Jesus says: “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples ,and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31). But, as if fulfilling the prophecy of Jack Nicholson’s character in the film A Few Good Men, those who hear Jesus seem quite incapable of “handling the truth.”
The question of Pilate lingers in the background of Jesus’s curious line: quid veritas est? What is this truth about which Jesus is speaking, according to which one who would be his disciple would be set free? It seems that Jesus, in true Johannine form, is both rather straightforward and curiously deceptive about what precisely he means.
To have a better sense of this idea of truth (he aletheia) as it is used in this case. Scholars, in good academic style, are divided on how exactly Jesus is using this notion here. The most plausible referent, however, is very likely the revelation of God in the very person Jesus of Nazareth. His life, words, and deeds as exhibited throughout John’s Gospel — otherwise described as the book of these “signs” — bespeak a truth that cannot be intuited from one’s own experience. Rather, the truth that sets the disciple free is the very “word” of Christ, which in Hebrew (dabar) denotes not just what one says, but action, event, and dynamism as well. In this sense, the opening of John’s Gospel makes more sense than it ordinarily might to our Hellenistic ears: the Word became flesh. The Word acts.
Knowing the dabar of Jesus is to know the fullest revelation of God (see John 1:18 in which we are told at the end of the prologue that “no one has ever seen the Father, but the son reveals Him”), which is both the content of the message and the transformative power of the action.
To know the truth that sets one free is to embrace the relationality of God’s intention for all of humankind. Jesus tries to express this in his dialogue with, interestingly enough, “those who had believed in him” (tous pepisteukotas autq Ioudaious), the group of people he is addressing in this passage. But, like so many who today profess to believe in him or, as the PEW Research polls continually tells us, admit to having had professed belief in him, the audience of Jesus’s time misses the point.
“Oh, I know what it means to follow the Law and to do what God instructed us through Abraham,” they reply. But Jesus tries to get across that something entirely new is unfolding here. What they take to be the instructions according to Abraham their father in faith is, Jesus seems to claim, actually their own misinterpretations and a straying away from what it is that God reveals to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and so on. He says, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works of Abraham” (John 8:39). Instead, if even sincerely, they are doing the works of their own liking, not those revealed by God to their ancestors.
And how true is that for Christians today? We collectively claim, “Oh, we are disciples of Jesus and we do his works!” But do we?
Those who bear the name Christ and call themselves Christian should indeed do his works according to his word (dabar), but so often mistake their own social, cultural, and personal desires for the word of God. This is how self-identified Christians can commit all sorts of hatred, discrimination, and violence. This is how women and men who bear the name “Christ” can judge and exclude, seek wealth and ignore the poor, advance their own power while marginalizing those who already have no voice. This, however, is not the truth about which Jesus speaks.
Jesus’s truth, the truth of the word of God, is a truth of radical relationship and self-sacrificial love (agape). It is a love of neighbor and stranger and enemy that is peace that “the world” cannot give that, as Paul says, is foolishness and stupidity to the world, but is the heart of who God is and who we are called to be. It is a truth that can set us free by unveiling and then removing the strictures we place on ourselves and others in our self-serving actions and attitudes. It is a truth that is not so much easily understood as challengingly lived out.