Preached on 23 May 1999 at a Saturday Evening Celebration at St Johns, Ben Rhydding
One of things I always dread is having to go to somewhere I’ve never been before, and being given directions by someone who goes there all the time. Have you ever noticed that the directions always start off in the same way? “Oh it’s ever so easy to find. You really can’t miss it.” And then follow all the … “go through two sets of lights and a 100 yards after the second set … or is it after a third set … no, I think it’s the second set … watch out for a Chinese take-away on the left then immediately turn right …”
The worst direction of this sort that I’ve ever come across was one given to me by Yvonne’s father. It was well over two years since he’d last visited the place to which he was directing me, but he told me: “You can’t miss it — they’re building a new house on the corner, just where you have to turn off!”
I think that the apostle Thomas must have been on the receiving end of those kind of directions a number of times. Because, in that passage I’ve just read, when Jesus begins to talk to his disciples about going to the Father and how they already know the way, you can here the panic in Thomas’s voice as he says: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” And one can almost hear the unspoken plea: “And please don’t tell us that it’s easy and that we can’t miss it and that all we have to do is take the second on the right after the synagogue at the bottom of the hill …”
But no, Jesus didn’t give any kind of directions. He just spoke the astonishing words that we’re going to look at together for a while tonight. “I am the way.” The way to where? Well, we’ve already said — “to the Father.” John 14:12: “I am going to the Father.” That is, to God.
Right. So Jesus is offering people a way to God. Which is great, except that doesn’t every religion offer people a way to God? There is Buddhism with its eight-fold way of enlightenment — right views, right desires, right speech, right this, that and the other. There is Hinduism with its way of birth, death and re-birth until Moksha is reached — union with Brahma of whom all lesser gods are just aspects. There is Islam with its Five Pillars — the way of prayer and worship and fasting and alms-giving and pilgrimage that leads to Allah.
No, no. We are not listening. Jesus did not say: “Here is another way to God.” He said, “I am the Way.” Now some folk, even in our churches, find that a little bit embarrassing — particularly in these politically correct days in which we live. It sounds, to their ears, arrogant and intolerant. So much so that they even try to pretend that Jesus never said it.
Just a few weeks ago, on the evening of the Sikh festival of Khalsa, I overheard a lady in our church telling someone that she and her husband had been to watch the procession as it wound its way through Bradford. “It was great,” she said. “So colourful and joyful. And I felt a real affinity with the Sikh community. Because after all we’re all worshipping the same God. We’re just approaching him by different ways.”
Now she is kind lady — loving, gracious, warm-hearted, accepting — but she is quite simply wrong. And it is not I who say she is wrong. It is Jesus. It is he who says that there is only one way to God, not many. And it is he who says that the one way is he himself. “I am the way … No-one comes to the Father except through me.”
And if we think that Jesus is being exclusive or intolerant when he says that … If we find ourselves wishing that he’d toned his language down a bit … then I suggest that we haven’t really understood what Jesus meant when he said “I am the way.” We haven’t yet got behind those words and discovered the incredible reality to which they point. Because, once we do, there is, I promise you, no question of siding with the lady in our church who watched the Sikhs go by.
Let me at this point read to you a few verses from the Book of Genesis, chapter 2. First verses 8 and 9 …
“Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
Then verses 15-17 …
“The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’”
Well, we all know what happened next, don’t we? The serpent tricked Eve into eating of the forbidden fruit. She persuaded Adam to eat too. And their eyes were opened and they hid from God. And all this had the consequences described in Chapter 3, verses 21 to the end …
“And the LORD God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live for ever.’ So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.”
Now I know this seems a long way from the Last Supper and unlikely place to begin our search for understanding of Jesus words, “I am the way”; but I think as we go on you will begin to see that this is the only place to begin. In Eden. In the garden that God planted in Eden — paradeisos as it was called in Greek. Paradise. This is the setting in which the history of mankind begins and this is where we our search for understanding must begin.
