What did Jesus mean when He uttered this well-known phrase recorded in John 14:6? What is its significance for us today?
The Bible records many of the sayings of Jesus, and His statement “I am the way, the truth, and the life” is one that is controversial. As one of His seven “I am” statements, the implications of this pronouncement have special significance for all humanity.
The setting for “I am the way, the truth, and the life”
The last year of Jesus’ earthly ministry was a time of great stress for His disciples.
As His final Passover approached, Jesus learned that His friend Lazarus had died. Lazarus lived in Bethany, which was located about 2 miles from Jerusalem. Intending to raise His friend from the dead and to observe the Passover with His disciples in Jerusalem, Jesus told His disciples, “Let us go to Judea again” (John 11:7).
The serious danger they would be in by returning to Judea was clearly understood by Jesus’ disciples. Thomas “said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with Him’” (verse 16).
On the way, Jesus gave the disciples more explicit information about what lay ahead (Matthew 20:17-19). After observing His final Passover, Jesus again reminded them that His death was imminent and that He would soon be leaving them (John 13:31-33).
Peter wanted to know why he couldn’t follow Jesus at this time. Echoing Thomas’ previous comment, Peter rashly said that he was ready to lay down his life for Christ (verse 37). But Jesus told Peter that he would soon deny Him three times (verse 38).
At this point, the disciples were “completely bewildered and discouraged. Jesus had said He was going away (John 7:34; 8:21; 12:8, 35; 13:33), that He would die (12:32-33), that one of the Twelve was a traitor (13:21), that Peter would disown Him three times (13:38), that Satan was at work against all of them (Luke 22:31-32), and that all the disciples would fall away (Matt. 26:31). The cumulative weight of these revelations must have greatly depressed them” (John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, editors, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, comments on John 14:1-14).
“Let not your heart be troubled”
Perceiving how worried His disciples were, Jesus admonished them: “Let not your heart be troubled . . . if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself . . . And where I go you know, and the way you know” (John 14:1, 3, 4).
Thomas, the disciple with a questioning and somewhat pessimistic personality (John 20:24-25), now forthrightly expressed his and the other disciples’ anxiety and lack of understanding: “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?” (John 14:5).
This was the setting and question that prompted Jesus to respond, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (verse 6).
Jesus’ response provided the assurance His disciples needed, and it encapsulates answers to life’s most important questions today. His words speak to the path every human must take to achieve his or her amazing potential and purpose for life.
Jesus was not simply saying that He had knowledge that could make life meaningful. A more complete way to understand Jesus’ words is to recognize that He was saying that He alone could provide the guidance every human needs.
Today people want to be free to plot their own way, to decide upon their own truth and to ascertain their own purpose for life.
So Jesus’ statement that He is the only answer to these important issues is controversial. Since only 31 percent of earth’s population claims to be Christian, some believe Christ’s words are hate speech toward others.
Jesus came to bear witness of “the truth”—an unchanging, absolute explanation of the way people should live and the values they should hold.But Jesus truly is God. And as the One through whom God created all things, He has the perspective and authority to make such a statement (John 20:28; Colossians 1:15-16).
We also need to keep in mind that God loves all people and that His plan includes giving every human the opportunity to know Him and understand His ways (2 Peter 3:9; Revelation 20:5). For some, their opportunity will be in this life. For many, it will be in a life yet to come. To learn more about God’s amazing and little-understood plan of salvation for all mankind, see “The Festivals Jesus Celebrated.”
Let’s focus on the significance of His statement phrase by phrase.
“I am the way”
In saying “I am the way,” Jesus was repeating His teaching about how humans should live. He said this was “the way which leads to life” (Matthew 7:14). He further explained that this was a “difficult” way and that “there are few who find it.”
Jesus set an example for us by the way He lived. He kept all of God’s commandments (including the command to keep the seventh-day Sabbath), and He observed the biblical holy days. Jesus’ disciples lived the same way and taught others that living the way Jesus did was an important part of true Christianity.
Peter wrote that we should follow in Jesus’ steps (1 Peter 2:21). Paul taught people to imitate him as he imitated Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). And John noted that people who say they are Christians ought “also to walk just as He [Jesus] walked” (1 John 2:6).
This way of life was such an identifying factor that first-century Christians were spoken of as followers of “the Way” (Acts 19:23; 24:14).
“I am . . . the truth”
Truth has been hotly debated for a long time. Today it is popular to believe that each person or culture determines his or its own truth. Acceptance of multiculturalism—the belief that all values and beliefs are equally valid—is based on this premise. But Jesus forcefully countered this mistaken idea.
While being judged by Pilate, Jesus said, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness of the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (John 18:37).
Pilate’s response was predictable. “What is truth?” he exclaimed.
Unlike mankind’s vague and often-changing values, Jesus said He was a witness of the truth, not a truth that was variable. Explaining Jesus’ origin, John wrote that when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” He was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Jesus came to bear witness of “the truth”—an unchanging, absolute explanation of the way people should live and the values they should hold.
“I am . . . the life”
The enjoyment of life and the will to survive seems to be hardwired into us humans. And we don’t like to think of it coming to an end. Ideally, we would like to enjoy happy, healthy lives forever. Musing on this human desire, Solomon said that God “has put eternity in their hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
How to receive eternal life was a question on people’s minds in Jesus’ day (Matthew 19:16; Luke 10:25). And eternal life was an issue Jesus often addressed.
Speaking of Himself in the third person, Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:15). Jesus explained, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (verse 16).
As human beings, our temporary life is provided and sustained by God. But one of the amazing things about Jesus is that He, as God, actually has life within Himself. As John noted, “In Him was life,” and it was the Father who “granted the Son to have life in Himself” (John 1:4; 5:26).
This eternal life that Jesus possesses is something that He desires to give to us. As He told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25).
It is through Jesus that we humans can receive eternal life. There is no other way for people to receive this astounding gift. As Peter told the Jewish authorities, there is no salvation through any other person, “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Summary of “I am the way, the truth, and the life”
After saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus added: “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). It is thus only through Jesus that we can have a relationship with the Father.
Jesus is the One who has taught us the way to live our lives. Through Him we learn what absolute truth is. And if we believe in Him, we will obey Him, and we can receive eternal life.
John summarizes these concepts as follows: “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).
Yes, Jesus’ words are controversial. But they are sage advice that we would all do well to heed.