Edited by Rev. John Adams, B.D.
Studies in the Thought of the Fourth Gospel
By W. B. Selbie, MA., D.D.
(John xiv. 6)
We are all familiar with the distinction sometimes drawn between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith. There is a sense in which it is perfectly true and useful. It may easily, however, be so pressed as to become artificial, and it is well that we should be reminded that there are not two Christs but one, and that Jesus of Nazareth when He was upon earth claimed for Himself the utmost which the most ardent disciple would wish to render to Him in the way of faith and worship. In such words as these: "I am the way, the truth, and the life,” the historical Jesus is set forth as being also the Christ of faith. And the magnitude of this selfassertion becomes the more apparent when we remember that the words were accepted and endorsed and are now handed down to us by the deliberate judgment of the writer of this Gospel. We owe at least this debt to the disciples of Jesus, that their dullness sometimes forms an admirable background to the light of His truth. Had the Master been speaking to pupils of high intelligence and quick perception, much in the discourse must necessarily have escaped us. We gain immeasurably from the fact that His treasure had to be poured into earthen vessels, that His truth had to be made clear to men of simple and untutored minds. So, many of the most divine and precious revelations of Jesus come to us in the shape of answers to honest perplexity. It is so especially in these last discourses recorded by John; and though he puts his own interpretation on the words of Jesus, that does not altogether obscure them. The situation he describes is as follows: The little company has taken its last meal in common, and in a few brief hours the separation will have begun. But this is better understood by the Master than by His followers. And while He is trying to lead their thoughts upward and onward to that which transcends all earthly things, and to a hope of a reunion that death itself cannot sever, they dwell miserably on the dismal thought that the Master proposes to go away, and that they cannot follow Him. This is the key to the questions at the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th chapters of John. And not until Thomas with blunt simplicity openly challenges the Master’s statement, and reveals that all the while they are at cross purposes, does Jesus change His tone from one of mere personal exhortation and openly state the truth in His mind. "Ye cannot follow whither I go, because I am going to prepare a place for you. I go to my Father and your Father, and no one cometh to the Father but by Me. I am Myself the way, and the truth, and the life.”
1. The Figure Used.
Now in asking what it was that Jesus meant when He told His disciples that He was for them the way, it will hardly be necessary to emphasise the purely spiritual nature of the revelation. It is more manifest to us than it could have been to them. Their minds were occupied with the things of time and sense, with their forlorn prospect, with this mysterious journey which the Master was to make, with the how and when and wherefore of it all. And just as a man toiling late at night in a close, hot room may escape for a time into the open air of heaven, and looking up to the stars in immensity above him will forget his weariness and go back strengthened and refreshed — so Christ seeks to draw away these men from their dim, earthly anxieties into the clear air of spiritual truth, to give them so high a revelation of Himself and His mission as that they shall be prepared to meet bravely the disappointment and persecution that are in store for them. And He knew what He was doing. Though they, were speaking and thinking of the way by which He should go, He wished to tell them of the way by which they were to go, and they were not unprepared to receive His words. As devout Jews, they believed already in a way spiritual. The "way of the Lord" was a familiar phrase to them, and they too had pondered over the hard saying that "God’s ways are not man’s.” They had come to see that religion must largely consist in doing away with this contradiction and in bringing the ways of men more into conformity with those of God. And so the words, "I am the way,” would touch a responsive chord in their hearts. There can be no doubt that, put in this personal form, such teaching would in time wake them to new endeavour to make this way theirs. So much at least we may gather from the prominence of the term "the way” in early Christian writings. It signified what the Master here surely meant, that devotion to His Person was to become a line of action for men, a way for man to God, through this life to a higher, opened and kept open by Him, to be followed by His own. And this much at least Christ as the way must be for us. We must lay all stress on the word "is,” if we would interpret the phrase aright. It is far more than that Christ shows us the way. It may be true enough that He does so, that He is for men a guide, example, teacher; but here we have something more than this, a deeper and more difficult truth, but one precious as it is deep, and life-giving as it is hard. If we fully expand the phrase, it comes just to this: that Christ is for man the way to God, to the Father. In other words, Christ does for man what he cannot do for himself — brings him to God.
