This is one of the most comforting eschatological texts in all sacred Scripture. It is also one of the most controversial, since our dispensational brethren claim that here the Lord is speaking of a secret rapture of the Church. Let us therefore look first at the text itself, and then at the dispensational arguments.
An Amillennial View
The disciples are troubled. Jesus has just said that one of them will betray him (John 13:21-30), and that another, their leader, is about to deny him three times (John 13:37-38). Worst of all, he has told them that soon he will go away to his Father, and that they themselves cannot join him (John 13:33, 36). Aware of their fears (and forgetful of his own), he therefore devotes the remainder of the Upper Room Discourse to preparing them for what lies ahead.
He opens with three commands: “Let not your hearts be troubled: Believe in God, believe also in me” (v. 1). The antidote to their fears—and ours—is implicit trust in the character, sovereignty, promises, and salvation of God; and not only of God, but also of his Christ, in whom all of these precious gifts and remedies are found (2 Cor. 1:20).
Next, he makes a very special promise, a promise designed to cheer their hearts and calm their fears:
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. 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 take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. – John 14:2-3
To benefit from these words we must understand Jewish marriage customs, which were very much in Jesus’ mind when he spoke them. Broadly, an ancient Jewish marriage had three components. First came the betrothal. Here the parents of a young man arranged a suitable marriage for their son. This involved the father paying a “bride-price” to her parents, after which the families usually exchanged gifts and drank a cup of wine to seal the marriage covenant. At this point the couple were legally married. Next there came the waiting period. During this time—which could be quite lengthy—the groom prepared a house (or rooms) for his bride, sometimes on his father’s estate. Meanwhile, the bride prepared herself to live and serve with her husband as a skillful keeper of his home. Finally, there came the wedding ceremony. On the night of the marriage the groom and his friends would make their way in a joyful procession to the bride’s house (Matt. 25:1f). When they arrived, she and her maids would join the groom, after which they would typically return to his father’s house for the marriage ceremony, the marriage feast, the consummation of the marriage, and more festivities when the couple emerged from the chuppa, or bridal chamber, to join the party. Henceforth they would live together as husband and wife.
Time would fail us to discuss all the ways in which the Holy Spirit drew upon these ancient customs in order to depict the romance of redemption in Scripture. For our present purposes, however, only one thing is needful: to see that here, in John 14:2-3, Jesus was doing that very thing. He knew that at Calvary the Father would pay the bride-price. He knew that immediately afterwards he himself would return to his Father’s heavenly house to prepare a dwelling-place for his Beloved. And he knew that at the appointed times he would return to receive her to himself, so that she might be with him where he is (Matt. 25:1-13).
Keeping the Didactic New Testament (DNT) in view, let us carefully probe Jesus’ exact words, for they are eschatologically richer than we may think.1
First he says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places” (v. 2). The reference here is two-fold: not only to heaven above, but also to heaven up ahead: the new heavens and the new earth that he will create at his return. In this two-fold house there are (and will be) many dwelling-places. In other words, in both of these realms God has carefully prepared, or will prepare, not physical shelters, but spiritual niches: spheres of life and service specifically designed for each of his dear children. And there are many such niches, for both the world up above and the world up ahead will be filled with a great multitude whom no man can number, drawn from every nation, people, tribe, and tongue (Rev. 7:9f).
Next, Jesus assures the disciples that “I go to prepare a place for you” (v. 2). Again we have a two-fold meaning. First he goes to prepare a place for the saints in heaven above. That is, he is soon to enter heaven as their High Priest and Sacrifice, there to make eternal intercession for them, with the result that the Father can welcome them into heaven as his beloved children (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 6:19-20, 7:25). But secondly, at his return he will create new heavens and a new earth, thus “preparing” an eternal chuppa (or dwelling-place) for himself and his beloved Bride (Phil. 3:20-21; Rev. 21:1-2).
Finally, Jesus promises his fearful disciples that “ . . . if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (v. 3). Once again we encounter layers of meaning, layers that the DNT equips us to discern and enjoy. There are three of them.
First, at the moment of their new birth, Christ will come to his disciples in the Spirit and receive them to himself (John 14:16-18). In the case of the eleven, this occurred on the Day of Pentecost. In the case of the rest of God’s children, it occurs in the centuries to follow. As a result of this initial coming, the saint’s bodies continue to dwell and serve the Lord upon the earth, but their spirits are raised to newness of life, so that henceforth they are also seated in the heavenly places in Christ (Rom. 6:4; Eph. 2:5-6; Phil. 3:20). Even now they are “with Christ where he is.” Even now—though only dimly, as if in a mirror—they behold his glory (John 17:24; 1 Cor. 13:12; Cor. 3:18).
