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Note of the Day – November 6 (John 14:4-7)

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John 14:4-7 (continued, v. 6)

In response to the disciples’ question in verse 5 regarding where Jesus is going (v. 4, cf. the previous day’s note), he answers with the declaration of verse 6, one of the most famous statements in the New Testament:

“Yeshua says [le/gei] to him {Thomas}, ‘I am [e)gw\ ei)mi] the way, and the truth and the life—no one comes toward the Father if not [i.e. except] through me.”

Both the statement in v. 4, and the question of v. 5, use the word o(do/$ (“way”) with an adverb/particle (of place) derived from the pronoun po/$ (“who/what/which”):

  • “the (place) which/where [o%pou] I am going…you have seen/known the way [o(do/$]” (v. 4)
  • “we have not seen/known what(ever place where) [pou=] you are going…how can we see/know the way [o(do/$]?” (v. 5)

It seems to suggest a specific location with a distinct path that leads to it (cf. Jesus’ illustration in Matt 7:13-14 par). However, Jesus’ response in verse 6 makes clear that he himself (emphatic pronoun e)gw/, “I”) is the path or way (o(do/$). This point of emphasis is all the more solemn in its use of the pronoun + verb of being (e)gw\ ei)mi, “I am”), with its Johannine connotation of identifying Jesus with God the Father (YHWH). For other “I am” sayings of Jesus in John, cf. 6:35, 41, 48, 51; 8:12, 24; 9:5; 10:7, 9, 11; 11:25; 13:19; 15:1, 5; 18:5; and note also the foreshadowing of the expression in 1:20ff; 3:28, and the distinctive use of the verb of being (ei)mi) in 1:1-15. Especially worth noting, is the parallel with 14:4-5 in 7:33ff, where Jesus says:

“(It is only) a little time yet (that) I am [ei)mi] with you, and I go away [u(pa/gw] toward the (one who) sent me. You will seek (for) me and you will not find [me], and the (place) where [o%pou] I am [ei)mi] you are not able to come (there).” (vv. 33-34)

There is an interesting parallelism within this saying:

  • ei)mi (“I am”)—Jesus’ presence with the people (i.e. his disciples)
    u(pa/gw (“I go under/away”)—his departure back to the Father
    o%pou (“the [place] where”)—where he is, with the Father
  • ei)mi (“I am”)—His presence with God the Father (1:1ff)

The statement that Jesus goes “toward” (pro/$) the Father is important, and the basic expression occurs numerous times in Gospel of John. In the prologue, the orientation of the eternal Word (Lo/go$) is toward (pro/$) God the Father (1:1-2), and the Son ultimately goes back toward Him (13:1, and throughout the Last Discourse). Similarly, the preposition is used for people (believers) who come to Jesus—toward him, toward the light, etc., as in 3:20-21; 5:40; 6:35, 37, 44-45, et al. It is only in coming toward the Son (Jesus), that is, by believing/trusting in him, that one is able to come toward the Father. This dynamic is not spelled out in detail, but the basic image in the Last Discourse is that Jesus will return (future eschatology) to bring believers with him to the Father (14:3; 17:24, etc). However, at the same time, in a different sense (‘realized’ eschatology), the Father (with the Son) is already present with believers, residing in them (14:23, etc). Both aspects are found in chapter 14, and both should be understood as relating to the idea of Jesus as the way to the Father. That he is the only way was expressed already in the parable/illustration of the shepherd and sheep-fold in chapter 10 (vv. 1-5)—Jesus is both the door leading into the sheepfold (vv. 7-9) and the shepherd who guides the sheep into the fold (vv. 11-16). Something of the same image of the door is certainly implied in 14:6, since Jesus speaks of believers as coming to the Father through (dia/) him.

The motif of the way (o(do/$) was extremely important in the earliest Christian tradition, though, without the book of Acts, this fact would have been almost completely lost to us. One of the earliest names or labels for Christians and Christianity was, collectively, “the Way” (o( o(do/$)—cf. Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22. This is perhaps the most distinctive and precise parallel between early Christians and the Community of the Qumran texts (Dead Sea Scrolls), since both referred to themselves this way. Both traditions would seem to derive from an interpretation of (and identification with) Isaiah 40:3ff, which, in combination with Mal 3:1ff, would be associated with the early Gospel traditions regarding John the Baptist and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry—cf. Matt 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 1:16-17, 76ff; 3:4; Jn 1:23. For Isa 40:3 and the religious identity of the Qumran Community, cf. especially the ‘Community Rule’ [1QS] 8:12-16.

