Peterson, Eugene H, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way

(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007.) I will start with a disclaimer – I’m biased toward Eugene Peterson. The first article I read by him was “The Unbusy Pastor,” back in 1981,[1] and it remains a favorite, even if I am still not as unbusy as Peterson would recommend. The article opens with a classic Peterson thesis-articulate, counter-cultural, and concrete:

The word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife, or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront. Hilary of Tours diagnosed our pastoral busyness as “irreligiosa solicitudo pro Deo,” a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.

When I shared the article with my wife, Jane, she told me that Eugene Peterson had served as assistant pastor at White Plains Presbyterian Church in New York, when she was growing up there. Jane was in a youth group that Eugene and his wife, Jan, led and provided baby-sitting for the little Peterson children on several occasions. I am also biased toward Peterson because he is an avid outdoorsman who loves to flee from busyness to the backcountry of the Rocky Mountains, a passion that I share. It may be this passion that lends Peterson’s works a refreshing distance from the religious marketplace of our day.

In The Jesus Way, Peterson takes advantage of this distance to explore one of Yeshua’s[2] most famous, and most controversial, statements – “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). This statement is controversial because the Master is making a claim to exclusivity completely at odds with the values of our tolerant age. It also provides fuel for controversies about the nature of salvation and the absolute need for faith in Jesus as the only hope of gaining that salvation.

the Jesus way” is not a one-time forensic transaction … but as a pathway to follow in a life-long journey toward salvation.

Peterson’s book goes below this troubled soteriological surface to consider more deeply “the Jesus way,” not as a one-time forensic transaction, as in some forms of modern Protestantism, but as a pathway to follow in a life-long journey toward salvationFrom this perspective, “way” refers to a way of life, a way through the tangles of contemporary culture and onto the path of obedience to the master. Peterson assumes that the way of which Jesus speaks is a way of life accessible to, and incumbent upon, his followers. He does not engage at all in the usual application of this verse to questions of soteriology, but rather explores Jesus as the way we live on the way to salvation. “Too many of my faith-companions for too long have been reducing the way of Jesus simply to the route to heaven, which it certainly is. But there is so much more.”[3]

In place of such reductionism, Peterson seeks, as the subtitle says, to open “a conversation on the ways that Jesus is the way.” His conversation includes a critique of the religious culture embraced by many of those who would claim to affirm Jesus as the way. Indeed, Peterson begins with the claim that the full meaning of this verse has been lost not only through oversimplification, but because of a certain resistance among Jesus’ contemporary adherents: “Jesus as the way is the most frequently evaded metaphor among the Christians with whom I have worked for fifty years as a . . .  pastor.”[4]

This evasion has something to do with the fact that the Jesus way runs directly counter to the way of religious consumerism so dominant in North American Christendom. Peterson sees the gospel being “recast . . . in consumer terms,”[5] which inherently violate the way of Jesus.

North American Christians are conspicuous for going along with whatever the culture decides is charismatic, successful, influential – whatever gets things done, whatever can gather a crowd of followers – hardly noticing that these ways and means are at odds with the clearly marked way that Jesus walked and called us to follow. Doesn’t anyone notice that the ways and means taken up, often enthusiastically, are blasphemously at odds with the way Jesus leads his followers? Why doesn’t anyone notice?[6]

Doubtless such words apply to North American Messianic Jews as well as Christians, who are equally likely to be tempted by the pragmatic approach of contemporary Christendom, in which the ends so often justify the means. Peterson interprets Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in this light, in a manner that strikingly parallels John Howard Yoder’s treatment of the temptation in his classic work The Politics of Jesus. Like Yoder, Peterson sees the issue of the temptation as one of means, of how Jesus will accomplish his mission, which will then shape how we are to accomplish ours.

His qualifications need no further endorsement: “This is my beloved Son . . .” is definitive in that department. But how would he go about this messianic work. . . . This needs to be looked at closely, carefully considered, examined, rigorously tested. The stakes are high, eternally high.[7]

Yoder likewise sees Jesus’ position as secure before his temptation, but the means of fulfilling that position as in question. To Yoder, “This is my beloved Son” is not a theological statement but a declaration that Jesus is king. The temptations that follow will determine how he goes about fulfilling his kingship, as he is tempted to use power in ways consistent with the kingdoms of this world to bring about the kingdom that is not of this world. First, Jesus is tempted by economic power, to turn the stones of the desert into bread, not just for himself but for the masses. “Feed the crowds and you shall be king.”[8] Then the devil tempts Jesus to gain kingly power through worshiping him, but this offer only reveals “the idolatrous character of political power hunger and nationalism.”[9] Finally, Jesus is tempted to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple, “Contemplating the role of religious reformer, heavenly messenger, appearing unheralded from above to set things right.”[10]

In Yoder’s reading, Jesus is tempted by power, by proven ways to win the socio-political struggle for dominance in order to establish his kingdom, for “all the options laid before Jesus by the tempter are ways of being king.”[11] In Peterson’s reading a generation later, the temptation is “to define life in consumer terms and then devise plans and programs to accomplish them ‘in Jesus’ name.'” Yoder agrees, though, with Peterson’s emphasis in The Jesus Way on the importance of ways and means in accomplishing God’s purpose.

The devil is content to leave the matter of ends – the goal, the purpose, the grand work of salvation – uncontested. His tempting is devoted exclusively to ways, to the means that are best suited to accomplish the end to which Jesus is the way.[12]

The life of obedience involves the right ways and means [I Ital’d] as much as the right ends [ditto]  Both writers issue a call to counter contemporary trends and walk in obedience to Jesus. The goal remains salvation in Jesus, but we reach that goal through following a way of life rather than through a one-time forensic act, which is often emphasized in North American Christendom – and which fits so well within North American consumerism. Indeed, both Yoder and Peterson suggest that an over-emphasis on Jesus as the way to personal salvation can obscure Jesus as the way to obedience before God in a wicked generation.

