Rev Dr George Byron Koch
I remember the first time I learned that the early believers, long before they were called “Christians,” referred to themselves as followers of “the Way” of Jesus. I heard it as an apt and beautiful poetic metaphor—which I assumed they had invented for themselves.
I have since learned that the expression actually has deep Jewish and rabbinic roots, and this has opened my eyes to something truly fundamental in following Him—something we have often forgotten, or didn’t fully realize we knew. It is a rich treasure. Let me open it up.
First, the great rabbis over the centuries, as well as at the time of Jesus, had passionate and dedicated disciples. When disciples agree to abide by the teachings of a rabbi, they are said to “put his yoke” upon them. When Jesus says, “Put my yoke upon you,” He is literally offering to become your rabbi, your teacher and model. That was and is the expression used by the rabbis to define the relationship.
Second, a disciple is someone who learns “by use and practice.” He obeys the teachings of his rabbi, and emulates his behavior. This is called the “halakha” of the rabbi.
Halakha is a wonderful Hebrew word. It is often translated as “instruction” or “judgment” or “law,” but literally means “to walk.” When you follow a rabbi, you “walk in his way,” you follow in his path, and learn to do what he does. This includes:
· Hearing how he interprets Torah (the written instructions of God through Moses in the first five books of the Bible), which tells religious Jews what to do.
· Hearing how he interprets the Oral Tradition of the Torah to understand what to do in specific situations. This Oral Tradition is said to have begun at Sinai with the giving of the 10 Commandments. (It does predate Jesus.)
· Hearing how he uniquely teaches his disciples about what to do in relationships with others and the world.
· Watching how he acts and emulating his actions.
Or, more simply, doing what he says to do and following his example. Learning by use and practice. When you do this, you have his yoke upon you, and you walk in his way. You follow his halakha.
So, some examples of this (both teaching and example) from Jesus:
He said, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: you shall love neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the prophets stand under these two commands.”
He also said, “Love your enemies and pray for them,” and
“Treat others the way you want to be treated.”
Jesus illustrated the two great commands with His parable of the Good Samaritan: A Jew is robbed and beaten and left by the side of the road. A priest and a Levite both pass by without helping. A Samaritan stops, helps, and even pays for the man’s recovery in a local inn.
Jesus asks, “Who acted as a neighbor?”
The expert in Torah, hearing this story, answers, “The one who showed mercy.” That is, the Samaritan.
According to the Jews, the Samaritans misunderstood the nature of God and Torah (bad theology), worshiped on the wrong mountain (bad tradition). They had their doctrine and worship wrong, and so religious Jews would have nothing to do with them. The Samaritans regarded the Jews with the same disdain.
But the Samaritan who acted to help the injured man, he was the true neighbor who fulfilled the second great commandment: He loved his neighbor as himself. He acted to fulfill the commandment.
When Jesus healed a man blind from birth, or raised others from the dead, when he invited himself to eat with Zacchaeus, or forgave a woman of bad reputation, or a crippled man, or spoke with a Samaritan woman at the well, he demonstrated to his disciples how to act in relationship with others – including those who sin or that we consider in error in their beliefs and worship.
He repeatedly told them to serve others, especially those poor, or sick, or in jail—and in so doing, they would be serving Him.
So we began as followers of the Way of Jesus, of His teaching and modeling how to act to love and serve.
As the Church moved out from Israel into the surrounding cultures, and the leadership of the Church became more and more Gentile, this understanding of following the Way, which was very Jewish and rabbinic, changed into a process of analysis and proposition construction—the development of theology, doctrine and Christian tradition. That is, the focus moved from how one behaved to what one believed—from following the way of a person and His teachings, to believing in a set of logical propositions: From acting to asserting.
