“I am the way”: from elitist exclusivism to gracious friendship?
There are some very familiar, oft-quoted words attributed to Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6a). And especially oft-quoted is the next sentence that follows, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6b).
That second sentence is frequently used to interpret the first sentence, to give it a sense of elitist exclusivism—there is but ONE WAY, there is certainly NO OTHER WAY, of approaching God, of being drawn near to the divine presence. Especially amongst more conservative theological elements in the church, this sense of “only one way”, “no other way” is regularly advocated.
But is this the only way to understand “I am the way”? Let me put the verse into context, consider a number if factors, and suggest why we may need to seek other ways of understanding this declaration about “the way”.
The first observation to make is that this statement draws on traditional Jewish terminology used by the people in the movement which Jesus initiated. “The Way” is a term which occurs in various chapters in the second volume of the orderly account, the book of Acts (9:2; 18:25; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22). This, according to these references, was the earliest term used to describe these people. (The term which eventually came to dominate, “Christians”, is first referenced at Acts 11:26, and is less-used in Acts.)
Calling the early followers of Jesus “The Way” may owe its origins to scriptural usage in association with God’s activity. The term is used in this way in Psalms 5:8; 18:30; 25:9; 27:11; 37:34; 50:23; 67:2, and so on. We might also note the occurrence of the term in Isa 40:3-5, and observe that it is cited in a prominent position at Luke 3:4-6. The return from exile in Babylon is marked as a preparing of the way by the Lord, leading the exiled people back to their homeland.
The term is also appropriated in the Dead Sea Scrolls as a means of defining the Qumran community (1QS 9.17-18,21; 10:21; CD 1:13; 2:6). This may reflect competing claims for being the authentic keepers of Torah amongst Jewish sects. The Qumran group, of course, was strongly exclusivist (it kept strong boundaries around the membership of the community) and could also be seen as being somewhat elitist in its theological outlook (some documents reflect the worldview that can be crudely summarised as “we have the truth, everyone else is wrong”).
In subsequent usage (beyond the first century) this term, The Way, has come to be completely overshadowed by a term used less often by Luke, that of “Christian” or “messianist” (11:26; 26:28). The latter term initially referred to the fact that the followers of Jesus, from early on, claimed that he was the anointed one, the Messiah (in Greek, the Christ).
So by using the term “the Way”, Luke emphasises the thoroughly Jewish nature of those communities which declared Jesus to be Messiah.
The second observation for understanding the verse in context is that it is one of a number of “I Am” statements that are placed on the lips of Jesus in the book of signs, which we know as the Gospel according to John. These sayings comprise a verb (“I am”) followed by a predicate (the entity which Jesus claims to be). The predicates in most of these sayings are drawn from traditional Jewish elements.
Jesus presents himself as “the vine” (John 15:1–11), drawing on a standard scriptural symbol for Israel (Ps 80:8; Hos 10:1; Isa 5:7; Jer 6:9; Ezek 15:1–6; 17:5–10; 19:10–14).
Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd” (10:1–18), evoking the imagery of the good shepherd as the true and faithful leader in Israel (Num 21:16–17; Ezek 34:1–31; Jer 23:4), and the people as the sheep who are cared for (Pss 95, 100; Ezek 34:31).
When Jesus calls himself “the bread of heaven” (6:25–59), he is clearly evoking the scriptural account of the manna in the wilderness (Ex 16:1–36; Num 11:1–35; Pss 78:23–25; 105:40). The discourse which develops from this saying includes explicit quotations of scripture, as well as midrashic discussions of its meaning.
Jesus, “the light of the world” (8:12; 9:1–5), evokes the story of the creation of light (Gen 1:3–5) and the light which the divine presence shone over Israel (Exod 13:21–22). The Psalmist uses the imagery of light to indicate obedience to God’s ways (Pss 27:1; 43:3; 56:13; 119:105, 130; etc.), and it is a common prophetic motif as well (Isa 2:5; 42:6; 49:6; Dan 2:20–22; Hos 6:5; Mic 7:8; Zech 14:7; cf. the reversal of the imagery at Jer 13:16; Amos 5:18–20).
Although it is not part of an “I am” statement, the references to the “living waters” which flow from Jesus (4:7–15; 7:37–39) are reminiscent of the water which were expected to flow from the eschatological temple (Ezek 47:1; Joel 3:18; Zech 14:8), and, more directly, refer to the description of God used by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 2:13).
In addition, biblical scholars have noted that rabbinic symbolism has affinities with Johannine symbols; for example, the terms bread, light, water and wine are all used by the rabbis in connection with the Torah.
Thus, the distinctive set of Christological claims made for Jesus in the Gospel according to John are both thoroughly grounded in scriptural images and familiar from the ongoing traditions taught by the rabbis.
A third observation is that the book of signs was written in a context of polarised disputation and growing hostilities. There was deepening conflict between the followers of Jesus, who acclaimed him as Messiah, and the scribes and Pharisees, teaching the traditions of the ancestors in the synagogues of the post-70 period.
After the destruction of the Temple in the Roman—Jewish War of 66-74CE, as there was no need for priests, the Pharisees became the dominant force in Judaism. Synagogues became key places for instruction in the Law, communal worship, and also community hospitality. Those claiming that the Messiah had come (as the followers of Jesus did) were problematic to the Pharisees. Tensions grew. Hostility broke out in some places.
