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  • « J. I. Packer's Introductory Essay to John Owen's 'Death of Death in the Death of Christ' | Main | The Ministry of Preaching »

    Studies in John (Lesson 12: The Farewell Discourse)

    I. Introduction

    In the previous chapter (thirteen), John related the last major event that took place between Jesus and his disciples before he went to the cross. In the following three chapters, John will relate the last major discourse that Jesus gave to his disciples before he went to the cross. These three chapters are probably the clearest and fullest record of Jesus' own teaching about his death and the things which should follow that we have anywhere in the scriptures – although, we should probably include chapter thirteen, verses thirty-one through thirty-eight, as part of the same discourse. There, as we observed last week, Jesus began to instruct his disciples by telling them that his impending death would ultimately be for his glory, and the glory of the Father; and furthermore, that the one great application of this work, in the life of his followers, would be a self-sacrificing love which imitated Jesus' own love. At that point, it is becoming clear that he is speaking as one who is about to leave – and so Peter interrupts to ask him where he is going. Of course, in the discussion which ensues, Jesus predicts Peter's imminent denial. Now, Jesus has told his disciples that he is going where they cannot follow, and he has told Peter that he would deny him; these are such heavy and sorrowful truths, that he breaks off, and begins to give them words of comfort, words which explain the purpose of these difficult tidings. Eventually, he will pick up again with his themes of true discipleship, and so on; but for now, at the beginning of chapter fourteen, his message is one of explanation and comfort.

    II.“I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:1-14)

    The disciples are, of course, sorrowful over this piece of news (which has finally sunk in) that Jesus would be leaving them – and yet he tells them not to be sorrowful, but instead to trust in the Father and in him. If they really believed that God the Father and Jesus loved them, they would be certain that Jesus was not about to do something that was not for their good. Quite the contrary, he was going to prepare for them something far better even than his physical presence with them at that time – a place where they could dwell in the house of the Father and be with Jesus, there in the Father's presence, forever. To understand fully what Jesus is saying, we must remember where he is going at this particular time, and why he is about to leave the disciples: he is going to his death on the cross – and that is how he is going to prepare a place for them in the Father's presence. God the Father is holy and just, and will not tolerate sinful men in his house. But according to the Father's gracious will, Jesus was about to make a way for this unthinkable reality to happen. He was about to prepare a way for sinful men to dwell with the holy God. And the way that he was going to do that involved his leaving the disciples for death on the cross. Of course, the later verses speak of Jesus' coming to take us up to be with him, by which he must mean his return to take us up to heaven – but the way that he prepared this place to which he would ultimately take us was nothing other than his immediate leaving of the disciples, in order to offer himself up on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice for their sins.

    At this point, Jesus tells the disciples that they already know the way to this place which he is preparing. But the disciples, or at least Thomas in particular, do not yet understand, and so ask “How can we know the way, if we do not even know where you are going?” But Jesus himself is the Way, and they do know Jesus. If they know the Way, then they will surely arrive at the end, which is life in the knowledge of God. In fact, if they know Jesus, they already know God, and have already seen him – something that no one has done apart from the Son who reveals him (see John 1:18). True life consists of knowing the Father (see John 17:3); and there is no life, no truth, and indeed, no way to pursue after either apart from the Father's greatest self-revelation to man, which is Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life!

    Now it is Philip who has a request: since Jesus is the One who reveals the Father, would Jesus not reveal him to the disciples now? This request shows that he does not yet understand what Jesus is saying, any more than Thomas did. Jesus is not going to allow them some mystical ability to “see” the invisible God at some point in the future; on the contrary, he himself is the image of the invisible God, in a form which man can see! Anyone who has seen Jesus has seen the invisible God, for Jesus is God, and he and the Father are One in the strongest sense of the word. In fact, they mutually indwell each other! If Philip knew Jesus, he should have realized that he already knew the Father. In fact, even if he had not understood Jesus' words and teachings on the subject, he ought to have recognized from Jesus' sign-miracles, at the least, that Jesus was One with the Father, and that he was the One who came down to provide a way to the Father. The very nature of the signs, displaying as they did Jesus' nature as the Light of the world, the Bread which came down from heaven, the Resurrection and the Life, and so on, ought to have taught him and convinced him of that much.

