Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

198. The Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:1-14)

The disciples were much disturbed by the ominous words of their Master at the meal table. They may have felt something sinister about Judas's departure; and the Lord's mysterious half-understood references to his own body and blood, as he gave them bread and wine, impressed them with a sense of foreboding and tragedy. So he spoke to comfort them. Deliberately choosing language reminiscent of Moses and the covenant God made with Israel in the wilderness, he tried to teach them something of the great good that he would ultimately bring them.

"Let not your heart be troubled" (contrast 12:40). There was good reason that it should be. Had he not spoken very plainly of going away from them (13 :33). Well might they be disconsolate. But indeed there was cause enough that his heart be troubled. Two very moving psalms of Messiah, both of which spoke about the traitor, had these very words (Ps.55 :4,12-14; 109 :22,8). However his concern was entirely for the disciples, and not for himself. He knew that he now had only two or three hours, at most, with them. What could he best say to help them?

"Ye believe in God, believe also in me”—and go on believing in spite of discouragements, was the implication.

A new temple

He tried to explain to them the purpose behind the tragedy they were soon to witness, and he attempted it in religious terms that they would grasp: "In my Father's house are many places of abode ... I go to prepare a place for you." Always, without any exception, the Father's house was the sanctuary where He was worshipped. "Make not my Father's house a house of merchandise" (2 :16), Jesus had angrily declared as he cleared the temple court. And in the Old Testament "the House" was by far the most commonly-used expression when' referring to the temple. Also, in the Old Testament the word "place" (Hebrew: maqom) nearly always means a sanctuary, holy place, or altar.


So, without doubt, the disciples knew that Jesus spoke of a temple. Probably it was only later on that they recognized that he meant a holy temple made up of men and women newborn in him.

The false and futile ideas which have passed for sober exposition of this passage need not appropriate space here. It is more important to enquire what Jesus meant by his going to prepare a place. Three considerations require that more emphasis be put on his going to a sacrificial death at Golgotha than on his ascension to a work of priestly intercession in heaven!

  1. His words to Peter: Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shaft follow me afterwards" (13:36).
  2. The Greek aorists are inappropriate to describe a long-continued intercessory work,
  3. No holy place is valid without the offering of a sacrifice. All intercession is pointless without the shedding of blood.
Could they but see it, the Lord's allusion to "abiding places" for them meant that he was now offering them a new status as priests in a new and better order which would supersede the Aaronic high priest and all his Levites. Already, when he had washed their feet before supper, this intensely revolutionary idea had been planted in their minds (see Study 185), to germinate there in the days to come.

Since the blood of an expiatory sacrifice must necessarily be presented in the divine presence, Jesus implied this also (see 14 :12,28; 16 :17): "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I come again, and will receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also." This would readily be understood as allusion to the high priest coming forth from the Holy of Holies to bless the people in the name of the Lord: "So Christ was once for all offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation" (Heb.9:28).

His coming again

It is sometimes argued that the personal return of Christ from heaven finds no mention in John's gospel, and this is used to reinforce the idea that when Jesus said here: "I come again," his words require some symbolic or mystical interpretation. Neither premises nor conclusion are flawless. The resurrection passage in John 5:28 plainly requires and assumes the personal return of the Son of man. And, "If I will that he tarry till I come . . ." (21 :22) is just as clear (cp. also 1 Jn.2 :28; 3 :2). Here also, once the idiom of priest and sanctuary is recognized in the passage under review, the personal reappearance of Christ the High Priest at some future time is plainly implied. How else could he "receive the disciples unto himself"?

The phrase just mentioned is not infrequently quoted in support of the idea that at his return Christ will take his saints away to heaven, but this is completely vetoed by the next clause: "that where I am, there ye may be also." Since Jesus is to sit on David's throne (Lk.l :32,33), and is to send forth the law from Zion (Is.2 :3), his redeemed will necessarily be there with him.

The troubled minds of the disciples were perplexed about their Master's allusions to going away: "Whither I go ye know, and the way ye know." How many times in recent months had he sought to enlighten their unwilling minds about his impending sacrifice! (e.g. Lk.9 :22,44; 17 :25; 18 :32; 20 :14,15). But, with a stubborn repugnance to such an idea, they could hardly believe it to be true.

The Way, the Truth, the Life

Blunt hard-headed Thomas spoke for them all: "Lord, we know not whither thou goest and how can we know the way?"

