Texts of Influence in John & Acts

This original Appendix material dealing with John14:6 and Acts 4:12 appears in Multifaith Musing: Essays and Exchanges self-published by DYN in 2010, 139-48.

Undoubtedly, some Christians, on reading this book, will caution, “Yes but, Jesus said, ‘I am the Way. . .’” or “In the book of Acts chapter 4. . .” The ‘staying power’ of such texts leaves some Christians intent to conclude that only the Christian faith links with God. Or, rather than value anew the Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim faith, as does content in this book, a news feature of a negative action done by some Muslims in one country might persuade a hearer to continue to doubt the integrity of most Muslins. To change views can cause fear—of what to believe, of who I become as a result. To resist letting new, positive information re-shape traditional bias, as about scripture, may be easier.

How to interpret sacred texts prompts diverse opinion and therefore action. Content that follows, with minor edits, appears in my 2007Mission Focus Annual Review article about biblical texts that engage across religious groups. That lecture was first given to the Association of Anabaptist Missiologists in Winnipeg in 2007. Used here with permission, it highlights commentaries and other resources.

Feminist, multifaith, and Asian voices shape my viewpoint. Carter Heyward, known for embodied, experience-based Christology, believes that God’s incarnations are many and varied.1 Some Korean women scholars think of Jesus as co-sufferer known for healings. He is often imaged as a shaman or big sister, not “Lord of all” or “only Son of God.” Because Jesus respects them or bestows self-worth and dignity, they know hope.2 Multifaiths value common views and uphold difference. Rather than hold God captive—through presumed right teachings or ways to worship—most discover God beyond particular limits. Ovey Mohammed, a Jesuit, notes many features that Jesus and Krishna have in common.3 Jeannine Hill Fletcher states, “. . . ever-new perspectives on the mystery of God might constitute the ultimate human experience of salvation.”4

While most Christians find orientation to the world through the story of ‘God,’ ‘Christ,’ and ‘salvation,’ people of other faiths describe the world in different terms . . . A Buddhist may talk about ‘Nothingness’ and ‘Nirvana.’. . . A Hindu describes the multiplicity of forms through which God incarnates in the world. . . And Muslims and Jews defend the radical monotheism whereby none is God but God.5

While Gandhi valued Jesus the Jewish model for non-resistant living and Sermon on the Mount ethics, he found Hindu thought and practice adequate. He faulted many Christians for failure to truly pattern their model Teacher. Michael Amaladoss stresses that God saves, not religion. Some Asian Roman Catholic bishops explain saving as uniting people of different cultures and religions to create love and peace; they understand Jesus the saviour as Jesus the union builder.”6 Wesley Ariarajah wishes that the church would “contemplate the possibility that God may have many ways of bringing people to their intended destiny, the Christian way being one of them.7 His strategies for interpreting the Bible include: admit that others may not comprehend the distinct Israelite perspective; emphasize God’s universal covenant with all nations and Christ’s salvation available to all; pay attention to biblical encounters between people of different faiths; and value Christian witness along with dialogue.8

John 14:6 – When Thomas admitted not knowing how Jesus would reach God’s dwelling, Jesus provided a confession for believers. He confided, Follow my path of rejection and suffering. Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”9 Not all interpreters believe that Jesus stated the second phrase.

The teaching of chapters 14-17 of John, called the Farewell Discourse, took place following the Last Supper. The context of the writer decades after the Supper was filled with conflict between Jesus’ followers and some leaders within Judaism. Most Christians to whom John wrote sorely disliked opposition toward their movement. They knew injustice when driven from the synagogue. Lumping all “the Jews” into one despised group and faulting all of them for the actions of “some,” John caused further negative reaction while commending belief in Jesus.

During the Last Supper, a close meal with the Twelve (minus one or perhaps plus more), John’s text records Jesus actions: he washes their feet, predicts his betrayal, warns that the world may hate them, and tries to comfort their emotions. He says that he would soon return to God. His intent was to prepare room for believers to relate further with God before returning to mark the end-of-time. He said, “I go.” How could he refuse to take them along? Thomas, often a figure to represent common views, later declares “My Lord and my God.” Here he admits lack of knowledge for reaching God. “How do we know the way if we don’t know where you’re going?” (Let alone if you’ve not gone there before.) They presumed that the end was immanent, that getting to God might require more than a simple map. They feared how they would manage or survive without their Leader for whom they had left all else. Whether Jesus response registered— but you do know how to go; at least, I’ve been telling you for three years—remains unclear.

Jesus turns destiny into route. Not boasting or setting up a dictum to denounce world religions, Jesus claims to be the way to God for all who follow him (Jesus). For loyal Christians, he shows and lives the way of suffering love. Having lived intimately with God, he shares truth learned from God. For example, God is impartial; no one is favored over others. For the way which is open to God’s Ways lets God decide whom and how to include. Even Thomas would see the idolatry of trying to decide about others, in God’s stead, I think.

The writer uses questions to allow Jesus to explain further. Jesus’ way of suffering and future cross and the uncharted way for believers are linked as people look to eternal life with God. Robert Kysar calls Jesus the medium. Jesus reveals God’s love so that people understand and relate with God in peace. Either truth and of life explain way or way names the goal, which is truth and life.

Interpreters provide varied schemes for the trio of words. Raymond Brown suggests that the disciples’ way is already their goal; truth is the divine reality; and life is reality shared by all people. The center of interest becines the disciples’ going, Barnabas Lindars concludes: to follow Jesus, even to death, is the way; to believe in Jesus as one sent by God is truth; and to relate with God, enabled by Jesus, is life. For Leon Morris, Jesus is the way as he redeems or connects God with people. Jesus’ actions and being are ever-dependable—the truth of the gospel. Jesus is also life and source of life. Recall Psalms 86:11:“Teach me your way, O Yahweh, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.”

For Craig Koester, “Jesus is the way” is “one of Christianity’s most essential teachings.” For Jesus to go the way to God and back, via dying and rising, means for him to be the way. Koester believes that the phrase “no one comes to God except through me” serves to level people. Not a Christian privilege of being in, in contrast to those loyal to other faiths being excluded, sin separates all people from God.

For James Charlesworth, early church conflict with segments of Judaism forever shaped the meaning of this text. He calls the portion about Jesus being the only way to God “Jew-hating.” Imagine the setting: Jews convinced of their on-going covenant with God being told that Jesus himself excluded their tie with Yahweh of Hosts. Offence par excellence! Imagine mostly Jewish Christians telling the majority Jews “You do not know God!” That judgment conveyed spite and delusion. It continues to justify anti-Jewish thought among Christians. Charlesworth believes that “negative views of Jews and exclusive, divisive words reflect later alterations” to texts. Not Jesus’ words or reflective of his attitudes, the denial of salvation or a way to God other than through Jesus “violates much of biblical theology.” Whereas Jesus’ claim as way/truth/life condemns no one who believes in the Divine, the ‘no one comes’ phrase betrays Jesus’ core welcome and limits whom God may choose to include.

Charlesworth raises questions for us. Will Christians value being exclusive about the One God? Why? Especially when based on a phrase that Jesus our Mentor perhaps never uttered? What internal need prompts feeling superior to others? What power issues are raised? What makes power and privilege attractive? Why distort the God of all nations to insist that only Jesus saves? When salvation or wholeness is at stake, why might people wish to usurp divine tasks?

Others have studied this key text. D Moody Smith also notes the polemic between Christ-confessing and Christ-denying Jews. He wonders if people presumed to say that no way to God existed until Jesus opened one (Hebrews 10:20). Not a universal statement for all time, verse 6 for Robert Kysar reflects the Johannine group’s intent to affirm their leader over against Judaism, as part of a survival technique. David Scott warns against using any text as a pretext, hiding the real reason with a false one. Mixed, intense emotions do shape the context of John. 14:6.