    Now, Jesus continues on the subject of his sign miracles, and tells the disciples something truly staggering: the one who believes in him (as anyone who has seen his signs certainly ought to believe in him) would do greater signs than Jesus had done. How could this be? Even the apostles, who healed multitudes and raised the dead in the Book of Acts, certainly did not do anything more astonishing than what Jesus had done to Lazarus, to the blind man, and to multitudes besides them. And besides, Jesus does not limit this teaching to the apostles, but simply says that the one who believes in him (which includes you and me!) would do greater signs than Jesus himself had done up to that point. In order to understand Jesus, we must pay close attention to his reasoning: this astonishing teaching is only true because Jesus is returning to the Father; and it is only true because Jesus would do mightier works than he had yet done in answer to the prayers of the believers. Although this teaching is nearly unbelievable, at first, it begins to make sense when one considers the marvelous plan of redemption: God has so designed the accomplishment of salvation that every new era is clearer and more powerful in its design than the era which preceded it. At first, there was only a tiny seed, a promise that One would come of the seed of woman to destroy the works of the devil (Genesis 3:15). But with every passing era, that promise grew more explicit, and God prepared the way of redemption in mightier and more staggering ways. Now, in the fullness of times, Jesus had come to accomplish redemption in actual fact; and his incarnation was mightier than any era which preceded it, and was attended with greater works than had ever been seen in the Old Testament era. But even this great era was about to be surpassed. This era was all about the humble servant-work of Jesus the Savior; but the following was to be all about Jesus' king-work, as he reigned triumphant from the throne of David. In this era, Jesus walked among men, and was seen by many thousands of them. But in the following era, he would spread his presence across the whole earth, through the Spirit which he was about to pour out in power, after having ascended to his throne. He would not just be seen by thousands – he would make himself known, through the prayers of his witnessing people, to millions. He would not just walk among men – he would dwell within them through his Spirit!. Yes, this was indeed true: as great as Jesus' signs were, something better was waiting to be accomplished by his people, or rather, by Jesus himself as he answered the prayers of his people.

    III.The Promise of another Comforter (John 14:15-31)

    The discussion now turns naturally to the coming of the Spirit. Throughout the entire history of redemption, all three Persons of the Trinity have constantly been at work together, in perfect unity; and yet, in the different eras, the work of one of these Persons has come more to the forefront. Before Christ came, the Father's work was in the forefront, as he sovereignly worked all things out for the coming of the King. After Christ's incarnation, his own work of purchasing redemption for us was obviously at the forefront. And after this marvelous redemption was indeed accomplished, the ministry of the Spirit, in teaching men of Christ and opening their hearts to the knowledge of him – or, in a word, of applying to the elect the redemption which Christ had already won – this new ministry moved, in a sense, to the fore. The new work of the Spirit, sent both from the Father and from the Son, as he sits on his throne, would be the reason that the era which was about to come would be even greater than the era in which Christ walked upon the earth.

    In the previous chapter, Jesus already gave his disciples a new commandment, which was not contradictory to, but more perfect than Moses' law that had been given in the old era. Now, he brings that topic up again, and explains why this new law is possible: because he was going to send his Spirit, who would change the hearts of his people so that they would be able to follow his perfect commandment – just as had been prophesied before (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:25-27)! We must be careful not to forget that God's Spirit was at work in the hearts of true believers in the Old Testament, “circumcising their hearts” so that they might obey God (see Deuteronomy 30:6) – but after Jesus' ascension, he was about to work in mightier ways than ever before, within the better Covenant of fulfillment in Christ, which exceeds the old Mosaic Covenant as the substance exceeds the shadow.

    Of course, the logical extension of this promise of the Spirit's ministry, is that, if there is someone who is not indwelt and changed by the Spirit, then he is not a true believer. If the Spirit changes hearts, and makes them desire to obey Jesus (and what has Jesus commanded, but that we love one another as he loved us?) – in other words, if there is someone who does not love the brothers, then he must not be a genuine disciple. And this much, Jesus affirms explicitly, first, on his own, and then again in response to a question from Judas (not Iscariot). Let us take this truth to heart: if God's Spirit is not at work in our hearts, producing faith, love for Christ, and love for those who belong to Christ, then how can we say that we belong to him (see Romans 8:1-11)?

