“…for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice .” Pilate said to Him, “What is truth ? ” John 18: 37, 38
In the New Testament, the word most commonly used for “truth”, is ” aletheia”, in the Greek. Other words are often used for “true” or “truly”, or “verily” or “certain”, but aletheia is most often used to express” truth” as in the verse quoted above. As Pilates reply indicates, the idea of an absolute truth was far from universal in the Roman world of his day. There were ancient Greeks that argued for a universal truth , sometimes called natural law, truth that was innate in man and could be recognized by all.
In the 4th century B.C. Sophocles is quoted in his play, Antigone, speaking of natural law,””These laws are not for now or for yesterday, they are alive forever; and no one knows when they were shown to us first”. Aristotle said, ” there is in nature a common principle of the just and unjust that all people in some way divine…” The Roman Cicero also insisted on a god or gods given natural law. However, many other philosophers argued against it and in world of atheism or polytheism, universal truths are a hard sell.
The bible clearly states in the book of Romans chapter one and two that even the heathen are aware of God’s divine moral standards and righteousness, and indicate that all men can and do recognize absolute truth, though they may fight to obscure and repress it. The Jewish people had knowledge of righteousness beyond the innate knowledge of the early Greeks, they had the Torah. To Romans like Pilate however, this was sheer and mad superstition, and not a thing that a sophisticated Roman could ever embrace. To a Roman there were as many truths as there were gods, or if atheist, no truth outside of man’s invention could exist.
Jesus was of course, a Jew. Born not far from Jerusalem, a couple of millenia ago in Roman occupied Israel and quite familiar with the Torah. And the truth he was preaching in the streets of old Judea went far beyond natural law. It was truth that would not be embraced today, as he violated all the known maxims by which truth is judged in a modern Roman society. It was both universally binding on all people’s, and yet exclusive from all other religions. It made no allowances for cultural diversity and claimed to be coming directly from the only Divine source, the God of the Jewish prophets and patriarchs. It wasn’t relative truth.
The Gospel of John is unique among the other Gospels in the number of times it uses the word “truth”. In a lexicon you’ll find the Greek word aletheia is used 20 times in John, more than in any other book in the New Testament. By comparison, Matthew only uses it once and Luke and Mark three times. To appreciate the manner in which it is used, let’s go through some of the most thought-provoking passages.
John 14:6, “…I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.”This idea is more fully expanded upon in John chapter 10, though a different Greek word is used for truly or assuredly;
“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep… And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger…But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.”
Again, exclusivity, there was a good shepherd opposed to thieves and robbers, there were those that were sheep and those that were not. Both verses also emphasize that Jesus isn’t only the way or a speaker of truth, but that he is the embodiment of truth.
John 4:21-24; “Woman”, Jesus replied, “believe me, there is a time coming when you will worship the father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know, we worship what we do know, for salvation is of the Jews. Yet a time is coming and now is when true worshippers will worship the father in spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.”
Notice that even though the Samaritans had some idea of God, Salvation was of the Jews, exclusively. And it wasn’t sufficient to worship God in the spirit alone, but the truth was essential as well.
John 8: 31-32. “Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. 32 And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
Jesus again emphasizing the importance of abiding in his word, and affirming the idea that essential truth can be known and that truth is essential.
John 14:17, “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.”
John 16:13, “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.”
A classic example of the type of preaching the apostles did under the influence of the Holy Spirit can be found in Romans chapter 10 or in Act 13 as follows;
“Then Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said, “Men of Israel, and you who fear God, listen: The God of this people Israel chose our fathers, and exalted the people when they dwelt as strangers in the land of Egypt, and with an uplifted arm He brought them out of it. Now for a time of about forty years He put up with their ways in the wilderness. And when He had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, He distributed their land to them by allotment.
After that He gave them judges for about four hundred and fifty years, until Samuel the prophet. And afterward they asked for a king; so God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. And when He had removed him, He raised up for them David as king, to whom also He gave testimony and said, ‘I have found David[c] the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all My will.’ From this man’s seed, according to the promise, God raised up for Israel a Savior—Jesus— after John had first preached, before His coming, the baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘Who do you think I am? I am not He. But behold, there comes One after me, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to loose.’
“Men and brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to you the word of this salvation has been sent. For those who dwell in Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they did not know Him, nor even the voices of the Prophets which are read every Sabbath, have fulfilled them in condemning Him. And though they found no cause for death in Him, they asked Pilate that He should be put to death. Now when they had fulfilled all that was written concerning Him, they took Him down from the tree and laid Him in a tomb. But God raised Him from the dead. He was seen for many days by those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are His witnesses to the people. And we declare to you glad tidings—that promise which was made to the fathers. God has fulfilled this for us their children, in that He has raised up Jesus. As it is also written in the second Psalm:
‘ You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You.’
And that He raised Him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, He has spoken thus:
I will give you the sure mercies of David.’
Therefore He also says in another Psalm:
‘ You will not allow Your Holy One to see corruption.’[h]
“For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell asleep, was buried with his fathers, and saw corruption; but He whom God raised up saw no corruption. Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.
…Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. “
A very clear message which detailed Jewish history and the calling, death and resurrection of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. There were many other gods, philosophies and belief systems in and around the areas where the apostles preached, and yet never did they suggest that the gospel message was just one way or one source of truth, or in any way minimize the importance of Jewish background and adherence to the Jewish prophets.
John 17:17-19, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.”
and finally, John 18:38, “Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews, and said to them, “I find no fault in Him at all. “
What is truth? The answer is found in Jesus Christ, and in His word, just as His apostles preached it, and there is no need to apologize for it or be embarrassed about the narrowness of it. It is now an old truth, but still the only one that can set you free from the law of sin and death. And, as far as I know, the only one whose founder left behind a empty tomb.