The first Christians saw themselves as followers of ‘the Way’. For instance in Acts 9.2. Luke introduces the story of Paul’s conversion by telling of how Paul “asked… for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem”. Paul in his own account of his conversion uses the same terminology: “I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison” (Acts 22.4). In Acts 19, when Luke is telling of Paul’s visit to Ephesus, he writes: “About that time no little disturbance broke out concerning the Way” (Acts 19.23). When Paul defends himself before Felix, the Roman governor, he says “But this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the law or written in the prophets” (Acts 24.14).
Where did this term ‘the Way’ arise? One possibility is that it had its origins in the preaching of John the Baptist, who went out into the wilderness to fulfill the words of Isaiah: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40.2).
Alternatively, the imagery of the way may have its roots in the teaching of Jesus. Attention is sometimes drawn to the metaphor of the two ways found in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow & the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it (Matt 7.13, 14). In this context Christians are men and women who have opted to go the way that leads to life, as over against the way that leads to destruction.
Later Jesus spoke about himself as being the way. On the night before he died, Jesus said to his disciples in the Upper Room: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14.6). Here in the context of his imminent death, Jesus made it clear that to follow him is to go the way that leads to life in the Father’s house. Christians are able look death in the eye and not be afraid. Death is for us a defeated enemy. For those who have put their trust in the Lord Jesus death is but the gateway into a new and fuller life.
In Luke’s account of Paul’s visit to Philippi, the demon-possessed girl at Philippi who made a nuisance of herself by following Paul, kept on shouting out “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation” (Acts 16.17). I wonder how much that slave girl realized the truth of her words. Those who follow Jesus go the way that leads to salvation – for by faith in the Lord Jesus we are set free from the vicious spiral of sin and death. Here is good news indeed.
As the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, God, we are pilgrims: “Here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebs 13.14). The verb translated by the NRSV & GNB as ‘looking for’ (epizeteo) should probably, as Arndt & Gingrich in their Greek-English Lexicon suggest, be translated as “strive for”. For Christians the thought of heaven should be the driving force of our lives. This does not mean that in the words of a song by Johnny Cash we then become “so heavenly-minded” that we are “no earthly good”. Rightly understood, being with the thought of heaven in mind, we will attempt all the more to please God who has given us work to do in this world.
In the end, the term ‘the Way’ never actually seems to have taken. What may have made sense in a Jewish world in which many would have been familiar with the prophet Isaiah would have made little sense in a Greco-Roman world. As a result this self-designation of Christians as followers of the Way which we find in Acts occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. Certainly it would have little meaning in today’s world.