4-4 Truth: A Biblical Analysis
The crucial issue in all our reflections so far is that of truth. To be true to our maker, true to our Lord, true to ourselves, true to the new man that was created in us at baptism. We all seek for someone with whom we can be completely honest and vulnerable, who will relate to us with mercy, integrity, confidentiality and loving understanding. Every time we think we have found such a person and they fail us, we are driven further into ourselves. In this lies the sin of gossiping, breaking promised confidences and betrayal; and as a community we need to urgently give a long hard look at ourselves to see if the way we treat each other is leading us closer to the Father and each other, or deeper into ourselves. Because of our repeated bad experiences with people, we drift so easily into surface-level, false relationships. We talk about safe subjects, not disclosing the really private parts of our hearts. Failures aren’t shared, frustrations aren’t aired. Hurts are covered up. We sacrifice truth on the altar of peace-keeping and pleasant sociality. And it leads us to the lives of quiet desperation and loneliness-in-the-crowd which so many experience. Yet we in Christ have “the truth”. And seek to live it. What does this mean?
“The truth of Christ”
The phrase “the truth” is used in Scripture as a summary of the Godly life; for truth telling, and being truthful with oneself and God, is the epitome of the life which God intends. I want to demonstrate this; for all too often it has been assumed that because we know and believe true propositions about the Gospel, therefore we are somehow automatically ‘of the truth’. The following passages make clear enough that “the truth” refers not so much to intellectual purity of understanding as to a righteous way of life. If someone understands a matter of Biblical interpretation differently to how we do, e.g. over matters of prophecy, this doesn’t mean they have ‘left the truth’. Yet if we [e.g.] lie, then we have ‘left the truth’ despite holding a correct understanding of the doctrines of the Gospel:
- Sinners turn away from truth (2 Tim. 4:4; Tit. 1:14). They are bereft of the truth (1 Tim. 6:5). God has revealed the truth, indeed has sent his Son to live it and to proclaim it, but sinful people have refused to listen.
- English does not have a verb “to truth,” but Paul uses such a verb when he urges the Ephesians that “ ‘truthing’ in love” they should grow in Christ in all things (Eph 4:15). We might understand this as “speaking the truth in love,” but more probably we should see truth as a quality of action as well as of speech. Paul wants his converts to live the truth as well as to speak it. Real spiritual growth is only possible by a way of life that ‘truths it’.
- Paul calls on the Corinthians to keep the feast “with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth,” which he contrasts with “malice and evil” (1 Cor. 5:8). Truth is set up against evil- not against wrong interpretations of Bible passages.
- In Ps. 15:2 working righteousness paralleled with speaking the truth in our hearts.
- Ps. 69:13; 117:2 use “truth” to refer to God’s mercy and salvation. To shew mercy and salvation to others is to be ‘truthful’ in the Biblical sense.
- “Truth is perished” is paralleled with Judah being impenitent and not receiving correction (Jer. 7:28).
- To not do God’s commands in practice is to have no truth in us (1 Jn. 2:4,5 cp. 3:5). Time and again, the Proverbs speak of truth as the antithesis of various types of sin- e.g. “My mouth shall speak truth… wickedness is an abomination to my lips” (Prov. 8:7; 14:8).
- To commit violence to others' persons is to live a lie (Hos. 12:1). Truth is not therefore merely a set of doctrines; it refers to an obedient life. The LXX uses the phrase 'to do truth', which John uses, in passages like 2 Chron. 31:20 (about Hezekiah's obedience to commandments), or in Gen. 47:29; Is. 26:10 to describe simply doing and living what is right. The fact truth must be done indicates it is not merely correct academic interpretation of doctrine.
Jeremiah especially uses “truth” to refer to repentance. In Jer. 5:1 any who “seek the truth” will be forgiven- i.e. seek repentance and forgiveness. This is what truth is about in this sense. It is not simply those who search for correct understanding of Bible verses who will be forgiven. Jer. 7:28 speaks of how “truth is perished” in the context of lamenting how Israel had not responded to the call for repentance. In passing, note that in Jer. 9:3, to be “valiant for the truth” is not to lie and deceive our brethren; it’s not referring to being cantankerous with others about their interpretation of Scripture. It’s a tragedy that such individuals are held up by some as “valiant for the truth”- but that’s just not Jeremiah’s context at all. “The knowledge of the truth” in Heb. 10:26 refers in the context to the knowledge of forgiveness and salvation; it’s parallel to the “knowledge of salvation” (Lk. 1:77). The “truth” is the ultimate, surpassing reality- that we are saved, by grace, and can look forward to that great salvation being revealed at the last day. As an aside, it seems to me that for all our dysfunction, there's a desire in us to repent, to know the truth and let the truth come out. Psychologically, it's reflected in the way that we all have of telling clumsy lies at times, wanting to be found out as it were... because there's something in us which wants to be truthful, needs to come to confession and repentance. It's why the Catholic church's idea of voluntary sessions of confession is actually popular.
