Historical Cultural Context
The Way, the Truth, the Life
Scholars identify chapters 14-17 of John’s Gospel as the evangelist’s creative presentation of teachings of Jesus in the form of a “farewell address.”
In general, these passages begin with an indication that the speaker is about to die or depart. Then follows an exhortation to his successors. The elements in this part of the address vary: there are prophecies, words of caution about the future, God’s intentions for the future.
Successors are also exhorted to pass these words on to others. Sometimes there is also notice of the speaker’s death and burial.
When John 14 concludes with “Rise, let us be on our way,” we are surprised to see that John 15 continues the farewell address. Clearly the evangelist has strung together otherwise separate traditions.
Jesus The Way
Jesus’ words and deeds in this Gospel speak love at every turn. He demonstrates absolute, total, and universal love in his varied responses to those who approach him.
Jesus’ life, teaching, and behavior do indeed present people with “an authentic vision of human existence,” that is, a model of the way human life ought to be lived.
If one lives like this, one will definitely encounter God, who is Love.
These are heartening words not only to Jesus’ disciples but especially to believers within John’s community who are beginning to suffer for believing in Jesus. “The Judeans had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (Jn 9:22; see also Jn 12:42; Jn 16:2).
Such excommunication deprived these people of a community and a place that were dear to them. Moreover it raised doubts about whether they really could meet God anywhere else.
The synagogue, after all, represented God’s chosen community. Jesus assures his disciples and through them all subsequent generations of believers: “If you know me, you will know my Father also.” If one has met Jesus, one has met the Father.
Philip still doesn’t get it. He asks Jesus to “show us the Father” (Jn 14:8). This must have been particularly disappointing to the historical, earthly Jesus.
Jesus himself called Philip to be a follower, and he in turn brought Nathanael to Jesus (Jn 1:43-48). When faced with a hungry multitude, Jesus turned to Philip and asked him how they could be fed (Jn 6:5-9). When curious Greeks wanted to meet and talk with Jesus, they approached Philip to intercede on their behalf (Jn 12:20-22).
Only against this background can one appreciate Jesus’ disappointment: “You still do not know me!?”
Philip’s failure provides Jesus with the opportunity to point to the future successes of his followers: “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these...” (Jn 14:12).
The works of Jesus are the works of God: to give life, and to restore meaning to life or enrich life’s meaning. Already at creation God called us to take dominion over evolution (“to till the garden and keep it,” Gen 1:26-28).
This is our challenge to engage in life-giving activities rather than death-dealing ones. This is also our challenge to put meaning into life rather than suck it out. This is what Jesus in his “last will and testament” urges his followers to do out of love for others.
Jesus has presented himself as the authentic vision of existence. Believers can only echo Peter: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University