Are you grappling with a difficult verse in the Bible? And are you looking for a short, easy-to-read answer that really makes sense without explaining away the verse? Visit this page for a daily excerpt from IVP's Hard Saying series.
When we read John 14:6, it sounds like a very exclusive statement. "No one comes to the Father except through me." Does this statement mean what it seems to imply, that no one can be saved without Jesus? What about those who lived before Jesus? Are they all damned? This verse appears so out of place in our tolerant society in which we have learned to respect the beliefs of others.
John 14:6 is one of those verses that are difficult not because we do not understand them but because we understand them all too well. It is the central verse of the whole section, John 14:1-11. It builds on the question of Thomas in the previous verse: "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" Jesus has told his disciples that he is going to his Father's house to prepare a place for them. Thomas is concerned about how they will get there to be with Jesus. This verse is Jesus' answer. It is followed by a discussion of who the Father is.
In this verse Jesus speaks of himself as "the way, the truth and the life" (KJV). The emphasis is clearly on "the way," for that is the question that Thomas was asking. Jesus does not show or teach about the way; he is the way to the Father's house. He is the way, of course, because he is also the truth (a term found twenty-one times in John, beginning with the Logos passage [Jn 1:14, 17]) and the life (found thirty-nine times in John, beginning with Jn 1:4, but especially important in Jn 5:21-29 with reference to raising the dead). The concept of truth is what will lead us forward into the next section of the chapter, for it is his being full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14) that is connected to his being the full revelation of the Father on earth.
Why did John, who admits that he had much more material than he included in his Gospel, put this material into his book? First, John includes a lot of discussion between Jesus and the Jews. The issue is whether Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament hopes or not. Jesus in the Gospel consistently indicates that he is that fulfillment and that he supersedes Jewish expressions of worship (for example, Jn 2:13-22, in which it is his body which is the true temple, and Jn 4:21-26, in which the presence of the Messiah, Jesus, makes both Jerusalem and Gerazim irrelevant). Thus John surely interprets this saying as indicating that the old ways of Jewish worship, good as they were ("salvation is from the Jews") will no longer do. A new era has dawned in Jesus and the way of salvation and life is through him.
Second, this Gospel was written in a Gentile-dominated world. In that world there were many cults offering salvation and many saviors associated with those cults. Also part of that world was the idea that one need not be totally committed to any one cult. One "worshiped" the Roman deities, of course, for it was one's patriotic duty, much as Americans honor the American flag. And then there were the deities of one's city, trade guild (if one were an artisan) and clan. The various mystery religions and exotic cults (many of them with Eastern roots) were on top of all of this. In the Greco-Roman world there were many "ways," and while one selected what one felt was the best way, one also tried to keep all of the deities happy. It is obvious that Jesus' words in such a world are quite exclusive. There are no other ways to the Father, there is no other source of real life, there is no alternative source of truth. Jesus is the Logos incarnate. Thus he is the final revelation from God. He is the one to whom the Father has committed the resurrection of the dead (see John 11 as well as John 5). No one comes to the Father who does not come through him, for he is the way.
John is certainly aware of this exclusive claim, for it repeats in different forms over and over again in the Gospel. It is also clear that the Gospel was written for people who do not yet believe, for that is clearly stated in the author's purpose statement: "But these are written that you may believe [the best manuscripts imply `come to believe'] that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (Jn 20:31). These people are probably not Jews, for otherwise he would not have presented "the Jews" in such a negative light. What John appears to be doing is telling his Gentile readers that none of their former ways to life will do. Jesus is the only way.
John's Jesus may in fact be offensive to us, but this is part of the offense of classic Christianity. The belief that Jesus is the way to God is also presented in Acts 2 and 3 (to Jews) and Acts 17 (to Gentiles). First Peter, written to Gentiles, claims that the whole world will appear before God to be judged according to the standards Jesus gave (for example, 1 Pet 4). The author of Hebrews does not believe that there is any salvation for those who turn back to Judaism from Jesus. The whole New Testament teaches that Jesus is the exclusive way to God or eternal life (it uses a variety of terms for these concepts).
The issue, then, is not whether or not we like this claim, but whether or not it is true. The usual smokescreen is to say, "What about those who have never heard of Jesus?" The response to this is twofold: (1) there is a missionary imperative in the New Testament to minimize this problem (that is why, for example, Paul dedicates his life to preaching Jesus where he has not yet been preached) and (2) how God may choose to reveal himself or deal with those who have no human messenger is his business. If we know God's character, we can trust him to do his business well. Our problem is that we do know about Jesus and are living in a culture in which Jesus is all too well known. Furthermore, the missionary imperative falls to those of us who believe.
If, then, this claim is true, two conclusions follow. First, we are deceiving ourselves if we think that we can come to God any other way than through Jesus. What is more, no other way will supplement or add to Jesus as the way. Second, if we are already following Jesus, we are called, in John's terms, to be witnesses to the truth and life found in Jesus.