John’s greatest joy was that his converts ‘walked in truth’, they ‘walked after [the Father’s] commandments’ (2 Jn. 4,6). They walked in life honest to themselves and to the Father. Walking or living ‘in truth’ is thus put for living a life pleasing to God. It surely doesn’t mean that we simply live our lives holding on to the same intellectual understanding of doctrines which we had at our baptism. We ‘keep’ the commandments by ‘doing’ them (1 Jn. 2:3 cp. 5:2), not by merely holding to a true theoretical definition of them. There is so much more to walking in truth than this. We rightly emphasize the need for true doctrine; but the issue of this in practice is that true doctrine leads to a true life, a life true to God, to our brethren, to ourselves. John parallels walking in the light with walking in the truth (1 Jn. 1:7; 2 Jn. 4); and yet Jn. 3 defines the true light as ultimately the light of the crucified Christ. To live life self-analytically in the shadow of the cross, of Him as He was there, is the only way to walk in truth. This is the true life; to merely hold certain interpretations of Scripture in intellectual purity is not all there is to ‘walking in truth’ or ‘in the light’. This kind of truth sets us free (Jn. 8:31,32). Discerning the correctness of sound exposition will not of itself bring any freedom. But living a life that we know broadly corresponds to the image of the crucified Jesus will give a freedom unknown in any other sphere of human experience.
The commandment to love, as Christ loved us, is made new " as it is made true" (1 Jn. 2:8) both in the person of Jesus, and in all who are truly in Him. This means that the principles we receive in theory are to become 'truth' in us as they were in the Lord; they are to become applied in the very person and fabric of our beings, and not remain merely part of our shadow selves. It is truth that makes us pure (1 Pet. 1:22,23), good deeds are produced by truth (1 Jn. 3:18). No amount of correct theory can make us pure; surely the reference is to the life of transparency to God, of 'truth' in the sense that there is no divide between our inner convictions and our actual lives. Then will come true in us the connection which John perceives between truth and love (1 Jn. 3:19).
The True Life
Yet “the truth” is clearly related to the Gospel. It does, of course, matter crucially what we believe. Paul can speak of “the word of the truth of the gospel” (Col. 1:5) and again of “the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:5). He refers to “the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation” (Eph. 1:13). It’s quite Biblical that we refer to our faith as “the truth”. But truth is clearly a way of describing or summing up the way of life which the doctrines of the truth should elicit in us. Thus “the new man...is created in righteousness and holiness of truth” (Eph. 4:24). We obey the truth in unfeigned love of our brethren (1 Pet. 1:22), not just by intellectual assent at a baptismal interview; we ‘do the truth’ in loving our brother (1 Jn. 1:6); if truth is in us then we walk in it (3 Jn. 3). We are to walk uprightly according to the truth of the Gospel (Gal. 2:14); the truth is an upright walk. The truthfulness of the doctrines we believe is intended to issue in a truthful way of life. Thus Eph. 4:17-21 says that living a vain, greedy life is being disobedient to the truth which is in Jesus. And 2 Thess. 2:12 teaches that to not believe the truth is to take pleasure in unrighteousness. There is a moral link between any falsehood and an unspiritual life. And so repentance is an acknowledgment of the truth (2 Tim. 2:25). A person can learn the theory of God’s truth but never come to acknowledge it- i.e. to repent and life the life of the truth (2 Tim. 3:7), i.e. being transparent before God and brutally honest with oneself.Jer. 5:1 says that “if ye can find a man…that seeketh the truth…I will pardon it”. To seek truth is therefore to repent. Those moments of realization of our sinfulness, of accurately perceiving the gap between the personas we act out and the real, Christ-self within us- in those moments, we have come to truth. And this is the repentance that leads to true, authentic pardon.
It does at times appear impossible to live a truthful life in a world that is so essentially untruthful and self-deceptive. In Greek thought, and especially that of Plato, there was the idea that all on earth was untrue, but there was another, Heavenly world of truth and beauty. John's letters especially bring out that this is a wrong view. We, here and now on earth, can live in truth. To " walk in truth" means living a life according to the principles of Jesus, who was the truth to us, here in this dirty world of ours. Paul could say that Timothy had fully known his “purpose” (2 Tim. 3:10). The Greek prothesis is the same used in the New Testament about the shewbread- the bread openly on display before God. Paul is saying that his essential and real self was transparent, openly shown to both God and man. To say ‘You’ve fully known how open and transparent I am’ is really quite something. Who Paul showed himself to be was who he really was.
