Questions and Misunderstandings—John 14:1-31

Studies in John’s Gospel—Bible study lesson 35

by Reta Halteman Finger

Modern Mosaic of Jesus
Modern Mosaic of Jesus, made by a Sicilian artist, in byzantine style.

In the days when people memorized scripture, John 14:1-14 was surely among the most familiar texts in the Bible. As a teenager, I found comfort in the reassuring words of “do not let your hearts be troubled…”

This fourteenth chapter of John is part of a larger context that includes chapters 13 through 17. The setting is an ancient Mediterranean-style symposium. A selected group of people gather for a formal meal, followed by a discussion on a topic led by the chief guest. John refers to the supper (13:2), but omits the actual meal because he has already discussed Jesus’s body as bread and wine in chapter 6. Instead, he includes the foot-washing ceremony (John 13:3-20).

Jesus’s last will and testament

At this event, Jesus is the chief guest, and the symposium topic is his farewell address to his closest friends. Here a calm, unruffled Jesus uses figurative, euphemistic language to prepare his disciples for the events ahead. Rather than his harsh predictions of a dishonorable and excruciating death as in Mark 10:33-34, Jesus in this account is simply “going to prepare a place for you”! (Jn 14:2). Jesus’s agonizing struggle and shrinking from death in Gethsemane (Mk 14:32-42; Mt 26:36-46; Lk 22:39-46) is replaced with his soothing “last will and testament,” full of promises of a magnificent inheritance for those who abide in him. Many commentators assume this longer discourse was composed to address the concerns of the later Johannine believers, perhaps after their group had been cast out of the synagogue life of the larger Jewish community. As we continue reading this symposium in later lessons, we can further test this hypothesis. Certainly many persecuted Christian communities throughout history have found solace in chapters 13–17 of this fourth Gospel.

Wall painting of an early Christian agape meal.
Wall painting of an early Christian agape meal in the catacomb of Saint Callisto, Rome, Italy

 Misunderstandings then and now

Throughout this chapter, we see a repetition of a technique used throughout John’s Gospel: statement—misunderstanding—clarification. Jesus makes a statement, a dialogue partner misunderstands, and Jesus clarifies. However, since these questioners in John 14 are insiders rather than outside challengers, there are no insults or smart remarks. Here Jesus is at pains to explain what he means in order to prepare the disciples for his absence. The three examples are Thomas (14:1-6), Philip (14:7-12), and the other Judas (14:21-24). Below I will elaborate only on 14:1-6.

The “key verse” in this section is verse 6, which many Christians know by heart: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Unfortunately, this is often used as a doctrinal statement meant to exclude non-Christians. “Unless you believe in Jesus you can’t be saved,” some will say. Instead of “not letting hearts be troubled” (14:1), this verse has troubled Christian hearts and those from other religions alike.

In my opinion, this text has been misused. Keep in mind the intimate context of a teacher with his beloved disciple-friends, who are now fearful of losing him. The words are consolation, not judgment. “I’m going away, but not for long. And besides, you know the way to the place where I’m going” (v 4).

Like so many others in this Gospel who interpret Jesus’ words literally when they are meant figuratively, Thomas says, “We don’t know the way. Where’s the map?” (v 5). Jesus, in essence, replies, “Look at me.  I’m your map. I’ll give you accurate directions. Hang around me and you’ll find life.” The context here is no longer who’s IN and who’s OUT. These are words of intimacy and comfort spoken to those who have already chosen “the way” and who need reassurance in an hour of fear and distress.

How is Jesus the “only way”?

Rather than using this verse as a club wielded by a judgmental deity, I prefer C. S. Lewis’s creative adaptation of “Jesus-as-the-only-way” theology. In his seventh book of the Chronicles of Narnia, Emeth, a righteous man who has faithfully followed his own religion, meets Aslan, the Christ figure. Aslan reassures Emeth that any good service done in the name of his god is accepted as service done to Aslan himself. “And if anyone does a cruelty in my name, then, though they say the name Aslan, it is [another god] whom they serve.” Perhaps this theology can better relate with verse 2: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…”

Questions for discussion and reflection:

1.  Have any of you experienced John 14:6 used as a club against people or groups with different beliefs? How might different interpretations of this verse affect missions and evangelism?

2.  Read the questions by Philip (Jn 14:8-11) and the other Judas (Jn 14: 22-24). What do they not understand and how does Jesus clarify himself? Would these be typical questions believers might ask today?

3.  What personal connections have you had with John 14 in the past? Do you agree that it makes more sense that at least some of it was composed later than on the eve of Jesus’s arrest?

4.  Do you agree with Lewis’s implication that anyone doing a cruelty in Jesus’s name is serving another god?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.