I Don’t Think That Verse Means What You Think It Means: John 14:6

I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Nobody comes to the Father except through me.

How It Is Usually Used

John 14:6 with One Way sign

As usual, quoted without context

You’ve probably heard this verse. It is brought up a lot, particularly within the context of one particular conversation: the place of other religions in relation to Christianity. In our increasingly-pluralistic world, this is a really big question. Since inevitably people will ask the question even though my entire point of this post is that this verse is not about that, here’s a sampling of Christian understandings of the place for other religions. In that post I do touch on one element of John 14:6, but I’m going to touch on a couple of different ones here as well as revisit that one.

What’s interesting is that no matter which view you take, you probably think of this verse as an answer to that question about other religions. It’s just become a part of that conversation. But it shouldn’t be a part of that conversation. This isn’t to claim any particular answer to the questions about other religions – I did present my theory in the linked post above but there is lots of room for discussion. This is just to show that within its context John 14:6 is very clearly not talking about salvation for practitioners of other religions. Here’s the verse in context:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God[a]; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.If you really know me, you will know[b] my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority.Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.

The next time somebody quote-bombs me with John 14:6, I’m going to ask them if they know what either verses 5 or 7 are, let alone the whole section. As soon as you put it in context, you start to realize a few things.

Revelation, not (primarily at least) Salvation

Verse 6 is part of an answer to a question that the disciples ask. It is important to realize that this question is very different than the question that we pretend it answers. It is consistently (at least primarily) about revelation: how can we see the Father? Jesus says the same thing that runs throughout the entire New Testament: he is the ultimate revelation of the Father. The Bible is not the ultimate revelation. It testifies to Jesus, but Jesus is the Word of God (John 1). Judaism is not the ultimate revelation and I think it is fair to say that Christianity is not either. A set of doctrines is not the ultimate revelation. The church is not the ultimate revelation. Those can all be useful, but only inasmuch as they point us to Jesus. If we want to see the Father, we look at Jesus. That’s what this text is primarily, arguably exclusively, saying.

This is a hermeneutic that has often gotten Anabaptists in trouble with other Christians, particularly Protestants who prefer to insist that all of the Bible is equal revelation. But considering Jesus himself said it, I believe that even the Old Testament is to be filtered through him. For example, we can’t simply say that because the OT God was violent and nationalistic that we should be, too, because Jesus showed us a God who loved all nations and changed the world through sacrifice for enemies rather than destroying them. Of course that leaves us with a tough question which we will inevitably ask: how do we think that the violent god of the OT testifies to Jesus? I’m not going to get into it more here but if you’re interested, see my post on the question in my Searching Issues series. However we answer that, though, we can’t deny that Jesus presented himself as the ultimate revelation of God, even more than the prophets and other Scripture writers of the Old Testament.

Disciples, not Outsiders

Also clear in the context is who the question is being asked about. It is not about those outsiders who aren’t Christians and how they can get to know the Father. The disciples ask how they can see (not be saved by) the Father. The question is not whether their pagan neighbours would go to heaven. It is not even whether there is truth within pagan religions. Like many of the teachings of Jesus, this teaching is geared toward those who have declared allegiance to Jesus as a response to a question about how they, the disciples, can deepen their discipleship. In this case, Jesus says that discipleship is deepened precisely by what I was just talking about above: through keeping our eyes on Jesus as the ultimate revelation of the Father.

For those who still insist on making this about other religions, as I do not, this verse leaves open the interesting concept that the Father could be encountered through other means. Liberal Christians take this tact a lot, arguing that for Christians, sure, Jesus is the way to see the Father, but for others, there may be other ways. There isn’t much of a case elsewhere in Scripture either before or against this idea and this text is no exception, neither confirming nor eliminating that possibility. The Bible in general and Jesus in particular just seem far more interested in teaching those who have claimed allegiance to the faith than in answering our “but what about them?” questions.

Person, not Religion

This is the one that I’ve expanded on more in the post I linked above. Jesus does not say that Christianity is the Way, Truth, and Life. Sadly that’s how many use this test: “join us or burn in Hell!” Christianity didn’t even exist yet. Jesus says that he, the person, is the ultimate revelation of the Father. This should serve as a check against Christian arrogance even though it is often used to further it instead. We don’t have sole claim to Jesus. We might be the only ones explicitly worshipping him by name, but that doesn’t mean others aren’t able to see him and the Father through him. Obviously, this doesn’t make sense within a framework where faith is an intellectual concept, which is sadly how many Christians throughout history and especially the modern era have presented it, but it does make sense in a relational vision of faith. Of course, being able to make explicit this God who you are worshipping is always going to allow for more depth than not knowing that information. The information is still valuable and in no way is our drive to evangelize reduced; we just need to make sure we’re evangelizing to Jesus instead of to Christianity.

