What Is Truth?
John 18:33-37; John 14:1-9a
Gettysburg Presbyterian Church
Harry G. Winsheimer
March 22, 2009
How many items could there be on the shelves of grocery stores? What is your guess? Does anyone know? I Googled the question. In 2005, there were 45,000, and increasing! It is incredible!
There seems to be that many versions of truth, too.
We have an empirical view of truth. As detective Webb used to say on Dragnet, "Just the facts, Mam, just the facts." Facts are truth.
But! But, often we can't be sure of the facts. Testimony is given under oath down the street in the court. I am skeptical of the accuracy, because I have learned that all information is processed through our minds, e.g., two people may see the same accident yet describe it differently.
An announcement comes out about a new product being so good for us, and what do I do? I ask, "Who paid for the study? What are the biases built into the technique of the study?" I don't trust even the results secured by supposedly scientific means.
Dr. Thomas W. Gillespie, former president of Princeton Seminary,
wrote twenty-one years ago what is even more true today, that there
ground swell of skepticism in regard to the truth claims made by religions in general and Christianity in particular. Moreover, this skepticism now includes the claims of universal reason and extends even to the truth claims of the natural sciences. In place of truth, our culture acknowledges, at best, interpretations of reality, and, at worst, mere opinions. This ... is the intellectual environment in which we and our children have been living since the mid-point of [the twentieth] century.
The conviction is that all ... knowledge is relative knowledge. That means no one can credibly claim to know the truth about anything.
...knowledge and morality are thoroughly conditioned by history and culture and ... values are self-generated.
He was right on target! The impact is: “My truth is as good as your truth. Your truth is as good as my truth.”
And we join Pilate, responding to truth-talk by Jesus, with a dismissing cynicism, "Ahhh, what is truth?"
Let's take a look at their dramatic exchange.
Jesus' enemies want him eliminated. They are forbidden by law to execute him. Murder is too unsavory for top-ranked religious leaders. So, they use the Roman governor to do their dirty deed. They manipulate Pilate into a position of having to interrogate Jesus for sedition against Roman authority. It is a fascinating exchange, don't you think?
Pilate is adorned in the clothes of Roman power. The turf is his headquarters. He holds all the cards. The other man is hand cuffed. His clothes are those of a carpenter. He has a bruise on his face from being struck by a soldier.
Pilate really is not interested in Jesus. In fact, he sounds empathetic. He is annoyed that the religious hierarchy has maneuvered him into their conflict. He knows that he is being used. Pilate is interested only in the threat to stability. His job is to keep law and order. He asks Jesus about being a king. Jesus' posture is not aggressive or passive, but assertive, in control of his mind. He is bound and bruised, but speaks as if he is in charge of his destiny. He is without bitterness or hostility. Amazing! Jesus admits to being a king, but not in this world, saying in so many words: "If I were trying to seize your governorship or the emperorship of Rome, my followers would take up arms, right? Have they? They have not. You say that I am a king--I didn't say that; you said it. Let me tell you why I was born. I came into the world for the purpose of testifying to what is really real and true. Everyone who fully understands reality listens to my voice." Pilate does not get it. He says what many of us would say, "Ahhh, what is real?"
With a dismissing flip of his hand, Pilate strides away, fed up with talking with this religious man. He goes outside to address the VIPs, the ones who had brought the accusation of sedition, and says, "I find no case against him. But you have a custom of asking me to release one prisoner at the time of Passover. Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?" They shout, "Not him! Barabbas! Give us the thief, Barabbas!" Truth be crucified!
What does Jesus mean when he says that he was born, came into the world, for the purpose of testifying to the truth? He was born to testify to the truth of God.
Truth – that is a concept. When I was in seminary, I was student pastor of blue collar workers and farmers, two hundred people in two rural churches. In the classroom, the professors taught me concepts, such as truth. When I preached those concepts to the blue collar men, they yawned. When I communicated to the professors how the men thought, the profs could not identity with concrete thinking and the men’s desire for examples. The profs said, “This is truth.” The men said, “Show me.” Jesus gives us both the abstract concept of truth, and illustrates truth with his life.
God gives us both concept and example in Jesus. (Isn’t God a brilliant communicator?)
