While most seminarians learn that John 13-17 is "the farewell discourse" in John, Gordon Fee refers to these chapters more simply as "table talks."1
Jesus is at the table with the disciples. Knowing that he has come from God and is going to God, Jesus spends his last evening with his own. He eats with them. He washes their feet. He gives them a new commandment ("Love one another," John 13:34). He talks with them about his relationship with the Father and the Spirit. He promises them "another Advocate" (John 14:16), and he intercedes for them and for those who will come to believe through them.
All of this happens around the simplicity and intimacy of an evening meal. Throughout the evening, Jesus speaks again and again on three themes:
1. He is leaving
2. His followers are staying.
3. The Holy Spirit will be with them so that they may continue his work.2
Again and again, the disciples get stuck on point number one. In various ways, they ask, "Could we go back to that thing you said about leaving?" Peter asks, "Lord, where are you going?" and "Why can't I follow you now?" (John 13:36f). A few verses later, in response to Jesus' comment that, "You know the way where I am going," Thomas says, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" (John 14:4f). Jesus answers by saying that he is the way; to know him is to know both the way and the destination, which is communion with the Father.
Then it is Philip's turn. "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied" (John 14:8). From the perspective of those being left, the question makes sense. "Please, Jesus, could you give us something to hold onto? Show us this Father you talk so much about. That will be enough." From the perspective of Jesus, however, the question raises doubts about whether the disciples have seen anything of the One he has tried--through all the works he has done--to show them. "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and still you say, 'Show us the Father? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father'" (John 14:9). Here is echoed the observation at the beginning of John's gospel, "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known" (1:18). Jesus lives, lays down his life, and picks it up again, all in order to make God known. Why? Because humanity cannot be in relationship with One whom they do not know.
For the same reason, Jesus asks the Father to send the Spirit. The reference to "another Advocate" is intriguing. The modifier implies that the idea of someone called to another's side to help, comfort, intercede, and instruct is not new in John. The Father has already sent one such Advocate, Jesus. Now Jesus will ask the Father to send "another Advocate to be with you forever, the Spirit of truth" (John 14:16f).
The way John tells the story, one can imagine Jesus coming up with this promise almost on the fly: Philip's question reveals just how far his beloved disciples are from knowing all he has wanted them to see and believe, and so the third point of that three-point plan comes into focus for Jesus, and he shares it with the others. In the context of the disciples' fears and questions, the Holy Spirit (spiritual though this member of the Holy Trinity may be) is Jesus' concrete, down-to-earth answer to the need that the disciples have made so clear. Since Jesus is leaving, and his followers are staying, the Holy Spirit will be with them so that they may continue his work.
Two of the ways Jesus speaks about that continuing work are puzzling to modern ears. Jesus says, "Very truly, I tell you, 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. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it" (John 14:12-14). Scholarly conjecture on what Jesus means by "greater works" includes the theory that Jesus is talking about the quantity of work, rather than its quality. Jesus has "other sheep" to be brought into the sheepfold (John 10:16). The work of gathering them in is greater than any work he has yet accomplished in the gospel. Millennia of testimony to the love of the Father and the Son--greater work than the Son's three-year ministry--will be carried out by his disciples and "those who believe in me through their word" (John 17:20).
The second puzzle is the promise, "I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it." Andrew H. Wakefield suggests that the parent/child relationship offers an analogy for what Jesus is promising here.
If we extend the analogy just a little, we may
be able to think of these promises as the same
sort of hyperbole that parents use when they
tell a child, "I would do anything for you!"
The child may say, "Really? Then I want a
tattoo; I want a pet elephant; I want a
Ferrari!" The child has missed the point. The
hyperbole shows the parent's infinite love for
the child, a love that will seek the good of
the child even above the parent's own good....
The hyperbole is a way of expressing the
intimate relationship between loving parent
and child--and that relationship is not simply
about giving and receiving.3
This promise is neither a blank check nor an invitation to blame one's own ineptitude at prayer in the name of Jesus when such prayers go apparently unanswered. Instead, this promise is part of Jesus' assurance that he will not leave his own orphaned. Through the Spirit, the other Advocate, Jesus will keep working as he has so far, in ways that reveal God's great and abiding love for them.
1Gordon D. Fee, "Expository Articles: John 14:8-17," Interpretation 43/2 (1989): 170-174.
3 Andrew H. Wakefield, "What Happens When We Pray," Review and Expositor 104 (2007): 806.