All right. What was in the centre of the garden? Two trees — the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Those trees are of great importance. The first was a tree from which Adam and Eve were perfectly at liberty to eat, as indeed they were free to eat from any tree anywhere else in the garden. But the fruit of the second tree — the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — though accessible to them was placed completely out of bounds. It was a tree from which they were absolutely forbidden to eat. Now why was that, do you think? Why on earth did God plant that tree there at all if he knew he was going to forbid Adam and Eve to eat from it, and why should they be forbidden to eat from it anyway?
There are probably many answers to those questions, but here are just two. The first is this. Unless there was at least one thing that Adam and Eve were not allowed to do, they could never have understood what freedom was … or appreciated it or enjoyed it. Prohibition defines freedom.
And answer number two is this. The knowledge of good and evil is what we call ethics — a set of rules based on right and wrong by which we govern behaviour. And the reason that God made ethics the one thing with which Adam and Eve had to have nothing to do, was because ethics would undermine the very reason for their creation. God had made man and woman to enjoy an intimate relationship with him — a relationship resting solely on love. But introduce ethics and that relationship based on love will be destroyed and a relationship based on performance will take its place. Ethics is guaranteed to take your eyes of God and turn them on yourself — How am I doing? Am I measuring up, or not? That’s why, in the un-fallen world that Adam and Eve inhabited, the introduction of ethics was the very worst thing that could happen. But happen it did. And God had to take immediate action.
“Ah, yes,” we say, “He cursed them.” No he didn’t. He had blessed them and his blessing was never withdrawn. He cursed only the serpent who had tricked them into doing what had been forbidden. But he did banish Adam and Eve from the garden, though only for this one reason — “lest they might reach out their hands and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” In God’s estimation, you see, that was a horror not be contemplated — that human beings, estranged from God, un-reconciled to God, and trying to relate to God on the basis of performance, should become immortal and eternal.
So he ensured their mortality by driving them out of the garden and placing at its borders cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard … what? The way. The way to the tree of life. And not only the tree of life. The way to the presence of God himself and to intimacy with him. All that lay in the garden in Eden. In Paradise.
So there go man and woman, leaving the garden — stooped, dejected, fallen, mortal, shut off from the tree of life, incapable of intimate fellowship with God any more … but still blessed by him and still loved by him. And so, even as they walk away from Paradise, God begins his work to restore them to it. Paradise is lost, but Paradise will be regained.
We cannot begin to do the story justice — The choice of Abraham to be the father of a people through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Isaac, the child of promise … Jacob who became Israel … his twelve sons … one of those sons, Joseph, being sold into slavery in Egypt … his rise to fame … the famine … the family’s move to Egypt … the growth of the twelve clans or tribes from the twelve sons … the change of Pharaoh … the enslavement of the Israelites … the call of Moses … the exodus … the journey to Sinai …
And here I must stop the fast-forwarding and hit the pause button. For here is the next event on which we need to focus if we are to really understanding what Jesus meant when he said “I am the Way.”
At Sinai two things of great importance happened. God gave Israel the law and he gave Israel a way — a narrow, limited, restricted way, hedged about with safeguards — but a way, of a sort, back into his presence.
First, the law. You might say, if ethics was such a bad thing, why did God make it worse by broadening the base on which Israel’s understanding of right and wrong was built? But, no, I didn’t say that ethics was a bad thing in itself. I said it was a bid thing in an un-fallen world … in Paradise. But in a fallen world … outside of Paradise … ethics is not only a good thing, it is an essential thing. “All you need is love,” people of my generation used to sing in the Sixties. Well, it was true in Eden, but it was never true in Britain in the sixties, and its never been true anywhere else or at any other time. Outside of Eden you need ethics. You need a set of rules to govern the behaviour of the individuals within a society or the society falls apart. Isn’t it wonderful, then, that God arranged matters in Eden the way that he did. Think about it. Man needs to be given one thing he must not do, so as to define his freedom and to give him joy in exercising it. But God chooses as that one thing something which, if man does it anyway, will become for him the very means of his survival in the world outside of Eden.
