What Is Truth?
"For this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth." (John 18.17). Pilate is usually dismissed as one who didn't wait to hear the answer to his question, but we don't know that. The Gospels don't give us all the details of any one particular incident. If Pilate did not listen to Jesus he missed a wonderful opportunity but then he was not the only one who did that.
What does a dictionary or thesaurus tell us concerning the meaning of the word 'truth'? It is something that is not false and is linked to accuracy, correctness, sincerity, integrity, genuineness, and fact. Each of those terms could be a study in itself. Has the idea of truth changed in the last two thousand years? Has thinking changed with the advent of scientific investigation that implies exact measurement and records of detail? That was not unknown but less common in ancient times.
F.H.Palmer in the New Bible Dictionary says that 'truth' in the Old Testament is used in two senses, intellectual facts and more commonly, in the moral sense of dependability as when Joseph verified his brothers statements as to who they were (Gen.42.16). Palmer goes on to say that the New Testament use of the word 'aletheia' has something of the classical Greek meaning but also carrying something of the Hebrew meaning. He further says that it is sometimes difficult to know where to place the emphasis on the moral or the factual aspects. That should make us cautious in our thinking. During the last few hundred years there have been many who dissented from the established churches and then claimed a personal possession of 'the Truth'.
What does truth do? That is not a strange question in Hebrew philosophy which tends to be more practical than the intellectual exercises and semantics as in ancient Greek culture or modern English philosophy. In Psalm 40.11, normally attributed to David, the psalmist says "May your love and your truth always protect me." That in the RSV is a little different but gives a clue to the meaning of truth; "Let thy steadfast love and faithfulness preserve me". Psalm 25.5 speaks of being led "in thy truth and teach me" so we have protection and guidance by knowing 'the truth'. Truth speaks of faithfulness ‑ reliability ‑ dependability ‑ and that is how the nature and character of God are revealed throughout the Scriptures. In fact Psalm 25 uses the word 'chesed' which in the RSV is almost always translated into English as 'steadfast love'‑ the love which binds Israel to its God ‑ Yahweh. The outstanding quality of that love is its faithfulness. Israel's God was unlike any of the false pagan gods ‑ He was not fickle ‑ He did not change with the passing seasons. He could be depended upon ‑ unswerving ‑ unchanging because He was not the figment of human imagination but the eternal Creator from before human time began.
What does Truth do? Jesus said "you will know the truth and the truth will make you free" (John 8.32). That kind of statement stung the religious leaders of Jesus' day because they believed that as descendants of Abraham they were free already, unlike their Gentile neighbours. They little realised how enslaved they had become to the very Law which once had liberated
God's people at Sinai. Truth liberates us in the same way ‑ we can become bound by sin and human tradition and human decadence. In our day and age philosophies based on wrong interpretation of scientific findings and the desire to be free from what is perceived to be religious morality is leading the human race to ethical standards worse than that of paganism. We are moving towards a lawless culture or as the book of Judges has it "every man did what was right in his own eyes". Truth embodies the idea of law.
The Truth of God sanctifies. This is the process whereby the child of God, having been redeemed in Christ is taught to walk with God ‑ and in walking with Him, becomes like Him. This is where it is so important to distinguish between intellectual knowledge, which is easy to absorb (at least by some) and Truth which removes the works of darkness and shows us the path of light. Truth reveals us for what we are as sinful children of Adam and shows us what God wants us to be as His children in Christ. God will not catechize us as we enter His Kingdom. He will be looking for His image in our character.
That does not allow us to become lazy in our thoughtful study of God's Word. If we love Him we will love His Word and we will want to know, as well as we are able, what it teaches us. By His Word He does the pruning work as the Master gardener. The word used in John 15.2 kathairo and translated 'prunes' the branches in the vine is related to the word Paul uses in Ephesians 5.26 katharizo when writing about Christ's loving and cleansing the Church through the Word.
Jesus told a woman by a well that God is a spirit and those who worship His Father must do so in the spirit and in truth. We do not need a specially venerated shrine nor do we need outward adornment in our worship. Our faith is in Christ not in outward or external things. God requires purity of heart and simplicity of mind so that He can be worshipped in the prayers of our hearts in any surroundings.
That which provoked Pilate's well known question was Jesus own words "for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth". So to discover truth we need to take a long, hard look at our Saviour and try to be utterly honest in our assessment of Him as we can. We shall not discover the whole truth by emphasizing one aspect of His work and teaching, more than any other. Above everything else Jesus came into the world to provide the perfect revelation of God (Heb.1. 1‑4). The Pharisees of Jesus' day did not recognise God's revelation in Christ because they already had a definition of 'truth' that did not match up in any way with what Jesus said and did. Jesus condemned the sins of hypocrisy and arrogance. The Pharisees were arrogant in their conceit about the perfection of their knowledge. They were hypocritical in their demands for others to be outwardly holy like themselves but inwardly they were far from holy.
Truth is not a collection of static ideas. What we see as Truth now may need considerable amendment when we no longer see through a glass darkly ‑ when we no longer look "at puzzling reflections in a mirror" as J.B.Phillips translated 1 Cor.13.12. The revelation of God that is being given to us is continually unfolding, showing new boundaries and definitions. Yet as we examine carefully the relationship of God with Abraham and Moses we see that they had already begun to appreciate something of the wonder of His 'glory' that was to be revealed by the prophets about the Almighty. God is God and His pronouncements are right yet both Abraham and Moses felt able to question what He says.
We know relatively little about this tiny planet and as we ponder the Universe that is so far understood are we not filled with awe and left speechless? Sadly men have become more arrogant and unbelieving with the 'increase of knowledge'. But do we, children of God, make arrogant assertions? We are right to be sure of what we believe and to state those beliefs in the spirit of the One in whom we believe. If God has revealed Himself and His purpose to us, that should make us genuinely humble. If 'truth' doesn't make us like its Divine Author, either we are abusing a privilege or we just don't possess Truth. Truth is a reflection of God ‑ bound up in His Word. It gives us a veiled glimpse of God, His work in creation and re-creation through His Son. Our knowledge of God, His work and His ways in Creation are confined to this planet ‑ but a speck in a vast universe. What of the mysteries and energy about which we know virtually nothing? Yet we have seen enough of the beauty and wonder of our great God to give us a simple faith to which we must be obedient. In Jesus He has shown us that He wants to draw us to Himself. It is not that God is holding back ‑ it is we limited human beings, which place boundaries on the infinite loveliness of our Creator.
To quote again from Paul's words in 1 Cor.13 through Phillips pen "At present all I know is a little fraction of the truth but the time will come when I shall know it as fully as God now knows me"
"Fear not to enter His courts in the slenderness
Of the poor wealth thou wouldst reckon as thine
Truth in its beauty and love in its tenderness;
These are the offerings to lay on His shrine."