“What is truth?” John 18:38

by Steven Chan

In John 18:37-38, the Bible recorded this conversation between Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ: “Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end have I been born, and to this end am I come into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find no crime in him.”

Jesus told Pilate that He had come to “bear witness unto the truth” – to which Pilate replied: “What is truth?” but Pilate did not wait to hear the answer of Jesus to that question. Immediately after asking the question, Pilate went out to the Jews. In all probability, Pilate was not interested in knowing the truth. He probably thought that it was not worth his time or effort to be engaged in a discussion about truth – perhaps he thought that truth was irrelevant to him or that it was not profitable to discuss the subject.

What about out attitude to the question of truth? Do we really seek to know the truth? Or do we feel that it is a waste of time and effort to discuss the question of truth? Do we feel that ascertaining truth is beyond us or that we are not capable of knowing the truth?

Let’s examine some attitudes towards truth.

1.  Some say it is not possible to know the truth because things are not always black or white as they are sometimes/oftentimes grey. But Jesus said in John 8:32 “and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Jesus declared that it is possible for us to know the truth. It is also important to know the truth so that we can be set free from sin.

2.  Some exchanged truth for a lie:

Romans 1:24-25: “Wherefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts unto uncleanness, that their bodies should be dishonored among themselves: for that they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever.”

In the immediate context, the apostle Paul was discussing about those who refused to acknowledge the truth that God is our Creator.  So they refused to worship the Creator.
Because they refused to acknowledge the truth that God is their Creator, they exchanged the truth of God for a lie as regards the activities and relationships that they engaged in. They believed the lie that advocates that it is alright to be engaged in activities that God had forbidden such as “same-sex marriages” or “homosexuality/lesbianism”.

In Matt 5:31-32, Jesus taught the truth about marriage, divorce and remarriage: “Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’  “But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.”  Clearly, Jesus taught that the only permissible ground for divorce is if the one who is being put away or divorced, is guilty of sexual immorality. This truth is continually being challenged. Those who do not have the love of the truth as clearly taught by Jesus, attempt to wrest the scriptures (2 Pet 3:16) and postulate various explanations in order to lead us away from believing the truth on this subject, such as:-

a. They contend that Jesus was not saying that “sexual immorality” was the only permissible ground for one to divorce his spouse as there were other grounds for divorce in the old testament such as during the time of Ezra when the Israelites declared thus: “We have trespassed against our God, and have taken pagan wives from the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope in Israel in spite of this. Now therefore, let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and those who have been born to them…”(Ezra 10:2-3).

The truth is that the Israelites had transgressed God’s specific command that they should not marry pagan spouses (Deut 7:3). So, what the Israelites determined to do on their own accord to rectify their situation does not provide another ground for us today to put away our spouses.  In fact, the New Testament Scriptures specifically teaches that those who are married to unbelievers are not to divorce them: –
”If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him.”(1 Cor 7:12-13).

b. Others have been bolder as they declare that the teachings of Matt 5:32 and Matt 19:9 are not applicable to Christians today because they belong to the Old Testament and are therefore no longer binding on Christians living today. They contend that the New Testament teachings only commenced from the book of Acts – after the death of Jesus Christ.

The length to which such teachers would go to justify their erroneous teachings and practices is quite incredible! In their desperation to avoid the truth on marriage, divorce and remarriage as taught by Jesus in Matt 5:32 & 19:9, they are prepared to cast aside/ditch all the teachings of Jesus recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke & John – contending that they were only applicable to the Old Testament period.

To the ordinary student of the Word, when Jesus said in Matthew 5, “you have heard that it was said to those of old… but I say to you…” it was easily understood that Jesus was introducing the teachings of the kingdom of the new covenant in contrast to the teachings of the old covenant.  For example, in Matt 5:38-39, Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I tell you not to resist an evil person…” it is evident that Jesus was quoting from the Old Testament scriptures in Ex 21:24: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”, and He was introducing a higher level of conduct/behaviour for those who would follow Him under the New Covenant.
Although Jesus delivered His teachings of the New Covenant as recorded in the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, it is clear that His New Covenant would only come into force or effect, after His death: “For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives.”(Heb 9:16-17)
While Jesus was still alive, He introduced His teachings that would come into force after His death and resurrection.  For example, Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper in Matt 26:26-29 before His death:
”And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”
In introducing the Lord’s Supper (I Cor 11:20), Jesus was not teaching the Jews an Old Testament practice. Clearly, He was teaching them what they need to do in His kingdom after His death and resurrection.  It is interesting to note that at the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus had not yet shed His blood of the new covenant although He said “this is My blood of the new covenant which is shed for many for the remission of sins”. It was clearly anticipatory of what He would do and what would be coming into effect thereafter.

We need to be wary of such teachers who will not endure sound doctrine of the truth.

