This post is part of an ongoing series. You can find links to all the posts here.
Today’s post is the third focused specifically on dealing with “problem” passages that are frequently brought up as evidence that the Bible does not teach that creation will be renewed when Jesus returns. My contention is that these texts are really not “problems” after all—when properly understood, they either argue for the NHNE perspective, or at least, do not argue against it.
Previously, we have discussed 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 and 2 Peter 3.1-13, and today, we will look at John 14.1-3. There are, certainly, other texts that people use to argue against the NHNE perspective, but these are the “Big 3” in my experience, and next week, we will move on and begin looking at various arguments for the renewed creation perspective.
I will be clear up front: I do not believe that John 14.1-3 clearly teaches the NHNE position, but neither do I believe that it is a problem for that position.
Here is the passage in question:
1 Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.
Why is this text considered to be a “problem”? Frequently, this passage is read to mean that Jesus is preparing a place for us in heaven and so when He returns, He will take us back with Him to heaven.
Is this the only way to read it? Well, certainly not. Let’s take a closer look.
The Harmony of Scripture
First off, at this point, it is helpful for us to remember some of what we have studied in previous posts, because it is important for us to consider these passages in relation to one another.
I do not believe that the New Testament presents a bunch of contradictory ideas about what happens when Jesus returns (or anything else, for that matter), where one text presents a certain idea and another text says something completely different. Instead, I believe the teaching of Scripture is consistent and unified and that various passages harmonize with one another to provide a fuller picture on a given subject.
So, if we have 1 Thessalonians 4 in mind, we know from the historical background and use of imperial language in that passage that we are going to meet Jesus and then return here (whatever “here” is like at that point). Thus, we should already be skeptical about any interpretation of John 14 that indicates that when Jesus returns we will leave here to go somewhere else with Him.
Looking at the Passage in Context
In context, what is Jesus trying to do in this passage? John 14.1 gives us the answer as Jesus tells His disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” Jesus is providing comfort to His disciples.
If we go up a few verses (remember, chapter additions were added much later; this is all part of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse”), we see that there is plenty that Jesus has told them that would have been distressing to them: one of the disciples will betray Him, Jesus will not be with them much longer, and Peter will deny Jesus repeatedly. With all of this in their minds, it makes sense that the disciples would be troubled!
But Jesus tells them not to be troubled, but to trust in God and in Himself. We then have the famous verse, “In my Father’s house are many rooms” (v.2).
I want to look at the two crucial words/phrases in this verse—“Father’s house” and “rooms”—in reverse order.
The word translated as “rooms” or “dwelling places” is the Greek word μοναι/monai, which can mean something like “temporary lodging place”. Because of this, it has been argued that this is a reference to the intermediate state and that Jesus is preparing an interim resting place for His disciples when they die, prior to the return of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead.
This seems unlikely, though, because John 14.3 focuses on when Jesus comes again and not on when the disciples will die.
Generally speaking, “Father’s house” is temple language. Think of the story of Jesus as a boy when His parents find Him in the temple and He says, “Did you not now that I must be in My Father’s house?” (Luke 2.49), or Jesus cleansing the temple in John 2.16 and saying, “Do not make my Father’s house a den of trade.”
When Jesus talks about His Father’s house in John 14.2, He isn’t referring to the literal temple, but rather, is using this language as a shorthand for “where God is”—in ancient understanding, temples were places where God dwells, and we see this throughout the story of Scripture.
We referenced this idea when we discussed the relationship between Heaven and Earth in the first post of this series. Heaven is God’s domain, the earth is humanity’s domain, and we see throughout the biblical story that there are times and places where heaven and earth overlap—where God dwells with humanity in a special way:
- At creation, God constructed a cosmic temple where God was able to dwell with humans and walked with them in the garden.
- With the tabernacle (and later, its more permanent counterpart, the temple), God created a means to dwell within the midst of the nation of Israel.
- In the incarnation, the Word became flesh and “tabernacled” among us. Jesus Himself was a walking temple, as God dwelt among us in an unprecedented way.
- Through the giving of the Spirit, God’s presence was multiplied exponentially. God’s Spirit lives within believers, and Paul says that we are temples of God’s Spirit, individually (1 Corinthians 3.16) and collectively (1 Corinthians 6.19-20).
- In eternity, God will make His dwelling (tabernacle) with humanity in the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21.1-5).
Throughout Scripture, we can see how temple language is used to indicate spaces where God’s presence can dwell with humanity. Here, in John 14, when Jesus talks about His “Father’s house”, this is the background against which we need to hear His statement. And the emphasis of what Jesus says here is not the where of His Father’s house, but its expansiveness: there is plenty of room for everyone: many dwelling places. Remember, this is a passage of comfort.
Jesus will go and prepare a place for His disciples in His Father’s house, and will come again so they can dwell together.
But When Will This Happen?
In my discussion of the Greek word μοναι/monai above, I argued that this passage can’t really be a reference to the intermediate state, because the emphasis is on when Jesus comes again, not on when the disciples themselves die. So, what does Jesus mean when He says, “I will come again”? When will this happen?