Jesus’ declaration in Jn 14:6 expands upon the identification of Jesus with “the way”:

“I am the way, and the truth [a)lh/qeia] and the life [zwh/]…”

Both words are important and occur frequently in the Gospel (and First Letter) of John. Probably here they are best understood as epexegetical, qualifying and characterizing Jesus as the Way—i.e., the “way of truth“, “way of life“—though certainly they can also be viewed as separate (related) “I am” declarations. For the idea of a way leading to life, see Gen 3:24; Psalm 16:11; Prov 6:23; 15:24; 16:17, as well as Jer 21:8 (also Ezek 3:18; 13:22) which prefigures Matt 7:14 and the “Two Ways” religious-ethical tradition that developed in early Christianity (Didache 1-6; Barnabas 18-21). Similarly, the “way of truth” has its background in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition—cf. Psalm 86:11; 119:30; Tob 1:3; Wisdom 5:6; 1QS 4:15-16, etc.; the expression is found in 2 Pet 2:2 (cf. also v. 15). The Gospel message is called the “way of salvation” in Acts 16:17; cf. also 18:25-26. There is an echo of Jn 14:6 in the Gnostic text known as the Gospel of Truth (mid-2nd century?):

“This is the gospel of the one who is searched for, which was revealed to the ones who are perfect through the mercies of the Father—the hidden mystery, Jesus, the Christ. Through it he enlightened those who were in darkness. Out of oblivion he enlightened them, he showed (them) a way. And the way is the truth which he taught them.” (translation G. W. MacRae in the Nag Hammadi Library [NHL], ed. James M. Robinson)

Here we see one of the clearest differences between the Gospel of John and the Gnosticism of the 2nd century A.D. In the Johannine Gospel, Jesus himself (i.e. the person of Christ, the Son) is the way. By contrast, in the ‘Gospel of Truth’, the way is the gospel (message), the revelation of truth which Jesus brings to the Elect (believers). This is a seemingly small, but very significant difference, and it thoroughly colors how one understands “knowledge” (gnw=si$) from a Christian (and Christological standpoint). The emphasis on knowledge will be addressed in relation to the final verse (14:7) to be discussed here, in the next day’s note.

Note of the Day – November 5 (John 14:4-7)

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John 14:4-7

The brief exchange in Jn 14:4-7, especially the statement by Jesus in v. 7, is part of the block of material spanning chapters 13-17, a major section of the Gospel of John often referred to as the Last (or, Upper Room) Discourse. It actually represents a series of discourses, joined together in a literary framework, and which may not have been delivered by Jesus all on a single occasion. Jn 13:31-14:31 forms a distinct unit, made up of three parts, each of which follows the basic pattern for the discourses of Jesus in John. I would divine this section as follows:

  • 13:31-38—First Part (Introduction)
    Statement by Jesus, vv. 31-35
    Disciples’ question (Peter), v. 36a
    Jesus’ Response, vv. 36b-38
  • 14:1-14—Second Part
    Statement by Jesus, vv. 1-4
    Disciples’ first question (Thomas), v. 5
    Jesus’ Response, vv. 6-7
    Disciples’ second question (Philip), v. 8
    Jesus’ Response, vv. 9-14
  • 14:15-17Promise of the Spirit
  • 14:18-24—Third Part
    Statement by Jesus, vv. 18-21
    Disciples’ question (Judas), v. 22
    Jesus’ Response, vv. 23-24
  • 14:25-26Promise of the Spirit
  • 14:27-31—Closing Statement

The first section 13:31-38 also serves as an introduction to the Last Discourse as a whole; Jesus’ statement contains three parts, or themes, which run through the discourse(s):

  • Glorification of the Son—his death and resurrection/exaltation (vv. 31-32)
  • His departure from the disciples—death and return to the Father (v. 33)
  • What he leaves for the disciples—the Love command (vv. 34-35)

Chapter 14 deals primarily with the second theme (Jesus’ departure), which forms the basis for the statements by Jesus in vv. 1-4 and 18-21, along with the disciples’ questions. In verses 1-4, Jesus states that he is traveling (poreu/omai) to the Father to make ready (e(toima/sai) a place (to/po$, i.e. rooms) for believers to stay. His statement concludes with the promise in verse 4:

“And where(ever) I (am) go(ing) under [i.e. away], you have seen [i.e. known] the way (there)”

The Greek is more concise than indicated by the translation:

kai\ o%pou [e)gw\] u(pa/gw oi&date th\n o(do/n

There is also a wonderful bit of alliteration which is lost in translation:

hopou egœ hupagœ oidate t¢n hodon

The verb u(pa/gw literally means “lead under”, i.e. to lead/take oneself away, out of sight. It often is used in the general sense of “go away, depart”, but here it is preferable to retain as much of the literal meaning as possible, since it suggests two important themes in context: (a) that Jesus is going to disappear and no longer be seen, and (b) he also shows or leads (a&gw) the way for his followers. The verb ei&dw, as indicated above, has a dual meaning—see/know. The disciples both see the way and know it, that is, to the place where Jesus is going. The verb is a perfect form, oi&date (“you have seen/known”), by which Jesus may imply that they have known from the beginning—in the sense that they have been with Jesus, following him all along. Nevertheless, the disciples’ question (by Thomas) in verse 5, shows that they do not yet fully understand Jesus’ words. This is a common element in the discourses of Jesus—the misunderstanding of those who hear him, prompting a question, such as we see in v. 5:

“Lord, we have not seen/heard where (it is) you (are) go(ing) under [i.e. away]; (so) how are we able to see/know the way (there)?”

