It’s A Small World
In our study on the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, our last lesson is perhaps the most controversial. It has been an issue from virtually the beginning of the church. However, we may experience it more keenly today as we feel the world getting smaller and smaller.
Two or three generations ago it may have been unlikely that a Christian family knew another family who practiced a different religion from theirs. Today, a neighborhood street may be filled with those who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or even no religion at all. Add to that the increasing prevalence of the Internet as an online community, via social media, and the world feels even smaller. At any given time of the day, you can communicate with someone who lives on the other side of the world. 24-hour news sources give us up-to-the-second news reports of what’s happening in every corner of the globe.
It is not a surprise then that our multicultural world has given rise to religious pluralism. And this can be a good thing. We have much to learn from people with different ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. Tolerance in these relationships is a good thing and essential for individuals and communities to continue growing.
The Early Church
However, what marked Christianity as distinct in its earliest days continues to do so today: its exclusivity regarding its truth-claims about the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. Such a view brought on persecution of Christians in first-century Rome and things haven’t changed much today. The Romans allowed different religions to be practiced, as long as proper religious homage was made to Caesar. This was untenable for Christians who said Christ alone was Lord. Today a Christian who professes that the Christian worldview alone is true, and that salvation comes only through Jesus Christ, might be accused of being intolerant, narrow-minded, bigoted, and today, even hateful. Christianity isn’t the only religion that makes exclusive truth-claims, but in our country, at least, it is the one that takes the most heat for doing so.
And yet, the truth is, our day is no more pluralistic than Christians who lived in biblical times. The Christian proclamation has always taken place in a pluralist world, in competition with rival religious and intellectual convictions. In fact, many books in both the Old and New Testaments were written as arguments against the competing religions that Israel and the early Christian community faced daily. Alister McGrath writes,
“Ancient Israel was acutely aware that its faith was not shared by its neighbors. The existence of other religions was simply a fact of life for the Israelites. It caused them no great difficulties, in that they believed that theirs happened to be right, whereas others were wrong. The same pattern emerges in the New Testament. From the first days of its existence, Christianity has recognized the existence of other religions and the challenge they posed. …Christianity was born amid religious pluralism.”
Similarly, Michael Green comments,
“I find it ironic that people object to the proclamation of the Christian gospel these days because so many other faiths jostle on the doorstep of our global village. What’s new? The variety of faiths in antiquity was even greater than it is today. And the early Christians, making as they did ultimate claims for Jesus, met the problem of other faiths head-on from the very outset. Their approach was interesting… They did not denounce other faiths. They simply proclaimed Jesus with all the power and persuasiveness as their disposal.”
The early church faced lions, became burning torches in Nero’s garden, and experienced other such persecution, because they believed what they were proclaiming was actually true. But ours is not a day when we seem to be overly concerned about objective, transcendent, and immutable truth. People today may still use the word “truth,” but it has become a synonym for “preference” when it is couched in phrases such as, “live your truth,” “that’s true for you, but not for me,” and so on. By many today, the notion of truth is filtered purely through a subjective and personal lens of feeling and personal preference, instead of being understood as objectively revealed by a transcendent source. Some latitude may be given to “facts” in the realm of the hard sciences, but certainly not in religion or philosophy.
Therefore, it is important to remember that Christianity was born in the midst a similar cultural climate of a plurality of religious beliefs and philosophies. And it was proclaimed passionately because it was believed to actually be true, and not merely a personal preference. Christians today recognize that we experience similar diversity in our culture as the early church did in theirs, and we must also remember we have the very same truth to tell in our day.
But isn’t it arrogant to claim that Jesus Christ is the only way to God? The only path to salvation? Perhaps my answer will surprise you, but I would say “yes,” it is arrogant. One is justified in accusing Christians of arrogance… if. If what we believe and what we proclaim as the truth are merely our own opinions and ideas, then we are arrogant indeed.
If Christianity is nothing more than a man-made religion, or a political power-play, then we would rightly be accused of arrogance and worse. However, the Christian claim has always been that Christianity is not true because Christians say it is, but because the Bible teaches it. Christians who believe the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God, therefore, believe Christian truth is God’s revelation, not human opinion.
