John 18:28-38

What Is Truth?

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John 18:28-38

What Is Truth?

Dr. Philip W. McLarty

Our series continues with another question asked of Jesus: What is truth?

As we explore this question, I hope you’ll benefit in two ways:

• One, that you’ll resolve to be more truth-seeking – digging deeper and getting to the bottom line – not accepting as fact everything you hear on the news or out on the street;

• Two, that you’ll see truth as something more than an objective reality.  In the eyes of faith, truth is a living Word that informs us and inspires us to live as children of God.

First, let’s take a closer look at the text.  Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and taken to Caiaphas’ house.  It was a setup.  The Jewish Council was already assembled and waiting.  They questioned him at length and condemned him for blasphemy.  The next day they sent him to Pontius Pilate on the charge of treason, that he claimed to be King of the Jews.

Pilate was already aware of Jesus and curious to know more.  Luke says,

Now when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceedingly glad, for he had wanted to see him for a long time, because he had heard many things about him. He hoped to see some miracle done by him.” (Luke 23:8)

Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (John 18:33) Jesus asked Pilate, “Do you say this by yourself, or did others tell you about me?” (John 18:34) Pilate confessed that this is what he’d been told.  And Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world …” (John 18:36) Pilate seized on this and said, “So you are a king?” (John 18:37)  And Jesus replied,

“You say that I am a king.
For this reason I have been born,
and for this reason I have come into the world,
that I should testify to the truth.
Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
(John 18:37)

And Pilate said, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)

Jesus didn’t respond.  His silence implies the answer: “If you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand.”

What is truth?  It’s a good question.  Truth is essential to healthy relationships and strong communities.

I had a couple of friends in seminary who had a falling out.  One said to the other, “I can’t trust you any more.  You say one thing and do another.  You’re not being honest with me; you only tell me what you think I want to hear.”  They parted friendship and went their separate ways.

Truth lies at the heart of every healthy relationship.  Whether it’s your husband or wife, your business partner or best friend, you have to believe the other person is telling you the truth.  If they ever lie to you or betray your trust, your relationship will never be the same.  You’ll always wonder in the back of your mind, “Is he/she telling the truth?”

This is something Rotarians know all about.  The first question in their “Four-Way Test” is simply: Is it the truth?

Truth is the cornerstone of living in community with each other.  We have to trust individuals and companies to do what they promise.  When truth is compromised, community breaks down.

We see this in the political arena: Politicians have talked out of both sides of their mouths for so long we no longer have confidence in what they say or do.

When he took the oath of office following Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford said, “Truth is the glue that holds government together.”  No doubt about it.  And we could go on to say … “the absence of truth is the solvent that quickly dissolves it.”

Truth is essential to healthy relationships and strong communities.  That’s the first point, and the second is this: Truth is rare.

Ever watch Perry Mason?  The first half of the show was about some crime that’d been committed; the second half was about how it was tried in court, where Perry Mason exposed the culprit and got a guilty verdict or a public confession.  As each witness took the stand, he was asked, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”  The witness solemnly answered, “I do.”  Anything less was inadmissible.

There ought to be some way to apply that oath to everyday life.  While most of us are not guilty of telling out-right lies, we’re not altogether honest, either.

I love the story told about Lillian Carter, President Carter’s mother.  When he was running for President, there was a female reporter who was determined to dig up some dirt on the candidate.  So, she dogged Miss Lillian relentlessly for weeks.  Finally, Miss Lillian consented to an interview in her home.  She met the reporter at the door and invited her in.  No sooner than they’d sat down, the reporter asked, “Has your son ever told a lie?”  Miss Lillian bristled and said, “No, never.”  “Never?” the reporter asked. “Never!” Miss Lillian answered.  “Never??” the reporter persisted.  Miss Lillian said, “Well, maybe a little white lie, now and then.”  It was the chink in the armor the reporter was looking for.  “I see,” she said, “and what, pray tell, is a white lie?”  Miss Lillian smiled and said, “Well, do you remember when I greeted you at the door and said how nice it was to see you?”

We do it all the time.  We tell little white lies: “I’d love to come, but I have a prior commitment … Send me more information, and I’ll get back to you … the check’s in the mail.”

At best, it’s a way of being courteous; at worse, it’s a way of being dishonest.  Truth, pure and simple, is rare.

I told you this story not long ago: A minister friend had a passion for books.  The walls of his study were lined with bookcases, and the bookcases were filled with books from floor to ceiling.  One day a little boy came to the door, saw all the books and exclaimed, “Golly, look at all those books!  How you read every one of them?”  The minister never missed a beat.  He said, “Some of them I’ve read twice.”

