Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Way, The Truth, The Life

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:6-7).

Verses six and seven are two of the most well know verses of St. John’s Gospel. They are Jesus’ answer to Thomas, after Thomas asks Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”[1] He doesn’t do it out of unbelief, or in an effort to mock Jesus as the Jewish leaders had done, but Thomas actually contradicts Jesus. In chapter 11 Thomas declared that he would die with Jesus.[2] Now, even after all the time Jesus and the disciples have spent together, he seems to have trouble seeing with the eyes of faith who Jesus is, and what his life’s work on earth was. Phillip, only two verses later, exhibits the same ignorance and frustration when he asks Jesus to, “ us the Father, and it is enough for us.”[3]

Thomas may have known intellectually that Jesus was returning to the Father in heaven. He also knew that this return to the Father involved Jesus’ death, as Jesus had so often spoken of the ultimate destination of his earthly ministry (Lenski, 1959). His problem seemed to be the same as the rest of the disciples when struggling with what looked to them like Jesus’ pending demise: How could Jesus be the Messiah if he was murdered before he could set up his kingdom?

The dark spot in the mind of Thomas was his inability to follow the mission and work of Jesus beyond the boundary of death. For him the mission of Jesus was an earthly kingdom (Acts 1:6) – how, then, could Jesus retire to heaven; and how could there be a way to this kingdom that would lead via heaven? So Thomas grows downhearted like one who is lost in the dark (Lenski, 1959).

The disciples, like the rest of the Jewish religious establishment of Jesus’ day, were expecting a political Messiah (Engelbrecht).[4] The Messiah they knew from prophetic scripture was a political savior who would sweep away instantly the old order of things, removing the boot of Roman rule from the neck of the Israelites and reinstating the house of David to a physical throne in the restored kingdom of Israel. The disciples did not yet realize that Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world.[5]

Phillip, contrary to questioning Jesus, only begs him. He asks Jesus to show the Father to the disciples. I don’t know how Phillip expected Jesus to do such a thing, but it is a mark of his faith, however immature, to regard Jesus as being able to do such a thing (Lenski, 1959). Jesus must surely have been a little frustrated by his disciples’ lack of understanding. He has spent all this time with them, showing them works from the Father,[6] explaining to them and the Jewish leader that he was the incarnate Word,[7] the exact representation of the Father,[8] and they still didn’t get it. They still didn’t know Jesus.

What does it mean to know someone? According to the American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition, the word ‘know’ can be defined as follows:

To perceive directly with the senses or mind; to have a practical understanding of or through experience with; to be subjected to; experience.

To know a person and to “know of” a person are two completely separate things, though on the surface, they may seem similar. For example, no matter how much factual information one learned about George Washington, regardless of how intimate the details, one could hardly say that they “knew” George Washington. On the other hand, one may not know every aspect or secret detail of his best friend’s life, yet one would not hesitate to say, “I know so-and-so. He’s my best friend.” To know someone – not just merely “about” them – relational experience must take place between the two people. In other words, they must, as the definition says, experience and interact with each other.

How then can Jesus tell us in John 14: 6-7, that we could know him? I mean, while that would have been fine for the apostles and everyone else who were alive at the time of Jesus, how could it apply to us today? They could meet, see, touch, talk to and experience him. How is this possible, though, for us living today? Are we not merely relegated to knowing, as Joe Friday would say, “Just the facts” about Jesus? How can we have a personal relationship with a man who died over 2,000 years ago?

If Jesus of Nazareth were merely a man, his death on the cross on Good Friday would be the end of the story. Not only would it be pointless to try to “know” Jesus, it would be impossible. To us he would be nothing more than an historical figure, about whom we could only memorize factual information. While Jesus did die on the cross on Good Friday, he did not stay in the grave, and it was far from the end of the story. Not only was Jesus 100% a human being, he was – and is – 100% God.

