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Jesus has spoken of going to his Father's house and has said the disciples know the way there (14:1-4). Thomas, speaking for all the disciples, responds, Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way? (v. 5). Here is the response of a true disciple. He asks rather than demands, which conveys a sense of humility (cf. Chrysostom In John 73.2). He is also honest, admitting his ignorance. Without such humility and honesty real discipleship is impossible. Thomas seems to understand Jesus' reference to his Father's house on a "this world" level, not unlike the way others in this Gospel, such as the woman of Samaria (chap. 4), have misunderstood. Thomas says, in effect, If we don't know the address, how are we supposed to know the route? Such a misunderstanding may seem amazing to those familiar with this Gospel, but all of us continue to have patches of such dullness, no matter how far we have traveled with God.
Jesus condemned the Jewish opponents' ignorance of his destination (for example, 8:19-27), but because these disciples have been loyal to Jesus even in their ignorance, Jesus' response is encouraging. He does not upbraid Thomas but rather proceeds to offer further enlightenment. Always in John the clue to Jesus' cryptic sayings is his own identity and his relation to the Father, and this case is no exception: I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (v. 6). Here we have "a culminating point in Johannine theology" (Schnackenburg 1982:65). All of John's thought could be expounded from this one verse.
This "I am" saying, like the others, is grounded in Jesus' divine identity and expresses something of his saving action. The three terms way, truth and life are simply linked together with "and" in the Greek (kai). But the central term is way because that was the subject of the question (vv. 4-5) and the second half of the verse speaks of coming to the Father through Jesus. Throughout the Gospel we hear of Jesus' coming from the Father, revealing God, bringing new life and then returning to the Father. But now the focus is on Jesus' role as the one who leads people to the Father. The Father is seen as distant; one must undertake a journey to reach him. Perhaps, then, the text should be translated "No one goes to the Father . . ." For it seems the primary focus is still on heaven and the future, though we will see a shift beginning to take place.
The other two terms explain how Jesus is the way; "Jesus is the way inasmuch as He is the truth and the life" (Michaelis 1967:81). Truth and life correspond to Jesus' roles in this Gospel as revealer and life-giver. God alone is truth and life, and when our rebellion separated us from God, we plunged into ignorance and death. It follows that the way to the Father requires both revelation, because of our ignorance, and life, due to our death. This idea is clear in the Old Testament, and it was addressed by the giving of the Torah and the activity of law-givers, prophets and sages. But this verse brings out how Jesus' fulfillment of the roles of revealer and life-giver is unique. Jesus' unity with the Father means he is not just a law-giver, prophet or sage who conveys God's truth, but, like God, he is the truth. Similarly, he is not simply one through whom God rescues his people. Rather, he was the agent of the creation of all life (1:3-4), and the Father has given to him to have life in himself, like God himself (5:26). Here Jesus, like God himself, is truth and life, and yet he remains distinct from God and is the way to God. As a fourteenth-century writer put it, "He Himself is the way, and in addition He is the lodging on the way and its destination" (Cabasilas 1974:48).
The second half of the verse clearly speaks of Jesus as the only way to the Father. This fact simply flows from who he is and what he has accomplished through his incarnation and upcoming death, resurrection and ascension. This verse scandalizes many people today since it seems to consign to hell large numbers of people who have never heard of Jesus, let alone those who have heard but have not come to believe in him. There are a variety of views on this topic among Christians. Some views deny the uniqueness of Jesus and have a too optimistic view of human nature, while others have a too restricted idea of God's ways of dealing with this world, which he loves. Only through Christ can we "apprehend God as the Father, and so approach the Father. . . . It does not follow that every one who is guided by Christ is directly conscious of His guidance" (Westcott 1908:2:170-71). This verse does not address the ways in which Jesus brings people to the Father, but what it does say is that no one who ends up sharing God's life will do so apart from Jesus, the unique Son of God who is, not just who conveys, truth and life.
Jesus' next statement shifts from speaking of coming (or going) to God to knowing God, thereby beginning the shift from speaking of the future and heaven to speaking of God's presence here and now: From now on, you do know him and have seen him (v. 7). This translation refers to future knowledge, but the words translated from now on (ap' arti) can also mean "now already" or "assuredly." Such a statement of their present knowledge of the Father would be more in keeping with how the conversation progresses in the next section, for Jesus' affirmation that they have seen the Father introduces a new term to the discussion, which triggers the next question and the next stage of his teaching.
About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.