Jean’s Gospel: What Is Truth?
“In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.’ And his disciples answered him, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?’ And he asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ ”(Mark 8:1-5)
The story of Jesus feeding 4,000 people with seven loaves and three fish reminds me of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. That trial ends with Pilate asking a question which is left for the reader of John’s gospel to answer: “What is truth?” (John 18:38a) Before Jesus and Pilate had their encounter, Jesus had an encounter with His disciples (our text for this week), in which “truth” is also on trial.
Regrettably, it is easy for disciples to conflate “truth” with the Law. When that happens, the familiar slogan, “Speak truth in love,” becomes, “Speak Law in love.” The Law becomes the sum and substance of truth, which distorts the Christian message. It can sound something like: “Christianity is a religion of morality; if you will learn and subscribe to our morals, then God (and we) will welcome you.”
Truth and the Law are not synonyms. The Evangelist John makes that clear: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17)
Christians are called to testify to the “truth,” but not a truncated version which views truth primarily within the context of a debate about “fact” vs. “fiction,” “right” vs. “wrong,” or “objective” vs “subjective.” A scientist working in a laboratory can learn some truths about the natural world through rational or empirical research. But such methodologies cannot prove theological truth. Therefore, Christians have the unique vocation to testify to truth that is Christological in nature.
I have compassion on the crowd…
In this encounter, Jesus expresses his concern for the crowd, and the disciples are faced with a question: What is truth? They have two, possibly three, alternative responses:
(1) The disciples understand that the crowd has an urgent need for bodily nourishment. However, an analytical, objective thinking disciple will quickly deduce that seven loaves of bread and a few small fish cannot possibly feed 4,000 people;
(2) The disciples, wanting to protect Jesus’ reputation from their deductive reasoning, reinterpret Jesus’ statement into a wholly “spiritual” compassion, as in “I have compassion for the salvation of this crowd.” With this move, the disciples can go to work on a plan to baptize the entire crowd before releasing them to their fate; or
(3) The disciples understand that the crowd has an urgent need for bodily nourishment and, in faith, remember the advice of Jesus’ mother: “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5)
“And his disciples answered him, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?’ ” (Mark 8:4)
The disciples chose response (1), and failed the test by giving an incorrect answer to the question: What is truth? Whether their answer came from an objective application of the “law” of numbers, or from a subjective application of personal experience, the “truth” of the matter when viewed through human reason was the same: “send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way.” The disciples were still thinking purely from human reason and not Christologically. Therefore, the disciples’ testimony was not of the truth.
“And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away.” (Mark 8:6-9)
Jesus not only fed the crowd, but He satisfied them. He fed everyone without partiality, believers and unbelievers, the repentant and the unrepentant. Why? Jesus had compassion on them.
What Jesus demonstrates in this story is that “truth” is connected to His Word. This connection has many facets, such as: the Word of truth is faithful and sincere; it is factual and reality; it is personified in Christ and His kingdom; and it is creative. Therefore,
- If Jesus says He has compassion on the crowd, then the “truth” is He will satisfy their need.
- If Jesus blesses seven loves and a few fish with His Word, then the “truth” is that meal will be of more benefit to the people than 10,000 loaves which do not have His blessing.
- If Jesus gives the disciples a task, then the “truth” is they can accomplish their task, regardless of what they may perceive with human reason.
Christological truth is above human reason, so it is learned by faith, and it is creative. Jesus’ mother, Mary, understood this in Cana: “Do whatever he tells you.” This truth corresponds to the Word. Therefore:
- The Word of truth called three-days-dead Lazarus out of his tomb.
- Truth says the Word added to simple water has the power to put to death our old nature inherited from Adam and raise up a new creation in Christ by the power of the Spirit.
- The Word of truth offers Christ’s body and blood in a communion meal for the forgiveness of sins.
- The Word of truth says that faith in Christ comes from hearing the Gospel.
Apart from the Law, the Word of truth testifies that: “God shows his love for [you and me] in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8) Therefore, when Christians speak “truth in love,” let us speak Christologially. Let us speak “Jesus in love.” Let us testify to the truth (and compassion) of what God in Christ does for, and offers to, the whole world, out of sheer grace.
The “truth” is that Jesus gave His life to save sinners (i.e., all people). He came to forgive our sins and give us life in His name. By the power of His creative Word of truth, Jesus unites us through faith in His death, which conquered sin, to gives us a new life free from bondage to sin, death and Satan, so that we might have life to the fullest, now and forever.
Through faith, Jesus, by means of His Word and Sacraments, frees us to begin living as truly human beings for the first time, in the way God originally made male and female before Adam’s fall, so that we might bear His image in creation as people of His kingdom.
What is truth? Jesus Christ for you. Amen.