    And here, Jesus continues, giving further comforts and a clearer understanding of what the Spirit would do, in teaching the believers what Jesus had said, and applying these precious truths to our hearts. But out time is short, and we must be pressing on without further comment.

    IV.Jesus the True Vine (John 15:1-17)

    Now, as we begin chapter fifteen, we see again, by means of an illustration, this truth that Jesus has been emphasizing: yes, believers will do greater things than had been done in all of history – but again, this is only possible through their relationship with Jesus. We have seen that Jesus' new and great commandment is possible only by means of his indwelling Spirit. Now we see that to obey Jesus, even to obey him in the smallest point, is only possible through his own life and power flowing through the believer. Just as a branch cannot produce fruit unless the sap of the vine flows through it, so believers can do absolutely nothing of worth in God's sight, unless Jesus himself flows through believers with true life and sustenance – something which he does, as he has just made known, through his Spirit which he would send to indwell his people.

    And so, once again, Jesus repeats his great commandment, that we love even as he loved; a commandment which includes the whole law in its very essence (see Romans 13:10). But, whereas the outward commandments of the law, written on stone, might be done in a superficial way by anyone, this commandment of Christ-like love is utterly impossible to the natural man. Anyone weighing his works against this standard will find them all as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6)! But Jesus does not leave them without comfort in this impossible task – instead, he reminds them that they did not choose Jesus, but Jesus chose them; and he is certainly able to do what we are unable to do. Yes, his commandments are too great for us. But we ought not despair, but rather be full of faith, first, because he himself has determined to produce good fruits in us who have believed, and he cannot be stopped; and second, because he has given us his Spirit to open our hearts to his unfailing love, through the words which He has given us. Oh, let us despair of ourselves but hope in Christ! Let us search his word to find the proof of his love! In this way, the Spirit will bring to our minds what he has said, and will begin to change us into the same image as he is revealing to us in the face of Jesus – and in this way, our joy will be full.

    V.The World's Hatred (John 15:18-16:4)

    If the disciples have learned one thing well, throughout the course of their time with Jesus, it is that the world as a whole is opposed to him and hates him. Ultimately, this is because the world loves their own father, the devil, and hates God. Jesus came to reveal the Father to men; and when men hated Jesus, they showed that they hated God the Father, even while they were claiming to worship him. Jesus' words and actions among the people, then, served as the final stamp of their wickedness and just condemnation. Even if they had an excuse for their sins before Jesus came, their unwarranted rejection of him left them without excuse; although this, too, was a fulfillment of prophecy (see Psalm 35:19; 69:4, which Jesus quotes here). Thus it was with the world at large; but Jesus had chosen his disciples out of the world, and so it would be different with them. They loved Jesus, and hence, the Father; but the world would hate them. As they followed the example of Christ, they would find themselves walking the same path, a path which passed through persecution but ended in victory. But, empowered by the Spirit, they would not waver, but instead would rejoice to share in the fellowship of Jesus' sufferings, knowing that they would also partake of the power of his resurrection life (Philippians 3:8-11).

    And so, for a third time, he reminds them that he will send the Spirit. Yes, the world will hate them, persecute them, cast them out of the synagogues; but they would be strengthened and comforted through it all by the Spirit of God who would dwell within them. He would bring to their minds what Jesus had taught, as they studied and reflected upon his word, and this would be exactly what they would need to persevere and finally to triumph. And so the case remains today, two thousand years later. Are you persecuted, tempted, hard-pressed by doubts, fears, and indwelling sin? Look to the word of God to find out about the love of God which he revealed in his Son; and the Spirit of God will cause your faith to grow through all opposition.