You get the point: We manipulate the truth to serve our purposes, not only by what we say, but by what we don’t say.  G. C. Lichtenberg reminds us, “The most dangerous untruths are truths slightly distorted.”

There’s an old adage that goes, “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.”  It’s a takeoff on the scripture, where Jesus told his disciples, “let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ Whatever is more than these is of the evil one.” (Matthew 5:37)

You’re better off to speak the truth in love, and let the chips fall where they may.

Truth is rare.  That’s the second point, and the third is this: No matter how truthful you want to be, your ability to tell the truth is limited by your perspective.  I hate to tell you this but there’ll always be more to the truth than you’ll ever know.  Paul said it best when he said,

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I was also fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Three men were blindfolded and asked to describe an elephant.  One felt of the trunk and described the elephant as a big serpent, something like a Boa Constrictor.  Another felt of the elephant’s front leg and described the elephant as a tall creature with a massive torso.  The third felt of the elephant’s ear and said it must be something like a Manta Ray.  All three were right, as far as they knew, yet none described the elephant completely.

Your ability to tell the truth is limited by what you know.  That’s why it’s so important to be circumspect – to be aware that, as obvious as something may be to you – and as firmly as you may believe it – there are other perspectives just as valid as yours to be considered.  Next time you have a difference of opinion with someone, instead of arguing about who’s right, listen carefully to what the other person has to say.  It’ll help you see the bigger picture more clearly.

Your ability to be truthful is limited by your perspective.  Finally, truth, as we know it, is subject to change.

Remember when we thought the world was flat and the earth was the center of the universe?  There was a time when we believed these things were true.  Turns out, we were wrong.  What we accepted as true changed.  Which makes you wonder: What are we accepting today as truth that, in years to come, will turn out to be false?

Who are you going to believe?  What is truth?

As men and women of faith, we can answer that question in a heartbeat.  We believe truth is synonymous with the Word of God.  Jesus made this clear when he prayed for his disciples, “Father … Sanctify them in your truth. Your word is truth.” (John 17:17)

This is the second year for many of us to read through the entire Bible from January to December.  If you’re one of those who’s participating, you’ve already found out that a lot of the Bible – particularly, the Old Testament – is tedious and (shall I say?) boooor-ing.   Seriously, who cares how many sheep and goats and bulls and oxen were required for the sacrifice of atonement?

And yet … if you read the Bible carefully … and prayerfully … and in its entirety, you’ll find that it speaks of the sovereignty of a loving God determined to reconcile the world to himself.  It speaks of judgment and promise, forgiveness and love.  It bears witness to a Truth that is universal and unchanging.

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The Good News is that God’s Word became flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus Christ.  William How got it right when he penned the words:

“O Word of God incarnate, O Wisdom from on high;
O Truth unchanged, unchanging, O Light of our dark sky.
We praise you for the radiance that, from the hallowed page,
A lantern to our footsteps shines on from age to age.”

By listening to the teachings of Jesus and walking in his footsteps, we’re given the ability to know the truth in the midst of a less-than-truthful world.

Plus, he gives us the power of his Spirit to speak the truth in his name.  If that were not enough, he makes this promise:

“If you remain in my word, then you are truly my disciples.
You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

(John 8:32)

I said at the outset I hoped that, as a result of the sermon today, you’d resolve to be more truth-seeking in your own life and not be swayed by what you hear on the news or out on the street.

At the end of the day, the only way to do that is to know the source of truth, and that’s Jesus Christ.  Honor him as the Lord and Savior of your life.  Then anchor your life in him and weigh what you see and hear by the standard of his righteousness and love.

I also said that I hoped you’d see truth as something more than an objective reality.  In the eyes of faith, truth is dynamic – not something you pen down and defend, but something you live each day, as you seek to live not as a citizen of this world, but as a child of God.

Years ago, one of my church members asked me if I happened to know a business associate of his.  I said yes, and he proceeded to give me his impressions of this mutual friend of ours.  He described him as impeccably honest and straightforward – in his words, “a consummate businessman and gentleman.”  Then he used a term I’ll always remember: He said, “He’s a straight arrow.”

I don’t know of a better way to answer the question, “What is truth?”  Truth is a straight arrow – perfectly straight and true – not warped or bent in any way by pride, prejudice or selfish motive.

Jesus Christ is the ultimate example.  Look to him, learn from him, follow his example and, by God’s grace, you, too, will come to embody the truth and be a living witness to his grace and love.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Copyright 2011, Philip McLarty.  Used by permission.

Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.