I can heartily relate with one theologian who said that he did not come to Christianity because he was looking to find the most intolerant, bigoted, and closed-minded religion on the block. He said that he, like millions of other Christians, opened the Bible, checked out its claims, and was transformed as God moved in and through his Word. That was, and continues to be, my experience as well.
So far throughout this study we have learned about the bold claims made by Christ as well as about him by others. We have come to understand that he was no mere man, but truly God in the flesh. He was not just a good teacher or political revolutionary, but the Son of God, sent to save his people from their sin. As Lord of heaven and earth Jesus had the power and authority to heal the sick and raise the dead. As Lord over every sphere of life, he could rightfully expect that his teachings – about his identity, his purpose, how we ought to live in this world, and how we can gain eternal life – should be believed, embraced, and lived out. This portrait of Jesus Christ should lead us to the conclusion that he has no equals.
The Bible Says
Generally speaking, Scripture teaches such a view of Jesus throughout its pages but makes specific statements about him as well. Here are a few examples of texts that help us appreciate that Jesus is not simply a way, but the way. As God incarnate and Lord of all, how could he be otherwise?
Acts 4:12 - Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
1 Timothy 2:5 - For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus,
John 3:16-18 - For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
Matthew 7:13-14 - “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
These texts, and others that could be cited, drive home with specificity, what all the lessons we have learned throughout this study have been teaching us more broadly; that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and there is no other way to the Father but through the Person and Work of Jesus. In fact, that is exactly what Jesus says about himself. Let’s take a deeper look at a particular text in which we find this truth-claim being made by our Lord.
Jesus says in John 14:1-7,
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; 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 my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
We might find it easy to read these words and move past them if we are very familiar with them. Yet, we need to look carefully at what we find in these verses.
Comfort for Troubled Hearts
Jesus begins in verse 1 by saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” We might assume these are just words of encouragement that are meant for any person in any circumstance. Perhaps we think that Jesus is talking about the ordinary trials of life, and this is a mere pep-talk to his disciples. But upon a closer inspection we discover, as we read these words in context, that Jesus is speaking to some very confused people. We must remember this little band of disciples had left everything to follow Jesus - their homes, families, jobs… everything. They were invested. They were committed.
In the previous chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus had just told them that he was going to be leaving them. Furthermore, he added that they were not going to be able to follow him where he was going. What did this mean? Well, Jesus knew significant, even severe, trouble was coming his way, and soon. It was in that context that he told them to not let their hearts be troubled. By “heart” he was addressing their whole being – their thoughts and feelings, their wills and emotions.
Why would he say that? Didn’t they have good reason to worry? Wasn’t their beloved master, teacher and friend going to leave them? Who wouldn’t worry in such circumstances, especially one who had been so committed and given up so much? And now he’s leaving them? Yet Jesus tells them to not let their hearts be troubled. He then follows up those words by saying, “You believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1b).
It’s Who You Know
Have you ever known more about a situation than the person you were talking to? Maybe it was a scary situation, and you needed your friend or family member to know it was going to be okay, because you had knowledge that would help them see the bigger picture of how things were going to work out in a positive way. Thus, you might encourage them by saying, “trust me.” A fuller version of those words might include, “You can’t understand why this happening right now, but if you would just trust me, you would be able to put your mind at ease.”
Jesus was telling his disciples that they were going to have to trust God, and him, in this situation. This trust would have the power to sustain them during this difficult time because the object of their trust – God – was worthy of their trust. In a manner of speaking, Jesus was telling them that God was larger than the uncertain situation they faced and that nothing had caught him off guard. He also told them they should have the same trust in him that they had in God, which is not an unimportant point.
Though the disciples did not understand his words, throughout his ministry Jesus often told them his mission would one day come to an end and he would have to leave them. In verse 2, Jesus let them know where he was going. He was going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house. That must have blown their minds. Did they even have a category for such a statement? Probably not, yet they knew, loved, and trusted the One from whom such a statement came. We know from the rest of Scripture that “my Father’s house” refers to being in the unveiled presence of God, what we call “heaven.” Jesus was saying that in heaven there is room for all; there are many rooms or places to dwell.
He even elaborates by saying that he would not have told them all this if it were not true. In other words, they had no reason to worry about God’s provision for his people. This is all part of God’s providential plan. Jesus meant these words to bring comfort and assurance to his disciples. Once again, he is letting them know they have good reason to trust in God, as well as him.