The reply of Jesus told them that it was no physical journey, but a reconciliation and fellowship with God, about which he spoke: "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." Here, doubtless, is the origin of the early church's affectionate name for the faith which it held. What today is commonly referred to as "The Truth" was called "The Way" in the first century (Acts 9 :2; 8 :31,36; 19 :9,23; 22 :4; 24 :22; Heb.9 :8; 10 :20; Gen.3 :24). Peter calls it: "The Way of the Truth (2 Pet.2 :2). It is possible that Jesus used this triad to continue the idea of sacrifice and mediation which he had already explained. The Way to the Father is always through sacrifice—the altar of the sanctuary. The life in Him must be lived according to Truth—compare the priests ministering in the Holy Place. And this fellowship culminates in eternal Life with the Father-the Holy of Holies. Or, the words are to be taken as a Hebraism for "the True and Living Way'—true in contrast with "type" (cp. "I am the true Vine"), the typical foreshadowing of redemption provided by the Low of Moses; and Living, with reference to the abiding efficacy of his saving work—he had power to lay down his life, and he had power to take it again—once again, contrast the ministering in the temple by mortal priests burning slain sacrifices on the altar.

He is the only acceptable means of approach to God: "no man cometh unto the Father but by me." This is a universal truth. From the time of Adam no man has ever had fellowship with God except through the merits of Christ. In ancient times this could be, at best, only dimly foreseen and appreciated. Yet for all finding redemption under the Old Covenant this central truth must stand. A man must appreciate that his sins could be put away only through One whom God would provide for this unique work. Sacrifices and offerings could have no validity apart from a forward-looking faith of this kind. Today faith looks more easily to the death and eternal priesthood of Christ as the only possible atonement for the sins committed yesterday and next week.

"If ye had learned about me, ye would have learned about my Father also." He did well to reproach them for being so impervious to the sublime truths he had sought to teach them. However, the experience of the next few days would open their eyes and impart an insight which at present was beyond them: "From henceforth ye know him, and have seen him" (that past tense emphasizing the certainty of this new understanding).

Philip, as literal-minded as any of them and one whose characteristic method of evangelism was "Come and see" (Jn.l :46; 12 :21), fastened on this promise of seeing the Father. His mind went—as Jesus intended that it should—to the experience of Israel's leaders at Sinai, and he responded eagerly: "Lord, shew us the Father (as Moses did to his seventy), sufficeth us”—as who should say: "Like them we have seen the provision of manna—your feeding of the multitudes. Like them we have shared a meal of heavenly fellowship. Now grant us that heavenly vision which they saw and which Moses especially beheld."

Moses and Jesus

It is worthwhile to recapitulate that Sinai experience. Overawed by the manifestation of heavenly majesty and power, "all the people trembled." Bounds were set round the mountain so that none might draw near to the presence of the Almighty. The people made their solemn promise: "All words which the Lord hath said, will we do." Fearing exceedingly, they demanded "Moses, speak thou with us and we will hear" (cp.v.10 here). Then came the ratifying of the covenant through the offering of sacrifice and the sprinkling of blood. Only when this was concluded could there be the gracious divine invitation: "Come up unto the Lord, thou, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel... and they saw the God of Israel, and did eat and drink." But only Moses and Joshua-Jesus were given the privilege of a yet more majestic vision of the Glory of the Lord (Ex.19:16,24; 24:1-18).

Much in the discourse of Jesus made allusion to this awe-inspiring occasion with its wonderful foreshadowing of the New Covenant and reconciliation, in himself. Evidently the apostles, for all their lack of spiritual perspicuity, had gropingly recognized this. They were trying hard to grasp what the reality in Christ, behind the type, might be.

"I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes unto the Father but by me'—the words now began to take on fuller meaning. Without a sacrifice and a Moses the leaders of Israel were shut out from fellowship with the God of their fathers. Could it be, the disciples now wondered, that for them their Jesus would be both sacrifice and Mediator, and would ensure for them a yet greater privilege? They had heard a voice from heaven speak to him with an impressive majesty comparable to Sinai (12 :28,29;Mt. 17:5).

"If I go away, I will come again, and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there ye may be also." The meaning of the words opened out as they recalled how first of all Moses had gone into the divine presence alone. It was only after God's acceptance of himself that he was able to introduce the princes of the nation to a comparable experience. No need far their hearts to be troubled or fearful, as were the hearts of Israel hearing and seeing the Shekinah splendour on the mount (Ex.20 :18-21).

