Truth & the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to St. John
The Fall 2003 Bible Study Series by
Dr. Ralph Blair at the City Church, New York
Three hundred years ago today, Jonathan Edwards was one week old. And considering how very precocious he was, he was already well on his way to becoming America’s foremost theologian. One day, he wrote the following on truth, how to know it and what to do about it – the general topic of our study series beginning today. Said Edwards: “Reason is to determine that there is a God, and that he is an infinitely perfect holy Being, and that the Scripture is his Word.” Edwards understood that God’s Spirit illuminates both God’s general revelation of truth in the book of nature and God’s special revelation of truth in the book we call the Bible, where we read about Truth in Person, Jesus Christ.
God gave us minds that can go some distance in reasoning to truth, even without the Bible. So we’ll begin this series on truth and John’s Gospel by examining how anyone comes to know truth at all. With that foundation, we’ll look into the truth revealed in John’s Gospel. After all, as Edwards goes on to say: “when we have determined [that truth is God’s], modesty and humility and reverence to God require that we allow that God is better able to declare to us what is agreeable to that perfection than we are to declare to him or ourselves.”
Though God offers His clearest truth in His written Word and in the Word enfleshed in Jesus, there’s a hell-bent bias against looking there for the truth – at least in the hearts and minds of most New Yorkers. They’d much prefer to look for truth on “Page Six” or in a column by Frank Rich or, most of all, in their own obstinate opinions.
The signs on the sides of the buses say – in big bold capital letters – that Judge Judy is the “ULTIMATE TRUTH” for New Yorkers. Now she does make some sense – especially in contrast to the loopy contenders who come before her for adjudication – but “ULTIMATE TRUTH?” And surely we can’t really believe that advertisements – even on the sides of buses – can alert us to the plain truth – much less, the “ultimate truth.” Do we really expect much of any truth in ads – at least until we get to the legal department’s obligatory fine-print caveats rapidly read in monotone at the end of the commercials?
The plain truth is this: There’s lots of “truth” that’s not! Once there was Pravda, the Soviet Union’s leading newspaper. The Russian word means “truth.” But who believed Pravda? There are magazines called True Romances, True Confessions, True Experience. Can the truth be found in them? There’s a magazine that’s actually called The Plain Truth. It’s a freebie claiming that the British are the Bible’s lost tribe! There’s “Reality TV.” What’s true there? There’s the new cinematic realism “in faux-verite mode, ostensibly turning a camera on life and letting it roll,” as Caryn James describes in the Sunday Times last week.
Well fashions in “truth” come and go. But as Malcolm Muggeridge said: “The truth is not subject to fashion.” Said Winston Churchill: “Truth is incontrovertible. Panic may resent it; ignorance may deride it; malice may distort it; but there it is.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter John Burns, in his new book, Embedded, argues that we’ve never had the straight scoop from Western reporters in Iraq. He says that, before Saddam’s regime fell, Western reporters were afraid to risk their access by telling the truth. He says the BBC and CNN were particularly guilty of this collaboration with tyranny. U.S. District Court Judge Don Walter, a vehement opponent of America’s going to war with Iraq, changed his mind after going there to advise the Iraqis on a new system of jurisprudence. He now says we should have gone there sooner. He writes (using all capital letters): “WE ARE NOT GETTING THE WHOLE TRUTH FROM THE NEWS MEDIA.”
But if the BBC and CNN slant to the Left, other outlets slant to the Right. Pick up a copy of The New York Sun or The Washington Times and you’ll be bombarded with bias every bit as overbearing as what you read in The New York Times or The Washington Post.
Perhaps one could arrive at something somewhat approximating “the truth” by reading both The New York Times and The Washington Times. But that’s not what most people do. Most people read only what agrees with them, much as they seek out the agreeable in the rest of life. Why is this?
Henry Luce, the founder of Time and Life magazines – and the son of Presbyterian missionaries – observed years ago that “The most dangerous fault in American life today is the lack of interest in truth.” That’s still the truth. But why is it still the truth?
I think we have to go deeper than chalking it up to merely a matter of indifference to the truth. People are hardly indifferent when they get so hot under the collar about truth claims. And I think we have to go deeper than an explanation in laziness, for example. Laziness, as such, never really explains anything. And I think we need to go deeper than saying that people simply don’t have time to be truly informed. People have time to be ignorantly misinformed and intentionally partially-informed. No, a lack of time, as such, never explains anything either. And I think we need to go deeper than even sociopolitical or socioeconomic explanations – though these do count for something, I’m sure. But as one who deals daily in psychological categories, I want to ask what’s going on at psychological levels. And as a Christian, I want to go deeper still and ask what’s going on at a most fundamentally profound spiritual level. Why is it that, when it comes to truth claims, people have such a gut-resistance to anything but what they already claim is truth?
Obviously, many things are going on at many levels. Our outlooks originate within our experiences as well as our lack of experiences and, more accurately, within our subjective interpretations of these biographical circumstances. Some of the answer lies, no doubt, in even inherited traits.
But all of these factors contribute simply to where one might land on the spectrum of biases. More fundamental is the fact that we’re all committed to that point on the spectrum that, we believe, best serves us. Each of us is self-serving when it comes to an interest in getting at the truth. When it comes to getting at the truth, we’re so easily distracting by our building a case for our perceived need for the truth’s being what we believe it needs to be. So we’re bent in resistance against any case for the contrary.
In the Gospel according to St. John, Pilate famously asked Jesus, “What is truth?” How did he read that line? “What is truth?” “What’s truth?” Actors have had a field day with that line. And so have preachers. And so have pretenders down through the ages, right down to today’s pretentious postmodernists. “Truth?,” they say with a disdainful chuckle, “What’s that?” They thus posture a patronizing superiority over all of us who are still so “naÔve” as to think that there’s any such thing as “truth.” “Pa-leeze!,” they say, rolling their eyes to the ceiling. “Really!” Of course, when they do this, they mean for us to take their take on truth as the truth. Even their eye-ball rolling indicates that there’s no getting around the fact that, one way or another, sooner or later, we must each come to terms with the truth.
But did Pilate have any more interest in learning the truth than do the Americans of whom Henry Luce remarked? Here’s the observation of Lancelot Andrewes, a scholar who worked on the King James translation of the Bible: “Pilate asked Quid est veritas? And then some other matters took him in the head, and so up he rose and went his way before he had his answer.” Two centuries later, the English poet William Cowper penned: “But what is truth? ‘Twas Pilate’s question put To Truth itself, that deign’d him no reply.” Jesus recognized that Pilate’s “question” was no question and so he thought it appropriate to give no answer. On Pilate’s lips – as on so many others – the seeming “question” was probably a cynical statement, maybe even an exasperated conclusion, rather than a sincerely innocent inquiry.
Our present series of four studies on the topic of truth will eventually focus further in the Gospel of John. But before we go deeper into the Gospel text to find out what we can about truth as it is presented there, we need to prepare ourselves by framing our inquiry in terms of the contemporary discourse on truth. So be patient, we’ll get to John’s Gospel in due time. We’ll also have some time for your questions following each of the lectures.
Is there really any such thing as “the truth?” How can we know? There’s your “truth” and my “truth” – right? That’s what so many people say today. There’s no absolute truth – right? Of course, the proposition itself, not to mention that final “right?,” betrays a self-contradiction. There’s absolutely no absolute truth – they’re absolutely certain of that. They’re absolutely certain there is no certainty! But how is there certainty, there is no certainty? Does it depend on “is?”
A month after that terrible 9/11, Stanley Fish, English professor and dean of liberal arts at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois – and, most pertinently here, prolific postmodernist, wrote an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times. He argued there, as he always does, that there can be no “independent standard” for assessing which competing interpretation of an event is true. And he has a point. By what authority is a true judgment to be made? Postmodernists really can’t say with any systematic consistency. Christians who understand the relevance of revelation can do that. Though speaking specifically of 9/11 and the various takes on that, Fish, of course, meant for his comments to be applied as the truth, not only to 9/11 but more broadly.
Now he made it clear that he did not approve of the killing. But on what basis did he not approve, if there is no “independent standard?”
He disputed those who limited the term “courageous” to the firefighters and others on our side. Who’s to dispute, he disputed, that the terrorists, too, were “courageous?” This seemingly non-judgmental approach infests the attitudes in academia as well as pop culture and the interpretive styles of not a few clergy and churchgoers these days.
One letter writer to the editor identified himself as “a postmodernist” – endorsing Fish’s idea that all truth is relative while evidently exempting his own truth from such relativity. He condemned the use of “labels like ‘evil’ and ‘crazy’” when applied to the terrorists but had no qualms insinuating that President Bush was “evil” and “crazy.”
