What Is “Truth”? John’s Gospel

jesus-the-way-the-truth-the-lifeIn the last post, I considered John’s use of “truth” in 2 John 1-4 to refer to the truth about Jesus, that is, that he is the Messiah (Christ) come in the flesh. The next point I want to make is that this usage of “truth” is typical of the New Testament as a whole — and radically changes our interpretation of several passages.

In this post, we consider the meaning of “truth” in John’s Gospel — where “truth” is a recurring, uniting theme.

On reading figures of speech

I should point out that “truth” is, of course, not always used in this sense. Sometimes it just means that something is true. But this specialized meaning is far more common.

I should also point out that the Bible is not a legal document. We lawyers try to very precisely define our words to remove all ambiguity. And this is necessary for what we do — but it also leads to hopelessly lengthy and tedious drafting. I know legal documents when I see them, and the New Testament is something else entirely.

Rather, the New Testament was written either by First Century Jews or men steeped in First Century Judaism. Therefore, their writing is in the idiom of the day. And Jewish writing was highly metaphorical. The writers prefer “stiffnecked” to “stubborn,” because this draws a picture rather than speaking in sheer abstraction. We Westerners, as heirs to Greek philosophy, tend to abstract what we read, skipping right over the word pictures and so missing much of what is being said to us. And so, it becomes critical that we read the New Testament with a certain amount of poetry in our souls. If we’re too left brained, well, we’ll mess up.

Therefore, when the writers use a figure of speech, we often can’t simply substitute a Greek abstraction for the figure. If the writer wanted us to read that abstractly, he would have written that abstractly. Figures of speech necessarily have a certain plasticity — they aren’t exact in the sense of a good lawyer’s drafting. Rather, they point us to an idea and an image. It’s a little different way of thinking, but it works well if we’ll let it.

“Truth” in 2 John 1-4 is technically metonymy, the use of an associated element to refer to a larger concept. Hence, “truth” refers to a particular body of truth, not a particular singular truth, but also not to all truth. One element of this body of truth is that it is true. In fact, it is the most important truth in the universe. Hence, in 2 John, “truth” means more than “true.” It means the most important of all truths.

(Maybe this will make better sense as we proceed.)

“Truth” in John

(John 14:6)  Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Notice that all three of these words took on a special meaning within the early church. What we call “the church” was called “the Way” throughout much of Acts (Acts 9:2; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22). Of course, “way” means a path or a journey and is in many ways a more powerful term than “church,” meaning a gathering. But Jesus says that he is “the way,” meaning not only that the church will be his body on earth, but he is the path — the only path — to the Father.

Just so, “life” in the New Testament usually takes on the special meaning of eternal life — life after the resurrection where death will never again be experienced. And Jesus says that he is the life. There is much more to be said about this image. We receive life by being incorporated into Christ through baptism or being incorporated into his body by being added to the church, by receiving his life-giving Spirit, etc.

And “truth” takes on its own special meaning. Jesus is the truth. The truth is the truth about Jesus. To understand the sense of the term, we need to look at several examples.

(John 1:14)  The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Jesus is filled with truth.

(John 1:17)  For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

And this is the truth that came through Jesus — that he taught and that he revealed in himself.

(John 3:20-21)  Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”

The truth allows us to come into the light to show God’s work in us.

(John 5:33)  “You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth.

John the Baptist testified to the truth.

(John 8:40)  As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things.

The truth is taught by Jesus but from God.

(John 14:16-17)  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever– 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.

(John 15:26-27)  “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. 27 And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.

The Holy Spirit is “of truth” because he is to testify about Jesus.

(John 17:17)  Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.

God’s “word” is truth, but, of course, we learned in John 1 that Jesus is God’s word. Jesus not presently speaking of the New Testament — not a word of it had yet been written. Rather, Jesus is speaking of himself and what God communicates to us through the giving of Jesus for us.

(John 18:37-38)  “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, 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.”

38 “What is truth?” Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.”

Pilate’s cynical question is, of course, the theme sentence of John’s Gospel. Pilate was speaking to the Truth, seeing it with his own eyes, and yet refusing to see it.

In short, in John, “truth” is the truth about Jesus, who he is and why he came to earth. It’s the truth represented by his decision to come to earth, take the form of a man, show us God in the flesh, and die for our sins. It’s not unreasonable to say that “truth” is the gospel, that is, the good news about Jesus. The danger in my saying that is that we in the Churches of Christ tend to see “gospel” in legal/transactional terms, whereas “truth” is intended to be personal. Truth is a person. If you want to understand truth, study Jesus — not just his words but his actions.

