In my previous article in Theology Matters I considered Jesus’ declaration, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). This is the only instance in the Gospels of Jesus using “the way” as a self-reference. The Gospels speak of preparing the way for Jesus (Matt. 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27) or of Jesus teaching the way (Matt. 22:16; Mark 12:14; Luke 20:21), but not of Jesus as the way. Other terminology that Jesus used of himself was similarly guarded and even elusive. He refused to claim for himself leading Old Testament titles such as king (Mark 15:2; John 6:15) or Messiah (Matt. 26:63–64), although he welcomed the title “teacher” and occasionally “prophet” (Luke 4:24; 11:32). His most preferred self-designation was the Son of Man, an Old Testament title that was uncommon and poorly understood. In the sense he often used it of himself—as a divine figure who would come on the clouds of heaven to receive dominion over the earth—Son of Man occurs only once in the Old Testament (Dan. 7:13–14). When crowds pressed Jesus if he was the promised Messiah of Israel, he employed the Son of Man title in response: “‘The Son of Man must be lifted up.’” But this obscured rather than clarified his identity, for the crowds inquired, “‘Who is this Son of Man?’” (John 12:34). Throughout the Gospels, people are undecided and even mystified about Jesus’ identity, and this is largely the result of Jesus’ reserve in self-disclosure. The most common conjecture about his identity was that he was a figure returned from the past, either John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets. These opinions were shared equally by non-disciples, indeed by Herod Antipas, an arch-opponent of Jesus,[i] as well as by his own disciples.[ii] That opponents and advocates were united in this judgment indicates, surprisingly perhaps, that being a follower of Jesus did not necessarily give one an inside track in understanding his identity.
Professor Eduard Schweizer, with whom I studied at the University of Zürich, believed that Jesus’ avoidance and even subversion of messianic imagery and titles was an all-important first step in understanding his person and mission. Schweizer called Jesus “The Man Who Fits No Formula.”[iii] By avoiding stereotypical titles, suggested Schweizer, Jesus skirted the preconceptions that such titles and imagery sparked in peoples’ imaginations, requiring them to decide for themselves who he might be.
What was true of the master in this respect was also true of his disciples, for the first generation of Jesus-followers developed its distinctive communal life and missionary program without reference to a “brand name.” The earliest name for Jesus-followers was probably mathetes, which we translate as “disciples,” although the word itself means “students,” “learners,” or “apprentices,” and thus stands in correlation to the common designation of Jesus as “teacher.” As other names developed, “disciples” was retained, although it was often altered to “the twelve (disciples)” in deference to the original disciples of Jesus. “Nazarenes” and “Galileans” were early names associated with geographical locations of Jesus’ followers. Similes and analogies also appear as early designations of believers: “God’s people,” “Israel in the Spirit,” “Seed of Abraham,” “Chosen People,” “the Elect,” “Twelve Tribes,” and “Servants of God.” Many of these names did not survive, but they are informative, for all of them recall Old Testament images and designations, attesting that the early church rooted its self-understanding in, and sought names and analogies from, God’s covenant with Israel. The first Christians, in other words, did not think of themselves as a novelty but rather as a continuation, indeed a consummation, of God’s redemptive work in Israel that had begun with the call of Abraham.
In addition to “disciples,” three other designations emerge with increasing frequency in the New Testament: “believers” (Gk. pisteuontes), “brothers” (Gk. adelphoi), and “saints” (Gk. hagioi). Both disciples and believers occur with reference to followers during Jesus’ earthly ministry, the latter being especially prominent in the Gospel and First Epistle of John. The Greek noun pistis (“faith,” “belief”) never occurs in the Gospel of John, but the verb pisteuein (“to believe”) occurs nearly a hundred times, accentuating the importance of active commitment to the person and proclamation of Jesus. “Brothers” and “saints” appear in the New Testament with reference to the post-resurrection community of Jesus-followers. Brothers identifies believers in terms of family members. The family was the most important social unit of Jewish life, and it defines connectivity in Christian communities in terms of genetic bonds and sibling relationships. “Saints,” on the other hand, is a cultic term, deriving from Israelite worship communities centered in tabernacle, temple, and synagogue. The holy God sanctified his dwelling place in tabernacle and temple, and, by extension, in the people called by his name. “I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). The early church appropriated this commandment (1 Pet. 1:16) and applied it to believers in Jesus Christ, “who loved the church and gave himself up for it, to make it holy, cleansing it by the washing of the water in the word” (Eph. 5:25–26).
