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What is truth?

Nov 09, 2018

When Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38), it showed his familiarity with philosophy. By his day Greek philosophers had practically abandoned the idea that ultimate truth could be discovered through the mind (soul). Skepticism had won the day.

But Jesus had told him, “I have come into the world to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (John 18:37). Pilate’s reaction showed some skepticism, but then he went out to the crowd and pronounced Jesus innocent, saying, “I find no fault in Him.” After all, anyone who valued truth could hardly be an evil man, and he had already seen that Jesus’ accusers were more interested in maintaining their political positions than in discovering truth!

Pilate’s pronouncement fulfilled the law’s requirement to sacrifice a perfect lamb at Passover. After four days of inspection from the tenth day of the month to the fourteenth, Jesus was found officially to be qualified.

In fact, this suggests a whole new meaning to the requirement of the law that the Passover lamb be without blemish. On the surface, when looking at types and shadows, the law was speaking of physical blemishes and sickness, as we see in Malachi 1:13, 14. But the underlying, spiritual requirement seems to be based on one’s pursuit of truth. Hence, Jesus’ statement about bearing witness to the truth is what Pilate recognized as the mark of innocence.

We should assume that Pilate had studied Plato’s writings from 400 years earlier, but in the heat of the moment, he probably did not immediately connect Jesus with Plato’s comment about the truly just man.

They’ll say that the just man who has such a disposition will be whipped; he’ll be racked; he’ll be bound; he’ll have both his eyes burned out; and, at the end, when he has gone through every sort of evil, he’ll be crucified and know that one shouldn’t wish to be, but to seem to be, just. After all, Aeschylus’ saying applies far more correctly to the unjust man. For really, they will say, it is the unjust man, because he pursues a thing dependent on truth, and does not live in the light of opinion, who does not wish to seem unjust but to be unjust. [par 362]


Plato was comparing a truly just man with a man who merely wanted to appear just. Those who cultivate the appearance of justice without being truly just on the inside will have a good reputation among men and live happily ever after. But the truly just man, who “does not live in the light of opinion,” will have the reputation for being unjust, “because he pursues a thing dependent on truth.”

The irony of this is that the truly just man must prove himself to be just by undergoing the worst sort of tests from unjust men—even to the point of being “crucified.” This, he says, will make the just man “know that one shouldn’t wish to be, but to seem to be, just.” In other words, this rather cynical view of life asserts that it is better to learn how to gain the appearance of justice through trickery than to be actually just in one’s heart.

We know that Pilate’s wife, Portia, was a believer and that Pilate himself became a believer a few years later after Emperor Gaius Caligula had exiled him to Gaul in 37 A.D. It makes me wonder if Pilate later pondered Plato’s words in The Republic and if he realized that he had allowed the model Just Man to be whipped and crucified. At any rate, Pilate was wracked with guilt and ultimately committed suicide.

How to Pursue Truth Honestly

Many claim to pursue truth, but many are not fully honest in their pursuit of truth. Most search for validation of what they already believe. They desire a particular conclusion and then compile evidence to support their desire. A few, however, are able to set aside their personal desires and pursue truth wherever it may lead.

Years ago, as I was studying chronology and history in order to understand the prophecy of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks, I was forced to confront my own assumptions in my pursuit of truth. I discovered that I was working backward by assuming the date of Christ’s crucifixion, using that date to pinpoint the start of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks.

That, of course, was wrong, and it startled me. So I changed course and studied history to discover “the seventh year of King Artaxerxes” (Ezra 7:7), so that I could calculate from actual history the fulfillment of the prophecy leading to Jesus’ crucifixion. That honest pursuit changed my prophetic understanding, but only because I learned to pursue truth rather than to gather evidence to support my previous opinion.

Soulish Methods of Pursuit

In 1 Corinthians 1:22-24, Paul shows his knowledge of philosophy, saying,

22 For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Philosophy literally means “Love of Wisdom.” Phileo is “love,” and Sophia is “wisdom.” The Greeks tasked the soul with the discovery of ultimate truth and wisdom, assuming that the soul was spiritual. After a few centuries, however, most of the philosophers concluded that this was an impossible task. Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” shows this skepticism. Hence, Greek soul-based philosophy failed to achieve its intended goal. Why? Because the soul, though originally created “good,” became the carnal mind through Adam’s sin.

The “natural man” (NASB, 1 Corinthians 2:14) is better translated the soulish man (from psuchikos). Paul says,

14 But a natural [psuchikos] man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.

Paul was personifying the soul, calling it a “man,” that is, an inner man, elsewhere referred to as the “old man” (Romans 6:6 KJV; Ephesians 4:22 KJV; Colossians 3:9 KJV). Because Adam was made a living soul, and because that soul sinned and became mortal as a result, the soul was the will of the first man of sin which we all inherited through our earthly forefathers. To overcome the limitations of the old man (mortal soul) requires us to subject the will of the soul to the will of the spirit. The soul then reflects the will of the spirit, which in turn receives revelation from the Holy Spirit.