Because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden, sin entered God’s perfect creation, and as it says in Genesis, “…their eyes were opened…” – our human nature was changed. Jesus Christ, in order to restore the relationship between God and man, voluntarily humbled himself by becoming a man. He endured temptation, just as all human being must, but he lived a perfect life, kept all of God’s law, and died as the final perfect sacrifice for all our sins on Calvary’s cross. The author of Hebrews says this:

Since the children have flesh and blood, 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…For this reason He had to be made like His brothers in every way, in order that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that He might make atonement for the sins of the people (Hebrews 2: 14-15, 17).

Christ, our living Savior, calls out to us through the Holy Scriptures that we might know him, and have eternal life.

Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).

He speaks to us through the Gospels, and all of God’s holy word. His Spirit comes to dwell in us through Baptism, and He comes to us, to strengthen and preserve us in the faith, through the Eucharist. We can know Jesus – and through Jesus, God the Father – because He is alive and we can experience and interact with Him. Thanks be to God that we can know – through Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit – Jesus Christ, the risen Savior of the world.

Because I live, you also will live (John 14:19).

Life is really the central issue, not only in John 14, but also throughout the entire Bible. God is concerned that we live with him in glory forever. The Holy Scriptures are his plan for our redemption. These four succeeding chapters of John (14-17) are the dramatic prelude to culmination of God’s plan – the defeat of Satan by Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most important aspect of Christianity. This fundamental of the Christian faith is what distinguishes Christians and Christianity from every other religion on the planet. The resurrection of Christ is so important and comforting because it confirms four important things: 1) Christ is the Son of God, 2) What He taught is true, 3) God the Father accepted Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for the reconciliation of the world, and 4) all those who believe in Christ will rise to eternal life.

Indeed, the apostle Paul in 1st Corinthians has this to say about Christ’s resurrection:

By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain” (1 Cor. 15:2).

Paul continues his explanation to the Corinthians, some of whom believed that there was no such thing as a resurrection from the dead, by pointing out this logical progression: If the dead do not rise, then not even Christ has been resurrected. If Christ has not been raised we Christians, then, believe and teach a lie about God. Not only that, if Christ was not raised, we are still in our sins. “If only for this life,” St. Paul continues, “we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1Cor. 15:19).

And this view, one of pity, is generally how the world looks at the followers of Jesus. There is no logic to support this fundamental pillar of the Christian faith, though there is evidence. Then again, that’s why the term faith is used. Martin Luther wrote, “I know that I cannot, by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him.” Luther understood that the gift of faith in Christ comes from God by the power of His Holy Spirit.

There is evidence of Christ’s resurrection, and St. Paul supplies us with a good summary:

He was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that He appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all He appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born (1Cor 15:4-8).

There is no logical explanation for the mass conversion of 3,000 people in Jerusalem on Pentecost if what they heard preached was false. There is no logical reason for the apostles who, save John, suffered martyrdom in some of the most horrible ways imaginable, to keep on professing a lie at the cost of their life, simply to save face. Put yourself in the Apostles’ shoes; would you give your life in order to continue professing a faith in something you know to be false? There is, however, an illogical reason for what they did. The Holy Spirit had created faith in them, though it could not be proven by logic or reason, what they – and we – profess is true. Surely these men would not willingly subject themselves to torture and death for something they knew to be a lie.

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1).

As Christians we have faith in Jesus because he is the resurrection and the life. He promised that whoever believes in him will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Jesus will never die.[9] We have faith – we can be sure and certain – that because Jesus lives, we also will live. What wonderful news! How could we not help but live the new life that we have been given to God’s glory? May everything that we do, whether at work or play, bring glory to God. When we in our lives glorify Him, the Holy Spirit proclaims Jesus to those around us who need to know him, and draws them to him.

Works Cited

Engelbrecht, E. A. The Lutheran Study Bible - English Standard Version.

Lenski, R. C. (1959). The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel. Columbus: The Wartburg Press.

End Notes

[1] John 14:5

[2] John 11:16

[3] John 14:8

[4] Mark 10: 35-45; Acts 1:6

[5] John 18: 33-38

[6] John 14: 10-11

[7] John 8: 48-59; 10: 22-39

[8] Hebrews 1:3

[9] John 11: 25-26