We have updated our Privacy Policy to provide you a better online experience.

More Insights from John 14

Dr. Wave Nunnally continues to use cultural context to reveal surprising insights concerning John 14 in this second half of a two-part series.

Dr. Wave Nunnally, professor of Early Judaism and Christian Origins at Evangel University and an instructor for the Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies (CHLS), assists in providing a regular CHLS column to PE News. This column offers deep and sometimes surprising insight into the Word of God through close examination of the culture of the day, biblical sites, and archaeological records. In this article, Nunnally further examines what Jesus was saying to his disciples about accommodations — the insula — in heaven during the Last Supper.


A prominent feature of the first-century peasant lifestyle was introduced in last month’s article: family living as illustrated by the insula-style home. Archeological excavations have uncovered many such homes throughout the land of Israel, each of which consisted of a large central courtyard with many smaller rooms honeycombed all around it. In this way, many nuclear families could live together as extended families of 150 or more. Whereas that article discussed John 14:2 in relation to this unique architecture, this article will explore more New Testament (NT) passages that assume knowledge of this manner of home-life as their background.


In the first article on John 14:2, Jesus was observed teaching that heaven would be like one large extended family, all living in immediate proximity to the Father and one another.  In the very next verse, Jesus explains how we all “get there.” He says, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also” (v. 3).  Here, Jesus assumes that His listeners know the insula, and know the reason why it is expanded [“I go to prepare a place for you” (v. 2b)].


Everyone knew that additions to the insula were made when the family was about to expand, but does Jesus have in mind growth by absorption of another part of the family that had lived elsewhere previously, the birth of additional children, or adoption?  He clarifies this in the same passage with another very closely related word-picture. He says He is going to leave, “to prepare a place for you” (v. 2b) and then “come again, and take you unto Myself, so that where I am you may be also” (v. 3).  


The language “to take to oneself” is used regularly in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible to refer to the act of a bridegroom taking a woman as his wife/bride (e.g., Gen. 28:2; Deut. 21:11). Further, we know this idiom for marriage was still in use among Jews in the land of Israel in the time of Jesus because it is used in the intertestamental apocrypha (e.g., Tobit 4:13), the Dead Sea Scrolls (e.g., 1QGenesis Apocryphon) and Rabbinic Literature (e.g., JT Yevamot 11d).


So here, Jesus has in mind the well-known Jewish marriage process that begins with betrothal (2 Cor. 11:2), followed by a time of separation in which the bridegroom adds on rooms to the family insula (John 14:2b-3a), returns to claim His bride (Matt. 25:6; John 14:3b), and celebrates in the home with a wedding feast (Matt. 22:2; 25:10; John 2:1-10; Rev. 19:7-9).


Therefore, included in His teaching on heaven with the insula as its background is an important teaching on His return! John 14:2-3 is describing not merely the Christian’s final estate, but also the return of Jesus as resembling the unbridled joy of a wedding celebration, the love shared between husband and wife (see Eph. 5:25), and the acceptance, intimacy, fulfillment, and security experienced in a close-knit extended family setting.


The insula-style home also illuminates the healing ministry of Jesus. Mark 2:1-4 states,


And when He had come back to Capernaum several days afterward, it was heard that He was at home. 2And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room, even near the door; and He was speaking the word to them. 3And they came bringing to Him a paralytic, carried by four men. 4And being unable to get to Him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above Him; and when they had dug an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic was lying.”


With the insula in mind, it is quite easy to reconstruct the scene: Jesus was teaching in the largest area available—the central courtyard. The crowd that had gathered was so large that it filled the courtyard and blocked the only entrance into the home from the outside. Undeterred, these locals found one of the numerous outdoor staircases archeologists have found at Capernaum and ascended to the roof.  Once there, they easily removed the mud/straw/branches roof (found collapsed and lying on the floor by archeologists), which permitted them to lower the paralyzed man between the rafters and into the courtyard below.


Jesus’ teaching on prayer also assumes the insula as its background, “…when you pray, go into your innermost/secret room” (Matt. 6:6). Here, Jesus is using one of the small, isolated, inner rooms of the insula to emphasize that prayer is not to be used as a means of publicizing one’s personal piety (see also Luke 12:3). Conversely, the same infrequently used word appears when Jesus speaks of His Return, “If therefore they say to you…‘Behold He is in the innermost/secret rooms,’ do not believe them. 27For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matt. 24:26-27). Here, Jesus uses the private, inner rooms of the insula as a contrast to the very public event of His Second Coming. 


Having seen that the insula provides the visual and mental image behind Jesus’ teaching about heaven (John 14:2), His Second Coming (Matt. 24:27; John 14:3), His warning about false messiahs (Matt. 24:26), and His teaching on prayer (Matt. 6:6), we are again reminded that context is crucial to clear communication. That the insula was also the background for a significant event in the healing ministry of Jesus (Mark 2:1-4) is a reminder that these events were real and have a specific, historically verifiable background.


These examples show that those who want to better understand Jesus’ teachings and deeds must become familiar with aspects of His world that He and His contemporaries shared as points of reference that enhanced communication.  Further, when Jesus’ words and works are understood in light of their original contexts, the incredible accuracy and realism of Scripture is in full view, which increases our trust in them as the only authoritative source that informs what we believe and how we live our lives as His disciples.