(November 20, 2017) Dr Jim McClure respected theologian, continues his series on selected Greek words…
Today we hear a lot about ‘fake news’ – that is, the printing and spreading of false news. Newspapers and broadcasting media are the main culprits in propagating it often under the pretext as unbiased reporting.
‘Fake news’ is lies! Unfortunately many people accept without question what the media report states and then pass it on as fact!
Truth appears to be at a premium today. Politicians seem barefaced in making election promises that they have no intention to keep. American comedian Bill Murray has commented, ‘If we lie to the government, it’s a felony. But if they lie to us, it’s politics.’
In the same-sex marriage and gender arguments lies are trotted out with such strongly apparent conviction that they are widely accepted as truth, while truth is characterised as intolerance!
Reality is often distorted by using words and phrases that are deliberately designed to accomplish a desired emotional reaction
One of the most profound questions ever asked was by Pilate when he enquired, ‘What is truth?’ at Jesus’ trial (John 18:38). The irony is that he asked the question of the one who claimed to be the truth (John 14:6)!
It continues to be an interesting question to which many answers have been given throughout the centuries. In today’s pluralistic society, truth is often made to take a back seat, or perhaps it is more accurate to say, that much contemporary thinking rejects the idea of absolute truth. So actually, Pilate’s question has a very modern ring to it.
I believe that if we want to discover the nature of truth, then we must look for it first in the scriptures. In two previous word studies we considered the word ‘grace’ – so it is appropriate that we now turn our thoughts to the word truth for in John 1:17 we read that ‘grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.’
1. Truth in Two Cultures
At first glance ‘truth’ appears to be a simple word to understand; who does not know what truth is? But the more one thinks about it, the more one realises that it raises some important issues. Indeed, this was what challenged Pilate as Jesus stood before him:
John 18:37-38, [Jesus said] ‘“… for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” Pilate asked.’
Although this is a study of New Testament words, many of them have their roots in Old Testament Hebrew. There are a couple of Hebrew words in the Old Testament which are translated as ‘truth.’ The most frequent one is ‘emeth which occurs 127 times and means ‘sure,’ ‘authentic,’ and ‘permanent.’
(See also my comments on word ‘Amen’ – https://conectingwithyou.net/2017/03/16/words-of-life-8-the-amen-god-amen-and-related-words-emunah-aman-emeth/).
The King James Version most frequently translates the word ‘emunah as either ‘faithfulness’ (18 times) or ‘truth’ (13 times). The ancient Hebrews were not much into philosophy but had a more practical outlook on life. And even though some of their writings may be considered as having a philosophical aspect – such as Ecclesiastes and Proverbs – it was always with a view of applying it to practical day-by-day situations.
The same is true for the word ‘truth.’ Truth was something that had a sound practical application. The first usage of ‘’emeth’ in the Old Testament is Genesis 24:27 (NIV) where Abraham’s servant exclaimed that God ‘… has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master.’ The word translated here as ‘faithfulness’ is a Hebrew word for ‘truth,’ and, in this context, it refers to the fulfilling of God’s promise. So in Hebrew, understanding ‘truth’ was related to morality.
Christianity came into being in the 1st century in a world that was heavily influenced by the Greek language and a Greek culture in which philosophers had already given much reflection on the subject of truth for a number of centuries. It was in this environment that the New Testament was written in Greek. While the Hebrew idea of ‘truth’ was closely related to morality, the Greek understanding of it was largely associated with knowledge.
The Greek word for ‘truth’ is aletheia. It occurs 110 times in the New Testament where both the Hebrew and Greek understandings come together. In the New Testament ‘truth’ is used to express both an ethical position and a factual one.
2. Truth as Disclosure
With the coming of Christ a fuller revelation of God and his purposes was disclosed. In 1 Peter 12 we read, ‘It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.’
Those ‘things that have now been told you’ are the things that Christ revealed through his preaching of the kingdom of God. He disclosed things which had been hidden from previous generations, particularly concerning our redemption.
Jesus is the revealer of the truth of God. To the Pharisees he described himself as, ‘…a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God’ (John 8:40). And when he wanted to reveal to the disciples about the Holy Spirit, he said, ‘I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away’ (John 16:7). He then went on to say that when ‘the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come’ (John 16:13).
When Paul wrote in 1Timothy 2:4; 4:3; 2 Tim 2:25, 3:7 and Titus 1:1 about knowing the ‘truth’, he was referring to that truth which had been divinely revealed.
3. Truth is Absolute
When I refer to ‘absolute truth’ I mean truth that is fundamental and not open to negotiation – to what is true as opposed to what is false. The purpose of Christian doctrine is to help us differentiate between the true and the false so that we may not be misled by the false however plausible it may appear.
In Ephesians 4:14 Paul writes about those who are ‘tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.’
This cunning craftiness and deceitful scheming is the objective of the book The Myth of Christian Uniqueness – Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions, edited by John Hick and Paul F. Knitter. In this book, Hick (who was a professor of philosophy of religion) made the sweeping statement, ‘The Christian mind has now for the most part made the move from an intolerant exclusivism to a benevolent inclusivism, … Christian truth is bound to look different … Christianity is seen as in a pluralistic context as one of the great world faiths, one of the streams of religious life through which human beings can be savingly related to that ultimate Reality Christians know as the heavenly Father.’
