A couple Sundays ago I was riding along with some church friends on our way to a hymn sing (something us conservative Mennonites do) and we came upon a hitchhiker.
The hitchhiker, a young man, was strumming some sort of ukulele. He had a sign asking for a ride west. We were going west. We conferred quickly, decided to make use of our extra seat and soon were on our way with one more passenger.
The young man, a friendly nineteen-year-old from Raleigh, North Carolina, has spent nearly two years on the road and told us of his nomadic lifestyle. He relies on the hospitality of others, often sleeps under the stars, and is on his way to California.
Being that we are religious and on our way to a church service, the conversation turned to religion. He explained that he is uncomfortable with the “Christian” label. He described himself as “a follower of Jesus” and later that evening mentioned the influence of Taoism.
We invited him to church. He accepted the invitation and soon he was amongst us Mennonites as we sang acapella music. To my ears, we sounded pretty good. He stayed until the end of the service and soon enough was being introduced by me to others in attendance.
One of those introduced, after some friendly chat (the usual Mennonite game banter and assessment of pedigree) ended by quoting John 14:6 at the young man, “Jesus is the way and the truth and the life” and emphatically stating this is the only way…
As we paused with this sort of non-sequitur concluding statement, presented in such a religiously cliché way, I almost asked this ordained Mennonite man if he knew what it meant. But, fearing he would try to answer if I asked, I restrained the impulse and smiled.
I have no idea what my guest was thinking, he was courteous and didn’t seem too uncomfortable in our midst. And so the evening went some polite conversation and some awkwardly presented evangelical dogma, me holding my tongue with slightly annoyed amusement and answering his questions.
Incidentally, nobody offered this young man shelter for the night (one of those asked apparently making excuse for himself because of his wife) and so we took him a few miles further west to ‘civilization’ where he would have more options. We prayed with him, gave him some cash and bid him farewell before returning east again.
What is truth?
The incident above, especially the quotation of Scripture, seemed like a good basis for a blog and reason to consider the meaning of truth. Truth, in this case, the idea of truth (alétheia) found in the passage, the truth of Jesus, that was partially quoted at my young hitchhiker friend.
The words “I am the way and the truth and the life” are cherry-picked from the Gospel of John. It is a part of a discussion Jesus was having with his disciples about imminent events. The disciples, as usual, were bewildered and asking questions:
“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’
Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.'” (John 14:6-7)
Philip was still confused. He goes on to ask Jesus to reveal the Father to them.
Jesus responds to explain in further detail, stating that he is one with the Father, that his words are spoken by the authority of the Father and telling them that the Father will be revealed to them through obedience to his teaching and by the Holy Spirit.
The truth of Jesus is more than book knowledge.
It is interesting to note that Jesus did not tell his followers to diligently study Scripture.
Instead, Jesus told them to obey what they knew and that more would be revealed by the Spirit after their obedience. It might seem backward, but faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26) and salvation is a gift from God:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)
That is not to say that the Scripture is unprofitable, it most certainly is profitable to a believer. It is “through faith in Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 2:3-15) that Scripture is able to make us “wise for salvation” and only through this truth of faith can we ever understand.
Book knowledge is not the same as correct understanding and those who opposed Jesus most vehemently had a great knowledge of Scripture. In fact, it was because of their own understanding of Scripture (and dogmatic literalism) that they rejected Jesus.
The truth of Jesus is something more than mere book knowledge, it is more than religious devotion to the study of a text or a theological proposition. The truth of Jesus is something more profound and powerful than words on a page. It is a spiritual reality that goes far deeper than fallible human knowledge or our finite ability to understand.
The truth of Jesus is something beyond description in words.
Truth is a word, but truth itself is not a word.
We use words to paint pictures in the minds of our audience. Words are symbols used to describe ideas, they are things we use to describe other things and yet words are not themselves the thing being described. Words are not truth of themselves any more than a portrait in acrylic color on canvas is the actual person being portrayed.
Words depend on the ability of our audience to understand them. One could tell their cat to “take out the garbage” and the poor critter would stare at them blankly. Language—like beauty is in the eye of the beholder—depends on the interpreter to correctly understand the word usage Communication is an interactive affair requiring both parties to be on the same metaphorical page.
Furthermore, talk is cheap, words can also be used to construct a false image of reality and deceive. Jesus warns of false teachers, people who profess with their mouths to be faithful, who present themselves as sheep and yet are inwardly wolves—We are told we can know people by their good or bad fruit. (Matthew 7:15-23)
So truth is more than words. Truth is an abstraction, it is something greater than the sum total of words and language used to describe it. Truth is something bigger than us and beyond our own concept of reality. Truth is transcendent and, still, it is something that can be fleshed out and represented.
The truth of Jesus is God’s word and a living testimony about a greater reality.
Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate, a Roman civil authority, to be judged. The Gospels give slightly different versions of the events. In summary, the religious leaders accuse Jesus, they say he claims to be their king (a crime amounting to sedition against the established state) and insist that he is evil.
Here’s one account of the beleaguered governor questioning Jesus and trying to get the bottom of the issue:
“Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’
‘Is that your own idea,’ Jesus asked, ‘or did others talk to you about me?’
‘Am I a Jew?’ Pilate replied. ‘Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?’
Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’
‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate.
Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’
‘What is truth?’ retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, ‘I find no basis for a charge against him.'” (John 18:33-38)
This conversation is interesting and especially when Jesus claims to have come to “testify to the truth” and says those on the side of truth listen to him. It is reminiscent of when he told the religious dogmatists that his sheep hear his voice and makes an incredible claim:
“The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’
Jesus answered, ‘I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.'” (John 10:24-30)
For this Jesus is accused of blasphemy. But to that charge, he replies by quoting their Scripture to them. He quotes from Psalms 82:6, where it says “I have said you are ‘gods’,” and uses that to argue against their idea that his claim of divine sonship was blasphemy.
Pilate seems agnostic about truth and exasperated by Jesus. He is dealing with a contradiction, he sees an innocent man not worthy of punishment and the religious crowd sees a man guilty of blasphemy against God who deserves death.
Pilate ultimately bends to political pressure and, while washing his own hands, complies with the demands of the crowd. However, both Pilate and Herod (who’s part is described in Luke 23:8-12) seem to see Jesus as a curiosity rather than as a direct threat to the state.
The truth of Jesus is found in our following his example and being a self-sacrificial testimony of God’s grace.
The truth of Jesus is not a reasonable or rational proposition by worldly human standards. It is only understood through spiritual means, through having the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2) and a process that starts in the heart (2 Corinthians 3) rather than through outward means.
It is transformative, as Paul explains:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2)
The Orthodox Christian tradition would call this theosis or divination. Unfortunately, my own Anabaptist tradition has picked to focus on the other negative end (the “be not conformed” part) and the result is an idea of “non-conformity” that usually amounts to a reactionary worldly effort to control outward appearance.
The truth of Jesus is about more than our ability to conform to a man-made list of requirements. It is a truth that transcends all worldly means and is expressed in our unrelenting, unapologetic and uncompromising pursuit of the divine. The truth is a positive vision. The truth is God’s grace made manifest in us.
The truth of Jesus is a path we walk that leads us to greater life and the perfection of divine love.
The words “the way” (hodos) refer to a journey. It is a path to walk and live out. The trail was blazed by Jesus who died for our sins, but it is lived also by those who truly believe and wish to be disciples. As Jesus said:
“Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.'” (Like 9:23-24)
Jesus is using the cross as a metaphor. A cross, in human terms, represented suffering and shame. However, in following after Jesus, for a believer this is not useless suffering, it is not pain for the sake of pain or self-flagellation, it is suffering for the good of others or making a path to something greater.
Jesus promises a more abundant life (John 10:10) to those who follow him. In this he is not promising material or worldly wealth. But he does say that we should use our worldly wealth to gain friends and gain true riches (Luke 16) which is to prioritize God through our loving people:
“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (1 John 4:20-21)
Jesus said we can know the truth of a person’s profession of faith by their fruit (Matthew 7:15-23) and that the fruit of the Spirit is described by Paul “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) Our truth must be more than words.
So what does ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ mean?
To understand this we need to understand the context. The context is the last supper, it is during the Passover feast, the night Jesus is betrayed and an intimate moment. In these passages of Scripture (John 13 and 14) the implications are clear.
Jesus explains that his disciples will be known by their love for each other, he says he must go so they may know the truth more intimately (promising the Spirit to those who obey his instructions and example) and then goes on to demonstrate a truth of love worth dying for.
The truth of Jesus is not a theological proposition, not a religious profession or book knowledge. His truth is not a product of human reasoning and founded on scientific research or evidence. The truth of Jesus is something found in our walking in the Spirit, it is demonstrated in our love for others and bringing the dead to life.
Truth is living a reality greater than our reality, something that transcends worldly knowledge and human understanding. Truth is both known and still yet to be known, it is a reality that goes beyond the currently available evidence and is something that can only be experienced through a true walk of faith.
The truth of Jesus transcends religion and is a walk of faith.
In some respects, it seems my hitchhiking friend may have a better grasp of faith than his religiously indoctrinated counterparts. He is more literally taking no thought for tomorrow (Matthew 6:34) and depending on God to provide. By contrast, we too often rely on our own understanding, planning, and abilities.
I wish my traveling friend well on his journey and pray that the truth of God’s word (Jesus) is made manifest in him. May God’s truth of self-sacrificial love and spiritual life be found in us who claim to know Jesus.
