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
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. 2 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? 3 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. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.”5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.7 If you really know me, you will know[b] my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
9 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.