ot long ago, I was in Riga, Latvia, teaching some current and future pastors. After a full day of teaching I went for a walk in that historic city. On my way back to the dormitory where I was staying, I saw a lofty modern administrative office building that had a large digital clock on it. The clock read in glowing red digits: 20:21. I instantly looked at my watch: It could not be so late! The sun was still shining brightly, and I felt it was like 5:00 in the afternoon. But my watch also read: 20:21.
For some time afterward, I thought about this incident. I was so certain that I was right. I would be almost willing to argue about it. Based on my previous experience with the position of the sun and the level of light, it seemed I could not be wrong. Then it dawned on me: I was in a different time zone! Regardless of how I felt, I was wrong, and the clock was right.
How do we know what we know? This is one of the important questions in our spiritual pilgrimage. In trying to find answers to vexing questions of our Christian life, making sense of the world around us, how do we come to our conclusions?
Jesus challenged the disciples to think about thinking and about truth. He said to them, “If it were not so, I would have told you” (John 14:2). Some translations render His words as a question: “If that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” Whichever way we take it (the Greek allows for both, but the more probable reading is the statement rather than the question), Jesus tried to bring solid assurance to His disciples.
How could they know that there was a certain future for them, in light of what was going to happen in the next 24 hours--the betrayal of Jesus, the apparent failure of what they expected, and His death? According to Jesus’ answer, His impending death was also a part of His plan, and indispensable as He prepares a place for them (and us).
Throughout the centuries people have suggested three basic answers regarding the source of truth.
Mind as the Source of Truth
Centuries before Jesus, the Greek philosophers argued that the mind is the ultimate source of truth. By reason alone we can have unlimited and unrestricted access to universal truth, self-evident truth that is rational and logical. Our mind is thus the standard by which we arrive at truth, and whatever is not logical must be rejected. The apostle Paul describes this worldview: “Greeks look for wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:22).
But is it so? The first angel of Revelation 14 calls all people to “worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water” (verse 7). The Bible sees the alternative as idolatry. My little head cannot be the ultimate source of truth and wisdom. Yes, true religion has its logic and our mind is God’s tool that He created and wants us to use (Isa. 1:18), but it cannot be the source of ultimate truth.
Nature as the Source of Truth
Later in history other people argued that instead of looking for truth inward, we need to look outward. They discovered that nature was governed by laws that were so predictable, so stable, that they called them “natural.” They adopted the study of “natural laws” as the source of truth. This led to the “scientific method,” which led many to dispense with God.
While observation or the scientific method is a useful tool to help us understand how things function, nature is not the ultimate source of truth. There is no question that an element of truth is found in nature, but nature does not contain the key to ultimate reality. Jesus did not say to His disciples, “You will know it, because you will experience it.” No, He said, “If it were not so, I would have told you.” The disciples of Jesus will know the truth on some other basis.
God’s Revelation as the Source of Truth
Ultimate truth can be found neither in mind nor in nature. The ultimate reality (God) is transcendent--beyond us--and can be known only by His revelation. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deut. 29:29). God has decided to make Himself known. That is why He also came into this world in the person of Jesus Christ.
When Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the
Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven” (Matt. 16:15-17). Though mind and experience are certainly useful tools, these are inadequate sources of truth. There are things that must be revealed in order to be known.
So How Does God's Revelation Come to Us?
1. God’s Word comes to us in the person of Jesus. He is God’s Word incarnate. Jesus came to this world as a representative of the God of the Old Testament, who said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. . . So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up” (Ex. 3:7, 8).The same God who performed an act of salvation in Exodus for His one nation comes now in the person of Jesus Christ to save all His people from around the whole world. He has seen our misery, He is concerned about our suffering, and He came to rescue us. He said: “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” (John 8:46). No one could then. None can now.
2. God’s Word comes to us in the words of Jesus. The Bible is God’s Word. Its primary purpose is to reveal God so that we may know Him (John 17:3). This is necessary because He has been put in the wrong light by the adversary; His character has been misunderstood. The whole Bible is a long testimony about who God is and what He does to deal with the problem of sin in His universe. We have a choice to make on which side we want to stand. God’s Word is reliable. It declares that we are sinners, because that is exactly what we all are. When He says, “I love you,” He loves you. When He tells you, “My Father loves you,” the Father loves you. Otherwise, He would have told you! (Ps. 119:89; Matt. 24:35; 1 Peter 1:25).
3. God’s Word comes to us in the words of preaching. The sermon is God’s Word preached. “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:20, 21). “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe” (1 Thess. 2:13).
Questions for Reflection
1. In today’s world many people place heavy emphasis on their feelings. Why are feelings unreliable as a source of truth?
2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of studying nature as a source of truth?
Every time God’s word, as found in His inspired Word (the Bible), is preached, something supernatural, mysterious takes place. People who respond positively cross the line from this world into God’s kingdom. My story becomes part of His story, and we are assured of eternal existence in the “age to come,” eternal life with the Father in the “rooms” that He is preparing.
How do you know what you know? “If it were not so, I would have told you,” Jesus said. Jesus is totally reliable. His Word is reliable. We can be there with Him in the kingdom one day, when all creation will be singing “the song of Moses and the Lamb” on the sea of glass. Finally all God’s family will be reunited (Rev. 15:3).
Daniel Duda is the ministerial secretary and education director for the Trans-European Division in St. Albans, England.