That is how we may receive and know ultimate truth, or “God’s wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:7) that is different from the wisdom of this world that is found in Greek philosophy. There is a logic (logos) of the world that seems reasonable to the soul. But there is also a spiritual logic of the cross that is perfectly logical to the mind of one’s spirit. In 1 Corinthians 1:18 NASB it is translated “the word [logos] of the cross.”

Soul and spirit reason with differing forms of logical thought, but only spiritual logic that comes by revelation and demonstration of the Spirit is capable of comprehending all truth.

Jews Pursue Miraculous Signs

The “Jews ask for signs,” Paul says. Jesus performed many miraculous signs (semeion), and John structured his entire gospel on eight signs that Jesus did to manifest His glory, the first being his miracle that changed water to wine (John 2:11). These signs were meant to portray prophetically the eight days of the feast of Tabernacles, but also to lay the evidence of truth that could be reliably seen, known, and believed.

However, in the end, in spite of these signs that proved the truth, the Jews as a whole rejected Christ and the truth that He put on display. Those signs proved to be a stumbling block and a rock of offense, Paul says, quoting Isaiah 8:14. The truth Jesus presented to the people was not lacking in anything, but the carnal mind of the soul proved to be inadequate in the apprehension of truth. Thus, in their minds, the signs failed and the crucifixion became a stumbling block. When the resurrection overcame the stumbling block, their carnal minds again could not make rational sense of it.

Both Greeks and Jews, along with all men everywhere, have stumbled on account of the carnal mind of the soul since the first sin in Genesis 3. The soul was originally “good,” but Adam’s sin caused it to be overshadowed by death (mortality), rendering it incapable of knowing ultimate truth. Therefore, any pursuit of truth that does not first overcome the original sin is doomed to fail in the end, for the death-ridden soul is limited in its capacity to know truth.

The Apostle John deals with origins in his first epistle in order to restore man’s fellowship with God. The church was to be God’s family of sons and daughters living in harmony, walking in the light, and having love and truth as their common passion. The Apostle Paul adds his voice by setting forth the biblical alternative to the Jewish pursuit of signs and to the Greek pursuit of wisdom.

The key is in knowing that the soul, being fleshly, is not spiritual but psychic. Distinguishing between the psychic and the spiritual is crucial to Paul’s argument. Just because the soul has power beyond the body and beyond the material world in general does not mean that the soul is capable of receiving ultimate truth. The soul is not immortal; it is mortal (Ezekiel 18:4 KJV). That mortality handicaps the soul.

Truth, Paul says, comes by revelation from man’s spirit. Man’s spirit is distinct from the soul (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Man’s spirit is the part of him through which the Holy Spirit communicates truth from heaven to earth. Whereas the soul engages in rational thought in its limited capacity, the spirit engages in revelation with the potential of discerning or appraising “all things” (1 Corinthians 2:15).

Eastern Pursuit of Truth

In the East, religious men and philosophers had a pessimistic view of the mind—and rightfully so, given its carnality and its limitations in comprehending truth. Hence, they sought to shut down the mind through meditation. The problem was that they did not make a clear distinction between soul and spirit, nor did they seem to understand that both soul and spirit have a mind.

I first came to see this difference nearly 40 years ago when I perceived that I “knew” some things that my mind (soul) did not actually believe at the time. I understood that either I was approaching schizophrenia or that I really had two minds functioning at the same time. I concluded the latter, of course, though some may reach other conclusions about me.

The solution, I found, was not to destroy the mind and its rational thought but rather to subject the mind of the soul to the leading of the spirit and its mind. To destroy the mind/soul is a natural impulse of those who believe that the natural world was created inherently evil. But we believe from Scripture that the creation was created very good (Genesis 1:31) and that the soul’s limitations were not a problem until it asserted itself to a position of authority over the spirit.

The solution, then, is not to destroy the soul but to subject it to the spirit. The soul has a good calling, but it needs to know its place and end its rebellion in order to find peace.

Likewise, biblical meditation is not necessarily the same as non-Christian meditation. Eastern meditation generally attempts to bypass the mind (soul) in the pursuit of truth. Biblical meditation seeks to subject the soul to the spirit, as originally intended by the Creator, so that the soul may express spiritual truth that the spirit is imparting.

Both Eastern and Western philosophy became pessimistic in their pursuit of truth (“realism”), both in ancient times and in the present era. But their solutions were also inadequate and even discouraging. Nietzsche was tormented and died in a mental institution. Art has become increasingly dark, and music has degenerated from harmony to harshness and discord as well.

It is not surprising that rebellion and discontent have increased in proportion to the pessimism brought about by the logic of the world. We need a revelation of truth, which can come only as the Holy Spirit removes the Old Covenant veil that has been spread over the whole earth (Isaiah 25:7). When that veil is removed, the souls of men will find the truth and rest in peace.

The veil of our temple will be torn down, and the two rooms (soul and spirit) will be reconciled and become one and without disagreement.

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Category: Teachings
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones