Farewell Words: Upper Room Discourse (John 14-17)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

Chapters 13 through 17, often called the Upper Room Discourse, contain so much profound theology that we can only touch on a few salient points. For our purposes, we are specifically interested in examining chapters 14 through 17. It is important to recognize that Jesus’ words are not a dispassionate lecture. He is in anguish for the disciples whom he loves, and whom he must soon leave and his words are designed above all to comfort them in their distress.

Work and Relationships (John 14-17)

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An emphasis on personal relationships suffuses the theology of these chapters. Jesus calls the disciples “no longer servants…but friends” (John 15:15, NASB). They work for him, but in a spirit of friendship and collegiality. It is in the fullest sense of the term a family business. The work and the relationships intertwine, for Jesus is not working on his own. “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:10-11). Neither will the disciples be left as orphans to muddle through the world as best they can (John 14:18). Through the Spirit, Jesus will be with them, and they will do the same things he has been doing (John 14:12).

This is deeper than it may appear. It does not mean merely that after Jesus dies, his disciple/friends can still experience him in prayer. It means that they are active participants in the world-creation/restoration that fuels the loving relationship between the Father and the Son. They do the work of the Son and Father, and they join the intimacy of the Son and Father (and the Spirit, as we shall see in a moment). The Father shows his love for the Son by allowing him to share in the glory of world formation and re-creation.[1] The Son shows his love for the Father by ever and only doing his will, making and remaking the world for the Father’s glory according to the Father’s wishes in the power of the Spirit. The disciple/friends enter into this ever-flowing love of the Father, Son, and Spirit, not only by mystical reflection but also by embracing the Son’s mission and working as he did. The call to share in the love is inextricable from the call to share in the labor. The prayer, “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (John 17:23), is matched by, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18), and it issues forth in “Do you love me?...Feed my sheep” (John 21:17).

An essential aspect of human labor is the opportunity it provides for fellowship through common projects. For many people, the workplace provides the most significant context outside family for personal relationships. Even those who work alone — inside or outside their own homes—are typically enmeshed in a web of relationships involving suppliers, customers, and so on.[2] We have seen that Jesus calls his disciples not only as co-laborers but also as a community of friends. The relational aspect of work is not an accidental by-product of an essentially utilitarian enterprise of labor. Rather, it is an absolutely critical component of work itself, going back to the time when Adam and Eve worked together in the garden. “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner,’” says the Lord God (Genesis 2:18). The creation becomes the means of interpersonal connection as humans work alongside one another, and in so doing enter into God’s labor to bring creation to its fulfillment.

This can be a tremendous encouragement to project-oriented people who are sometimes made to feel unspiritual because of their reluctance to spend an abundance of time talking about their feelings. Talking with other people is a necessary activity for developing relationships, but we should not neglect the importance of doing work as a means for nurturing relationships. Working together can build relationships in and of itself. It is no accident that we spend a great deal of time working with and for other people. Modeled on God’s own work within the Trinity, we are able to find relationship in work. Work toward a common goal is one of the chief ways God brings us together and makes us truly human.

Cf. John 3:35, 5:19-20. The statement in John 17:5, “So now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed,” may well refer specifically to the glory of sharing in world formation. This would form a fitting bookend to the inclusion of Christ in the primal creation in John 1:1-3.

Expressed beautifully, for example, in Robert Frost’s “The Tuft of Flowers” with the memorable lines, “‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart, ‘Whether they work together or apart.’”  Robert Frost, A Boy’s Will (New York: Henry Holt, 1915), 49.

I am the Vine and You are the Branches (John 15)

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The metaphor of vine and branches begins with the blessing of relationship with Jesus and through him with the Father (John 15:1). “As the father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (John 15:9). Yet the outcome of this love is not passive bliss but productive labor, metaphorically expressed as bearing fruit. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit” (John 15:5). The God who produced the universe wants his people to be productive too. “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit” (John 15:8). Our ability to do work that makes a lasting difference in the world is a great gift from God. “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name” (John 15:16). The promise of effectiveness echoes Jesus’ promise earlier, that “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these” (John 14:12).

The fruit borne by Jesus’ followers is sometimes taken to refer to converts to Christianity. “Greater works than these” would then mean “more converts than I myself made.” For those called to evangelism, this is certainly true. If Jesus is speaking in this passage only to the apostles—appointed as they were to preach the good news—in this passage, then perhaps fruit refers only to converts. But if he is speaking to believers in general, then fruit must refer to the whole range of work to which believers are called. Since the entire world was created through him, “the works that I do” include every imaginable kind of good work. For us to do “greater works” than heretofore seen could mean designing better software, feeding more people, educating wiser students, improving the effectiveness of organizations, increasing customer satisfaction, employing capital more productively, and governing nations more justly. The value of bearing fruit does not lie in whether we work in business, government, health care, education, religion, or any other field. The value lies in whether our work serves people’s needs. “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another” (John 15:17). Service is the active form of love.