I was once an observer of a lively debate on John 14:1-2. One friend insisted that the Greek word monai should be translated “rooms,” like in a hotel. The other friend was sure the King James Version had it right with “mansions.” He had his future home all planned out, with vaulted ceilings and huge picture windows overlooking spacious lawns. I didn’t take sides.
I’d heard the passage hundreds of times, always as a reference to heaven. I was told that Jesus is up in heaven preparing a wonderful place for me to live. That sounded great.
But later, when I studied the passage for myself, I came to a different conclusion.
First, the context. Jesus and His disciples were in the upper room on the night before His crucifixion. Judas had just been exposed as a betrayer and sent on his way. Jesus begins to explain to the eleven about the horror that was coming. He spoke of His death as glory, a testimony to God’s power, justice, holiness, faithfulness and love.
Then He said, “Little children, I shall be with you a little while longer. You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come,’ so now I say to you” (John 13:33). He was referring to His death in terms of the Old Testament tabernacle (Leviticus 16:17) when the high priest went into the Holy Place to make atonement.
After a few remarks on how they should behave in His absence, Peter asks, “Lord, where are you going?” The disciples still didn’t understand that Jesus had to die. He told them that they couldn’t follow Him to death and glory “now” but that they would later. Peter insists he is ready to die, and the Lord informs him otherwise and then tells him not to be troubled. Just trust Him.
But trust Him for what? Now we come to the verses that are so often used in sermons on heaven.
In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also (John 14:1-2).
It makes for an easy proof text. But is it accurate? As we’ve seen, the Lord has been talking about His death.
We need to take a closer look at the words He uses.
House — the Greek word oikos often does mean “house,” “a dwelling.” But it is also used to mean “household,” or a family. John himself used it this way in John 4:53: So the father knew that it was at the same hour in which Jesus said to him, “Your son lives.” And he himself believed, and his whole household. The word translated “house” in John 14:2 and “household” in John 4:53 is the same Greek word.
Mansions — The Greek word moné can mean “dwelling place,” or “lodging.” But it can also mean “room” or “a staying, an abiding.” Look how John uses it later in the same chapter. Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him” (John 14:23).
Place — The Greek word topos is usually translated “place.” But it is translated “opportunity” in Acts 25:16: To them I answered, ‘It is not the custom of the Romans to deliver any man to destruction before the accused meets the accusers face to face, and has opportunity to answer for himself concerning the charge against him.’ In other places, it is translated “occasion” or “room.”
I believe the only basis for choosing one meaning of these words over another is context. And as we’ve seen, the context in John 14 is Christ’s coming death.
So if you’ll pardon a bit of paraphrasing, you could read the passage like this:
In My Father’s family there is plenty of room; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to the cross to prepare a place (perhaps with the sense of opportunity) in My Father’s family for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you in that family, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am (in fellowship with the Father), there you may be also.
What about the rest of the passage? Is there anything there to back this up?
Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:5-6). He was referring to the way He was providing to the Father through His death.
I am not trying to undermine the doctrine of heaven. I believe our hope is in heaven (Colossians 1:5) and that we will be present with the Lord the moment we die (2 Corinthians 5:8). I’m simply saying that I don’t think the Lord was talking about heaven in John 14. I believe He was talking about His death.
Sometimes we get so stuck in the rut of what we’ve been told Scripture is saying that we can no longer see what it actually says.