Another “postmodern” reader praised Fish’s piece as “a balm cooling the fever of war jingoism.” In her enthusiastic opinion, “current events announce … the coming of age … of postmodern relativism” and she denounces the “shut[ting] off [of] any part of … the globalized world.” She none too modestly announced that her truth is the “contemporary mode of thinking.” And, alas, sadly it is a pervasive mode in our contemporary culture – though not without rigorous refutation from more insightful thinkers.
The Times saw “fit to print” three contra-Fish letters. One, from a professor of philosophy at the State University at Albany, said: “Stanley Fish supports Susan Sontag’s view that the word ‘courage’ can be applied to terrorists who sacrifice their lives for a cause. ‘You don’t condone the act because you describe it accurately,’ he says. But if there are no ‘independent standards’ for judging which interpretation of an event is true, as Mr. Fish says, then why is Ms. Sontag’s interpretation ‘accurate?’ What makes her interpretation better than those who call terrorists cowards?” (Bonnie Steinbock) A professor of social work at Hunter College pointed out with a punch: “Stanley Fish suggests that postmodernists believe that there are no absolute universal truths that hold across cultures, save one: that there are no absolute universal truths that hold across cultures.” (Harold Weissman) A professor of cognition at Harvard, stated: “Mr. Fish’s argument can be sustained only if one assumes that those terms themselves harbor an ‘independent standard.’ As stated, his argument is either inconsistent, incoherent or self-refuting.” (Howard Gardner)
Now as inconsistent, incoherent and self-refuting as postmodernists can be, they have done something of a service in exposing the arrogance of assumptions inherited from the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment taught us to place too naÔve a confidence in the cornering of truth by reason and science alone. But postmodernists have displayed an arrogance of their own that is no less naÔve and thus also wide of the mark. They, too, stand on no more certain ground than do those they would replace.
Biblical Christianity has always stood on firmer foundation. It thus has been in a better position to identify truth and error than has any secular theory of knowledge. Why? It’s because only biblical Christianity starts “outside the box,” so to speak. All other worldviews are boxed into the limitations of outlook within a spacetime universe – no matter how wide or deep that universe of exploration and discourse may be.
In 230 BC, the philosopher Archimedes longed for a fulcrum outside the self-limiting systems of this world. He envisioned an advantaged vantage point from which to move the world: “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I will move the world.” Of course, he had no lever long enough and no place to stand outside this world. Such a point above or outside all the relativity of this world would be desirable over all the distortions and distractions inherent from within. But desirability doesn’t produce availability. Archimedes and all his fellow human beings – including us, of course – are inextricably bound to this world and to all its limitations for true knowledge and insight.
Only information and insight from outside this world can solve the most fundamental problem of knowledge within this world. Christians, of course, believe there is such information and insight that’s come to this world from outside this world. We call it revelation. Christians trust that this revelation comes from God and illuminates our darkness.
God opens up vistas from beyond our human perspective – even throughout the natural world around us, but most clearly in Scripture and in Jesus Christ. Of Jesus Christ, John writes: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has not been able to overcome it. … The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. … but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. … But those who live by the truth come into the light.” (John 1:4f, 9, 19, 21)
The need for a point of perspective outside the relativity of an unaided human perspective was explicated in our day by the Dutch philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd. He did so most exhaustively in his magnum opus, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought. He and other Christians have exposed the constraints of presuppositions in everyone’s thinking. Nobody is unbiased. Beyond this, he and others have called attention to the fact that there is, in this fallen world, an idolatrous orientation of the heart that is committed to the self and that does not wish to know the truth. The truth – the real truth – is a challenge to the idol of self. Two thousand years ago, Paul, too, spoke of this. He did so in less cognitive, more ethical, terms. It’s a matter not only of an inadequacy of our very being – we’re all only human – but a matter of moral inadequacy – we’re all fallen human beings.
Thankfully, when this biblically Christian critique of the limitations of our ability and willingness to know the truth is coupled with Christian theology’s propounding, firstly, the unknowableness of God, the Holy Other, the Mystery who is beyond our comprehension and, secondly, His Self-disclosure in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, we have what we need for a humble yet true knowledge and insight into the truth.
As biblical Christianity maintains, truth is founded in the Person who called himself “the Truth,” Jesus the Christ, the God-Man. He, himself, bridges the great gulf between the contingencies of this world and the constancy of the world beyond. The Truth that Jesus is, is not simply cognitive truth – what the Greeks called alethia. It’s not simply that Jesus isn’t a lie or that Jesus doesn’t lie. That would be a definition of truth that doesn’t go far enough.
Hellenistic philosophical or cognitive truth is included in the New Testament appropriation of alethia but there’s much more to it than that. The New Testament writers owe much to the Hebrew ideas imported into their use of the Greek. And while it is certainly true that the ancient Hebrews understood truth in a legal sense, as in what the facts of a case were, it is also true that there was always more to it than merely the facts. In the Hebraic thought of the Bible, inclusive of the New Testament’s Jewish writers’ usage of the term, alethia, truth is not only what “really is,” the “true state of affairs,” so to speak, but truth is, as in the old Hebrew term, emet – fidelity, integrity, trustworthiness, full disclosure, perfection. All these personal attributes, in their ultimate expressions, are attributes of God Himself and so truth is God’s being true – true God. Especially in the writings of John (both Gospel and Epistles), truth is God’s revelation, God’s sovereign self-disclosure. And Jesus claims to be this divine self-disclosure of God. He claims for himself God’s true attributes when he calls himself “the Truth.” Jesus did not merely teach truths. Many people did that. He was the Truth. Nobody else was that. And that’s what’s always stuck in the craw of his hearers. People hate that.
All of this is clearly taught in the Bible. But, of course, to trust in the authority of biblical teaching is a matter of faith, isn’t it? And faith is a spiritual commitment at our deepest center. Moreover, that starting point of a faith commitment sets our assumptions for everything. On the basis of that faith commitment – deeper than which we cannot go – we establish our presuppositions about all reality. Even before each of us begins to think or talk about anything, even behind all our testing of anything, before our consequent feelings, there lie, in our hears, as it were, these pre-theoretical and pre-scientific and pre-affective presuppositions rooted in a radical commitment of faith.
But just as all this is true of Christian faith-based assumptions, it’s also, of course, true of all other faith-based assumptions. All assumptions are based in faithing. Whether we trust in the authority of Deepak Chopra’s pronouncements, or we trust in the authority of James Redfield’s Celestine Prophecy, or we trust in the authority of James Walsch’s Conversations with God, or we trust in Marianne Williamson’s Course in Miracles. There’s a faith-based trust in any packaged delight at the deity deli.
Agnostic and atheist gurus, too, begin with faith-based assumptions. On what other basis could Roger Rosenblatt, for instance, be trusted over against the Psalmist’s marveling “What is man that Thou art mindful of him!?” Rosenblatt declares his neo-Deism ex cathedra from the Time Life building: “I would like to offer the opinion that God is not thinking about us. Or if he is, … one has no way of knowing that.” But Roger, if one has no way of knowing that God is thinking about us, how do you know that God is not thinking about us? How do you know what God is thinking? Rosenblatt assumes God is not thinking about us because Rosenblatt believes God is not thinking about us. His faith commitment spins out assumption-laden notions he presents as the cock sure “truth.”
Neither Christians nor New Age gurus nor agnostics nor atheists are exempt from faith-based assumptions. But if the Christian’s faith-based assumptions are rooted in revelation that truly does come from “outside the box” while others are defiantly “boxed” into the corners of a merely self-based faith – no matter how much they may sincerely claim to have channeled another dimension, all faith-based assumptions are not equal.
Of course, the Bible isn’t the only religious literature for which a committed tradition claims divine origin. An even mechanistic dictation is claimed for the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon, for example. And the revelation in Arabic is deemed to be absolutely necessary to the authority of the Qur’an – so much so that it is held that translations are not really authentic Qur’an. The mechanistic element for the Book of Mormon is held to be so significant that it’s said that Joseph Smith could not decipher the oracle without the use of magical spectacles.
But beyond the baseline of a faith commitment to these writings, how do the canonical biblical texts, the extra-canonical religious texts, the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon and all other religious writings measure up under rigorous critical analysis? Here, the Bible is in a class by itself. Not only is this the case in terms of literary, archaeological, and textual study but it is also the case in terms of the thoroughness and extensiveness with which these critical studies have been carried out by many scholars from many perspectives and over so long a period of time. By contrast, critical study of the Qur’an – such as it’s been – has had to be published anonymously or under a pseudonym for fear of deadly retaliation from religious zealots. And the officials of the Latter-day Saints have always tried to control the critical analysis of Mormonism’s sacred texts, balking at all examination that might prove to be embarrassing.
