When he recounts a key incident in the second volume of his orderly account—namely, the conversion and call of Saul—Luke describes the followers of Jesus, for the first time, as being of “The Way” (9:2). This is a term which he likes; it recurs in four subsequent chapters of Luke’s narrative (18:25; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22).
Why was this term used to describe the followers of Jesus? Adopting “The Way” as the name of the movement may owe its origins to scriptural usage in association with God’s activity. “Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies”, the psalmist prays; “make your way straight before me” (Ps 5:8). In a song praising God for delivering victory to the King, we read, “This God—his way is perfect; the promise of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all who take refuge in him” (Ps 18:30).
The Way figures in quite a number of psalms. “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way”, says one psalm. “He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees” (Ps 25:8–10). So the psalmist prays, “Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies” (Ps 27:11), and sings, “Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on the destruction of the wicked” (Ps 37:34). And so many other psalms invoke the image of the way of the Lord.
The term is also appropriated in the Dead Sea Scrolls as a means of defining the Qumran community (1QS 9.17-18,21; 10:21; CD 1:13; 2:6); this may reflect competing claims for being the authentic keepers of Torah amongst Jewish sects in the latter period of Second Temple Judaism. Members of the community who followed the instruction of The Teacher of Righteous believed that they were keeping faithfully to The Way of the Lord.
A particularly important passage to note is the declaration that opens the second main section of the book of Isaiah—the section which scholars call Deutero-Isaiah. In the opening verses of chapter 40, the prophet addresses the Israelites, in exile in Babylon. Life in the exile was not a happy time for many of the people of Israel. (Psalm 137 is the classic expression of this; note especially the anger expressed in verses 8–9.) The prophet offers them words of comfort and hope.
The people of Israel yearned to return home (Jer 29:10–14; 30:1–31:26). They looked back on the past with longing eyes. They remembered their years in the land which God had given to them. Now, they were living among Babylonians—foreigners, conquerors. Soon, the prophet declares, they would leave behind these memories, and grasp hold of the future that God has for them. In a later statement, he declares that God would “send to Babylon and break down all the bars” (43:14). God, the prophet declares, is doing a new thing! (43:19).
So in the opening chapter of this section of the book, the return from exile to the land of Israel is announced with a declaration of comfort. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isa 40:1–2).
Immediately after this, the prophet declares, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” (Isa 40:3).
The way of the Lord, granted to the people who have been faithful throughout the decades in exile, is that they will return to their homeland. The Lord makes “a way in the wilderness” (43:19), just as in the past God had “dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep; who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to cross over” (51:10)— and so, “the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (51:11).
This is, indeed, a powerful promise declared by the prophet. The pathway of justice, the way of understanding (40:14) is not hidden (40:27); indeed, the one chosen to be the servant of the Lord will make known this way, by declaring justice, by persisting with his mission to declare this way, “until he has established justice in the earth” (42:1–4).
It is by speaking through this servant (48:15) that the Lord “teaches you for your own good … leads you in the way you should go” (48:17). The servant’s mission is “to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel”; as a result, God declares, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6). Indeed, through the person of the servant, all those who have “turned to [their] own way” will know that “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6); “the righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (53:11).
This Way of the Lord, first declared in the late sixth century, is later proclaimed, in that same desert, by the wild desert prophet, John, as he announces the imminent coming of the one chosen by God, Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 1:1–3; Matt 3:1–3; Luke 3:1–6).
In similar fashion, the songs of the prophet in which the servant speaks (Isa 42, 49, 40, 52–53) are seen to provide prophetic insights into the person of, and the work undertaken by, Jesus. Phillip explains this to the Ethiopian court official as he reads a section from the fourth song. When asked, “about whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”, Philip’s reply is, “starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:32–35).
In subsequent usage (beyond the first century) the phrase The Way has come to be completely overshadowed by a term used less often by Luke, that of “Christian” or “messianist” (11:26; 26:28). This is how the followers of Jesus are known, today, right around the world. But this was not the earliest term used to describe such people.
By using the term “the Way” for the first time in his account of the conversion and call of Saul, Luke emphasises the Jewish characterisation of those communities which declare Jesus to be Messiah, even if they are in gentile areas. It is a Jewish term, originating in Jewish circles, applied to Jewish followers of Jesus.
It is significant that this first use of the term comes at the point in the narrative when Luke introduces Saul, the person who (in his eyes) is the greatest proponent of the ‘turn to the Gentiles’. Although the movement would fan out across the Roman Empire, and eventually across the globe, its origins lie in a small group of faithful folk within Second Temple Judaism: the companions of Jesus who were following The Way.
Reflecting on this term, The Way, leads me to think about how the followers of Jesus have made the move, over time, from a movement of disciples faithfully following the way of Jesus, to become an institution of members belonging to “the church”. The shifts from movement to institution, from being people of The Way to being Christians in The Church, has had a profound impact on who we are, what we do, how we function.
It’s my hope that recapturing the essence of being the People of The Way might kindle a renewed commitment, a deeper discipleship, a more intentional form of community and social engagement, and a livelier life of faith, that perhaps has been the case in the church over many centuries.
This blog is based on a section of my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. Dunn and Rogerson (Eerdmans, 2003). I have also explored the theme of the plan of God at greater depth in my doctoral research, which was published in 1993 by Cambridge University Press as The plan of God in Luke-Acts (SNTSM 76).