Conclusions

The truth will set you free

(John 8:31-32)  To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching [logos], you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

“Teaching” is “word” or logos in the Greek. If we remember that Jesus is the word, as John said in chapter 1, then we see Jesus as saying “If you hold to my word (about me), you are really my disciples.” And this makes sense. The First Century practice of discipleship was not merely learning a body of knowledge from teacher. No, in the First Century, a disciple studied to be like his teacher — following him everywhere, living with him, craving to be just like him. The teacher — the rabbi — was the lesson.

If we are Jesus’ disciples in the true sense of the word, then we’ll know the truth. We’ll understand not only his ethical instruction but who he was on earth, why he came, the sacrifice he had to make, and why he made it. And we’ll strive to be just like him. Then we’ll know the truth. And then we’ll be free.

We Westerners tend to think that the truth that will set us free is a body of rules and precepts that will separate us from those with less truthful knowledge. This borders on Gnosticism. It’s not about scholarship and having the right positions. It’s about who you are.

“Hold to my teaching” is literally “abide in my teaching.” You see, it’s another one of those Jewish word pictures that our translators abstract for us. Jesus said, “If you live in my teachings.” And that’s what he meant: Jesus’ disciples are those who live in his word — the word that is Jesus himself. And we won’t truly know the truth until we’ve lived the truth. The truth is experiential. Only when you’ve tried it do you understand it.

We Westerners want to know truth and then live it. Jesus says: live it and then you’ll know it.

Worship in spirt and truth

(John 4:23-24)  “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

“Truth” does not mean “according the rules of worship inferred from the silences of the scriptures.” “Truth” means the truth about Jesus learned through living in the Word.

Just so, “spirit” in v. 24 means spirit in the same sense that God is spirit. “Spirit” is what God is made of, right? “Spirit” doesn’t mean right attitude. It’s about the Divine Being.

(John 7:37-39)  On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.

“Living water” means the Holy Spirit whom God gave after Jesus’ death. Therefore, the Living Water Jesus promised to the Samaritan woman at the well was the Holy Spirit — for whom a Christian would never thirst again and who would well up to eternal life from within the Christian. Therefore, up to the point of Jesus’ discourse on worship, he’d been talking about the Spirit.

Therefore, to worship “in spirit” is to worship in Spirit. It fits the context and fits Jesus’ point that God is spirit. In other words, the worshippers must somehow be “in spirit” in the same sense that God “is spirit.” And that is given to us when we receive the Spirit.

(Gal 4:6)  Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”

(Phil 3:3)  For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh–

In short, John 4 is not about whether to use instruments or take communion only on Sundays or such like. This passage is about God creating a new kind of worshipper, qualified by being filled with His Spirit through the power of the work of Jesus. No longer will it be about whether you worship in Samaria or Jerusalem. It’s about whether you’ve been sanctified by the truth and have streams of Living Water flowing from within you.

Living the gospel

We in the Churches of Christ tend to think that the gospel is the beginning lesson, and having mastered it in 5 steps, we should then turn to new studies. But the advanced material, the really good stuff, is the gospel. It’s understanding what the first lesson really means. You see, the scriptures keep pointing us in but one direction, and we keep thinking it must be more complicated. It’s not.

What is truth? It’s the wrong question. Better to ask, Who is truth? And better yet, How do I live the Truth? This is true epistemology.

And in answer to the Post-modern question: Can we ever really know the truth? The answer is, yes. Try living it, and then you’ll know it. You see, this is how the Spirit of Truth works.

(1 John 2:20-21)  But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. 21 I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth.

(1 John 2:27)  As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit — just as it has taught you, remain [=abide=live] in him.

The anointing is the Spirit. And the Spirit of Truth helps us live the Truth and so know the Truth.

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11 Responses

  1. The truth ah yes! The long sought after misunderstood idea. It is our immaculate obsession. When I was at ACU we did a paper on what people in the churches of Christ perceived as truth. Well we came up with about 300 rules mostly unwritten such as IM and no-female deacons. But this was the kicker very few stated that the person of Jesus was the “Truth” and that all other truth would flow from this person. The verse about worshipping in Spirit and in truth was about a worship being more about personal transformation rather than a place and time for certain “authorized” religious acts and rituals to occur. He specifically states that there would not be a place or format. Until we understand that we will continue to use our bibles as desk references for ecclesiastical format rather than a revelation of who God is and what he is like. Because understanding “Who God is and what he is like”, is the basis for truth. It is what separates Him from the other gods and claims to truth in the world.

