Jesus’s meaning when he described himself as ‘The Way, Truth and Life’

  • Question from PM, United Kingdom

    What did Jesus mean when he said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life?’

    This saying of Jesus, recorded in the chapter 14 and verse 6 of John’s gospel, is one of the key texts cited by Christians who want to claim that Jesus is the only way to God, especially given Jesus’ subsequent comment ‘No one comes to the Father, except by me.’ It is a standard ‘proof-text’ used by many evangelicals and Catholics who want to assert the ‘exclusive’ nature of Christianity and it is becoming more popular as traditional faith values are perceived to be under attack. It is interesting, in these politically correct times, that it is one of the few pieces of Jesus’ actual teaching to be included in the current film The Passion of the Christ.

    John’s gospel is an ‘exclusive’ book, setting Jesus apart from ‘the Jews’ (the common description in John for the Pharisee opponents of Jesus), but also from the pagan religions of the ancient world. The author was not being anti-Semitic in his sweeping reference to ‘the Jews’. It is assumed he was writing into a Gentile setting – the Greek city of Ephesus is the traditional place where John’s gospel was written – and his audience would not have known the difference between the various factions in Judaism at that time, so he does not bother explaining.

    The author wants to avoid syncretism, that is, the assimilation of other religious ideas into his version of Christianity. Given the lax morality of the pagan religions at the time, this is understandable. The sexual rites performed in many Greek and Roman temples were demeaning to women and often slaves (male and female) were kept purely for religious sexual practices.

    There is a huge tendency in modern theology towards ‘pluralism’, the idea that all religions have some insight into ‘the transcendent’ (i.e. God). Of course this is slightly patronising to adherents of every faith, but that does not deter liberal scholars from pluralism. This verse does, however, provide a stumbling block to pluralism, which often leads to it being ignored or discounted. Ruth Edwards in Discovering John (SPCK, 2003) is honest enough to admit this but outlines a possible way around it.

    According to Edwards, ‘the way’ means ‘road’ or ‘journey’ and figuratively ‘behaviour’ or ‘teaching’, so “Jesus shows the way to God, reveals truth, and demonstrates life.” (p142 op cit). She would want to use this text “to see Jesus as the ‘constitutive mediator’ of salvation for all humankind, with people of other faiths as latent or ‘anonymous’ Christians” (p143), although she does acknowledge that it is likely this was not the author’s original intention. [For more on ‘anonymous Christians’ see previous answers on freelance theology]

    This viewpoint does not sit well with evangelical claims of the priority of Christianity, but does explain ‘inclusive’ verses in John (e.g. ch10 v16 regarding ‘sheep not of this fold’). Evangelicals generally take it as ‘a given’ that Jesus is excluding other faiths with this statement.

    Even from a non-exclusive standpoint, however, the above dilution of Jesus’ claim to be ‘the way’ down to merely behaviour misses much of the point of John’s gospel. The gospel author has a very high view of Jesus Christ’s nature (the technical term is Christology), linking him in this section undeniably with the eternal Father. Jesus is not just the role model we should follow, “Something much more difficult and much more profound is being stated than that… it is only in union with the Son that any man can come to any kind of union with the Father.” (John Marsh: Saint John, Penguin 1968, p506).

    Similarly Jesus reveals truth about the Father, “revealing the purposes and nature of God above” (Marsh, op cit, p506) and is the life which every reborn human has a share in. Jesus’ use of the words ‘I am’ is a direct reference to the God of Jewish history, who reveals his name to Moses as ‘I am that I am’ [YHWH] (Exodus ch3 v14). This whole section of John’s gospel is thus revelatory, not necessarily about Christianity’s special status amongst religions, but about Jesus Christ’s special status amongst men – a status that Christians share in when they are born again.

    This is just a small example of thoughts about this particular verse, PM. I hope it has been helpful. Thank you for contributing to freelance theology.

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