Jean’s Gospel: What Is Truth?
“In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.’ And his disciples answered him, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?’ And he asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ ”(Mark 8:1-5)
The story of Jesus feeding 4,000 people with seven loaves and three fish reminds me of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. That trial ends with Pilate asking a question which is left for the reader of John’s gospel to answer: “What is truth?” (John 18:38a) Before Jesus and Pilate had their encounter, Jesus had an encounter with His disciples (our text for this week), in which “truth” is also on trial.
Regrettably, it is easy for disciples to conflate “truth” with the Law. When that happens, the familiar slogan, “Speak truth in love,” becomes, “Speak Law in love.” The Law becomes the sum and substance of truth, which distorts the Christian message. It can sound something like: “Christianity is a religion of morality; if you will learn and subscribe to our morals, then God (and we) will welcome you.”
Truth and the Law are not synonyms. The Evangelist John makes that clear: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17)
Christians are called to testify to the “truth,” but not a truncated version which views truth primarily within the context of a debate about “fact” vs. “fiction,” “right” vs. “wrong,” or “objective” vs “subjective.” A scientist working in a laboratory can learn some truths about the natural world through rational or empirical research. But such methodologies cannot prove theological truth. Therefore, Christians have the unique vocation to testify to truth that is Christological in nature.
I have compassion on the crowd…
In this encounter, Jesus expresses his concern for the crowd, and the disciples are faced with a question: What is truth? They have two, possibly three, alternative responses:
(1) The disciples understand that the crowd has an urgent need for bodily nourishment. However, an analytical, objective thinking disciple will quickly deduce that seven loaves of bread and a few small fish cannot possibly feed 4,000 people;
(2) The disciples, wanting to protect Jesus’ reputation from their deductive reasoning, reinterpret Jesus’ statement into a wholly “spiritual” compassion, as in “I have compassion for the salvation of this crowd.” With this move, the disciples can go to work on a plan to baptize the entire crowd before releasing them to their fate; or
(3) The disciples understand that the crowd has an urgent need for bodily nourishment and, in faith, remember the advice of Jesus’ mother: “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5)
“And his disciples answered him, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?’ ” (Mark 8:4)
The disciples chose response (1), and failed the test by giving an incorrect answer to the question: What is truth? Whether their answer came from an objective application of the “law” of numbers, or from a subjective application of personal experience, the “truth” of the matter when viewed through human reason was the same: “send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way.” The disciples were still thinking purely from human reason and not Christologically. Therefore, the disciples’ testimony was not of the truth.
“And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away.” (Mark 8:6-9)
Jesus not only fed the crowd, but He satisfied them. He fed everyone without partiality, believers and unbelievers, the repentant and the unrepentant. Why? Jesus had compassion on them.
What Jesus demonstrates in this story is that “truth” is connected to His Word. This connection has many facets, such as: the Word of truth is faithful and sincere; it is factual and reality; it is personified in Christ and His kingdom; and it is creative. Therefore,
- If Jesus says He has compassion on the crowd, then the “truth” is He will satisfy their need.
- If Jesus blesses seven loves and a few fish with His Word, then the “truth” is that meal will be of more benefit to the people than 10,000 loaves which do not have His blessing.
- If Jesus gives the disciples a task, then the “truth” is they can accomplish their task, regardless of what they may perceive with human reason.
Christological truth is above human reason, so it is learned by faith, and it is creative. Jesus’ mother, Mary, understood this in Cana: “Do whatever he tells you.” This truth corresponds to the Word. Therefore:
- The Word of truth called three-days-dead Lazarus out of his tomb.
- Truth says the Word added to simple water has the power to put to death our old nature inherited from Adam and raise up a new creation in Christ by the power of the Spirit.
- The Word of truth offers Christ’s body and blood in a communion meal for the forgiveness of sins.
- The Word of truth says that faith in Christ comes from hearing the Gospel.
Apart from the Law, the Word of truth testifies that: “God shows his love for [you and me] in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8) Therefore, when Christians speak “truth in love,” let us speak Christologially. Let us speak “Jesus in love.” Let us testify to the truth (and compassion) of what God in Christ does for, and offers to, the whole world, out of sheer grace.
The “truth” is that Jesus gave His life to save sinners (i.e., all people). He came to forgive our sins and give us life in His name. By the power of His creative Word of truth, Jesus unites us through faith in His death, which conquered sin, to gives us a new life free from bondage to sin, death and Satan, so that we might have life to the fullest, now and forever.
Through faith, Jesus, by means of His Word and Sacraments, frees us to begin living as truly human beings for the first time, in the way God originally made male and female before Adam’s fall, so that we might bear His image in creation as people of His kingdom.
What is truth? Jesus Christ for you. Amen.
Jean, this may be your best article yet.
As soon as I can function, I’ll hop in on some points.
This paragraph is gold…
“Regrettably, it is easy for disciples to conflate “truth” with the Law. When that happens, the familiar slogan, “Speak truth in love,” becomes, “Speak Law in love.” The Law becomes the sum and substance of truth, which distorts the Christian message. It can sound something like: “Christianity is a religion of morality; if you will learn and subscribe to our morals, then God (and we) will welcome you.”