The Lord's reply to Philip continued the allusion to Moses: "Have I been so long with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? He that hath seen me hath seen the Father." When Moses returned from one of his forty-day vigils in the mount, his face shone with the reflected Glory of the Lord: "the skin of his face shone: and they were afraid to come nigh him" (Ex.34 :29-35). In a certain limited and physical sense, he who saw Moses that day saw the Father. But how much more, and in a much more fundamental sense, was this true of the disciples' experience of Jesus! In him they saw God's own character and personality as fully declared unto men as it possibly could be. Subject to human limitations, "in him dwelt all the fulness of the Godhead bodily'—and now, in his glory, even more fully.

Then, Philip, "how sayest thou, Shew us the Father?" How, in what spirit, did he ask it?—as a believing loyal disciple or as wayward faithless Israel?

For further answer, Jesus took him back again to the experience of Moses. "Behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice," wailed the reluctant prophet. The reply of the angel of the Lord was a pair of horrifying and breath-taking miracles—the serpent, the great enemy, taken and transformed into an instrument of redemption, and the sin-disease of leprosy deliberately shared by the servant of the Lord in order that it might be killed and cured in his own bosoml "If they will not believe thee neither hearken to the voice of the first sign, they will believe the voice of the latter sign." And when at last the people were brought out of their bondage, the record once—and once only—says: "the people believed the Lord and his servant Moses" (Ex. 4:1-9; 14:31).

Philip, where do you stand now regarding the prophet like unto Moses "Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you (like the words of Moses) I speak not of myself. . . believe me for the very works' sake." "Hereby," said Moses when beset by Korah and his fellow rebels, "ye shall know that the Lord hath sent me to do all these works; for I have not done them of mine own mind" (Num.16 :28). If this was Christ's allusion, their counterpart in his ministry was the astonishing miracles he had wrought or, just possibly, the amazing acts of authority in clearing his Father's house of rebels and their abuses. But if the reference was to the more personal signs of serpent and leprosy, then the works of Jesus most to be believed were (and are) the wondrous overcoming of all sin by one born with sin's nature.

"Greater works"

Either way, the emphasis was (and is) quite inescapably on faith—the word "believe" comes four times very close together: "He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also." Jesus goes away to the Father, and the disciple takes up where he leaves off. The work of proclaiming good tidings of sin forgiven and of o promised kingdom falls to all who see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. "And greater works than these shall he do'—the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles, a work denied to Jesus because of his higher responsibility to his own people, was to be taken in hand by the apostles and by all who succeeded them. A greater work as to its results, even though inferior in quality. The eloquence of Old Testament prophets informed Jesus of the far-reaching success of his missionaries even though his own appeal to Israel, unique and inimitable, was such a sickening failure.

But the ground of their success and encouragement lay in that short phrase: "because I go unto my Father." From the heavenly throne he would send forth power to his preachers, so that their own weakness and deficiency would be more than made good by the wisdom and authority of the Holy Spirit.

More than this, access to God in prayer simply because they belonged to Christ would ever bring gracious response from heaven in every time of need in their work of preaching. The context requires this limitation of scope; cp. 15 :7,16. "Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son." The context limits the mandate to their task of witnessing to the name of Christ (and so also, very pointedly, in ch.15 :7-8,16). Only in this field was it true for them that "if ye shall ask anything in my name, I will do it."

The words have been much misunderstood, not only in their scope but also in their operation. There is here no special requirement that every prayer must be introduced or concluded, or both, with mention of the name of Christ, as though it were a kind of talisman or magical incantation. Such a view misses the force of the common Biblical idiom. It means, rather, that the prayer of the disciple has power simply because he is in Christ. It is a man's high status in Christ, rather than the words he frames, which imparts to what he says on his knees a special force and efficacy.

Notes: Jn. l4:1-14

Your heart troubled, as Israel's at Sinai; Ex.20 :18.
My Father's house. Compare Rev.3 :12; Is.66 :1,2; and contrast "your house"; Mt.23 :38.

Prepare a place quotes Ex.23 :20 about the angel of the covenant. Now, instead of an angel, Jesus with a New Covenant. Instead of a lifetime's inheritance in Canaan, an everlasting inheritance with their Lord.
Come again. Present tense, as in Mt.17:11.

Where I am; 12:26; 17:24.
But by me. Heb.10:20; Eph.2 :18.
Seen him. This word horao is very commonly (always?) used of a divine vision; e.g. Lk 1:22; 24:23; Jn. 1:18, 34; 5:37; 6:2; 8:38

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