Not posing triumphant, Jesus invites followers to discover the way of the Cross with courage.10 Through deep intimacy with God, Jesus assures them that the truth of a suffering God leads to life in its fullness. Knowing that he soon would hang on a cross, he declared himself en route to God. John nudged his Jewish Christian audience, those who already accepted Jesus, to continue their belief. He did not aim his words toward people with other faith loyalty. Devotion or undivided commitment to God’s kin-dom of justice does not provide space to negate or bow to other gods, even as they might reflect on the One God.

Other voices: Paul Knitter suggests that first generation Christians, when afraid that they might not survive the nearby Jewish majority or the vast Roman Empire, may more easily have overstated features about Jesus. Deep commitment likely prompted them to nudge others to take Jesus seriously, to declare him worthy to reveal the One God. For them or Christians today to confess commitment to Jesus the Christ rather than imply that no one else deserves commitment enables more open exchange with believers “equally committed to their saviors.”11 Arvind Nirmal expressed concern that a plan of salvation that allows for only one way presents God as stingy. Furthermore, it deprives God of the freedom to pursue and achieve salvation in chosen way(s).12 To re-define the plan could mean to value the place that world religions have within God’s richly diverse Being. Sri Lankan Nirmal expects different world religions to correct and enrich each other.

Others speak: Cynthia Campbell, President of McCormick Theological Seminary, urges readers to focus what or who Jesus is, not to go beyond what is stated such as to status of or difference in other religions. She sees John’s purpose in part to move believers toward a unique doctrine of the triune God; Jesus is a window into the Mystery of three-ness in one.13 Edward Kessler, involved with Jewish-Christian Relations in the United Kingdom, wishes for Christian faith to be distinct from Judaism without acting triumphalist, without either opposing Jews or presuming to fulfill Judaism.14 That the church derives from Israel does not mean that God’s covenant with Israel breaks down. While Jesus expressed Jewish concerns, John 14:6b rejects claims that rivaled Jesus. But in 10:16 Jesus refers to other sheep, not of his fold, who will listen to his voice when he “lays down his life for them.”

An important Asian writer is M. Thomas Thangaraj, Professor of World Christianity at Candler School of Theology, Atlanta.15 He finds Fourth Gospel material more a sermon on Jesus than what Jesus actually said. The author places words in Jesus’ mouth that convey the confession of the early faith community. In the Synoptics, Jesus never claimed anything for himself, titles or statements like John 14:6. In fact, he responded to one who called him Good Teacher, “No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18) Context in the Fourth Gospel finds Jewish and Hellenistic Christians trying to define themselves. So, a text like 14:6 defines what being a follower of Christ means. Thangaraj believes that judging the destiny of all people beyond church walls based on this text totally misrepresents its intent and the context. Thangaraj offers two ideas from John for a multireligious context: 1. “that God is accessible to all through God’s own reaching out to humanity through the Logos,” and 2. that readers look for where Jesus begins to proclaim being the way. To Peter’s question “Where are you going?” (chapter 13), Jesus explains the way of suffering love. So, 14:6 points to the central place of sacrifice for the sake of others as the way, truth, and life for reaching God.16

May Christians approach John 14:6 and the one from Acts to be examined next with a humble spirit, open to multiple insights rather than use them to insist that only Jesus Saves.

Acts 4:12 – When asked by Jewish religious officials by what power or name he and John had healed a man lame for forty years, Peter said, “There is healing in Jesus Christ. Listen to this Jesus!” Or translated, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”17

The context was a Jewish healing event. As Peter and John enter the temple, they meet a man lame from birth. Peter offers all that he could for the circumstance—“in the name of Jesus, walk.” Peter offers a symbol of Jesus’ presence—healing. Responding t the act, Jewish temple leaders ask, “By what power or name did you do this?” Name suggests another’s presence to liberate. The miracle symbolized wholeness, being healed or saved.

