At times I’ve been cheered on by others with a hearty “way to go!” The cheer celebrates a moment of progress or success. And there are other ways way is used. In the Bible the term often serves as a moral metaphor.
Listen, for instance, to Jesus: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). In what sense is he “the way”? For context Jesus was answering Thomas who had asked Jesus what he meant by a promise to go to “prepare a place” for them. The disciple, no doubt, wanted the name of a location where they could meet if they were separated.
Jesus gave him a location, but it was expressed in moral and relational terms rather than as a spot on some map. The lesson? God himself is the real destination of a life in Christ; and no road leads to God except by knowing Jesus: “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Another intriguing use of ‘way’ is as a label for Christ’s followers. Paul, for instance, referred to the Christianity as the “Way” at times—”I persecuted this Way to the death” (Acts 22:4); and “I confess to you [Felix] that according to the Way, which [my foes] call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers . . .” (Acts 24:14). While that tag failed to stick it was a strong metaphor for the early church.
But what of the moral metaphor? In the Old Testament we find way used regularly as a picture of living rightly—of staying on the straight path rather than the crooked. Just after giving the ten commandments in Deuteronomy, for instance, Moses used the imagery of a moral pathway in exhorting the Israelites to respond to their calling:
You shall be careful therefore to do as the LORD your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. You shall walk in all the way that the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you possess. (Deuteronomy 5:32-33)
This translation of “way” in the singular here points to a collective and characteristic set of attitudes and behaviors that reveal God’s own character: he has a certain manner of living that his people are called to engage as their own.
Later, in Deuteronomy 10:12-13, we find God’s own character set out as the touchstone for all moral conduct, now reinforced with the plural use of “ways”.
And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding your today for your good?
This, too, became the basis for Israel’s reception of lasting security amid all the hostile nations around them.
For if you will be careful to do all this commandment that I command you to do, loving the LORD your God, walking in all the ways, and holding fast to him, then the LORD will drive out all these nations before you . . .” (Deuteronomy 11:22-23).
This sort of listing was not tied to a single era or writer. We find it throughout the Bible as it captures a practical and compelling reality: God offers clear and reliable patterns. He is loving, just, and righteous. All who belong to him will travel in the same directions that he travels.
So how did the early church label, “Way”, emerge? Did it relate to God’s “ways” as cited in Deuteronomy and elsewhere where his laws were in view? Perhaps, but I suspect the main linkage came from the Thomas episode that we noted a moment ago. The apostles realized that Jesus, alone, is the way to a relationship with God the Father. The church, then, is affiliated with Jesus as the way to God and as representatives of God on earth.
But how strong is this connection? Very strong. In part because of an additional facet to this relational use of way. Just after Thomas asked his question Philip followed up with his own misunderstanding. Since Jesus would not offer a location as the destination of the “way” but made the Father their destination, Philip then followed-up: “show us the Father; and it is enough for us.”
Jesus answered him:
Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? (John 14:9-10)
Just as Jesus had shifted the ground under Thomas’s question, he did the same with Philip’s question by ignoring the premise that the Father is accessible as a separate and tangible figure who can be seen. Instead he shifted to a relational ontology by speaking of his mutual indwelling with the Father. The Father and the Son are One even if they are eternally distinguished as the Father and the Son.
This theme of the triune ontology continued in the conversation between Jesus and his apostles. In John 16:13-15 Jesus noted the communicating presence of the Spirit in their triune relationship. And later, in John 17, we find that the church is also united with Christ, and through Christ, with the Father. Paul also spoke of this union in organic terms: of the church as members of Christ’s body. The church, then, is both bonded to the Way and represents him as the Way on earth. As such the relational theme both precedes and explains the moral theme: that the God who is the Way then expresses his ways in calls for righteous conduct in the commandments. And those who are in the Way begin to live after his ways—thus fulfilling the commandments from the heart.
Yet it is a common mistake to reverse this order. Many people see life as a progression of choices. All behaviors, they believe, are measured by a moral corollary that some behaviors are right and others are wrong. A “good” person is one who usually chooses “good” behaviors; and the “bad” person gets that status by making “bad” choices. Morality is the product of choices.
Yet the Way is a heartfelt bond—not the activities of a morality play—as the church is characterized by her union with Christ. How does union make a difference? 1. Faith is a participation in Christ 2. As a believer now lives “in Christ” Christ’s righteousness establishes his or her standing before the Father, and, 3. The Spirit’s work in the believer’s heart begins to remake it after Christ’s heart—which is to love the Father and those the Father loves.
The moralistic alternative—of religion as gathered individuals who are striving to meet God’s demands—misses the union of Christ and his church. That, in turn, confuses the function of the laws noted in the Deuteronomy texts.
To restate the issue: the moralist takes God’s commandments to be ends in themselves. Each individual is a moral practitioner and user of God’s goodness so that God serves as a moral resource to be drawn upon for the enhanced moral standing of the actor. In the process the moralist looks at his or her own “goodness” as the destination of life, rather than God himself. Thus they slip into the errors of both Thomas and Philip: they miss the relational metaphor and as a result they set up a utilitarian destination—effort-based faith.
So let me summarize the “way to go” for those who love God. His triune way is the pattern of mutual love and shared glory that he invites us to join. That way is holy, not because there are a set of prescribed behaviors that God has adopted because they are “good” or “holy” in themselves. Instead the relational being of the God who “is love” (John 4:8 & 16) shares himself in ways that are “good”.
But that goodness is in God himself—as in his character of loving, of acting with justice, and in establishing righteous—and not in activities, spaces, or places . . . as if God somehow enacts or infuses goodness as free-standing qualities. Thus when religious but un-Spirited people embrace various behaviors as moral ends in themselves they do so in order to achieve their own goodness as a moral destination. But think of the rebuttal to that notion as Jesus answered the wealthy moralist: “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18).
So in Jesus we meet the “way” the “truth” and the “life” as a person and not as a place or discrete activity. He calls us to love him with all we are. And with that we begin to meet and surpass any calls to keep his commandments. See, for instance, Romans 13:8-10. Why and how? Because we now know and love the One who, alone, is God. And he makes us, collectively one with his Son—the bride of Christ.
What a way to go!