  2. Joe,

    That’s really interesting. I’d love to see the list of 300 rules!

  3. Jay do you want me to post it (List of 300 rules) here or send it to you by e-mail?

  4. Email to jfguin(at)comcast(dot)net. I’ll post. Thanks.

  5. Bobby Valentine has done a piece of beautiful exegesis on Jn 4:24. I can’t remember if it is on http://stoned-campbelldisciple.blogspot.com or if he emailed it to me, but I’m sure he’d share it again. It changed how I read the
    NT.

  6. That’s a shorter version: I found the long one — from where he published it on a Yahoo! discussion group once upon a time.

    “Spirit and Truth in John 4.24” – Bobby Valentine

    The dominant symbol in John 4:21-24 is temple worship. The Samaritan woman’s question asked in which temple and on which mountain should the children of Abraham worship. Her ancestors worshiped “on this mountain”—literally “in” (en)—while the Jews worship “in (en) Jerusalem.” Previously the Gospel had called attention to the true nature of temple in the new age. Jesus himself is the temple of God (John 2:19-22). A time is coming—and indeed is already present in the person of Jesus—when it does not matter where one worships in a geographical sense. The new temple in the person of Jesus transcends the old categories. The place of worship is no longer spatial or geographical. Rather, the worship of the Father is located “in (en) spirit and truth.” Believers worship in a new temple. The contrast between “in” the mountain/Jerusalem and “in spirit and truth” is a contrast between temples. It does not contrast the physical, external or ritual versus the spiritual, immaterial, or inward. Rather, it contrasts the type and fulfillment, the shadow and ultimate reality, the old and new temple.

    Authentic encounter between God and his people happened in Israel. God dwelt there and there his people came before his face. But though it was genuine, it was a type and shadow of what was to come. Hebraic worship experienced the Shekinah glory of God (it was not false worship), but the kind of worship that breaks into the world in the new age is a worship that is “spirit and truth.” In other words, Jesus “reconceptualizes sacred space”—it is no longer about place but manner. More specifically, it is about a new place unrestricted by space (finite places) and time—“in spirit and truth.”

    What does it mean to worship in this new place? Traditional interpretation, especially in the Reformed tradition, has generally understood “spirit and truth” to mean worshipping authentically in the inner person and according to the Bible. But this does not contrast with Israel’s authorized worship or practiced by Israel’s faithful (e.g., Moses or David). Old covenant believers, like Joshua, certainly worshiped God “in spirit” if one means they worshiped God rationally, sincerely and authentically in their inner person (Josh 24:14). And Old covenant believers, like Josiah, certainly worshiped God “in truth” if one means they worshiped God according to Scripture (2 Chr 35). “In spirit and truth” describes the heartfelt and obedient worship of old covenant saints. Their worship was “real” rather than “shadow” in that sense.

    But Jesus is saying something different than worship should be heartfelt and obedient (though, of course, no worship should be superficial and disobedient—but that is not the topic here). Rather, worship in the new age transcends the type and shadow of the Mosaic Law and brings us into a new reality, a new temple. In effect, it is the same argument that Hebrews makes. Instead of entrance into the Holy of Holies of a building in Jerusalem, we enter the Holy of Holies through the curtain of Jesus’ body and draw near to God around his throne. We enter the heavenly temple of God by the blood of Jesus and worship at his throne (Heb 10:19-25; 12:22-24). We worship “in” a new temple.

    Worshipping “in spirit and truth,” then, is to worship in the ultimate reality of God’s presence through his new temple. It is, in the words of Aune, the “proleptic experience of eschatological existence.” This involves two important concepts. First, the coming age is an eschatological age—it is the fullness of the kingdom of God, the full reality of God’s throne. Eschatological experience is the enjoyment of divine presence around the throne of God in the new heaven and new earth. Second, the eschatological age “now is”—it has, in some sense, already arrived. Even though the future is not yet fully here, we already experience that future through worshiping God “in spirit and truth.” Our gathered worship transcends time and space as we enter the Holy of Holies.

