A well-known television personality was heard to say: 'It doesn't matter what you believe – just as long as you're sincere about it!' The same basic thought was put in a different way by the theologian who said that we now all live in a global village "within which any claim to finality by one of the world's religions seems not merely awkward but positively illiterate. How much more comfortable things would be for Christians if we could see things like that! But if comfort is what you are after, you had better abandon faith in Christ. For if there is one thing that the Bible makes clear, it is that God and that theologian don't agree.
The apostle Peter, standing before all the religious authorities of Jerusalem, in danger of his life, said of Jesus:
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4.12)
And when he spoke like that, Peter was doing no more than following the teaching of his Lord, as the passage that we're looking at this evening makes plain. That's John 14.1-7. I have three headings. They are drawn from what Jesus himself says in verses 6-7 of John 14. Look at those. Jesus says:
'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.'
So my first heading is this:
First, ONLY JESUS IS THE WAY AND THE TRUTH AND THE LIFE
What is happening when Jesus says these things? In a nutshell, he is about to die. Jesus knows exactly what he's heading towards. His weary disciples do not. They are confused. They do not understand. But they know enough to feel their hearts gripped by anxiety and fear and uncertainty about their future. They have thrown in their lot with Jesus. They've given up everything. They've put their trust in him to lead them. And now he says more and more insistently that he is going to leave them. So, in 13.33, he says to them:
'My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.'
In 13.36, Peter presses him to explain himself:
Simon Peter asked him, 'Lord, where are you going?' Jesus replied, 'Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.'
Thomas can always be relied upon to ask the awkward question that is in everyone's mind. And soon he says:
Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?
But Thomas's fear is deafening him. Jesus has just told him, along with Peter and the others, where he is going. 14.1-4:
'Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me. You know the way to the place where I am going.'
He is going, in a word, to heaven. He is going to be with his heavenly Father. He is going back to his Father's house. And what is more, he is going to prepare a place for them. And that is the issue that is at stake. It is eternal life and eternal death. It is heaven and hell.
How do we find eternal life? How do we find a place in heaven? When Jesus says there are many rooms in his Father's house and he is going to prepare a place, he doesn't mean he's going to dust the rooms and make up the beds. He means that he is on his way to die. He is on his way to open the way for them to join him at his Father's side.
And that is what we need to know, is it not? We understand the fear, the anxiety of those disciples. We need an answer as well: 'How can we know the way?' And Jesus is crystal clear where the answer is to be found, and what the answer is:
I am the way and the truth and the life.
One thing that religions do not and cannot dispute is the gulf that exists between 'God' and us. It is so self-evident. Religions are giving answers to the question: How do we get to God? But Jesus says that the only way for that gulf to be bridged is him. Only Jesus is the way, the truth, the life.
Peter Cotterell has written: "One of the great Christian virtues is humility. But on one subject the Christian seems to be arrogant, stubborn, unreasonable, inflexible, uncompromising. He insists: there is only one way to God, and that's through Jesus."
That apparent arrogance comes simply from facing up to the reality of Jesus. Who he was. What he said. What he did. What it all meant. The prophet Isaiah had a vision of one God, one Lord, calling his people together from across the world. We heard earlier the voice of God in Isaiah 44 (6-8):
This is what the Lord says – Israel's King and Redeemer, the Lord Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God. Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it … Do not tremble, do not be afraid … Is there any God besides me? No, there is no other Rock; I know not one.
Jesus identified himself with that one God and Saviour. That is the truth that underlies the whole New Testament from the start of Matthew's Gospel to the end of John's Revelation. Jesus is not just one spiritual breakfast cereal among many, to be chosen or left on the shelf of the supermarket of the world's religions, according to the whim or the taste buds of whoever is pushing round the trolley. Jesus is not just one possible track amongst a whole vast network of possible routes up a mountain called 'the knowledge of God'. That seemingly tolerant and attractive view just cannot square with the Christ of the Bible.
And the key to the reason why Jesus Christ can never be one amongst others lies in his death on the cross. And that brings me to my second heading:
Secondly, NO-ONE CAN BE RECONCILED TO GOD THE FATHER EXCEPT THROUGH JESUS
I am the way and the truth and the life
No one can come to the Father except through me.
Leon Morris draws attention to the faith that is bound up in those words. They were spoken on the eve of the crucifixion:
'I am the way', said the one who would shortly hang impotent on the cross. 'I am the truth', when the lies of evil men were about to enjoy a spectacular triumph. 'I am the life', when within a few hours His corpse would be placed in a tomb.
But the impotence of execution, and the victory of evil, and the finality of death were all short-lived illusions. The reality was that the cross of Christ was the hinge of all history. It is the key to your life. Colossians 1.19-20 puts it like this:
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Jesus], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross.
And Paul goes on:
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight.
The death of Jesus was God's own infinitely loving sacrifice so that those who believe could live and not die. God the Father gave his only Son. The Son of God gave up his own life, out of love. God's righteous anger at sin was satisfied and turned aside. The penalty for mankind's attempt to take over God's place was paid. The way back to God was blown wide open when Jesus died and rose again. Once for all.
