Sunday, September 28, 2008

John 14:2-6 in Historical Perspective

The Gospel of John is sort of like the highest peak in a mountain range. It is the benchmark by which all other mountains are measured: the mountaineers all boast of their ability to climb it, but few ever accomplish it. In modern American evangelicalism, however, those who have claimed to climb it have stridently asserted its ease for the newcomer to the faith, with many disastrous effects. John is, and will remain, one of the most opaque books in the Christian Scriptures. Almost every dialogue that Jesus has in it ends with confusion: whether Nicodemus, the "crowds", the "Jews/Judaeans", or his own disciples. Confusion seems to be a reigning theme throughout the book--while on the surface many things seem simple, even the "teachers of Israel" struggle with the words and actions of this mysterious Rabbi, whom John would claim as the historical embodiment of God's long-awaited message of salvation. This should warn us enough to not base entire systems of Christology, eccesiology, or soteriology upon the text: we don't understand it enough to do so. However, its mystery has led many to invent and propagate many doctrines that seem to work prima facie with the text, but do not upon further investigation. The text of chapter 14 has suffered much at the hands of neoPlatonic evangelicalism, so it is my focus today.

Looking at the mountain, however, I do not claim that it is easy to climb, or that I have successfully climbed it. I have not. The book largely remains a mystery to me, so I undertake this exegesis with a healthy amount of fear and trepidation: my interpretation of this passage, though I think it works well with the historical background and the overall message of the book, is tentative and subject to revision, both by me and by others more qualified than I. Such is the nature of all theology, even the theology that has long defined our communities of faith.

"In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself; that where I am, you may also be. And where I go you know, and the way you know." Thomas said to him, "Lord we do not know where you are going and how can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

The keys to understanding this passage are two: the Temple and Jesus' Messiahship. That the book of John is primarily concerned with Jesus' claim of "Messiah" (and not, as is often supposed from the prologue, his divinity) is manifest from the end of the book: "...these are written that you may believe Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name" (20:31). What exactly that means, however, will take us to what the Messiah was to accomplish.

If the Messiah was supposed to be like David (his son, in fact) or like Solomon or like Zerubbabel in Zechariah, then his main activity was to be the building/restoration of the Temple, and therefore God's throne, for God's people. Any Messiah that did not accomplish a Temple-building action would not be a Messiah, but a fake and a fraud. Hence the charge laid at Jesus' feet in all the Gospels: "Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up." The Messiah would build and outfit the eschatological Temple expected since the days of Isaiah and the other great prophets. Part of this would be the "preparation" of various priestly rooms and vestibules in the Temple precincts--the places where they lived while on duty or cooked the sacrifices, etc. There were, judging from the accounts of Chronicles and Ezekiel (in the vision of the great eschatological Temple) many rooms.

But none of this would matter except that regularly in the Old Testament, the Temple was referred to--not with the Hebrew word for "temple" which was reserved to describe the holy of holies--by the word for "house". In other words, the Temple was "my Father's house".

Jesus, his face set towards the confrontation with the priests and the Pharisees, tells his disciples that he is going to accomplish the great Messianic act of building the true Temple of God. Once he has accomplished that, he will receive his disciples to himself, that is, he will install them as the true priests of God's Temple--not the disinherited Sadducees or the would-be defenders of Israel, the Pharisees. The disciples, because of their allegiance to this King, would be rewarded, much like the priests and aristocrats that followed David were rewarded once he finally had his rule established. So Jesus' statement, "and where I go you know, and the way you know" takes on a cryptic tenor to his disciples: he has filled them in with no details. They do not know the plan of attack, as it were, nor the strategy for rescuing God's Temple from the Romans or the Judaean leadership. So Thomas says, "Lord, we do not know where you are going, and how can we know the way?"

It is here that Jesus brings together his understanding of his vocation and God's eschatological plan. Jesus is not going to restore the Herodian Temple or prepare it for God's worship (which required the sacrifice of animals to "make atonement" for the altar and sanctuary, etc.). That Temple Jesus already judged and condemned in chapter two. Instead, Jesus is going to the cross to symbolically destroy the current Temple and raise a renewed, everlasting Temple in its place. "Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up" referred not to the Jerusalem Temple, as his interlocutors and false witnesses assumed, but rather to his body, his flesh that had been made the dwelling place of God's word, his plan of salvation. Now the "atonement" of God's final dwelling place with man would be secured by the death of the Messiah; the establishment of that Temple as where God would forever meet with his people, the connection between heaven and earth, would happen as that Temple was raised from the grave, never to be defiled (as the other Temples had been) and never to be destroyed. He would receive them to himself after his resurrection, making them cornerstones in his Temple, leaders over his body (the origin, I suppose, of Paul's metaphor).

The way to make this happen though, which the disciples must follow, is the way of Jesus' humiliation and crucifixion. They must follow, they must be faithful to his vision of what the Messiah is and is supposed to do, if they wish to be the priests who appear before the Father: there is no other way.

This interpretive schema, which has many resonances in the following verses ("we will come and make our home with him, etc."), brings together many disconcertingly fragmented bits of traditional Johannine interpretation. The indwelling logos from chapter one, the indwelling Spirit from chapter 14, the many claims to supersede the Herodian Temple and the Saduceean priesthood, and the tension between what was expected of the Messiah and Jesus' cryptic actions. It also pulls the interpretation out of some neoPlatonic and Philo-based worldview that posits Jesus as basically advocating non-Jewish mysticism and world-escapism. Instead, it puts Jesus squarely within the Jewish Scriptures and forces the choices that his disciples would have to make: not "pie-in-the-sky", but rather allegiance in the "here-and-now". Even on an initial ascent up the mountain, one can see that the ending vista is beautiful and even promises glimpses of the Promised Land.