As is common in the Johannine discourses, Jesus’ audience takes his words in their apparent sense, unaware of the deeper meaning. In the earlier parallel of 7:33-36, the people are thinking of an actual geographic location, and that may be in the disciples’ mind here as well. At any rate, Thomas’ question assumes a specific way or direction one may follow. The pronoun po$ used as an adverb or particle indicating place (o%pou, pou=), i.e. somewhere, what/which place, suggests a distinct location. The use of the noun o(do/$ (“way, path, road,” etc) is especially significant here in its (figurative) religious and ethical meaning. This will be explained further in the discussion of verses 6-7 which continues in the next daily note.

Special Note: On the noun “knowledge” in John

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As part of my analysis of knowledge and revelation in the Johannine writings (cf. the current article), I pointed out that, while the verb ginw/skw (ginœ¡skœ, “know”) is found quite often, the noun gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis, “knowledge”) does not occur at all. Compare this with the relatively frequent use of the noun in Paul’s letters (esp. 1 and 2 Corinthians). Some commentators have theorized that the Christian communities which produced (and used) the Johannine Gospel and letters were combating an early form of Gnosticism (with a docetic Christology, cf. 1 Jn 4:1-6, etc). The persons or groups referred to in 1 John may be related in some way to those mentioned by Ignatius of Antioch (Smyrneans 2-5, Trallians 9-10) in the early 2nd century (c. 110 A.D.). There is a good discussion of this topic, for example, in R. E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple (Paulist Press: 1979), especially pp. 103-23. According to this basic theory, the author(s) of the Gospel and letters may have intentionally avoided use of the noun gnw=si$. For a possible similar phenomenon in the Pastoral letters, cf. my recent note on 1 Tim 6:20-21. However, there are several other explanations which do not require any relationship to Gnosticism or anti-gnostic tendencies:

  1. The Gospel and Letters of John have a much simpler vocabulary than, for example, the letters of Paul. Related to this is a marked tendency, in many instances, to prefer the use of verbs rather than nouns to govern the basic mode of expression. Just about anything that one might say about “knowledge” could easily be expressed through use of the verbs ginw/skw (“know”) and ei&dw (“see, know”). This dependence on the verb also tends to emphasize Jesus Christ as the means and instrument of knowledge, rather than the knowledge per se. This differs in certain respects from Paul, who frequently emphasizes the message (the Gospel) itself.
  2. The Gospel (and Letters) also seem to rely upon a relatively small set of descriptive nouns to refer to the revelation which comes in the person of Jesus; these include—light (fw=$), truth (a)lh/qeia), life (zwh/), word (lo/go$, r(h=ma), way (o(do/$), splendor/glory (do/ca), and so forth. A number of these convey in the popular mind a more immediate and dynamic sense of the divine presence and activity than would the word gnw=si$. That these can be seen as interchangeable with gnw=si$, to some extent, is indicated by the statement in Jn 1:17: “…the favor [i.e. grace] and truth (of God) came to be through Jesus Christ”. Paul, on the other hand, could say much the same thing using the word “knowledge”—”in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden away” (Col 2:3), “…the light of the knowledge of the splendor of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6), etc.
  3. As noted above, while Paul has a strong sense of knowledge in terms of the message about Christ (i.e. the Gospel), which could effectively be summarized by the noun gnw=si$, the Gospel and Letters of John emphasize a different aspect of revelation—the person of Christ, the Son of God. This would be natural enough within the Gospel narrative, since it deals primarily with the words and actions of Jesus, along with the people’s response to them; but the same emphasis continues in 1 John as well. Indeed, the noun eu)agge/lion (“good message”, i.e. Gospel) does not occur at all in the Johannine writings (unless one includes Rev 14:6), an omission almost unthinkable for Paul in his letters. Instead, the emphasis is decidedly on having seen and heard Jesus himself (1 Jn 1:1-3)—his words, etc.—and, in particular, the great commandment to love one another. For a full list of the relevant passages, see the current article. Within early Christian thought, the Gospel message is, of course, directly related to the person of Christ; it is really a question of which aspect of the Christian faith one seeks to emphasize.