“No one comes to the Father except through me” is one of the most abused verses in the Bible. A dialogue intended to comfort grieving disciples gets weaponized for exclusion and missionary colonialism.We need to read it in context: In John 14,
Jesus has just told his disciples that he’s about to leave them, and they are heartbroken and confused. Thomas blurts out, “What do you mean we know the way to where you are going? We don’t even know where you are going!” (14:5)
Jesus answers, “You know me, bro, and I AM the way.” He’s telling them this isn’t some gnostic secret. You don’t have to solve a mystery. You don’t have to make this harder than it is. You know me, so you know the way, and, most importantly, **we’ll be together again** (hence, “no one comes to the Father except through me.” Don’t worry about losing me; I’m your path, your way.)
It’s important to linger here over the FIRST thing Jesus says in response to Thomas’s question. Thomas doesn’t know that he *already* knows the way. He thinks there’s something special he needs to do, some secret map. Jesus says “You already have the map: it’s me.”
Which opens the door for us to wonder: how many people know without knowing that they know? (Throughout John’s gospel, this is a theme—people respond to JC based on the orientation of their hearts.) Jesus sounds very Buddhist here: You already have what you need.
Listen: the disciples are afraid they will lose Jesus. He is telling them that they will be together. They won’t be *missing* Jesus when they get to the place they are going, because they will be traveling through The Way the whole time.
(Also: John’s community is heartbroken over losing him. These words are for them, too. John’s community thought he would live until Christ’s return (see 21:23). When he dies, they feel abandoned. You can hear their grief in Mary and Martha’s words to Jesus: “If you had been here, our brother would not have died!” (11:32))
Jesus then adds the infamous, “nobody comes to the Father without me,” which, again, is intended to be reassuring to the disciples: “I’ll be with you the whole way.” But it’s also in a context: “If you’ve *really* known me, you’ve already known the Father.” (Which also implies it is also possible to know Jesus without *really* knowing him—a fact especially applicable to religious leaders, which I will say more about below.)
He also says, “From now on, you do know the Father and have seen him.” Phillip is incredulous: “Okay, fine, show us the Father and we’ll be satisfied.” Again, he’s expecting that there’s something more he needs to know or do.
And JC slaps his forehead and says “Seriously? I’ve been with you all this time and you don’t see God?” This is the closest he comes to the exasperated Jesus we see in Mark, who says, “How much longer do I have to deal with you imbeciles?” (my paraphrase) So, far from being an exclusivist claim, “No one comes to the Father except through me” is supposed to be a reassuring claim that the disciples are on the right path, that they already know what they need to know, and that JC’s unity with the Father can & will be theirs.
And if you look at JC’s encounters with various folks in John, you see that the people who *really* know Jesus respond to God authentically and immediately: the man born blind, the woman at the well, etc. The man born blind says, “I don’t know much else, but I can see now” (Jn 9:25).
Meanwhile, religious leaders, who are obsessed with being right, are too hindered (“blinded,” in the language of the story) by their own religious exclusivism to admit room for an unmediated encounter with the divine. They can’t see God’s activity in front of their noses, much like today’s exclusivist Christians.
Jesus’s words do not slam the door on other faiths; they blast it wide open: People can know the way without knowing they know the way. “I have sheep who don’t belong to this fold” (10:16). Also, religious people can think they know and be wrong. As he says to the religious leaders: “Your father is the devil.” (8:44)
As a pastor, I recognize the strongest warnings of the gospel are to me: Do not presume to restrict God’s saving and healing activity. As Jesus says, “My sheep know my voice” (10:14). In John, the people working against healing and saving are religious leaders; don’t be like that.
(Caveat: you can use “hidden Christ” language to be a theological imperialist, claiming people of other faiths are simply “secret Christians.” I take JC’s language to be more expansive than that: The Way isn’t subject to human gatekeepers. The Word is loose in the world.)
So if words of Jesus meant for comfort have been weaponized to cause anxiety and exclusion, be suspicious of the religious leaders who wield them that way. Read the whole dialogue. John is dealing with grief & heartbreak. He is not slamming the door on presumed “outsiders.”