Episode 12: Truth
According to David L. Russell, "Truth has no responsibility to make us comfortable." One of the most discomforting statements found in the Gospel of John arises as Jesus appears before Pilate and Pilate asks the question, “What is truth?” The situation in which this phrase is spoken sums up the entire Gospel. The one who brings truth into existence stands before the world’s representative who utterly fails to recognize Truth as it faces him directly. Discomfort, or perhaps even disbelief, floods the reader who answers the query, after having read the gospel from the beginning.
The Word came in human flesh and resided among us
like a nomadic traveler, then we saw the Word’s glory,
a glory associated only with one uniquely with the
father, glory filled with grace and truth. John
testified concerning this one as he heralded, “This one is
the one of whom I spoke, ‘one will appear after me who
has always been before me, because he is of greater
importance than I am.’” Out of his fullness we all receive
grace abounding beyond grace; because the Law
was given through Moses, yet grace and truth came
about through Jesus Christ. (John 1:14-17)
The last episode indicated that grace appears in the Gospel of John only in these three verses. Truth, on the other hand, permeates this Gospel, appearing over 25 times-over 20% of its total usage in the entire New Testament. Although these two terms go hand in hand in the Prologue, it becomes evident that Truth is the critical term this gospel seeks to clarify.
In the Old Testament
The pairing of truth with grace provides a New Testament example of an Old Testament practice, using parallel statements to clarify and describe. Given the fluidity of language–after all, it is not a modern science measuring fixed elements–Grace and Truth are often associated with the Hebrew phrase, hesed w’emet, representing lovingkindness and truth, God’s essential characteristics. The Greek Old Testament pairs Truth with Mercy. Yet, there may be more to this practice of pairing words than merely duplicating ancient terms.
David is among the first to use such a pairing when he addresses those who showed Saul kindness in death. “Now may the LORD be mercy and truth to you, even as I will show you such goodness because you have brought this message.” (2 Samuel 2:6, LXX) The Psalms frequently use this combination of terms as well.
All the Lord’s paths are mercy and truth for those
who keep his covenant and his testimonies. (Ps 25:10)
I have not hidden your righteousness within my heart,
I have spoken of your truth and salvation,
I have not hidden your mercy and truth from the
You, O LORD, will not delay your compassion from
coming to me;
Your Mercy and truth will help me through every
We see the importance of these two terms in revealing the most prominent characteristic for God in the OT, God’s steadfast love! But Psalm 89 draws even greater comparisons for these two terms.
Righteousness and Justice are
the foundation of your throne,
Mercy and Truth precede your appearance. (89:14)
Here we find four crucial terms linked together in the presence of God: righteousness, justice, mercy, and truth. These four represent, in one fashion or another, the basic revelation of God to the human species. These essential elements form the basis for understanding how relationships should be managed under the rule of God.
Listen to the Word of the Lord, O Sons of Israel, the
LORD has a judgment against all those who inhabit the
land, there is no truth, there is no mercy, and no one
understands God in the land. (Hosea 4:1)
It would appear from these examples that the one who practices mercy and truth, in Hebrew hesed w’emet, understands God and lives within the covenant of God.
Elsewhere in John
The Old Testament practice of describing ideas by using parallel statements or presenting contrasting ideas has a home in the New Testament as well. These linguistic elements are readily apparent when it comes to Truth. In chapter 3, the Light and the Truth are contrasted with those who do evil. (3:20-21) Later in chapter 8, the actions of Abraham are compared to Truth, while those of a group who seek to kill Jesus are compared with lies, murder, and the devil. (8:39-46) On the other hand, positive comparisons exist as well in the Gospel of John. In addition to Truth’s association with Light, we find that John the Baptizer gives testimony to truth. (5:33) The worship of God, a concern voiced by many whom Jesus encountered, is identified as being completed only in spirit and truth–a phrase repeated within the brief dialogue. (4:23-24)
Truth takes center stage during the words of Jesus on his last evening. He answers the question from Thomas regarding his departure with the well-known, “I am the Way, I am the Truth, I am the Life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” (14:6) Jesus repeatedly promises a helper sent from God, the Spirit of Truth, who will also testify to Jesus. (14:16-17, 15:26-27, 16:12-13) The three-fold repetition of this promise indicates the crucial nature of this theme as well as the certainty of its occurrence. Since God is the origin of truth and must be worshipped in truth, then the spirit who comes from God will be identified with both truth and worship.
Finally, in his prayer Jesus makes a request which functions to further identify truth with the central theme of the gospel.
Set them apart in the truth; your word is truth.
Just as you sent me into the world, even so I sent them
into the world; I have set myself apart in your truth for
their benefit so that they themselves may be set apart in
your truth. (17:17-19)
Jesus' association of truth with God’s word is presented throughout the entire gospel. Episode 1 spoke directly to the role of Word within this gospel. One should recognize that Jesus claimed his own words represented God’s message accurately. Now, however, truth plays an important role in this request by Jesus. Truth is no longer simply an idea, or even a standard. Instead, it seems to have power in and of itself. Speaking truth, speaking words of God; both are related to each other and have the ability to consecrate. This power to set one apart, as well as prepare one, for special activities, is the power of one in authority.
Jesus takes on flesh and dwells among humanity in order to reveal truth. Throughout his brief time among humanity, the question of truth never strays far from center stage. At the climax of the gospel, during the trial of Jesus before Pilate, the words of Pilate confirm what was claimed earlier,
The Word was in the world, the world was made
through the Word, yet the world did not acknowledge
the Word, The Word came to its own people, yet its own
people failed to receive this Word. (1:10-11)
Pilate, among others in the story, is blind to Truth itself. Such blindness, perhaps more than anything else, may reveal one’s true identity as a child of the accuser, the father of lies. (8:44)
TAKE 5 MINUTES MORE
The Gospel of John continues an Old Testament tradition of using some abstract concepts as characteristics of God. In this case, Truth represents the character of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus, the Word with God at the Beginning, brings this abstract idea into concrete reality. Jesus faithfully represents the fullness of who God is. Claiming that I relate to God means recognizing Jesus as the one who brings Grace and Truth into existence.
Take a moment to consider the ways, large or small, that you mentally draw lines of distinction between Jesus of the New Testament and God of the Old Testament. Put your thoughts on paper so you can clearly visualize your patterns of thinking. Determine whether any of your descriptions should still remain in view of John 1:18, “No one has seen God at any time; the one uniquely God who was at the breast of the father, that one has explained God.”