The question of religious identity and exclusivity is the source of much unrest among Christians here in the twenty first century. While some are turned off by culture war posturing and struggle with Christian claims of superiority, others have doubled down on such claims, embracing exclusivity to a degree of militancy. At the heart of this question are apparent biblical proclamations of religious supremacy. Such passages seem to be numerous, but few are as succinct and popular as John 14:6 in which these words are attributed to Jesus:
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
For a major segment of the Christian population, this verse represents a triumphal pronouncement of religious superiority; Jesus is the only way to get to heaven, therefore Christianity is the only true faith. The verse adorns t-shirts and stickers as a public challenge to members of other religions and traditions, and a sort of “high five” to other believers. Meanwhile, in light of Christian culture’s proud application of John 14:6, an increasing number of Christians are uneasy and secretly dubious. Several friends of similar age and upbringing have confided in me that this verse in particular has engendered doubt or even a crisis of faith.
Because it has been understood and argued for so long in a context of religious one-upmanship, it has been difficult for some to square John 14:6 with Jesus’ teachings of open-hearted empathy and enemy love. It’s hard to die for your enemies when you’re chanting “we’re number one!” And while all Christians believe that Jesus represents a decisive and authentic revelation of the divine character, many of us believe that very character to be incompatible with triumphalism and harsh exclusivity.
Of course, this whole debate assumes that the context and meaning of John’s passage concerns religious identity and/or afterlife destiny. It turns out that neither is the case. Here are four important facts to remember about John 14.
1. This is John’s gospel.
This one might seem silly and obvious, but it’s actually very significant (and potentially controversial). Once we stop “harmonizing” the four gospels into a giant unwieldy mashup, we begin to see each of them as unique and individual works of creative expression, each telling the same story in a radically different way. John’s gospel, written later than the others, has the most stark and unusual take on the life and teaching of Jesus. Unlike the Jesus of the three prior gospels, John’s Jesus does not proclaim the “kingdom of God,” does not tell parables, does not cast out demons. And whereas the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke refused to perform signs and miracles to “prove” his identity, John’s Jesus does little else.
Everything this Jesus does and says is to demonstrate that he comes from “the Father” so that his listeners will “believe.” The quote in John 14:6 is only found here in John, as part of Jesus’ emphatic claims about his own authority as a spokesperson for Israel’s God. This aspect of Jesus’ agenda is largely unique to John’s gospel, which doesn’t make it irrelevant or inauthentic, but does place it within a very specific context.
2. Jesus is a Jewish prophet talking to his Jewish disciples.
In none of the gospels is Jesus portrayed as a culture warrior seeking the establishment of one true religion against all other false religions. He is a prophet and rabbi, a Jewish teacher of Jewish followers, a preacher of reform to his own people. This too should be obvious, but for some reason it is easily overlooked by modern readers who imagine Jesus as the original Christian megapastor. Whatever Jesus has to say in this or any passage, it is not aimed at the unbelieving hordes “out there,” but to those who already confess belief in the God of Israel.
3. Jesus offers an ethical challenge, not a religious ultimatum.
And now we are better positioned to address the actual content of John Chapter 14. Jesus has just washed his followers’ feet (a deeply subversive act) and given them the “new commandment” to “love one another” in Chapter 13. Now, when he speaks ominously about leaving them, the disciples protest and Philip nervously asks, “Where are you going, and how can we know the way?” Jesus’ response is perhaps best translated as:
“I am the living and true way, no one comes to the Father except through me!” (John 14:6)
In the parlance of rabbis and disciples, a “way” or “path” is an ethical or moral program, a way of living and thinking and behaving. Jesus tells his worried disciples, “When I’m gone, follow my way, for it is the true way of God.” The good and fruitful (“narrow”) way is always contrasted with an alternate way which leads to death and destruction. In the teaching of Jesus, the deadly path is not that of people in foreign lands and other religions, but of those within his own tribe who who seek retribution and violence and reject the peaceful and forgiving revelation of God embodied by Jesus. This is why Jesus goes on to say:
“If you had known me, you would have known my Father. From now on, you do know him! You have seen him.” (John 14:7)
This is about how well insiders know their own God, not about clobbering and converting outsiders.
4. Jesus is talking about life, not afterlife.
Another reason that John 14:6 has been taken as a mic drop ultimatum about religious affiliation is that Jesus seems to preface this remark with some teaching about going to heaven in the afterlife:
“There is plenty of room in my Father’s house. If that wasn’t the case, I’d have told you, wouldn’t I? I’m going to get a place ready for you! And if I do go and get a place ready for you, I will come back and take you to be with me so that you can be there, where I am. (John 14:2-3)
The King James Version says “there are many mansions in my Father’s house,” and I remember sitting in Christian school, hearing these verses, and wondering what my “mansion” in heaven would look like if I made the cut. What we didn’t know was that Jesus isn’t talking about literal buildings up in the sky, he’s actually making reference to a Jewish wedding custom in which the groom formally invites his new bride to come and live with him in his family’s home. Just as Jesus describes an invisible God through the metaphor of a loving “Father,” so he describes his relationship with his followers as a marriage, as the coming together and expansion of a family. To love your neighbor is like walking on a pathway that leads to life, or like living in God’s own house as one of his children.
The Living and True Way
When Jesus the Jewish prophet tells his Jewish disciples that he is the “living and true way,” he is not throwing down a gauntlet of challenge to other religions. He is inviting his beloved friends to follow the God of peace and reconciliation instead of the god of fear and retaliation. Both gods are presented to them within the system of their own religion, and Jesus urges them to choose wisely. If modern Christian culture would use this verse as a threat or ultimatum to its neighbors of other religions and creeds, it misses an opportunity for introspection and repentance.
We invite others onto the path by walking it faithfully, not by posturing and finger-wagging. If we choose sloganeering and triumphalism over peace and selfless love, if we rip a verse like John 14:6 out of context to market an ugly god, then we have lost our way.