Hicks’ argument was that the Christian faith does not embrace unqualified truth but is merely ‘one of the great world faiths.’ His argument is that in a pluralistic age the ‘truths’ of other religions need to be held alongside the ‘truths’ of Christianity. (It is noted that Hick, who had been a minister of the Presbyterian Church, was on two occasions accused of heresy by that church).
Such writers encourage us to abandon the claim of the divine authority of the scriptures and Christ’s uniqueness and to acknowledge that the biblical view is only one way of looking at the truth. The irony is that so many who assert the attractiveness of pluralism appeal for the acceptance of the beliefs of others while at the same time advocate that Christians should abandon their own!
- However Jesus uncompromisingly claimed that he himself (this is emphatic in Greek) is the ‘the road, and the truth and the life. No one approaches the Father except through me’ (John 14:6 JB Phillips).
- And Peter’s unequivocal declaration that ‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved’ shows that the idea of absolute truth concerning the gospel of salvation was clearly in his mind (Act 4:12).
- Paul, referring to the pressure of the Judaisers of his day who sought to compromise the truth of the gospel, wrote, ‘We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you’ (Galatians 2:5).
- He also wrote to the gentiles, ‘And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal …’ (Ephesians1:1).
We do not need to be reluctant to maintain the position that truth means precisely that! Nor do we need to apologise for believing eternal and unchanging truths. If ever the church needed sound doctrine to help it understand what biblical truth is, it is today!
Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:15, ‘Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ’
4. Truth is Trustworthy
Truth in the New Testament is about something that is not only accurate but also dependable.
In the New Testament we discover that aletheia is not only about fact but about faithfulness. In this it picks up the Old Testament view of truth, particularly with the word ‘emunah which may be translated either as ‘faithfulness’ or ‘truth.’ For example, Psalm 100:5 RSV says, ‘For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.’
God is worthy of our trust. ‘Truth’ is related to the character of God. God can be trusted; therefore what he has revealed through Jesus Christ can also be trusted. Romans 15:8 states, ‘For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs.’
Indeed the testimony of the whole of the New Testament is that because God is faithful, he is worthy of our trust concerning all the things he has revealed to us and all the promises he has made to us.
5. Truth is Liberating
The key verse here is John 8:32 – an often misquoted verse.
The phrase, ‘The truth will set you free’ must be understood in the context of the complete statement Christ made to the Pharisees, which was, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really (alethos) my disciples. Then you will know the truth (aletheia), and the truth (aletheia) will set you free.’
The ‘truth’ Jesus was speaking about was that which his followers had grasped hold of concerning the gospel. So it is the truth of the gospel which will set us free from that spiritual captivity into which our sin has placed us.
This concept of liberating gospel truth was something that Paul mentioned often in his letters, for example…
- Galatians 5:1 GNB: ‘Freedom is what we have – Christ has set us free! Stand, then, as free people, and do not allow yourselves to become slaves again.’
- Ephesians 1:14: ‘God will give complete freedom to those who are his. Let us praise his glory!’
For those who act on it, the truth of the gospel has the power to break the chains of sin and set Satan’s prisoners free.
6. Truth is Reality
Aletheia can be translated as either ‘truth’ or ‘reality.’ We noticed earlier that the Hebrew word ‘emeth centred on the idea of reality so it is interesting to discover that from both a Hebrew and Greek perspective ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ are one.
This means that when we speak about truth from God’s perspective, we are speaking about ultimate reality. We then discover from the scriptures that ultimate reality is manifested in Jesus Christ. If we translate some verses from John’s Gospel using the word ‘reality’ instead of ‘truth,’ the result is very striking and enlightening. For example…
- John 1:14, ‘We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and reality.’
- John 1:17, ‘For the law was given through Moses; grace and reality came through Jesus Christ.’
- John 14:6, ‘I am the way and the reality and the life.’
- John 14:17 and 15:26 where the Holy Spirit is called ‘the Spirit of reality.’
Or consider Galatians 3:1 which the NIV very inadequately translates, ‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.’
Let me give you a translation that stays more closely to the Greek text: ‘O foolish Galatians, who has fascinated you that you, before whose eyes the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was clearly described among you, should not be convinced by the reality.’
If we were to grasp that reality lies at the heart of the Christian faith, it would save us from a fanciful, ‘fairy floss’ type of Christianity that is not based on the Bible but on feelings. Fanciful thinking or exciting speculation, however spiritual it may appear to be, is at odds with true Christianity which is based on reality.
When we have God’s truth, God’s reality, what more do we need?
Dr Jim McClure is author of several books and Bible study series. In his well-researched Grace Revisited he reveals grace as having a strong active meaning and is like a many faceted diamond out of which shines a greater understanding of the great God we worship.
Normally $35, this classic is currently offered free by Dr Jim in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and MOBI versions. Link: firstname.lastname@example.org