But to state this is only half the battle. When we ask what do the words mean, we find that they have been interpreted in many different ways. The best of these interpretations, however, all point to the same end, are all sides of the same truth, and these alone need concern us now.
2. A Threefold Application.
And (1) it is true to say that Christ is the way to God for man, because He reveals God as God had never been revealed before. He is the way — to the Father; and these words at any rate convey one aspect of the truth as it is in Jesus. Here at least He stands in complete contrast to all previous ways, and here do we see something of the full significance of His claim to be the way rather than to reveal it. Many of those who spake to men of divine things in the old time before, might have pointed to their revelation as the way for man to God; but all that they could do was to point to it. They had a knowledge of God to impart, an authorised revelation, a sense of Him as King, Friend, even Father, which men must accept if they would have life, and which was a way wherein they might walk. But even regarding His work for a moment merely as revelation, Christ stands distinguished from these, His forerunners, and the distinction is best expressed by saying that He is the way; they only showed it. The message is one thing in the mouth of apostles and prophets, and another thing in the mouth of the Son. The Incarnation was a revelation. God was manifest, not by Christ, but in Christ. In words that were most humble while most authoritative, Jesus of Nazareth claimed to show men the Father in His own person. And to us to-day God is manifest in the flesh in Him. We must go back to the historical Jesus if we would know what is the mind of God toward us. Indeed, so deeply has Jesus impressed Himself upon human thought and life that involuntarily, and in spite of themselves, men find in Him the way to God. Take Him and His teaching out of history, and at once you lose touch with the Divine; the face of God Himself, as it were, suffers eclipse. There could be no better key to the words "I am the way" than to show how, ever since Christ appeared, men have found in Him their idea of God, and have through Him been brought face to face with the eternal. In doing this we might dwell at length on the character of the God Christ revealed as constituting the main burden of His revelation. But it will be more to the purpose to spend time in noting its effect upon man. It is a truism to say that all new knowledge of God implies a corresponding change in man, registers itself in this way upon the mind, the spirit that knows. The more a man knows of God, the greater becomes his obligation to God. Thus if God is known only as a sovereign, man’s duty to him can never be other than that of a subject. But if God is known as a father, man’s duty to Him can never be less than that of a son. And so the revelation of God in Christ is far-reaching in its effect upon men. Indeed, its result is such that the need at once arises that it should be supplemented by something more. If God is to me all that Christ declares, then how am I to do my duty to Him? If all that He does. is to reveal to me a Father in God, then I know myself only as a rebellious child, one who has forfeited all right to a place in the Father’s house, and for whom, therefore, this way to God which Christ is said to be is rather a way from Him. In other words, the new knowledge of God which Christ imparts to man implies for man a new consciousness of sin. In revealing the love of God, Christ revealed also the sin of man, and in revealing it condemned it as it had never been condemned before. And the result of His revelation by itself is to raise in the human heart an exceeding bitter cry: "How shall we escape so great condemnation?"
