Monday, June 21, 2010

The Way, and the Truth, and the Life of Eschatological Torah in John 14:6

Jesus’ words in John 14:6 that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life” definitely constitute one of Jesus’ most famous statements. But it is interesting to consider what Jesus meant when he said this.

The use of way and truth in close connection with each other recalls Ps 86:11, which describes the Old Testament ethical ideal of covenant obedience in terms of walking in the way of Yahweh’s truth. In the Old Testament, as in Judaism, the word way is often used as a metaphor to denote a person’s manner of behavior (e.g., 2 Kgs 21:21-22; Ps 119:9). When used positively, the expression the way signifies the manner of behavior approved by God, or else torah viewed as the body of divine instruction that defines this approved manner of behavior (e.g., Gen 18:19; Deut 31:29; Ps 119:1, 27, 30, 33; Prov 6:23; Jer 5:4-5).

In a similar way, the expression the truth is linked with torah in Ps 119:160; Prov 23:23; and the adjective true is used of the Mosaic law in verses such as Ps 19:9; 119:142, 151. The phrase the truth is connected in John 17:17 with God’s word. It seems, therefore, in the context of the Old Testament and John’s Gospel, that, in speaking of himself as the truth, Jesus was referring to himself as the embodiment of the word/law of God. Jesus, as the Word of God par excellence, is Torah personified. Jesus is eschatological Torah revealed. It should be noted at this point that word and law are virtual synonyms in the Old Testament when used to denote the verbal revelation of God (e.g., Ps 119:113-114; Isa 1:10; 2:3; 5:24; Jer 8:7-9; Mic 4:2).

The link between way and truth on the one hand, and torah on the other, also helps us understand how Jesus is the life. The Old Testament links the concepts of way and life together in a number of places, the idea being that following the way of torah results in life (e.g., Prov 6:23; 10:17; 12:28; 15:24). Therefore, in John 14:6 Jesus is the life in the sense that those who follow him (by following his teaching and example) receive eternal life. Jesus as the Word of God is the ultimate expression of Torah, and following torah has always been the way of life (e.g., Deut 30:16, 19-20; Ps 1:1–3; 19:7).

All of this means that Jesus’ statement in John 14:6 is extremely controversial in a Jewish context. When orthodox Jews thought of the way, the truth, and the life, they ordinarily thought of Mosaic torah. By describing himself as “the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus was claiming, therefore, to be the new Torah. In other words, in the new covenant age, torah has been redefined; in the new covenant age, torah is no longer mediated through Moses, but personified in Christ, the divine Logos.

A further implication of Jesus’ teaching in the historical context of his day is that the way of covenant obedience has been redefined. The covenant obedience to the law of Moses, which was required of Israel under the terms of the old covenant (e.g, Exod 19:5), morphs in the new covenant age into Christian discipleship, the halakhah or way of following and imitating Jesus (e.g., John 13:34–35; 1 John 2:6). This significance is brought out in the latter part of John 14:6, when Jesus says that “no one comes to the Father except by me.” Here Jesus not only identifies God the Father as the destination where he and his disciples were going to, but he also sets himself up as being the only way to the Father. In other words, to experience life in the presence of God, it is necessary (in the new covenant age) to follow Jesus rather than Moses.

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