“What is truth?” (part 2)

You can read the original post on what I mean by “echo-location” here

Pilate’s question, I believe, sprang from a heart made callous by politics. He wanted to do right by Jesus, because he knew that Jesus was being unfairly railroaded by his enemies. But Pilate’s job was to keep the peace, whether justice was served or not. Thus, when Jesus said that he came into the world “to testify to the truth” (John 18:37, NRSVUE), it must have sounded like high-minded idealism to the governor. The cynical undercurrent of Pilate’s question is, That’s nice, Jesus. But the truth is that unless I can convince this mob, you’re going to die.

What is truth? The question has always been an important one, perhaps more so in today’s divisive political climate. People on both sides of an issue take their stand on the “truth,” loudly claiming their opponents to be liars. Yet many remain unaware of — or choose to ignore! — the ways in which their understanding of issues has been shaped by the media they consume, tailored by computer algorithms that track where they click. Our news feeds are not neutral; the algorithms learn what we like and give us more, pandering to our emotions. We become more and more isolated in our own computer-generated media bubbles. More and more convinced of the rightness of our own views. More and more incredulous at the blindness or stupidity of those who disagree.

Pilate’s question was rhetorical. He didn’t expect an answer, and probably none would have sufficed. But an answer of sorts is possible. During their last meal together, Jesus told his disciples that he was “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). As we saw in the previous post, I believe there is an echo of the Psalms here. Beginning with Psalm 1 and running like a bright red theological thread through the entire Psalter, the image of a way or path suggests a way of life. The moral vision of the Psalms is that there are two paths in life, two ways. One is the way of righteousness, wisdom, and the fear of God; the other is the way of wickedness and folly. The destination of the first path is blessedness, while the destination of the second is destruction (Psalm 1).

With that as a background, let’s look at the context of Jesus’ remarkable claim.

Jesus and the Twelve had come to Jerusalem for the Passover. On the surface, all had gone well: he entered the city to the fanfare and adulation of the masses; he defeated one opponent after another in public debate. But things turned in an unexpected direction during their last meal together. To their shock and dismay, Jesus humbly washed their dirty feet, then predicted that one of them would betray him. And as if that weren’t enough, he topped it all off by saying he would be leaving them soon.

Naturally, they wanted to know where he was going and how to get there. He answered cryptically, suggesting that he was returning to the Father, and that they already knew the way:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:1-7)

When Thomas asked to know the way, he seemed to be thinking too literally of map directions (perhaps the world’s first Thomas Guide?). But throughout the conversation, Jesus was saying, You know the Father, you know the way to the Father, you know the Father’s way — because you know me. I am the way.

Moreover, as we’ve seen, “way” and “truth” are often closely associated in the Psalms (e.g., Ps 25:10; 86:11), whether in speaking of the character of God or the dedication of his followers. The psalmists weren’t merely trying to teach “facts” about God. They wanted to encourage God’s people to walk in God’s way, where “truth” carries the sense of trustworthiness, reliability, and faithfulness.

Jesus was the way because he embodied the Father’s covenant faithfulness. For his disciples, then, the way to the Father is the way of the Father, and the way of the Father is the way of Jesus. Jesus wasn’t calling his disciples simply to believe this or that “truth,” but to live truly, to emulate what they had seen of the Father in Jesus.

. . .

Sometimes, it seems, believers want to skirt too quickly around “I am the way and the truth and the life” to get to “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Only Jesus provides the way of salvation, believers insist; we cannot get to heaven by believing in any other name, by following any other savior. And that’s fine as far as it goes.

My concern, though, is this. To say that Jesus is the only way to heaven is not quite the same thing as saying that Jesus is the only way to the Father. Saying that believing in Jesus and the truth of the gospel is the only way to salvation is not the same as saying that life in Jesus is the only truthful way to live. The more divisive our world becomes, the more we are tempted to pick our camps and defend them, the more we need people who will not only believe the truth but live it.

God’s people have always been called to walk in the way of righteousness and wisdom, the way envisioned in the Psalms, the way embodied so truthfully in Jesus. Pilate the politician could not have seen this.

But Lord willing and by his Spirit, we can.