Jesus as the “Way of Life”: Deconstructing John 14:6

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{Thoughts on the Lectionary Gospel text for the 5th Sunday of Easter: John 14:1-14}

 

“I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”

This declaration by Jesus in John 14:6 has traditionally been singled out, quoted, and interpreted to mean that believing and confessing in Jesus Christ is the only exclusive way to God and to salvation in life after death. Consequently, we often use this passage to condemn those who are not Christians and to point fingers at others whom we determine are not “believers” by our standards. And in the meantime, while we take this verse out of its context and hold onto this very limited understanding, I believe we miss out on a much deeper meaning of Jesus’ statement that comes with a lot more responsibility for followers of Jesus. With a careful study of the passage’s historical and literary backgrounds, we can gain a much more profound interpretation of what Jesus is saying and why the author of John includes it in his gospel.

 

Audience of the Gospel of John

The authorship and date of the gospel of John have been highly debated. Some scholars argue the author was the “Beloved Disciple” mentioned in the gospel itself; others claim it was written by a school under the discipleship of the “Beloved Disciple;” others assert it was written by a Jewish Essene community living in Qumran; and still others argue that it was written first by one individual or group of individuals and was later edited by redactors.

While the authorship and date of John’s composition are debated, there are a few factors that suggest the gospel was not formulated until around the end of the first century and therefore was not written by an eyewitness.

  1. Many scholars claim that the latest the gospel could have been written was sometime in the early second century. This is because the Rylands Library Papyrus P52 – which contains parts of the earliest preserved manuscript of John’s gospel – is believed to have been in circulation around Cairo, Egypt by at least the middle of the second century. Accordingly, if the gospel was written in Ephesus, which is suggested by many scholars, it would have taken several years to get to Egypt, thereby dating it no later than around 100-110 AD.
  2. The similarities between John and the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) indicate John’s author may have been familiar with one or more of the Synoptics. While scholars have debated whether or not John’s author used the other gospels as sources for his own work, most agree that he had known at least Mark’s – and possibly Luke’s – oral traditions and may have seen some of their pre-gospel manuscripts. For that reason, the majority of scholars claim that the earliest John could have been composed was after Mark’s composition date: around 68-73 AD.
  3. Since the gospel does not allude to the fall of the Temple (which occurred in 70 AD), some scholars argue that it was either written before or much later than the fall (when the fall of the Temple was no longer a topic to emphasize in writings).
  4. There are three places in John (9:22, 12:42, and 16:2) that mention the Christians feared “expulsion of the synagogue.”[1] If the author was alluding to the official expulsion that had already taken place, an event dated around 80-90 AD, then we must surmise the gospel of John was composed at around 85-100 AD.

Location of the Audience

The task of determining the location of John’s authorship is also difficult, as there are no specific references in the text that state where it was written. Yet, many scholars believe it was written in Ephesus or another multicultural city context for the following reasons.

  1. Several Church Fathers, such as Irenaeus, Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, and Eusebius, claimed the gospel was written in Ephesus.
  2. While these Church Fathers are not considered authentic sources by many contemporary scholars, Ephesus is still considered a plausible city for the gospel’s authorship because the gospel includes Hellenistic, Roman, and Jewish terms, names, and concepts, suggesting the author was writing to a multicultural inner-city audience.[2]
  3. Ephesus fits this multicultural profile, as it was considered the “Metropolis of Asia” and served as the central “meeting place” between the east and west because of its location and travel access.[3] Due to its location, Ephesus was a highly populated and diverse city containing numerous religions, such as Judaism, polytheism, practices of magic, and the Artemis cult. Ephesus had also been the home to many Greek philosophers during the Hellenistic era and was one of the largest and most influential Roman cities by the beginning of the first century, therefore making the use of Greek philosophy and Roman imperial language popular writing techniques in late first century literature.

While Ephesus is a likely location of the composition of John, Antioch and Alexandria are other suggested possibilities. However, in any case, we can conclude that John was likely written in Asia Minor to an audience in a late first century multicultural city context.