Well Christians not only have a word from “outside the box,” we have many words from “outside the box.” And those words are expressed in the historical experience of God’s dealing with many people over many centuries. And the many words have been studied and examined and explicated for thousands of years. Through countless denials and denunciations, through the everyday grind of living and dying, those words of scripture have stood the test of time more than any other words in the history of the world.
And we Christians not only have word from “outside the box,” we not only have words from “outside the box,” we have the Word himself, the Word-in-person: Jesus of Nazareth. He was vindicated in resurrection from the dead – and he was seen and heard and touched by many hundreds of people after that. What vindication do the gurus have?
But biblical Christians, too – unless they’ve passed on – are still on this planet where sin has a hold. So here’s what’s true as well. We Christians must humbly grant that we, too, are susceptible to erroneous thinking and conclusions, self-serving interpretations, and even fraudulence when it comes to the degree to which we’re open to either biblical truths or the Truth Himself. We need to bring our thinking to the Prayer of Confession of Sin. We must be willing to bring every thought into captivity to Christ. And, of course, we must be willing to do the truth the Spirit reveals to us in His Word.
This year, Christians are celebrating the 300th birthday of John Wesley as well as Jonathan Edwards – two of the truly great fathers of faith, men of expansive intellects and warm hearts. Hear Wesley’s wise words on the Bible and biblical interpretation: “God cannot bear witness to a lie. The Gospel therefore which He confirms, must be true in substance.” He goes on to caution, though, that “There may be opinions maintained at the same time which are not exactly true; and who can be secure from these? When I was much younger … I thought myself almost infallible; but I bless God, I know better now.” And hear these wise words of balance from Edwards: “We find that those things that we received as principles in one age and are never once questioned, it comes into nobody’s thought that they possibly may not be true – and yet they are exploded in another age as light increases.” He continues: “The wisdom of God was not given for any particular age, but for all ages. It surely therefore becomes us to receive what God reveals to be truth and to look upon his word as proof sufficient, whether what he reveals squares with our notions or not.”
We’ve prefaced our study of truth in the Gospel of John by framing the foundations of faith for such a study. As we go ahead and look at the book itself, we must bear in mind that we do so with one faith commitment or another. And we must recognize that the interpretation of God’s word is not a matter for mere opinion. We’ll miss what’s there for us to receive if we, in the end, submit the Gospel of John to our judgment. We must submit to the judgment of the Gospel of John.
Over the next three weeks we’ll look further into the subject of truth and we’ll do so with specific instances of revelation in John’s Gospel. But we’ll stop here for today and take some questions on this more introductory material we’ve been discussing so far.
We’ve looked at something of truth’s nature and knowledge. We’ve looked at differing approaches to truth, East and West. Since the Bible comes out of the Near East, out of the experience and witness of ancient Jews, “Scripture,” as an American philosopher points out, “does not directly address the question of the nature and tests of truth which has received so much philosophical attention.” (Arthur F. Holmes)
As we’ve seen, all knowledge of truth is based in assumptions rooted in even deeper spiritual commitments. We’re beholden to these basic assumptions before we ever begin to analyze, experiment with or feel anything about questions of truth. Then, too, faith commitments that underpin these assumptions are directed either toward reverence for God or rebellion against God, either toward the Holy and Transcendent One who is worthy of worship or toward the dependent self who is not.
It’s more complex than this, however. We’re limited in our ability to look for the truth because we’re “only human,” as we like to say in a pinch, but we’re also limited in our willingness to look for truth because we’re fallen, which we’re not so likely to say – especially in a pinch. We’re limited by both an inability to see things as they truly are and by an unwillingness to see things as they truly are – especially things having to do with our relationship to the God against whom we all rebel. Thus we need the aid of the Holy Spirit of God for the illumination of truth – in nature as well as in God’s Word written and personified in Christ.
In our first study, we looked at something of what the ancient biblical writers, both Jewish and Christian, meant in using the Hebrew and Greek terms that are translated into our English word, “truth.” We’re told in Christian theology and philosophy – rooted in Hebraic modes of thought and flowering in a thorough-going critique of theoretical thought, that only by a reorientation of mind and heart, both intellectual perspective and spiritual inclination, are we in a position to see the Truth.
And we’re told in the Bible that it is Christ himself – fullness of God’s fidelity and integrity, if you will “true God of true God” as the Credo puts it – it is Christ himself, who not only reveals the truth, but is the Truth. We’re given God’s truth in the Bible, the Word of God in writing, and we’re given God’s truth in Jesus, the Word of God-in-Person.
Now if it’s good to have the right answer available, it’s even better to have the right person available. If you have only the right answer, what about the next question? And what about the question after that? If, however, you have the right person available, you’ll always have access to the right answer to question after question. If it’s vital truth we need, it’s best to have truth that is truly vital – truth that’s vigorously alive! Can that be? Well that’s what we have in Christ. That’s who we have in Christ. He, himself, is the only living Truth. He, himself, is the ever living Truth. And we’re given God’s Spirit who continues to lead us into all truth, as Christ promised.
It’s been pointed out many times that it’s exactly this claim that Jesus is the Truth, that he’s emphatically not just another religious teacher in a panoply of religious teachers, that has been and remains the great stumbling block to people. People resist this truth. They even despise this truth. And self-serving gurus have always stood ready to dish out whatever religious substitutes these truth resisters and truth despisers will readily swallow.
People usually don’t have problems with most of what they think Jesus taught because much of what he taught has been taught in virtually all religions – common sense and kindly insight, really: be nice to your neighbors, treat others as you’d have them treat you, and so on. People want Jesus to be just a nice Jewish boy saying what would please his nice Jewish grandmother. But Jesus went far beyond that. Jesus went far beyond what a nice Jewish grandmother would ever want. Jesus went far beyond all the teachers of religions. Jesus claimed to be the Truth himself, uniquely one with God. How arrogant! Unless true. What a liar! Unless true. How self-deceived! Unless true. And his followers repeated his claim. How gullible! Unless true. They even went to their deaths as martyrs rather than renounce his claim. How foolish! Unless true. They preached his claim throughout the world. And they still do. How misleading! Unless true. If Jesus is Truth himself, then that is what we must believe with all our hearts – no matter what objections may be raised by those who do not believe that Jesus is Truth himself.
Incidentally, psychologically assessed, the loudest denunciations against his being Truth himself do perhaps evidence some recognition that he is Truth himself but must not, under any circumstances, be so! Psychologically speaking, we have to grant that such a defense mechanism is a real possibility.
When the polytheistic world of the Roman Empire expected the early Christians to submit their god to the pantheon of Rome and consider Jesus to be merely another of the many niche gods and goddesses of Roman civil religion, the early Christians refused to obey. They would rather die than comply. And for that refusal to renounce the absolute Lordship of Jesus Christ, they were hounded down and tortured and killed. In the Roman Empire, as in any other realm of power, there was room for only one lord. In Rome, only Caesar was lord. But the Christians gladly proclaimed, as their most ancient statement of faith: “Christ is Lord.”
And not so parenthetically, we might ask of ourselves, in our own little domains: Who is lord? Somebody’s lord. As Bob Dylan sings: “You gotta serve somebody.” Are we lord of our lives or is Christ lord of our lives? It’s an either/or from which there’s no escape.
So, from the very beginning, and down to today, nobody can honestly say that the historical evidence supports a notion that Jesus was merely another itinerant preacher preaching that people should be nice to each other and let it go at that. The evidence won’t allow for such nonsense. Jesus taught truth. And that truth that Jesus taught included the truth that Jesus was Truth, the full manifestation of the true God of gods.
Notice that there’s a resemblance to that ancient Roman culture in our own pop culture of politically correct postmodernist polytheism and pantheism. We too are expected – required – to place Jesus in a pantheon along with all the other “paths,” as it’s put these days.
Today’s pantheon of polytheism and pantheism is a shopping mall of spirituality under the auspices of Lord Diversity and Lady Pluralism.
That polytheism is alive and well is illustrated by Canada’s public intellectual Donald Harman Akenson’s attack on the first full film version of the Gospel of John. Writing in Toronto’s Globe & Mail, Akenson called the Gospel of John itself “hate literature.” Why? Because it honors but one God – the God of Christians and Jews. That reminds me of the fact that the ancient polytheists attacked the Jews and Christians for“atheism” for honoring but one god. Akenson argues: “There is no such thing as a nice monotheism” and asserts: “To film a literal version of the Gospel of John is like filming a faithful version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” (The producer of the film, by the way, is Jewish – Garth Drabinsky.) Biblical scholar Bruce Waltke, a member of the film’s advisory panel, countered Akenson in a Globe & Mail Op-Ed piece in which he pointed out that “Akenson’s scholarship is poor, his tone is grating, and his arguments bogus.” Waltke adds that it’s Akenson who’s engaged in hate speech.
