First Mennonite Church
June 23, 2019
What Is Truth?
Text: John 18:28-40
What is truth? Pilate asked this question to Jesus at a very critical moment in Jesus’ earthly life. Jesus had been arrested, denied by Peter, interrogated by the temple authorities, and finally left at the hands of Pilate. From the very beginning, Pilate realized the Man was innocent. Pilate did not want to handle the situation, which in his view was purely a religious matter. But Pilate had the duty, under Caesar, to deal with matters that were considered beyond the scope of the religious authorities. As for the religious authorities, they had already concluded that Jesus’ action merited death, which they could not carry out. So, during the trial, Pilate had the unique opportunity to personally interrogate Jesus. But Jesus’ answers only confused Pilate further. His last question to Jesus was an existential one: What is truth? Upon making this question, Pilate walked away giving the impression he was not interested in knowing the answer. Pilate walked away to face the mob, which vehemently demanded Jesus’ death and the release of a criminal—Barabbas.
What is truth? Very often in the context of the church, this question seems to have been narrowed to focus only on matters of orthodoxy. The quest for truth in the context of the church and for many Christians has often been limited to proof texting their preferred views or practices with the Bible. Many Christians would say that the Bible is the truth or that a certain list of theological claims or list of doctrinal statements is the truth. And although there might be a word of truth [a neat pun] in each of those claims, such limited definition of truth misses Jesus’ definition. Maybe, from a human perspective, truth, just as God, is pretty elusive; thus, any and every set definition of truth or of God will fail to capture the essence of it.
What is truth? Seeking the answer to this question is no game. In many cases the lives of people hang on the balance in this question. When the truth is not taken seriously, innocent people’s lives and freedom are put in jeopardy. When the truth is not accepted, lies and half-truths become gospel. These are only a sample of how this question shows its far-reaching importance.
At this juncture in world history and in the American life, the value of truth should matter the most. But, how often it seems to be that the truth has lost its significance especially to those who are in power? Truth is defined by those who can amplify the scope of their voices. Among such, often is the case that truth no longer is based on facts. Facts are twisted, tweaked, and in many cases completely disregarded. On the other hand, we live in a time when every person claims the right to his or her own truths. In this pluralistic society, every person is entitled to define and to live by his or her own set of truths. In this pluralistic people are wary at about anyone who would attempt to define truth for them. Each one wants to be left alone and not have his or her truths questioned.
So again, what is truth? It might help if we step back a little and we look again into Pilate’s interaction with Jesus. As Jesus stands condemned by his own people to die, Jesus seems not to have anyone to advocate for his release. Pilate interrogates Jesus about his past and about his identity. Pilate wonders openly if Jesus is a king, but Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. . . .”
Pilate exercised his authority through the use of force and brutality. He was a ruthless man, who openly despised his Jewish subjects. Pilate imposed peace through force, but on this occasion there stood before him someone whose modus operandi was completely different from his. Pilate felt confused and inept to address his prisoner. Pilate felt disarmed before someone who was so meek, yet showed no signs of weakness. Contrary to Pilate, Jesus demonstrated power through love, friendship, and service. Contrary to Pilate, Jesus represented the Creator God of the universe, not Caesar and his empire. Jesus, despite being Lord and Teacher, served and even washed the feet of his friends. Jesus, despite being rejected, loved unconditionally unto the very end. He tells Pilate he has not said or done anything in secret, yet his trial was being carried out under the cover of darkness. Therefore, everything Jesus said and did gave evidence that his kingdom was indeed from another place. His way of being and living reveal the character of God’s kingdom that he proclaimed. And then he declares to Pilate: For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Jesus came to testify to the truth. So, Pilate’s question, what is truth, was a valid one, but he could not care less for the answer. That was because he did not belong to the truth, thus, could not bear to hear what it was. Jesus came to testify to the truth. And from his words and actions Jesus demonstrated that truth is the message he proclaimed and embodied. Truth is the expressed will of God as proclaimed by Jesus.
What is truth? Contrary to most definitions, truth is not something one can possess. Truth is not a set of theories, but concrete expressions of the character and will of God. Truth is not an intellectual discourse, but actions that mirror Jesus’. Truth is not something anyone can possess or have absolute claim over. Churches cannot claim to possess the Truth, with a capital “T.” Jesus says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” One can only belong to the truth—because in Jesus’ words, HE is the truth and those who belong to him hear—heed his voice. Jesus and his words were God speaking directly to humanity.
Earlier in the gospel of John, Jesus says to his opponents, “Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” (John 8:47.) Therefore, anyone who listens and obeys the words of Jesus belongs to the truth. Anyone who refuses to hear and obey Jesus’ words remains in falsehood and lies.
What is truth? There are several truths, truth about us, about religion, and about God. The truth is that you and I are humans, who have fallen short of the glory of God. The truth is that you and I are given an invitation to hear and follow Jesus as Lord. The truth is that we all commit mistakes and are in constant need of restoration and forgiveness. The truth is that if we confess our sins, Jesus is just and righteous to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. The truth is that we do not possess the truth. The truth is that we can only belong to the truth if we listen to the voice of the one who is the way, the truth and the life.
If left to our own devices we become prey to self-deceit and of the lies the world throws on us. For that reason the incarnate Truth came into this world to set us free. And today the Lord is telling us as he did his disciples, “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)
Truth, my dear friends, is not contained in doctrinal statements, nor found in certain modes of biblical interpretation. Truth is Jesus and his words. And we would do ourselves a great favor if we clung to every word he has for us. We would discover a truth which does not oppress nor inspire fear, but one that frees us from every bondage. The Truth will make us free to serve, to love, and even to die as Jesus lived and died. Jesus is the Truth and everyone who belongs to the Truth listens to his voice. Amen.