Literary Genre and Establishing a Rule of Life:

Although we might assume Christianity would be accepted in such a diverse society, this was not the case. Around the end of the first century, Christians were officially banned from the synagogues, spied on during worship gatherings, criticized for their worship practices that were not customary to Greco-Roman society, and accused of being associated with pagan temple prostitutes and female promiscuity.

Consequently, as the Church began to deal with persecution by outsiders, it developed the need to establish an identity that would define the group without the physical presence and guidance of Jesus Christ, give it hope, and provide a rule of life in which its members were to treat one another and their oppressors. If we look at the literary form of the unit which encompasses John 14:1-14, as well as the main themes within that unit, we can see that John’s author was doing just that.

 

Fairwell Discource:

John 14:1-14’s literary genre is that of the Farewell Discourse common in Jewish antiquity, which includes chapters 14-17 in the gospel of John. The Farewell Discourse genre was typically in the form of a speech and was given by a teacher or leader to his students. The speaker often encouraged the immediate audience regarding their fears or tribulations, prepared them for the “immediate future… which includes being established by God as God’s chosen people,”[4] discussed how the group should behave and treat others, particularly toward one another, and usually concluded with a hymn or prayer.

John 14-17 contains almost all of the determining factors: Jesus tells the disciples not to let their “hearts be troubled” (14:10), warns them that he will soon go to the Father (16:25-28), implores them to keep his commandment (15:12), and closes with a prayer to God (17).

 

Interpreting John 14:1-14

It is critical to note the important elements of this genre when interpreting the meaning of John 14:1-14. As mentioned above, Farewell Discourses strongly emphasized the ways in which a community should live and treat others once their leader left them on their own. This emphasis on the community’s delegated rule of life is especially noticeable in the book of Deuteronomy, where Moses gives the longest Old Testament Farewell Discourse to the Israelites before his death. What is significant is that almost the entire book focuses on the commandments to the people: out of thirty-four chapters, eight designate how the community should live as a “people of God” (chapters 4-11) and nine report laws dealing with how the community should treat others justly (chapters 12-26).

Toward the end of the speech, Moses concludes,

“If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.” (30:16)

In other words, the “way to God was through the practice of and meditation on God’s law,”[5] a belief that was endorsed by Judaism. This has significant theological meaning for John’s Farewell Discourse because – as many scholars argue – it was specifically modeled after Deuteronomy in order to make Jesus’ message resemble Moses’. Therefore, since Moses’ central message claimed the way to God was loving God by “walking in his ways, and observing his commandments” (30:16), then Jesus’ message in John would have emphasized this same “way” of life as well.

The difference in John is that he redefines what this way of life should look like, to the later first century Christians, and how they ought to love God, walk in God’s ways, and observe God’s commandments. In fact, John’s Gospel provides a “new commandment” to his audience: “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” According to Walter Harrelson in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, “the commandment to love is not new,” for it is found in Leviticus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 6:4. “What is new is the shaping of that love according to the life and death of Jesus.”[6]

 

ή όδὸς: “The Way”

When we look at the Greek text of John 14:6, we will notice that Jesus’ statement could be interpreted in two different ways, one of which supports Harrelson’s conclusion. According to Danker’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, the word ή όδὸς (“the way”) could either mean “a way for traveling or moving from one place to another” or the “course of behavior, way, or way of life.”[7]  If Jesus’ statement refers to the first definition, it would likely suggest Jesus is the pathway to the Father, but if it refers to the second definition, Jesus would be declaring he is the “way of behavior” in which one should follow.

The second definition is the more plausible definition for a few reasons.