If contemporary acolytes of secularism hate the idea of only one true God, they’re absolutely apoplectic when it comes to the Gospel of John’s designating Jesus as God in the flesh! But that is what the Gospel does, clearly and explicitly (cf. e.g. 1:1, 18; 20:28) as well as by repeated implication. And that is what the early Christians voluntarily went to execution confessing.
A recent study of the idea of “God” depicted on some new Fall television shows on CBS, HBO and Fox, found that “God is interfaith” and that “God is good, Religion is bad” (i.e., “I’m spiritual, but not religious, thank you.”). People still want their gods to be relative. They want not to have to answer to any higher authority than themselves – whether a minister, a church board, or the Almighty. It’s always been so, ever since that serpent seduced our first parents with the tempting challenge, “Hath God said? God is simply trying to keep you from becoming gods yourselves. Don’t let him get away with it.”
Here in America, we’re not yet tortured and killed for refusing to submit Jesus to the culture’s arbitrators of fashionable faith and politically polite piety. Elsewhere though, it is a matter of deadly consequence. More Christians have been killed for their faith in Christ in this most recent century than in all the centuries before. Still, even here, especially in Manhattan, and at the very least, social ostracism is a price that must be paid for any clear and unadulterated witness to the truth of the absolute Lordship of Jesus Christ.
So let’s go back now into the Gospel according to John, dating anywhere from AD 55 to 95 and most likely around AD 80. It used to be thought that this Gospel might be from as late as the end of the second century but that was ruled out by the 1934 emergence in Egypt of Johannine fragments known as Papyrus Egerton 2, now in the British Museum.
As with the other three canonical Gospels, this one is formally anonymous. Biblical scholar F. F. Bruce observes: “It is noteworthy that, while the four canonical Gospels could afford to be published anonymously, the apocryphal Gospels which began to appear from the mid-second century onwards claimed (falsely) to be written by apostles or other persons associated with the Lord.” On the basis, in part, of the testimony of Irenaeus, who was a friend of Polycarp, who knew the apostle John personally, this Gospel is attributed to that son of Zebedee, called “the beloved disciple.” He’d been very close to Jesus throughout the ministry and, at the cross, Jesus commended his mother Mary to this beloved John and John to Mary. After the resurrection, John became a leader in the Jerusalem church and later lived in Ephesus (with Mary) and wrote his Gospel and Epistles there.
Let’s take a look at the biblical context of that seeming “question” of Pilate’s, to which we alluded in our previous session: “What is truth?” And then we’ll go on from there to dip into the record at various points to distill the inexhaustible truth that’s still there for us today.
It’s the Roman governor’s first interrogation of the arrested Jesus. And as you listen to John’s account, you’ll see why author/playwright Dorothy L. Sayers, in writing about her BBC radio play, The Man Born to be King, remarked that, with John’s writing, “the playwright’s task is easy. Either the dialogue is all there – vivid and personal on both sides – or the part of the interlocutor can be readily reconstructed from the replies given.” Let’s listen to God’s word.
“Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas [the high priest] to the palace [of Pilate], the Roman governor [there in residence during Passover]. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness, these leaders did not enter the palace [contaminated by Gentiles], because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out to them and asked, ‘What charges are you bringing against this man?’
“They replied, ‘If he were not a criminal we would not have handed him over to you.’
“Pilate said, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.’
“ ‘But we have no right to execute anyone,’ they objected. [John explains that] this took place to fulfill what Jesus already had said about the kind of death he was going to die. It also shows that the Temple establishment had already made up its mind that Jesus had to be eliminated once and for all.
“Pilate then went back inside the palace. He summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’
“Jesus asked him, ‘Is that your own idea or did you get that from hearing others talking about me?’
“ ‘Am I a Jew?! Your own people and the chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?’
“Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Temple leaders. But my kingdom is from another place.’
“ ‘You are a king, then!’
“‘You say I’m a king,’ Jesus replied. ‘In fact, the reason I was born, the reason I came into this world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’”
Now that’s just too challenging a statement for Pilate. It catches him off his guard, as it might catch us of our guard. He recovers enough to blurt out what amounts to his signing off.
“ ‘What is truth?,’ With this, he turned and went outside again to the Jews gathered there.” What irony! What foolishness! What resistance! He couldn’t wait for Truth himself to answer the question: What is truth?
Pilate went back outside and called out to the mob: “‘I find no basis for a charge against him. But, as it’s the custom for me to free a prisoner at Passover, would you like me to give you “the king of the Jews?”’
“They shouted back, ‘No! We don’t want him! Give us Barabbas!’”
John explains that Barabbas was a terrorist caught in one of the periodic uprisings of the Jewish zealots against Roman occupation.
“So then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.” (John 18:28-19:1)
Notice that Jesus here says that it was precisely to witness to the truth that he was born and came into the world. And these are two things: his birth as a human being and his coming into this world from another world to bring truth into this world. Coming from outside this world and being born into this world, this man, the God-Man, can testify to the truth that springs from beyond this world, that is, from the Father, and can, therefore, bring the truth to his fellow human beings.
Thus, the truth to which Jesus testifies comes from “outside the box,” as it were – from outside the boxed-in darkness of this world. It has its basis in The Creating Reality of all reality beyond the relativity of created reality here and now – and only as such is it the truth. Jesus goes on to say, as we saw, that everyone who is really committed to truth has the ears to hear him as he brings the truth.
Moreover, the text tells us that he not only brings the truth. Again, he is, himself, the Truth. Truth – such a key term in John’s Gospel – is not only the truth about reality – the Greek sense of what really is, the true state of affairs, as it were – but it’s the Truth in the Hebrew sense of firm trustworthiness as God, Himself, is True. And this fullness of double-truth is fundamentally personal. And the Person of Truth is Jesus. The full truth is in Jesus for Jesus is the full Truth.
To explicate this further, let’s turn to the very beginning of John’s Gospel and that well-known identification of Jesus and the logos or Word of God.
Paralleling the opening words of Genesis, John writes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and what God was, the Word was.” It could not be said more plainly: God is Jesus! This is the truth. And this is the truth that this world, in its darkness, rejects to its peril. Notice, the defensiveness – not only in non-Christians, but perhaps even in yourselves (if you are Christians) to this unambiguous beginning of John’s Gospel: God is Jesus! The Word was in closest intimacy with God. What God was, the Word was too.
And, keeping with the beginning of Genesis and its account of creation, John writes this: “Through him [that is, through Jesus, the Word] all things were made; without him nothing was made that ever has been made.” Have you ever realized that the early Jewish witness to Jesus’ identity is that Jesus, as the Word of God, actually created the entire universe of timespace? Furthermore, as John writes, “In him [that is, in Jesus, the Word] there was life, and that life was light for all people. The light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has never been able to put out that light.”
Then, after John mentions the coming of another John, i.e. John the baptizer, coming as a herald of Jesus’ own coming, he resumes his amazingly high Christology by saying: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world, in fact, was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not welcome him. Yet to all who did welcome him, to those who trusted in his authority, he gave the right to become the children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but children born of God.”
Then follows those very familiar words – perhaps so familiar that they lull us into misconceiving them. Listen carefully. “The Word – this Word who was with God from the beginning, this Word who was the same as God, this Word who created the universe – this 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.” John had beheld the glories of the transfigured Jesus and the risen Jesus and so he testifies: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only [as the voice of the Father had endorsed] full of grace and truth.” Jesus, John says, was ‘full of grace and truth.” We’ve pointed out that this truth combines both the Greek and Hebrew senses of what really is the firm trustworthiness of God.
Where did John get this phrasing: “full of grace and truth?”
In Exodus 34, Yahweh, the Lord God Almighty, passes in majesty near Moses and he hears these words of God’s Presence: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” A Bible scholar notes that “the Greek words of John 1:14, charis kai aletheia, translated ‘full of grace (charis) and truth (aletheia), are readily recognizable as a rendering of the last phrase of Ex 34:6, ‘abounding in steadfast love (Heb. hesed) and faithfulness’ (Heb. emeth).” So the glory that Yahweh revealed to Moses is now revealed through another Jew, John, to be the Word of God in flesh. And his name, divinely named, is Yeshua. Yeshua (Jesus) means salvation is of Yahweh. Yahweh saves! No wonder Jesus is said by John and the other early Jewish Christians to be “full of grace and truth.” Jesus is the Lord God appearing as a man. What else could the Word, God, be, then, but full of the divine, eternal grace and truth, God’s longsuffering love and fullest trustworthiness, his everlasting mercy and his abiding faithfulness?