Convinced that God’s Spirit had acted through Jesus’ name—through life, death, and resurrection—followers like Peter confess how he had transformed them. Spirit-filled, they celebrate faith. They express love language, like the child who confesses, “My parents are the best in the world!” Not knowing all parents, and far from all-knowing about how God relates to people of all nations, the child or Peter or we believers confess to the extent that we are able: Jesus is the one through whom Christians best know God. Not for privilege or power and not with freedom to oppress or exclude, Peter confesses the name of Jesus the Healer.

Biblical scholars find the religious rulers and elders to be ‘worn down’ or upset as Peter and John influenced hearers about Jesus and resurrection. Arrested, the two came to testify, to defend the healing, before the Sanhedrin known for contempt. The Greek root word used here, not soteria, is sothenai which means “being made whole” (as translated in 4:9.) The term can be translated either saved or healed. Thangaraj notes that Peter’s confession relates directly to the healing. He cautions: “We would violate the integrity of the passage if we were to place it within today’s multi-religious setting and draw conclusions.”18

Cynthia Campbell notes Beverly Gaventa’s comment about the phrase “by which we must be saved.” This attempts to translate dei which means “it is necessary,” a word that Luke uses for things that occur according to God’s will.19 Campbell, Hans Conzelmann, Joseph Fitzmyer, and Paul Knitter all see the context here as God’s gift of wholeness. It was not an occasion to negate or compare religions or to imply that God could or would never work in people’s lives through other means. Rather, fearful yet convinced early believers call others to both listen to and accept the power available in Jesus—the power to mend, make whole. That too does not suggest that no one else should be heard or a valid teacher of religious truth. Selvanayagam believes that those who base an exclusive view on this text fail to study it carefully. The ultimate aim of life and liturgy is to praise or enjoy God, not make absolute claims . . . To note Jesus’ qualities is to confess faith; people of other living faiths project their confessions.20

Stanley Samartha’s study of segments of Acts 3 and 4 is forceful. This being a healing text reminds him of the link between poverty and religion. Implications of this story for Samartha affect general suffering among people, the beggar healed, and power relations between the church and other religions. For the healed of the text, there is freedom to move, new independence, new self-respect and dignity. God’s saving act restores total wholeness—personal, social, and cosmic. To claim salvation in no one other than Christ negates and judges neighbor religions. It divides people into ‘we’ and ‘they’ in ways that disrupt common tasks. Combined with economic, political, and military power, it prompts tension and warfare. From the context of multifaiths, Samartha declares:

Exclusive claims, coupled with power destroy the religions and cultures of other people. . . . But people of different faiths and opinions are all to receive God’s healing power. Peter and John confess on behalf of Jesus’ name, not against others. . . . To shift the crucified Christ into the Christ who conquers leads Christians to pride and self-right-ness. Exclusive claims for one’s own faith put fences around God’s mystery. They stress power over others and mar respect for cherished beliefs of those others. Such claims threaten world peace. So, Christians who wish to invite others to God’s healing must express commitment without negating others.21

Concluding Remarks

Clearly, religions deal with Mystery. Mystery suggests that not all is known. I believe that God, also called Yahweh or Allah or Brahman, is the Way for all nations. But I do not claim to know the breadth of God’s form nor how the Way transpires for all. Nor do I choose to limit God’s Wisdom in offering wholeness.

To confess that Jesus truly saves and makes salvation available on a universal scale does not limit God from providing other channels for wholeness. Unique and universal do not exclude each other. To confess Jesus as unique Lord and Christ need neither counter dialogue with world religions nor claim that all religions say the same thing or achieve the same goal. As Peter confessed what he knew—the name of Jesus the Healer—I know and confess Jesus as the one who best mediates to me God’s healing and freeing power. With Paul Knitter, I confess that “Jesus truly embodies and expresses God’s love,” not that he does so only, solely, or fully. Not the whole of God, Jesus is wholly God.”22 Other people of faith know other ways that give life deep meaning or wholeness for them. With need to care for oppressed people and earth, I will confess my experience, not negate people loyal to diverse religions.