In Christian circles this passage is often quoted, for a variety of conflicting reasons.
It’s often read at funerals. It tells us that Jesus said:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places… I go to prepare a place for you.
At funerals, it’s comforting. It tells the bereaved: don’t worry. God will provide a new life for the person you loved. There are plenty of dwelling places in Heaven.
But it’s also read for the opposite reason. It goes on to tell us that Jesus said:
I am the way, the truth, and the life. None comes to the Father except through me.
I couldn’t possibly count how many times I’ve heard this passage quoted by exclusive evangelicals positively trying to persuade people that if you don’t believe in Jesus, you won’t go to Heaven when you die.
It’s also quoted by people who don’t believe in Christianity at all. It tells us that Jesus said:
I am in the Father and the Father is in me… The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.
Anybody who has worked in mental health services will recognise this. There are people who imagine they are Jesus, or the new Messiah, or the Queen, or somebody equally famous. It’s easy to point to this passage from John’s gospel and conclude that Jesus was delusional. It looks as though he had a mental health problem.
So who is right? How are we going to make sense of this passage?
New Testament scholars have puzzled over John’s Gospel for ages. It often presents Jesus as though he wasn’t a real human being at all – as though he was a kind of spiritualist apparition. Around the time John wrote his gospel, there were Christians who believed he was never a real human being. This is why the epistles of John, which were written a little later, emphasise that Jesus was a real human being with a physical body.
Out of the four gospels in the Bible, John was the last to be written. It’s quite different from the other three. In John, Jesus makes long speeches. In the other three, the only long speeches are parables. Instead Jesus tells stories and asks questions.
In John, Jesus most often speaks about himself. In the other three, he hardly ever speaks about himself except when he’s directly asked.
So why does John make Jesus sound so radically different from the other gospels?
New Testament scholars have studied this question in great depth, and broadly speaking there is a consensus. John was doing what writers normally did in his day, and in his day everybody would have understood. Much later, people misunderstood.
To explain this, I’m going to read a passage from a book written 500 years earlier, the History of the Peloponnesian War by the Greek writer Thucydides. When John wrote his gospel this was still a classic text. Even today, people who study history and expect to become historians will be taught about Thucydides. He was the world’s first historian who took trouble to get his facts right. He also tried to understand why people did the things they did. He was writing about a war in which he was on the losing side, so he was keen to understand why sensible people made disastrous mistakes and why the voters in democratic Athens were often persuaded to vote for disastrous policies.
That’s Thucydides. At the beginning of his book he explained his policy about speeches. He wrote:
In this history I have made use of set speeches some of which were delivered just before and others during the war. I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.
That’s what Thucydides said, and that’s what he did. Thereafter, historians and biographers followed his lead. They composed speeches which they thought were the kinds of things their characters would have said. Even authors who were keen to get their facts right would make up speeches like that. Those speeches had two purposes. They illustrated the situation they were writing about, and they also illustrated the character of the person who was supposed to have said it.
500 years later, when John wrote his gospel, this way of describing people through speeches was standard procedure. Today it isn’t, so people misunderstand it.
When John wrote his gospel, he wasn’t reporting what Jesus said. He couldn’t have done that. He wasn’t even telling us what he thought Jesus might have said. He was telling us who he thought Jesus was.
The gospel is a kind of meditation on Jesus, and how we can relate to God through Jesus. If you want to know what Jesus really said and did, the other gospels give more information.
So when he describes Jesus as saying he is going to prepare a place for people in his father’s house, and he is the way, the truth and the life, and he and the father are one, he is building up a picture of how people can come to God by following Jesus. If you want to see God, look at Jesus.
There is still some information about Jesus in John’s gospel. Our gospel passage also tells us that Jesus said:
the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the father.
This doesn’t sound like the words of someone obsessed by his own importance. But it turned out to be true.
Jesus lived in Galilee, at a dreadful time for Galileans. Under Roman rule, peasant farmers who had previously had their own land and grown enough food to feed their families, found themselves driven to starvation and homelessness. There was a succession of protests, demonstrations and rebellions, one after another for seventy years. Some of the rebels believed themselves to be the Messiah.
They have all been forgotten, except Jesus and John the Baptist – and John the Baptist is only remembered because of his connection to Jesus. So what was it about Jesus that made his movement so successful thousands of years after the others died out?
Jesus was not just concerned about himself. He had a message about the Kingdom of God, and when people accepted the message he encouraged them to pass it on. He gave them confidence that they could do everything he was doing. So when he died, the movement continued.
Two or three generations after that brutal crucifixion, John could write speeches, and put them into the mouth of Jesus, in a gospel designed to express what Jesus meant to the Christians of his own day.
Those Christians could preach with confidence about the Kingdom of God because Jesus had shown them the way to God the Father. At a time when different people believed in different gods, John and his readers believed the true God had been revealed through Jesus.
To believe in the God revealed by Jesus is to be confident that in the Father’s house there are many dwelling places. Our lives go through good and bad times. We have ups and downs. We enjoy the good things, and we let our hearts get troubled by the bad things.
Still, we never see the big picture of everything that is going on in the world. But God does, and in the big picture, a good god is guiding us. You are valued. You are loved. Whatever misfortunes may befall us in the coming week, however much they may trouble us, in the context of God’s eternity we do not need to let our hearts be troubled.