A couple of years ago I started a book by Eugene Peterson, author of The Message (a popular paraphrase of the Bible), Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, the first of a series of five books on spiritual theology. I also purchased The Jesus Way, the third book in the series, then set it aside until I had finished at least the first book.
But somehow the first book wound up in a pile of books I’m in the middle of reading, and hasn’t moved from that spot in a while. Then last month, when looking for something to read on a trip to a conference in Indiana, I noticed The Jesus Way and decided to read it. I read half of it during the trip, and finished it recently.
The subtitle of the book describes it well: “a conversation on the ways that Jesus is the way.” Evangelical Christians are familiar with John 14:6, where Jesus says “I am the way” (and “the truth and the life”). But what it means for Jesus to be the way is not usually explored, simply assumed: Jesus is how we are made right with God, how we get to heaven.
Peterson says, “Too many of my faith-companions for too long have been reducing the way of Jesus simply to the route to heaven, which it certainly is. But there is so much more.” Peterson emphasizes the meaning of “way” as a road to follow, not just for getting to the right destination, but for how to travel along the way.
And then, in what may seem a detour to some readers, Peterson doesn’t proceed to talk about Jesus but about various characters in the Old Testament. After all, that was the context in which Jesus lived, a Jewish society thoroughly steeped in the knowledge of their Scriptures. And the way of Jesus is also the way God had been leading His people all along.
Understanding Jesus and his way means understanding how God tested Abraham’s faith, how Moses led by telling (and writing) the stories of how God what God had done for and among His people, and how David prayed his way through sin and sadness and all the other messiness of human life. It means learning from Elijah to worship God alone, not to seek “worship experiences” which may be more about the individual than about God. And it means learning with Isaiah the holiness of God, and the way of the suffering servant.
In Part II (the last third of the book), Peterson contrasts the way of Jesus with some other ways to approach life. This part of the book I found the clearest, conceptually, because it is often easier to understand something by comparing and contrasting it with what it is not.
The way of Jesus is not the way of Herod, who used power – and used people – to accomplish what he wanted and make his mark on the world. Nor is it the way of the Pharisees, who resisted the way political leaders like Herod pushed Greek and Roman culture on the Jews, but whose zeal for following God’s way had over the years hardened into a rigid set of rules that mattered more to them than the people they were supposed to be guiding.
The way of Jesus is not the way of Caiaphas, who used institutional religion as a way to power much as Herod used politics. Nor is it the way of the Essenes, who rejected the Jerusalem temple and its priesthood as corrupt, setting themselves up as a spiritual elite who did not want to be contaminated by contact with people who were not holy enough.
Finally, the way of Jesus is not the way of Josephus, who switched sides in the Jews vs Romans conflict when it was to his own advantage. Nor is it the way of the Zealots, who gladly fought to the death to defeat the enemies of God, but who could only see violence as the means to victory.
At the same time I was reading this book, I also began another book which is all about the way we do things as a church, and why the way we do things matters and not just the accomplishments. The two overlapped to the point that it’s hard to remember quite what I read in one book and what in the other. So that second book will be the subject of my next post.