  1. As mentioned above, the author of John was writing to a diverse Christian community, including both Greeks and Jews. The Church had already been dealing with an internal conflict between the two groups, who debated over which group was truly Christian. Many Jewish-Christians believed the Gentiles needed to be “Judaized” before they could become Christian, and many Gentile-Christians assumed they were superior to the Jews because they were “free” in Christ and did not need to follow the strict “works of the law.”[8] Paul had already been teaching that Jesus was the new “identity symbol”[9] who did not exclude others (as did the Jewish “works of the law”), but rather included all people into the community of God. It is likely that John’s audience was dealing with the same issues Paul did, particularly after the Jews banned the Christians from the Jewish synagogues, which created more tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Therefore, it is unlikely John would center his gospel on an exclusive Jesus. Rather, his message would have presumably claimed Jesus was the way in which the diverse group of Christians could unite – by following in Christ’s footsteps of loving and serving one another.
  2. It would make sense in this mixed group of Christians that John used ή όδὸς to describe Jesus’ life as the example one should follow. This concept and behavioral interpretation of “the way” was common to both Jews and Gentiles, and thus, would have been an easy analogy for everyone to understand. In Judaism, “the way” was used to describe how one should live in biblical texts (such as Isa. 55:7-9, 56:11, 59:8, or the seventy references in Proverbs, to name a few), “early Jewish sources” (like Tob. 1:3 and Jub. 20:2), and “in the rabbinic use of halakot.” Additionally, Isaiah 40 in the Dead Sea Scrolls[10] described “the way” as “study of the law.”[11] Greek philosophy emphasized that “the way” in which one should live was finding “truth” in proper thought. For example, Epictetus commends Chrysippus for his “philosophical reasoning [which] ‘shows the way’ to correct thinking” and Marcus Aurelius states that “those who do not think properly have wandered astray and ‘do not know the road.’”[12]
  3. John also uses this Greek concept of “way of life” in another form: through the Greek word, ό λόγος. This term, which is often translated as “the word,” was understood as either “a certain type of function (such as reasoning, judging, or knowing)” or “a norm: the ‘right’ or ‘reasonable’ way to act, feel, or think.”[13]  This is significant because Jesus is described as ό λόγος in the very first verse of the entire Gospel. Since the author of John was extremely particular about his style of writing, language, and use and placement of words in his text in order to emphasize critical messages, it would be likely that his gospel’s very first verse would be one of – if not the most – important theological points of the Gospel, thereby serving as a type of thesis statement. If this is the case, it would be logical to assume that John 14:6 was a repetition, as well as another way to accentuate the thesis statement laid out in John 1:1 that Jesus’ life was “the way” in which to live.
  4. Besides the preeminent use of the λόγος way of life, John also stresses that Jesus is the “way of life” in his narratives. One that particularly displays this theme is John’s account of the Last Supper, which radically differs from the Synoptic account. In the three Synoptic gospels, the climactic moment in the Last Supper is when Jesus shares the Eucharist meal with the disciples. However, in John, the focal point in the Last Supper is when Jesus washes his disciples’ feet (13:1-30): an action of complete humility, love and servanthood toward others. Just after Jesus had finished washing the others’ feet in John’s narrative, he declares, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you… If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (13:14-15).  Another narrative that displays this theme is in John 10 where Jesus states that he is the “Good Shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep,” or God’s children, (10:11) and loves and protects them (as the “gate” in 10:9). He goes on to explain in verse 17 that the reason the Father loves him is because of what Jesus was doing for the people. Then in chapter 21, John ends his gospel with Jesus passing on this responsibility of laying down one’s life for others to Peter: each time Peter states He loves Jesus, Jesus answers with “Feed my lambs” (21:15), “Tend my sheep” (21:16), and “Feed my sheep” (21:17).

*****

As we look at these historical and literary contexts, we can see that one of the themes that is most emphasized in John’s gospel was to follow Jesus’ example of serving and loving others. Since John’s author stressed this message throughout his gospel, and because the concept of “the way” was commonly used by John’s Jewish and Greek audience to describe a “way of life,” John 14:6 also seems to portray the message that Jesus is the way or example to follow. For that reason, we might consider that John’s author did not intend to make belief in Jesus the exclusive “way” to reach the Father, but rather he stressed that the “way” to experiencing the full love and grace of the Father is by emulating Jesus’ actions. For Jesus commanded this as well:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).

