Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (Jn 14:6)
The above verse is a powerful one. There is something unmistakably exclusive about it. “No one” comes to God the Father without going through Jesus of Nazareth, a first century carpenter-turned-rabbi from an obscure little village in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. No one. Not the people who lived and died in other obscure parts of the world without ever hearing the gospel. Not the people who attend church regularly and vote their biblical convictions in this good ol’ “Christian nation.” Not even the disciples sitting at the dinner table with Jesus when he first said these words. No one.
What a jerk, right?
Well, to be fair, there are all sorts of perspectives on this passage, and connecting questions that need to be answered for us to interpret it correctly. For one, when Jesus said “Me,” was he referring to himself as the human being, Jesus of Nazareth, who was only on this earth for a few short decades? Or, was he referring to the eternally pre-existent Son, the second Person of the Godhead, the divine Logos, the loving wisdom and reason that governs the universe and out of which all things were created? Also, what does he mean by “comes to the Father”? Most people interpret this to mean that Jesus is the only way to get to heaven when you die. But, is that actually what he’s getting at with this claim?
I’d like to take a different approach to this passage, and suggest that most people, even Christians, are still trying to get to the Father by bypassing Jesus. The truth is that if we read the above claim of Jesus in its context, we find that it’s a lot less about getting into heaven and a lot more about following Jesus into the life of a martyr.1
In Our Orthodoxy
Faith as a lifestyle can be categorized as both what we believe and how we live. Simply put, orthodoxy just means “right belief.” As conscientious thinkers, we want our beliefs to be correct. Moreover, as Christians, we want our beliefs to line up with God, the ultimate source of all truth. When we think of the above passage in these terms, it can bring a good deal of clarity. Jesus doesn’t just have truth; he is the truth. And nobody can find God’s truth without him.
When formulating our theology, it is amazing how seldom we take this into account. Christians, most notably Evangelicals, have a tendency to begin our theology with God as we find Him in the Old Testament, and then set that as the standard for how we understand God as we encounter Him in the New Testament.
A great example of this is how we understand God’s relationship to violence. In the Old Testament, God is often depicted in violent terms. God is a “warrior” (Exod 15:3), He punishes people with death for failing to observe religious rules (Num 15: 32-36), He is genocidal (Gen 7:21-23; Deut 7:2; 1 Sam 15:1-9), and at times He’s even infanticidal (Deut 13:6-10; Ps 137:9).2 People will often take this as proof that God is okay with violence, even if only in certain justified situations. And then in the New Testament we find the person of Jesus, who said, “blessed are the peacemakers” (Mt 5:9), talked about sacrificing our lives (Mt 16:24-26; Lk 14:26-27), didn’t want his followers to use violence to protect him (Mt 26:51-52; Jn 18:36), commanded his disciples not to respond to an attacker in kind (Mt 5:39), and taught folks to instead love and bless their enemies (Lk 6:27-37). What often happens is people will then re-interpret Jesus so that he jives with the understanding of God that they’ve already formulate from how we find Him in the Old Testament. Essentially, they are coming to Jesus through God (or at least their preconceptualization of Him).
I would like to suggest that we not do this. Instead, as per Jesus’ own words, let’s try coming to God through Jesus. This means Jesus sets the standard for how we understand God, and anything else needs to be either discarded or re-interpreted to fit him. If we want right belief, true orthodoxy, we can’t come to a proper belief about God by skipping over Jesus.
In Our Orthopraxy
Just as we want our beliefs about God to be correct, our actions need to line up as well. Orthopraxy simply means “right action.” And, just like we can’t come to God in our thinking without first going through Jesus, our lives are not truly godly and God-honoring unless they are lives that strive to look like Jesus.
A really good example of how this works is found in how Christians handle (or mishandle) their money. Throughout the Old Testament we see a practice known as “tithing” (Gen 14:18-20; 28:12-22). This is where a person would give a tenth of their income as an offering, and it became something that was part of the Mosaic Law (Lev 27:32-33; Num 18:21-28; Deut 14:22). Unlike modern day offerings taken up in church, this was a lot more like paying taxes. In other words, not yielding at least 10% was not an option. The New Testament, on the other hand, has no such hardline obligations. Instead, the early Christian authors encouraged believers to cheerfully give what they could (2 Corinthians 8:12; 9:7), often as a way of helping the poor and persecuted Christians (Acts 11:29) and even selling property to free up funds for anyone who had needs (2:45).
The funny thing is that almost every sermon that I have ever heard on money has drawn on the practice of tithing as prescriptive for how much Christians should give. In fact, in many churches there are procedures for encouraging members that give less than 10% to give more, and a lot of churches won’t allow individuals into positions of leadership until they’ve met this standard. Now, granted, Jesus neither commands nor condemns the practice of tithing himself. But, if we are to take the apostolic writings of the New Testament as authoritative representatives and interpreters of Jesus’ teachings, then we would expect that rather than setting a percentile standard for generosity, Christians ought to simply encourage one another to give as they feel led, whatever that amount might be and with no strings attached.
At the end of it all, if we are going to claim that Jesus is the only way to God, then that includes how we think and live as well. If you have to bypass, re-interpret, or explain away something Jesus and his closest followers said in order to get at what you really want, even if it comes from an understanding of God found elsewhere in the Bible, then you’ve got your interpretive priorities out of order.
1: Read John 14:1-6 as a continuation of 13:21-38.
2: I honestly don't care to list every instance of divine (or divinely ordained) violence in the Bible here. If you're really curious, the folks over at The Skeptic's Annotated Bible have listed some 1,321 instances. Even if you argue that most of those are taken out of context, it still leaves you with quite a collection of passages to reckon with.