Consider the Context
In order to clarify what Jesus meant by His statement, McLaren correctly suggests that we must consider the context in which the statement was made. He says:
“One of the most basic and widely-accepted principles of biblical interpretation says that to interpret a text out of context is a pretext. In other words, if you pull a verse out of its setting, you may unwittingly (or intentionally) twist it to make it say things it was never intended to say.”1
Of course, considering the context does not guarantee that one will, as a result of studying the context, interpret a passage correctly. In fact, if McLaren is wrong in his understanding of the passage, he could equally be wrong in his understanding of the context. The various aspects of context must also be interpreted, and if you start from the wrong assumptions, you are certainly likely to end in the wrong place. Be that as it may, McLaren contends that Jn. 14:6 is often:
“quoted out of context so that it seems to say, ‘I am in the way of your getting to truth and life. I will keep everyone from getting to the Father unless they get by me first.’”2
I’m not sure where he gets this, but I do not know of anyone who understands Jesus’ statement that way. But perhaps he will clarify this point.
McLaren says, “One would think that the context reads like this:”
You should be very troubled, because if you believe in God, but not me, you will be shut out of my Father’s house in heaven, where there are a few small rooms for the few who get it right. . . . Then Thomas said to him, “Lord, what about people who have never even heard of you? Will they go to heaven after they die?” Jesus said to him, “I am the only way to heaven, and the truth about me is the only truth that will get you to life after death. Not one person will go to heaven unless they personally understand and believe a clearly-defined message about me and personally and consciously ask me to come into their heart.” (Not John 14:1-6)3
There are two important points that are made in this parody. First, McLaren ridicules the notion that those who believe in God but not in Jesus will be shut out of heaven. But this is something that Jesus specifically declared:
“He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (Jn. 3:18); “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins” (Jn. 8:24); “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (Jn. 17:3).
So, it seems that Jesus declared something quite like what McLaren ridicules:
if you believe in God, but not in me, you will be shut out of my Father’s house in heaven . . .”
In fact, didn’t John say something almost like this:
“Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 Jn. 2:23).
If you believe in God, but do not believe in His Son Jesus Christ, then you do not have the Father. In fact, Jesus said:
“He who has seen Me has seen the Father;” (Jn. 14:9).
This statement was made because the disciples did not understand that they could not have one without the other. Jesus could very well have proposed this question to McLaren:
“Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me?” (Jn. 14:10).
Second, it seems that McLaren wants to belittle the notion that Jesus is the only way to heaven. McLaren gives the following caricature of the notion that Jesus is the only way: “I am in the way of your getting to truth and life,” and yet this very truth is presented in many places. Jesus is referred to as a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense:
“They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame’” (Rom. 9:32–33).
McLaren seems to be doing precisely what Israel did; he is stumbling over the rock who is Christ. The Scriptures teach that if you do not believe in Him whom the Father has sent, you will die in your sins. Jesus is indeed in the way, and the only way to get to the Father is through Him. McLaren claims this is absurd and Jesus tells us that it is the truth. Who will you believe?
Going Back to the Text
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. McLaren says that we must get back to the text in order to see if his parody is what Jn. 14:6 is actually saying. McLaren starts his description of the context with an assumption he does not bother to support:
“It’s a dramatic time. Jesus has just washed the disciples’ feet — expressing the fact that in his kingdom, things are scandalously different from among ‘the leaders of the Gentiles.’”4
Throughout the chapters in John’s Gospel that record the upper room experience, not once does Jesus refer to a kingdom. The word does not appear in any of Jesus’ discourses or interactions with the disciples. It seems rather strange that if the washing of the feet of the disciples was designed to indicate something about the kingdom that Jesus would not even mention the kingdom. Now it may be true that this is what the washing signifies, but McLaren has not supported this claim. He simply assumes it without evidence. That’s not the way to do exegesis. But let us move on.
McLaren presents the verses in Jn. 13:31–33, and then says:
“This statement — that Jesus is going somewhere, but his disciples can’t follow, forms the common thread that the conversation will follow and to which it will keep returning.”5
McLaren focuses on where Jesus is going:
“Where is it that Jesus is going? Heaven? Then he would be saying nobody can go to heaven.”6
But this does not follow. While it is true that Jesus tells the disciples that He is going away and they cannot follow that isn’t the end of the discussion “in context.” McLaren is not only a master of avoiding the question. He is also a master of selective reporting, that is, he gives you just enough of the evidence to make his position sound reasonable, but he doesn’t give you all of the information because that would weaken his claim. The information he doesn’t give you is the statement of Jesus in Jn. 14:3:
“If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, you may be also.”