The life of obedience involves the right ways and means as much as the right ends.

Such an interpretation entails a serious response to Jesus as ethical teacher and example, as well as to Jesus as atoning sacrifice. It reads the Gospels as central within Scripture and in continuity with the Tanakh, in contrast with the popular approach of positing the Pauline epistles as central, and Tanakh and the Gospels as preface with limited direct application.

The structure of The Jesus Way reflects this approach to the Gospels, as it portrays the Jesus way as already present in the Tanakh, and Jesus’ life and teachings in continuity with it. Thus, the first section is entitled “The Way of Jesus,” and treats “six representative figures who preceded Jesus in ‘the way of the Lord.'”

Each contributes an element that gives texture and depth to the way completed by and in Jesus: Abraham and the way of faith, Moses and the way of language, David and the way of imperfection, Elijah and the way of marginality, Isaiah of Jerusalem and the way of The Holy, and Isaiah of the Exile and the way of beauty.[13]

Peterson does not consider these stories as types and shadows of Jesus, or proof-texts for his Messiahship. Rather, he sees them as stories of the way, valuable in their own terms and flowing into the great highway of Jesus.

The second section, entitled “Other Ways,” contrasts the way of Jesus with three religious-political approaches of the first century Jewish world: the way of Herod, the way of Caiaphas, and the way of Josephus. With each of these ways, Peterson presents an opposing way, which the way of Jesus ultimately rejects as well. The way of Herod is opposed by the Pharisees; the way of Caiaphas by the Essenes; the way of Josephus by the Zealots. Here again, we can see a similarity to The Politics of Jesus, in which Yoder sees Jesus as rejecting both sides of the common socio-political divides to establish his own way through the cross, which is the “political alternative to both insurrection and quietism.”[14]

Peterson’s particular gift is his ability to unfold this counter-cultural perspective in a winsome and, paradoxically, mainstream way. He is, after all, a Presbyterian pastor, with long-term service in a suburban Maryland parish. He does not call his reader to abandon the mainstream and follow Jesus into the refugee camps, prisons, and inner cities, but rather to live the Jesus way in whatever setting in which they find themselves. Therefore, The Jesus Way has much to offer any reader, but what in particular does it offer to those reading from a Jewish perspective?

First, the book’s treatment of marginality is especially relevant to Jewish Jesus-followers, because Jews are so often in a position of marginality, and Messianic Jews are further marginalized by their faith in Jesus. Elijah embodies this marginality:

He held no position, lived a solitary life in obscurity, appeared from time to time without fanfare and disappeared from public view without notice. His formative impact on how we as a people of God understand responsibility and witness in society is inescapable and irreversible . . . The essence of the Elijah way is that it counters the world’s way, the culture’s way.[15]

Elijah takes advantage of his position on the margins to comment on and suggest an alternative to contemporary religious culture. There is something inherently Jewish about this approach.

Second, the book cites modern Jewish sources in its list of citations – Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jon D. Levenson – and engages deeply with Elie Wiesel. Peterson practices the continuity with the Tanakh that he preaches in the structure of his book. Discussing “Isaiah of the exile,” he speaks of Wiesel as “a contemporary witness to the fact that the miracle that took place in the Babylonian exile continues to take place,”[16] and “a man who [is] quietly full of faith in the living God.”[17] How Peterson reconciles this appreciation of Wiesel with his own emphasis on the centrality of Jesus is a mystery, but Jewish readers will appreciate that Peterson treats the Hebrew Scriptures as a living document, fully part of the eternal Word of God, and the Jewish people as still encompassed in the Word of God today, despite our widespread rejection of Jesus as the way. This confirms, as many Messianic Jewish readers have found, that the Jesus Way does not lead us away from the Jewish people, but is somehow integral to our story.

Finally, Peterson treats Jesus as living Torah, as teaching and modeling a way of life that we are to emulate, rather than as theological construct or Gnostic escape route from this fallen world. This treatment strikes me as a Jewish way of reading the Gospels, indeed as a way of reading the Gospels that parallels the Jewish ways of reading the Torah that have developed over millennia. The entire text is instructive in all its detail. Counter to some Christian readings, this approach does not handle the story of Jesus’ deeds and teachings as merely preparatory to the Passion Week, but as essential to the Jesus way. Just as we must not interpret “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” as being only about the way to get to heaven, so must we not read the Gospels as only about the atoning sacrifice of Messiah. Rather, as in Torah, the entire narrative stream is overflowing in instructions for life in this world that point toward life in the world to come.


Russ Resnik serves as Executive Director of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, has an international speaking and teaching ministry, and is the author of Gateways to Torah and Creation to Completion, commentaries on each of the weekly Torah readings. He is currently working on a book on the ethical teachings of Yeshua.


[1] Eugene H. Peterson. “The Unbusy Pastor,” Leadership (1981).

[2] For the sake of consistency with quotations from Peterson, I will use “Jesus” instead of “Yeshua” from now on.

[3] Eugene H. Peterson, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 41.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Ibid., 6.

[6] Ibid., 8.

[7] Ibid., 29; author’s emphasis.

[8] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (2d ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 26.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 27.

[11] Ibid., 25.

[12] Peterson, The Jesus Way, 30.

[13] Ibid., 15

[14] Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 36.

[15] Peterson, The Jesus Way, 125-126.

[16] Ibid., 156.

[17] Ibid., 159.