 

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Hrm…not all that controversial to me… 😉

    Now, I think there is caution that must be used. We can say Jesus is the one true revelation. And we can say that others, like, say, Ghandi, while not Christian, may be Jesus followers, seeking him through the revelation…but we must be sure to note that such “non-Christian” folks must still be measured by the revelaton that is Jesus. People can easily say, “Well, Ghandi is a decent fellow…I like him…but Jesus? Nah..gonna give him a pass”. That is denying Jesus as the revelation in favor of another way…likewise with Buddha…or Muhammad..or anyone elses…Jesus is the revelation and, therefore, also the standard by which any other revelation should be considered.

    I think another important note…if once you find out who Jesus is (not what the church or Bible say) and you till opt out, that’s also denying Jesus as the revelation… We have to be careful, in otherwords, not to be too universalist…but at the same time not too restrictive…Jesus is Lord, and that should be the starting point…

  • Greg Gamble

    well worded Ryan
    and a valuable reminder Robert.

    Id add that because the church is divided, and worse, falsely united in cultural imperatives, our collective
    picture of the kingdom makes it easy for even Christians with clean hands and a pure heart to not be caught up in diatribe and fault finding. As for the unsaved, their picture of Christ as He truly is in all His beauty of holiness and righteousness is largely blurred by our frenetic attempts to save them, and their ridicule of us as we fall into the myopic pit we have collectively dug.
    Our testimony collectively is what needs saving, before they do.
    1 Tim. 3:15 ….the church is the pillar and ground of the truth.

    The world, including much of the church, doesn’t read the bible.

    They read us.

    God intended the church to be the living documentation and validation of His Word, who is Jesus the Christ.

    But having co-opted the church, and by extension, the very word church itself, to reflect our pseudo pagan ways, we are

    unable to portray by example who God is, in Christ, and by default must rely on clever explanations and philosophy to do the work of convincing, rather than being conduits for the Holy Spirit to convert.

    There are few words in any language that can or have delivered a revelation of Christ to anyone, and the power of the witness of the gospel that He intends for us to use is unavailable to us because we cant even handle our words carefully.

    God help us to return to Him together, sitting at His feet, learning from Him, and quit all this pontificating.

    Many honest, truth seeking heathen will join us at His feet, but not in our churches where we have usurped His headship.

    They seems to be more honest than us in some respects.

    Blessings

    Greg

    • That’s definitely a handful to chew on, but I definitely agree. I’m a history-lover, focusing on that in my M.Div. time, and I think there’s a big historical factor here. With the Protestant Reformation, many had very justified reasons to be upset with the institutional church of the day, so they replaced institutional authority with biblical authority. Ironically, I think the Bible gives the church – the universal body of believers, not the institutional hierarchy – huge authority and responsibility as the ambassadors of Christ. We shouldn’t need to hammer people by quote-bombing John 14:6 or any others because we should be showing them Jesus all the time.

      I had a Pentecostal professor who put it this way. In theory, we all worship a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Western/Catholic Church essentially replaced the Holy Spirit with the institutional church hierarchy, so in theory they essentially worship Father-Son-Institution. Protestants came along, rejecting the institutional church, but instead of putting the Holy Spirit back in place they proclaimed that the Spirit almost exclusively works through the Bible. So in practice they often worship Father-Son-Bible. You could easily make the argument that the core of the problem is limiting the Holy Spirit.

      • Greg Gamble

        Again, well said. Forgive my insistence though please when I reply with this: Somebody, somewhere, sometime simply must begin to take the public relations risk to teach believers to obey all things whatsoever he commanded us. In the OT they were usually the prophets that did that job, and there were a few judges and priests. It isn’t a popular job description, certainly not a safe one like seminary professor or author or theologian.
        If somebody, especially if that somebody was a collective voice like a bible college, established church or even a local ad hock, non nondescript fellowship of believers were to begin to preach this like John Baptist did, among the general population of christians, it would be so radical and unusual that it would drag just about everyone back to a simple narrative of repentance and obedience, or a repudiation of that message. Either way, the false division of doctrine and personality worship would be challenged by a healthy division between those who claim Christ in word and those who follow thru with practical daily obedience. I project a mini revolution in a short time.

        Matthew 28:19-20

        19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

        20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

        There has been enough talking, discussing and theologizing, we need to get on with doing what we know we must do, so that he can reveal the stuff to us that we dont know to do. The point of doctrine and teaching is not to teach doctrine, hand out diplomas, create or heal quarreling communities around different interpretations of his commands. As an emerging theologian, along with anyone else among us who consider ourselves to have been invested with any leadership giftings, we have a basic duty to begin where he told us to begin, which is to teach obedience to all his commands. Everything else, eschatology, and all the other ‘ologies’ can be discussed after we have all returned to simple obedience to then KNOWN will of God.
        Those of us who understand this must have a holy intolerance for deviation and double speak that sets up straw men arguments, luring simpler folk and the proud away from simply doing what we were commanded.
        We must keep the main thing the main thing and not allow ourselves and others to get us off track from the foundation laying of obeying all he commands us. I dont let my kids move on to new learning experiences until they have a working ability in the basics we began with, and likewise, we as a collective christian body have allowed ourselves to be lost in the forest of theology and discussion while searching for the two trees forming a cross.
        Just Do It is a wonderful motto.
        Greg

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