George W. Doane’s “Thou Art the Way” (PHASS #70) is a hymn based on the statement made by Jesus in John 14.6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.” Each of the verses focuses on one part of that statement, and is expressed as a response addressed to Jesus. While not in PHASS, other hymnals include a fourth verse that summarizes the three.
Thou art the way: to Thee alone
From sin and death we flee;
And he who would the Father seek
Must seek Him, Lord, by Thee.
In Romans 6.23, Paul wrote, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If we want to flee sin, and the spiritual death that results from it, there is only one to whom we can go. Life is in Jesus, and as He said in the passage above, no one can come to the Father except through Him.
Two Lutheran hymnals (1993 Christian Worship and 2006 Lutheran Service Book) render this verse as “You are the way; through You alone / Can we the Father find; / In you, O Christ, has God revealed / His heart and will and mind.” Likely, this was an effort to remove archaic pronouns while keeping a rhyme scheme. It does have the benefit of concretely identifying Christ as the Thou/You of the hymn, though anyone with a passing familiarity with Scripture should be able to parse that fact out. Conceptually, though, the second couplet belongs more with the second verse than this one. Some might also raise an issue with identifying Christ specifically as the one in whom God has revealed His mind (cf. 1 Cor 2.11–13), though Christ reveals the exact representation of the Father (Heb 1.1–3).
Thou art the truth: Thy word alone
True wisdom can impart;
Thou only canst instruct the mind
And purify the heart.
In the second verse, we recognize Jesus as the source of truth. In John 6.68, Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” If we desire true wisdom, rather than the wisdom of this age, we will only be able to find such through Jesus. Particularly in the gospels, we see where Jesus’ wisdom overcame that of His enemies. He showed in Matthew 5 how the scribes and Pharisees had fallen short of fully instructing God’s people in keeping His law. James said in James 4.8, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” Purifying our hearts is the way to draw near to God (cf. Matt 5.8), and the way to know what we need to do to accomplish that is through God’s word (Psa 19.11–14).
Thou art the life: the rending tomb
Proclaims Thy conquering arm;
And those who put their trust in Thee
Nor death nor hell shall harm.
The writer of Hebrews said in chapter 2 that through His death (and resurrection), Jesus brought the one with the power of death (the devil) to nothing and delivered us from the fear and bondage of death. Jesus conquered the power of Satan in His resurrection, and when we trust in Him, we do not have to worry about either the grave or eternal punishment away from the presence of God (1 Cor 15.50–57).
Thou art the way, the truth, the life;
Grant us to know that way,
That truth to keep, that life to win,
Which leads to endless day.
The first line is a full echo of Jesus’ “I am” statement in John 14.6. The remainder of the verse is a desire for Jesus to grant/allow us to know the way that He provides to the Father, to keep the truth He has revealed and to win eternal life in Him. Jesus has granted these things if we will seek them, and seek Him.