The way, the truth and the life - John 14:1-14
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There are few things in life which are as unsettling to the mind as uncertainty about the future. This is especially so, of course, if the signs are that the future is going to be far from easy-particularly if the spectre of death lurks on the horizon.
All the indications are that the chill in the pit of the stomach which accompanies such prospects was exactly what the disciples of Jesus were experiencing in that upper room when their Master began to explain that things were never going to be the same again, as he spoke of betrayal, arrest and death. Up to this point they had thought they had hitched their wagon to a star, the memory would have still been fresh in their minds of the occasion after the feeding of the 5,000 when the crowds wanted to carry Jesus on their shoulders and march on Jerusalem in order to make him their king. But although that may have been a fresh memory it was beginning to fade and somehow detached from the dark mood which seemed to be enveloping their hero now.
And no doubt Jesus saw these concerns etched on their worried faces and heard them as they shared amongst themselves in desperate whispers- ‘What’s got into him? That is why he seeks to address them, and us through them, as to what is the source of real comfort when times seem bleak and the future uncertain vv 1-5, ‘Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so I would have told you. I am going to prepare a place for you. 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. You know the way to the place where I am going.’
Do you think that would have cleared things up for the disciples? Hardly. You see, the only ‘place’ they would have had in their sights would have been that of a king, maybe Herod’s palace. They were already in Jerusalem, the capital, having made their way down from the backwoods of Galilee, so to where else would Jesus want to be going? Now if that was the thought going through the disciple’s minds it was Thomas who gave voice to it-v 5, ‘Lord’ we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ That was typical of Thomas; always the one means what he says and says what he means- in fact I think he would qualify as an honorary Yorkshireman- you always knew where you stood with Thomas that’s for sure. And so then follows one of the most sublime and significant statements Jesus ever made-v6, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. Non-one comes to the Father except through me.’
This is one of those verses with which we are so familiar that the sheer outrageousness of it all is lost on us. When you think about it, it is both extreme and exclusive and therefore to many-offensive. What do I mean by that?
Well, it is extreme because it goes right against the Roman and Jewish thought of the time, as well as the popular thought of today. You see, as far as the Romans were concerned they were quite pragmatic about religion. When they conquered a country they thought it politically expedient simply to add to their growing list of gods- the Roman pantheon- the new god of the subjugated people- thereby keeping them sweet. Why upset the natives unnecessarily- let them keep their gods? So what Jesus says here is extreme in that it is way out of line with Roman thinking.
But equally it was way out of line with what the Jews thought but for a different reason. Every Jew was raised with his mother’s milk on the belief that God was wholly transcendent, far removed from us who could only be approached by following carefully laid down rituals. God was certainly not to be addressed as ‘father’, that was far too personal. But here Jesus does speak of God in this intimate, personal way. And what is more he states that it is through a righteous person rather than a religious performance that God is to be approached- and he is that person- and he alone.
Which leads on to the exclusivity of the saying- ‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’ Like all the other ‘I am’ sayings, Jesus uses the definite article- ‘the’. He is not just a way to God the Father he is the way. He is not just a good shepherd, he is the good shepherd. Jesus brooks no other rivals. And in our relativist, inclusivist age which likes to say that all views are to be tolerated as equally true except the view which says that view is wrong, such a statement will always stick in the throat and be offensive. But the issue is not is it popular or is it offensive, but is it true?
So what does Jesus mean when he says that he alone is the way, the truth and the life?
It is because Jesus is the truth God and the life of God that he is the way to God. Let me explain what I mean.
Jesus is the truth of God-that is the full and final revelation of the one God communicated to us in human form. Unlike the ideas of god current in popular culture today, like the gods of the New Age, the God who really exists is personal. He is not some cosmic energy which we can somehow tap into using crystals or meditation techniques; he is a person whom we encounter. An energy force can’t make promises, an energy force can’t make demands or offer forgiveness, only a person can do those things. And that is exactly what we find in Jesus- the enfleshed God. Let me put it this way: how do we know, really know that God is love? Because we see God’s love in action in Jesus. Just read through the rest of this Gospel to see how time and time again Jesus showed the most heart-warming kindness to those in need, a timely word here, a healing touch there, the shedding real tears. Those were God’s tears you realise streaming down his cheeks by the graveside of Lazarus. How do we know, really know that God is all powerful? Because we see the infinite power of God being channelled through Jesus-he stills a storm with a word, he raises the dead with a command; he heals the blind with a touch. The glorious, awesome presence of the eternal, everlasting God finds expression in this carpenter from Galilee- and in no one else.
