What do you look for when you read the Bible? More often than we would like to admit we look for confirmation of what we already think. The Christian Reformed synod did just this in 2006 when it appointed a committee “to articulate a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality.” This was a dubious project from the start. The Bible does not present “a foundation-laying . . . theology of human sexuality.” It’s not the sort of thing the Bible does. But the synod made it even more dubious by requiring committee members to agree ahead of time with what the synod had said previously. The synod didn’t want an open-ended exploration of the Bible—that might be dangerous—but biblical confirmation of what it had said.
If you are reading the Bible for confirmation in this way, you will not have much patience with the idea that the Bible might say different things in different places about whatever it is you want the Bible to say, although often the Bible often does just that. If, for example, you are a rock-ribbed Calvinist, you will collect all the election texts in the Bible and focus on those. If, on the other hand, you are a lily-livered Arminian, you will collect the texts that describe salvation as a choice we make, and claim those. And if you discover, as you surely will if you are honest in your study of the Bible, that both kinds of texts are to be found in the New Testament—God chose us texts and we choose God texts—you will find a way to understand their texts—whoever they are—in the light of your texts.
But what if there is another way, an ancient way, a way that allows us to live with the variety of the Bible, that allows the Bible to say one thing in one place and another in another place and still be the Word of God? What if the Bible is often not so much declaration as invitation— an invitation to consider and discuss and decide? An invitation to conversation?
Isn’t just this what Jesus invites us to in John 15:15 when he says, “I now longer call you slaves; slaves don’t know what their master is doing; I call you friends, for I have shared with you everything my Father has shared with me.” We, disciples of Jesus, are invited by Jesus into the conversation between Father and Son. We are invited into spiritual adulthood. It’s this invitation that is spelled out in more detail in the Last Discourse, John 14-17, which includes the passage I just cited from John 15. In the extended passage—one of the most profound in the Bible—Jesus lays out an approach to scripture that we would do well to pay attention to.
Because we can’t, even in this longish post, do any kind of justice to the whole Last Discourse. I’ll confine myself mostly to the opening and agenda-setting chapter, John 14, and within John 14, mostly to verses 18-24, but before I get to that, let me quickly sketch the flow of this part of the Gospel of John.
John 14 arises directly out of the singular events of chapter 13 in which Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and then sits down to eat the last supper with them. Death hangs over the meal, and it ends ominously with Judas slipping out to do his deed (13:30). When Judas is gone, Jesus announces that he—Jesus–is leaving soon and that “where I am going you cannot come” (13:33).
The ever-impetuous Peter refuses to accept this. He says to Jesus, “Why am I not able to follow you; I would lay down my life for you” (13:37). Jesus answers, “Indeed, you will lay down your life for me, but morning will not have come [literally, “the cock will not have crowed”] before you have denied me three times” (13:38).
It’s immediately out of that troubling prediction that Jesus says, as chapter 14 opens, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Trust God and trust me.” He goes on to tell them that there are many dwelling places in his Father’s house and that he is leaving them soon to prepare a place, a topos (which is more than just a “place” here). He adds, “You know the way to where I am going.”
Thomas, the sharp-tongued doubter, responds for the rest of the disciples, “We don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas is the first of three disciples who interrupt Jesus in this chapter to ask questions. The other two are Philip (14:8) and Judas-not-Iscariot (14:22). These interrupters may represent early Christian communities and traditions. It’s worth noting that the first two of these are represented later by gnostic gospels: the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip. There is also a Gospel of Judas, but the Judas in that gospel is not this Judas but Judas Iscariot. The chapter as a whole is pitched as a high-level theological conversation about what it means to know Jesus and to know the Father. About, in short, revelation, how to know God.
To Thomas’s question about where he is going, Jesus replies, famously, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6). Note what Jesus is saying. It’s not I have a way or I teach a way. Jesus does in fact teach a way, and his teachings are important. I’ll come to that below. But that is not what Jesus is saying here. Here he says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “Am” rather than “have” or “teach.”
What this means in terms of John’s gospel is that Jesus is speaking as the logos (see John 1:1-14). Logos—“word,” “concept,” “principle;” it’s a difficult word to capture in translation—is the direct revelation of God in the person of Jesus. What we know of God is what we know of Jesus. He says, “No one comes to the Father but by me.” And he adds in case we don’t get it, “If you know me, you know my Father, and now do know him and have seen him.” This is the first principle in any Christian understanding of revelation: we know God through and in Jesus Christ. This principle, by the way, is routinely violated not only in theology but among Christians who seem to think that God is not anything like Jesus.