So Jesus is not telling the disciples that they can never be where He is going. Rather, He is telling them that they cannot follow Him now, but He will return to take them to where He is going. But let us look at this in more detail.
Where is Jesus Going?
An important aspect in understanding to what Jesus is referring when He says He is going somewhere they cannot come is to consider the context in which Jesus made this statement to the Jews. In Jn. 13:33 Jesus specifically told his disciples, “and just as I said to the Jews” (kathos eipon tois Ioudaiois), so what Jesus means when He addresses the disciples is connected with what He said to the Jews. In fact, McLaren recognizes the importance of this fact when he says:
“Jesus said something strikingly similar to the Pharisees and priests in 7:33–36, and important passage that gives additional background for this scene [in 13:31ff].”7
There are three times that Jesus makes this statement to the Jews: Jn. 7:34; 7:36; 8:21. These specific words also appear in Jn. 8:22, but there the Jews are actually repeating Jesus’ words. The first reference is Jn. 7:34, but since the second reference in within a couple of verses of the first, Jn. 7:36, we will consider them together:
Therefore Jesus said, “For a little while longer I am with you, then I go to Him who sent Me. “You will seek Me, and will not find Me; and where I am, you cannot come .” The Jews then said to one another, “Where does this man intend to go that we will not find Him? He is not intending to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks, and teach the Greeks, is He? “What is this statement that He said, ‘You will seek Me, and will not find Me; and where I am, you cannot come’?” Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet, because Jesus was not yet glorified (Jn. 7:33–39).
It is important to note that Jesus said He was going “to Him who sent Me” (pros ton pempsanta me). This cannot be a reference to His suffering and death because this is not where the One who sent Him is. The One who sent Him is obviously the Father. But the Father does not suffer and die. Although it is through Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection that Jesus goes to the Father, this is not where the Father is. These two things are as distinct as the way is distinct from the destination.
Notice also the connection between what Jesus says to the Jews and what Jesus says on the great day of the feast. To the Jews Jesus said, “you cannot come,” yet on the great day of the feast Jesus said, “let him come to Me and drink.” The way to come to Him is by faith: “He who believes in Me . . .” The Jews cannot come because they do not believe. On the great day of the feast, Jesus is speaking about the Spirit of God Who would be given to all who believe. But this would not happen until after His glorification. The giving of the Spirit did not happen at His suffering and death but after his ascending to the Father. When Jesus says, “Where I am, you cannot come,” He is not talking to the Jews about His suffering and death, but about His glorification and ascension to Father.
The third reference is in Jn. 8:21:
Then He said again to them, “I go away, and you will seek Me, and will die in your sin; where I am going, you cannot come.” So the Jews were saying, “Surely He will not kill Himself, will He, since He says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” And He was saying to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins” (Jn. 8:21–24).
In this instance it is even more clear that what Jesus is talking about is not simply His suffering and death, but His glorification and ascension to the Father. He tells the Jews that they cannot come to where He is going because they do not believe and that they will die in their sins. He even explains the fact that He is not of this world. There can be no doubt that when Jesus tells the Jews that they cannot come He is referring to where the Father is, and they cannot come there because they do not believe.
In Jn. 13:33 Jesus tells His disciples:
“Little children, I am with you a little while longer. You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’”
Just as it is with the Jews, so it is with the disciples, except for one small detail. Whereas the Jews cannot ever come to where Jesus is going, the disciples will be able to come, but not just yet. Jesus tells them that He is going to prepare a place for them and that He will return to take them to where He is so that “where I am, you may be also.” The Jews will never be where Jesus is going, but the disciples will.
Jesus also tells the disciples, “you know the way where I am going.” It is important that it is Thomas who says, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” Thomas is the one who would later refuse to believe unless he could see and touch. The reason he did not know the way is because he had a problem with unbelief. Thomas was the doubter who needed to be shown the way. The way is faith in Jesus. That is the only way to get to where He is going, to where the Father is. The disciples will be where Jesus is going because He would return to take them to where He is.
