Have you ever wondered why the Lord puts this order—way, truth, life—on his answer to Thomas’ question?
The Lord had said to his disciples that he was going away. In John 14:5, Thomas speaks for them all in asking: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Thomas thought that knowing comes first, and then going the right way follows. So, often, do we. A few years ago a book based on this text was issued by several authors who tried to improve on the Lord’s teaching method by revising his order: They made it into, “the truth, the way, and the life.” However, that is not what the Lord says, and it is not, therefore, what he means.
Jesus is talking about apprenticeship Christianity, where doing precedes understanding.
Our Lord’s heavenly Father destined him to be raised in a carpenter’s family. So, at least, is the tradition regarding Joseph. Carpentry, like most skills, can be talked about endlessly but is really learned only by doing. Oh yes, the master carpenter tells the apprentice what to do, but the apprentice comes to knowing carpentry only by doing it. That makes all the difference between a sagging door hung by a novice and a neatly fitted one hung by a craftsman. The novice knows about carpentry; the master knows carpentry.
This is true about most of living. First the doing, under guidance, and then the understanding. First the way; then the truth.
Remember that our Lord was not predestined by his Father to birth where we might have expected him, say into Herod’s palace or a Scribe’s scholarly abode. He was born, by divine design, into a laboring man’s dwelling. He draws, in all his teaching, on examples taken from every man’s daily life.
It is entirely in keeping with his upbringing by Joseph and Mary, according to God’s predestined intent, that our Lord precedes understanding with doing. He sets the way before the truth. His hermeneutic (that is, his method of interpretation and understanding) is an apprenticeship hermeneutic. And it is every man’s hermeneutic. Open to all who believe. Not reserved for the learned, or the wealthy, or the powerful, or the famous. Quite the opposite, really: “The large crowd listened to him with delight” (Mark 12:37). To all who, like Jesus’ own disciples, learned their work by doing it, he quite naturally would say: First the way, then the truth of understanding, and in these the true life—apprenticeship Christianity.
Oh yes, like the master craftsman, the Lord offers guidance for finding the right way. The Psalmist pointed that out centuries ago: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Ps. 119:105). Peter said it, too: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
The Lord’s word order is fundamental: First the way; then the truth grasped by our understanding; and, in these, the discovery of new life: “I am the way and the truth and the life.”