of, and interpreting, Jesus’ words, instructing them with the words and wisdom of the Lord. Surely this Gospel is filled with Paraclete reminders and instruction.
The fear and distress of people awaiting a delayed future return (vv. 1, 27) must give way in John’s community to the peace that is Christ’s gift, to the joy that is theirs at the knowledge that Jesus has returned to the Father who is his origin, “greater than I” (v. 28).