John (Part 52): The Father’s House (ch 14)
Jesus had brought up several times that he was going away. When we think of Jesus’s physical location, we obviously realize he is not physically here with us now. So, yes, he physically went away. But the reality of his physical location was not his main concern during his ministry on earth. His main concern while on earth was always his mission. He had been given the mission by God, and he would see it done. But seeing it done was not simply a matter of slavish, master-servant obedience to God. Jesus, being the perfect image bearer, perfectly understood the truth, goodness, and beauty of God. He perfectly held that truth, goodness, and beauty through his own faith and hope. And he perfectly communicated that: he acted in such a way so as to make that truth, goodness, and beauty manifest. In other words, he acted in love. So we can never merely say he went to the cross out of unthinking, blind obedience. He did not do that. He went to the cross out of love based on his understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty revealed to him by God.
Therefore, when reading in the Bible where Jesus talks about his “going away,” our first thoughts ought not to be about his physical location. Our first thoughts should rather have to do with the spiritual meaning of what he is saying. I’m not saying that only the spiritual is good and the physical is evil; we are not Gnostics. Sin has corrupted everything both the physical and the spiritual. But God is spirit, and worshipping him, as Jesus said in John 4, is done in spirit. But we are apart from God—not able to worship, to fellowship, to have relationship with God because of the broken condition of our covenant. We are dead—separated from life (which, by definition, means relationship with God). This is what Jesus came to fix. He would go away—meaning, he would lay down his life (relationship with God) and take it up again (rise from death to life (relationship with God)). No one took his life from him. Again, don’t think in physical categories here. Of course, physically they arrested him and nailed him to the cross. But we (and he) are talking spiritually. He wasn’t guilty of breaking covenant with God. Because he wasn’t guilty, no one could impose a death sentence on him—a sentence of separation from relationship with God. He was guiltless. But he laid down his life (relationship with God) for our sake, so that we could have this guiltless death applied to our guilt. That was the sacrifice—the sin offering (or, more understandably “offering for sin”)—that he made. So Jesus’s going away encompasses this climax of his earthly mission—to go away from God and then rise again, because of his sinlessness, going back to God.
This was his “preparing a place” (Jn 14:2) for the disciples and us. He prepared the way for us to also go to God so that, where he was (in perfect, covenant relationship with God), we could be also. Again, it is not a physical movement; it is a spiritual movement.
This is why Jesus could say in the same breath, “I’m leaving now, but remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” How could he be gone and with us? He may be gone physically, but he is with us spiritually.
So, as we read about this conversation in the upper room, we must bear in mind this perspective Jesus had so that we are not just as confused as the disciples were about what he was saying. Jesus continued speaking to them from this perspective in verse 4 as he told them, “You know the way to where I am going.” But, as Thomas revealed, the disciples were not on the same page in their thoughts. Thomas spoke, maybe out of the frustration of the group, saying, “We know the way? We don’t even know where you’re going! How can we possibly know the way?” Thomas spoke from a physical perspective.
Now, before moving on, we should settle the matter of whether Jesus was wrong here. He said they knew the way, and Thomas just said they didn’t. Jesus was not wrong. This is still a matter of perspective. Jesus was not talking about a physical going away. He was talking about going to the Father. His answer revealed that. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” meaning he was the way to relationship with God; he was the truth about relationship with God; and he was the very life of relationship with God. (Note again, life means relationship with God. When Jesus said he was the life, then, he literally said that he had relationship with God so if they have relationship with him, they would have relationship with God as well.) Jesus’s answer satisfied both parts of Thomas’s question: where Jesus was going and the way to where he was going. Jesus made that clear by adding to his answer, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
But Jesus’s continued explanation in verse 7 may seem puzzling at first. It is puzzling because of the verb tenses used in the statement, and translators, by trying to interpret for us, have not always helped. The NASB and ESV stick closest to the Greek without interpretive attempt:
If you had known me, you would have known my Father also;
from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.
We’ll get back to that in a moment. First, let’s see how some of the other translations attempt to smooth out the meaning. The KJV interprets this as a reproach by Jesus, as if Jesus is correcting them for not paying attention and insisting that they didn’t know him, but now they do:
If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also;
And from henceforth ye know Him, and have seen Him.
The NIV doesn’t see it as a reproach. It recasts the whole statement into future tense:
If you really know me, you will know my Father as well.
From now on, you do know him and have seen him.
The HCSB follows the NIV lead and, based on the last line of the couplet, recasts the first in the future:
If you know me, you will also know my Father.
From now on, you do know him and have seen him.
The difficulty is obviously the Greek’s use of the past perfect in the first phrase along with the conditional in the main clause. The NIV and HCSB translators both seem to have thought this improper. They must have reasoned that the disciples already did know Jesus and now believed that he was the way to God. In fact, Jesus said that very thing in verse 4: “You know the way to where I am going.” The question, however, is whether we can resolve this conflict of tense without changing it to the future. I think we can.