Secondly, at the moment of their physical death Christ will again come to his disciples in the Spirit, this time to perfect their souls and take them to live with him in heaven above. In other words, Jesus’ words are also fulfilled when, at their death, the saints enter Intermediate State (Luke 23:43; 2 Cor. 5:8; Rev. 14:13). As we saw earlier, this is true burden of Revelation 20:4-6. In all such texts the Lord would have us know that throughout the Intermediate State the saints will be where he is: in heaven itself. But there, at long last, we will be like him, for there we will see him face to face, just as he is (1 Cor. 13:12; 1 John 3:2).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Christ will come to his disciples on the Day of his Parousia. Yes, when he descends from heaven he will be bringing their (perfected) spirits with him. But then, at the Resurrection, he will join those spirits to new glorified bodies, so that in their flesh they will see God (in Christ) with their own eyes (Job 19:26-28). In that Day he will yet again take his Bride to himself, but this time once and for all, so that henceforth they may dwell together forever in the glorious new Chuppa to Come (Rev. 14:1, 21:1-5).
Here, then, we have a powerful host of reasons why the Bride of Christ must not let her heart be troubled. When fear and sorrow threaten to overwhelm, she is to steady herself by listening afresh the voice of her heavenly Husband: “Beloved, always remember that through your new birth I have already come for you, and that even now you dwell with me where I am. But more than that, always remember that great things are waiting for you up ahead; that at the moment of your death—and also at the Resurrection of the Dead—I will again come to you and receive you to myself, so that where I am—and as I am—you may be also. Beloved Bride, be faithful until death: truly, it will be worth the wait!”
The Dispensational View
We have seen that John 14:1-3 harmonizes quite well with amillennial eschatology. How does the dispensational view fare? To find out, let’s listen to John MacArthur on our text:
“This is one of the passages that refer to the Rapture of the saints at the end of the age when Christ returns. The features in this description do not describe Christ coming to earth with His saints to establish His kingdom (Rev. 19:11-15), but taking believers from earth to live in heaven. Since no judgment on the unsaved is described here, this is not the event of His return in glory and power to destroy the wicked (Matt. 131:36-43). Rather this describes his coming to gather his own.”
In reply, I offer three observations.
First, if the rest of the DNT explicitly taught a pre-tribulation Rapture, then we would have to admit that this text could be referring to it. It is, as it were, a blank eschatological slate, amenable to different interpretations. We have seen, however, that the DNT always teaches a single Coming of Christ and a single Consummation. Accordingly, it is certain that this text does not refer to a pre-tribulation Rapture.
Secondly, MacArthur says, “The features in this description do not describe Christ coming to earth with His saints to establish His kingdom, but taking believers from earth to live in heaven.” We have seen, however, that the Lord’s actual words display a studied ambiguity. That is, they can indeed be interpreted to say that he will come to his disciples and take them to heaven, whether through the new birth, or through the first resurrection at the moment of their death (Rev. 20:4-6). However, they also can be interpreted to say that at his return he will take his disciples to be with him in the new heavens and the new earth. Since the DNT teaches this three-fold fulfillment, it is biblically justified to read it into our text. But since the DNT does not teach or support the dispensational interpretation, it is not biblically justified to read it into the text.
Finally, MacArthur says, “Since no judgment on the unsaved is described here, this is not the event of His return in glory and power to destroy the wicked.” Now this is perfectly true, if we are thinking of the first and second kinds of coming. But what of the third: the Lord’s bodily coming at the end of the age? Does Jesus’ silence about a general resurrection and judgment mean that he did not have them in mind? What if he elected not to mention them here, not only to leave room for the first two kinds of coming, but also, in regard to third, to focus the disciple’s attention on the supremely comforting prospect of being with him forever in the glorified World to Come? MacArthur’s argument from silence is not convincing. Moreover, there are many NT texts that refute his assertion by positively teaching that Christ will indeed judge the unrighteous at his bodily Coming (Matt. 13:37-43, 24-25; 1 Cor. 15:20-28, 50-58; 1 Thess. 4:13-5:11; 2 Thess. 1:3-12, 2:1-12).
We conclude, then, that the amillennial interpretation of this text supplies a truer, richer, and far more comforting meaning than that of our dispensational brothers. The Lord is not speaking here of a pre-tribulation rapture, but of a three-fold coming to his disciples: first at the moment of their new birth, second at the moment of their death, and finally at his Parousia at the end of the age. When the heart of the Bride is troubled, let her meditate on all three, but especially on the eternal union that will be hers at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7).2
1. I define the Didactic New Testament as the teaching portions of the NT: Select passages in the Gospels, the Epistles, and select passages in the book of Acts.
2. This essay is an excerpt from a book in progress, The Great End Time Debate: Issues, Options, and Amillennial Answers (Redemption Press). It should be released later this year or very early in 2022.