When I was six years old, I was selected to recite from memory John 14:1-6 on our church’s Saturday night TV show. It was filmed at the local CBS studios and I remember looking over at the monitor constantly as I was reciting the passage and at the very end exclaiming, “Hey dad – I can see myself on TV!!!” It aired with just the “Hey dad -” part.
Like all good Baptist boys, I was taught that when Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh to the Father but by me” (yes, the King James Version), that it meant all other religions are wrong and unless you pray a particular prayer and believe a particular list of things, you’re not getting into Heaven (wherever that is) when you die (whenever that happens). It’s almost as if the implied question the disciples were asking beforehand was, “How do I personally get into Heaven when I die? Is there more than one way?”
Except that’s not what the disciples were asking.
Context: they just had a Passover meal where Judas left to betray Jesus for some coin (often referred to as The Last Supper) and Jesus is telling them he’s going away (to die) and they should all love each other because that’s how people will recognize them as his followers.
Instead of saying, “Ok, sure, we’ll love each other…” they respond, “Uh… where are you going? How can we know the way to get there?” In other words, they missed the point (as we all often do).
Jesus says essentially, “Don’t worry… keep trusting God and me. I’m not lying… I’ll prepare a place in ‘My Father’s House’ and come get you so we can be reunited.”
You can probably see how people would take that “My Father’s House” as “Heaven” and the reuniting happening after we all die. However…
Jesus used a lot of euphemisms… the people he taught did the same. Out of respect for even the word “God”, they would use the vague term “Heaven”. Jesus talked about the kind of society that could restore the world as the Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven, Life to the full, and even Life of the Ages (eternal life is an unfortunate translation of that and has led people to wrong conclusions).
The phrase My Father’s House could also be rendered the Household of God or the Family of God and are likely just other ways of saying the same thing. It’s a place where things are done the way God wants them done (with love, mercy, grace, kindness, etc), and it’s the very thing Jesus taught his followers to pray for: “May your will be done on Earth (just like it’s done in your presence [using the euphemism Heaven])”.
His follower Thomas didn’t get it and responds, “We don’t know where you’re going? How can we know the way?” He wasn’t asking “Will people who have never heard of you go to Heaven when they die?” It’s obvious he’s not. He’s really only thinking of himself and his fear of moving forward without Jesus being the leader.
Brian McLaren writes of this, “Stretch your imagination and put yourself in the disciples’ situation. Jesus just told you he is going away and you can’t come with him. Then he says you know how to get where he is going. You don’t understand what he’s talking about. You have no idea where he is going, so how can you know the way to get there? Maybe you assume that since he’s going, you need detailed information on how to meet up with him later on. So you want the missing information so you can get yourself to wherever it is you’re supposed to go. But he tells you to trust him, because he will work everything out. He’ll get you to where you need to be. What a far cry from asking about the eternal destiny of people from other religions or periods in history who had no access to belief in Jesus!”
And so the disciples all responded, “Ah! NOW we get it!”
Philip, still confused by all of this, says, “Just show us the Father and we’ll be OK.” In other words, you keep talking about this “Father” whom we’ve never seen, and now you say you’re going to see him and someday we’ll get to as well… well, just SHOW us this Father.” He may even have felt like he was calling Jesus’ bluff.
Jesus responds, “If you want to know what the Father is like… LOOK AT ME. Look at how I live and, what I’ve done… look at my character that you’ve seen for several years now…”
And what was Jesus like for those years the disciples walked with him? Was he exclusionary, showing favoritism, condemnation, elitism? No, quite the opposite – he was known for his compassion, healing, acceptance, forgiveness, inclusion, and love the entire time.
So why would anyone think that Jesus would all of a sudden basically say, “Forget all of that crap, now I want you to believe God will reject everyone except those who share your doctrinal viewpoints about me; the rest can just burn and burn forever.” Sorry, but that just does not compute… any teaching built on that kind of schizophrenia, that kind of going against his own character and teachings… it’s just wrong.
A theme woven throughout this entire scene – including the previous and following chapters (13-17) – is the use of the word “know”. It’s all over the place, and it’s referring to that intimate kind of “knowing” a person, not just “knowing about” that person. If you have the time and desire, check it out.
Nobody was asking about people from other religions.
Nobody was asking about going to heaven when they die.
Words often get in the way of reality. Anyone who lives a life of love, sacrifice, humility, mercy, kindness, etc. IS following the way of Jesus. They may put other names on it (like how the same road here in the Detroit area can be called Quarton, Big Beaver, Metropolitan Highway, and still be thought of as “16 Mile”).
I don’t care what name you put on it… if you’re DOING what Jesus taught – whether or not you are aware he taught it – you’re following the way he presented to restore shalom (peace/harmony/wholeness) to this planet. And in that, I rejoice. I would far rather hang with a generous and compassionate Muslim than some angry condemning jerk who claims to be a “Christian” when that person’s actions are nothing at all like Jesus and give Jesus a bad name. I stand by that.
I know amazing Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Atheists who make the world a better place by how they live. And I know far too many Christians who continue to screw it all up with their bitterness, selfishness, and lack of concern for the planet and for future generations… mainly because of crazy things about the future they’ve been taught that were invented in the last 200 years and that would give the early church fathers fits.
Nobody in that time was asking “How do I get to Heaven when I die?” Nobody thought of the word “salvation” as being about them staying out of Hell. Rather, they hoped for a hero – a “Messiah” – to save (rescue, deliver, heal, restore) their nation from the Roman Empire who had them under its thumb. Reading the scriptures without these historical facts in mind will lead you to conclusions and actions unworthy of Jesus.
Again, it’s not what you “know about”, it’s who you “know”, intimately so. Someone you can actually trust, someone who’s been there and felt the abuse of the system for speaking truth to power. Someone who loved so deeply that he changed lives and got killed for it. Follow THAT way… because it’s the truth, and it’s the only place where real life is found… whatever name you put on it.