In the last study, we considered Jesus’ primary call to prospective disciples: simply to “follow” him. Once that choice is made, however, questions remain, even – perhaps especially – for folks seriously committed to faithfulness. “Following” usually assumes that one is going somewhere. Where are we going? How shall we get there?
In asking this, we are in good company. The early disciples were just as confused as we.
Perhaps the clearest understanding of the use of hodos, “the way”, among early followers of Jesus can be gained from an examination of his conversation with Thomas and Philip, recorded in John 14:1-16. Both disciples are thinking in concrete terms: “If we don’t know where we are going, how can we get there?” indicates that Thomas is focused on a destination (as are so many today, who can think of no goal but “getting into heaven”), and Philip is focused on an official “introduction” – or maybe some sort of high-powered “spiritual experience” – with the Father – “the really BIG guy”. Jesus, recognizing that both have totally missed the point, gently corrects them. “I AM the Way”, he explains. “It’s not about going anywhere, Tom – it’s about sticking with me!” And “Phil, open your eyes and look! Don’t you get it? All that I AM, and all I’ve been doing, shows you the Father!” The critical key to this whole discussion is Jesus’ use of “I AM” (See W.S.#17)
The point he is trying to make, for them and for us, is that he himself is not only the Leader and Guide, but also both the journey and the goal! And to this end, he makes use of a very ordinary word, in an extraordinary way. Although there are nine other words also translated “way”, none used more than twice in the New Testament, they add nothing of significance. “Hodos”, used 83 times in the New Testament, is the one that deserves the focus of our attention.
Classically, hodos was used in three primary ways: of place : a road or highway, or the course of a river; of action : a trip, journey, or sea voyage; and metaphorically: of one’s culture, manner of life, intent, method, or system. With prepositions, it could indicate (with pro) “on the way, forward, profitable, or useful”, (with kata) “along the road, or by the way…”, and with a prefix (parodos) – only a single NT use – “along the way.”
20 of the NT uses refer simply to a physical road or pathway, and 15 to a trip somewhere, although some of these may fall into both of those categories.
The 8 references to “preparing the way”, although describing the actual road construction that was done in honor of a conqueror or royal personage (remember that first century Roman road-building rivaled modern highway construction, and lasted longer. Some of those roads are still in use!), clearly intended more far-reaching preparations, as intimated in Lk.1:76-78 and later references to the ministry of John the Baptist. The goal is not just a smooth highway, but “a prepared people, ready for the Lord.”(Lk.1:17)
Most significant for our purpose are the “metaphoric” uses of hodos. References to a way of life, or cultural norms, may be seen in Mt.10:5, Ac.14:16, and Rom.3:16, speaking of the behavior of “the nations” (W.S.#62), or of unfaithful individuals (Ac.13:10, Jas.1:8, 5:20; II Pet.2:15, Jude 11), as well as in a more positive sense: “the way of peace” (Lk.1:79, Rom.3:17), “the way(s) of God” (Mt.22:16, Lk.20:21, Ac.18:26, Rom.11:33, Heb.3:10, Rv.15:3), “the way of righteousness/justice” – W.S.#3 – (Mt.21:32, II Pet.2:21), “the way of life” (Ac.2:28), “the way of salvation” – W.S.#5 – (Ac.16:17), “the way of truth” – W.S. #26 – (II Pet.2:2, 2:15).
But even these pale in comparison to the transformation effected by the Lord Jesus.
The crucial statement referenced above in John 14, is preceded by another: “You all know the way where I am going.” (v.4). Not only had they been watching and participating in Jesus’ “way of life” and conduct for the past three years, but he had continually been trying to prepare them for what lay ahead. Although he had warned them repeatedly of the trauma of his rejection and execution by the very people who should have welcomed him most eagerly,(with none of the modern theological jargon that accompanies such subjects today), that was not the focus of these final hours.
Rather, (Jn.16), it is the benefit that would accrue presently for faithful disciples as a result of his “going to the one who sent me” (16:5), “going to the Father” (16:9), and the enabling they would consequently receive from the Spirit, to continue following the Way he had showed them
This, I am convinced, is among the primary reasons why subsequent followers became known as “people of the Way.” This designation appears all through the Acts account of the early church– from the folks Paul pursued to Damascus (Ac.9:2, 22:4, 22:14), to Priscilla and Aquila instructing Apollos (Ac.18:25,26), and even used by their opposition in Corinth (Ac.19:9) and Ephesus (Ac.19:23). These emphasize that the new movement was a way of living, not merely a “philosophy” or a “new religion” as the Areopagos Council assumed (Ac.17:19-32).
The first century Roman Empire was a pluralistic society at least as broad as our own. “Gods” were plentiful, and frequently added (for insurance?). They only required an occasional offering to remain beneficent, so nobody minded. The “powers that be” didn’t really care much what anyone “thought” or “believed”, as long as they behaved according to the emperor’s demands – which of course included accepting him as a superior part of the pantheon, and offering incense to him as well. It was transformed lives, subject only to an authority much higher than his, that they could not handle.
And that is an accurate description of “the Way.”
So really, these two studies are simply two perspectives on the same principle. To “follow” the Lord Jesus is to continue along “the Way” – in his company, according to his instructions, and toward the unity with him, with his Father, and with one another for which he prayed (Jn.17).
His “I AM the Way” is the only answer to our puzzled queries of “where?” and “how?”
May we help each other to follow faithfully in the Way.