    VI.The Future Work of the Spirit (John 16:5-15)

    By now it is clear how central a role the Spirit of God will play in this last and greatest of all redemptive eras before the final state of bliss on the new earth; in fact, his work will be so mighty that it is indeed profitable for the disciples that Jesus should leave. The disciples are upset that Jesus is leaving; they are worried about how they will find the way to see him again (remember Thomas' question); but the one question they are not sufficiently concerned with is where Jesus is going. But the answer to that question makes all the difference in the world: Jesus is going to the Father, to sit at his right hand in victory – and it is only when he sits in victory that the Spirit will come. And when the Spirit comes, everyone will actually be in a better state. The whole world will be, because the Spirit will go throughout the world, bringing to light men's sin; showing them of the coming judgment, foreshadowed when the ruler of the world, Satan, was condemned by Christ's work on the cross; and revealing to them the nature of true righteousness, which Jesus alone was demonstrating when he was on the earth. When Jesus was in his physical body, only a few thousand people could hear him at once, and see the display of perfect righteousness. But when he sent his Spirit, he was able to speak to the individual hearts of countless men and women about all these things that he had spoken of on earth, and demonstrated on the cross.

    But even more than this, the disciples themselves would be better off, because they had not been able to understand the mighty and powerful words of Jesus. But the Spirit, when he came, would enable them to understand. He would speak the very words of Jesus, just as Jesus speaks the very words of the Father – but he would also open the hearts of the disciples to understand these words. Jesus' teaching ministry to his disciples was certainly a wonderful and necessary thing. But as great as it was, the teaching ministry of the Spirit would, according to the divine plan, be even better and more effective in unveiling blinded hearts to the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ!

    VII. Jesus' Departure and Return (John 16:16-24)

    Jesus' disciples immediately illustrate what he has just said about the necessity of the Spirit's ministry: for once again, they fail to understand his teachings – it is only after his resurrection that they will understand. So Jesus explains his words further: when he died on the cross, in just a few hours, they would be filled with grief. But when they see him again, after he has been raised from the dead, they will be filled with a joy which no one can take away. Then, they will receive the Spirit, and will understand what Jesus has taught them. Then, they will not still be wondering about when Jesus will show them the Father, but they will understand that, in Jesus' name, they may go directly to him in prayer, and be certain that he will hear them – for he is their Father too! Truly, the world and all the powers of darkness rejoiced when they saw Jesus hanging on the cross; but three days later they fled in terror, struck with a death-blow from which they would never recover (Colossians 2:13-15). The disciples sorrowed when they saw Jesus on the cross; but three days later, they were filled with a joy which made them forget their sorrow – just as a woman who has just given birth forgets her past pain and rejoices in her new child.

    VIII. The Time for Parables is Past (John 16:25-33)

    Now, Jesus brings everything to a conclusion. The era when Jesus walked on earth was great, and his teaching was unequaled by that of the prophets before him. But as great as it was, it was still to be replaced by something better. While he was on earth, Jesus spoke in parables, and few understood him. But now, he was going to speak plainly. The disciples were bold enough only to ask Jesus about the Father; but soon they would be bold to approach the Father himself in Jesus' name. Soon, the disciples would be filled with the Spirit, even as Jesus had promised – but before then (he tells them so that they do not fall into irreversible unbelief when it happens), they will all abandon Jesus. But still, they will not be utterly lost, for Jesus has wrought an unstoppable victory. He has overcome the world.


    The farewell discourse of Jesus is deep and rich beyond measure. This poor, faltering, stammering lesson cannot begin to point out adequately the wonder of all that Jesus has said. And yet, there is hope that we may grow deeper and deeper in the knowledge of its wonders, simply because we have the Spirit of God. What an amazing, unspeakably glorious reality! The infinite, holy God dwells within us, small and sinful men though we be! Let us meditate much upon his words, and seek to be guided into all truth by the Spirit. And all of you who have been disappointed by this lesson, take heart: there is another, far better commentary on Jesus' farewell discourse, that is available to all of us. It is John's first letter to the Church. Surely, John must have thought much upon what Christ had told him, and he must have been mightily illuminated by the Holy Spirit – for there we see the same themes, themes such as Jesus' new commandment, the proof of love and obedience, and the teaching ministry of the Spirit, all developed and applied in practical and helpful ways. Anyone desiring to understand more of this discourse could do no better than to look to the book of First John. Spirit of God, show us Christ!

    Posted by Nathan on March 16, 2007 10:54 PM

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