It was not just one example of the way that God is willing to forgive. It was, says Paul,
by Christ's physical body through death
that reconciliation has come. It was that particular, once for all event. Never to be repeated. Never to be replicated. Never to be superseded. There is one key to heaven and it is the cross of Jesus Christ. Nothing else and nobody else can open the door of heaven and let us in. That is biblical Christian faith. That is the teaching of Jesus.
No one comes to the Father except through me.
There are great pressures to soften or abandon such exclusive claims for Jesus. But if we do, we are throwing away the key and leaving the door to heaven locked.
One so-called missionary wrote in the Observer back in 1984 that he had abandoned the belief that Christianity was the only true religion after visiting a Buddhist temple. He said: "From that moment, my ministry became not creed but need."
But it is a seductive lie that faith and need are unrelated or even opposed to each other. Our greatest need is for the truth as it is in Jesus. Only he can meet our deepest needs. The need for forgiveness instead of condemnation. The need for adoption into the family of God. The need for eternal life instead of death.
John Hick is a theologian who has for many years tried to persuade people to abandon any understanding that salvation is to be found only through Jesus. He sees clearly that if you do that, then you also have to abandon the belief that Jesus was the unique Son of God – both God and man. He sums up the issue well. He says: "If Jesus was literally God incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity living a human life, so the Christian religion was founded by God-on-earth in person, it is then very hard to escape from the traditional view that all mankind must be converted to the Christian faith."
He is right. For God's sake, and for the world's sake, there must not be any compromise on this. And that leads to the third point.
Thirdly, ONLY WHEN YOU KNOW JESUS DO YOU KNOW GOD THE FATHER
The crucified and risen Christ is an offence to some – but salvation to others. It has always been so. 1 Corinthians 1.18 says:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Either Jesus is the only way or he is the wrong way. Either faith in Christ is the answer for everyone, or everyone should abandon it. That is not arrogant or unloving. Far from it. The real arrogance would be to set ourselves up in judgement over Jesus. He says:
If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. (14.7)
Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? (14.10)
Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. (14.9)
The real lack of love would be to withhold from people the truth that would set them free. There can be no way to God that bypasses God. How could there be? The very idea is ridiculous.
Judaism, Islam, and a host of other religions can look very impressive to the outside observer. Indeed often they are very impressive. This morning's winning time in the London Marathon of 2 hours 6 minutes seems like an almost superhuman feat of endurance. But frankly it's nothing to some of the agonies that are suffered in the name of religion.
The broadcaster John Peel recently wrote in that august journal the Radio Times about the impact on him of a TV programme about the lengths to which some Hindus will go in pursuit of their religion. He doesn't, of course, believe a word of what they teach. But he's mighty impressed by some of the things they do. So am I. And even more impressive than feats of endurance is the ethical idealism that other religions at their best often demonstrate.
But that misses the point. What we have to ask of other religious systems is this: What is their attitude to God's gospel? It is the gospel, says the Bible, which is
the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.
What do other religions make of it? The fact is that they all deny it. And their denial is not marginal. They reject utterly the very heart of it.
Judaism, for instance, whether liberal or orthodox, is quite clear: Jesus was not the Messiah – God's anointed one who will bring salvation. Islam also is quite clear at the crucial point. It speaks very highly of Jesus: he is the sinless prophet; born of the Virgin Mary; God's Messiah; the Word from God. But he did not die. He was taken up into heaven by God. But he never died on the cross. In that single point God's entire plan for the reconciliation of the world to himself is denied. The key is thrown away. The bridge is blown up.
Salvation is through the grace of God by faith in Christ who died on the cross for the sins of the world. That is why any faith other than faith in Christ cannot ultimately be more than a sincere dead end as a route to God. Another faith may say 'This is the way to God'. It may be admirable in many ways. It may be attractive. It may have high ethical ideals. But what it will not do is point to the cross of Christ as the way to God. And that means that it cannot be the way to God.
Dr Stanley Jones used to give evangelistic lectures to Hindu audiences in India, with Hindus as chairmen of the meetings. One such Hindu chairman, in his introduction, said: "I shall reserve my remarks for the close of the address, for no matter what the speaker says, I will find parallel things in our own sacred books."But at the end of the meeting he was at a loss for words, because Dr Jones had not presented things. He had presented a person: Jesus Christ.
The central claim of the Christian faith is that no amount of 'religion' of whatever sort can bring us back to God. It is not religion that saves. It is a person – Jesus Christ. We must listen to what he has to say about the way to God. We must not hesitate to put our faith in him. And we must not hesitate to communicate that faith to others.
Ajith Fernando is a Sri-Lankan evangelist. He says: "I have talked to many Buddhists, Hindus and secularists about Christ and about their beliefs. We have done so as friends with a respect for each other. In most of those conversations the non-Christians have done more talking than I have. But I have always sought to present Christ as the only hope for their salvation. They would soon have sensed that this was my aim. But few have objected to this procedure, even though many have disagreed with my insistence on the uniqueness of Christ."
We need to take a leaf out of his book, and be open with our friendship, and be bold and uncompromising in our witness. For as the apostle Paul says in 1 Timothy 2.3-6:
[God our Saviour] wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men…