In response to Jesus’ claim that his “kingship is not of this world”, Pilate asked, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.” Pilate responded, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38).
“What is truth?” This has become a famous question, not only because of the context in which it was asked, but also because of its abiding relevance to the human condition. Pilate may have asked the question with sarcasm or cynicism, but it is nonetheless a serious question that every person must ask and answer.
“What is truth?” This is not an abstract question for many young people today. It is a question that is being thrust upon them by their teachers and their text books. Students studying literature in upper high school and at university, for example, are being confronted with theories and philosophies that effectively deny the existence of truth. Structuralism, Marxism, postmodernism, humanism, New Ageism—our young people are being encouraged to adopt these worldviews and to apply them in their analysis of literature and in their practice of life. Yet, one way or another, all these ideologies insist that truth is relative and subjective.
Postmodernists, for example, claim that “all truth is relative to one’s peers or community” and, consequently, “there is no eternal truth or truth that is true around the world.”1New Agers claim that “truth resides within each individual and, therefore, no one can claim a corner on the truth or dictate truth to another.”2Either position leads to the view that there is no universal right or wrong answer to any moral, aesthetic or theological question: there is only each individual’s conviction of what is right and true. And of course, your opinion is true for you, as mine is for me; and I can accept your “truth” as true for you, despite the fact that it contradicts what I believe is true for me.
Christianity rejects such notions of truth. It rejects the idea that truth is arbitrary and transitory. It rejects the idea that truth is entirely a human concoction, varying from one age to another, from one society to another, from one group to another, and from one individual to another. It rejects the idea that a thing is true as long as it serves socialist or feminist or humanist utopian goals. It rejects the idea that a thing is true if I (or you) feel it is true and can persuade other people to feel similarly. It rejects the idea that what is true for me can be quite different from what is true for you.
According to the Christian worldview, truth is real, not illusory. Truth is God-given, not manmade. Truth is eternal, not temporal. Truth is absolute, not arbitrary. Truth is objective, not subjective. Truth is universal, not regional. Truth must be respected, not manipulated.
So, for example, the fact of God’s existence is not conditional upon our belief or disbelief, but represents the same unalterable reality for me as it does for you. The text “Jesus died for our sins” is not dependent on our agreement or interpretation, but rather communicates the same basic meaning to me as it does to you. The command “You shall not commit adultery” is not dependent on our acceptance or obedience, but rather places the same moral obligation on me as it does on you. The reality of God’s existence, the meaning of God’s word, the obligation of God’s standards—these represent objective and absolute truth, truths that are unaltered by local culture and unaffected by personal preference.
Jesus distilled the Christian understanding of truth when he told Pilate that he had come “to bear witness to the truth”. This statement reveals three basic facts about truth. Firstly, truth is real. There is such a thing as truth. Jesus could hardly bear witness to the truth if it were a myth or an illusion. The fact that he came to bear witness to it is proof that it exists. Secondly, truth is important. It has weight and worth. Indeed, it is so significant that its promotion justifies great sacrifice. If this were not so, Jesus would not have left heaven to bear witness to it. Thirdly, truth is knowable. Jesus could not bear witness to the truth if he himself did not know it; and he would not bear witness to it if he did not believe that he could communicate it. His bearing witness to the truth demonstrates that he knows it and that he believes he can help us to know it, too.
“For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth,” Jesus said. And in saying it, he revealed that truth is real and important and knowable. More than this, he also revealed what truth is.
Indeed, Jesus actually answered the truth question before Pilate asked it. For if he came “to bear witness to the truth” then the truth must be what he bore witness to. So, to answer the question, “What is truth?”, we must pose the question, “To what does Jesus bear witness?” And the answer to this question lies on every page of the Bible. The enduring teachings of the Bible—teachings about the existence of God and of good, teachings about God’s image-bearers and our fall from grace, teachings about God’s standards and his requirements of us, teachings about God’s Son and his mission to save us—these teachings are the truths to which Jesus bore witness. And they are recorded in the Bible with such accuracy and clarity that Jesus was able to say to the Father, “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17).
The Lord Jesus is deeply concerned with the truth. He told the Samaritan woman, “God is a spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). He told his fellow Jews, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). He also said to them, “[I have] told you the truth which I heard from God” (John 8:40). He called the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17; 15:26); and he promised his disciples that “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).
The Gospel of John closely identifies Jesus with truth. John indicates that Jesus is both a storehouse and a supply channel for truth: he is “full of grace and truth” and “grace and truth came through” him (1:14, 17). Jesus himself indicates that he is at one with the truth: he said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6). These statements show that Jesus and truth are not only interrelated but also intermingled. They are intimately united, fused together and dissolved into each other like two metals in an alloy. Indeed, truth can no more be separated from Jesus than light can be separated from the sun. He is full of truth; the truth comes through him; he is the truth.
Now this casts the truth in a new light. “What is truth?” Pilate asked. But in a sense he got the question wrong. It is not what but who is truth? Truth is not abstract, it is Personal. For Jesus is himself the truth from whom all truth flows and on whom all truth depends and through whom all truth can be known. Without Jesus we can never gain an understanding of the truth. We can only steal fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It is only when we become Jesus’ disciples that we know the truth, and the truth sets us free.
1. David A. Noebel, Understanding the Times (Manitou springs, CO: Summit Press, Revised 2ndEdition, 2ndprinting, 2008), p. 9
2. ibid, p. 25
Copyright © Andrew Lansdown