The other day I found in a second hand book store a copy of Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Truth. The title and the author caught my attention so I bought it, and I am reading it. Fernández-Armesto does not pretend to tell his readers what truth is. His purpose is to show how through the centuries human beings have searched ways to distinguish truth from falsehood. He has written a history of the search for truth. The epigraph on the first page cites Gotthold Lessing: “If God held all truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left hand the persistent striving for the truth . . . and should say, ‘Choose!’ I should humbly bow before his left hand and say, ‘Father, give me striving. For pure truth is for thee alone’.”
More than any other biblical book, According to John is concerned with the necessity to distinguish truth from falsehood, what is true from what is spurious. But the author goes further and insists that it is of the essence to recognize The Truth. In his narration of the life of Jesus among humans he highlights what is true several times.
At the very beginning he identifies the Logos as “the true light” (1: 9). This could be a reference to the light that shone on the first three days “in the beginning”. The sun that was created to facilitate the counting of the days, the months and the years, surely does not provide this kind of light. The true light is not that of the sun or the moon. It is God’s light, the one the Logos creator of all things produced by fiat “in the beginning”. The text, however, says even more. He not only produced it, but he is “the true light”. To describe Christ as light is analogical language. The light and Christ are comparable because both illumine the road to be followed. But Christ is the “true” light because the road he illumines is the one that ascends to the Father.
In the desert, during the exodus, the fathers ate manna, bread from heaven. But manna was bread “that perishes” (6: 27, 49), bread of the world below, bread that could not be kept from one day to the next. Manna was bread to nourish life in the flesh. The true bread that descended from heaven, the one that nourishes eternal life, is not the bread Moses gave to the people in the desert. The Father gives “the true bread from heaven” (6: 32). As a miracle that saves a people in crisis, the descent of manna does not compare with the descent of the Son of Man. We are again reading analogical language. Manna and the Son descended to nourish life. But while one belongs to the world below and provides strength for life in the flesh, the other provides strength for life in the spirit, and only the world of the spirit is true. The Son is bread whose words “are spirit and life” (6: 63). That is the difference between what Moses gave and what the Father sent. He who eats “true food [indeed]” and drinks “true drink [indeed]” has “life in him” and “abides in me, and I in him” (6:53 – 56).
Calling his disciples, Jesus singles out Nathanael, whose name means “Given by God”, as the “[true] Israelite, indeed, in whom is no guile” (1: 47). Of course, for “the Jews”, the true Israelite is Jacob, the father of the twelve patriarchs of the tribes of Israel, for he is the one who wrestled with the angel of the Lord and won, and whose name ceased to be Jacob and became Israel.
Jesus bypasses Jacob and gives this distinction to the one “Given by God”. Jacob deceived his father, was deceived by his father-in-law, and recognized the stone that one night became his pillow as an earthly door to heaven. Nathanael, the true Israelite, the one without deceptions, would see the confirmation of Jesus as the Son of Man who is the road to the Father. Jesus promises him that he will see the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man (1: 51). His vision is not to be compared to that of angels on a ladder. It is to be noted that Nathanael is not mentioned in the lists of the disciples in the synoptic gospels.
Just as there are many Israelites, but not all of them are true, there are also disciples who, like Jacob, are full of guile. The true disciples are those who “continue in my word” (8: 31). This is a definition peculiar to According to John. What counts is not to have met, felt impressed by, or held a conversation with Jesus, or even to have left behind one’s life work in order to go with Jesus. It is necessary to continue in his word, which consists of only one declaration: “I am”. In this gospel, “to continue”, “to abide” (menein) is a technical term. The one who “continues”, who “remains”, who “abides” in the One who is the Word (Logos), this one is the true disciple. Such a disciple recognizes that Jesus is not merely one more human being in a world where historical accidents cause the lives of human beings to turn out differently from the way they expected. No. His testimony, his word, is “true” because he knows from whence he came and where he is going (8: 14). The true disciple is the one who abides in the reality of the One Sent by the Father, the only one who has ascended to heaven.
It is not a question of being convinced of the truth of some dogmatic declaration. Rather, it is about the person of Christ who, walking the dusty roads of Palestine, did not seem to be more than the son of a carpenter from Nazareth. This person claims to be the One Sent by the Father who will return to where he came from. Where he is going, he says, no one can go on their own. That is the Word in which his true disciples “abide”.
