John 14:1-3 and the Rapture (Part 2)

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See the rest of the series.

In the first article, we set out to study what Jesus meant at John 14:1-3. Some Christians believe this passage speaks about the pre-tribulational rapture of the church to heaven, clearing the way for the tribulation here on earth. Is that right?

We began by looking at the context around Jesus’ words, which is His long goodbye talk at John 13:33 to 16:33. In this article, we’ll finish up the context, lay out four possible ways to understand Jesus’ words at John 14:1-3, then propose a “grading scale” to weigh these options. The next two articles in this series will examine these four positions in detail.

1d: Convo on Philip’s implicit question (vv. 14:8-21)

Philip, perplexed, asks to see the Father. Jesus explains that Father and Son (and Spirit) mutually indwell one another in a mysterious way (Jn 14:10-11). This interwoven nature helps explain why the one God can eternally exist as three co-equal and co-eternal Persons.1 This is why to “see” Jesus is to “see” the Father—to be with Jesus by means of trusting His Good News is to be “in God’s presence.”

But still—Jesus is physically leaving! He must leave so He can wage His divine campaign against the kingdom of darkness from on high through us (Jn 14:12).2 Where does this leave us, then?

Well, Jesus promises to not leave us as orphans. The Father will send “another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth,” (Jn 14:16-17). Unlike those outside God’s family, we will know this Spirit because He’ll reside with us and be inside us (Jn 14:17).3 And so He won’t abandon us as orphans: “I will come to you” (Jn 14:18). On that day—that is, the day when the Advocate comes to dwell inside us—we will participate God’s inner life because we’ll be part of this mutual indwelling. “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you,” (Jn 14:20).

1e: Convo on Judas (not Iscariot’s) question (vv. 14:22-31)

When the Spirit takes residence inside us, Father and Son come along with Him: “we will come to them and make our home with them,” (Jn 14:23).

And yet, despite all this talk about being both absent and somehow “with us” at the same time, the fact is that Jesus is physically leaving us. Sure, the Spirit will be His proxy in the interim and, as we’ve seen, Father and Son will also tag along—but there is no physical, tangible “God with us” after the ascension.

Jesus realizes this will be a problem, because He returns to the theme and says it’s best that He leaves (Jn 14:28). If they love Him (and, by extension, love the victory over sin and Satan that His ministry is all about), then they should be glad that He’s headed back to the Father’s throne room. The scriptures “show” us the three Persons who comprise the One God by highlighting the “distinct and harmonious offices in the great work of redemption”4 that each performs. In this case, Jesus casts a spotlight on the Father’s role in planning this divine rescue plan: “the Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28). That is, as our vicarious surrogate and representative, Jesus is carrying out the Father’s plan—and that plan has Him leaving here and returning to the Father’s personal presence. By telling them about His departure He’s simply preparing them for this physical separation beforehand, so they’ll trust Him when it happens (Jn 14:29).

1f: Convo about the divine helper (vv. 15:26 to 16:15)

Jesus casts the Spirit’s role, and He and the Father’s spiritual presence within us via the Spirit, as an aid for evangelism (Jn 15:26-27). They must understand this, or else they might fall away from the faith (Jn 16:1). Bad times are coming, and true believers must stick with Him—this is Jesus’ point throughout John 15 (see esp. Jn 15:9-10). “I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them,” (Jn 16:4).

Jesus has carefully meted out more information over time. He didn’t mention His long absence and the community’s mission beforehand “because I was with you, but now I am going to him who sent me,” (Jn 16:4-5). This is a physical departure for another place, returning to His words at John 14:2-4.

Though both Phillip and Thomas have asked Jesus where He’s going (Jn 13:36, 14:5), Jesus knows their questions are actually grief-stricken exclamations borne of shock (Jn 16:5-6). I must go, Jesus explains, because if I don’t, then the Advocate won’t arrive and carry out His mission through you all (Jn 16:7-11). But, when the Spirit arrives, He’ll guide believers into all truth—i.e., they’ll understand it all soon enough (Jn 16:13-14).

“Jesus went on to say, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’” (Jn 16:16). His meaning is unclear, but it’s best to see Jesus as speaking about the resurrection on Easter morning and the 40 days of instruction which follow.5

1g: Convo about the resurrection reunion (vv. 16:16-28)

The disciples are once again confused—the concept of Jesus’ death and resurrection makes no sense to them (Jn 16:17-18).

Jesus ignores their questions about the “why” and “how” of His departure, and instead reassures them that “it’ll be worth it all” when He returns (Jn 16:20-23). Their joy at beholding Jesus’ glorified and resurrected person, coupled with the power of the Holy Spirit poured out from on high at Pentecost, will turbo-charge their zeal to take His Good News to Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. Therefore, their joy will be irrepressible and complete (Jn 16:22, 24).

During the 40 days between His resurrection and ascension, Jesus will no longer speak to them figuratively— “I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father,” (Jn 16:25). Indeed, Luke tells us: “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God,” (Acts 1:3).

Jesus then ends His long farewell address by pivoting back to where the discussion began—to His long-term departure, not simply the interval between Good Friday and Easter morning: “I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father,” (Jn 16:28).

Throughout the farewell address, Jesus refers to His departure and return in at least three different contexts; (a) His physical departure to the Father’s presence and eventual physical return, (b) His physical departure to the Father and His spiritual return via the Holy Spirit, and (c) His physical departure by death and His physical return on Easter morning. He dips in and out of these contexts repeatedly; first one, then the other, then still another. This means the reader cannot assume an “obvious” reading of John 14:2-4, but must follow the train of Jesus’ thought throughout the entire farewell address to make a reliable conclusion.