Words, the glorified sounds we use to describe our thoughts, are always a matter of interpretation. For the most part we are able to communicate our ideas accurately enough to have meaningful conversation. However, language also changes over time, definitions evolve and words find new uses from their original uses. Language is seldom (if ever) as simple as black and white.
Things get especially complex when we take ideas written in one language and try to translate them into another language. It is exponentially more difficult when the original language is now archaic and the exact inflection or intentions of the words lost to time. Certainly there are clues, languages follow patterns or hints from context and translators follow these leads like detectives. But there’s always that left which remains open to interpretation.
Is it a description or is it a name?
Biblical descriptions of “God” present a challenge. Here’s the attempts of various translators to take writing in an ancient Hebrew book and convert it to English that illustrate the point:
“And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it is secret?” (Judges 13:18 KJV)
“He replied, “Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding.“ (Judges 13:18 NIV)
“Why do you ask my name?” the angel of the lord replied. “It is too wonderful for you to understand.“ (Judges 13:18 NLT)
“And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?” (Judges 13:18 ESV)
“The angel of God said, “What’s this? You ask for my name? You wouldn’t understand—it’s sheer wonder.“ (Judges 13:18 MSG)
So, according to the King James translation, we either have an angel named “secret” or an ‘angel’ with a name that is beyond our words. I would go with the latter judging by the context as I see it.
Taken together different translations give us wonderful, too wonderful to understand, beyond understanding, secret and means “incomprehensible” according to Strong’s concordance. I do get the impression the meaning is truly incomprehensible, truly something beyond words or human naming and mysterious.
Can God be properly named?
The three letters ‘G’ and ‘o’ and ‘d’ have come to represent the supreme being and divine entity of the Christian Bible. It is a noun, used like a proper name and a word loaded down with preconceived ideas. One of those ideas is that something that is the secret mysterious beyond comprehension power behind the entire universe is something that can actually be named. It is certainly useful to have a placeholder name or common description, but any word used is an infinite understatement.
This is why God was not named openly. Naming potentially lowers this dimensionally unlimited and timeless being that can be understood with our finite minds. But it is not blasphemy that concerns me. What bothers me is that words evolve, words can begin to carry new meaning or different assumptions and be misconstrued. It seems better that we leave God something beyond comprehension than to ignorantly ‘box in’ the infinite. At very least we would be wise to see a God beyond our own understanding of a three letter word.
God is not a noun, not a verb or a man…
“God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” (Numbers 23:19 NIV)
That “not human” in verse above is rendered “not a man” in another common translation and ome have taken issue with the New International Version for the departure from gender specific descriptions of God. But that’s straining on gnats (Matt. 23:24) and making God the equivalent of a homo sapien male is giving men infinitely too much credit and God way too little.
No, not that I’m saying the Spirit (or Word) of God could not fill the form of a man like a hand in a glove or an avatar becomes a representation of a human being on an internet forum. But making God just a man is also a vast understatement. Humanity may bear the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27) and yet we aren’t the beginning and the end, omniscient, sovereign or infinite.
God of the paradox...
Western thinking likes binaries. The logic of this is true thus that can’t be true is natural for us. A person can either be alive or dead from our perspective and never both. Yet, as science takes us to the furthermost ends of the universe, to realms of the almost incomprehensibly large to the infinitesimally small, our normal scientific assumptions break down.
The most brilliant scientific minds of our time have established with convincing theory that both logic and reason taper into oblivion at the bookends of time and space. On one end a brilliant flash of light, energy and expansion from a source beyond human comprehension. On the other end black holes both infinitely massive and infinitely small. At either end there is what appears to be irrationality of something from nothing returning to nothingness.
Matter itself is a mysterious and seemingly impossible duality when brought into focus. Not only is there is less and less as we zoom in to the level of quantum mechanics, but what is left that remains is a seemingly impossible duality where clearly distinct categories of particle and wave merge into a seemingly irrational both. It is a paradoxical dualism that demands we look beyond normal scientific assumptions.
There is something incomprehensible. There is something beyond my understanding and beyond the collective understanding of humanity. We try to name, explain, categorize the universe. We attempt to peer around the corner of space-time with theories, mathematics, scientific instruments, reason and logic. But in the end we live in the mystery of our own existence and we also can live beyond it.
God who is both/and…
Both skeptics of religion and the religious are guilty of creating a God in their own image. If you’re concept of God is an equivalent to a ‘flying spaghetti monster‘ then you have a small god perspective. If your idea of God is limited to descriptions and language found in the Bible then you too have a small God perspective. God is more than the information used to attempt to define God. God cannot be reduced to mere attributes or human moral constructs.
God is incomprehensible. Yet, God’s work is also personal, knowable and…
“Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names…” (Philippians 2:6-9 NLT)
…a sheer wonder of a paradox beyond mere human words.