This began innocently enough: Paul in his speech on Mars Hill (Acts 17) to contextualize the Gospel for Gentile listeners (who were, incidentally, Greek philosophers). Or when Origen wrote Contra Celsum (“Against Celsus,” ) a defense of the Way put into philosophical categories and syllogisms, because the Way had been ridiculed by the Greek philosopher Celsus as silly and lacking the philosophical foundations and rigor of the Greek schools.
The creeds are key examples of this focus on propositions. Whether the Nicene, Apostles’ or Athanasian, they are statements about the propositions we accept. There is not one word about how we are to live and act. The Way of Jesus is absent. Go reread them if you don’t believe it. This should unsettle us.
The problem is compounded by the multiplication of such propositions (creeds, confessions, doctrines, theologies, traditions)—as various Christians dispute with each other—and diverge, following paths that separate us from each other, and further from the Way.
In fact, we have worshiped our propositions—basically worshiped our own ideas about Scripture, tradition, and even the Way, and shunned, anathematized and sarcastically spoken against each other. Even if my favorite doctrine is right—or more right—than yours, my disdain, condescension and venom toward you and your ideas is sin. And it separates us. The same is true for you.
We have allowed our “defense of the truth” of our propositions to divide us from each other, rather than acting in love, following the Way, the halakha, of the One Who embodies truth.
The mean-spiritedness of our attacks on each other is stunning. And wrong.
Remember Paul’s words:
“Use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another.” (Galatians 5:13–15)
And let us not forget what James said. You can almost hear the exasperation in his voice:
“What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, ‘Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well’—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.
Now someone may argue, ‘Some people have faith; others have good deeds.’ But I say, ‘How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.’ You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?” (James 2:14–20)
Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not saying doctrine is without value. In fact, as a method of understanding basic ideas from Scripture it can be useful. But IF AND ONLY IF that understanding actually leads to loving action. Even demons can have their doctrine right, but loving action never follows their beliefs!
We have sadly moved from Paul’s “contextualizing” of the Gospel to a religion often more focused on the worship and defense of propositions, than the acting out of love in our relationship with God and neighbor. The love of propositions has replaced acting with the love of Christ.
We lost our way. We lost the Way.
When Jesus prayed for His disciples in John 17, they were a mess of puffery, misunderstandings and bad doctrines, but He patiently taught them His Way, nudged them back when they strayed, protected them, and demonstrated to them what this Way of love really entailed—to act like the teacher, the rabbi. He prayed this for them and for us: “May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”
We disdain Jesus and His prayer when we shun each other over ideas, and put out those who do not affirm precisely our propositions. There is no love of God, neighbor or even “enemy” when we do this.
Obviously, no one of us will have all of his propositions correct. No theology, doctrine, confession, worship or tradition will get it all right. Should we wrestle respectfully? Of course! We can grow from that. But true unity in Jesus will not come from all agreeing to identical propositions, but from following His commands and learning to live and love as He did.
The doctrines and creeds are insufficient unless they are followed by loving action. “So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.”
Now to make it real: I confess my worship of my favorite ideas, and my condescension toward those who do not agree. Even where my ideas are “right,” my heart is wrong when I speak and act hurtfully toward you.
I ask for the forgiveness of any I have slandered or even held in disdain in my worship of propositions—from you, and from my rabbi, Jesus. I desire to never again to be so misdirected, or to repeat such sin.
You too may need to confess this—to make it real. And then we must covenant to honor rather than devour each another.
Jesus said, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: you shall love neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the prophets stand under these two commands.”
Do we imagine that our doctrines, theologies, creeds, confessions and traditions stand above these two commands—or should they stand under them, as do all the Law and the prophets?
And of those with whom we might disagree? How are we to behave?
Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for them,” and “Treat others the way you want to be treated.”
And near the end He prayed for us, “May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”
That unity comes from following His commands and His example—acting with the love He taught and lived. His halakha. It is how we can be one.
That is the Way of Jesus. Follow it.
This article first appeared here in the blog of the Act3 Network, a ministry devoted to unity in the body of Christ.