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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Many Mansions

“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 if 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." -- John 14:1-3

One passage of Scripture that has often been pulled out of context in contemporary Christianity is John 14:1-3. Regularly used as a passage of comfort, Jesus describes to His disciples His leaving them to "prepare a place" for them, attaching the promise that they would someday be where He will also be.

One can hardly quarrel with the idea of using this passage to provide comfort to others, especially to those struggling with a life-threatening illness, or those trying to cope with the recent loss of a loved one. After all, the promises in the Gospel include the desire of every true believer, that of being with the Holy Trinity forever.

Yet a mistranslation of a key word in verse 2 in the most commonly used version of the Bible over the past four hundred years, the King James Version, has caused some measure of distraction from the typological significance of the passage. The mistake comes in the translation of the word for "rooms", as most modern translations have it. For reasons that are beyond the scope of my knowledge, however, the translator of John for the KJV saw fit to translate this as "mansions", an entirely incorrect rendering.

This mistake has had no small effect on popular Christianity. Anyone familiar with hymnody over the past couple hundred years is aware of the theme of "mansions" in heaven, a theme also popularized in the Gospel music from the early twentieth century up until today.

For those living through some of the poorer conditions occasionally found in twentieth century America, it is easy to see how the vision of receiving a mansion upon death could be entrancing. Yet Scripture tells us "eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love Him." (1 Cor. 2:9). And so to reduce heavenly glory to a mere mansion seems to show, as C. S. Lewis said in his sermon "The Weight of Glory", that our desires are way too small.

The bigger issue, however, is what the text in question actually says, and that leaves us with the reality that mansions in no way figure into this passage. We are left instead to consider the Father's house with its rooms.

What "house", though, is Jesus talking about? This is where comparing Scripture with Scripture shows itself to be the place to begin in Biblical interpretation. Bible scholars often make much of context, and the broader context of the Gospel of John gives us our answer. In John 2:12-25, we are presented with the occasion of Jesus cleansing the Temple. Furious at the use of the temple as a place of making a profit, Jesus drives out those profiteers, and in the process accuses them of turning His "Father's house" into a market. The Father's house, then, according to Jesus, is the Temple. That the Tabernacle, and then later the Temple, were considered dwelling places for God, albeit symbolically, is confirmed several times in the Old Testament (see 2 Sam. 7:5-17 and 1 Kings 8:27-30, for example).

When we look at the arrangement of the Temple, as originally constructed under Solomon, the reference to "rooms" makes more sense. Constructed on the pattern of the Tabernacle given to Moses, the Temple had two foundational rooms: the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. And yet Solomon's Temple was a more detailed structure, having numerous external chambers as well (1 Kings 6:5). It is to these rooms that Jesus seems to be referring.

Whereas the side chambers of the earthly Temple were used for storage, however, Jesus seems to suggest that these rooms would now be used as dwelling places. In the vision describing the restored Temple, Ezekiel sees rooms for the priests within a few feet of the Temple (Ezekiel 42:1-10). Yet in the heavenly Temple, of which Jesus speaks, the priests rooms have merged with the side chambers. The priests now dwell in God's house with Him.

And so, having looked at the typology, the basic thrust is the same as that of popular Christianity: God has a house, and His children will dwell with him in that house forever. But to miss the typology is to miss larger implications of the passage. Not only has the Church taken the place of Israel, God has brought Her into the priesthood itself. Any future restoration of the Temple that excludes Gentiles from any of the promises of Israel is unscriptural. In fact, the Temple of which we are a part is in the heavenly Jerusalem (Gal. 4:26; Heb. 12:22; Rev. 3:12), which is already coming down out of heaven, to reach its culmination in the end of time. And in this Jerusalem, there is neither Jew nor Greek (Gal. 3:28).

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