Jesus claimed to be the truth (John 14:6). What in the world did he mean? He meant more than you might think.
Jesus placed himself in the center of everything that mattered most to a 1st century Jew: he said he was lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8), the forgiver of sins (Mark 2:5-6), and the calmer of storms (Mark 4:35-41). He identified himself as “the Son of Man,” a divine messiah who would judge humanity (Mark 14:62-64). On a single night, he broke 1400 years of sacred tradition when he instituted a new covenant in his name on the Passover (Luke 22:17-20). On a single cross, he took on himself the curse of the Old Testament law. And with a single resurrection he proved salvation to be a divine accomplishment for both Jews and Gentiles. In this, he unites the greatest of enemies and separates the closest of friends. It’s what he wanted. It’s what he came for (Luke 12:51).
Jesus also called himself the truth (John 14:6). What did he mean?
Truth was supremely important to Jesus. Before Pontius Pilate, he related his kingship to his reason for being born, which was a mission to testify to the truth (John 18:37-38).
“What is truth?” Pilate responded. As Jesus was crucified, Pilate ordered to the words “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” to be hung on the cross with Jesus in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek (John 19:20-21).
Remarkably, these three words correspond to three ways of thinking about truth in the Western world.[i]
One is the Latin, or Roman: Veritas. This term carries the connotation of rightness.[ii] It reflects the practical nature of the Roman perspective. They built roads; they established order. Truth is reflected in right action. In Roman mythology, Veritas is the goddess of truth and is a virgin dressed in white.
The Greek word for truth is Alethia. In Greek mythology, Alethia is usually depicted naked, with a hand-mirror. The word is said to derive from “letho,” or “lanthano:” Greek terms meaning “I remember.” The alpha privative is added to the word, which is literally rendered “not-forgetting.”[iii] For Greeks, truth existed in the mind. It was a something to be discovered within us. It emphasized a proper way of thinking.[iv]
The Hebrew word for truth is Emeth. The English often renders it as “truth,” but sometimes also as “faithfulness.” For the Hebrew mind, truth was a matter of confidence or trustworthiness. The word carries the idea of stability and reliability.[v] Perhaps you’ve heard the expression,
“that theory won’t hold water.”
It alludes to an image of water containers not leaking under pressure. In the Hebrew worldview, truth was a matter of stability amidst the pressures of a changing world. Interestingly, the word “emeth” cannot be found in the book of Job. Some scholars have argued this is because Job found nothing to rely on, though others contest this.[vi]
In John 14:6, Jesus famously states, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” These three terms don’t stand in subordination to one another, but they stand united.[vii] Yet which concept of truth could Jesus be referring to when he speaks of himself? Right action? Right thinking? Right being?
The answer is, “yes.”
We don’t know how relevant these philosophical concepts were to individuals during this time. Who knew of the goddess Veritas, and who cared? Yet Jesus certainly pointed to a right way of living; his “way” was the narrow way (Matt. 7), right? Surely his truth was a matter of true doctrine – a way of thinking? Is he not the “logos,” the Word of God? Of course.
Yet, I think he likely meant that he was truth “in his being” in John 14:6, in the particularly Hebrew sense. What supports this?
First, the idea of truth is an abstract concept, and not a concrete thing. My little toe is no more or less “truth” than my house, my wife, or Jesus. They all exist, of course – they correspond to reality – but we wouldn’t normally assign the abstract quality of truth to them. But if Jesus is saying, “I am trustworthy and reliable in the core of my being,” that makes sense. Perhaps he is saying even more than this, much more. Maybe he is saying, “everything you rely upon, both abstractly – your convictions – and concretely – the world in which you walk – finds its foundation in me.”
That brings me to my second reason for taking Jesus’ claim in the Hebrew sense: he’s speaking as a shepherd. He just finished saying, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled.” He’d said, “trust me” about the future (John 14:1,2).
He’s preparing them for his death as he’d promised to prepare a place for them in his father’s house. He’s telling them, in short, “my death will pave a way for us to be together forever.” In that respect, Jesus is the only way and the only life, because he is the only one that sinners can rely on to save them before a holy God.
Not only did Jesus put himself in the center of the Sabbath, the Passover, the eternal destiny of every person, but he puts himself in the center of our journey. He offers himself to lost, confused, rebellious, angry sinners and says, “follow me.”
That holds water in a world where nothing else seems to last.
[i] For more on this, see Peter Kreeft’s lecture on “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” at https://www.amazon.com/Lord-Liar-or-Lunatic/dp/B0072A3YQS.
[ii] Anselm reflected on this in his work, “De Veritate.” https://www.ontology.co/veritas.htm.
[iii] Brown, Colin (Gen. Ed.), (1986). New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 875.
[iv] Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (2108). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
[v] Brown, Colin. 877.
[vi] Ibid. 878.
[vii] Borchert, G. L. (2002). Vol. 25B: John 12–21. The New American Commentary (108–109). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.