Do not let your hearts be troubled

This coming Sunday is the 5th Sunday of Easter in Lectionary Cycle A. In yesterday’s post we introduced the idea of a farewell discourse and its biblical legacy. Today, we begin to consider the opening words of the gospel: “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (14:1). These same words will be repeated in v.27 when Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will accompany them after Jesus returns to the Father.

Though deeply troubled by the prospect of his own betrayal and crucifixion, Jesus concerned himself with his disciples’ distress. He said to them, Do not let your hearts be troubled [tarassō]. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. Their faith in God, and in particular their faith in Jesus, would enable them to calm their hearts as they faced what lay ahead. There are some scholars who argue that the expression in the Greek is in the imperative, something we would more naturally translate as “Stop being troubled.” It seems that in either case Jesus is not talking to trouble-free people and telling them not to begin to worry. Jesus knows he is talking to people whose hearts are far from serene.

On a technical note, there is a bit of linguistic confusion surrounding “Do not let your hearts be troubled” because in the Greek “your” is plural, but “heart” is singular.  Some translations (NSRV and ours) eliminate the problem and translate the noun as “hearts.”  The odd Greek phrasing has led some commentators to speculate if John has in mind a “corporate heart” indicating a strong unity of the believing community.

Yet that advice is not one that Jesus has always taken for himself. In John 11:33 (taraxen); 12:27 (tetarakthē); and 13:21 (eterachthē) we are told that Jesus is troubled (from the same root tarassō; shaken, moved).   If at times Jesus had a troubled “soul” or “spirit,” how would we expect not to have troubled hearts? The answer has not been clear to Christians of every age.  Perhaps our faith is weaker than we think; or doubts greater – because what we do know is that from time to time our hearts are troubled. Although the language could be more explicit, the context seems to lend itself to an understanding that the issue is that one can focus on the cause and source of what troubles you, or one can focus on the reason for trust that it will all work out. “Sure, you’re troubled, but remain calm.”

If we look at the three instances when Jesus was “troubled,” it has been noted that in each instance Jesus is confronted by the power of death. On our best days, we, who live on this side of the Resurrection, are comforted by the witness of Jesus’ resurrection. We know that ultimately death has no power over the believer. As the poet John Dunne wrote: “Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty, thou art not so….one short sleep past and we wake eternally. And death, poor death, thou shalt die.”  Death may well trouble us on any given day, but on the many other days Jesus’ words remind us that he is with us even when we are shaken, moved or troubled – so remain calm.

Believe into God. The second part of v.1 is actually quite difficult to translate for a number of reasons. The verb root pisteuō can be translated validly as “believe” or “trust” or “have faith” [EDNT 3:91].  But, the tense of the verb form used, pisteuete, is not clear – it could be indicative (present tense) or imperative (command like).  Given that the verb is used twice in the verse, one is left to ask, which verb tense did the author intend. Or is there a mixing of the tenses?  Opting for the root translation of “trust,” which of the four alternatives makes sense to you?

  1. “trust in God, trust also in me”, imperative, imperative
  2. “you trust in God, trust also in me”, indicative, imperative
  3. “you trust in God, you also trust in me”, or indicative, indicative
  4. “trust in God, you also trust in me” imperative, indicative

Perhaps interestingly (perhaps not), two Catholic translations (NAB and NJB) opt for alternative (2); while three popular Reformed translations (NSRV, NIV, ESV) opt for alternative (1).  In a context where Jesus was urging his disciples not to let their hearts be troubled, any translation [(1) or (2)] which urges them to maintain their trust in Jesus is most appropriate. It does not matter much whether that is prefaced with an exhortation to trust God or with a reminder that they did trust God.

But interestingly, none of the above translations opt to translate eis as “into.” The word eis always carries the sense of movement in or toward, and thus older translations often had the unique Johannine phrase, “believe into me.” Malina and Rohrbaugh (230) note: “John’s peculiar way of phrasing it – believing ‘into’ Jesus – connotes being completely embedded in the group of which he is the central personage.” Earlier, (130, commenting on 6:28-29) they had written more about this concept:

Believing “into” is a characteristic Johannine idiom. Many commentators have pointed out that this construction implies trust rather than simple intellectual assent. Given the collectivist character of the relationships in ancient Mediterranean societies, however, even more is implied. Collectivist persons become embedded in one another. A unity and loyalty is involved that is extremely deep. Since personal identity in collectivist cultures is always the result of the groups in which one is embedded, that too is involved. John’s peculiar idiom (the Greek tense used connotes ongoing or continuous action) suggests exactly this kind of long-term solidarity with Jesus.

There is something to this idea – which is perhaps why the Apostles and Nicene Creeds were written “we believe” as opposed to “I believe.” (At this point some might be thinking, “then why does the current Roman Missal use “I believe.” The short answer is that in the liturgical setting of the Mass, the Creed’s use is an affirmation of one’s baptismal vows and thus is appropriate to change the original text to the first person singular. But when witnessing the original context of the Creed’s formulation, “we believe” remains the appropriate language.)

Image credit: Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255–1319), “Jesus taking leave of his Apostles,” ca. 1310 | Panel 4 of the Maestro, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena | Public Domain

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