In John 10:9 Jesus says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” What does it mean to say that Jesus is the gate through which one is saved?
I think it is important to note that it is very unlikely that the historical Jesus actually said this. The discourses of Jesus in John’s Gospel are most likely, according to the consensus of mainline biblical scholarship, expositions and proclamations of short sayings of Jesus by John’s church that reflect what they had come to believe about Jesus and the life he embodied. That doesn’t mean that these discourses in John are any less important or meaningful to Christ followers than Jesus’ teachings in the Synoptics, especially if we believe that the Spirit of the living Christ was guiding and empowering John’s church. However, it is important to understand that these discourses are the product of John’s church, not historical reports about what Jesus actually said.
In John’s Gospel salvation is primarily about participating and sharing in God’s life, often called “eternal life” or simply “life.” When John uses this phrase he is not specifically talking about the afterlife or life in heaven, though certainly the afterlife is included. Eternal life is eternal. But that is not the focus. In this Gospel eternal life is as much a present reality as a future reality (interpreters of John call this John’s “realized eschatology”) which one enters into now. To possess “life” or “eternal life” is simply to experience and share in God’s life, God’s world, God’s will.
So what does it mean to enter into God’s life through the gate that is Jesus? How do we enter through the gate of Jesus and is that the only way one can enter into this life? An American rabbi was once asked what he thought about the words in John 14:6 where John’s Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The rabbi said, “Oh, I agree with these words.” The one who asked that question was surprised by the reply. He asked, “But how can you as a rabbi believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life?” This gracious and wise rabbi said, “Because I believe that Jesus’ way is the way of love, that Jesus’ truth is the truth of love, and that Jesus’ life is the life of love. No one comes to the Father but through love.”
It is not Jesus exclusively, it is Jesus inclusively — it is what his life reflects. There is nothing magical about the name of Jesus, or about his words, deeds, death and resurrection. It’s about the virtues he embodied, the values he incarnated, the life he lived full of grace and truth. It’s all about what his life, teachings, works, death and resurrection represents. One can live and pursue these realities — forgiveness and reconciliation, justice for the oppressed, liberation for the demonized, healing for the sick and broken, commitment to peace and nonviolence, empowering the poor and marginalized — without even knowing about the historical Jesus.
Ann Howard, who at one time was the director of the The Beatitude Society, recalls how these words from John 14:6 bothered her when she was a child. When she was about 10 years old a group of foreign visitors came to her little Minnesota town for a weekend visit on their tour of the U.S. Several families hosted them, and her family hosted one of the Russians, a friendly man with a thick accent who went with her family to their Lutheran church on Sunday. She was sorry when the visit ended, but something Yuri said during the visit really troubled Ann. She asked her mother about it. As a 10-year-old girl she said to her mother, “Yuri said he doesn’t believe in Jesus. He doesn’t even believe in God. I’m afraid he’s not going to go to heaven. What’s going to happen to Yuri when he dies?” Her mother replied, “Christianity is not a club, Anne. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about how we live.”
That’s good but I would tweak it just a little. I would say, “It’s not a club. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about how we love.” By this, says Jesus, others will know you are my disciples — by your love for one another (John 13:35). This is why Paul says, “Now abide these three, faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love (1 Cor. 13:13).”
In the prologue to John’s Gospel we are told that Jesus as the Word made flesh is full of grace and truth (1:14). The way we enter into the life and will of God is by trusting in and being faithful to the grace and truth that Jesus incarnated, which is just another way of saying we enter through love. Consider this: Do you think God really cares that much about what we believe intellectually about Jesus? Or do you think God cares more about how we live like Jesus? How we express the grace and truth of Jesus? How we love like Jesus? I have a Down Syndrome daughter who will never understand any sort of doctrine about Jesus, but she knows how to love, and that’s what matters.
Author, poet, scholar and spiritual guide John Philip Newell will sometimes share stories about his son Cameron who has some special needs. He says there is little pretense with his son. He speaks with an honest, open heart. One morning at breakfast the conversation turned toward the wisdom of Jesus. Cameron said to his father very candidly, “No offense to Jesus, Dad, but I don’t think about him very much.” Philip told his son that this was the greatness of Jesus, namely, that Jesus did not think about himself very much and Jesus would not be offended at all. Dr. Newell says that Jesus showed us that we truly find ourselves and discover who we are in God by letting go of our ego so we can truly love others. He said to Cameron that if Jesus had thought about himself all that much we would have forgotten Jesus long ago. He told his son: “It is a good thing to think about Jesus, but not because Jesus needs us to be thinking about him. It is because Jesus shows us the way of love.” The way of love is the way of Jesus — the gate through which we enter to discover God’s kind of life.
God doesn’t need us to believe certain things — doctrines — about Jesus. I’m sure we all do. We have our beliefs about Jesus. And, of course, Christians don’t agree on those beliefs. And that’s okay, because the specific beliefs we have about Jesus is not the important thing. What God wants out of our lives is for us to live like Jesus, for us to love like Jesus, for us to express the grace and live out the truth like Jesus.
I so wish more Christians could see that all our beliefs about God are like fingers pointing at the moon. Too many Christians have turned their belief system into an idol by which they seek to manage and control God by keeping God in a box. Even when our beliefs about God are correct they can only capture a little fraction of what God is really like and who God really is. God is so much more than what we believe about God.
Jesus is the gate and the way that leads to fullness of life because Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love. Jesus is the gate because Jesus shows us how to serve and love one another. Jesus is the gate because he shows us how to live in a healthy and redemptive relationship with God and one another. All who are walking and living in the way of love are entering through the gate of Jesus whether they know it or not.
This interpretation is supported by the saying of Jesus later in the passage where Jesus says, “I have other sheep not of this fold.” (I read that to mean “Christian fold,” which I suspect, John’s church meant as well.) “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (10:16).
Brother David Steindl-Rast makes the distinction between belief and faith. He says: “There are many religions, many beliefs, but only one faith. We can (and must) learn to take our faith more seriously than the beliefs in which that faith has found expression up till now. The present calls for a different expression, if faith is to have a future. Religious beliefs always runs the risk of dividing us; they have power to do so. But faith has even greater power to unite us.” The faith Bro. David Steindl-Rast is talking about is our trust in and faithfulness to the Ultimate Reality who is love (who can be called by many names).
Jesus speaks the language of love and when one is truly listening and responding to the voice of love, then one is entering through the gate of Jesus. To have faith in Jesus is to trust in and be faithful to the way of love embodied by Jesus, and the way of love is the way that leads to truth and fullness of life in God. It’s all about love because “God is love” and wherever love is God is (1 John 4:8).