And now, at Sinai, for his chosen people, God adds blessing to blessing. He gives them more knowledge of good and evil. He gives them the law. A detailed code of behaviour by which to regulate their dealings with him, with each other and with the rest of the world. But mark this well. He gives it to them so that they might live their lives in harmony with him, with each other and with their neighbours. He gives it to them so that they can become a model society that displays something of his own character — a light to lighten the gentiles. He does not give it to them so that they can use it as the foundation for a performance-based path to his presence — a way to the tree of life. No, never that. He makes other provision for that. And that is what we now need to explore.
Let me read you a few verses from Exodus, chapter 25, beginning at verse 8. This is God speaking to Moses …
Have the Israelites make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you. Have them make a chest of acacia wood — two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high (that’s about a yard long, 2 feet wide and two feet high). Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out … Make an atonement cover of pure gold … And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover … The cherubim are to have their wings spread upwards, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking towards the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you …”
Now many people skip through bits of the Old Testament like this thinking that it really doesn’t seem to have much to say to us today. But there are treasures here to be discovered, I promise you — and in related passages in the books of Numbers and Leviticus. But rather than jump here there and everywhere reading bits to you, let me try and paint the picture of what God wanted and what he directed the Israelites to make.
It was a tabernacle — a tent — placed towards the western end of a rectangular, white-curtained courtyard. A tent which could be approached only through the single entrance at the east end of that courtyard. The tent itself was divided into a front portion and a rear portion by a fine linen curtain, a veil, embroidered in scarlet and purple and blue. And the rear portion — the part beyond the veil, was known as the Holy of Holies, the Most Holy Place.
In the Most Holy Place, stood the ark of the covenant — the chest of acacia wood overlaid with gold that we’ve just read about. And in the ark were four objects. Not only the two stone tables on which were written the ten commandments — the Testimony mentioned in the passage from Exodus — but also an urn containing some pieces of manna — the bread from heaven which had fed the children of Israel on their journey — and the staff that had belonged to Aaron, the brother of Moses. That staff had budded, produced blossom and almonds all in one day when left in the Holy of Holies and subsequently it had been used to strike the rock to bring forth water for the children of Israel to drink.
A golden slab was placed on the ark. It was called the atonement cover or the mercy seat. And over the cover were two golden cherubim, facing each other with over-arching wings. Here … and only here … the very presence of God rested. But the people could not approach. They could not even enter the courtyard. Only priests and Levites could enter the courtyard; only priests could enter the tent. And only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place, and then only once each year on the Day of Atonement, and then only bearing incense so that the smoke would hide God from his eyes, and then only bearing the blood of a bull which he must sprinkle on the mercy seat before retreating back through the veil.
Now, let the Spirit of God open your eyes to what this is all about. Let the cherubim be the clue. Two cherubim guarding the way to the interior of the ark of the covenant. Two cherubim, also, embroidered on the veil that closed the way to the Holy of Holies. Now where else have we come across two cherubim? That’s right … at the entrance to Paradise.
Do you begin to see? Adam and Eve had been banished from Paradise, but now God has created a symbolic Paradise among his people. The courtyard is like Eden, the tent is like the garden and at its centre … Well, what is at its centre? The ark of the covenant. And what is in the ark? The two tables of the law — a striking symbol of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — and the pot of manna — bread from heaven — and Aaron’s rod — water from the rock — powerful symbols both of the tree of life. But the way (on the east, just as in Eden) is still closed and guarded by the cherubim … except that now there is one narrow way through, for one man, for one brief moment, once a year. But it is a start. It is a foreshadowing. And it is full of promise.
