In today’s gospel we find Jesus with his apostles and disciples. It is a time that finds the followers of Jesus confused, worrying, and wondering what is unfolding? It the evening of Holy Thursday, the traitor Judas has left the scene to initiate the betrayal of Jesus and those who remain have just been told that Jesus is going,..and they’re not coming along. But they are not to worry because the Father in Heaven has prepared a house (mansion in the Kings James translation) that has many rooms. The New American translation says that “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” (Verse 2)
Verse 2 also has some translation options: “In my Father’s house [oikia] there are many dwelling places [monai].”Should oikia be translated “house,” i.e., a physical structure (as in 11:31 & 12:3); “household,” i.e., a community of people (as in 4:53 & 8:35)?; or even “family” – all of which are valid translations [EDNT 2:495]. Often people immediately think of the King James’ translation: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” – which immediately moves one thoughts and reference to heaven. Is this the intention of this passage?
If one is convinced that house [oikia] refers to heaven alone (v.2) then the prepare a place (v.2) and the where I am (v.3) refer to a place in heaven where Jesus is. The I will come back speaks to the parousia – although that is not a topic the Gospel speaks about elsewhere. But clearly oikia has other meanings: household, community, family. If one lends credence to those understandings, then the reference can be heaven and earthly life.
Some of this should sound familiar to those who would study the Gospel According to John. The encounter with Nicodemus (ch. 3) and the Samaritan Woman at the well (ch. 4) hinge of the ambiguity of words. And there is more. The same ambiguity exists with mone (singular). It means a “place where one may remain or dwell,” It can mean a physical structure – and often in secular use it refers to a transient or overnight lodging [TDNT 4:574] – rather than the fixed “mansions” of the KJ translation.
Then again, all the focus on the “where” might be a diversion from the more important element. Many argue that here in v.2 the context (because of v.3) lends itself to a permanent dwelling – but is it physical? The only other NT use of mone is John 14:23, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling [mone] with him.” The use there seems to imply an abiding relationship between people and God – and one in which the Father and the Son come to the human person!
This noun is related to the verb menō meaning “to remain, stay, await” [EDNT 2:407]. The verb occurs often in the Farewell Discourse (14:10, 17, 25; 15:4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 16) most often referring to the relationship between God and Jesus or God and us. Another reference with this meaning of menō is 8:35 (where oikia also occurs): “ A slave does not remain in a household forever, but a son always remains.” Do the words “remain” and “house” refer to a physical place or to a relational state? Our children remain our children forever, even though they may not be living in our house. The relationship remains even while the physical presence may not.
Fr. Raymond Brown (627) writes:
This special house or household where the son has a permanent dwelling place suggests a union with the Father reserved for Jesus the Son and for all those who are begotten as God’s children by the Spirit that Jesus gives. Thus there would be some precedent for reinterpreting “many dwelling places in my Father’s house” parabolically as possibilities for permanent union (mone/meno) with the Father in and through Jesus.
Why mention all this? Jewish traditions that identify the ‘Father’s house’ with a heavenly dwelling place clearly lie behind the imagery of v. 2a (e.g., Pss 2:4; 66:1; 113:5-6; 123:1; Is 66:1), but it is critical to the interpretation of Jesus’ words in this gospel that “my Father’s house” not be taken as a synonym for heaven. This needs to be read first in the context of the mutual indwelling of God and Jesus, a form of indwelling that has been repeatedly stressed from the opening verses of the Gospel (e.g., 1:1, 18). And that indwelling is the critical relationship for the disciples in the post-Resurrection era.