    “God is spirit” is the theological ground for understanding “spirit and truth” worship. This is not primarily a metaphysical statement about the immaterial essence of God. The contrast is not between material and spiritual, but rather that God is not limited by time or space. “God is spirit” in the sense that he is the Living God; he is the personal God who is the spirit and source of life. He infuses life into his people—worship draws its energy and life from the divine life. To read “immateriality” here is to import Platonic ideas about the inferiority of materiality rather than the Hebraic idea of animated materiality. To focus on immateriality ultimately leads to the devaluation of externals as if God’s spirit has no connection with anything physical. “God is spirit” is the ground of the eschatological nature of worship itself. Since God himself transcends time and space, so does our worship “in spirit and truth.”

    So, how do we understand “in spirit and truth”? There is no example in the Gospel of John where pneuma (spirit) refers to sincerity or inner human attitudes. In fact, except for three instances where the context clearly identifies pneuma as the person of Jesus (11:33; 13:21; 19:20), every occurrence refers to the Holy Spirit (1:32, 33; 3:5, 6, 8, 34; 6:63; 7:39; 14:17,26; 15:26; 16:13; 20:22). Pneuma (spirit) means “Holy Spirit” in John 4:23-24. Jesus’ point is not that we worship God “in” our human spirits with sincerity but that we worship God “in” the Holy Spirit who animates our praise. We worship in the Spirit, that is, the Spirit links us with the new reality, the new temple. The Spirit lifts us up into the heavenly Jerusalem; the eschatological Spirit, whom God gives to his church (cf. John 7:38-39), ushers us into the temple of God. The Spirit is the “gift of God” (4:10) who is the living water of which we drink (4:12) and wells up inside of us towards eternal life (4:12). The living water within us is the dynamic presence of the Spirit through whom we experience the new reality, new life and enter the new temple—the true reality of God.

    The word “truth” occurs fifty-five times in the Gospel of John. Its pervasive meaning contrasts truth with the typology of the Mosaic Law. Thus, the law came by Moses, but truth by Jesus (John 1:17). Just as the snake was lifted up in the wilderness as a type, Jesus is lifted up as the true reality (John 3:14). Moses gave manna, but Jesus gives true bread (John 6:32). Moses gave water from the rock, but Jesus gives living water (John 7:37-38). God is truth (John 8:28); Jesus himself is truth (John 14:6). What Jesus reveals from God is truth (John 17:17). The context of John 4 is not truth (biblical ideas) versus falsehood (unscriptural ideas), but rather reality versus shadow. Jesus reveals the true reality of God; he exegetes or makes known the fullness of God in ways that were previously unknown (John 1:18). Jesus is the truth which God has revealed. “Hence true adoration in the Spirit is only possible in union with Christ,” Schnackenburg writes. “His glorified body is the holy temple of God (2:21); true worship is performed in him.”

    To worship the Father in Spirit and Truth, then, is to praise the Father in his new temple in the power of the Spirit. We worship in Spirit as we experience the eschatological reality of God by the gift of his Spirit who indwells us. We worship in Truth as we experience the eschatological reality of God which Jesus revealed and embodied in his own person—the Son has brought the Truth into the world. We worship the Father in a Triune way—we worship the Father in the Spirit (eschatologically) and in the Son (the new temple)

    References:
    Charles H. Talbert, “Worship in the Fourth Gospel and in Its Milieu,” in Perspectives on John: Method and Interpretation, ed. Robert B. Slona and Mikeal C. Parsons (Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1993) 349.
    Guy N. Woods, A Commentary on the Gospel According to John (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1981) 83: “Here, the three simple, but vitally important, aspects of true worship are set out: (1) We must worship God; (2) we must worship God in spirit, i.e., rationally, and sincerely; (3) we must worship God in truth, as his word directs.”
    David E. Aune, The Cultic Setting of Realized Eschatology in Early Christianity (Leiden: Brill, 1972) 12.
    Defended by Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003) 1:615-616; Barclay M. Newman and Eugene A. Nida, A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of John (New York: United Bible Societies, 1980) 651-653; Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John, trans. Kevin Smyth (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968) 1:437-438; Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (New York: Doubleday, 1966) 1:180-181, and Herman Ridderbos, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) 163-164.
    Schnackenburg, John, 1:438.

  7. Bobby wrote a marvelous post.

  8. this was an incredible essay on truth. It was easy to understand where you were going, and I think you are spot on. Not to mention you helped me write my paper! Way to go, Jay!

  9. Send it to Jay and let him post it as a .pdf.

  10. Kim,

    You’ll want to also check out the commentary on John by Leon Morris in the New International Commentary set. He has an extended discussion on the subject.

    Good luck with your school work.

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