ST ANDREW’S OCCASIONAL PAPERS
- Pilate’s Question.
After the Jewish authorities had arrested Jesus and “tried” Him, they had to take Him before the Roman Governor because they wanted to see Jesus put to death and they did not have the power to order His execution – the Romans reserved that power to themselves. So Jesus stood before Pilate and, during the conversation, Jesus referred to “the truth” and Pilate then uttered the famous (or infamous?) remark, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)
If only we knew in what sense he asked that question. Was he being purely philosophical, wondering what the idea of truth really stood for? Was he just being impatient – “Let’s get this over with, even if I will never know the real truth.” Was he being scornful, “What does truth really matter, it’s what I decide that counts!” Was he being flippant, “Truth, what has that got to do with anything!” Or, was he being sincere, perhaps wistful, wondering what the truth of this matter really was.
We shall never know because we are not told, yet the question remains, “What is truth?” and it is a question that we need to answer to the best of our ability.
- How true can truth be?
We have all recently taken part in the ten-yearly census to provide the authorities with a variety of information. Apparently it will be at least two years before all the data can be analysed and by then of course the results will be out of date. Of course, in fact, they were out of date on the day after the census return had to be made. Babies were being born and people were dying and so what was true one day is not true on the next!
So there are those who would argue that there is no such thing as absolute truth, that all truth is relative. In other words you may believe what you think is true and I will believe what I think is true and there is no way of deciding between us! However this will not do for the Christian when he or she is considering matters of faith, so we must ask, “Is anything absolutely true?” But before we can answer that question we need to answer another, and we are back to Pilate, “What is truth?” or perhaps “What does the word ‘true’ mean?”
3.What do we mean by ‘true’?
According to the dictionary “true” can mean:- in accordance with the facts or with reality; accurate or exact; loyal or faithful.
Now, suppose you saw a traffic accident and were later called to be a witness in a court case arising from the accident. You would be required to give you evidence under oath, when you would say “I swear by Almighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
This surely means that you would describe as accurately as you could exactly what you saw happen without concealing any facts or adding to what actually happened. This may be more difficult to do than it sounds, because some memories may have dimmed during the time it takes to bring the matter before the courts. Then again you could be genuinely mistaken in what you believe you saw, and we have all seen dramas on stage , screen or TV where a clever lawyer reduces the testimony of a genuine witness to shreds.
It is not easy to be true to the facts, even when we try our hardest!
- So where should we look for truth?
Many folk would think that the world of science and mathematics was a world of truth, and so it is in many ways, but let me quote an example where the truth is excellent but not perfect.
Consider the quantity normally represented by the Greek letter π, “pi,” the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Now, however far you calculate it π just keeps going on, if you feel the need (and have the necessary computing power) you could calculate π to a million decimal places! but you still would not have reached the end because π can never be expressed as a finite decimal or fraction. Mind you, most people would be satisfied with 3.14, indeed the Bible is satisfied with just 3 – in 1 Kings 7:23 we read, “He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it.” And thirty divided by ten gives a value of 3 for π.
Thus even in the scientific/mathematical world absolute truth may be hard to come by.
- Absolute Truth.
In his commentary on the First Epistle of John, Reginald E. O. White, a Baptist pastor, wrote, “The area of absolute certainty is small, but the depth of that certainty beyond disturbance.”
These are wise words indeed and lead us to ask, what is this area of absolute certainty that should be beyond disturbance.
For me this area of absolute certainty would include:-
(i) There is a holy, good and loving God;
(ii) That His Son, Jesus, came to this world to teach, to heal and to die;
(iii) That this death of Jesus enabled our sins to be forgiven, a fact confirmed by His resurrection and the work of the Holy Spirit;
(iv) That Jesus will return to this earth in triumph.
[For more detail on this statement of belief, see number 23 in this series, “I believe…”]
For me, this is bedrock, absolute truth, witnessed to by the Bible and by the Church.
- Does the Church see this as absolute truth?
If you look at the classic creeds of the Church, the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed in particular, you will find, I think that all of my bedrock points are included, obviously in different words. So the Church, as an organisation, does support absolute truth.
However, from time to time officers of the Church make statements that seem to completely contradict what the Church stands for. Fortunately these are only individuals with their personal opinions and so do not carry corporate authority. One may wonder how they can hold their office, but that is another matter altogether, one for their conscience.
- Holding to the Truth.
According to the Bible record, humankind has not made a very good job of holding to the truth that has been revealed.
If we go back to the very beginning, Adam and Eve were given a piece of absolute truth when Adam was told “you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…”(Genesis 2:17). Later, the story tells us, that he, tempted by his wife, who was tempted by the devil, did eat and all manner of woe followed.
Then think about what happened when Moses was given the ten commandments, another piece of absolute truth – indeed many see them as truths for today as well as for long ago. Moses was delayed on the mountain and the people became restless and demanded an idol to worship. Aaron provided a golden calf (Exodus 32). When Moses saw the orgy, the original tablets of the ten commandments were smashed and other penalties followed, truth the victim of human sin.
But it wasn’t just in the early days that truth lost out. In the days of Jesus, Judas Iscariot agreed to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15), thus handing over the One who was truth (John 14:6) for personal gain but eternal loss.
And Peter, having denied Jesus three times (Luke 22:34), had to be coaxed back by private (Luke 24:34) and public (John 21:15-19) conversations with Jesus.
- Walking in the Truth.
In his third letter, St. John tells Gaius, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” (3 John v4)
The remark can apply to us all, today as well as in the first century. We must ask ourselves, are we walking in the truth?
But what does it mean today to “Walk in the truth”?
Well, first of all it means that we must be people of our word – if we say that we will do something then we must do it – without prevarications. Remember what Jesus said during His Sermon on the Mount, “Simply let your “Yes” be “Yes” and your “No,” “No,” anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37).
This simple standard applies both to words and actions. If we check our change in a shop and find we have been given too much then “walking in the truth” surely means that we hand the excess back to the person on the till.
But what about “white” lies – according to the Oxford Dictionary, “A harmless or trivial lie, especially one told to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.”
Suppose, for example, that after a service in church, someone comes up to you and says, “Wasn’t that a wonderful sermon” – when you had been struggling to keep awake as the preacher rambled on. (One thing I have learnt in preaching is that if there are 30 people in the congregation then there will be 30 different responses to the same sermon, mostly unexpressed!) What do you say? One is tempted to murmur something non-committal or just to lie, but what we should do is to try and think of some good point in what was said, but this is no easy task, especially if the question comes as a surprise!
The fundamental test as to whether we are really “Walking in the truth” must be could we carry on doing whatever we are doing if Jesus came up suddenly and walked alongside us. (Compare Luke 24:15) If we can confidently say that we could continue walking as we were doing then we must be “Walking in the truth,” on track to reach God’s destination for us by going His way/
And if we have missed the way? Just be thankful that we have a loving, merciful and forgiving God, who will pick us up, dust us down and set us on the right path again.
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. © 1973,1978,1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder and Stoughton, a member of the Hodder Headline Group. All rights reserved.