But Jesus is also the life of God. There are two words for ‘life’ in the original language of this Gospel- bios- from which we get our word biology, and zoe. Bios, is physical life, and even this is a gift from God, from Jesus- even atheists are alive because of Jesus’ say-so. But here he specifically speaks of zoe- spiritual life, genuine life, the kind of life brimful with meaning and purpose whereby we are connected to God in a personal way and everything begins to be seen through new eyes. So living takes on a whole new dimension as we seek to bring everything under God’s loving rule and have as our hearts desire set on his glory. What is more, this spiritual life which begins now finds its consummation in the world to come-heaven, the place where Jesus is about to go to via the cross. And so as we come to Jesus we know the truth about God, who he is and what he offers. And as we believe this truth and surrender our lives to him we receive this new life of God, whereby he becomes a personal reality rather than a distant entity and so the way into his presence is opened up for us now and the way is guaranteed to remain open for ever. That is why Jesus is ‘the way, the truth and the life’- do you see?
Now this has really whetted the appetite of the disciples, so Philip jumps up and says, ‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough.’ Do you see what Philip is asking for? He wants some unmediated experience of God, as if Jesus can pull out some celestial iPhone and flash a picture of God for all to see. And maybe that is the kind of evidence you would like- a quick trip to heaven and back or a burning bush experience maybe that would produce faith? I doubt it. Professor Richard Dawkins complains that if God wanted to make himself know he would have done a much better job of it, for example by creating a world were miracles were commonplace, happening every five minutes. But you can’t help but suspect that if Professor Dawkins did encounter a miracle that he wouldn’t explain it away on other grounds like a student having slipped some LSD into his coffee while he wasn’t looking. In fact God has already given us all that we need to know him, including plenty of miracles as recorded in this Gospel. No doubt with a weary sigh he then turns to Philip and says, ‘Don’t you know me Philip. Even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say “Show us the Father”? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?’ It’s as if Jesus is saying, ‘Where have you been Philip? Are you blind? The relationship between my Father and I is so intimate, that I am the perfect reflection of the Father, so if you have seen me, you have in effect seen the Father.’ ‘And the thing is’, Jesus is says, ‘is that you don’t just have to take my word for it, although that should be enough-look at the miracles’-v11.
Think of it this way: who is the one who through the natural processes turns water from the earth to produce the fruit of the vine? Well, God of course. And yet at the wedding in Cana Jesus did it in record time, short-circuiting the natural process. Who is the one who through the sun, the rain, the soil and the seed gives us the wheat from which to make bread? It is God. And yet Jesus was able to do this immediately to provide bread for 5,000 in one sitting. This is the kind of thing the Father does, and the Son does it too- ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father’.
‘Ah’, you say, ‘but isn’t this unfair on other religions?’ Not if it is true it isn’t. One person who found this out for himself is my good friend Vijay Menon who has spoken here at St John’s before. Vijay was brought up in India as a devout Hindu. In coming to England he was to discover the falseness of the religion of his youth and the reality of God in Christ- the ‘way, the truth and the life’. This is the way he puts it in his autobiography: ‘Jesus came into my life; he touched every part of it; he turned it upside down. For 35 years I had tried to lead a good Hindu life- I did not smoke, I did not drink and I prayed to god every day. When I got up in the morning I would ask god to help me, before I fell asleep at night I would say a short prayer and in major decisions I always sought guidance. Yet I never knew him until Jesus found me. I had an excellent job in the City of London (he worked for Lloyds shipping insurance), a house in suburbia, wife, sons, enough money in the bank to meet my needs but, although I was not the worrying type, never enjoyed life until Jesus found me. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life and that they might have it more abundantly.” I have proved those words to be gloriously true.’ And that is the test at the end of the day. You can look at all the evidence (and John in the final chapter says explicitly that is why he has written his book to give us plenty of evidence upon which to make a rational decision to believe); you can listen to the experience of other Christians like Vijay- but at the end of the day, you have to take the step and try it for yourself-there has to be that inside, experiential knowledge. Not just knowing about Jesus, but knowing Jesus. There is a lovely verse in the Psalms which says, ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good.’ That is an interesting phrase- ‘taste’. Just imagine that you have never tasted sugar before in your life. I could give you the chemical formula for sugar, I could describe its texture, I could tell you it is sweet and produce lots of other people who would back me up in my assertion that sugar is, indeed, sweet. And you may believe all of that, but until you taste it for yourself you are never going to know what we are really talking about, although you may assent to it with your head. And so it is in knowing the Lord Jesus as the way, the truth and the life, seeing him and so seeing the Father. You have to make that personal surrender yourself, and no one can do it for you- it is just you and Jesus.
But will it make any difference? You bet it will, v12, ‘I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name and I will do it.’
Now some read a verse like this rather superficially and immediately think about what Jesus has been doing- his ‘works’ of raising the dead, feeding 5,000, healing the blind, lame and so one and conclude that is what we all should be doing. And so it can lead to people moving in one of two directions. Some will ‘talk up’ of having performed miracles- which on closer inspection in all honesty do not come anywhere near the miracles of Jesus-so it is untrue. Or some will say, ‘Jesus got it wrong’-we can’t raise the dead like he did, so this is not true. The alternative, of course, is to ask whether we have interpreted what Jesus is saying correctly.
Jesus literally speaks of anyone who has faith in him doing the works he does, and greater works. But verse 12 needs to be linked back to verse 11 where Jesus is emphasising the need to believe in him and so coming to know the Father on the basis of the miracles he performed if nothing else. So his ‘works’ have a purpose, namely, to lead people to believe in him. This means that Jesus is saying that his followers through their works will continue to achieve this great aim, bringing people to a saving faith in him and through him being connected to God as Father. So we are talking about works which point to Jesus and anyone who has faith in him-that is any Christian, says Jesus, will do these kinds of works to this great end. So this is not restricted to miracles- but any word, any act which will cause people to know that Jesus Christ has come into the world and he is the Son of God and that by believing in him they can have eternal life. And if you are a Christian you will be doing these works.
But how can we do greater works, which will lead people to Jesus? Because, says Jesus he is going to the Father-that is via the cross and resurrection- and in the next two chapters he is going to tell his followers that as a result of that he is going to be in a position to send his Holy Spirit whose job it will be to bring people to faith in him. Today there are millions and millions of Christians around the world. In this passage Jesus is located in a particular place at a particular time and so even he is limited in the works he could do- working only in Jerusalem. But not now, now he is reigning in heaven, beyond space and time, and by His Spirit doing his works of bringing folk to faith through his people scattered all over the earth. Those are the greater works we are performing-greater in scope and greater in number.
And it is to that end, the purpose of bringing people to faith in him that he will answer our prayers and so bring glory to God the Father-v13. This is not a blank cheque for greedy prayer of the ‘Lord give me a new car’ variety, it is a wonderful means he has given his people to forward his mission in the world, asking that our works will be effective in leading people to Christ. Do you see?
But is this really so? There is the story of an alcoholic who was wonderfully converted to Christ and who managed to handle his alcohol problem, squandering his money on drink to the detriment of his family and home. And as he began to put his life together with the Lord’s help, he received more than his fair share of jibes from his work mates about having ‘got religion’. Well, one day they rounded on him at work and said, ‘You don’t believe all that miracle stuff do you about turning water into wine?’ And he simply looked at them and said, ‘I may never have seen water turned into wine, but I have seen wine turned into food and furniture.’ Greater works than Jesus you see. Let us pray.
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