With this in mind, rather than using this John 14:6 verse to condemn others for not “believing” in Jesus, maybe we need to ask ourselves and our Church how we are not following Jesus? Maybe we – ourselves – need to be looking more closely at the teachings and actions throughout the gospel of John of this radical Jesus that we are called to follow…

Maybe we need to be asking ourselves: How might we follow this radical Jesus today? How might we feed and tend Jesus’ sheep? How might we serve others with humility, love today’s sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes, and care for one another in the Church (even when we – like the first century Jewish and Greek Christians – have so many differences and disagreements?)

Maybe we need to be asking ourselves: How might we turn over tables in the Temple when it is taking advantage of the outcasts and boldly advocate for the sick, the oppressed, and the poor?  How might we challenge the unjust systems that oppress and marginalize many?

Maybe it is when we stop judging and condemning others for not “believing” what we think they should believe and actually start following this way of life Jesus laid out for us, others will, indeed, start seeing who God truly is: a loving and compassionate parent, accept the new life God offers us, and begin moving in this “way” to the Father – of loving others as Jesus did – as well.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”

 


 

[1] Kysar, Robert, Augsbury Commentary on the New Testament John, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 1986), 14-15.

[2] Tilborg, Sjef van, John in Ephesus, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996), 4.

[3] Gritz, Sharon Hodgin, Paul, Women Teachers, and the Mother Goddess at Ephesus: A Study of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 in Light of The Religious and Cultural Milieu of the The First Century (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1991), 11.

[4] O’Day, Gail R., Hylen, Susan E., John, (Lousiville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 142.

[5] O’Day, Hylen, 142.

[6] Harrelson, Walter. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Version with the Apocrypha, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003), 1936.

[7] Danker, Frederick William, A Greek-Enlish Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, Ed. 3,(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 691.

[8] Yeo, Khiok-Khng, What has Jerusalem to do with Beijing? (Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1998), 25-32.

[9] Yeo, 26.

[10] The Manual of Discipline in the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QS) also discusses the “way” in terms of behavior in 9.16-21: “there must be admonition of true knowledge and righteous judgment for those who choose the way; each according to his spirit, according to the regulation of the time, to guide them in knowledge and so to give them understanding in the marvellous mysteries and truth among men of the community, that they may conduct themselves blame-lessly, each with his neighbor, in all that has been revealed to them- that is the time of clearing the way to the wilderness– to give them understanding of all that has been found to be done at this time; and to be separated from every man, and not to pervert his way because of any error.” McCasland, S. Vernon, “The Way,” Journal of Biblical Literature v. 77 n. 3 (September 1958): 225.

[11] Keener, Craig, The Gospel of John, A Commentary, (Peabody, MA:Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 941.

[12] Keener, 941. Quotes from Marcus Aurelius 6.22

[13] Gill, Christopher, Greek Thought, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 12.

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2 responses »

  1. Thank you for this article Rev. Emily. I appreciate your interpretation of Jn 14:6. It has given me clarity.
    I was wondering, my father was recently told by a local Rabbi that he has in his possession a copy of the original 1611 published KJV Bible and that the verse John 14:6 does not even appear in that. I would be interested in knowing if that is true but more importantly, was it in the original Greek manuscripts? Are you able to clarify?
    Also, where Yeshua says “I AM” the way…… Is it possible to understand the verse as “I AM “is” the way……”? Would this “I AM” be the same as the “I AM” from Ex 3:14&15? If so, could one then say, YHWH (the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) is the way the truth and the light. No one comes to the Father but through YHWH…..who is the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
    I hope you are able to make sense of this question. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts.
    Thank you.
    Lisa

    • Well here is something interesting. I hate to answer my own question but here is a link to the 1611 KJB http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/John-Chapter-14_Original-1611-KJV/ where the phrase does in fact appear.
      The other thing to think on is whether or not Yeshua was speaking of himself as “The Word” in which he perhaps was saying that he – as the Word of G-d – is the way…. This would be in complete harmony with what Moses taught in his “farewell” speech. The way to G-d is through the Word of G-d.
      I have been a student of G-d’s Word for 14+ years and it never stops amazing me. The more I learn, the more I desire to learn. And the more I learn, the more clearly I see how very little I actually know. In being a disciple of G-d, there is no room for pride.
      Humbling really.
      Lisa

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