We must become like a child to enter the Kingdom. I’ve thought a lot about what characteristic is unique to a child- and concluded that it is perhaps simply that a child is natural. Even when others around the child aren’t acting naturally, the child does. He or she dares to show him or herself to others as really is, with no attempt to hide any weakness. This characteristic, the Lord says, is essential if we are to enter the realm of God’s rulership, both now and eternally. We simply have to give priority to ‘being ourselves’.
One thing that works against truthfulness is the neuroses that come from fear, the fearful tensions that arise between our real self and the false self. Fear and truth are opposed. This isn’t merely psychotherapeutic babble. Consider God’s words about this in Is. 57:11: “Of whom hast thou been afraid or feared, that thou has lied, and hast not remembered me?”. The life of brave faith, the life that is lived in the overcoming of fears, the fearless breaking out of our comfort zones… this is the true life, the life in which we have no need to lie nor believe in lies. But of course it’s hard, because we think that the truth, the reality, is what we see around us; whereas faith is believing in what is not seen. Yet actually what is not seen is the reality, and what is seen is very often a lie. And the true life is a life of faith in those things which are not yet visibly seen.
The Truth Of Christ
The perfect unity within the Lord Jesus, between the person He portrayed and who He really was, is reflected in much New Testament language concerning Him. Thus " life" in 1 Jn. 1:1,2 is personified as Jesus; He was the life (Jn. 11:25; 14:6; 1 Jn. 5:20). The person whom people knew, saw and touched in first century Palestine was the essence of the eternal life, the life God lives, and the life we by grace will eternally live. He wasn't acting human; He was human, genuinely human, and yet that human life which He lived was the ultimate and inner life of the Spirit.
In Jn. 18:37 Jesus told Pilate in the context of His upcoming death that He had come into this world to bear witness to the truth- the cross was the supreme witness and exhibition of the truth. There was no doctrine preached there, but rather the way of life which those doctrines ultimately lead to. Gal. 3:1 remonstrates with the Galatians as to how they could not obey the truth when the crucified Christ had been so clearly displayed to them; clearly Paul saw obedience to the truth as obedience to the implications of the cross. There is a powerful parallel in Gal. 4:16: I am your enemy because I tell you the truth... you are enemies of the cross of Christ. Thus the parallel is made between the cross and the truth. We are sanctified by the truth (Jn. 17:19); but our sanctification is through cleansing in the Lord’s blood. The same word is used of our sanctification through that blood (Heb. 9:13; 10:29; 13:12). Perhaps this is why Dan. 8:11,12 seems to describe the altar as “the truth”. The cross of Jesus is the ultimate truth. There we see humanity for what we really are; there we see the real effect of sin. Yet above all, there we see the glorious reality of the fact that a Man with our nature overcame sin, and through His sacrifice we really can be forgiven the untruth of all our sin; and thus have a real, concrete, definite hope of the life eternal.
Jesus told the truth to this world in the sense that He was sinless (Jn. 8:47). Likewise in Jn. 17:19 He says that He sanctifies Himself, so that “the truth”, i.e. His perfect life and death, might sanctify us. This was His telling of truth to men. By continuing in the word of Jesus we will know the truth (Jn. 8:31,32)- not so much that we will attain greater doctrinal knowledge, but that our lives will reflect our knowledge of Jesus who is “the truth”. The truth sets us free; the Son sets us free (Jn. 8:32, 36). “The truth” is therefore a title for Jesus. Mere academic knowledge alone cannot set anyone free from sin; but the living presence and example and spirit of life of another Man can, and does.And so in Jn. 14:6 the way, truth and life are all parallel- truth is a way of life; “truth is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:21 RV). The spirit of life in Christ sets us free from sin (Rom. 8:2); but Gal. 5:1 simply says that “Christ” has set us free [the same Greek phrase] from sin. The Man Christ Jesus is His “spirit of life”; the man and His way of life were in perfect congruence. They always were; for in Him the word was made flesh. There was ‘truth’ in His very person, in that the principles of the God of Truth were perfectly and totally lived out in His person and being. Back in 1964, Emil Brunner wrote a book, whose title speaks for itself: Truth As Encounter. Truth is essentially a person- the Lord Jesus. Truth is an experience, a way of life, a total assurance of forgiveness and salvation, a validation of the new man created within us, in a way so deep, and so strongly felt, that all else appears as falsehood compared to that surpassing ‘truth’.