The Place He Is Going
In verse 3, Jesus said,
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.
As students of Scripture, some two thousand years later, we have the advantage of knowing the ministry of Jesus was coming to an end. Within hours of this conversation, Jesus was going to be arrested and crucified. More than that, we know that three days later he would rise from the dead and would not resume the same kind of life with his disciples that they had grown accustomed to. We also know that the place he was going to prepare for them does not refer to any sort of earthly dwelling. Yet, like the disciples then, we today must also trust Jesus and take his word for it. Never having been to heaven ourselves, we must trust the arrangements he has made on our behalf.
The larger point Jesus is making here is that although he is going away, he will not forget them while he’s gone. He has their best interest at heart and is concerned about their welfare. That is the kind of friend we have in Jesus.
The Way to Get There
Jesus not only assures his disciples that he will not forget them, and that he is going to prepare a place for them, but he also tells them he is going to come back and take them to be with him. He then adds these puzzling words in verse 4,
You know the way to the place where I am going.
It is God’s plan that Jesus will come back in due course so that he and his followers will be together in heaven, in the very presence of God. Jesus does not spend time telling his disciples what that experience will be like, but he does seem to make this point: whatever heaven will be like, the most wonderful part of it is that we will be with our Lord forever. And Jesus assures his disciples that they know the way to this unimaginably glorious and beautiful place where they will be going.
It is at this point that “honest Thomas” asks in verse 5,
“Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
It is at this point Jesus shares the words that have convicted and encouraged the hearts and minds of Christians for two thousand years. He answered Thomas with these words in verse 6,
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
It is at this point in the conversation that Jesus moves from talking about the eternal destination of his followers to the path of that destination. In fact, he tells them they already know the way. In other words, Jesus is telling them that what he is saying now is no different from what he had been teaching them all along.
Jesus Is the Way
To put it plainly, Jesus declares to them that he is the way. Unlike other religious founders and leaders, he is not teaching them a way to go, but that he himself is the way to the Father. That kind of emphatic, self-referential statement may sound odd, or even offensive, to our ears. We are used to people telling us they are pointing us in the right direction, but not claiming to be the way themselves. Buddha, Mohammed, Gandhi, and others claimed to be “pointers” of a way to enlightenment or to God, but Jesus is saying something different. For Jesus did not only teach people a way of life, but he died on the cross as an atonement for their sins and thus, made the only way possible for people to come to God. In fact, he did more than make a way, he was the way. Many people died on Roman crosses, but only one of those people was God incarnate, who lived a perfectly holy and righteous life, thereby becoming the only acceptable sacrifice for the sin of the world.
Jesus removes all ambiguity from his statement by adding in the second part of verse 6, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” In other words, the Father is the destination and Jesus is the way. The phrase “No one” in this verse is a universal negative. In other words, “how many people can get to the Father by other means?” According to Jesus, “none.” How do we get to the Father? According to Jesus, only through him.
The Only Way
It is vital to understand that Christians did not invent their belief that Jesus is the only way to God. We believe Jesus taught it. We also believe that because he taught that truth, he also commanded us to respond to this great commission,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:18b-20a)
If you are a Christian and have become persuaded that Jesus is who he claimed to be, that he is the only path to the Father, and that he commanded his followers to make disciples of all the nations by teaching them everything he taught, then we cannot remain silent. In fact, it would be arrogant to believe these things about Jesus and not tell others. Can you image thinking, “I know better than God. Yes, God has graciously provided a way for me and others to enjoy his extravagant riches in his glorious presence for all eternity. Yet, it might offend others if I share this truth with them, therefore, I will remain silent.”
No faithful Christian, with a clear conscience, could think such a thing. Instead, God calls us to bear witness to Christ in every sphere of life as the ambassadors, stewards, and servants of his truth, with our words and our actions. What a privilege we have been given to lead others to Christ, the only way to the Father. I once heard a Christian speaker ask this humbling question: “My question,” he asked, “is not, why has God provided only one way to him, but why has he provided any way at all?” Entitled thinking leads us to believe we are owed something by God. A person with a biblical worldview, however, understands that even the smallest kindness we experience in this life is the result of God’s bountiful grace. How much more, then, eternity in his unveiled presence? That’s good news we cannot possibly keep to ourselves. Thanks be to God.
Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.