Commentary on John 14:1-14
As I delve into John 14:1-14, I am surprised by something that I normally witness in Pauline literature. The Apostle Paul often writes to his churches and embodies an understanding of a singular heart or singular body in relationship to the plurality of people in the congregation. For Paul, multiple people are to share a singular heart or body for Christ. Similarly, in John 14:1, Jesus begins his statement with the words mē tarassesthō hymōn hē kardia. Most translations state this phrase as “Let not your hearts be troubled.” However, the words for “hearts” is actually in the singular form. So Jesus says to his disciples, “let not your (plural) heart (singular) be troubled.” I have never noticed that Jesus’ statement in the Gospel of John highlights the idea of the disciples possessing one singular heart as a collective group of people.
Historically, in Johannine interpretation, scholars argue that the community in which the Gospel of John grew up was a community that had been separated from the synagogue. This group, no doubt, was experiencing loneliness and despair about their place in the world. The Johannine Jesus begins by comforting this community with a reminder about their collectivity of heart. After the discussion between Philip and Jesus about knowing the way to the Father, Jesus replies that he is the “way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” As I ponder the collectivity of heart that begins this passage, I wonder if 14:6 actually serves as the paradigm of Christian exclusivity that many people often interpret it to mean. Many contemporary Christians use 14:6 to argue that the only way to “eternal life” is through belief in Jesus. There is no allowance for the mystery of God to be revealed in any other religious systems such as Jewish or Islamic faith. I would argue that such an interpretation is not our major take-away from this text.
To begin, Philip asks Jesus how they will know “the way.” In Greek the term hodos is the word for way, road, or highway. While the term can serve as an understanding for an actual road or way, hodos can also mean a journey or a trip. However, there is also a connotation that serves metaphorical purposes. Hodos can also represent the “way” or the “way of life” that connotes behavior. In Acts of the Apostles, the first Jesus-followers called themselves “people of the way” (Acts 9:2). In the times prior to the writing of the Gospel of John, philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle thought of the philosophical systems as methodical hodos. Jesus is teaching in the same vein as these philosophers. Philip is asking the question in a literal highway sense but Jesus is answering metaphorically.
Moreover, Jesus adds alatheia (truth) and zoe (life) to his metaphorical equation. As Jesus was walking in such a way that was leading him closer and closer to death, his words and actions testified to the truth of God. But as I ponder Jesus testifying to the truth of God, I am swayed by meanings beyond the traditional definitions as provided by my Bauer, Danker, Arendt, and Gingrich lexicon (which is based only on Christian understandings of words). Delving into a more expansive lexicon, the Liddell Scott, one connotation caught my eye in their four-pronged definition of truth (which is the opposite of a lie or false appearance). In Liddell Scott, an understanding of truth also connotes “a true event, realization of dream or omen.”1 Immediately, a line from Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise” came to my memory: “I am the dream and the hope of the slave.”
Is it possible that Jesus as the truth of God represents the “dream and hope” of God? Jesus serves as our example of what it means to walk on the way. Just as I think of myself as the dream and hope of my enslaved ancestors, I love this idea of thinking about Jesus as the “dream and hope” of God since it seems to me that the dream and hope of God leads to an understanding of what “life” then looks like. Christian interpretation from the times of plantation Christianity until today has espoused a dream of eternal life that does not pay attention to what life on earth looks like.
Specifically, scholars such as Albert J. Raboteau have argued that Christianity in the antebellum South compensated for the death, despair, and harms done to enslaved people by emphasizing an “otherworldly, compensatory” salvation that comes in the hereafter.2 It seems to me that when we take “the way, the truth, and the life” together, this passage cannot mean an exclusive and imperialistic meaning that some espouse today. The Johannine community was a disconnected community that sought connection during difficult times. Perhaps, that is the message for singular-hearted people. We must be people of the way, being the dream and hope of God, as we participate in abundant life while here on earth together.
Further, as he talks about going back to the Father, Jesus states in verse 12 “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” Our greater works must exhibit the way, the truth, and the life for communities that continue to be disconnected and denied access to all of the areas that can bring abundant life such as quality food, access to medical care, affordable housing, and continued dignity no matter what their identities are. That is the way, the truth, and the life for a collective people with a singular heart.
- Henry George Liddell et al., A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 63.
- Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 290.
May 7, 2023