On the contrary, of Satan it is said that “he was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (8: 44). Now, this says it all. It is regrettable, however, that in the vitriolic polemic that Christians had with “the Jews”, after “the Jews” indirectly accuse Jesus of being a bastard (8: 41.This epithet came to be the description of Jesus in The Talmud), in According to John “the Jews” are accused of having the one who “has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him” as their father. As a consequence, “because I tell the truth, you do not believe me” (8: 45).
The truth is that “he who sent me is true” (7:28), and the One Sent also is “true” because he does not seek his own glory, but the glory of the one who sent him (7: 18). The judgment of the One Sent is “true” because he does not judge alone. His judgment is his and also that of the One Who Sent him (8: 16). Jesus then reminds his hearers that according to “your law” (that of “the Jews”) “the testimony of two men is true” (8: 17).
The grace of the Father who gives truth and life is present in the person of Jesus. The Prologue makes a plain distinction: “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1: 17). Truth is a reality that does not belong to the world below. It is not an object in the same way in which the law is. Truth cannot be “given”. It can only be seen, experienced, lived. Truth is a reality of the spirit, and like the spirit cannot be given “by measure” (3: 34). The spirit makes it possible for human beings “to be born from above” (3: 3), to be “born . . . of God” (1:13), “to be born of the spirit” (3: 8). He who is thusly born receives the testimony of him “who comes from above [and] is above all” (3: 31). On that basis he “sets his seal”, that is, swears with his right hand on the Bible “that God is true” (3: 31 – 32). No human being may be credited with a more transcendent declaration.
To those born from above God has given a special revelation. What they receive, however, is not a new law or a new doctrine. They receive the opportunity to experience “grace and truth” as manifested in the person of Jesus. He is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6). He is the way of life for those who ascend to the realm of truth. The truth revealed in him is the life lived by those born of the spirit. Revealing his mission, he said “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (10: 10). The true disciples who continue in his word are not the ones who give theological pronouncements, but the ones who abide in the life that was revealed by the Father in the person of Christ.
Such a disciple does not wander in the darkness of the world. He has no need to hide his doings for fear of being found out because his works are evil. “He who does what is true [the truth] comes to the light” (3:21). The truth is not something to be stored in the mind. The truth is to be done, to be actualized, to be lived by those who “abide” in the One who is “the light of the world” (8: 12).
Before Pilate, who foolishly brags about his power of life and death over him, Jesus reveals again the purpose of his presence on earth in these words: “I have come into the world to bear witness to the truth” (18: 37). His witness is the life he is living; it is his person, “I am”. Hearing this pronouncement, Pilate can only shake his head, make a grandiose gesture with his arms in the air and, frustrated, ask, “What is truth?” (18: 38).
For those who are from below, and can only speak about earthly things (3: 31), it is impossible to know what is truth. Only those who have received “the gift of God” know what is truth. They have drank the “living water” that transforms them into “springs of water welling up to eternal life” (4: 10, 14) and have eaten of “the bread of God . . . which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world” (6: 33).
Only those who have ceased being slaves and have been set free by the Son (8: 35 – 36) can receive the testimony to the truth that the Son, as the One Sent by the Father, makes effective. These are the ones who have been set free by the truth (8: 32). The “spirit of truth” (14: 17; 15: 26; 16: 13) then causes the testimony of the Son to remain (menein) in his disciples. The truth that sets slaves free from sin and death is the eternal life to which the Son came to bear witness. In According to John, Son, truth and life are one and the same thing.
Only those who live in the truth of the Son, free from sin, sanctified by the truth in the person of the One Sent (17: 17) can be “true worshippers” of the Father (4: 23). Those who refuse to see and believe ask, “What is truth?”, but those who believe and receive eternal life are worshippers “in spirit and in truth” (4: 24). They are the kind of worshippers that the Father seeks. Meanwhile, the human tragedy is the search for truth. Human beings try to set up criteria with which to establish the difference between truth and falsehood. Frustrated they acknowledge that The Truth is beyond their reach. According to John insists that truth and life in the spirit are within reach of all, and therefore the Father searches for “true worshippers” who “do the truth”. The Son “abides in them and they in Him”, and therefore they worship the Father “in spirit and in truth”.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3473