2: What does Jesus mean at John 14:1-3?

This much is clear:

  • Jesus speaks of a physical departure to a place where the disciples cannot follow (Jn 13:33). He identifies His destination as “to the One who sent me,” (Jn 7:33; cp. “just as I told the Jews” at Jn 13:33). The One who sent Him was God (Jn 1:14, 18).
  • Peter asks why they cannot follow Jesus to this destination (Jn 13:36-37).
  • Jesus responds by asking the disciples to trust Him (Jn 14:1). The discussion still centers on Jesus’ physical departure.
  • His destination is the Father’s personal presence, which he figuratively refers to as “my Father’s house.” Assuming the likeness of a kindly innkeeper, Jesus says He’s headed off to prepare “rooms” for all believers and will one day return to bring Christians to His Father’s “house.”

It seems there are four possible options for understanding John 14:2-3, and they each rely on different definitions of “my Father’s house.”

Table
Table 1

2a: A grade scale for bible study

I suggest the following grading scale to evaluate the strength of a passage’s teaching:6

  • Grade A: Explicit teaching. The passage either (a) makes some direct statement in proper context, or (b) directly teaches on the specific issue (e.g., justification by faith, Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus as the only way of salvation, the virgin birth, etc.). Hold closely and aggressively to doctrines with Grade A support.
  • Grade B: Implicit teaching. Though there may not be a specific statement in context, or a direct passage about the subject using the summary terms the Church has developed over time, there is only one responsible conclusion (e.g., doctrine of the Trinity, two-nature Christology, baptism of professing believers only). Hold closely and aggressively to doctrines with Grade B support.
  • Grade C: A principal or logical conclusion—an inference. The issue is the application of a general principle from scripture in context, and/or a logical conclusion or inference from the data in proper context. “Because A, then it makes sense that B, and so we have C.” It isn’t the only conclusion possible, but it is a reasonable one (e.g., presence of apostolic sign gifts today, the regulative principle of worship, music styles in worship). Agree to disagree on doctrines with Grade C support, because the evidence is not conclusive for one position or the other.
  • Grade D: A guess or speculation. No explicit or implicit scriptural support, evidence falls short of a persuasive conclusion from the data, and it’s built on shaky foundations—“because A, then it makes sense that B, and therefore it could mean C, and so D.” It’s an educated guess based on circumstantial evidence (e.g., who wrote the Book of Hebrews). Hold very loosely to issues with Grade D support—never force your guess on another believer.
  • Grade E: Poor or non-existent support. No explicit or implicit evidence, no logical conclusion or inference from data, and cannot be taken seriously even as a guess. The passage doesn’t support the issue at hand. Ditch passages with Grade E support.

In the next article, we’ll look at Option 1 from the table, above.

Notes

1 This is called “perichoresis,” which Erickson helpfully defines as: “Indwelling or mutual interpenetration. An ancient teaching that understands the Trinity as consisting of three persons, so closely bound together that the life of each flows through each of the others,” (Concise Dictionary, s.v., “perichoresis,” p. 152).

2 Calvin, John, p. 2:90. Alvah Hovey, Commentary on John, in American Commentary (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1885), p. 286.

“A very wonderful promise! But has it been fulfilled? We think it has. For if we look at the wonders of the Day of Pentecost, together with the events that followed in the rapid spread of the gospel during the apostolic age, it does not seem extravagant to regard them as greater than any which took place during the ministry of Christ. And if we compare the spiritual results of the three most fruitful years of the ministry of Paul, of Luther, of Whitefield, or of Spurgeon, with the spiritual results of Christ’s preaching and miracles for three years, we shall not deem his promise vain. And if it be urged against the latter instances that miracles are wanting, it may be replied that supernatural works in the realm of spirit are superior, rather than inferior, to those in the world of sense—that to raise a soul from death unto life is really a greater act than to raise a dead body from the grave.”

3 Gk: ὅτι παρʼ ὑμῖν μένει καὶ ἐν ὑμῖν ἔσται.

4 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, Article II.

5 This is Chrysostom’s interpretation and it’s followed by many modern interpreters (“Homily LXXIX,” in NPNF1, vol. 14, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. G. T. Stupart (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), p. 291).

There are two other reasonable options to understand Jn 16:16f.

First is that Jesus speaking of the coming of the Spirit—they will soon not see Him any longer, but nevertheless they will “see” Him by the illumination of the Spirit. This hinges on the two different words for “see” which John uses, and the conclusion that if John were speaking of them physically “seeing” Jesus soon, he would have used the same word for “sight” in the sentence. But he didn’t. So, there must be some distinction between the two words, and the latter can be interpreted as a mental or spiritual perception (BDAG, s.v., sense A.4). John Calvin is an eloquent champion for this view (Commentary on the Gospel According to John, vol. 2 (reprint; Bellingham: Logos, 2010), p. 147). More recently, Edward Klink advances this proposal (John, ZECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016; Kindle ed.), loc. 18998f). This interpretation is plausible but seems too cute by half. Jesus’ insistence on them seeing Him again and being filled with joy (Jn 16:20f) seem to indicate something more than spiritual enlightenment.

A second option is that Jesus is speaking of His second coming. But His audience never saw the second coming. It seems hollow if Jesus assured them all that they’d soon see Him, but He really meant that the Christians alive at His second coming would see Him.

6 I am indebted to Paul Henebury’s “Rules of Affinity” as the inspiration for this grading scale. I did not use his grading scale or his descriptions, but I did take his general concept.

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