Philip is not convinced. He still wants a separation between Jesus, his teacher, and God: “Show us the Father,” he says, “and it will be enough for us.” To this, Jesus responds sharply, “Have I been all this time with you, and you do not know me, Philip? Whoever knows me knows the Father.” The knowledge of which Jesus speaks is fundamentally relational. It’s in the relationship between Father and Son that we come to know both. Or, to use a different metaphor borrowed from the Anglican theologian Rowan Williams, it’s “linguistic.” In Jesus we have the word (logos) spoken by the Father. How do we know the Father? By the word the Father speaks. And what is that word? Jesus. What Jesus does, what Jesus says, and who Jesus is, respectively, way, truth, and life.
The third interruption is from the disciple known by who he isn’t: Judas-not-Iscariot. Jesus has been marking the transition between the way they have known him up to this point, as Jesus, the itinerant rabbi, and the way they will know him in the future, as the Risen Christ. He says that soon the world (Greek cosmos) will no longer see him, but they—the disciples of Jesus—will see him.
This is an expansive use of the word “see” (Greek, theōréō, a word which in the later tradition comes to mean “contemplate). To this point the disciples have seen Jesus straightforwardly: in the flesh. It’s this kind of seeing that we have in Jesus’s answer to Philip: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). They have seen Jesus in the flesh. But now the disciples (and, of course, we who follow them) will need a new kind of seeing, a seeing that doesn’t depend on the earthly presence of Jesus.
The question Judas-not-Iscariot puts to Jesus is about this new kind of seeing: “How can it happen that you will manifest yourself [make yourself visible] to us but not to the world?” (14:22). In response, Jesus speaks of two ways that he will be manifested, seen, in the future. Call them Teaching and Presence. Jesus is speaking throughout this chapter of the resurrection appearances—the first post-cross sightings of Jesus—but he is also speaking beyond those appearances to those who follow belatedly—to us.
First, he speaks of Teaching. The language that Jesus uses in this passage (verses 23-4) echoes the tradition of Torah study. Note the love language. Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, they will keep [Greek tēréō] my word [lógos].” This is love in the sense of Psalm 119:97: “Oh, how love I your Torah.” “Keep” echoes the sense of the Hebrew šmr, “watch, guard, pay attention to, as in Genesis 18:19, where Yhwh says of Abraham, “He will command his children and his house going forward to keep [šmr] the way of Yhwh by doing what is righteous and just . . ..” It includes not only obeying the teaching of Jesus but preserving it, holding on to it. It’s what the gospel of John is in fact doing at this point, and what the other gospels also do in their own way: keep the words of Jesus. To love Jesus is to love these words. It’s a New Testament version of the love of Torah.
And, it’s in Torah study that God takes up residence in the disciple. “If anyone loves me and keeps my word,” Jesus says, “my Father will love them and will come to them, and we will set up residence with them.” It’s worth noting that the word for “dwelling” or “residence” in this verse is monē, used only twice in the New Testament: here and in 14:2: “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places.” Where is the house of the Father? It’s where the people of the Lord are. In dwelling in the word, the logos, of Jesus, Father and Son come to dwell in the disciple. And the disciple in them. It goes both ways.
So, first,Teaching: the scriptures, the New Testament, the new Torah-study. And to this Jesus adds a second, Presence: “This I say to you while I am among you, but the Father will send the Holy Spirit in my name. The Spirit will teach you all things and call to mind all that I have said to you” (14:25-26). Beyond the words, the Spirit manifests the revelatory presence of Father and Son in the Christian community going forward.
What Jesus says here is amplified and clarified (and complicated) in John 16:12-15: “I have yet much more to tell you,” Jesus says, “but you are not yet able to bear it. When the Spirit of truth comes, the Spirit will lead you into all truth” (16:12-3). The Spirit, he adds, will not speak in the Spirit’s own words but in the words of Jesus, which are in turn the words of the Father.
The Spirit is manifested in the continuing community of Jesus Christ—the church. This is worked out in more detail in chapter 17. Jesus says, “As you have sent me into the world, so I send them into the world” (17:18). It’s not just in the words (14:23) but in and through the Spirit-filled community that the Father and Son come to dwell among the disciples of Jesus (14:15-21, 23). And in the world. The worshiping church is the manifestation of the presence of God in the world.