Thus (2) if we would discover how Christ is for man the way to God, we must come to see how He not only reveals God to man, but brings the two together. In other words, His revelation demands, implies a reconciliation. And here without doubt is the root of the matter: Christ is the way because through Him men come to God. Not simply to the knowledge of Him, but to live in His presence and by His power. He is the way to God, and the way of God for all men. And herein He answers one of the deepest needs of the human heart. Whether there be a way for him, any definite purpose in life, any coherent plan to follow, is something that man by the very nature of him wants to know. And to this want Christ gives a most deep and satisfying answer when He says, "I am the way.” That is, for one thing, in and through Christ men are reconciled to God. That, apart from Him, their estrangement from God is real, they know only too well. Sin is a barrier between God and man, which all the ingenuity in the world will not suffice to pierce. And the difference between Christianity and all other religious systems may be put in words thus: that all these systems have tried to break down the barrier from the side of man and have failed; but Christ has shown that it can only be broken down on the side of God. By His revelation of the Divine nature He once and for all condemned sin, which is always in its essence distrust of God; and by sharing our nature and entering on a ministry of suffering on our behalf, He showed God coming into one life in order that He might come into all lives. He became, as has been said, " the door through which and by which man enters into God, and God enters into man.” And the result of His life and work was not that He was sacrificed in order to appease God, but rather that in Him God made sacrifice of Himself that He might redeem man. Revealing, as He did, the love of God for man, it must needs be that He should suffer, for love always suffers so long as the loved one sins. And by His suffering He made it clear that God is with us, on our side, working ever to will and to do of His good pleasure. And so He becomes in a very real sense the way for man to God. That man may have in the presence of the Divine the peace which passeth all understanding, it is not enough for him simply to know that his transgression is covered and his sin forgiven. He needs to be redeemed from the sin, to have its power over him removed and broken, that he may stand up a free man in the presence of his Maker. And this conquest over sin he cannot win for himself. Here Christ is his helper, because in the sacrifice of the Son of Man there is embodied a new conception of God and of His relation to man’s sin. Hereby Christ opens for man the door to an eternal life, and is for man the means by which he may attain it. As has been well said: "He makes the salvation of no man actual, but of all men possible, dependent on conditions that men must fulfil. The righteousness which is without works is not without faith, and so the possible salvation is realised by Him who believeth. Hence even under it, man remains free, responsible, saved by grace, but through faith.”
And (3) this brings us to a further sense in which Christ is a way for men, a way of God as well as a way to God. Whom He saves He sanctifies. The work of reconciliation is also a work of redemption, because it not only leads to a new attitude towards God, but to a new life in God. There can be little doubt that it was in this sense mainly that the disciples would first understand their Master’s words. Whilst He walked with them in this world, He supplied the plan according to which they were to frame all their actions. And in departing from them, He left this plan behind. True, He sent to them also the Spirit to be their guide, but this was not to supersede His own work. As has been said: "Utter obedience to the Father’s will, utter love of the brethren, and the utter sacrifice of self which is the constant inward condition of both, remained to all eternity the substance of every human greatness, as they had been shown to be the powers by which the Son of God fulfilled the work committed to Him alone, while the wisdom of the Spirit’s teaching cast them again and again in ever-new moulds.” And in the same manner Christ is the way for His people still. In and through Him they live the life of God in this world. The whole history of Christendom on its highest side has been one long illustration of this — has shown how in Christ men live and move and have their being, and attain to the highest life possible. There is nothing here arbitrary or unnatural. When Christ proclaims Himself as the way, and urges us to walk therein, He is not offering us the choice between following the strait and narrow path on the one hand, and on the other freedom to wander at one’s own sweet will. In any case, it is only a question between different ways. A man begins life fancying himself at liberty to walk as he will; but experience is only another name for the discovery that he is being led in one way or another whether he will or no. The various ways of this world become in time more and more distinct, and everyone is impelled by growing habit to follow this one or that. And we know only too well that of these various ways some are better than others, some leading upward, others always down. And the sole claim that Christ makes is that His way is the best of them all; that in it a man is best able to develop his nature upon every side and to attain most of God. To follow Him is not, as is so often represented, to stunt and shackle our powers, and to shut ourselves off from life in its broader and higher aspects. It is rather to set our feet in a large room, and enter upon a service which is perfect freedom. In discipleship to Jesus Christ the moral nature of man receives its crown and perfection. Love is the fulfilling of His law, and the love He engenders in the heart purifies the nature like a refiner’s fire. But the life that is in Him is not only moral but spiritual. In Christ man enters into his proper inheritance as the son of God, and so starts on a way which leads him from the temporal to the eternal, from earth to heaven. The glory of this religion of ours is not simply that it leads to a life beautiful and good according to the standards of this world, but that it transforms this life into the image of a higher, and sets before man as the end of his journeying an eternal habitation. All this is comprehended in the assurance that Christ is the Way.