In Gen 3:4-5, Eve exchanged the truth for a lie:

”And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.” She was deceived into believing the lie told by Satan and so she rejected the truth that God had revealed to her. I Tim 2:14: “the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” We should not exchange the truth for a lie and we should be wary of deceptive teachings lest we fall.
The devil has not changed his strategy to cause man to sin. His weapon has always been that of deception. As in the case of Eve, he boldly contradicted the plain statement of God by asserting: “You shall not surely die”. Satan offered a different explanation as to why God did not want them to eat that fruit. Once that deceptive thought was sown in the mind of Eve, she began to believe the lie – and so, after further reasoning that it was “good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate” (Gen 3:6).

3.  Some exchange the truth for fables & commandments of men:

2 Timothy 4:4: “and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables.”
Titus 1:14: “not giving heed to Jewish fables, and commandments of men who turn away from the truth”

It is amazing that many grown ups would rather believe in fables and commandments of men, rather than believe the truth as revealed by God through His Scriptures. Yet the Scriptures forewarned us that it would happen to some believers. We need to be vigilant for the truth.

4.  There are some who do not love the truth.

2 Thessalonians 2:10-12: “and with all deceit of unrighteousness for them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God sendeth them a working of error, that they should believe a lie: that they all might be judged who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

With such an attitude towards truth, such people would not be able to come to the knowledge of the truth:

2 Timothy 3:7: “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

5.  There are some who reject those who tell them the truth

In Galatians 4:16, the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in the church at Galatia: “So then am I become your enemy, by telling you the truth?”

We risk becoming enemies to those we tell the truth. But if they have the right attitude then their obedience to the truth will set them free.

King David was willing to accept the truth when Nathan the prophet of God was sent by God to tell him the truth of what David had done when David sent Uriah the Hittite to the front of the battle so that Uriah would be killed and David could then take Uriah’s widow, Bathsheba, as his wife.

When “Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith Jehovah, the God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul;… David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” (2 Samuel 12:7; 13)
Because David was willing to acknowledge his sin or error, God forgave him of his sin. We need to have the attitude of David towards the truth and to accept the truth rather than treat God’s messengers/workers/preachers as enemies because they told us the truth though unpleasant as they may be.

6.  God desires all to know the truth so that they can be saved

1 Timothy 2:4: “who would have all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth.”

God’s Word is the Truth: John 17:17: “Sanctify them in the truth: thy word is truth.”

The truth is that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to those who believe (Rom 1:16). In truth, the gospel declares that there is hope reserved for us in heaven: Colossians 1:5: “because of the hope which is laid up for you in the heavens, whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel.”

The preaching and writings of the apostles are in truth, the Word of God:

1 Thessalonians 2:13: “And for this cause we also thank God without ceasing, that, when ye received from us the word of the message, even the word of God, ye accepted it not as the word of men, but, as it is in truth, the word of God, which also worketh in you that believe.”

Did Jesus tell the truth when He told us the account of Lazarus & Rich man in Luke 16:19ff wherein He said that after death, Lazarus was “carried away by the angels into Abraham’s bosom”(Luke 16:22) while the rich man was “in torment” in Hades (Luke 16:23)? Would we exchange this truth for a lie?

Did the apostles lie when they testified that Jesus was the Son of God?

Almost 30 years after the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, the apostle Peter wrote to fellow Christians and assured them thus: “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”(2 Peter 1:16) Peter assured us that they were not following cunningly devised fables when they testified that they were eye-witnesses of the transfiguration of Jesus and the declaration of God who said “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”. Peter and the apostles spoke the truth! They lived the truth and died for the truth.

7.  We need to handle aright the Word of Truth because we can err from the truth & be lost – in which case, we would need to be converted again.

2 Timothy 2:15-18: “Give diligence to present thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, handling aright the word of truth. But shun profane babblings: for they will proceed further in ungodliness, and their word will eat as doth a gangrene: or whom is Hymenaeus an Philetus; men who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already, and overthrow the faith of some.”

James 5:19-20: “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.”

Brethren, God’s Word is truth (John 17:17) and therefore we should handle aright the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). According to James, if a Christian errs/wanders from the truth, he is destined for death (for sin is the transgression of God’s law – I John 3:4; and the wages of sin is death – Rom 6:23); such an erring Christian is in need of “conversion”; he is in need of someone to “turn him back” so that his soul may be saved from death.

We cannot stand by the side and do nothing when a brother wanders away from the truth. If we truly care for him or truly love him, we should try our best to help him “turn away from the error of his way” by “speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:15) and “restoring such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal 6:1).

8.  Finally, brethren, truth is not only to be known but also to be loved, and for us to walk in truth.
3 John 3-4: “For I rejoiced greatly when brethren came and testified of the truth that is in you, just as you walk in the truth. 4 I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.”
Brethren, the truth is to be lived. A discussion on Truth is not be engaged in just for the sake of (winning) arguments. We need to walk in the truth. The Bible exhorts us in 1 Peter 2:12 to maintain our “conduct honourable among the Gentiles”, and in Titus 2:8, to have “sound speech that cannot be condemned, that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil to say of you.” We need to know the truth as well as walk in the truth. God’s Word is the truth (John 17:17) and we need to know the Scriptures and to walk in its path.