What Is Truth?

Lent 5
John 8:46-59
April 2, 2017
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

In the name of + Jesus.

Truth is stranger than fiction, they say. This is one of the keys to the game “Two Truths and Lie.” You need to make the lies sound plausible, and the truth sound unbelievable in order to win. But sometimes that’s not so very hard to do. That’s the irony of the preaching of Jesus. In the verse preceding today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Because I am speaking the truth, you do not believe Me” (Jn 8:45). It really should be the other way around—you should believe someone who speaks the truth.

But that’s a tricky thing, because no one who wants you to believe a lie is going to tell you that they’re speaking a lie. So if this guy says he’s speaking truth, and another guy is saying the opposite but also says he’s speaking truth, how are you to distinguish between the truth and the lie? That’s one of the main questions of John’s Gospel, and it’s given voice by none other than Pontius Pilate: “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38).

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This is one of the pressing questions of our day as well. Not just, What is true? But, What is truth? And, Is there really such a thing as truth? We have an unprecedented access to information in our day, to ponder the thoughts and beliefs of people not like us, of people outside our insular circles. If you begin on a quest for the truth, you will soon encounter hundreds, if not thousands of competing truths.

To compensate, we try to reduce these down into a handful of competing worldviews. It may help to make a rough sketch of different though patterns, but it doesn’t present a realistic picture. The fact is that truth has become an intensely individualized thing. This story really begins over a century ago with philosopher by the name of Friedrich Nietzsche. You may recognize that name, but are probably more likely to recognize his famous phrase, “God is dead.” It wasn’t actually something that he said, but something a character in one of his stories said. What he meant by it was that God is no longer the standard for determining truth, or in a broader sense, there is no objective standard for truth. Truth is something you construct of the things you’d like to be true, but you can never really be sure that they’re really true. And so the only thing that exists, in truth, is the “will to power” as he called it—that whatever truth is in power is the truth.

But Jesus paints a much different picture of truth. Certainly He claims to be speaking the truth, but He makes an even bolder claim later in John’s Gospel. “I AM the…Truth” (Jn 14:6). Not just that He says true thing, but that the truth originates with Him. It’s not that truth is some abstract, objective concept that sits higher than Jesus, into which we must force Jesus. That’s one of the failures of Christianity, which Nietzsche seized on. He realized that if truth was something above Jesus, which Jesus and His claims are also subject to, then Christianity will finally defeat itself.

But Christ is not true because He says true things, but because He is the Truth, what He says is true. He is not subject to the truth, because then He would be less than God. He is the Truth, and thus His speech is true.

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But this is hard for the Jews to grasp. And to be honest, it’s not exactly easy for us to grasp, either. It’s because when the Truth comes among the children of lies, the children of the devil, it creates a paradox.

The paradox is rooted in the incarnation of Jesus. The Jews earlier appealed to their lineage from Abraham is evidence that they already had access to the truth. Jesus tells them that it’s not their lineage of the flesh that gives them the truth. In fact, He says they are children of the devil, who is the father of lies. And then He makes another remarkable statement. Amen, amen, I am saying to you, before Abraham was, I AM.

This is one of those absolute I AM statements in John’s Gospel. It’s Jesus’ self-identification as Yahweh, the same God who appeared to Abraham, to Moses, to David, to the prophets. And in this particular case, Jesus also makes a claim to His eternal existence. John narrates it in the beginning of His Gospel, but here Jesus speaks of His existence before Abraham.

This is a significant statement because the first book of the Bible was not yet written when Abraham walked the earth. Yet the truth existed before Moses, before Abraham, because Jesus existed. Yet now the paradox is that the eternal Truth of God is embodied in Jesus Christ. The words of Jesus aren’t spiritual opinions or the ramblings of a madman, they are the words of the eternal I AM. And His own people don’t believe Him! Truth is stranger than fiction, indeed.

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Yet simply asserting something doesn’t make it true. All truth must be asserted, but not everything asserted is true. In the Old Testament the test of prophet was whether what they proclaimed actually happened. Reality is the ground of truth; truth is the assertion of what is.

But remember how people see truth these days—you don’t find truth; you construct it. That means that people live in alternate realities. Our present culture is the fruit of Nietzsche’s observations. If you want any evidence of this, meander over to the nearest internet comment thread. It doesn’t even have to be a theological or metaphysical topic. It is a conversation of people living in entirely different universes.

So, how do you find common ground? It’s not by asserting the truth. People just don’t care. This is why the Church has been spinning its evangelistic wheels for the last generation or two, moving from one fad to the next, all the while shrinking at an alarming rate. How do we find common ground? Or perhaps there is no common ground.

I submit to you that the one thing that is common to every constructed truth and every imagined reality is death. Death is the great equalizer. And if truth and reality is constructed by the individual, that means that truth and that reality die with the individual.

This is the startling claim to the truth of Jesus. “Amen, amen, I am saying to you, if anyone keeps My Word, he will certainly not see death in eternity” (v 51). This is another one of those double-amen sayings, which is the indicator that this is significant. The words of Jesus are a truth that transcends death. The reality asserted by His words is a reality that endures beyond the grave. That’s what distinguishes the truth of Jesus from any other truth claim.

Why? Because when this Truth was put to death, He rose again. Nietzsche said that God is dead, and he was right. God died. But then He rose again. Which is to say, Truth died, but then Truth rose from the dead. So far, Nietzsche hasn’t risen from the dead—and he’s had well more than three days to do it. Likewise, all contrary truths are finally revealed to be a lie when they die and stay dead.

But the Truth that is Jesus cannot stay buried in death. The words that He speaks endure not only in the sense that the words of dead men are still alive today in their writings and in their schools. The words of Jesus live today because He is the one who is still speaking from God’s right hand. Not that He’s modifying the Truth, or adding to it in any way. He continues to speak through His name given in Baptism, through the Absolution, through the words that consecrate bread and wine to be His body and blood. The Gospel is not dead letters on a page spoken by a dead man. It is the living voice of the Gospel. Because Christ is risen from the dead.

And what’s more, this Truth gives of its own eternal nature. The words of Jesus are the source of life. They are the source of existence. The One who was, and who is, and who is to come speaks so that, even though you taste death, you will not see it in eternity. Rather, you will see life.

If You Keep the Words of Jesus, You Will Not See Death in Eternity

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard
VD+MA