The years roll past. Israel enters Canaan and begins the conquest under Joshua. There are dark times and mighty men of valour like Gideon and Samson. Then there are kings. Saul, David, Solomon. And under Solomon the great temple is built in Jerusalem. Now the curtained courtyard is walled. Everything is of stone and cedar and cypress and gold. But still there is the hidden Holy of Holies, the Ark within it, the once a year visit between the great. 15 feet high, embroidered cherubim on the veil. The promise.
More centuries pass. Then temple is looted by Nebuchadnezzar and sacked. The ark disappears. Fifty years pass. A new temple is begun. It is a poor thing compared to Solomon’s temple, but it stands for 500 years, and still, each year, the high priest enters the Most Holy Place and sprinkles the blood even though there is now just a symbolic block of stone on which to sprinkle it. Then Herod begins the new temple on the same site. A temple into which Jesus is brought as a child. A temple in whose courts he teaches. A temple that was not quite 50 years old when its high priest has Jesus arrested, tried, found guilty of heresy, delivered to Pilate, accused of treason, and condemned to death.
Thus it is that on Friday, 3 April, AD 33, at about midday, the sinless, perfect Son of God, hangs on a cross just outside Jerusalem. Two criminals also have been crucified with him — a brigand to his right and a brigand to his left. One of them hurls insults at Jesus? “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us.” The other rebukes him. “Don’t you fear God,” he says, “We are getting what we deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he looks at Jesus, hanging there beneath a sign that calls him king. “Jesus,” he says, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And raising his wounded head, Jesus looks at him and says: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me … in paradise.” Where? In Paradise. In the Garden where it all began. What can he mean?
The hours pass. The sky has darkened. It is about three o’clock in the afternoon. For a time, there has been no sound, no movement, then a tremor passes through Jesus’ body, and he gives a great cry: “It … is … finished. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” And he dies. Jesus has gone to the Father.
And, simultaneously, only quarter of a mile away, up on the heights, in the temple, something happens that has the priests throwing themselves on the floor in terror. The great curtain, the veil, that shuts off the Most Holy Place is ripped in two from top to bottom, as if by some mighty, unseen hand. The cherubim are separated, swept apart … and the way to the Presence is open to all who will come. Just as, in the unseen world too, the cherubim fall back, the flashing sword vanishes, and Jesus strides through the garden, leading by the hand, to the tree of life and to the waiting Father, the wide-eyed Palestinian brigand who had turned to him only hours earlier on the cross.
“I am the Way.” But how is Jesus the Way, and what kind of a Way is he? To understand that … and indeed to come now to the very heart of what Jesus meant, let me read you a few verses from the Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament. Chapter 10, verses 19 to 22 …
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”
Let’s begin with those words, “a new and living way.” A way into the Most Holy Place, into Paradise, to the centre of the garden, to the tree of life, to restored intimacy with the Father. A “new” way and a “living” way.
I looked up this passage in my Greek Testament to check out the word for “new”. Was it kainos, “new in nature” or neos, “new in time”? It was neither. It was a word I didn’t know — prosphatos. I went to my Greek Lexicon — prosphatos = fresh, new … only used once in the New Testament — here in Hebrews 10. But why use such a strange word? Neos would have done perfectly well. I nearly left it there, but something made me carry on. I went to my lexicon of classical, rather than New Testament, Greek. And then the light shone in a way it sometimes does when it makes you want to sing and shout: “prosphatos — originally a term of sacrifice, derived from the old verb phenô meaning ‘to slaughter’, and signifying that which is new in the sense of ‘freshly-slain’”!
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a freshly-slain and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is his body … let us draw near to God …
It was the blood of a freshly-slain bull that was sprinkled by the High Priest on the golden cover of the ark of the covenant. And here is a wonder that I’ve saved until now. In the Talmud — the ancient Hebrew code of civil and ceremonial law — it records how, centuries before the Romans even introduced their most horrific form of execution and brought it to Palestine — it was customary on the Day of Atonement for the High Priest, having sprinkled the blood on the mercy seat, to smear it in the sign of a cross!
