Commentary on John 14:15-21
This passage picks up where last week’s reading left off. Jesus continues to deliver his Farewell Discourse (chs. 14-17), preparing his disciples for his departure and their receipt of the Holy Spirit.
In this brief but powerful passage, Jesus reiterates his favorite theme: love. He also promises the Holy Spirit. Finally, Jesus emphasizes the intimate unity of Jesus, God, the Spirit, and the believer.
Fifty-seven times Jesus uses love verbs (agapao, phileo). Add to that all of the occurrences of “friend” (which is the translation of philos) as well as the fact that the primary disciple in the Fourth Gospel is an unnamed character called “the beloved disciple,” and we might accuse the author of touting a single issue. And why not, for is it not the case that “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life”? (3:16).
The passage begins and ends with love. In v. 15 Jesus declares that if his disciples love him, they will keep his commandments. The reader may ask, “What commandments?” Unlike, say, Matthew, nowhere in John does Jesus command us to go the second mile, turn the other cheek, render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Famously, Jesus gives only a single commandment in John and it occurs in the chapter just before ours: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (13.34-35). He reiterates this in the chapter just after ours: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:12-13). We see, then, the overwhelming, repetitive, circular emphasis on love. So, if the preacher is to preach this text, she will have to take up love. Perhaps John would have exulted to hear Bill Coffin’s claim to his fellow Christians: “If we fail in love, we fail in all things else.”
It’s worth noting that love is tied to John’s realized eschatology. Jesus gives one commandment: to love. Therefore, judgment and eternal life begin now. At the end of each day, and during each moment of each day, for John, there’s only one question to ask yourself: “In what ways did I or did I not love today?” As you reflect upon that, judgment happens. Where you did not love, there lies judgment. But understand that for John judgment is merely diagnostic, not retributive. Jesus constantly asks the characters questions that help them understand their lives and motives more clearly. To the sick man in ch. 5:6: “Do you wish to be made well?”; to Martha in 11:26: “Do you believe this?”. He asks questions not because he doesn’t know the answers (since John 2:24-25 assures us that Jesus already knew everything); rather, he asks so that we might know, and therefore move forward with clear vision into the truth, light, glory, love, abundant for which God has created us. It’s all of a piece.
The Holy Spirit
Admittedly, John’s pneumatology is unusual compared to other NT texts. In contrast to Luke, who depicts the Holy Spirit as heavily active in the lives of characters from the beginning of his Gospel until the end of Acts, John insists that the Holy Spirit will come only after Jesus himself departs. Why is this? A clue lies in Jesus’ referring to the Holy Spirit not as The Paraclete, but rather as Another Paraclete. Jesus was the first; for the Spirit to be active among them while Jesus was there would have been redundant since they each serve the same revelatory function. What appeared to be bad news to the disciples, namely Jesus’ departure from them, turned out to be the best of news for both them and us. While Jesus walked the earth, his ministry was limited to one locale and one person, himself. Upon his departure, his disciples are given the Spirit and moved from apprentices to full, mature revealers of God’s love. And this happens not just to the first disciples, but all those who would come later, those who never saw the historical Jesus. You see, the evangelist insists that present believers have no disadvantage in comparison to the first believers. Everything they were taught and they experienced is available to the same degree and with equally rich texture to us.
The word parakletos presents notorious translational difficulty because it has a range of meanings in the Greek, all of which are meant by the author. English translations variously translate it Comforter, Advocate, Counselor, and Helper; perhaps it would be best to keep it in its transliterated form, Paraclete, so as to catch the attention of the hearer with the strangeness; after all, it’s strange among biblical authors, too. It appears only five times: four times in John 14-16 and once in 1 John 2:1. It’s also best not to shut down possible meaning for the listener by narrowing the word to one meaning. The Holy Spirit is specifically said to do the following: teach, remind (14:26), abide (14:16), and testify about Jesus (15:26). Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit deals in truth.
Christians are familiar with the Trinity, but perhaps the most stunning feature of the Fourth Gospel is what I have termed the Quattrinity. In John, Jesus insists that the intimate relationship that exists between him, God, and the Spirit also includes believers. The believer does not stand close by admiring the majesty of the Trinity; rather, she is an equal part of it. John tries to push at this by grabbing hold of a number of terms and repeating them: abide, love, the language of being “in” (14:17 and 20), and later in the Discourse, an emphasis on “one-ness” (cf. 17:21-23). Johannine believers don’t “imitate” Jesus; they participate in him wholly. If the passage is read aloud and preached, the reading should go through v. 23, the pinnacle of the passage: “Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” If God and Christ have made their home with us (recall 1:14), how can we imagine there to be any distance between us and God? This, in turn, affects our eschatology. Everything that matters, that is, ultimate intimacy with God and Christ, is available now. What might one hope for beyond that? God is not currently holding out on us in any way–life, abundant life, is available for living from this moment into eternity.