The first name for the post-resurrection Christian movement to gain widespread currency was “the way” (Gk. he hodos). The way was a self-designation of early Christians that was recognized by both believers and non-believers in Palestine and beyond. The Acts of the Apostles is the only book of the New Testament to refer to the church as “the way.” Acts employs it with reference to Christians in Damascus and Ephesus (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23), and in the mouth of the Apostle Paul, “the way” designates believers in speeches before hostile Jewish crowds (Acts 22:4), in trials before the Sanhedrin (Acts 24:14, 22), and before Roman officials, including Felix, Festus, and Agrippa II (Acts 24:22; 26:13). These uses attest to the scope and versatility of the way as a designation for Jesus-followers by mid-first century.
What Acts does not tell us, and what scholars are at a loss to explain, is why early Christians chose to identify their public persona as “the way.” For my part, I believe the way of God in the Old Covenant and the way of Jesus in the New set the stage for the use of “the way” as a self-designation of the early church. As we have noted, the way does not occur as a title of Jesus or of Jesus-followers in the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament, and neither does it appear as a name for the people or tribes of Israel in the Old Testament. The way does, however, appear as a characteristic of God’s people in the prophetic tradition, in which God promises to make of his people “one heart and one way” (Jer. 32:38–39).[iv] More importantly, the Hebrew verb halak (“to walk”) appears in the Old Testament as a summary metaphor of faithfulness to God.[v] The early Hebrews were semi-nomadic, a people “on the move,” an exodus-people en route from Egypt to the Promised Land. Their life and faith in God were a pilgrimage from slaves to Chosen People, from no-people to Holy People. They experienced God in the journey to the Promised Land, and ever after they interpreted faith as a journey. Halak captures his sense. The Greek translators of the Hebrew Bible rendered halak regularly in the Septuagint by poreuesthai (“to travel,” “to make a journey”) rather than simply by erchesthai (“to go”). For Israel, the experience of God was a journey of faith. God was both the destination of the journey and the companion on the journey. The earliest exemplars of the journey of faith were Enoch and Noah, both of whom “walked with God” (Gen. 5:22, 24; 6:9). For the Israelites, God was not an idea or object, but a commanding Presence who required a mental, volitional, and behavioral response, a “walk” of the whole life.
The early Christians understood their relationship with Jesus similarly. They characterize his kingdom variously as “the way of peace” (Luke 1:79), “the way of truth” (2 Pet. 2:2), “the way of righteousness” (2 Pet. 2:21; Matt. 21:32), “the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17), or all-inclusively, “the way(s) of the Lord” (Acts 13:10; 18:25). The early Christians also experienced the ministry of Jesus “on the move.” Jesus called disciples to follow him as he walked the shore of the Sea of Galilee and passed through Galilean villages. He was the Son of Man who had no place to lay his head (Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58). “On the way” to Caesarea-Philippi he revealed his messianic call to the disciples (Mark 8:27–30; Matt. 16:13–20). “On the way” to Jerusalem he revealed his impending passion to the disciples (Mark 10:32–34; Matt. 20:17–19; Luke 18:31–34). The long mid-section of the Gospel of Luke (chs. 9–18) portrays Jesus not simply “on the way” to Jerusalem, but as the way of life. On the walk to Emmaus, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets Jesus explained to the disciples the things concerning himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27). I believe that Jesus’ climactic self-reference in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” is an all-encompassing metaphor of both himself and the gospel.
The early church thus had strong precedents from both Israel’s self-understanding and Jesus’ self-portrayal to adopt “the way” as its earliest and most comprehensive self-designation. The early church never employs “the way” as a self-reference in the plural, as though the church were an amalgamation of ways, one way among equally valid ways, perhaps, or one truth among others. With reference to the early church, the way always appears in the singular, not with reference to the way of something beyond itself—“the way of the gospel,” perhaps, or “the way of life”—but absolutely as “the way.” Its governing antecedent is the way of God set forth in the First Covenant, which was incarnated in the Word of God in the Second Covenant, to which the early church as “the way” bears witness in its proclamation and life.
