Troubled by the Cross: a meditation on John 14.1 - 6
Few words in the Bible are better known or more often quoted than these, but for all their timelessness they were addressed to a very specific situation. The demeanour and language of Jesus had filled his disciples with foreboding. He was going to leave them, and that itself would reduce their world to rubble. But they would also have to cope with the manner of his departure. They would see him betrayed by one of their own, arrested, and condemned to a death that would not only wrench him from them, but would cover his name with ignominy, and bury all their hopes.
What is before the Lord’s mind here, then, is not how he himself would cope with the cross, but how his confused and bewildered disciples would cope. It is the trouble in their minds that troubles him, and he addresses it not only with soothing words, but with powerful arguments: arguments they must remember when they see him hanging on the cross, and which we, too, must remember when God leads us where we cannot cope and cannot understand.
‘Trust in God,’ he says. What is going to happen is demonic and dark, yet behind the demonic is the hand of God. He had already told them that no man would take his life from him. Instead, his dying would be an act of obedience to his heavenly Father; and he had told them, too, that though what he was doing was at the moment beyond their comprehension, they would understand later (Jn. 13:7). They had to trust God even when they couldn’t see his reasons; and we can be sure that the arguments Jesus presented to the disciples were the very arguments he presented to himself. He, too, ‘the man, Christ Jesus’, had to trust God, laying down his life (to all human appearance an unfinished life), risking all on the ‘sure and certain hope of the resurrection’.
‘Trust also in me.’ Did they notice that he was asking them to have the same faith in him as they had in God? He, too, had his reasons for leaving them. Later, he would tell them one of them: unless he went, the Paraclete would not come (Jn. 16:7) How much they made of that, we don’t know; and how much they made of his earlier word that his life would be a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45), we don’t know. There was always such a gap between what he taught and what they learned. But, precisely because they didn’t understand, they had to trust; and that trust would be built on believing that he was who he said he was. He was the eternal I AM (Jn. 8:58). He was the one who had told the grieving Martha that he was the resurrection and the life, and that those who believed in him would live even though they died (Jn. 11:25-6). Surely, if that were true of those who believed in him, it must first of all be true of himself? Death could not hold the Life of the World: ‘Before long, the world will not see me any more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.’ (John 14:9)
There then follows a second word for their troubled hearts. He tells them where he’s going, and why: ‘I am going there to prepare a place for you.’ It wasn’t what they wanted to hear. They wanted to hear him say, ‘I’m not going.’ But he is going; he has to go. Where? He looks beyond the cross, and tells them he is going to his Father’s house: that’s where he must prepare a place for them (v.2).
At first glance, this seems to contradict the words of Matthew Twenty-five, where Jesus speaks of his kingdom as prepared ‘from the foundation of the world.’ (Mt. 25:34) What, then, can he mean when he says that he is now going to prepare it?
Part of the answer has to be that he is going in order to secure a place for us in his Father’s house. We have no title to it in ourselves. Our title derives entirely from him, and he will earn that title by his death. It is through his blood that God lavishes on us the riches of his grace (Eph. 1:7-8).
But what can be lacking in his Father’s house? Is it not true that even as the Lord spoke ‘all things are now ready’ (Lk. 14:17)? Yes, apart from one blank: the presence of the incarnate Son. The slain Lamb was not yet in the centre of the Throne (Rev.7:6, 22:1), but with that very departure which the disciples so much dreaded, the preparation would be complete. He would sit at the right hand of the majesty in heaven (Heb. 1:3), and then (and only then) would New Jerusalem have its Lamp (Rev. 21:23).
Besides, when the time arrived for their homecoming, he would come back for them ‘and take you to be with me where I am.’ (v. 3) Then, in case they were afraid that there would be no room for them, he adds, ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms’. Such a fear, in them and in us, would be perfectly understandable. How could they expect to live in his Father’s house? But he sets all such fears aside, and he makes his wishes even clearer in John 17:24 when he prays, ‘Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory.’ And not only will they see his glory: he will give them the glory the Father has given to himself (v. 22). They will look like him; they will share his space, share his blessedness and share his sovereignty; and above all, they will share in the Father’s love for him.
It would be hazardous to assume that the disciples took all this in. What is certain, however, is that these were the prospects that occupied Jesus’ mind as he moved ever closer to Calvary. As we see from his agony in Gethsemane, he could not close his mind against the awful prospect of the cross but he pressed on, sustained by his enduring love for his people (Jn. 13:1) and by the assurance that his death would redeem a multitude so vast they would need a house with many rooms; or, as we see in John’s vision of New Jerusalem, a city of breathtaking proportions (12,00 stadia, or 1500 miles, in length, breadth and height: unimaginable even by today’s standards).
But how will they (and we) get there? When Jesus remarks that they know where he is going, and know the way, Philip immediately corrects him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?’ However ill-advised the question, it brought forth a memorable answer: ‘I am the way (and the truth and the life).’ He is the truth about the Father; and he is the way to the Father. At the deepest level, this means that it is his self-sacrifice that removes the flaming sword that guards the way to the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:24). But if we keep to the imagery of John Fourteeen, the way into the Father’s house will be to be able to say, ‘We are with Jesus.’
And in the meantime he will not leave us orphans, alone and friendless: ‘I will come to you.’ ( Jn. 14.18).
All in all, enough to give us food for thought till we see him face to face.
This article was originally posted on the Desiring God website 20th March 201