Before we get to the verse-by-verse discussion, we need to pause. We’re about to engage chapters 13 – 17, Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet followed by an extended discourse just before his arrest.
Here we have 5 chapters recording one evening spent with Jesus. It’s an amazing, challenging, moving passage.
We rarely do it justice. I’m sure I’ll fail as well. It’s one of the most magnificent passages in the Bible (which says a lot). It’s exceedingly rare for the inspired writers to spend so many words on one topic. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, is only three chapters.
It’s a difficult discourse to follow. Jesus speaks in Eastern terms. He is not nearly as linear as we’d like. We Westerners want a three-point essay. Or a logician’s proof from premises. And John 13 – 17 is nothing like that.
Rather, Jesus speaks as though describing a faceted jewel. He looks at the Truth — his purpose, his nature, his mission — from multiple angles, seemingly jumping from topic to topic to topic and back again.
He is looking at one thing from multiple angles. He’s not doing logic; he’s painting a picture. He first paints the broad outlines, and then he fills in details here and there, going back and forth to fill in the entirety.
Thus, in chapter 13, Jesus says that the world will recognize his disciples by their love for one another. In chapter 17, he says the world will recognize his disciples by their unity. We Westerners are compulsive listers. We want bullet points. And so, to us, Jesus is making two points. I rather suspect that in his mind he’s making just one point — because to him, love and unity are inseparable. You cannot have one without the other.
The result is that we have to listen to him paint. We should follow along as well as we can verse by verse, and then, once the paint has all been laid down, go back and be amazed at the picture that we only glimpsed while in the process of creation. Surely, the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts.
Context, of course, is everything. There’s a frame, and the frame is just as much a part of the painting as the oils and canvass. Jesus’ public ministry has ended. He’s now speaking to his disciples in private, and his words carry the utmost gravity.
And although he’s not yet been crucified, the cross colors every word. Indeed, Jesus expects that his words would be re-heard and re-understood by his disciples after the crucifixion. It would only be then that the full impact of his images could be understood.
Jesus uses a figure of speech called prolepsis. I didn’t learn about that one in high school, but it’s a real word. Prolepsis is speaking of something that will happen in the future as though it’s already happened. The impact is to help make the future seem more imminent and real.
Jesus sometimes speaks of his crucifixion and glorification as accomplished facts, which throws many readers off. The reason, of course, is that all the pieces have been set in place and the outcome is entirely inevitable. Moreover, Jesus wants his disciples, when they recall this discourse, to recall it in light of the events that would soon follow.
We Western Christians like to study the text verse by verse. I’m very good with that. But we sometimes get so lost in the details that we miss the major themes that course through the verses. And so, when we finish the verse-by-verse discussion, we’re going to have to look at the picture as a whole. (Don’t let me forget.)