There are three references to being expelled from the synagogue in the book of origins (John 9:22; 12:52; 16:2). These are widely understood to refer, not to the time of Jesus, but to the time when the Gospel came to take its final form—probably around the end of the first century—when the conflict between the synagogue authorities and the followers of Jesus had come to a head.
Biblical scholars have drawn on the insights of sociology in this regard. A group which acted in the way that the followers of Jesus were acting, is described as a sectarian community. Differentiating itself from the parent body by means of distinctive belief claims is typical of sectarian groups.
As it had come into existence because of the claims that it had made about Jesus, so the reinforcement of the life of the new community took place, to a large degree, through the strengthening and refining of its initial claim concerning Jesus.
Claims made about Jesus, the Messiah (Christ) thus function as markers of the emerging self–identity of the new community. This emerges over against the inadequate understandings of Jesus which continue to be held in the old community (the synagogue), still under the sway of the Pharisees. The messianists are confident about their faith. And they are certain about the absolute importance of following Jesus and believing in him. He is The Way.
Each of the “I am” sayings noted above is reported in this Gospel in this context of dispute and controversy. The sayings function as markers to differentiate Jesus from his Jewish contemporaries—and, by association, the followers of Jesus from their Jewish contemporaries.
Thus, when the Johannine Jesus expresses the claim, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”, there is an obvious and (to first-century ears) very clear claim being made about how the community of Jesus’ followers saw themselves, in relation to other groups in Judaism of the day. Like others, they were making claims about their exclusivity as the faithful one, their elitist understanding of what fidelity to the Law meant—and about the singular and central place of Jesus in their faith.
This Gospel consistently sets out a clear claim for Jesus as a distinctive figure, set apart and set higher than other religious leaders. Those who follow him have “the truth”, and are very clear what exactly is “the way” to God. Following Jesus was seen as the way—the only way—to gain “life”, or access directly to God. This isa polemic claim in the context it was first made.
The community in which the Gospel of John was compiled and valued was functioning in precisely the way that sectarian communitiesoperate, holding fast to their exclusivism and elitism.
How do we read such a text in our contemporary situation? We live in a world where retreating into a corner, keeping separate from other people, and treating anyone different from us with suspicion (if not outright hostility) is practised by some, but it really is an untenable and unhelpful way of living.
In the Uniting Church, our Basis of Union advocates that as we live our faith, we seek to be critically informed (as we enter into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry), ecumenically engaged (as we relate to our partners within the world-wide fellowship of churches), contextually relevant (through contact with contemporary thought), and missionally oriented (as we engage with contemporary societies) (see paragraph 11).
Engaging with contemporary societies and participating in them such that we better come to understand our own nature and mission, is a key commitment of this church. Multicultural societies, such as Australia, offer many opportunities for such engagement and learning. Seeking to understand the cultural practices and commitments of friends and neighbours in our midst, means that we will better understand who we are as Church: what it means to be in relationship with one another, to serve one another, to proclaim the living Word afresh.
The Uniting Church Assembly has advocated, “Friendship in the presence of difference is regarded as being a central Christian attitude and value. Engagement with those of other faiths is welcomed as a pathway on which we may rediscover the heart of the Christian way while also being enriched by wisdom others have to share.” (Adopted at the Thirteenth Assembly (2012), from a statement prepared by the Working Group on Relations with Other Faiths, entitled Friendship in the Presence of Difference: Christian Witness in Multifaith Australia.)
So: with this theological commitment to living with those different from us with an attitude of acceptance and friendship, a generous attitude of embracing diversity, an intention to hold to an informed faith, on the one hand; and a biblical text (John 14:6) that recounts how a deepened understanding of Jesus emerged through the process of antagonism, aggressive argumentation, and hostile actions—what do we need to do to hold these two together?
Should a text which originated in conflict, with the intention of carving out a space for a smaller group with a distinctive set of beliefs, still be interpreted in the same way as those first readers and hearers of the Gospel understood it?
Or do we allow the changed context in which we live, and the different perceptions that have developed in our time, to reshape our understanding, to recast our interpretation, to challenge long-held views and to invite fresh appreciations?
Is it the case that we MUST read this biblical text as requiring us to have an attitude of elitist exclusivism—there is but ONE WAY, there is certainly NO OTHER WAY, of approaching God, of being drawn near to the divine presence?
Or—is there another way to understand “I am the way”?
This blog draws on material in Journeying With John: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).
John Squires is the Editor of With Love to the World.
This piece was first published on John Squires’ blog, An Informed Faith.
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1 thought on ““I am the way”: from elitist exclusivism to gracious friendship?”
Thank you John for expanding further on this topic. It is important that we continue to learn and apply what we read in the Bible, as we benefit from the continuing work of biblical scholars and our changing context. There is much food for thought here thank you. My Formation Panel’s response when I raised this verse years ago was simply, ‘We don’t know” with an encouragement towards openness. (And it wasn’t the place really for an in depth theological discussion). That’s more helpful than a ‘pat’ answer, but this is much better!