I believe in this statement Jesus was not leaving his point about his going away to prepare a place. That is the context. That was the heart of his perspective—dying and returning to God so that his disciples (all of them for this entire age) could come to God as well. Understanding it this way, Jesus’s main point was not to reproach them for some fault, but rather to explain that his going would give them the awakened understanding of truly knowing him, and by him, God as well. Something was about to change—Jesus was going away. His going away would change things for them. They would be born to God. They would be in righteous relationship with God. They would know!
But Philip, still evidences a fog and misses the point. You can almost hear his tone of “we don’t get exactly what you’re saying, but … but you mentioned seeing God! Show us God! Let us see him! That will be enough! It would excite and thrill us and give us confidence. Being troubled and worrying? That would disappear. Just let us catch a glimpse of God!”
We could read Jesus’s reply to Philip with the tone of Jesus being amazed that Philip doesn’t yet get it. But how could Philip get it? He is not yet truly born again—in covenant relationship with God, having the Holy Spirit living within him to show him truth. But the whole picture is a bit more complicated.
We often think that deadness to life is like a switch that gets flipped on inside us. One moment we’re spiritually dead on the way to hell, and then suddenly the next moment God has zapped us into new life and we’re on our way to heaven. The Reformed make much of this deadness/spiritual life contrast. It is, in fact, foundational to their understanding. You can’t have faith, they say, unless God has flipped that switch in you—has applied Christ’s redemption to you so that you can understand. After all, didn’t Paul say, “The unbeliever does not welcome what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually” (I Cor 2:14)? But this kind of understanding would make every spiritual recognition—every revelation by God—impossible to know unless God had flipped that switch. Yet in Romans 1, Paul tells us that God gives revelation to all humankind so that they are without excuse (Ro 1:18-21). If God’s purpose is to give revelation so that they cannot claim ignorance, how could God both expect them to understand but expect them not to understand at the same time since he hadn’t flipped the switch? God’s activity would be at best pointless and at worst disingenuous.
This flipping the switch idea to salvation comes from a misunderstanding that something in us is broken that must be repaired. It is as if sin has disconnected wires within us that God must reconnect in order for us to have life. But the brokenness is not something in us. Sin did not suddenly make us not God’s image. Even people without Christ are the image of God (Gen 9:6; James 3:9). Our brokenness is not within. Our brokenness relates to our relationship with God. We were created for relationship. God didn’t give us life and then worked on establishing a relationship with us. Vitally intrinsic to our very essence in life is relationship with God, so that life’s very definition is relationship with God. When sin entered the picture—when Adam and Eve withdrew trust in God to place trust in self—relationship with God was broken, life was broken, death came about. But God still interacted with these his image bearers who no longer looked to him for truth, goodness, and beauty although their desire for truth, goodness, and beauty still remained. Thus, God provided the general revelation noted in Romans 1. And the OT is full of specific instances in which God revealed to unregenerate humankind. To a greater or lesser extent, these unregenerate of humankind understood the revelation of God, based on their own willingness to accept it. Some turned from it, and God withdrew. Some embraced it, and God offered more.
The sin offering of Christ on the cross was absolutely necessary to take away the death curse for our sin and put us in new covenant relationship of life with God. And that change from death to life does happen in an instant. But God’s revelation could always reach to humankind over the breach so that all people are without excuse. Thus, the revelation—even by Jesus to his disciples while on earth—was true revelation from God, and had the disciples fully accepted this revelation without their doubts and fears and misgivings and former teachings and all the clutter that Jewish life had given them all their lives, they would have known Jesus fully. The German translation has verse 7 saying, “I you had known who I am.” This gets more to the point of what I’m trying to explain. If they had not simply known him but known fully who he was, they would have known the Father. If their understanding of Jesus, the ultimate revelation of God, had fully embraced perfectly well all that Jesus had revealed about himself, they would have been confident in knowing what the Father was like as well.
But they didn’t. They were still impressed by the physical. But Jesus was telling them that all that would soon change. He explained to Philip that seeing him is seeing the Father (understanding what the Father is like).
More so, Jesus highlights the intensity and intimacy of relationship by explaining that it is one of being within each other. From the very beginning this image of intimate relationship is pictured among the image bearers to reflect this intimacy of the Three-in-One. Humankind was made as one, separated, and then brought back together in union (marriage) and particularly in sexual relationship (where one actually is within the other, imaging this intimacy). That’s why sex, an otherwise seemingly harmless act is sin when outside a heterosexual marriage relationship. It is sin not because it hurts other people (like murder, lying, stealing, etc.). It is sin simply and importantly because it does violence to the image God has given us of himself as intimate love of multiple-in-one. Our two-in-one reflects his Three-in-one.
Likewise, when Jesus told the crowds and his disciples that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood, he was explaining this same intimacy—taking him inside ourselves. And that is also why Paul warns of judgment on those who fail to uphold this image purely in the taking of communion (I Co 11:29-30). Violating the image in communion disregards the picture of loving intimacy that we have been given of God.
Verse 11 is interesting because it seemingly gives levels to understanding. Jesus told Philip and the others to believe he is portraying God exactly through his words and works because of his intimate relationship. But, he said, even if you cannot yet wrap your heads fully around that concept, know he is in relationship with God simply for the miracles themselves.