Aside from pure busyness, I’ve been very hesitant to approach John 14 for a couple of reasons. It is one of the most personally moving pieces of Scripture for me, and I feel reticent about not doing it justice. I guess I should feel that way about the whole canon, but then I’d never post anything. Also, it is one of those Trinity passages, and I still just don’t know how to talk about that. I don’t feel bad on that count, since it took the church a few hundred years to get “settled” on the issue and even then couldn’t do much to explain it. Anyway, it’s a daunting subject. Nonetheless, in an important way, that very point makes these last words with the Apostles so special to me.
Recent experiences created fresh eyes for me as I reread ch. 14. I’ve been participating in a blog that I can’t link to, because it’s closed to the public in order to foster freedom from political repercussions and thus more openness among participants. There is quite a bit of skepticism and critical thinking going on there, and it’s healthy and challenging for me—the “conservative” voice. Dealing with difficult issues, though, requires a continual recourse to Jesus himself, to ask of him what to do and what to think. I don’t mind saying that there is a degree of worry and frustration that comes with thinking critically about reality. I believe Jesus experienced/experiences the same. John 14 has a beautiful bookend (14:1; 14:27): “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” That is the intended effect of these words. Do you find consolation here? Is there comfort for your troubled heart? There should be, I believe, if we truly hear Jesus in this chapter.
In order to get at the real essence of the chapter as I see it, I want to consider the skandalon of Christianity again. It is amazing to consider that the early church made such a relatively huge deal of a bunch of OT texts to do with the word “stone.” Paul interposes Isa 28 with Isa 8, and Peter also puts the two together, adding Ps 118. Cf. Luke 20:17-18 (and pars.) where Jesus puts Ps 118 together with a form of Isa 8.
Rom 9:32 Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as it is written, See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.
1 Pet 2:6 For it stands in scripture: See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame. 7 To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner, 8 and A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall. They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
Isa 28:16 therefore thus says the Lord GOD, See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: One who trusts will not panic.
Ps 118:22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
Isa 8:14 He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
This identification of Jesus as the stone of stumbling was apparently very early and very widely accepted as essential for explaining Jesus. For those who believe, he is the foundation and the capstone. For those who do not, he is a cause for stumbling into destruction. The fact that he was a giant, “scandalous” problem for so many who heard the story became part of the story. To Jews blasphemy; to Greeks absurdity.
Theologian Lesslie Newbigin made popular the phrase “the scandal of particularity” in discussions of modern and postmodern evangelism. His is a very enlightening contribution. I’ve come to think, though, that the real problem now, as always, is the scandal of exclusivity. “Exclusivism” has become a derisive word in postmodern discourse, on par with “pedophilia.” But the skandalon was never simply that God was to be found in this dead backwoods carpenter/upstart rabbi; it was always that God was to be found only in him. There are only two options: find God in this stone or be destroyed by it. There are certainly non-exclusivist interpretations of John 14:6, but I personally don’t think there is much disputing its original sense. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” The other way that this is stated in the chapter is that those who believe, love, and obey will receive the Spirit, “whom the world cannot receive.” Given the theology of the Spirit in the NT (not least the present chapter), not receiving it is extremely problematic for universalism.
Anyway, all that to say, I think exclusivism is a natural implication of this text. Yet, the way we talk about this fact and the way we frame it theologically is of just as much importance as the point itself. Jesus is scandal enough. The statement from the 1989 ecumenical world mission conference sums up my view: “We cannot point to any other way of salvation than Jesus Christ; at the same time we cannot set limits on the saving power of God.” That said, I think focusing on the exclusivist implication of the chapter obscures the perspective from which we should hear Jesus’s words. These are words that bring comfort and peace. But we must place ourselves in the pathos of the twelve. Do not read blithely over their words. Hear their anguish, and you will see that Jesus is not chastising them, he is comforting them. Thomas cries in dismay: Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? Philip pleads: Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied! Judas asks in disorientation: “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus, we don’t understand what is going on here! It’s utterly confusing. Show us God, because for God’s sake we’re not finding him anywhere else!
As it has been for all of John, revelation is salvation. At issue here is not forgiveness of sin and escape from punishment, however badly we may need that. Rather, salvation here is at last to know God, to see God, to be with him, and to receive the peace that presence gives. And of course the implication is still that you can find God only in Jesus, but it is much more important to see that you can actually find God in Jesus. In this light, the argument over universalism is almost nonsensical, because the fact is that we don’t find him anywhere else. Nothing compares, however mystical and sublime. “If you know me, you will know my Father also, and from now on you do know him and have seen him.” And my heart cries out in such indescribable relief and worship. But that is not all. The Spirit is the continuation of revelation, the ongoing presence and intimate relationship: “we will come to them and make our home with them.” This is an experience, to be lived, without which there is no peace. This is salvation.