The reason I get passionate about theology is because it matters. Not because of any eternal consequences, but because theology determines how we treat others in the here and now. If our picture of God is of an angry and violent brute, we tend to become violent and brutish ourselves. And it so happens that – although modern Christianity tries hard to manage the tension between a loving God and a “just” God – the picture of God held by most today is of a vengeful, monstrous God, who one minute wants to love us and the next feels compelled to obliterate us for offending Him (here I use the masculine pronoun deliberately, even though I hold to a gender-neutral Hen). Christianity has invented a God that needs to protect us from Himself. That is twisted. But it is at least partially why rape culture can flourish in nominally “Christian” nations – because men are the ‘heads of the household’. It contributes to why so many forms of child abuse find sanction in the church – “spare the rod and spoil the child” is “God’s command”, after all. It’s why members of the LGBTQ community have been inexcusably persecuted. It is why girls are made to feel ashamed of their sexuality. It underpins so much of the world’s racism and cultural exclusivity. Our pictures of God (theologies) inform our ethics. Our ethics inform our actions. Our actions affect the shape of society. The pictures we form of God matter. Theology is not merely an academic pursuit; it is an absolutely critically practical one. For that reason, I think we should develop the habit of constantly critiquing our theologies. Harsh as this is going to sound, if you refuse to critique how you think about God, you are a part of the problem. To that end, I want to address John 14:6 today.
John 14:6 is perhaps one of the most misunderstood passages in all of Scripture. We have turned it into a creedal statement when it was not ever intended as such. I will say it unequivocally: unless we understand that Jesus’ theology is rooted in his Jewishness, and not in a post-modern interpretation of Reformation Protestantism, we will distort the gospel into something devastatingly dangerous. We need to understand something of Jesus’s Jewishness to see what was intended in this most famous claim:
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
To properly understand what Jesus is saying, we need to engage with the concept of Teshuvah. It is loosely translated as “repentance”, and describes the journey of turning back to God. And I use the word ‘journey’ on purpose. The path of repentance, as Jesus and all of his contemporary Jews would have understood it, is not a single event. It is a path of righteousness to be travelled. Central to a right understanding of Jewish faith is acknowledging the importance of the idea expressed in Deuteronomy of two paths, one leading to death and one to life:
26 See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse— 27 the blessing if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; 28 the curse if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known. (Deuteronomy 11: 26-28)
There is a path of obedience to God that leads to life, and there is a path of disobedience that leads to death. Jesus repackages this central Jewish text in Matthew 7:13-14:
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
When Jesus makes this claim, as when he claims to be the true and living Way in John 14:6, I think we need to read it in the light of Teshuvah. He is not making a statement about world religions. He is not defining faith as conceding that Jesus is God and agreeing intellectually with a particular creed. He is not talking about salvation as saying the sinner’s prayer and asking Jesus into your heart. He is talking about turning back to God and walking a Jesus journey. His Jewish disciples would have readily understood the Deuteronomic reference and understood that he was himself claiming to be the true path to life. And the fact that it is a way, a path, and not merely a decision, means that it is deeply rooted in obedience to a certain ethic – a Jesus ethic. It is, to put it bluntly, a way of living, not a way of believing. If you really want to take this passage seriously, you need to understand what a Jesus Teshuvah looks like.
The season of Teshuvah starts on the first day of the month of Elul (the sixth month in the Jewish calendar) and continues for 40 days, culminating in Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). As an aside, it would be very interesting to explore Jesus’ 40 days in the desert in the light of Teshuvah – I will try to get around to that at some stage. Anyway, for the entire 30 days of Elul, in preparation for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the faithful are encouraged to use the Scriptures for introspection (that is, using Scriptures as a mirror for the self, not as a description of God). It is a process of turning back to God in a prodigal Son kind of way, where repentance is not merely a statement of faith in the Father, but is the action of returning to the Father’s house (with its many rooms…) and making things right with those one has wronged. Psalm 27 is the central text for the month of Elul:
1 The Lord is my light and my salvation—
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When the wicked advance against me
to devour me,
it is my enemies and my foes
who will stumble and fall.
3 Though an army besiege me,
my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me,
even then I will be confident.
4 One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
5 For in the day of trouble
he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
and set me high upon a rock.
6 Then my head will be exalted
above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make music to the Lord.
7 Hear my voice when I call, Lord;
be merciful to me and answer me.
8 My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”
Your face, Lord, I will seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me,
do not turn your servant away in anger;
you have been my helper.
Do not reject me or forsake me,
God my Savior.
10 Though my father and mother forsake me,
the Lord will receive me.
11 Teach me your way, Lord;
lead me in a straight path
because of my oppressors.
12 Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes,
for false witnesses rise up against me,
spouting malicious accusations.
