1. Why is this passage listed among difficult passages?
The difficulty in this verse has always been the exclusiveness of it. While this is culturally troubling in our era when tolerance for various religions is popular, we also need to ask what Jesus who also said, “we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22) could have meant for people who followed God in the Old Testament, for example.
2. How do we deal with the difficulties in this passage?
Remember that the NT context was even more polytheistic than ours.
We need to remember that this was spoken into a much more polytheistic world than ours. Greeks and Romans had pantheons of gods and goddesses. Yet NT preachers like Peter and Paul uncompromisingly preached the uniqueness of Christ. According to Acts 2:31-33,36 the uniqueness of Christ is established by the resurrection, exaltation and then by Pentecost itself. According to more of Peter’s early preaching, Jesus was the fulfillment of Moses’ prophecy concerning a prophet to come (3:22,23). One purpose was to “give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel” (5:31). In a Gentile’s house, Peter declared that Jesus had been appointed by God as “judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42).
The Larger issues
It is important to examine the contextual question that Jesus is answering. Thomas has just asked where Jesus is going and implied that he would like to know the way to that place but does not know (v. 5). Jesus had been speaking of the heavenly place he was going to prepare a place where his followers would join him and his Father (vv. 1-3). If Jesus had merely answered that he was the way, perhaps we could have considered narrowly confining the discussion to Christ’s followers, trying to ignore universal applications of this saying. But Jesus also included two other words in his answer both of which have very universal implications in the gospel of John. Jesus added that he was also the ‘truth,’ a term found 21 times in John beginning with John 1:14,17; and ‘life’ which is found 39 times in John beginning with John 1:4 but especially crucial in John 5:21-29.
These two words and related passages bring up larger issues. This is not just about Christianity as a religious system; it concerns the wider truth about who God has appointed.
“Before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away.” NIV
Jn 5:25-27 “I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. 27 And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.” NIV
These two passages reveal to us that Jesus has been appointed by the Father to unique heavenly roles and authority that transcend earth and time. In the light of these, Jesus’ statement in John 14:6 is simply a graciously revealed mundane corollary of these critical extraterrestrial truths. The idea of Christ having been appointed is behind Paul’s thinking in Acts 17:30,31. Jesus referred to his appointment himself in John 17:2 as he prayed, “You granted him authority over all people.”
Crucial to this overall passage is Jesus’ admonition “believe also in me” (Jn. 14:1 ESV).
What about people who lived before Jesus?
There are several interesting passages in the Bible that help us with regard to how Jesus might possibly be “the way” for people who lived before him.
God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. KJV
The culmination of the argument of Heb. 7-9 is in Heb 9:15. “For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance — now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” NIV
From these verses, we can conclude that in some way, Jesus’ sacrifice made earlier sacrifices truly effective in a way they could not have been without his work. Thus he was “the way” for Jews who followed faithfully before him even though they only looked forward to him (Heb. 11:40).
More mysterious but also helpful is 1 Peter 3:18-20. “He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19 through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20 who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.” NIV
We don’t claim to fully understand this one. In fact, it usually raises as many questions as it answers. But at the least, it gives us a hint that Jesus may be “the way” for some who lived before him in ways that we do not understand.
This passages do not do away with all our questions, but they give us indications that God as thought of these issues ahead of us and dealt with them too. And someday, we will know the whole story.
In addition, there is a relevant principle that can be developed from Scripture that judgment is proportional to light. But that is beyond the scope of this study.
If one is interested in the more academic theological issues of pluralism and inclusivism, I found online, a paper written by a student, Matt Blackmon, for a course at Dallas Theological Seminary that I thought was very helpful in summarizing some of the theological issues. http://mattblackmon.org/pyne/truth.pdf
3. What are the key truths or inspirational messages of this passage?
It is very important not to let our concerns about how to apply these words to those who have not heard Jesus’ words interfere with their main intention which is to assure and instruct those who have heard him. In these verses Jesus’ main intention is to reveal incredibly good news to every one of his disciples.
- Jesus is preparing a place for us to go when we die that is with him and our heavenly Father. His leaving the earth for a time involves a time of preparation for his later return for them.
- Jesus is going to return to take us to be with him (14:3). Whether he is referring to his coming to gather the elect (Matt. 24:31) or his escorting of individuals when they die, he does not exactly specify. The point is he is going to personally be involved in making our reunion with him happen.
- We can trust him and our heavenly Father about this otherwise very fearful issue. Hebrews says, “He too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb 2:14,15 NIV).