In my Father’s house are many dwelling places…for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for, I will come again and receive you to myself, that where I am, there you may also be. -John 14:2-3
This verse is considered obscure and confusing by many readers of John’s Gospel. I have even heard it used in funeral sermons (on two occasions) to suggest that there are mansions in heaven awaiting the deceased (“mansions” was how the noun in question is translated by Tyndale and subsequently picked up by the King James Version). How might we make sense of this passage?
One point needs to be stated from the inception of this little study: Jesus does not actually say that he is taking his audience to “heaven.” Rather, he states that he is soon departing to prepare a place, he will again come to receive his disciples unto himself in order that where he is, they will also be. Therefore, the real debate needs to occur in reference to two key questions. First of all, what is the significance of the designation “Father’s house” uttered by Jesus in 14:2? And secondly, is the reference to Jesus “returning” in regard to the parousia or to some different arrival?
The Father’s house, which belongs to Jesus (ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ τοῦ πατρός μου), has already been introduced into the narrative of the Fourth Gospel in the second chapter. Jesus states, while in the temple, that his opponents are making his Father’s house into a market (2:16). The conversation continues with the Jews asking Jesus for a sign to prove his authority. Jesus responds by stating, “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it.” However, Jesus was referring to the temple of his body.
It is interesting that Jesus did not respond by saying “destroy the temple,” but rather, “destroy this temple,” i.e. the temple he was just calling his “Father’s house.” Therefore, it seems that, in 14:2 where the “Father’s house” reappears (it only shows up two times in John’s Gospel), it could certainly carry the meaning of Jesus’ body.
In regard to our second question concerning what Jesus is referring to when he speaks about returning, we need to look closer at the rare word used to translate “dwelling places,” which is μονή. This word is only used twice in the entire NT, with both occurrences located in this very chapter. The other time it occurs is situated in John 14:23:
Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode (μονὴν) with him.
This passage is tucked within the midst of Jesus’ discussion of the coming Paraclete. In verses 16-17 Jesus states that he will ask the Father to send the Paraclete, which will come and dwell among the disciples. The word for “dwelling” in the verbal cognate to the noun μονή: μενω.
Therefore, when Jesus refers to his Father’s house having many dwelling places, which is involved with his departure in order to prepare a place where they can all be together, it is very likely that he is referring to himself extended in the presence of the Paraclete (which is explicitly identified with Jesus in 1 John 2:1). If this is correct, then the return of Jesus referred to in John 14:3 refers to the arrival of the Paraclete and not to the parousia. For other references in the NT which are indicative of a theology of the risen Jesus being present in the midst of Christian congregations (albeit while physically sitting at the right hand of God in heaven), see Matt. 18:20; Acts 16:7; 2 Cor. 3:17; Gal. 4:6; Rev. 1:13 (cf. 1:20-2:1).
(Footnote for my eagerly zealous readers: this does not mean that John does not believe in the second coming of Jesus. Jesus repeatedly states that he will raise up the faithful on the last day and that they are promised eternal life, i.e. the life of the age to come. It seems that in the passage in question, John 14:2-3, the second coming of Jesus is not being described.)