All of our conversations on the blog which contain an intersection between Christianity and culture get one thinking about how Christians should talk about their faith with their neighbors and even enemies of our faith. It wasn’t so much of an issue decades ago when the assumption was Christianity was good or at least harmless to the culture. But in the current environment and looking into the future, I think we will need to sharpen our message. I hope this article contributes to each of us fashioning our own message of what we want the world to know about us, Christ and His Church.
Well said… and I greatly appreciate the focus on the love and compassion of Christ as central to our message.
I think you have expressed my own heart on this matter very, very well.
i was going to comment on something, but Michael beat me to it at #1…
“Therefore, when Christians speak “truth in love,” let us speak Christologially.”
Jean, very nicely done…
Thank you John 20:29 and Duane.
“Through faith, Jesus, by means of His Word and Sacraments, frees us to begin living as truly human beings for the first time.”
Would it be fair to say that God is the most human being to walk the earth?
Not only would that be fair to say, but Paul refers to Jesus as the second Adam, and that is the symbolism in John’s Gospel:
“Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ ” (Jesus is the 2nd Adam; 2nd gardener; this time in the new creation He inaugurated.
Joel, in Christ God regards you too as fully human.
No more identity politics. Christ is the only identity!
#7′ … Question not to me, but thinking on it…
we hear that God (in Jesus) was the most perfect human ever … but maybe that description doesnt quite say it best… hmmm…
It works within the context of Joel’s question, because through faith, God does not impute the divinity of Christ to Christians.
No one here denies the full divinity of the God-Man.
Thank you Jean. 🙂
Em, by human I mean human as God intended humanity to be. There is only one God-man, as Jean said. He is fully human, though. An incredible thought.
Does anyone think the disciples where surprised or caught off guard by Jesus’ compassion for people?
If so, how come?
Jesus had compassion for some people – a good many he chased away – John 6
Your question is very expansive, and they certainly were. At this point I would offer that as we move through the Lectionary, in a couple weeks we will reach the parable of the dishonest manager. At the conclusion of the parable Jesus says:
“The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.”
We are going to explore that issue.
I always love the story in Luke 9 about when the Sons of Thunder asked Jesus if they could tell fire to come down from heaven and devour a Samaritan village which would not receive Jesus.
Looking forward to it Jean. Thank you for this teaching that has rekindled something.
MLD may we all answer Him as Peter did..
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, “
The incident in Luke 9 is a prime example. The disciples knew enough about God that they knew Jesus was the Messiah. Interested to hear what factors affected their ideas of how Jesus should act. How could their expectations be so off the mark? Staying tuned….
We will continue on this theme, but the disciples were still expecting Jesus to establish an earthly kingdom. What he brought was a kingdom in, but not of this world.
As Christians, we live in the “age of preaching” (make disciples of all nations…). The ruler of this world was judged (John 12), but we live in a period between the cross (including the beginning of new creation in Christ (the resurrection)) and Christ’s return with the new heaven and new earth (the second coming).
We live within a partially realized eschatology which is “already, but not yet.” All power on heaven and earth has been given to Christ, and he will reign from heaven until his return.
By grace through faith in Christ, God justifies us in Christ. We live with the promise of the resurrection. We have the following blessing:
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Rom 4:6-7)
Christ won this blessing for us.
Thinking about what “Truth” is… Jesus’ Creative Word…. and John 6….
There are varying theological views of Lords Supper. They can’t all be correct. Does Jesus, in His Mercy, view it all the same? For instance, if I go to an evangelical church and partake of His Body and Blood is that what I’m doing even though said church teaches differently than say a Lutheran or Anglican Church? Can an individual believer have a “higher” view of the Sacrament even though the church has a “low” view of it?
I hope my question makes sense….
A believer sitting in a pew can certainly have a different view of the Supper than the view of his neighbor pew sitter or even the pastor. However, it is not your view or mine that which makes the Supper a Sacrament or not.
It is the words of institution. In 1 Cor 11, Paul, quoting Jesus says: “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
So when the pastor serves the Supper, what is he “doing?” Is it “Do this” just as Jesus said, or is it something different? And what is he proclaiming in the Church while “doing” what ever it is he does?
To summarize, the bread and wine do not become Sacramental because of what you or I believe at the time. They are Sacramental solely because the Word of God (and Christ’s promise) is added to the bread and wine. However, the Sacrament is salutary for the you and I when received by faith.
Does that make sense?
Yes that makes sense. Thank you Jean. Just working these things out. It is very comforting to know we have Christs promises combined with these ordinary elements. It’s is also comforting to know these things have nothing to do with us. Only His Word. The same goes for Baptism, even if some churches “water down” what is really going on. I wonder how much doubt and worry some believers would be spared if they knew it is all God working through these common elements to save us.