So it follows that John then says that while God’s law was given through Moses (who’d first heard those words of grace and truth in the sacred Presence), “grace and truth were established through Jesus, the Messiah (Yeshua Ha’mashia).” With Moses’ experience in mind, John writes: “No one has ever seen God. But the only begotten, (himself) God [monogenes theos], who is in the bosom of the Father (a most intimate relationship), he, Jesus, is the one who has revealed him.” (1:17f) Now how could a devoutly monotheistic Jew such as John, along with so many other equally devout Jews, ever come, in so short a time, to such an unexpected and unacceptable conclusion – unexpected by the rabbis as well as the disciples and unacceptable to both the Temple and Roman establishments? As I have said before, only their experience of the risen Jesus could have opened up such a conviction and only the witness of God’s Spirit within them could have sealed such a conviction into commitment unto death.
In the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel we read of the crowds of people who went searching for Jesus, following his feeding of the five thousand. They ask him: “Rabbi, what must we do to do the works that God requires of us?” Jesus answered them: “The work of God is this: to trust in the one he has sent.” That self-reference is not what any rabbi was ever supposed to say. Rabbis were supposed to call attention to the Law, not to themselves.
So they demanded of him, “What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and trust you?” Was his feeding five thousand not enough? Nothing’s ever enough for those who are bent on unbelief, whose self-serving interest is in blindness.
They continue by boasting of their connection to Moses: “Our ancestors ate the manna in the desert, as it is written, ‘He gave them bread to eat from heaven.’” They conveniently forget that their ancestors grumbled about that manna – same old manna menu day after day in the desert! Jesus kindly refrained from reminding them of that and responded: “Look, it isn’t Moses who gives you the bread from heaven. It’s my Father. My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” they said, “give us this bread always.” They still didn’t get what he was saying.
So Jesus declared himself plainly: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry. Whoever trusts me will never be thirsty. But as I’ve said to you, you’ve seen me and still you don’t trust in me. All who the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that all who looks to the Son and trust in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” Here Jesus is speaking to them as though God is speaking to them, for only God can raise the dead. Yet here is Jesus saying: “I will raise them.”
At this, of course, they began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were beginning to get his drift and they did not like it one bit. They began to reinforce their prejudices and said among themselves, “But isn’t this just Jesus, the son of Joseph? We know who his father and mother are! How can he say, ‘I came down from heaven’?” That’s no question. That’s a conclusion: He can’t say he came down from heaven. How dare he?!
Some people today seem to think that, if only they’d been there in Jesus’ day, if only they’d seen him, they’d find it so much easier to believe in him. No. We see when we believe. That’s the truth – psychologically as well as theologically.
These, his fellow Galileans, think they know who’s sitting right there in front of them because they’re looking at him. They think they know who his parents are because they’ve seen his parents. And they were not only wrong – they were obsessively wrong for they would not yield their own so-called authority on the truth.
Why do we think we would have been any more receptive to him then than we can tend to be today? Don’t we, today, as they then, try to squeeze Jesus into our own prejudiced points of view and thereby squeeze him out of our lives?
The truth is this: anyone (then or now) who comes to Jesus, comes to him because the Father draws him. That’s what Jesus said: “None comes to me unless drawn to me by my Father.” (6:44) So coming to Jesus (then or now) is nothing to boast of. Coming to the Truth is something to thank God for, not to take credit for. To see Jesus truly, to see him for who he really is, to see him as the one in whom you can stake your soul, is to see in the light of the truth that sets us free. And we’ll get to that portion of John’s Gospel next time. Now for some of your questions.
For anyone who is moved to follow Jesus but may be a bit confused, the apostle Thomas is a welcome stand-in. Thomas, too, wanted to follow Jesus. And he was not hesitant to speak up and ask what a less trusting soul might consider inappropriate questions. Those who are less serious about following Jesus tend to be less persistent in asking hard questions. But, of course, when asking hard questions, we have to be ready to hear hard answers – at least at first.
Jesus’ responses are no harder for us to begin to hear than they were for his first disciples. But also, of course, what Jesus said then, and is still true today, can be no less liberating for us today than it was for them back then – when once the revealed truth is understood as God’s redeeming grace and peace to a world estranged.
In John 14, we read of Jesus approaching Thomas, Philip and the other disciples. He challenges them yet again to see him for who he is: Emmanuel, God with them – somehow. Jesus tells them that they shouldn’t worry themselves about anything. His watchword was “Don’t be afraid!” Dr. Boyd calls us to worship on so many Sunday mornings with these same words of encouragement: “Don’t be afraid.” It’s a signature statement of John Paul II: “Don’t be afraid!”
Why did Jesus tell them to not be afraid? Why do Jesus’ disciples – such as our own pastor and the pope – continue to repeat his words: “Don’t be afraid!” They do so for the same reason that prompted Jesus to say these words in the first place. Jesus tells his original disciples that they are not to fear for they trust in God. He then invites them to extend that same trust to him as well. Jesus says that as they trust in God, they should likewise trust in him.
Now suppose that when Dr. Boyd tells us not to fear because we are God’s children in our Father’s world, he were to add: “and don’t be afraid for you are my children in my world.” Suppose he’d say: “As you already trust in God, extend that same trust to me.” Would you think he’d gone over the deep end? Suppose the pope asked that the trust we place in God be placed in him. Would you think he’d gone over the deep end? It was no easier for Jesus’ first disciples to hear him ask for the trust they place in God to be extended to him. Remember that to themselves, they were not the disciples we read about in the New Testament and Jesus was not the risen Savior we know him to be today. It was all quite new and overwhelming to them.
What sort of good Jewish boy tells his fellow Jews to trust him as they trust the One God of Israel? What sort of rabbi says such a thing? A good rabbi should say: “Trust in God.” Period. A good rabbi should not add: “And likewise trust in me!”
It’s crystal clear: Jesus is a con-man or a crazy man or the God-man. He’s one of these three. There’s no other option. If he’s either a con-man or a crazy man we should pay him no attention. If he’s the God-man, we should pay him all the attention we can muster. Either we should not follow him at all or we should follow him with all we are. Doesn’t this make sense? And those around him could see that it made sense. We’ll have more to say about this in our next session, when we look at what it means not only to trust the truth but to do the truth.
Jesus announces to these disciples that there are many rooms in what he calls his very own Father’s house, obviously referencing God. He states further that he’s going there to prepare a place for them so that they may be where he will be. He adds: “And you already know the way to that place.”
Here’s where Thomas steps up and speaks for those who don’t have enough confidence in Jesus to confess their own confusion. He doesn’t pretend he knows what Jesus is talking about. He states bluntly: “But Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?”
Now that’s an honest statement and a useful question. If you want to get somewhere, you have to know both where that is and how to get there. And you need to ask the right person. So many so-called “doubting Thomases” today don’t at all grant their ignorance and don’t ask the right questions of the right sources. They consult only themselves, making up their own little self-serving theologies as they stumble toward oblivion, willfully oblivious of what a tragic mistake they’re making.
Jesus answered him in no uncertain terms: “I’m the way, Thomas. I’m the way and I’m the truth and I’m the life.” Jesus is just as blunt in his reply as Thomas is in his question. He says he himself is the way, the truth and the life.
“The Way” that Jesus is takes precedence in this three-fold identification. The Way takes the lead to the Truth and Life that God is – all personally present in Jesus. Since Jesus is the personal revelation of God (God’s true self truly disclosed – or, as Paul would shortly say, “the glory of God revealed in the face of Christ”) and since Jesus is the very life of God (God fleshed out in a single man), Jesus is, indeed, the way to God.
Jesus explains further and in no uncertain terms: “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Whatever could he possibly mean by this unambiguous statement? Perhaps he means that no one comes to the Father except through him? That’s not a statement that’s well received in the postmodernist games played these days. There’s something about “no one” that no one seems to want to get these days.
A New Testament scholar points out: “In this context [of John’s Gospel] Jesus does not simply blaze a trail, commanding others to take the way that he himself takes; rather, he is the way. … He is himself the Saviour (4:42), the Lamb of God (1:29, 34), the one who so speaks that those who are in the graves hear his voice and come forth (5:28-29). He so mediates God’s truth and God’s life that he is the very way to God … the one who alone can say, No one comes to the Father except through me.” (D. A. Carson)
As another biblical scholar says, this “means that Jesus is the way to God.” (George R. Beasley-Murray) He explicates: “As the Way, Jesus is depicted in his mediatorial role between God and man; as the Truth he is the mediator of the revelation of God, and as the Life he is the mediator of the salvation which is life in God.” This is not the role of a merely human prophet or merely human priest. This is not the role of just another animal life to be sacrificed. This is the prophetic, priestly, and self-sacrificing presence of God.
