It’s often noted that before they were called Christians, followers of Jesus in the book of Acts were referred to as ‘The Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14). Many preachers then go on to make the point that before Christianity was a religion, or a system of thought, it was instead known as a distinctive way of life. It’s not so much that Christians are people who believe certain things, but that they are people who live a certain way. While that can be appealing to many, left on its own, it sets up something of a false dichotomy between living and believing that is entirely foreign to the Scriptures. Right belief and right living are a seamless whole in Biblical spirituality.
Others, taking a slightly different (and better) angle, remind us that Jesus called himself “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Early Christians were called followers of “the Way”, not simply because of the way they lived, but precisely because of who they followed. The Way is not simply a set of behaviors, but a person. It is only by trusting in and following the one who is the Way that we enter into the life that is truly life and come to know the Father.
As promising as that view is, G.K. Beale proposes another, still more promising read and suggests that we pay attention to clues that Luke presents us with in the Gospel of Luke:
The significance of the citation from Isa. 40:3–5 in Luke 3:3–6 appears at the commencement of Jesus’s public ministry:
And [John] came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of
repentance for the forgiveness of sins; as it is written in the book of the words
of Isaiah the prophet,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
Make ready the way of the Lord,
make His paths straight.
Every ravine will be filled,
and every mountain and hill will be brought low;
the crooked will become straight,
and the rough roads smooth;
and all flesh will see the salvation of God.”
David Pao has rightly argued that this quotation provides the key interpretative framework within which the remainder of Luke-Acts is to be understood. The Isaiah quotation is the beginning of an extended section in Isaiah that prophesies the coming of a new exodus whereby Israel will be delivered from bondage in Babylon. The various motifs found in the prologue (Isa. 40:1–11) to Isa. 41–55 are developed extensively throughout the following chapters of Isaiah and in Acts. The best expression of this new-exodus paradigm is the “way” terminology (derived primarily from Isa. 40:3) in Acts as a name for the nascent Christian movement, polemically identifying the church as God’s true people in the midst of his rejection of Israel. Notice the repeated reference to the Christian movement as “the Way” in Acts, which most of the time occurs in contexts of persecution or opposition:
Acts 9:2 “And [Paul] asked for letters from him [the high priest] to the synagogues
at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both
men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
Acts 19:9 “But when some were becoming hardened and disobedient, speaking
evil of the Way before the people, [Paul] withdrew from them and
took away the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus.”
Acts 19:23 “About that time there occurred no small disturbance concerning
Acts 22:4 “I [Paul] persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting
both men and women into prisons.”
Acts 24:14 “But this I [Paul] admit to you, that according to the Way which
they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything
that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets.”
Acts 24:22 “But Felix, having a more exact knowledge about the Way, put
them off, saying, ‘When Lysias the commander comes down, I will decide
This name for the Christian movement, “the Way,” thus designates that the Christians were the true end-time Israel beginning to fulfill the prophecies of Israel’s return from exile. They were on “the Way” out of exile to returning to God. The name “the Way” indicates that one could begin to participate in this restoration journey by believing in Christ and joining others who already believed and were walking on “the Way,” progressing in their new-exodus journey. Consequently, “the Way” described both those first joining it and those who had belonged to it for some time, so that the name included reference to a manner of ongoing Christian living as part of a restoration journey.
–G.K. Beale, New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New, pp. 856-858
To be a follower of “the Way”, then, meant understanding yourself to be the beneficiary of God’s great new act of redemption through His Anointed One. Just as God had led Israel out of Egypt into freedom God had promised to lead Israel out of Exile, both physical and spiritual. John prepared the way for YHWH’s coming and the Lord Jesus walked it bringing salvation in his wake.
This approach has the benefit of being thickly rooted in a long-range approach to Scripture, makes sense of the exegetical data in Acts, as well as incorporating some of the better insights of the simpler views listed above. We see clearly here that to be a follower of the Way was a matter of both belief and of practice. It was precisely because they believed God was fulfilling his promise of a New Exodus through the person and work of Jesus that they lived this new journey life-style.
Two thousand years later that New Exodus is still going–people are being brought out of the Exile of sin and death into the new in covenant with God. We are still on walking the “The Way” with Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria