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"Our Answer is God. God's answer is us. Through partnership we make our world better."
- Dorian Scott Cole

Teaching/Sermon Article

What is Truth?

John 18:33-38

Copyright © 2009 Dorian S. Cole


Jesus was seen by leaders as a threat to established religious and political order. The religious leaders conspired to bring charges against him and have him executed. Jesus had power with the people. He stood before Pilate. How should Pilate handle this man without creating a problem with the people? Pilate struggled with truth. He couldn't in good conscious charge the man with anything. But there were equally compelling reasons, maybe truthful ones, to find a way to get rid of this man before the situation exploded. Truth. What is truth?

Context: The time had come for Jesus suffering - the time to suffer and die as a sacrifice for humanity's sins. But to the religious leaders he was a problem: He challenged their authority, overturned the money changers table in the Temple, even bordered on blasphemy, and even divided the priests against each other as some favored him - in short he upset the order of things. The religious leaders conspired against Jesus to get rid of him. Some of them would even make false claims against him. They enlisted Judas, who was dissatisfied that Jesus was not a military king that would lead a revolt, to take them to him and capture him.

Article: Jesus was brought before Pilate in a climate of fear and deceit. Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea, appointed by the Roman government. The man standing before Pilate was a troublemaker. He had power with the people, who loved him. He had won the minds, and maybe hearts, of many religious leaders who found him virtuous and a good teacher. But many religious leaders hated and feared him. Instead of dealing with him in proper ways, which they could not, they surreptitiously brought him to Pilate.

The political leaders viewed Jesus with suspicion and animosity. The Jews were looking for a king to deliver a military victory over the Romans and rule over them like King David. They were calling this man a king. He was a threat to the established religious and political order. Things could get out of hand.

Pilate could see only problems coming from these accusations - Jesus might be a troublemaker, but he had done nothing worthy of death, and the public would riot. Pilate tried to push him off on Herod Antipas. Herod was the ruler (tetrarch) of the Galilee province where Jesus was from and where most of his offences would have been committed. It was Herod's problem.

Herod was appointed by the Romans, but he pointed to his Jewish heritage, from the line of David, whenever it was convenient, and he often petitioned for respect for their rules. He was the man for dealing with a Jewish problem.

Obviously this man was inconvenient because Herod sent him back to Pilate. This man, Jesus, was guilty of nothing - he could not be charged with a crime. He simply threatened the religious leader's authority over the people and religious practices. He was a novelty - a magician or miracle worker. He could not punish him - let the Romans handle it.

How could Pilate remove this threat to order? If Pilate charged Jesus with a crime, the public might rise up against him. They were already demonstrating about it. Charging him might cause a revolt that would bring military action and problems from Rome. But if he let this man continue his activities, his popularity might bring a religious and political revolt. The "truth" was, this man had committed no crime. The "truth" was, this man could cause trouble for Pilate. Pilate couldn't just walk away. The "truth" was, he had to deal with this problem before it got out of hand. Pilate was vexed with competing "truths."

Pilate challenged Jesus straight out (John 18:37, NIV), "'You are a king then!' Jesus answered, 'You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.'"

Pilate knew all about the variability of so called truth. The philosophers had their probing questions about what truth is. They could argue that nothing was true. Who could know? The religious people had their definition. It seemed only they could know the real "truth." Superstition. Here they were standing in front of him accusing this man of crimes he had not committed (they accused him of forbidding people to pay taxes to Caesar, and he had not, and they accused him of blasphemy - what was that all about?). Lies and deception - some truth these religious people had, that couldn't stand up to open criticism and dissent. Government had its truth in the law, but laws could be made and bent to serve political purpose - it was simply utilitarian control. Politics had its own utilitarian truth, it was the need for expediency. Which version of the "truth" should he serve to the public?

"'What is truth?'" Pilate asked, earnestly confused in his own mind. With this retort he went out again to the Jews and said, "'I find no basis for a charge against him. But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release 'the king of the Jews'?'" (John 18:38-39.)

Pilate had found his answer to the problem of Jesus. This man could substitute for a real criminal. In front of the public, he washed his hands of the entire affair - he was not to blame for this man's fate. He would not charge him with a crime and risk a populist revolt. He would not let him walk free and risk a revolt. He would please the Jewish religious leaders by getting rid of this continuing aggravation who challenged their established order, and in the end it would end another troublemaker who might haunt him if not dealt with. The perfect solution was: he would let the people decide what to do with him, and then people could either shut up or accuse each other.

To accomplish this, he would offer them a choice between Barabbas, a popular military leader who was the cause of much sympathetic unrest when locked up, and whose execution could cause a revolt; or this Jesus. The popular decision of the public would have the day. There it was, "truth," the effective solution to the problem. A self-serving answer that satisfied no one but challenged any "truth" that others wanted to put forward. Truth? There was no such thing as truth. It wasn't lies, it was all simply... shades of gray. Expedience.

The public chose Barabbas. They substituted an innocent man for a common criminal. Jesus would die as a sacrifice for Barabbas's crimes, and for the wrongs of humanity.

What is truth? Is it something that philosophers can kick around and discredit, as famously did Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates in their logical examination of knowledge? Is truth something that is so hard to understand that it is kept secret by the religious elite? Is it shades of gray that are inconsistent and satisfy no one? Is it superstition that crumbles on close examination? Is it simply something that is self-serving that can be bent to solve a problem? Is it something extremely rigid, inflexible, unmerciful, and without exception? Is truth just a set of stale facts?

All of these ways of looking at truth have one thing in common. They impose our preconceived conditions on what the Bible means by truth. These ways of describing and judging truth fit it into our purposes. They put our thinking into a solid code that can't be broken. This is the province of the rule makers - those who think that life can fit into a rigid scheme and be followed to the letter. You don't have to think - all you have to do is follow the rules. But does this have anything to do with what the Bible says about truth?

Jesus said I came into this world to testify to the truth, and those on the side of truth listen to me. What was he testifying to? To a bunch of stale theology? No. He testified about a vital and living God who forgave them and pointed to a better way to live their life to gain a life free of the pain that comes from doing wrong. In this way of life was truth.

The typical use of the word truth in the Bible is as the antithesis of lies, deception, and wickedness. It's used to refer to a true path, the word of God. Jesus said, (John 14:8-31), "My testimony is true." "...he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him." "If you continue in my word [experience of the word], you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."

It is the truth of following the ways of God that sets us free from the deception of the illusions of this world. It sets us free from thinking we can mistreat our fellow people for our own gain and still have good relationships and lack of guilt. It sets us free from hurting others through lies and deception and other bad practices. Following truth reconciles us (brings us into a better relationship) with God and with each other.

Jesus had a phrase he often used. He would say, this is very, very true. He meant, you can believe this, you can act on it. You can take this to the bank. This is straight up, and you can count on it.

Religion is the practice of beliefs, whether in ritual or beneficial behaviors. True religion, and true worship, are not a list of facts or beliefs. True religion is not about secret or exclusive beliefs or following certain practices or even trying to follow all of the rules. True religion is a path of love that is proven, consistent, credible, and stands out as a clear choice that is worth following - you can count on it. My hope is that you can make your religion, whatever it is, a true religion.

For a more scholarly approach to ferreting out the meaning of truth in the Bible, see my book, Ontology of God, which contains a section on truth and true religion.

Yours in Christ,

- Dorian Scott Cole

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Available in print and ebook formats from various sources. Secure credit card purchasing.

About the author: Dorian Scott Cole is an independent, cross-disciplinary scholar with education and experience in psychology, philosophy, religion, language, visual semiotics, and technology. He is a licensed minister with a mainline denomination with full time pastoral and counseling experience. His education in religion and psychology was through a state university (IU) followed by independent study. Other books and publications: Ontology of God, How to Write a Screenplay, Writers Workshop Script Doctor,, and

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Ontology of God: The voices of the ancients speak.

My recent book, Ontology of God, looks at what we can learn through the ages regarding the history of several aspects of religious development as affected by the ancient societies they were in, including law, mercy, and love. Available in print and ebook formats from various sources. Secure credit card purchasing. Description.
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Echoing through time are the voices of ancient people telling us about God. From Mesopotamia and Egypt 5000 years ago, often from even earlier oral traditions, every civilization has been inspired to tell us about God. Their voices vary widely and even conflict. Is there a common message that they thought was so important that they had to pass it on? In this book, the ancient voices speak.

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Available in print and ebook formats from various sources. Secure credit card purchasing.

About the author: Dorian Scott Cole is an independent, cross-disciplinary scholar with education and experience in psychology, philosophy, religion, language, visual semiotics, and technology. Other books and publications: How to Write a Screenplay, Writers Workshop Script Doctor,, and

Reading type: Mainstream Scholarly Specialist

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