Let’s illustrate how radical a statement this is – no matter how it might be tortured these days to say less than what it says. How would it sound, for example, if our rabbi, our teacher, Dr. Boyd, were to say it? What would you understand by Dr. Boyd’s saying to us: I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no one comes to God the Father but by me? You see, it won’t be watered down. It is as bold a statement today as it was when it was first said, some two thousand years ago.
These days – as in the old Roman Empire – this truth claim by Jesus that he is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and that nobody comes to God the Father but by him, is simply no less exclusive-sounding than back when Jesus said it. And, as such, it is as unlikely to be embraced and approved as true today as then. Certainly New York’s elite, committed as it is to the religious absolute of religious relativism, ruthlessly resents it. And it will stoop to anything to denounce it.
Isn’t it odd that no matter how much New Yorkers may be attracted to claims of an apartment building’s being “exclusive,” no matter how much they’d kill to get into an “exclusive” club or to carry the “exclusive” labels so as to be included in the “exclusive” set – and they’ll gladly go into crushing debt for it all – these same New Yorkers are repelled by what they reject as this “discriminatory” and “politically incorrect” claim by Jesus. Curious, no?
And yet this offer of access to God the Father, exclusively offered by Jesus, is issued to all – at his crushing expense. So, as another biblical scholar summarizes: “Jesus’ claim, understood in the light of the prologue to the Gospel, is inclusive, not exclusive.” Here’s his fuller statement: Jesus “is, in fact the only way by which men and women may come to the Father; there is no other way. If this seems offensively exclusive, let it be borne in mind that the one who makes this claim is the incarnate Word, the revealer of the Father. If God has no avenue of communication with mankind apart from his Word (incarnate or otherwise), mankind has no avenue of approach to God apart from that same Word, who became flesh and dwelt among us in order to supply such an avenue of approach. Jesus’ claim, understood in the light of the prologue to the Gospel, is inclusive, not exclusive. All truth is God’s truth, as all life is God’s life; but God’s truth and God’s life are incarnate in Jesus.” (F. F. Bruce)
Think of the contrast between what seems to be the truth at the time and what is the truth as it turns out. As one Bible scholar puts it: “‘I am the Way,’ said One who would shortly hang impotent on a cross. ‘I am the Truth,’ when the lies of evil men were about to enjoy a spectacular triumph, ‘I am the Life,’ when within a few hours His corpse would be placed in a tomb.” (Leon Morris) This ironic sequence of unfolding truth reminds us that we are not to assess anything by merely temporary appearances. When Truth incarnate speaks, don’t pay undue attention to what seems to contradict him.
Jesus goes on to tell his disciples that if they do know him, they’ll know his Father as well. Once again, Jesus’ words are pedagogically provocative, framed to bring forth another question from them, to which he might further enlighten them with the revelation of God’s truth he’s intended to bring them.
This time it’s Philip who stands in for us. He asks Jesus to show them the Father. Jesus says that in seeing him, they’ve already seen his Father! He tells them that in the words they’ve heard him say, they’ve heard the words of his Father and in the works they’ve seen him do, they’ve seen the works of his Father. He tells them that, in order for the Father to be glorified in [him] the Son, they are to pray in his authority and obey his commandments. Could he make it any clearer: He and his Father are one? What Jesus is saying, according to another Bible scholar, is that “that which humankind seeks through its religions, and partially finds, stands revealed in its completeness in Jesus.” (George R. Beasley-Murray)
Turning to John 15, we come to one of his identity claims that are put in the form of “I am” statements. Let’s read it. Jesus says:
“I am the true Vine, and my Father is the Vinedresser. Every branch in me that yields no fruit he cuts off, but every one that yields fruit he cuts clean so that it may yield more fruit. Now you are clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Be assured that I am remaining in union with you. Remain in union with me. For just as the branch is unable to yield fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you yield fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who remains in me and I in him yields much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus tells them that, as mere branches, they’ll wither and die apart from remaining in the vine and that, if that happens, they’ll be fit for nothing better than to be burned up.
He goes on: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; remain in my love. If you keep my commands you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and I remain in his love.” What does Jesus command? He says: “This is my command: Love one another as I have loved you.” What kind of love is that? He says: “No one has greater love than this, that one lays down his life for the sake of his friends. And you are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, because a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, because all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” Here he is speaking of that full disclosure that was the Hebraic sense of the truth. And here he is speaking of the very truth of God. He holds nothing back that would be useful to them.
Jesus then explains that he chose them and not the other way round. He chose them in order that they might bear much lasting fruit and so that the Father might give them whatever they ask by Jesus’ authority. He repeats his command: “Love one another.”
Jesus warns them that in abiding in him, it won’t be an easy life. He makes it plain that the world will hate them because of him. Since the world hated him, it’s only to be expected that this same sinful world will hate his true followers. He says: “If you belonged to the world the world would love you as its own. But because you do not belong to the world, [but you belong to me] since I chose you out of the world, the world hates you.” Woe to us if the world does not hate us!
On this teaching, we must be wary, then, of any lavish compliments the world might give to us as Christ’s disciples. How true are we to the real truth of Christ if the world that crucified him has little to complain about when it comes to us? If the world has no real complaint about us as Christians, instead of being true disciples of Christ, might we be merely nominal churchgoers, rubber-stamping the world’s own agenda and calling it “Christianity” for our own self-serving convenience? If you’re a serious follower of Jesus, you are an alien in this world and you will be seen to be an enemy and treated as such. If we’re true to the Truth that Jesus is, there will be plenty about which the world will be beside itself in finding fault. If we are not true to the Truth that Jesus is, the world couldn’t care less about us.
Well we’ve already looked at two of the metaphorical uses of Jesus’ significant “I am” statements in John’s Gospel – the one about his being the bread that came down from heaven and the one about his being the true vine. There are others – such as “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will never walk in darkness” (8:12) and “I am the door; whoever enters through me will be saved” (10:9).
One of Jesus’ “I am” statements is not really so metaphorical, at least not in the same sense as is his being “bread” or “light” or a “door.” It’s spoken as his shocking revelation to Martha, following the death of her brother, Lazarus. It’s his saying: “I am the Resurrection and I am the Life.” (John 11:25)
In John 11 we read of Jesus’ mourning with the dead man’s sisters, Mary and Martha. Then, in conversation with Martha, Jesus says what might have sounded like a conventional word of comfort, a reassuring reference for the bereaved, based in Pharisaical teaching about a general resurrection at the end of the world. Martha had no doubt been hearing such consolation ever since Lazarus died.
But what Jesus says to her here goes far beyond anything that was in any sense conventional. He declares that he is, himself, the Resurrection and that he is, himself, the Life of the dawning new age to come. He tells Martha that she need not hope for a distant resurrection when, in some mysterious sense, that resurrection life is already breaking in, here and now, in those who believe in him. Eternal life, he says, is accessible now – in him! He reveals to her that she’s standing in the presence of Resurrection himself.
After Martha grants that – in her own words – she, indeed, believes him and believes that he is Israel’s Messiah, the Son of God and the One for whom they’d long been yearning, Jesus commands the dead Lazarus to come forth out of his tomb. And Lazarus immediately comes out – now alive – yet still entangled in his grave wrappings.
By the way, that Lazarus had to be helped out of these dead man’s clothes, lends credibility to the account. It would have been more likely for a fictional story to be wholly spectacular, without such pedestrian detail. In the much later, inauthentic stories told of saints, there was a preference for the extraordinary flourish over the ordinary details.
Some of Jesus’ “I am” statements are, in usage, not metaphorical at all. They’re absolute and emphatic expressions of his very being. These sayings are sometimes understood by biblical scholars to be closely related to the meaning of YHWH, God’s holy, ineffable name in the Hebrew Bible. That meaning is “I AM.” (Cf. e.g., Ex 3:14; 62; Deut 32:39; Isa 43:25; 48:12, etc.) In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, the term is rendered ego emi – as it is in the New Testament’s presentation of Jesus’ self-descriptions. So these “I am” sayings of Jesus are sometimes understood to be allusions to the holy name of YHWH, signifying Jesus’ solidarity with God. But are they?
