The Marriage Motif in John 13 and 14, Part 2


JOHN 14:3-6 

A– If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come (Gr. erchomai) again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.  v. 3

B– And where I am going you know the way. (Gr. hodon). v. 4

B—- Jesus said to him, “I am the way (Gr. hodos), and the truth, and the life;  v. 6a  

A–No one comes (Gr. erchetai from the root erchomai) to the Father but through Me.  v.  6b



Explaining the Chiasm

In Part 1, I discussed the details related to an ancient Jewish wedding. It consisted of two stages: 1) kiddushin–betrothal/sanctification and 2) nisu’in–the carrying away of the bride by the bridegroom, the consummation of the marriage. In between these two events is a period of time–approximately one year in length–in which the bridegroom goes to his father’s house to add a room in which he and his prospective bride will reside. In that one-year period, the parties are bound by a contract, called a ketubah, stipulating that they will remain faithful to each other while apart.

We found this “marriage motif” toward the end of John 13. A chiasm was identified in which Jesus, the bridegroom, would go to a place where His bride, the disciples, could not come/follow (verses 33b/36b), but, He explained, “you will follow later (verse 36b).” Those verses “point to” two parallel verses inside them, verses 34 and 35, in which Jesus commands His disciples to “love one another.” In a 1st-Century Jewish context, loving one another is the example by which one demonstrates one’s love for God. In our “marriage motif,” Jesus, the bridegroom, goes to a place the bride cannot follow, and while He’s away, the bride is directed to remain faithful through love–the terms of the ketubah.

Among the verses in our present chiasm is John 14:6, one of the best known verses in all of Christianity. It is presented by preachers and evangelists alike as a stand-alone verse. I once was told by a pastor that this verse had no context; it simply meant what it meant, it didn’t matter where in Scripture it was found, or why the writer placed it in a certain passage of Scripture; it was informed by nothing other than its own words. And by that is meant that Jesus is the true form or essential idea of the way, truth and life–a static personification of those things–which at the same time are all left unexplained and undefined. And the preacher/evangelist is quick to point out that unless one believes this, that is, proclaims a belief in the proposition that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life–a “saving knowledge” of Jesus–then this verse declares that one cannot come to the Father in the heavenly realm and will not be saved unto eternal life. There’s a “lullaby effect” involved here. We have heard these words and listened to this explanation of them so often that our minds become “anesthetized”–we cease to consider that they could mean anything else. Our lesson will hopefully shed insight on the contextual meaning of this verse.

As we enter Chapter 14, Jesus amplifies the “marriage motif,” mentioning that He will “go to prepare a place for you” and tying that declaration to the description “in My Father’s house are many rooms.” (v. 14:2) Verse 14:3 reiterates “if I go and prepare a place for you,” Jesus promises to return: “I will come and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.” In the “marriage motif,” the bridegroom comes back to his bride, to “carry” her to the room he has prepared at his father’s house. The second “stage” of the Jewish wedding is called nisu’in, from the verb, nasa, meaning to carry. In the second half of the verse there are two expressions: “eimi ego“–I am, and “hymeis ete“–you might be. There is a “oneness” implied here between bridegroom and bride. We will also observe a reference to oneness later in John chapter 14 that will arise in Part 3 of this series.

The word translated as “come” is erchomai (I am coming) in verse 3 matches the 3rd person use of the same verb in verse 6b. (no one comes: erchetai/erchomai)  Staying within the “marriage motif,” the bridegroom comes back for his bride–the meaning of verse 14:3–and then the bridegroom “carries” his bride to the room at his father’s house that he has prepared and within which the two will live “under one roof,” symbolized in  the Jewish wedding by the chuppah. Again, in the context of the Jewish wedding process–specifically the second stage–it is only with the bridegroom–by those means–that the bride is “carried” to his father’s house. Jesus, the bridegroom in the context of John 14, will “come back” to His bride, and it is only with Him, through Him or by His side, that the bride “comes” to His Father’s house, and lives with Him under one roof. “No one,” Jesus states, “comes to the Father except by me.” Just as the bridegroom exercises his exclusive privilege to “carry away” his bride to his father’s house, Jesus exercises His exclusive privilege to “carry away” His disciples to the abode of His Father. I want to suggest that verse 3 and line 6b form a synonymous parallelism such that the relationship of a bridegroom to a bride and the relationship of a master to his disciple are reflections of each other. The context of the entire passage in which this chiasm is found centers on the master/disciple relationship. When, in verse 4, Jesus states “you know the way,” He is not addressing all of mankind. Rather, He is speaking exclusively to His disciples. Therefore, in line 6b, are we to conclude that Jesus has shifted His focus to address all of mankind? I think the weight of context suggests that His words are directed to His bride, that is, His disciples. The disciple comes to the Father’s house exclusively through Jesus, his Master.