If we are to grasp the New Testament teaching about revelation, we need both Teaching and Presence, text and Spirit, words and interpretation. The truth emerges in the dialogue between the two. In the Last Discourse, Jesus is telling his disciples that events that are coming—his death and resurrection—which will illuminate the meaning of the words he has spoken to them. They will see him differently. The events will clarify his words.
But it’s not just the immediate events of the life of Jesus that illuminate his earlier words and actions. The life of the continuing community—the community of the Spirit—will also draw out of the words of Jesus new things. The living Spirit will, in the words of Jesus, “teach them [the church] all things and call to mind everything that [Jesus] has said” (14:26).
The way described in this chapter has been the way of the Church throughout history. In the early centuries of the Church, as the Church engaged new events, it worked towards a functioning understanding of who Jesus is. The understanding of Jesus that emerged from this long discussion did not arise simply out of the text of the New Testament. In this discussion, the scriptures served as a touchstone.
It would have been easy for the church to have adopted a gnostic approach in understanding who Jesus is. In this approach, Jesus is not really human; he simply wears flesh like a suit of clothes. He is not connected to earth, to pain, and to death. In this view, he is fully divine, and when he rises, he leaves all that belongs to the earth behind like so much dust. It would have been easy, given the world into which Jesus came, to have believed such. Many did. Many, especially in evangelical churches, still do. But the gospels would not allow this interpretation. If the church was to say, as it did, that Jesus is divine; it could not thereby deny that he is human. And there lay the difficulty with which the church struggled for generations.
The text—not just New Testament but the Old Testament, too—bound and disciplined their understanding, but their understanding did not arise wholly out of the text either. It came to them in the course of their reflection in and on their life in the Spirit. What was said in their evolving discussion of the Trinity and of the nature of Christ had to do justice to Jesus and to the events of his life. The cross and resurrection had to stay at the center of their understanding. But their struggle to understand forced the church to reach deeper and deeper into what Trinity might mean. In the course of their discussion, they discovered there new things. New resonances.
The Protestant error is to think that theology goes in one direction only, from the scriptures to theology. It doesn’t and never has. It’s a dialogue. The community of the living Spirit—the church—as it finds itself in new situations, facing new realities, thinking new thoughts, tests its understanding against the text. And then the text, in turn, prompts new understandings.
This interaction of text and Spirit can be thought of in terms of resonances: if an understanding of what God has done and is doing in Christ and in the community of Christ resonates with the scriptures, it may be of God. The test of resonance means that what is proposed harmonizes with the dominant melody of the scriptures. For Christians, the dominant melody is the story of the cross of Jesus, the story of how the singular divine act in human history is in fact to be found in the cross of Jesus, a death reserved for slaves (see Philippians 2).
The question that the story of the cross puts to all those who hear it is which side of the cross are you on? Do you wish to be on? Are you on the side of the one who is crucified as a slave, for whom the cross is the ultimate act of trust and love? Or are you on the side of those who nailed him there, for whom the cross is a symbol of power and the violence that maintains that power? The better we understand, and indeed play out, the song of the cross, the better we will be able to hear in new times new resonances. And new dissonances.
It took the church a long time to hear how dissonant chattel slavey was with the story of the cross, but when the church began at last to hear this, it became apparent that the liberation of slaves—the dignity of all people—resonated with the words and actions of Jesus. And, I might add, with the exodus of Israel. The old stultifying interpretation of the Bible that supported slavery was heard for the dissonant song it always was.
The same lately has been true of the recognition of the equality of women. You can’t sing the song of the cross and insist that women occupy an inferior place in the church. These two things do not harmonize.
I suspect the church will discover the same thing about its old ways of treating same-sex attracted people. It will discover that the right to the dignity of marriage for same-sex people will harmonize better with the gospel than the old denial of that right.
But these are never easy discussions. They are never easy because we need to consider both text and the life of the community of the Spirit. They elucidate each other. It’s in the dialogue between the teaching of Jesus—our Torah—and the presence of the Risen Lord in the Spirit that truth emerges, that we are “lead into all truth.”
This is inherently a revelatory process. In many views of the scripture interpretation, especially Protestant ones, revelation is a thing of the past. But that is not what Jesus leads us to expect in his words in the Last Discourse. Jesus leads us to expect that we will discover more. He invites us into an adult relationship with him and with the Father. He entrusts us with the task of discerning where the Spirit is leading. We should take him at his word.