What does Jesus mean, “In my Father’s house are many mansions?”

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John 14:1-14

Where do you live?

Nearly all human beings regard this as an important question. Biblically, however, it is the important question—so important, in fact, that Jesus addresses it again and again throughout the Gospel of John, including in today’s lectionary passage, John 14:1-14.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that 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 may also be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:1-4)

This lectionary reading begins mid-story with Jesus responding to deeply worried disciples, so it is best to begin by examining the wider context. When does this conversation take place? Where are Jesus and the apostles? What has made the apostles troubled?

If we read John 13, we discover that this conversation takes place in the upper room the night before Jesus is crucified. Jesus has just finished washing the disciples’ feet and they are about to break bread when Jesus announces very disturbing news: “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.” (John 13:21)

The disciples are stunned. At Peter’s prompting, John asks Jesus which disciple will betray him.

“It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish,” Jesus says (John 13:26). He then dips the bread and passes it to Judas.

“What you are about to do, do quickly,” Jesus tells him (John 13:27).

Judas takes the bread and leaves. The remaining disciples are confused as to what has happened. Did Judas go out to do something for Passover? Or could he possibly be the betrayer, even at that moment heading out to deliver Jesus—and all of them—into the hands of their enemies?

Then, an even more unthinkable announcement comes from Jesus.

Jesus says that Peter will betray him three times that night! Peter is a kind of spokesperson leader for the disciples—“the rock,” according to the name Jesus had given him. But Jesus announced that the rock would falter and crumble.

Judas left in the middle of supper. Peter will apparently be shortly behind him. Of course the disciples are troubled: their world is falling apart by the minute! What if they are all separated from Jesus forever?

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus responds. “Where I am, you may be also.”

Sometimes when we read this passage, we wrongly assume that Jesus is speaking in a timeless fashion about the distant future: preparing a place in heaven for us after we die.

After Lazarus’ death, Martha thought in a similar way. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Martha said (John 11:21). When Jesus assures her that Lazarus will rise again, Martha says, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:24).

Like us, Martha assumes that Jesus is making a promise about a time long hence. He isn’t. Jesus raises Lazarus that very day.

When Jesus tells the disciples that he is preparing a place for them, he is referring to their present circumstance—and ours. Where does he go to prepare a place for us?

To the cross.

Through Christ’s death and resurrection, his body is transformed into a place with many mansions—many rooms—in which we may dwell today. Easter is the way he prepares the place for us to live. Where is this place? When do we move there? What does it mean for us to live inside another person?

In John 8:21, Jesus tells the Pharisees that have confronted him, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” This confuses the Pharisees. Where could Jesus possibly be going that they could not follow? Was he going to kill himself?

“You are from below; I am from above,” Jesus tells them. “You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:23-24).

There are only two places where human beings can live: in our sin, or in the body of Christ. Even death does not change this: Wherever we live, is where we die, and it is where we remain after we die. This is a recurring message Jesus brings throughout the gospel of John, but the crowds and even the disciples do not understand. Perhaps this is because they—and us—always think of the physical world as the “real” world.

For example, in John 2:13-22, Jesus makes a whip of cords and drives the moneychangers out of the temple. The Jewish people confront him.

“What sign do you show us for doing these things?” they ask (John 2:18). In other words, what gives you the authority to drive these men from the temple?

Jesus tells them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I shall raise it up” (John 2:19).

The Jewish people are, understandably, confused. They’ve been building the temple for forty-six years and it is still incomplete! How could Christ possibly rebuild the temple in three days? It is then that John explains that Jesus is speaking about “the temple of his body” (John 2:21).

Jesus is speaking about his body as a temple: a temple in which we live and worship. And the time for this is not in the distant future. In fact, it “is now here,” as Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well.

“Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet,” she says. “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship” (John 4:20).

Jesus replies, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father … the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (John 4:21-22).

Jesus is talking about the place where people live and worship today—either in their sins, or in Christ’s body. He is talking about real places—places that are even more real than the physical locations that are the most concrete places in our lives.

In John 14, Jesus talks about places in more detail. If you continue to read, you will see that the disciples, like us, are confused as to how someone can live inside of another person. Jesus explains further in the next chapter, giving a different image (vines instead of houses) but the same truth:

“As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me … I am the vine; you are the branches … If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away and withers” (John 15:4-6).

We wrongly perceive the physical world as the “real” world and the spiritual world as vague and distant. However, the opposite is actually true: what we call the “real” world is actually a picture of the spiritual world. The physical world is real, but it is contingent upon the spiritual world; that is to say, it depends upon it for its shape and continued existence. At present it is distorted by sin (hence why we pray with Christ that things may be “on earth as it is in heaven”), but it is still sustained moment by moment by the grace of God.

An example or illustration may be helpful. You probably have a picture of your family lying around. However, the picture of your family is different from—contingent upon—your actual family; that is, the picture could not have come into existence unless you had a real family. A mother, for example, is much more than her picture. If someone were to say, “I want to spent time with my mother” but then spent all evening staring at her photo, you would become confused. “Why not go home and see your mother?” you might suggest.

It’s just as foolish for us to regard the physical world as the “real” world. The physical world is like a picture of the spiritual world—only a twisted and distorted version of it, though one that retains much beauty (and great value to God). Christ’s body, then, is more real than our own. When the Bible says that we live inside of Christ’s body, it is not a metaphor—it is reality. It is the realest place we live—or don’t.

When do we come to live in Christ’s body? When we believe and are baptized. It is then that we die to sin and become incorporated into Christ. Our branch is attached to his vine. We live inside of him, and death cannot change this. This is why the apostle Paul writes:

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Where will you live?

Will you choose to live in your sin? Human beings cannot change location when we die; where we live when we die is where we will always live. If we choose to live in our sins, we will die in our sins. The only other place to live is inside Christ.

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2 Responses to What does Jesus mean, “In my Father’s house are many mansions?”

  1. Miriam says:

    So I’ve been thinking about this post and researching it. My one question is, do you think there is no literal heaven or hell and simply internal?

    Thanks!

    • Pastor Foley says:

      Good to hear from you, Miriam. The faithful church throughout the ages has always affirmed a literal heaven and a literal hell. This post is an effort to help us understand Jesus’ words here as related to our incorporation into his body at baptism, rather than referencing what happens to us after we die. –Pastor Foley

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