Eschatology and the Structure of the Last Discourse

This note is supplemental to the current article on the Gospel of John. The great Last Discourse (13:31-16:33) of the Gospel is built around a major eschatological theme: the departure and return of Jesus. However, the way this theme is developed within the Discourse-sequence is quite complex, operating at two (or three) levels, in terms of the eschatology of the Gospel. Generally speaking, this two-level exposition corresponds with the two aspects of early Christian eschatology—future and present (“realized”). Moreover, as I noted in the article, Jesus’ departure and return can be understood three different ways:

    • Jesus’ immediate return, following his death and resurrection (cf. 20:17-29)
    • His presence in the Spirit, tied to his departure to the Father, and
    • His future return at the end-time

Several of the key passages are discussed in the main article, but I feel it will be helpful to supplement that discussion with a brief analysis of the structure of the Discourse.

The Structure of the Last Discourse (Jn 13:31-16:33)

In an earlier article, I presented a detailed thematic outline of the Last Discourse, which I would divide into three distinct, interconnected discourses, with an introduction and conclusion that relate more directly to the literary (and historical) setting of the Last Supper scene (chap. 13):

    • 13:31-38Introduction to the Discourse (cf. above)
    • 14:1-31Discourse/division 1Jesus’ departure
      • The relationship between Jesus and the Father (vv. 1-14)
      • Jesus’ Words for His Disciples (vv. 15-31)
    • 15:1-16:4aDiscourse/division 2—The Disciples in the World
      • Illustration of the Vine and Branches: Jesus and the Disciples (vv. 1-17)
      • Instruction and Exhortation: The Disciples and the World (15:18-16:4a)
    • 16:4b-28Discourse/division 3—Jesus’ departure (farewell)
      • The Promise of the Spirit (vv. 4b-15)
      • Jesus’ Departure and Return (vv. 16-24)
      • Concluding statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 25-28)
    • 16:29-33Conclusion to the Discourse

In terms of the literary/historical setting of the narrative, the departure of Jesus would refer primarily to his impending death, when he would be separated from his disciples for a short time. To judge by Jesus’ words in 20:17, in context, this departure (in the present) involved a return to the Father (cf. below). The introduction and conclusion to the Discourse seem to refer to the imminent events of his Passion and death:

    • 13:31-38—Announcement of his going away (v. 33), followed by a prediction of Peter’s denial (vv. 36-38, cf. 18:15-18, 25-27 par)
    • 16:29-33—Jesus’ prediction of his disciples being ‘scattered’ (cp. Mark 14:27 par), following the (second) announcement of his going away (vv. 16-17)

Within this framework, Jesus’ departure & return are presented in both future and present (“realized”) aspects. In terms of the handling of the Gospel tradition, this may be outlined as a parallel step-sequence:

PRESENT:

    • Jesus’ departure—his death
      • His return to the Father (unnarrated, cf. 20:17)
        • His return to the disciples, with the coming/bringing of the Spirit (20:19-23)
          • He brings his disciples to the Father, where they dwell together with Him, in the Spirit

FUTURE:

    • Jesus’ departure—leaving the world
      • His return to the Father (unnarrated, cp. Acts 1:9-11 etc)
        • His end-time return to his disciples
          • He brings his disciples to the Father, where they dwell together with Him, in heaven

How is this expressed within the Last Discourse? I believe it is possible to illustrate this by working from the thematic outline above, isolating a multi-level concentric structure that reflects the eschatological development—from traditional to “realized” (i.e., realized in/through the Spirit):

  • His death and return (13:31-38, in/for “a little while” [mikro/n], v. 33)
    • His departure to the Father, with promise of future return (14:1-4ff)
      • His coming again to the disciples in the person of the Spirit (14:15-24ff)
        • His disciples in the world, united with Father and Son in the Spirit (15:1-16:4a)
      • His coming again to the disciples in the person of the Spirit (16:4b-15)
    • His departure to the Father, with promise of future return (16:4bff, 16-24)
  • His death and return (16:16ff, 25-29, in/for “a little while” [mikro/n], v. 16)

The first layer represents the Gospel tradition of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the literary (and historical) setting of the Discourse. The second layer reflects the traditional (future) eschatology—Jesus’ end-time return in glory, parallel with his exaltation to heaven (at God’s right hand). The third, inner layer represents the “realized” eschatology so prominent and important to the theology of the Discourses. And, at the center of the great Discourse, is the central theme of believers living in the world, while not belonging to the world, united with God the Father and Jesus the Son through the presence of the Spirit; this is expressed primarily by way of the Vine/Branches illustration of 15:1-17.

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