McLaren wants to make this a reference to Jesus’ suffering and death, but if Jesus is referring to His suffering and death, why did He say, “where I am, you (humeis) will be also” (Jn. 14:3)? Notice that the reference here is plural—“you” plural, not “you” singular. This is not addressed to Peter alone, but to the disciples. Did Jesus mean to say that all of the disciples would suffer and die as He was about to? That does not make sense since they did not all suffer and die as Jesus did. In fact, if Jesus is talking about His suffering and death, why does Thomas say that they do not know the way? The way to suffering and death is not difficult to find. But Jesus is not talking about His suffering and death. He is talking about His glorification and ascension to the Father. And the way to get there is by faith.
A New Exodus
That Jesus is referring to His glorification and ascension to the Father seems to be supported by the notion of the “way.” In Jn. 14:4 Jesus said, “you know the way (hodon).” The word ‘way’ is used only four times in John’s Gospel. Three of these are in John 14–verses 4, 5, 6–and once in Jn. 1:23. The use in 1:23 is important for our understanding of the term in chapter 14:
“He said, ‘I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as Isaiah the prophet said.’”
Here John the Baptist is quoting a statement from Isa. 40:3:
“A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way (Derek) for the Lord in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.’”
As Craig Keener points out:
“In its Isian context, the text proclaims a new exodus, by which God would return his people to the land;”8
The ‘way’ is the path that God would take as He went from Jerusalem, the place where He set His name, to the place of captivity to release the captives and return them to the land.
Keener says that the way is “the highway on which God’s people will return to the Holy Land.”9 This is certainly an implication of the statement, but initially the way is prepared for God. It is God’s highway upon which He goes to the place of captivity. This is a re-enactment of God going down into Egypt to bring out a people for Himself, as Moses declared. Moses challenges the people to remember whether there has ever been a God as the God of Israel:
“Or has a god tried to go to take for himself a nation from within another nation by trials, by signs and wonders and by war and by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm and by great terrors, as the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?” (Deut. 4:34).
As God had gone down into Egypt to bring out a people to Himself, so now He is going into Babylon to bring His people out from captivity—a second Exodus.
In the statement in Jn. 1:23, John the Baptist applies the imagery of Isa. 40:3 to himself and to the new work that God is about to do. In this new Exodus of the New Covenant, God would come from the heavenly Jerusalem—heaven—to the place of bondage, the new Babylon, which is now the earthly Jerusalem, and He would bring out from bondage to the evil one all those who believe, and He would do this with great signs and wonders, namely, the resurrection. As in the first Exodus, it was only by faith that anyone, Jew or Egyptian, could come out from Egypt as or with God’s people. There was no other way to escape the “iron furnace” of Egypt, and that was by trusting in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. There was only one way out. God alone accomplished the redemption of His people, and only by trusting God could His people escape the bondage of Egypt. The crucial act of faith was demonstrated in applying the blood of the Passover lamb to the doorposts and to the lintel.
But this escape from Egypt was not confined to the Jews. A multitude of Egyptians also left Egypt with the Jews. There was no such thing as coming out of Egypt by some other god or some other way. This was the only way. By connecting the ‘way’ with the Exodus from Egypt and the second Exodus from Babylon, the imagery supports the understanding of Jesus’ statement as a declaration that there is only one way to the Father, and that is by faith in Jesus as the Passover Lamb who would purchase our escape from bondage by the shedding of His blood.
It is significant that in his effort to re-write the text, McLaren consistently strategically alters portions of what Jesus said. McLaren says, “Once again, Jesus comes to the consistent theme that he began with back in chapter 13:
I am leaving, going where you cannot come. But trust me: you’ll get through this, and you’ll be with me — and even more, I will be in you, and you in me:”10
Jesus did not say, “and you’ll be with Me.” What He said was, “where I am, you may be also” (Jn. 14:3). Now it is certainly true that if the disciples are going to be where Jesus is, they will be with Him. But Jesus specifically states that they will be “where” (hopou) He is, not just “with” Him. Jesus tells the disciples that He is going where they cannot come. But, He then tells them that they will be there because He will come back to get them to take them to where He is going. McLaren completely distorts this by rewording what Jesus said and making it sound like what Jesus is saying is that they will be together only in a spiritual sense. Jesus says that the disciples will actually be “where” He is going. That’s more than simply a spiritual sense.
1 Brian McLaren, his “A Reading of John 14:6,” (accessed May 30, 2008), 3
2 Ibid., 4.
4 Ibid., 4–5
5 Ibid., 5 (emphasis in original).
8 Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 940.
10 McLaren, 13
Thomas A. Howe, Ph.D.
Professor of Bible and Biblical Languages
Southern Evangelical Seminary