What is Truth? (1)

By Morris W. R. Bailey

The question of our subject title was asked by Pontius Pilate at the trial of Jesus. The question, in its context is found in John 18:33-38. To appreciate the setting in which the question was asked by Pilate, we observe that one of the accusations that the Jews brought against Jesus at His trial was that He claimed to be a king (Luke 23:2). They hoped thereby to make it appear that Jesus was thus a rival of Caesar (John 19:12) and, therefore, in rebellion to the Roman empire of which Pilate was the representative. This, they hoped, would persuade Pilate to call for the death penalty.

It is obvious, however, that Pilate recognized from Jesus’ declaration, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), that whatever manner of kingdom it was, and whatever the character of Jesus’ kingly rule, neither posed any threat to the sovereignty of Rome.

But there was a point which must have been somewhat of a mystery to Pilate. His earthbound conception of any kingdom would conceive of its rise only through the exercise of military power. Thus, when Jesus forbade His followers to fight in His defense, and stated that His kingdom was founded on truth, and its citizens composed of them that hear and believe the truth, it would all be a mystery to his carnal mind. It was in that context that he asked the question that constitutes our subject, What is truth?

The Importance Of The Question

Whether the question was asked by Pilate in scorn (as it probably was), or whether it was asked in sincerity prompted by a desire to learn more about the kingdom of Christ .and the principles on which it was founded (a remote possibility), the fact remains that it is one of the most thought-provoking and challenging of questions that has ever been raised. When we consider the issues that are involved there is probably no greater question.

We recognize the importance of truth, even as it relates to the matters of this life. In the various branches of science there is nothing more challenging to the minds of men than their quest for truth. It is because of the search for truth that men have learned much about the laws of nature. It is the never-ending quest for truth that has made possible many of the modern inventions that help to make life more pleasant. In the field of medical science and surgery, it is the search for truth that has led to the discovery of new antibiotics that make us immune to some diseases, and new medicines that cure us of what were once terminal diseases, and new techniques of surgery such as organ transplants, all of which give us a life expectancy of several more years than that of our grandparents.

But it is the search for the truth of which Jesus spoke and concerning which Pilate inquired that is the most important of all. It is concerned not with truth in the natural realm, but truth in the spiritual realm. It concerns not just a body that some day will die but it is concerned with the soul of man which is eternal. Therefore, what our attitude is toward the question asked by Pilate, and the answer we find to that question, will determine where we will spend eternity.

Its Relationship To Current Religious Attitudes

The question, “What is truth?” is especially important today when viewed against the background of current attitudes toward religion in general. We are living in an age of what people like to think of as tolerance. People like to be considered as broad minded. The so-called new morality of today is based on a concept of situation ethics. In other words, the new moralist does not classify things as being right or wrong according to a strict standard of morality, but only as they relate to the present situation. So the man today who is so dogmatic as to say that something is unquestionably wrong, or who questions the religious beliefs of another is not popular. Instead, a common sentiment prevails and is being echoed from many pulpits that it does not make any difference what one believes as long as he or she is sincere in that belief. Thus, they make sincerity and not truth the test of doctrine.

Because of this lack of conviction regarding the importance of truth, the religious world has undergone a radical change in its attitude toward controversy and the discussion of religious differences. Where today are the Luther’s, the Huss’s and the Knox’s-men who held strong convictions for which they were willing to die rather than to compromise? What has become of militant spirits of yesteryear who prompted religious leaders to engage in the great religious debates in which they sought to defend and promote their religious beliefs. Sometimes men debated one another when it is obvious that both were wrong. But at least they recognized something that many have lost sight of today and that is, that two conflicting doctrines cannot both be right.

But it seems that those days are past and in the place of militancy there has grown up a spirit of compromise; conviction has been replaced by indifference, and characterized by the sickly attitude that it does not make any difference what one believes. To such people it seems to make no difference that, when pressed to its logical conclusion, the doctrine preached by the people who call themselves Jehovah’s Witnesses makes Jesus Christ nothing more than a glorified animal. In fact, about the only thing wrong in the estimation of many today, is to question what some one else believes. That, they tell us, is being narrow-minded. And that is anathema to the thinking (or should I say, lack of thinking?) that characterizes this broad minded age.

Truth: The Only Solution To Division

That the religious world is sadly divided today is a fact that is obvious to all. There has, in recent years, been some efforts made toward union of churches. In Canada, there is a movement under active consideration to unite the two largest of the Protestant denominations-the United Church of Canada and the Church of England. Also, there have been some overtures made by the Roman Catholic church toward uniting all churches under one head. Of course there is no doubt but that Rome expects to be that head.

As desirable as unity may be, however, I believe that all such efforts as the above are doomed to failure since they ignore the causes of division. Those causes exist in the multiplicity of differing and contradicting creeds. No doctor can be successful in treating a disease as long as unsanitary conditions that are the cause of the disease are allowed to persist. Fractions cannot be added, multiplied, subtracted, or divided without the use of a common denominator. So neither can the religious world be untied unless it first eliminates the dividing creeds and agrees to accept a common faith. There can be no unity in diversity. Even some of my brethren need to learn that.

The common faith on which all must unite is truth. Jesus prayed that all His followers might be one as He and the Father are one. But it is a unity that will be attained only by believing the word preached by the apostles (John 17:20, 21). Paul’s plea for unity in the church at Corinth was based on their speaking the same thing and being joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment (1 Cor. 1:10).

Thus, if there is going to be any hope of emergence from the babble of confusion in which the religious world is enmeshed today, the first step will require a change in attitude toward the truth. It will require that men place a higher value on truth than what they obviously do. The words of Solomon are very much in order here “Buy the truth, and sell it not” (Prov. 23:23)-which means nothing more nor less than this: that we should seek to learn the truth regardless of the cost. After having found it, we will not part with it regardless of the price that is offered.

The Importance Of Truth

The apathy toward truth that is so prevalent today is inexcusable. God has not left us without witness as to the importance of knowing, believing, and obeying the truth. Consider the following observations:

1. Jesus taught that the practice of sin makes us a bond-servant of sin (John 8:34). Freedom from such bond service is man’s greatest need. Happily, there is a means provided. Jesus said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). But if it takes the truth to make us free, it is certain that error will not bring us freedom.

2. Man is lost because of sin. He needs to be saved. Paul tells us that we are saved by belief of the truth (2 Thess. 2:13). Obviously, Paul did not subscribe to the idea that it does not make any difference what one believes. If it takes belief of the truth to save, it is obvious that belief of error cannot save.

3. Sin defiles man (Mark 7:20-23). He needs to be cleansed and purified from such defilement. Peter said, “Seeing ye have purified your souls in your obedience to the truth. . .” (1 Peter 1:22). If it takes obedience to the truth to purify us from sin, then it is certain that obedience to error will not bring about such the desired end.

Truth Magazine XXII: 46, pp. 742-743
November 23, 1978