John’s Gospel is a Gnostic gospel. As such, it is very different from the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. The synoptic gospels share many of the same stories, arranged in a similar sequence. The Gospel of John is distinctly different. The Gnostics and the Christian orthodoxy also have vastly different theologies. For this reason, we must be very careful in interpreting the teachings in this Gnostic gospel.
One of the most beloved expressions in the Bible can be found in the Gospel of John : “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Bible scholar, Elaine Pagels, said in her book, The Gnostic Gospels, that John’s Gospel was included in the Christian canon even though the Christian orthodoxy generally reject Gnosticism precisely because this verse seems to suggest that one can find God only through Jesus and that one finds Jesus only through the church. Thus, the saying helps to create the impression that Christianity has a monopoly on Truth. During the early days of the Church, this lends an air of legitimacy and exclusivity.
But that would be a misinterpretation. In Gnosticism, Jesus is not considered as a cosmic savior who has a special divinity which is different from yours and mine. Thus, in a Gnostic interpretation, Jesus was not declaring that he is God or has a monopoly on Truth. Do you seriously believe that an enlightened master would be so vain?! Gnostics prize self-knowledge. Thus, in this statement, Jesus was redirecting our attention away from his historical person back to ourselves. More specifically, Jesus was pointing not to his ego, but to the inner divinity in each person. Here, it also helps to know that “I am” is the name God gave Moses during Moses’s encounter with God at the burning bush. Here is the relevant passage from Exodus:
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3: 13–14)
“I am who I am” is a mystical statement that makes little or no sense. Throughout the ages, theologians have struggled to interpret it. God gave Moses a nonsensical name. The attempt to conceive God in human terms and in human language is, in itself, nonsense. How can the infinite be rendered finite? This statement reminds me of the opening statement of the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao that can be stated is not the eternal Tao; the Name that can be named is not the immutable name.” To give God a name is a futile attempt. A better translation of the statement “I am who I am” is “My name is Nameless.”
The Way is not personal. Truth is not personal. In other cultures, the Way is referred to as the Tao, the Dharma, etc. You and I and everybody else are manifestations of the Tao, just as each lake, each pond and each puddle reflect the same moon. Each of us is a reflection of the Self of the universe. The way to find our way back home is to realize this truth. The “I am” in the statement “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” does not refer to some historical person or his ego. It is a reference to the deep Self. Thus, to say that “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” is to urge the seeker to turn his attention inward. To find God, one must know the Self.
Another reason why Jesus could not be referring to himself in this statement is that he was a practicing Jew. For a practicing Jew to call himself “God” would be an extreme case of blasphemy. We can get a better understanding by this following anecdote where Jesus was accused of blasphemy:
Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, 32 but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”
“We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”
Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’ If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came — and Scripture cannot be set aside … Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp.
(John 10: 31–39)
Jesus did not claim special divinity. Had he claimed special divinity, the blasphemy charged against him would hold. But here Jesus said, quoting Psalm 82: 6, that we are all gods. We all have divinity within us, but most of us have forgotten that. We need a little reminder that we are gods. Perhaps this is why one of the most important Vedic teachings is “Thou art that”(Tat Tvam Asi, Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7.)
Mainstream Christians seek God from without. In contrast, the Gnostics try to find God from within. “I am the Way” means stop seeking divinity from outside, from another person. There is a Zen saying — look right under your feet. Many of the spiritual seekers are too busy looking for God everywhere. But it is a human condition that we often miss something which is right under our nose. God or the Tao is never far away from us. The Psalmist said, “Be still and know that I am God.”(Psalm 46: 10). It is consistent with Jesus’s statement :“The kingdom of God is within you.”(Luke 17: 21)
Gnosis signifies insight into our real nature as divine, leading to the deliverance of the divine spark within us from the constraints of earthly existence. “I am the Way” means spirituality starts with self-understanding.