The way includes the gospel, of course, its faithful witness in the kerygma of church proclamation, and the proper identification of its message with the content and character of divine revelation in Jesus of Nazareth. Additionally, the way includes the ethical form of the Christian life, both personal and corporate, as a truth that is lived as well as articulated. One might even say that the way is best articulated in life. And further still, the way entails a deep transformation with regard to things unseen and unspoken. We refer to such a transformation as a perception of reality or a “world view.” This way, too, was learned and embraced rather than a natural response. It included identifying with the way of God in this world as demonstrated in the way of Jesus of Nazareth, living in trust of God’s promises in spite of all to the contrary, embracing of suffering as a means of disarming powers of evil, and the hope of eternal bliss in which God’s sovereign purpose is finally and forever fulfilled. The way was thus a composite of the cardinal virtues—faith, love, and hope—and the effect of these virtues in the lives, both personal and corporate, of those hold them. “The way” was a way of seeing, believing, and living that reflects the Kingdom of God as introduced by Jesus, of which the church is here and now the first-fruits, the final fulfillment of which is awaited in faith and hope.
“The way” was thus the earliest public name of the Jesus-movement. As we know, however, the way was not the most important or most enduring name. It was rightly superseded by the name that continues to designate Jesus-followers to this day—“Christian.” Christian is the most proper and deserving name, because unlike “way,” which describes a composite of characteristics, “Christian” identifies believers by the Lord of the church, “our savior Jesus Christ who gave himself in our behalf, in order that he might ransom us from all evil and cleanse for himself a people chosen and zealous for good works” (Tit. 2:13–14).
The Way Today
I wish to note two things about “the way” that I think relevant for the church today, and conclude with an illustration. The first point of relevance is that the growth and development of Christianity was not impeded by lack of a formal name. The marketing industry has drilled into our modern minds that a product cannot be successful and profitable without a “brand name,” distinctive logo, or cipher that triggers a desired response in the minds of consumers. Marketing was of course not the powerhouse in the ancient world that it is today, but it was not unimportant. The leading institutions and images of Judaism were consciously symbolic, including temple architecture, elaborate priestly vestments, worship rituals, Torah scrolls, tefillin, and tassels on garments. These and other symbols promoted and publicized Judaism. The leading institutions and images of the Roman Empire symbolized and promoted it on a grander scale, including the ubiquity of theaters and arenas that showcased the empire’s power and prestige in parades and pageantry, athletic competitions and blood sports, seats of honor, military standards, and insignia. The Roman logo SPQR (senatus populusque romanus, “the senate and people of Rome”)was omnipresent, and Roman citizenship was the single greatest passport to privilege in the empire. How utterly exceptional was “the way,” by contrast. Without any visual identification whatsoever, and with only its itinerant preachers and primitive churches that met in private homes and in remote caves, early Christians set roots that extended deeply and widely in the ancient world.
The early roots of the way constituted a broad range of essential tenets—including identification with the name and person of Jesus, bearing witness to Jesus in a summary proclamation known as the kerygma, weekly gatherings (increasingly on Sunday), sharing common meals, acts of mercy, and missionary preaching and teaching. One of the earliest badges—a genuinely red badge of courage—was the willingness of early Christians to suffer persecution. Arthur Darby Nock, the great 20th century American historian of early Christianity, makes the remarkable observation that in the first two centuries Jesus-followers largely multiplied beneath the radar of the ancient world. Christians did not wear distinctive clothing, they did not identify with official ceremonies, they visited no temples, they had no priestly class, they did not showcase themselves in any particular way to the ancient world. One of the first and most lasting ways the ancient world become aware of Christians, maintains Nock, was as martyrs. Nock employed martyrs primarily with reference to physical martyrdom, but the word includes the full significance of the Greek root martyrein, meaning a genuine witness to Jesus Christ in both lie and death. It was not in the quest for power and influence, but rather in distinctive acts of Christian witness that the profile of Christians first emerged in the ancient world. May we be reminded that martyrs are once again dying in our world in unprecedented numbers, and Nock’s observation is equally true today: the world that otherwise feigns disinterest, perhaps even dislike, for Christianity is today, as in the ancient world, profoundly influenced when believers in Christ bear genuine and even costly witness to their faith in Jesus Christ. Despite what marketing analysts say, brand names, logos, and ciphers are not the most important thing in the success of a product. The most important factor in the success of the product is its value. The greatest “market factor” of Christianity has always been the witness of the transformed human life.