13 I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.
I think there is a lot that could be said about the importance of this Psalm to Jewish faith. I want to note just a few things. First, the Psalm gives a voice to the victim, the scapegoat, whose oppressors are “wicked” “false witnesses” who raise “malicious accusations”, and it speaks of the Psalmist’s conviction that God will vindicate the oppressed. The only sacrifices offered are “shouts of joy”, not blood, and the psalm roots its hope very much “in the land of the living”. Crucially, it makes the suggestion that repentance is only possible if one is able to see the goodness of God (especially if one translates verse 13 as “If I had not believed to look upon the goodness of God, [I would no longer be] in the land of the living”). For me, this is a direct contradiction of penal substitution theory, which suggests that we need Jesus to rescue us from God, where we can only understand God if we understand His (again deliberate) wrath. If Jesus is the true and living way of the Teshuvah, therefore, then it seems abundantly clear that we need to reject any notion that God is among the oppressors of the scapegoat. This psalm is a clear rejection of the scapegoating mechanism that drives our political and religious activity. It is a promise that the Jesus – as the living “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:18) – will side with the oppressed and will establish a Kingdom here on earth. The hope that Jesus promises is not a pie in the sky when we die promise. It is not a veiled threat about who will be toasted like a marshmallow in the fires of Hell or an assurance of who will be sipping champagne in Elysian fields.
John 14:6 is not a doctrine on comparative religions. It is a call to repentance. And it is premised on a radical redefinition of God’s sense of justice. When, in Matthew 5:44, Jesus commands people to love their enemies, he says we ought to do so because the Father “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5: 45, my emphasis). I am certain that, given the importance of the Deuteronomic text (see below) to Jewish thinking, his listeners would have understood the full extent of the ramifications of what he was saying, which is essentially that God’s wrath has nothing to do with punishment. Jesus’s statement is a direct refutation of the idea that God blesses the good and curses the bad:
13 So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— 14 then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. 15 I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.
16 Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. 17 Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you. 18 Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.” (Deuteronomy 11: 13-21)
The way of repentance, the Jesus Teshuvah, is a way of peace and love. As in this example, this is clear when you examine how Jesus used Scriptures. Every time Jesus uses a Scripture or alludes to one, he subtly changes it to remove suggestions that God is punitive. Take, for example, the famous passage from Matthew 7: 21-23:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Jesus is directly quoting from Psalm 6:
For the director of music. With stringed instruments. According to sheminith. A psalm of David.
1 Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
2 Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
3 My soul is in deep anguish.
How long, Lord, how long?
4 Turn, Lord, and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love.
5 Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
Who praises you from the grave?
6 I am worn out from my groaning.
All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
7 My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes.
8 Away from me, all you who do evil,
for the Lord has heard my weeping.
9 The Lord has heard my cry for mercy;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish;
they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.
For those of you who still think that the Scriptures are equal to Jesus in terms of being God’s revelation of Henself to humanity, Jesus’s hermeneutics – the way he uses Scripture – directly challenge that view. Jesus constantly reinterprets Scripture – he clearly places himself in authority over them. They are not an authority over him. When it comes to God’s revelation of Henself, it is not ‘Jesus and the Bible’. It is Jesus only. And there is a recurring theme whenever Jesus references Scripture: God is not a punitive God. He is a God of love only, not of love and justice, or love and wrath. As John noted:
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18)
Instead, Jesus vindicates the oppressed, he hears the cries of the scapegoats – for he, too, was scapegoated – and through his resurrection, puts to shame those who believe that guilt can be transferred onto some randomly chosen, innocent third party. When Jesus says that nobody can come to the Father except through him, he is not making exclusive claims about a new religion; he is showing us the right way to understand an old one. He is laying before us a path to walk that leads to life. And that way is the way of peace and love and forgiveness. It does away with sacrifice, for sacrifice has to do with scapegoating and fear of punishment from an angry God. God, as the prophets noted over and over again, and of which the examples below are mere samples, never wanted sacrifice anyway (so why do we insist on an atonement model that has Hen requiring it?!):
- “In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.” (Psalms 40:6)
- “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalms 51:16-17)
- “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)
- “The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations – I cannot bear your evil assemblies.” (Isaiah 1:11-13)
- “For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices”. (Jeremiah 7:22)
The Jesus Way does away with distinctions between those who are acceptable to God and those who are not, for God shows Hens favour to all. Jesus’s Teshuvah is a way of unconditional forgiveness, even of the vilest sinners, even we who consented to his scapegoating (a fact that he asks us to remind ourselves of whenever we participate in Holy Communion) – seventy times seven. Jesus’ way is a way of non-retaliation. God is not a mighty smiter, to use Brad Jersak’s term. And unless you can recognise that the ethics of God are the ethics of Jesus, that Jesus’s way of love and peace is God’s, and unless you are prepared to walk that journey, then you can never understand what it is to know God and to live in Hens Kingdom. The alternative is a way of blood, of death. It is a way that led us to kill God, in the form of Jesus. There is no coming to know God through the satanic spiral of retributive justice and sacrifice and violence. That way – as we demonstrated by crucifying God – can only lead to our choosing to completely separate ourselves from the God of love. Jesus sets before you two paths. And I do not believe that the Scriptures suggest there is any punishment related to your choice. But there are consequences. Choose the narrow road of life.