“I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” – What Jesus Really Meant
Many of us are familiar with John 14, where Jesus tells His disciples that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. But what did that saying really mean for them, and what does it mean for us?
This conversation happens on the last night before the crucifixion, during the Passover meal. Before this, Jesus had washed the disciple’s feet, predicted his betrayal by Judas, predicted his denial by Peter, and told the disciples he would soon be going away (John 13). All of this prompted questions about where Jesus was going, and why it was that they couldn’t follow with him:
“‘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.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” (emphasis added)
By using this phrase, Jesus is establishing that knowing Him is not only the ultimate meaning and fulfillment of life on earth, but the only way to really know the Father in heaven.
I Am the Way
As Jesus tells his disciples that he is the way, there are multiple meanings involved.
First off, he addresses our very human instinct to know where we are going before we start a journey. The disciples wanted to know the next step, the next turn, the ultimate destination of where this journey in faith would lead them. When we have a long trip ahead of us, we want to turn on our GPS and get an idea of how long it will take and the roads we will travel on to get there. We determine the best, fastest routes and then start our journey. Thomas was looking for the same kind of information.
However, Jesus makes it clear that they (or we) won’t know the defined way we are supposed to travel in life. We are instead tasked with simply knowing and trusting in Jesus daily, and walking in faith that HE is the way. When we abide in him, we will not know a defined course, but we can rest in the comfort of faith – that he will lead us exactly where we need to go as we walk in him.
This leads to the second meaning. In John 10, Jesus compared himself to a good shepherd:
“When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them. Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.” (emphasis added)
Jesus is comparing himself to a shepherd and us to his sheep. Sheep don’t choose their own path to safety and protection, but rely on the shepherd to guard and care for them. In order to be safe, we have to trust the shepherd, and not wander off on our own adventures and try to find out own way. That will lead us to danger and pain. But when we follow Jesus, he leads us to exactly where we need to be.
Finally, he is making clear that he is the way to the Father, and by extension, to heaven. He says that he goes to prepare a place for us, and this suggests that after we have completed the journey of this life, we will find ourselves in a place of rest where the Father is.
I Am the Truth
What is truth? And how can we know truth?
After Jesus had been arrested, He found Himself standing before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea. He had been accused of blasphemy, of stirring up the people to revolution, and it was rumored He called Himself a King. In speaking to Him, Pilate found no evidence of any crime worthy of death, but was fascinated by His talk of a Kingdom that was “not of this world” (John 18:36).
Pushing back on the idea of whether this lowly carpenter from Galilee truly considered Himself to be some kind of King, Jesus replies, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
Pilate’s response comes in the form of a question, the same question that humanity has been asking for centuries, the same response to Jesus that keeps so many from faith: “Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?'”
Jesus answered this question in John 14 with the disciples when he tells them “I am the truth”. Jesus can testify to the truth and teach the truth because he himself is that truth. In him there is nothing false, nothing misleading, and nothing fake or uncertain.
Each of us are capable of knowing truth, but none of us can claim to actually be truth. There are too many things we don’t know, and too many things we get wrong throughout our lives. Yet Jesus claims to be truth, and in doing so claims to be one with God.
The words of John 1:1 set the stage for this very fact: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
In this one sentence, John is proclaiming Jesus as ‘the Word’, which would have suggested that he is the beginning and culmination of all that has been true throughout eternity, and that to seek the truth ultimately leads us to seek him.
When we seek to figure out what is the truth and what is a lie, we can measure it against the words of Jesus, who himself is the truth.
I Am the Life
This saying also draws us back to the shepherd analogy of John 10:
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. … “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me- just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (emphasis added)
Here Jesus is not only painting a picture of how he defends and leads his sheep, but also foreshadowing his death on the cross.
But if this is true, why do Christians still struggle in life? Why do we still endure pain and heartache?
Because this life is not the point.
This life is not our ultimate goal and does not encompass the entirety of who we are. This life is a mere drop in the ocean of eternity and serves as the starting block on the marathon that leads us to our goal of eternal life. We can slow it down, we can spend time money and energy working to fight against it, but we can’t stop it from marching forward.
Jesus is teaching us that what we are to really be concerned with is not this life, but with eternal life. The Scriptures speak often of the life to come after our life on this earth, and as we follow the voice of our shepherd, we can grasp what that eternal life is in the here and now. We can live this life in such a way that we are not chasing things that don’t last but chasing the things that do last and have eternal significance. This type of life has eternal impact not only for us but for untold others around us.