It is easy for us to read these words and immediately think of the Second Coming, but I am not sure that does justice to the context of this passage. This is the night that Jesus is betrayed. In a matter of hours, Jesus will “go away”. He will be forcibly removed from their presence, tried, scourged, and crucified, ultimately leaving them at His death. He would then “come again” to be with them following His resurrection.
Thus, in one sense, I think we can say that the most straightforward way of reading this passage is in light of what was about to happen to Jesus and the disciples. This reading makes sense from a theological perspective as well: when Jesus “goes away” to be crucified, He absorbs the sins of the world upon Himself and makes it possible for all people to have a relationship with the Father.
A little later in John 14.23, Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” The word “home” in this passage is μονὴν/monen, the same word Jesus used in 14.2, and I think we see this happening in a powerful way at Pentecost, with the sending of God’s Spirit to live among God’s people and make his home among us.
However, once we have acknowledged the immediate context of Jesus’ words in John 14.1-3, I think there is also a fuller meaning to which this passage points, just as the current indwelling of the Spirit is a guarantee or down payment that points to our future inheritance (2 Corinthians 1.22, 5.5; Ephesians 1.13-14). As Jesus’ work on the cross and His defeat of sin and death make it possible for the Spirit to come and dwell among us, so also it makes possible God’s ultimate dwelling with His people in the new creation—He prepares this for us.
When Jesus returns, we will go to be with Him (1 Thessalonians 4.17; John 14.3). Revelation 21.2 describes that time of God’s ultimate dwelling with His people by saying that “the holy city, new Jerusalem” will come “down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband”, and the word “prepared” is the same word that Jesus uses in John 14.3.
Or, as Hicks, Valentine, and Wilson describe it in Embracing Creation:
“Jesus goes away to complete the construction (preparation) of God’s new house, the new creation. When Jesus returns, the heavenly Jerusalem will descend—with Jesus—to the new earth under the new heavens. Jesus will receive us, and we will dwell with Jesus within the Father’s house forever.”
With all of that in mind, I think there is a two-fold answer to the question of when the things that Jesus describes in John 14.1-3 will happen. First, Jesus is going away to be crucified, but He will return to His disciples after the resurrection, and what He accomplishes in the meantime will change everything and will make it possible for God to dwell with His people in an unprecedented way. But beyond that, this points ahead to eternity, where Jesus will return again take us to Himself, and the Father will fully and eternally dwell with us in His house—a new heaven and a new earth.
It is important to remember that the focus of John 14.1-3 is really not on what happens when Jesus returns; it is that Jesus’ disciples can be comforted in the knowledge that when He returns, they can be with Him forever (wherever that may be).
Thus, this passage doesn’t really come down on the NHNE issue one way or the other. It does, however, fit nicely with other texts such as 1 Thessalonians 4 and Revelation 21 in a way that the traditional view does not.
J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014): 179-237, has an excellent, lengthy discussion of various texts that could be construed as presenting a perspective contrary to renewed eschatology.
The King James Version erroneously translates this word as “mansions,” which is the source of old songs like “Mansion Over the Hilltop” and “An Empty Mansion.” The theological point of this verse is the comfort of dwelling with God, not on the magnificent opulence of that dwelling.
Middleton, 228-29; Ian Paul, “Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 14”, https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/jesus-farewell-discourse-in-john-14/
Technically, the word for “house” does not occur in the Greek of the Luke 2 passage, but the fact that Jesus is in the temple and that it is widely translated this way illustrates the point I am making: “Father’s house” is temple language.
See Timothy Mackie and Jonathan Collins, When Heaven Meets Earth: A 12-Part Biblical Study on Heaven (Portland: The Bible Project, 2017). This resource is available for download on The Bible Project website here.
The notion that God is depicted as creating a cosmic temple and setting it in order in Genesis 1-2 and setting it in order is a widespread understanding in biblical studies. For helpful summaries of this, see John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine, and Mark Wilson, Embracing Creation: God’s Forgotten Mission, (Abilene, TX: Leafwood: 2016): 33-45; Middleton, 46-49, 163-65, 168-72.
 I am indebted to Stephen Scaggs for his thoughts in helping me to understand this reading of the text.
Embracing Creation, 195: “In one sense, Jesus comes even now in the presence of the Spirit to live within us and make his home among us. This is his promise in John 14:23, the only place where Jesus uses this word other than John 14:2. In the coming of the Spirit, the Father and Son, Jesus said, will “make our home [dwelling place] with them.”
See also Middleton, 229.
Embracing Creation, 196, discusses the “fuller experience” to which this passage refers beyond the immediate context.
To me, the language of 1 Thessalonians 4.17 and John 14. 3 are strikingly similar. In 1 Thessalonians 4.17, we will be “caught up” to meet the Lord in the air; in John 14.3, Jesus says, “I will take you to myself.” These are forceful actions, initiated by Jesus, that result in our dwelling with Him.
Embracing Creation, 196.