My second point is that the relationship of Christian churches to modern Western culture, including American culture, more closely approximates the relationship of the early church to the ancient world, both Jewish and Roman, than at any point in modern history. The tires of “mainline Christianity” that gained famous traction in 1950s America have grown smooth in American society today. In attempts to be more accessible, mainline churches are dropping denominational references from their names; they are relaxing ecclesial practices that have long characterized and governed them, such as rites related to weddings, celebration of sacraments, ordination, church discipline, and confirmation classes. While mainline churches have declined, independent and non-traditional churches have grown, churches that are not determined by, and are often consciously divorced from, the traditions and authorities of mainline ecclesiologies. This newer church phenomenon often reaches people unreached by mainline churches, but its reliance on charismatic pastoral personalities who, typically, are sparsely theologically trained and not accountable to larger pastoral networks often results in spectacular but short-lived seasons of bloom. The American ecclesiastical scene has become increasingly eclectic and individualistic; like the period of the Judges, each does what seems right in its own eyes.
The church in both Western and American culture looks more like “the way” of the early church in the Book of Acts than most churches of memorable past have looked. How can churches that are increasingly unfettered from historic and ecclesiastical traditions, and untutored in theological resources, connect with the deep, rich, and lasting traditions of historic Christianity? How can churches that no longer enjoy prestige with the dominant culture affirm this reality by reclaiming and proclaiming the gospel without both the privileges and compromises of cultural entitlement? How can the church learn from the disastrous consequences of accommodating with ruling powers, and trust instead in the saving sufficiency of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the one Lord of the one Church, and whose life, death, and resurrection are Good News for rich and poor, privileged and dispossessed, and people of all colors and cultures, languages and locations, tribes and traditions. How can the church repent of ecclesiastical grandstanding and devote itself to faithful and humble proclamation of the Word and actions characterized by charity and sacrifice. The way of the church is not the way of the world. It is the way of Jesus Christ in the world, who is the Word Made Flesh, the one Word of God attested to us in Scriptures whom we are to love, trust, fear, and obey in life and in death.
How can the church be “the way” today? Perhaps this illustration can point to some first steps. In 2003 my son Mark joined me in fulfilling a lifelong dream of mine to climb the Mittellegi Ridge of the Eiger in Switzerland. Mark and I took the Jungfraujoch train from Kleine Scheidegg as far as the Eismeer station, where got out, met our guides, and climbed to a hut at 11,000 feet on the Mittellegi Ridge. We spent the night there. At 3:30 A.M. next morning we were on the ridge climbing toward the summit. The mountain was largely snow-free, weather was superb, and at 8:30 A.M. we ate lunch on the summit. With a whole day before us, our guides suggested we forego the normal descent down the West Face and make a more adventurous traverse behind the Monch to the summit of the Jungfraujoch, from which we could take the train down to the base of the Eiger. The new route was long and arduous. We had not eaten since the morning and had exhausted our supply of water. By mid-afternoon we had only to cross a long ice ridge, at the far end of which the Jungfraujoch train terminal was in sight. The ice ridge was as narrow as the roof ridge of a house, and it fell away precipitously on both sides. There was no way to protect ourselves with ice pitons, and any use of an ice ax would throw one off balance. The only way across was a sheer act of balance—for a hundred yards.
I was exhausted and thirsty, and this final obstacle—greater than anything we had faced on the climb—sapped my strength and confidence. I could not summon the courage to cross the ridge. My guide, Jürg Anderegg, sensed my crisis, and since I was roped to him, my crisis was his as well. He could have reasoned with me, lectured me, even commanded or shamed me, but he seemed to know those would not work. He chose a different option, and it got me across the ridge. “We’re going to do this together,” he said. “I will walk in front of you on the ridge. Don’t look to either side. Follow me, watch my feet, I’ll take you across.” Jürg’s plan, his presence, his pace … they brought me across.
Jürg did not show me the way, he was the way! May the church be such a way today.