Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’
Jesus’ exclusivist statement about the salvation of Israel needs to be read, at least in the first place, in the context of the story that is being told. We do violence to Jesus’ intent if we cut it from that narrative and make it a universal, context-free, self-interpreting dogma meaning something like ‘if you want to go to heaven, you have to believe in Jesus’.
The statement occurs in the middle of a difficult and rather confused conversation that Jesus has with his disciples about his imminent death. Judas has just left the house with the intention of betraying Jesus to the Jewish authorities. Jesus then tells the disciples: ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him’ (John 13:31). By alluding to Daniel’s vision of the Son of man receiving ‘dominion and glory and a kingdom’ from the throne of God, he reminds his disciples that he and they are on a journey of faithful suffering that will lead to vindication and the giving of the ‘kingdom’ to the saints of the Most High.
At this point he must make that journey alone, but the time will come when they will have to follow him down that narrow and painful road leading to life: ‘Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward (13:36). In fact, in a figurative sense he will come and take them to his Father’s house and the comfort and vindication that awaits them there. He will ensure that when they face the same hostility and violence that he is about to face, they do not need to be afraid: they can trust God at that; they can trust Jesus at that moment, because he has gone ahead of them (14:1-2).
When Thomas asks how they are to find this path of suffering and vindication at the right hand of the Father, Jesus replies, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (14:6). The only way that oppressed Israel will be vindicated and the reign of God restored will be through Jesus, who has made himself the Way to new life for Israel, and who has called his disciples to follow him down that road. The conversation then shifts from the question of the Way of salvation for Israel to the question of whether the Father is truly revealed in Jesus (14:7-11).