Having a set of eyes on the ground matters. It’s what motivates the investigator to locate witnesses to a crime. It’s what compels the historian to seek out primary sources rather than secondary. Granted: immediate experience may not bring knowledge of the “big picture”. However, for ascertaining the facts, nothing beats the observer who sees, the listener who hears, and the direct participant who is there.
I’d like to apply these principles to a particular case study. There is a very early term that was applied to the Christian movement of which I have heard precious little discussion in my evangelical church experience. That term is “The Way”. This term is first mentioned in the following verse (citing the American Standard Version):
But Saul, yet breathing threatening and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, and asked of him letters to Damascus unto the synagogues, that if he found any that were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1-2)
Nowadays, for many people, the term “The Way” brings to mind notions of a heretical Christian sect, like the Jim Jones phenomenon in the 1970s. Admittedly, Acts only uses the term six times and the Epistles do not further elaborate on it explicitly, yet it appears to be a term used by the early church to describe their own community. I would like to propose three aspects of Christian life and faith that may not be duly appreciated if we forget the testimony of the first witnesses in calling themselves “The Way”:
- Jesus is our way to God throughout all of life. John 14:6 tells us the following: “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me”. It is likely that Christ’s identity as “The Way” formed the church’s self-understanding as those who are of “The Way”. We rightly think of John 14:6 in an evangelistic sense. However, is it not also possible that the reality of Jesus as “The Way” applies not just to the new convert but to the long-time Christian? Is Jesus any less the way to union and fellowship with God after conversion than at conversion? Of course not! By designating themselves as “The Way”, this “Jewish sect” was admitting that Christ continued to them to be the way to God.
- The church has not arrived at its destination, but is on the “salvation road”. Yes, the church consists of those who have entered the “narrow gate” and have found life. We have already found life, but not yet do we have it in fullness! And the road to that fullness of life is bumpy and brings many challenges to endure. By designating themselves as “The Way”, the early Christians used a term that does not connote “having arrived”, but one that suggests “the process of arriving”.
- The church has an authentic witness to the extent that she follows the way of Jesus. The Scripture teaches, “The one who says that he remains in God must walk as he [Jesus] walked.” (1 John 2:6).The church has a weakened, if not ineffectual, witness to the world when she fails to imitate Jesus – Jesus, who was more concerned with obedience to His Father than with securing his own rights.The hymn-writer William Paton MacKay penned the words:
“The Lord is ris’n: and now redeemed to God, we tread the desert which His feet have trod.”
The early witnesses saw themselves as members of “The Way”. Have time and distance caused us to become detached from an important element of the church’s proper self-understanding?