In dozens of passages in both the Old and New Testament, God’s Word uses walking, choosing and following a path, and finding the way as metaphors for becoming obedient to the will of God. People in biblical times appreciated the importance of a good path, one you can find easily, that is not treacherous, and that keeps you away from physical danger. They were willing to follow such a path, even if it was a little longer or a little harder. To apply it figuratively to following God must have been an obvious and logical leap.
The “path” in Genesis
The first reference to the godly lifestyle is Genesis 5:22, 24: “Enoch walked with God 300 years. . . . Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.” From this starting point, the author Moses emphasizes obedience as a personal relationship, even a close friendship, with God, as opposed to a point-by-point conformity to a list of rules. The idea of “walking” suggests the moment-by-moment decisions that keep one on the path. It is not just the destination God has in mind for us, but the benefit of the entire journey.
Moses says this about Noah: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God” (Gen. 6:9). We should probably understand these three statements as roughly synonymous, giving us further insight into what it means to “walk with God.” Already by Noah’s time, however, most people are making their own path: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways” (Gen. 6:12).
Moses repeatedly speaks of Noah’s obedience: “Noah did everything just as God commanded him. . . . And Noah did all that the LORD commanded him. . . . as God had commanded Noah. . . . as God had commanded Noah (Gen. 6:22; 7:5, 9, 16). This pattern of consistent obedience finds an echo with the Israelites when they returned to God after their rebellion over the golden calf (see Exod. 35:4, 29; 36:1, 5; 39:1, 6, 7, 21, 26, 29, 30, 32, 42, 43; 40:16, 19, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29, 32).
Enoch and Noah start on the path of single-minded devotion to the one God, the path up which Abraham himself will walk (Gen. 17:1) and will lead his family; it comes to be called “the way of the LORD” (Gen. 18:19). By the time the Israelites are in the wilderness, Moses exhorts them, “So be careful to do what the LORD your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. Walk in all the way that the LORD your God has commanded you” (Deut. 5:33).
Walking in all His ways
Moses describes obedience to the LORD’s commands as “to walk in all His ways” (Deut. 10:12; 11:22; 26:17). Perhaps the wilderness journey itself helped to embed the metaphor, because the Israelites literally followed the lead of the LORD for each step they took from Sinai to Canaan (see Num. 9:15-23; 33:1-49). The LORD contrasts His ways with the ways of non-Israelites:
And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them. – Lev. 20:23 (ESV)
The rest of the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with descriptions, exhortations, and warnings about walking in the way of righteousness and avoiding the perverse, crooked, or foolish way. For example, the First Psalm contrasts the way of the righteous with the way of the wicked (Ps. 1:6). Psalm 23:3 speaks of the paths of righteousness on which the LORD guides His sheep, who have no fear of evil even if the path leads through the “valley of the shadow of death” (v. 4). The wise man cautions us again a “way that seems right. . . but in the end it leads to death” (Prov. 14:12). He counsels us to pursue the way of wisdom, a path that is straight and leads to life, not crooked and leading to death (Prov. 2:13-20). He draws this contrast (Prov. 4:18-19):
The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn,
shining brighter till the full light of day.
But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness;
they do not know what makes them stumble.
The prophet Micah distills the essence of what God requires: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). God tells Habakkuk, “The righteous will walk by faith” (Hab. 2:4). Isaiah promises a time when God will respond readily to the penitent: “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’ ” (Isa. 30:21). (Is this speaking of the conscience?)
By Jeremiah’s time, the righteous path is so well worn that he can cry, “This is what the LORD says, ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it’ ” (Jer. 6:16). (The people of his day refuse those paths and suffer destruction.)
Jesus, the true and living Way
When finally we get to Jesus, we hear Him speak of a broad and popular way leading to destruction, which He contrasts with the narrow way leading to life, pursued by only a few (Matt. 7:13-14). Later He reveals that He Himself is the true and living Way, providing the only access by which someone can approach the Father (John 14:6).
Christian conduct soon becomes so distinctive that the Christian movement as a whole is called “The Way” (Acts 9:2; 24:14). Paul urges that converts “walk worthy of the calling” (Eph. 4:1) and “walk worthy of the Lord” (Col. 1:10). Paul insists that they “no longer walk as the Gentiles do, darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God” (Eph. 4:17-18). Peter tells Christian slaves that Christ has left an example for them to follow “in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
The Apostle John promises, “If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). He demands that anyone claiming to live in Him “must walk as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6).
Be alert to this conceptual cluster
The passages I have summarized or quoted are only a sampling of the conceptual cluster of “way, road, path, walk, step, follow” in Scripture. I encourage you to watch for this nearly ubiquitous metaphor about faithful obedience to God and its evil twin, the way of rebellious fools.
Want to go deeper?
Read the 176 verses of Psalm 119, watching for references to ‘walk,’ ‘footsteps,’ ‘way,’ and ‘path,’ etc. What other concepts regularly connect with these?
Do you agree that the process of following Christ is as important as its destination? Will we reach the destination if we don’t walk the path that leads there? How can we reconcile salvation as a “walk” with salvation by grace through faith?
Do you agree with decisions by the translators of some versions (e.g., the NIV) sometimes to translate the Greek word for “walk” by “live” or “live a life” (e.g., Eph. 4:1, 17; 5:2; Col. 2:6; 1 Thess. 4:12; 2 Thess. 3:6)? What misunderstanding, if any, were they trying to avoid?
Wilhelm Michaelis. “hodos, etc.” (“road”), 5:42-115 in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964-1979.
Heinrich Seesemann and Georg Bertram. “pateō, peripateō, etc.” (“walk”), 5:940-945 in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964-1979.
G. W. Mylne. Walking with God. London: Wortheim, Macintosh, and Hunt,  pp. 1-22.