Updated: May 30, 2020
“Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.” John 14:1-4
The passage is a very familiar one. Many of us have committed it to memory. When we read about many rooms and our Father’s house, we think we know what it is saying to us.
But this is a passage which is locked up tightly to our Western minds without an understanding of the culture and customs of Jesus’ time. Jesus spoke in a Jewish cultural setting to a Jewish audience. If we understand that setting and that culture, the passage opens up before us in a very wonderful way. We gain new insights and a deeper understanding of what Jesus said and meant.
The Hebrews thought in word-pictures. Every story or concept brought a vivid mental picture to their minds. We, with our Western minds, tend to describe things in abstract terms. We use descriptive words to tell what someone or something is like.
The Eastern mind is very different. It thinks in images and pictures which illustrate the subject with a brilliant clarity! To demonstrate this, allow me to pose a challenge:
Describe God to me.
Western minds (us) will probably say things like: omnipotent, omnipresent, powerful, loving, kind, good. These are abstract terms describing what God is like; attributes of God.
If you were to go to Israel and ask an Eastern-minded person to describe God, his reply would be quite different. He thinks in pictures so his immediate answer would be something like, “God is like a rock.” He sees a vivid picture of a huge rock in a burning desert providing cool shade and shelter to the desert traveler.
He might say, “God is like a shepherd.” He would see a gentle, tender, leader of the flock, one who supplies all the sheep's needs, intimately communes with them, and tenderly cares for them. He might say, “God is like an eagle.” Strong, free, powerful. “God is like a tower.” A place of safety, security. “God is like a strong right arm.”
Jesus’ disciples were accustomed to thinking in this Eastern way. So, when Jesus spoke the words in the passage quoted above from John 14, the disciples instantly “connected” with two vivid mental pictures that were an essential part of their cultural understanding, that told them what Jesus was talking about. I’d like to share them with you today.
The first picture the disciples would have already had in their cultural experience is in v. 2, where Jesus says, “In my Father’s house [οἰκίᾳ] are many rooms.”
Other translations describe “many dwelling places” or “many mansions”.
What the Jewish listeners “saw” when Jesus said this is centered around a word they were very familiar with. It is the word “insula” [οἰκίᾳ]. The word describes a large “house” with many rooms, built around an enclosed courtyard: an insula.