I have been thinking casually about replacing one of our vehicles, because one is a ‘98 and the other is a ‘99. I have been researching vehicles on the internet, e.g., on Edmunds. I read what my Lamborghini will be like – the one that you are getting me for pastoral calling. I have a concept in my mind. Once I saw a Lamborghini; it was right there, three feet from me. I wanted to touch it, get in, drive it! But, the sign said, “Do not touch!” Ohhhhh! A real Lamborghini gave me a much better idea of a Lamborghini. Well, returning to reality…. I had a concept in my head of what I wanted in our future vehicle. From the internet, I chose a model and went to the dealer. I got into one on the dealer’s lot. It was fine. Good. I liked it. I asked to drive it on the roughest road nearby, because of my back. My back hates jolts. In two miles, my back protested. Scratch that vehicle! The model did not match the concept. We need both concept and model. Jesus is the both a concept and a living example. He is the human who personifies the concept. He is the concept of truth in flesh.
Do you know how many references to truth John put into his gospel? Twenty-two. Truth is a major philosophical concept for him. He does not write as a Hebrew would, but as someone familiar with the intellectual world of the Greeks and Romans. He introduces his Gospel with words from philosophy, including, "The Word became flesh [a human being, like us] and lived among us ... full of grace and truth. ... grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known." Later, Jesus is quoted in chapter 14 as saying, "I am … the truth."
The Greek word used ... which we translate by our word "truth" means literally "not hide anything." It means reality as over against false appearances, telling the truth over against telling a lie. It can also mean a norm, the true measure of a thing, right behavior.
The biblical concept of truth could, in many cases, best be translated as reality: what is real, solid, binding, authentic.
God is the really true, really real. All human knowledge, relationships, personality and beliefs are limited, and saturated with false perceptions and interpretations. To perceive truth, we must know God. To live by the truth, we must follow Jesus who knows the way to God. In Jesus, God provided a living model of divine life and human life fully lived. Jesus is the living connection. He is the mediator representing God to us and us to God. He is the “Word become flesh.” Jesus witnesses to the truth by being, by living.
As the personification of truth, Jesus reveals the standards.
If you drive from Gettysburg to Washington, D.C., how do you go? Do you take 15 to Frederick and then get on I 270? As you approach Rockville, on your right is what appears to be a fenced park. Often you see deer grazing there. That is the back yard of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. How long is an inch or a foot? NIST sets the length. What is accurate time? NIST keeps it. How does your radiologist measure the radiation that she is giving you? NIST defines the measurement.
In matters of values, attitudes, and behaviors, God sets the standards and reveals them eminently through Jesus. Jesus witnesses to the standard and is the personified standard. He is the truth that guides us. Also, he is the truth by which we are judged.
The essence of truth to which Jesus witnessed is this: God loves!
Truth as Christ-like love differs from the values of the world. Pilate was interested in power, law and order, collecting taxes, pleasing his Roman superior, and keeping his job. Pilate intimidated to get his way. What are the values advocated in American secular society? Getting ahead, use of power, money, self-promotion, pleasure. What are the values advocated by Jesus? Care-giving, generosity, integrity, forgiveness, second chance, building-up others, support for the dependent and powerless, compassion for the humble, ethical behavior that builds up society. We are guided and judged by the standard of Christ-like love.
Jesus teaches love in the exchange with Pilate. He says in effect, “Pilate, if my kingdom were of this world, I would have called up my F16s, Tomahawk missiles, armored divisions and crushed you. But, my kingdom is made up of all those people who acknowledge me as true, trust me, and listen to me. Therefore, my kingdom has no physical boundaries. My subjects are the people who respect and listen to me.”
The preeminent expression of truth as love is in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross out of compassion for us. He suffered and died that we may not need to suffer punishment for our sins. He died to teach us how deeply God wants to be in relationship with us. And God raised him as the first example of the resurrection God intends for us. God raised him to teach us that God wants us to live with God eternally. Jesus reveals the truth of eternity. In spite of death, Jesus announces by his resurrection that there is more to reality than what we can see with our eyes. There is eternal life with God! There is the room in the Father’s house that Jesus has gone to prepare for us, and Jesus will take us there.
This climatic demonstration of God’s truth as love we will commemorate in Holy Week.
This week, reflect upon who Jesus is.
Is Jesus the truth by whom all other truth claims are measured?
Is Jesus the truth by whom we are guided?
Is Jesus the truth by whom we know God?
Among all the truth claims, against all the cynicism, will you state, “Jesus is The Truth?”
Return to the Sermons Menu