The parallelism of verse 3 to line 6b points to a parallelism inside the structure, found in verse 4 and line 6a. Verse 4 is, on its face, perplexing. Jesus has previously mentioned in an earlier part of this discussion with his disciples that “where I am going, you cannot come,” (verse 3:33b) and “where I go, you cannot follow Me now.” (v. 3:36b) In the marriage motif, the bridegroom goes off by himself to prepare a place for his prospective bride. However, in verse 14:4, Jesus states “and where I am going, you know the way.” Really? Are the disciples to follow Him on their own? Thomas is confused, stating: “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

In verse 4 and line 6a, the word, way (hodon), repeats. Thomas, in verse 5, is referring to the “way”–also hodon in Greek–as if it were a physical path on which one could walk. The use of the “way” as a path by Thomas would continue in the “marriage motif” in that the bride would one day be “carried off” along a path to the house of the bridegroom’s father. Jesus, however, is not referring to the way as a physical path. When Jesus refers to Himself as the Way, He is not referring to Himself as a static picture or idealization of a path; rather He is a dynamic, walking representative of God’s Word, shaping the world, building character and conforming the world to God’s will. In Hebrew, the word, way, is derek. It can mean a path, but it can also mean “a way of life,” a “call to duty,” and in the present context, to live as Jesus lived. Jesus, using a word play, has shifted the meaning to embrace the latter. Jesus is not simply referencing the bridegroom carrying the bride (His disciples) to His Father’s house, but He is referring to Himself as a walking carrier of the Word of God. For the word, derek, to the Hebrew ear, is intimately associated with “walking.” “Blessed are the undefiled in the way (derek), who walk in the Law of the LORD.” (walk in the Torah of YHVH–the Word of God) (Psalm 119:1) Jesus could confidently tell His disciples in verse 4 that they “know the way,” since they are the very same disciples who had been studying under Him, that is, walking with him, for a long period of time. While Jesus is preparing a room for them, they will continue in the “way” of Jesus. The disciple emulates the behavior of his Master. This “way” fulfills the terms of the contract, the ketubah, in the marriage motif of ancient Judaism.

What of truth and life? The presence of those words in line 6a “amplifies” upon the use of the word “way,” making the literary structure of verses 4 and 6a a synthetic parallelism. Like “way,” truth and life are also active, dynamic forces in the world, carrying out the will of God. As found in a previous article, John 20:21: A Call to Evangelize, the definition of truth (emet) was at the center of a chiasm in which Jesus, praying to His Father, said: “Your Word is truth.” (John 17:17) Of life, John also equates life to the Word of God: “The words that I speak to you, they are spirit and they are life.” (John 6:63) Way, truth and life are all references to the Word of God, an active force in the world, shaping it through the agency of human beings to conform the world to God’s will. The disciples, far from being told to look upon a static representation of their Master in order to grasp a “saving knowledge” of the Master, are instead instructed to carry out the work of the Master–His way, His truth, His way of life–while He is away.

What, then, does it mean to “come to the Father” in line 6b? As stated above, the chiasm highlights a word play used by Jesus to shift the meaning of “way” from a pathway to a “way of life.” Given that as context, are we now to conclude that “coming to the Father” is a reference to a “pathway” to Heaven? No, I think not. Verse 14:7 provides an insight: “If you had known me, you would have known the Father of Me. From now on, you do know Him and have seen Him.” There are two Greek words translated as “know” in that verse: eido and ginosko. The respective words in Hebrew are reeh and yada. Both are relational terms denoting intimacy. The disciple intimately knows the ways of his master. At the time of Jesus’ discourse with His disciples in John 14, they had spent three years living with Him. Jesus’ disciples intimately knew Him. They saw and knew His way of life. They shared an insight about the ways of Jesus. According  to Jesus, to know Him was to know His Father, to come into relationship with the Father. Far from a “pathway to Heaven,” Jesus was speaking about something relational. Coming to the Father was to come to know the Father. And in the context of the passage, this relationship with the Father was something applicable to disciples, people who were trained by Jesus, people who walked in the ways of Jesus, people who emulated Jesus, not someone who recited a few propositions about Jesus and went his merry way, believing himself to have been saved unto eternal life.

But still, one may ask, how can we be sure of this? We don’t find this explanation in Bible tracks, much less being preached from pulpits. Some time ago, I came across a short video by Biblical scholar, Rabbi David Fohrman. In that video, he made the following point:

“There are no lack of people who will sermonize at you using the Bible. But typically, they’ll kinda start with an idea that they want to hit you over the head with and then look for a verse to hang the idea on.  It’s not like there’s an idea that’s actually coming out of the Bible. I’m not connecting with God; I’m connecting with the idea that that guy wants to hit me over the head with. But what about God?”

Yes, what about God? We’re looking to approach the Scripture as a means of connecting with God rather than connecting with a person who wants to “hit us over the head” with an idea and “hang” a Bible verse on that idea to prove his point. If we believe that the Scripture is the Word of God, we want to draw out the meaning of those words from the words themselves, the context of the passage of Scripture in which they fall and especially from the literary structure within which those words are found. That is exegesis. With that in mind, I want to continue the examination of John 14:6 by looking at a literary structure that begins with it, including a verse that is rarely, if ever, preached in churches. That will follow in Part 3 of this series, coming soon.

One thought on “The Marriage Motif in John 13 and 14, Part 2

  1. I always like reading Richard Novick’s studies. Not only is his pen lucid, but his approach is scholarly as well. Particularly worth-noting is Richard’s way of building a bridge from the “known to the unknown.” I am talking about his fleshing of the social background of the text to enable the modern reader to see how it was like then. This is a crucial step towards arriving at a proper understanding of the text for the present. We now can appreciate what Jesus’ disciples must have been hearing (John 13 and 14) because Richard has unveiled the past as it were and opened it to us! Kudos to the brother! Background research is a lot of work. But very rewarding!

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