Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Don Carson’s ‘Jesus and His Friends’ and Understanding Jesus’ Farewell Discourse in John 14-17

Chapters 14-17 of John’s gospel are sometimes called the ‘farewell discourse’. Set in the upper room as Jesus addresses his friends during (and after) the last supper, John recounts in these chapters some of Jesus’ most significant teaching about his ministry and mission, about his relationship with the Father and the Spirit, about the ongoing work of the Spirit, and concludes with his prayer for the disciples and for all believers. It is a significant passage and worthy of careful study.

A helpful guide in looking at the farewell discourse is Don Carson’s “Jesus and His Friends: His Farewell Message and Prayer in John 14 To 17”. This is not really a commentary (Carson has written one of those as well), but seeks to explain and apply the passage at a more popular level.

The farewell discourse begins with these words from Jesus: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:1-4 NIV 1984)

The following is a quote from pages 19-20 of Jesus and His Friends explaining the significance of Jesus’ words and in general terms what the farewell discourse is all about:

Unable to grasp that Jesus’ departure from them is his return to the glory rightly his, by way of the cross and the tomb, the disciples wallow in their misery, fearing they are about to be abandoned. We, too, may sometimes slither around in the slough of despond and feel abandoned; but the situation in John 13 and 14 is unique. The sense of abandonment experienced by the disciples was prompted by an unrepeatable event in the history of redemption: the physical departure of Jesus by way of the cross. Therefore, although the disciples needed the general exhortation to trust in God and to trust in Jesus, they needed something more: they needed further instruction, more detailed explanation of the significance of the events to take place. Even if they remain unable to absorb all the details until after that epochal weekend had passed, Jesus’ words provided not only some immediate relief, but the framework ultimately made sense of the most important events in all history.

In other words, the Farewell Discourse must not be treated simplistically, as nothing more than Christian comfort designed to console defeated saints. Rather it is first and foremost an exposition of the significance of Jesus’ ‘going away’ to his father via the cross. It is elemental theology; and only as such does it offer encouragement and consolation. For troubled Christians there is little genuine comfort that is divorced from the significance of the events of that one weekend in Jerusalem and its environs almost two thousand years ago. This was especially true for those first believers, whose anguish was made particularly acute by the fact that they themselves participated in those events and were engulfed by them. But modern believers, too, best discover renewed faith and fortitude, not by clinging to isolated spiritual aphorisms and evangelical clichés, but by returning to a deep understanding of the historical and redemptive structure of their faith.

Within this framework, Jesus provides some content for his followers to believe (14:2-7); he enunciates truths they must believe if their faith is to be triumphant, their spirits tranquil. Unfortunately, the disciples grasp little of this, because they have already misjudged who Jesus is. The profound implications of the exhortation, ‘Trust in God; trust also in me’ (14:1) have quite passed them by; and therefore Jesus must review some of his earlier teaching and provide a lesson for slow learners concerning who he really is (14:8-14).
I hope you find this as helpful as I do in gaining an orientation to this passage – and to the Farewell Discourse as a whole.

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