Nicely said. I’ve always had difficulty with the RC position about “priestly intent” in the celebration of the Eucharist – i.e. if the intent of the priest is not to consecrate, then the act is “mere externa.” It seemed to me to attach too much significance to the celebrant and runs close to the issue of “worthiness”. For me, it is not about the celebrant, but about the words of institution…
Yet there are some (many) who sit in the pew and deny what the “do this” is – often with the help of the pastor who reciting the words of institution will redact the wording saying “this is not really his body / this is not really his blood that you are taking”
Heard this many times in several Calvary Chapels.
Joel G brings up a good point – baptism, the supper and absolution are given to us for the purpose of comfort, (gospel) while others turn it into the believers work / action (law) and causes doubt and worry. (law).
Fortunately, God has not given me the ability to look into other people’s souls in order to know if they are “redacting” or not…
Why would you need to look into their soul? I just listen to their words as they say one thing in the institution and take it away in the very next comment.
over 40 years sucking air on this rock and yet to be convinced by reasonable argument away from this underlying core belief in the belief system:
absolute/objective vs. relative/subjective truth and what you deem as an authority is the arbiter/referee of what you perceive as ‘truth’ to you.
there is absolute/objective truth, the problem is that humans are limited in our ability to truly know what is a truly universal truth from a subjective/relative truth that depends on context, culture and a human authority to play referee and tell you ‘this is true’
gravity is one of those easy universal absolutes we can verify and agree on, at least in our universe
other ‘universal truths’ are hard to nail down as universal for certain.
this is not an argument against God, it is an argument against humans misusing terms. words have meaning.
still looking for the premise of this article. i can’t seem to find it.
jean, what exactly is your premise here?
If I made the statement “killing innocent babies just for the fun of it is wrong” – would that be an absolute truth or does it depend on context?
I think i found it, is this your premise?
‘Regrettably, it is easy for disciples to conflate “truth” with the Law. When that happens, the familiar slogan, “Speak truth in love,” becomes, “Speak Law in love.”’
Gravity … I think (have to look it up) is only experimentally understood and only world-wide, not so sure it is universal ?
My point is? My point is a question. Do we go too far in attempting to explain the minute details, the mechanics of our Faith, our God? Dunno
It is a simple message of reconciliation to our creator – the most high and only Holy God. Reconciliation before our death and judgement – seems like a good idea….
gravity is what keeps the planets in orbit around that big glowing thingy in our solar system
multiply that by all the other stars and asteroids and planets etc in our galaxy and our universe
Your 29 is in the ballpark.
Christians sometimes make the mistake of interacting with the world on the world’s terms, by the world’s rules. This is borne out by the fact that the atheist and the Christian fundamentalist both read the bible with the same hermeneutic. This same dynamic plays out in the discussion of truth. The the debate becomes: Which set of morals is better?
However, Jesus did not come to intensify or clarify God’s law. He came to redeem creation. On the cross God judged the world. In the resurrection, God began new creation in Christ. I would propose that Christians stop playing the communication game by the world’s rules, and speak Christologically.
Note that I am speaking about how Christians speak as “Christians” and how the Church speaks. I am not speaking about civil laws are enacted. That is an entirely different matter.
john2029, gravity in our solar system, galaxy, universe is a true universal. settled science.
but, that you don’t understand that further demonstrates how tough it is to know true ‘universal/absolute/objective truths’
in a back-handed way, you support my premise
jean, thanks for the clarification
I don’t disagree with your position, Jean. I’m trying to disagree with it (that’s how I test things and how I learn etc, due to critical thinking)…but if I understand your premise correctly, I think you’re onto something.
Thank you Alex. I think we’re, hopefully, all testing and learning from each other.
Thanks Jean. I get frustrated b/c I don’t tick like most everyone else. It’s hard for me to get along with others when hashing things out. I really try to learn and consider and understand. I’ve walked a mile in the Atheist/Agnostic moccasins, dead end like any other, just as dogmatic, just as ‘appeal to authority’ etc as any other religious or philosophical group. they have a high view of science, but even science concretely verifies as ‘settled’ not as many universal truths as most would assume and the Atheists build what they view as a “rock solid!” belief system on 99.9999999% subjectivity largely based on the opinions of their gurus and leaders….just like religious folks they criticize.
Jesus and the Gospel is not reasonable or explainable as you say in your article. Yet, I believe Jesus, the “Logos of God” aka God’s utterance, aka “the Truth” is real, a reality of our existence, but that belief is innate and spiritual and not rational/reasonable.
most misjudge imo. “trolling!” or troublemaking or being disagreeable when it is frustration and wanting to know the Truth, but left with sifting through so much subjectivity and human nonsense.
Alex I understand. These discussions are emotional and can cause anxiety. i lost my marbles a couple weeks ago. Jean’s a good man.
#33 … I was married for over 50 years to a man who could talk shop with Hawking, so I do have a basic understanding of gravity – even of E= m x c x c … ?
I still maintain that our understanding of gravity isn’t much better than our understanding of its Creator …
I’ll leave the good pursuit of Physics to those with the interest and discipline and I’ll skip on ahead to the study of its Creator… Just think, He did all that stuff out there as incidental to His creation of us ! ! !
truly the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (God knows I lack wisdom)