Take, for example, his identifying himself to his frightened disciples when they catch a glimpse of him walking on the water in a storm. It’s found at John 6:20. Literally, the Greek has Jesus saying: “I am. Don’t be afraid.” Even a very conservative Bible scholar explains: “The words make perfectly good sense in Greek as a form of self-identification, simply ‘It is I’ – and doubtless that is how the disciples understood them. Thus, formally nothing is ‘heightened.’” (D. A. Carson)
On another occasion, in a most unusual display of freedom from ethnic and gender distinctions – foreshadowing Paul’s later rejection of such distinctions in Christ (Gal 3:28) – Jesus was speaking with a Samaritan woman. This is found at John 4:26. After speaking at some length with this woman, she brings up the topic of the Messiah, God’s Anointed One. She says she believes that, indeed, he will be coming one day. And Jesus replies to her in the plainest of words: “I am he.”
Here we have something more significant than when Jesus identified himself to the disciples on the stormy lake. Here, in conversation with a woman, and a Gentile to boot – someone who would not so easily confuse the coming of Messiah with an overtly political or military leader expected by the Jews – we have Jesus’ unambiguous self-disclosure as God’s one and only Messiah.
Later, back among the skeptical Jewish leaders and their followers, what a different reception Jesus gets! It’s nothing like the readiness to believe that the Samaritan woman showed. To these Jewish officials, he states that he’s come from an entirely different world from that in which they are mired. He separates himself from them in no uncertain terms. This confrontation is in John 8.
Jesus addresses them by identifying one of the significant distinctions between them and him: “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins if you do not believe that I am he [ego emi] , you will indeed die in your sins.” (8:23f) Rather than establishing some sort of equal identity or level playing field, he lets them know plainly that there is a crucial difference between them. He says they’re “not coming from the same place” and he means it more literally than that they’re “not on the same page.”
At first, of course, they’re taken aback. They have some difficulty quite realizing the tremendous distinction he’s claiming. So they have some difficulty refuting him. But they soon grasp enough of what he’s claiming to be outraged. They see that he means for his “I am” statement to be taken as they are not prepared to take it. His distancing himself from their authority, as he identifies himself in solidarity with God’s authority, is seen by them to be not only insulting to them, but blasphemous to God. He’s excluding them from a special relationship he claims for himself with God. When he announces, not merely “Before Abraham was, I was,” but “Before Abraham was, I am,” they see that he’s claiming, without equivocation, that he’s in such unique intimacy with God as to have the right to the authority of the Divine Name. And so they take the Levitical (24:16) law into their own hands and grab some stones with which they mean to stone him to death right there on the spot. (8:59) These were, perhaps, some of the fragments of the building stones with which the Temple was still being constructed. John here uses the divine passive form to indicate that God protected Jesus – he “was hidden,” and their deadly effort foiled. But things were now moving rapidly toward the destiny for which he came – for which he was sent – to give his life a ransom for the sinful world that so hated him.
Moving on to the upper room, the scene of the Last Supper, we see Jesus reclining at table with his disciples. (13:19) This is just before his arrest and subsequent crucifixion. Jesus speaks again in the language of “I am.”
Here, he does so in order that his disciples might realize, when the calamity of betrayal and crucifixion comes to pass, that nonetheless, “I am.” As it’s translated in Today’s New International Version, he says: “I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am.” Is this an allusion to the Lord’s ineffable name, YWHW, “I AM WHO I AM?” It is. Jesus goes on to say: “Very truly I tell you, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.” Here again, Jesus identifies himself as the Anointed One sent by God. He says he is the reconciliation to God for all the estranged who accept him as such.
And so Jesus is arrested and crucified. The disciples fall away into grief. But then he is seen more alive than ever. And they knew him to be who he claimed to be: the Lord.
Back in John 8, we see that he’d told them that “When you lift up the Son of Man, you will see that ‘I am (he)’ [ego emi].” (8:28) The term “lift up” is associated with glory. Ironically, the lifting up of Jesus for crucifixion on the cross – utter disillusionment for the disciples at first – is, in reality, the glory of the cross, the result of which is the glory of the resurrection. In his being lifted up on the cross he is known for who he is – you then know that ‘I am.’” Jesus had, at that time told his immediate disciples as well as other Jews who had believed in him that they would know him even more truly when the fuller revelation dawned in crucifixion and resurrection. He urged them to stick with what he revealed to them and that then, in the truth, they would be set free. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” (8:32) This is not some generic mantra to be applied for any purpose we like. This was the specific statement of Jesus concerning himself. He promised that if his followers remained in a settled determination to hear his word and live by his word, there would be a coming to know the truth that truly frees from all that is finally bondage – sin and death. This is the joy of true freedom, found only in a continuing commitment to Christ, who died for us that we might die in him and was raised to life that we might live in him. That is the truth of the only freedom there is.
God gives us His word, His word of truth. How? God gives us his clear true word in nature – so true a word of His Self-disclosure that self-deceiving secular cosmologists are scrambling to explain this finely tuned universe in terms that exclude the Fine Tuner. God gives us His clearer true word in the Bible – so true a word of His Self-disclosure that self-deceiving secular society, by and large, refuses to read and study this bestseller of all time. God gives us His clearest true word in Jesus, His Christ – so true a word of His Self-disclosure that a self-deceivingly self-righteous society sought and still seeks to kill him – though he himself voluntarily laid down his life for the sake of the sinful world.
What are we, then, to do about these truths and Truth himself? Does it not make sense to trust the truth? Would it not make sense to trust and follow and serve Truth himself? Only by the action of trusting in the revealed truth of God, God’s truth about the way things are and God’s Truth personified in Jesus of Nazareth, can we be true to God’s truths and to Truth himself.
According to what we’ve learned, the appropriate response to God’s Self-disclosure of truth in nature, in scripture and, supremely, in the Lord Jesus Christ, is our doing this truth of God and our worshipping God in this truth in Christ. Short of taking action on the basis of the truth in Christ, how can we call ourselves Christians?
Let’s now take a closer look at what John’s Gospel reveals about doing the truth in Christ. John writes: “This is the verdict: that the light has come into this world and people loved the darkness more than the light. Why? Because what they were doing was evil. People who do what is evil hate the light and do not come into the light for fear that their wicked ways should be exposed. But whoever does the truth comes to the light so that what he or she is doing may be proved to be done in union with God.” (3:19-21)
The true light, as John said in his prologue, has come into the world in Jesus of Nazareth. John says that that light came to illuminate everybody. But, as he says and as we know from history and from our own experience, not everybody turns to that light. In his own day, most of Jesus’ fellow Jews rejected him. During the subsequent years of John’s ministry in Jerusalem and Ephesus, most of his fellow Jews rejected Jesus. “Most Jews, [Paul] wrote, did not accept Jesus because God ‘hardened’ them; on the other hand, they did not ‘heed.’” (E. P. Sanders) And in our own day, most Jews still reject Jesus. Hardened rejection can turn into even Christophobic bigotry, as is all too evident in the Anti-Defamation League’s relentless attacks against Mel Gibson’s film on the crucifixion of Christ. Gibson’s script is the New Testament, which these Jesus-rejecting Jews label anti-Semitic even though most of it was written by the earliest Jews for Jesus. An editorial in an evangelical Christian publication notes that the less-than-honest uproar means: “If you really believe what the Bible says, you have no choice but to be anti-Semitic.” Those who attack the as-yet unreleased film are “clearly forging a false link between anti-Semitism and New Testament narrative. So in reality, it’s not filmmaker Gibson who’s giving anti-Semites an excuse to use [his film] for hate, it’s Gibson’s critics.” (Christianity Today, November 2003)
And, down through the centuries, Gentile response has also been violent rejection of Jesus. The persecution of Christ reached its zenith in the slaughter of millions upon millions of Christians by 20th century regimes of atheism and Islam.
Down through the ages, people on whom the light has shined have hidden from the light of Christ. They have remained in the resistant darkness. Even ecclesiastical leaders and people whose names are on church rolls continue to reject the light of Christ and refuse to obey his commandments in everyday life and work.
What accounts for this refusal to come into the light of Christ? We were asked about this last Sunday. Well, broadly speaking, as Jesus predicted, he came to bring division and his coming does divide – even within the closest of human relationships. The division that comes with the coming of Christ is as stark as the division between light and darkness, day and night. It’s as much a separating as BC and AD. It’s as divisive as BC and BCE. John uses other contrasts as synonymous with the contrast between the light that illumines and the darkness that hides: good over against evil, truth over against falsehood, love over against hatred, life over against death.