“I am the way,” said Jesus. “No-one comes to the Father except by me.” And here in Hebrews we have the Bible’s own commentary and explanation of what he meant. The way into the Most Holy Place, to the mercy seat, to the throne of grace … the only way … is through Jesus, crucified and risen … Jesus, freshly-slain and living. And that way is one that has been “opened for us through the curtain, that is his body”.
And, oh, what a wonderful picture this is! In his mind’s eye, the writer of this Letter to the Hebrews is seeing the great curtain that hung before the Most Holy Place. He is seeing it being torn from top to bottom, swinging apart and revealing a clear, unimpeded way into what had once been thought of as the very Presence of God. But then, too, in his mind’s eye he is seeing Jesus, the sinless Son of God, being torn apart on the cross, and the way being opened up for every man, woman and child to have free and unrestricted access to the Father.
And dare we see even more than is written here? Think again of that curtain in the tabernacle. See how, though it appeared to separate man from God, it did in fact connect the two — one side relating to God in his love and mercy, the other side relating to man in his need. And see that it just needed to be torn apart for man in his need to meet God in his love. Now think again of Jesus — how does Graham Kendrick describe him? “manhood and deity in perfect harmony, the man who was God.” See how Jesus stood between God in his love on one side, and man in his need on the other. See how he was joined to man in his humanity and to God in his divinity. And, see how on Calvary that curtain that was his flesh was in fact torn apart so that man in his need could in fact, in reality, “draw near in full assurance of faith” and meet God in his love.
Today is, of course, the Day of Pentecost. And I rejoiced to see that the post-Communion prayer for today is this: “Faithful God, who fulfilled the promises of Easter by sending us your Holy Spirit and opening to every race and nation the way of life eternal: open our lips by your spirit, that every tongue may tell of your glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
The work of the Spirit is to open eyes and ears and hearts to the reality of what God has done for us in Christ. And he has been among us tonight, doing that work, and he is doing it still. He has been showing us how, from the moment our first parents rebelled against God in Eden, God has been working to bring humanity back to himself and to his tree of life eternal.
He has been showing us the plan of salvation — laid out for Israel on the desert floor — the courtyard, the tent, the curtain, the Most Holy Place, the Ark with its symbols of law and its symbols of life, the cherubim, the mercy seat, the sprinkled blood.
He has been showing us the reality of which the curtain was but a shadow — Jesus come in the flesh, truly God yet truly man, touching heaven on one side and earth on the other, waiting … willing … to be torn apart to make a way to the Father that “whosoever will may come”.
He has been showing us the reality of which that mercy seat, that place of atonement, was but the shadow — the cross where that same sinless, human yet divine, Jesus, became, in his humanity, the sacrifice whose shed blood opens the way to the Father’s very presence and to the tree of life.
He has been showing us how all this lies hidden in the words of Jesus to that most bewildered and anxious of disciples, Thomas: “I am the Way.”
And now, I believe, he is pointing to those words with which my reading from the Letter to the Hebrews concluded: “Therefore … let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith …”
“Therefore” — for this reason, because Jesus has allowed himself to be torn apart for each one of us, has allowed his blood to be shed and sprinkled on the mercy seat for each one of us, has become “the Way” for each one of us — “therefore, let us draw near to God. Let us use “the Way” and come to the Father. Let us eat of the tree of life.
I know hardly anyone here tonight. And I certainly have no idea where each of you stands in relation to God. I don’t know whether you’re in the desert, in the court, in the tent … or in the Most Holy Place, enjoying the intimacy with the Father for which you were born. All I know is that every single one of us here tonight can move to that Most Holy Place right now. All I know is that to every single one of us, Jesus is saying right now, “I am the Way … for you, I am the Way.” And I think that it would be right that, if you wish to respond to that … if you would like prayer or support or help in coming to the Father’s heart … you should have the opportunity to come to the front down here …