You Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Set You Free
#11 in the Series “All that I have Commanded You.”
John 8:31-36: To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.
They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
John 16:12-15: (Jesus said) “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.
As we come near to the end of these twelve articles that seek to represent all of the teaching of Jesus Christ, we are at the final spoke of the symbolic wagon wheel that has served as our mental image of that teaching. The rim of the wagon wheel, that teaching of Jesus through which Christians touch the world, is “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” There are ten spokes in the wheel: the first five represent Jesus’s call to us to live the “greater righteousness” or the “narrow way” to abundant life, and the second set of five delineate the freedom we enjoy in living that life.
The first four great freedoms that Jesus teaches us to exercise are:
- The freedom to rest (“Come unto me all ye that labor, and I will give you rest.”)
- The freedom to possess (“Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”)
- Freedom from anxiety (“Let not your hearts be troubled.”)
- Freedom of conscience (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s).
Consider the restlessness that characterizes human beings. We want to learn, to explore, to discover, and to experience new things. True, our human rebelliousness often leads us to desire to discover, explore, and experience things that are harmful to ourselves rather than the things that would be beneficial. Our public school teachers complain about students not wanting to learn, but this is not strictly true. Students want to learn what they want to learn, not necessarily what the teachers want to teach. The human restlessness can lead to experimentation with drugs and sex as much as to the exploration of space. Any human enjoying any measure of health, however, wants to avoid boredom and have new and interesting experiences. Even a couch potato, spending his life in front of the TV, wants to explore the universe through his remote control.
God the Father created us with the desire to explore, and Jesus wants us to have this freedom. He seeks to release us into a lifelong pursuit of the truth. He proclaims that not only does He want us to know the truth, but this knowledge will give us ever greater freedom: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
All truth, regardless of where it is found or who teaches it, belongs to God. Truth, however, does not belong to the Church or to the Christians that compose the Church. In the church, we have a tendency to “spin” the truth to fit our ideology, our picture of what truth must be and what the Bible must mean.
When the church forgets that it has no monopoly on truth, disasters occur. The Catholic church in the 1600’s decided that Galileo’s view of the earth going around the sun was against the obvious meaning of Scripture, so they condemned Galileo and procribed his books. This was a great mistake, and today people perceive that mistake as superstitious religion standing in the way of truth-pursuing science. Jesus would not have Christians stand in the way of the pursuit of truth in a misguided attempt to “defend” Scriptural principles.
Indeed, Jesus himself taught his disciples that he (Jesus) had not given them all truth through His word. In John 16:12 he tells them that there are many things that He has not yet said, but that the Holy Spirit will guide them into all truth. A person who seeks to live apart from the Holy Spirit’s influence will either not want to learn or will end up in an exploration of facts apart from God’s Word that will lead to destructive experiences or technologies. But a person who is guided by the Holy Spirit in submission to God’s Word does not need to fear going where the facts lead.
The ancient church fathers, especially Augustine, spoke of two books that aid the pursuit of truth: the book of Scripture and the book of Nature. They taught that both books are reliable guides to truth. They also taught, however, that the correct use of both books is complicated by human sin and limitations.
Our observations of the book of Nature are fallible and always open to correction by further exploration. The “truth” of Newtonian physics was challenged by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Sometimes the advance of science brings science very close to Scripture indeed. 100 years ago the scientific community accepted the “truth” of social Darwinism which held that different races of humans were at different stages of evolution, with non-Europeans generally being viewed as less developed and destined to be superseded in the “survival of the fittest.” Today, the science of genetics has proven that the human race is genetically unified, and even that all of us are descended from a single ancestral mother.
Although Scripture itself is not fallible, our interpretations of it certainly are. In the United States today, most Christians realize the error of those interpretations of Scripture which protected the institution of slavery in the South. Sometimes bad interpretations of Scripture go hand in hand with bad science to bring about great misery, as when pro-Nazi preachers in the Germany of the 1930’s celebrated the scientific progress of the 3rd Reich.
Our experience of the truth in this world is always an imperfect and incomplete experience. We are slaves to sin, selfishness, and ignorance in ways that we only dimly comprehend. We should hold both our knowledge of science and our interpretations of Scripture with humility. The Jewish disciples to whom Jesus spoke proudly proclaimed that as children of Abraham they were slaves of no one. We tend to think that our superior technology gives us greater freedom than anyone has ever had. Technology, however, does not offer us a healthy relationship to God or to each other—technology does not make us part of God’s family. Jesus says to us, “If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed.”
Because of our imperfect experience of truth in the world, and because our faith needs to be held in humility, Christians should not be afraid of science, even when it seems to contradict our faith. We should be aware that the book of Nature will at times be an instrument in God’s hands to correct our faith and our interpretation of Scripture.
No sustained and healthy pursuit of truth, however, can exist apart from God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. God has not directly revealed himself in the book of Nature, and for this reason science will never supplant faith. By definition, Science cannot describe what is supernatural. When scientists seek to use their disciplines as a tool to describe a universe without God, a universe in which God has no existence, their pursuit has ceased to be scientific because science can never offer ultimate answers about the meaning of human life. Meaning itself is not a natural category.
Jesus provides the proper lens through which a pursuit of truth also becomes the pursuit of positive meaning in life. “If you continue in my word, you shall know the truth.” Without Jesus everyone is a slave to sin. Can there be any doubt that much of today’s science is enslaved to sin? Human beings are creating the means of our own destruction, not only through nuclear and biological weaponry, but also through environmental degradation and physical deterioration brought about by the lack of exercise that our own technological success has made possible. We are coming to the point where even our own entertainment may destroy us.
Christopher Hicks, a prominent atheist who is an apologist for a universe where science is the only religion, has written a book entitled “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything?” Jesus would agree that religion (which may be as much a pursuit of truth without Christ as science can be) can poison everything. It seems to me, however, that there is no major problem facing society today that science is not at the root of. Warfare, economic devastation, environmental degradation, global warming, the emergence of global pandemics, are all related to our scientific and technological advances. We have great faith that science will provide answers to these problems, but if the past is any indication, each answer science provides will result in a new and probably more globally pernicious set of problems.
When the Bible speaks of the pursuit of truth, it speaks not only of seeking greater scientific knowledge. Instead, the pursuit of truth in Jesus’ teaching (and in the Bible as a whole) is the pursuit of wisdom. Knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is a part of wisdom, but wisdom also includes the ability to place knowledge in the service of righteousness. In other words, wisdom is able to assign proper meaning to knowledge for the purpose of living in harmony with God, with Creation, and with others. When Jesus says “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free,” He does not mean that the advance of technology will set us free from having (for instance) to do the dishes. He means that when we are in right relationship to Him and His teaching, all our pursuits for truth: scientific, artistic, social, and political will be part of our search for God, in whom is perfect freedom. The search for God is greater than mere science, just as what you can imagine goes beyond what your senses perceive.
I am grateful that Jesus does not expect me to necessarily seek for God in quantum physics, differential calculus, or microbiology. I am grateful that I can seek God not only in the realms of science and nature, but also in literature, art, music, and the simple daily chores of dishwashing, laundry, and driving kids around. I hope and pray that the Holy Spirit would indeed come to me with the questions that I have not known how to ask and then lead me into the truth that I didn’t know that I needed to know. May He lead you, too.