But what else explains this rejection of the light in favor of the dark? Why do people actually prefer to remain in the dark rather than come into the light of Christ? According to John’s Gospel, people prefer to remain in the dark in order to hide. They have something to hide and the light is not where to do that. They prefer to remain in the dark so that their wrongdoing may not be exposed. The Greek term translated “exposed” suggests capture and conviction as well as shame. The light of revelation reveals the sin of sinners as well as the goodness of God.
Notice the factor of freedom and choice in this explanation from John’s Gospel. To remain in the dark is a deliberate, self-serving, and rational choice – at least from the viewpoint of the wrongdoer. The wrongdoer doesn’t want to be found out. So he remains lost. She doesn’t want to get caught in the wrong. So she stays caught up in it. The intention is to stay in the dark in order to elude detection. But that is not what is accomplished because that is not what can be accomplished – by the very nature of the way things are, by the very nature of truth. As John notes, the darkness cannot overcome the light, and eventually everything will be exposed in the blazing light of God’s judgment. So the unintended consequence of the wrongdoers’ remaining in the dark is their own darkness of self-deception. It’s as silly as thinking that, by shutting one’s eyes real tight, one’s own self-imposed experience of darkness really does obliterate the continuing shining of the light itself!
In contrast to the Gospel’s depiction of the irresponsible and willed ignorance of wrongdoers, the ancient scrolls of Qumran, for example, describe men of darkness as belonging hopelessly to the spirit of error. They have no choice in the matter. It’s total determinism. They never get enlightened because they’re intrinsically a part of the realm of darkness. They have no choice in the matter. This is not at all the case in the Gospel of John. According to John, we are all free agents, not fate’s finger-puppets. We are free to remain in the darkness of a self-centered world and we are free to come into the light of a Christ-centered world. Whether we stay in the dark or come into the light depends on whether or not we do God’s revealed truth.
John says that those who live by the truth of God do indeed come into the light. Why do they come into the light? They do so that it may be seen very clearly that what they do is done in God. They have nothing to hide for they themselves are hidden within the light of His love.
In coming into the loving illumination of the truth in Christ, it follows that we should live our lives by this light of truth. We’re thus called to follow through and do the truth in love. Just as error may be expressed in both speech and action, truth may be expressed in both speech and action. Truth is something to be embraced as well as believed. If truth is not acted upon, how much is it believed?
In the Old Testament, as a biblical scholar explains, “‘to do truth’ or ‘to deal truly’ means, in effect, to act honorably (cf. Gen. 32:10; Neh. 9:33). Those whose lives and actions are of this sort have no reason to avoid the light. On the contrary, the true light is their reward.” (F. F. Bruce)
So clearly, entering into the truth of Christ is more than merely a cerebral subscribing to a system of theology. Entering into the truth of Christ is more than merely a matter of parroting pious propaganda. Entering into the truth of Christ is more than merely an emotional high. Entering into the truth of Christ is serious submission to Christ and Christ’s will for all of everyday life and work. Knowing the truth in Christ is an intimacy of daily experience. It is that intimacy of knowing that is experienced by Bride and Bridegroom, the Christian and Christ. It is that intimacy of being in Christ in all that we are, all that we believe, all that we say, and all that we do. Knowing the truth in Christ is being true to our high calling in Christ, following our Savior and Lord, The Way, all the way.
So it’s no more business-as-usual. Not for anyone who grasps even something of the fact that everything is new in Christ. Allegiances and priorities and agendas are all radically changed. And this Good News – this Gospel (summed in John 3:16) is, if true, what we must share with all the outsiders, even among the so-called “insiders” who need to hear it and obey.
This brings us to another one of John’s texts which expresses this same calling to active participation in the truth of Christ – this time, in the form or language of worship.
We find it in the account of Jesus’ unconventional conversation with a Samaritan woman. Jesus explains to her that the time for worship at sites such as the Samaritans’ Mount Gerizim or the Jews’ Mount Zion is about to end. He notes that “salvation is from the Jews.” (4:22) And, as announced long before in the Jewish scriptures’ prophesies of Messiah, Jesus reveals that that salvation has arrived. This is a self-reference to his own person and in ministry. But unlike what had been expected of God’s Messiah, his is a ministry that will take him to crucifixion and on through resurrection. The indwelling of the promised Holy Spirit will then be given to all believers to lead them into all truth.
Hear Jesus’ words to this Samaritan woman: “A time is coming – in fact it’s already here – when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; such are the worshippers that the Father seeks. God is Spirit, and so those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (4:23f)
You’ve all heard this expression in our own worship services here at City Church: we ‘must worship in spirit and truth.” Did you know these were Jesus’ words? What did he mean?
True worshippers of the Father do so “in spirit and truth” because, as Jesus had just told the woman, “God is spirit.” That is to say, God is not located in but one place or another, such as Mount Gerizim or Jerusalem – or Rome or Canterbury or Nashville for that matter. The God of the Bible is invisible but to the eyes of faith. The God Jesus reveals is completely beyond the control of any earthly authority, Jew or Gentile, Catholic or Protestant. And, as Jesus had called himself the Truth of God, worshipping “in spirit and truth” is worshipping the true Spirit of God revealed in Christ Jesus. It is God-centered and Christ-centered worship.
Worship “in spirit and truth” is not centered in the worshippers. Worship “in spirit and truth” is not centered in a performance, whether by a choir or a preacher. Worship “in spirit and truth” is not centered in any particular liturgy, ritual, or form of worship – ancient or modern, high church or low, Pentecostal or Reformed, Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox, smells and bells or sawdust trails. And it’s not observed only under a steeple or dome or Gothic tower or even “the wide open spaces, built by the hand of the Lord.” Worship “in spirit and truth” is not something we do only with “our kind,” people who are conveniently and comfortably “just like us.” And worship “in spirit and truth” is not a baptizing of our own personal political preference writ large, whether Leftwing or Rightwing biases. Worship “in spirit and truth” doesn’t rubber-stamp our own self-serving opinions and leave them unexposed and unchallenged by the searching light of the Word of God. Worship “in spirit and truth” doesn’t merely pick and choose according to one’s own self-stunting preconceptions so that there is no opportunity to grow in grace. No.
Worship “in spirit and truth” is praising the only true God, the God truly revealed in nature, in scripture and in Jesus of Nazareth, and commended to us by His living Spirit of truth. Worship “in spirit and truth” is praying to that one and only God – on our own behalf and on behalf of the whole wide world, including our enemies. Worship “in spirit and truth” is attending to the faithful preaching of God’s true word so that we might better know Him and His will, and better love and serve Him through our loving service to our neighbors, whomever and wherever we stumble upon them.
Notice that Jesus says that such worship “in spirit and truth” is a must. Worship “in spirit and truth” is not optional. It is not a matter for the worshippers to decide whether to do or not according to whim or weather. It is a divinely given requirement that the worship of the one and only true God must be done in only God’s spirit and God’s truth. No admixture of anything against God’s spirit and truth can constitute worship “in spirit and truth.”
But, likewise, anything at all in the gifts of God’s good creation that can be sincerely used to give all the glory to His spirit and truth is not to be despised – whether in form or substance, song or sermon, smells and bells or sawdust trails. After all, God created this whole wide world of worshippers who express love to God in all the diversity of human temperament, personality, aptitude, intelligence, taste and historical and cultural idiosyncrasies. There are as many ways to worship – “in spirit and truth” – the God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, as there are Christians worshipping God “in spirit and truth.” And in the world today, that typically means a woman of color in a Third World country, expressing her worship of God “in spirit and truth” but in a form with which we might not so readily identify. It is our risen Lord and Savior and our love of Him and our commitment to follow Him that we have in common. He unites us “in spirit and truth.”
And there’s, of course, nothing compulsory here. To follow Jesus is an open invitation. As John presents Jesus in the Book of Revelation, the risen Savior stands knocking at everyone’s heart’s door: “Here I am,” he says. “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and we will dine together.” (Rev 3:20) Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev observed: “Truth nailed upon the cross compels nobody, oppresses nobody; it must be accepted and confessed freely; its appeal is addressed to free agents.” It’s an appeal we must pass on – as Paul said: “We implore you in Christ’s stead, ‘Be reconciled to God!’” (II Cor 5:20)
John sees in Jesus the light of the long awaited Dawning Day, already breaking through, the fulfillment of the visions of Israel’s psalmists and prophets as well as his own vision recorded in the Book of Revelation. There, “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” constitute the true Temple of the Heavenly City. There, the true and joyous worship of that City’s church, the redeemed Bride of Christ, will fill the earth. (Rev 21:22) And already, mysteriously, that everlasting worship of God has leapt into the present as a foretaste of the glory to come. God’s true kingdom is here and now in Christ and, as Christ taught us to pray, we pray: Thy kingdom come!