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.
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).