If you studied a foreign language in high school or college, one of the more difficult facets of learning a new language is learning a new way of thinking. Language and thinking are both like the potter, and they are both like the clay. They mold each other.
Theological language is no different. Most of the time, you and I don't create new theological terms (and we should weary of those who do). We inherit them. And when we inherit language, we are also inheriting the process of thinking by which those new terms were deemed necessary.
Another issue with language is that it eventually becomes jargon. Encyclopedias are packed into a single word. As more and more books are written on a topic, more and more ideas are packed into a single word. Words inherit baggage in like way we inherit the words. The further we're detached from the world of words, the harder it is to be familiar with the jargon.
So what I want to do is bring up some classic theological language and explain the ideas behind the words. This will help all of us be more familiar with the way not just theologians speak but the way the Bible speaks, and therefore, the way God speaks.
The Bible is a big book. If we don't have ways of quickly summing up what it says, we'll never get anywhere. And jargon, or theological language, is the way that happens.
We won't necessarily go in alphabetical order since ideas don't come in alphabetical order. Besides, some words are just more important than the others.
So let's start with a good one.
COVENANT: noun; a relationship initiated by God including binding obligations between two parties; is the primary way God moves salvation history forward.
The Bible speaks of creating covenants in two ways: to "cut" a covenant and to "establish" a covenant. To "cut" a covenant is to begin the covenant. To "establish" a covenant is to essentially renew it or recommit to your side of the covenant's obligations.
Sometimes, you might hear of a covenant being "unilateral" or "bilateral." That just means that either one party has all the obligations (unilateral) or both parties have obligations (bilateral). The truth is more complex than that. All of the covenants have obligations for both parties. The real difference is really if the particular covenant has a termination date.
The Bible is full of covenants. There is a covenant made between God and Adam and Eve (even though the word isn't used in the story, all the marks of a covenant are there: binding obligations on both parties). If Adam and Eve are faithful, they will inherit eternal life. One side of the covenant fails (start looking for a theme there), and the covenant is broken. Adam and Eve are removed from the land God had given them and will die a physical death. But before being dismissed from their home, God promises that there will one day come a child way down the line who will undo what they did.
Then, there is a covenant between God and Noah. After purging the earth of most of its sinners through a worldwide flood, God promises not to do so again. The world will be destroyed again one day, but there will be less water. Even this covenant, marked by the rainbow, has obligations for both parties: God will not destroy the earth by water, and mankind will not eat meat while still on the animal. This must have a been a bone of contention in Noah's day. Some parts of the world still do this: carve meat off of a living animal. So we can eat meat, but we cannot be cruel to animals.
Then, of course, there is the covenant with Abraham. Some have argued that there are multiple covenants with Abraham. But really, it's all one, even though components of it are added throughout Genesis 12 through 17. In the Abrahamic covenant, God promises to bless the whole world through Abraham's family. Specifically, this covenant is actually a partial fulfillment of the promise God made to Adam and Eve that one of their far-off children would fix everything.
The Mosaic covenant is made at Sinai, and it involves the giving of the law (or better, instruction) to the people who are themselves a partial fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, that a nation would be made up of Abraham's children (do you see all the interconnectedness yet?). When the people obey the instruction, all goes well and they show the world how God acts in righteousness. When they disobey the instruction, all goes poorly and they show the world how God acts in righteousness.
The Davidic covenant is made specifically with the family line of David (who is a subset of Israel, who is a subset of Abraham). The kings will be the official keepers of the law and will be responsible for the people's faithfulness to the law. Part of this covenant is that there will always be a king in David's family line on the throne, as long as the nation is obedient. One day, a king of David's line will rule forever and the people will never again rebel against God.
The Old Testament promises a new covenant in the future when God promises to do just that: to remove all sin from the community of righteousness. There will be a king from David's line who rules the people of God forever. The new people of God will not be a mixed people, where you are considered an Israelite just because you were born an Israelite. The new people of God will be born twice: once physically and once spiritually.
The new covenant was instituted by Christ at his death and resurrection. Now, all those who are in Christ are the true Israel because Christ is the true Israel. In the new covenant, all of God's promises made in the previous covenants are fulfilled in Christ. Many, if not most, of them are inaugurated, meaning they have been proven but not yet finalized. That is yet future, when Christ returns a second and final time.
God works through covenants, and that is the primary way of reading Scripture.
As Pilate and Jesus end their interaction, we come to the fourth and final question between them. Jesus has established that he is a king and that he came to preach the truth about God and his will. Now Pilate, in all his frustration, essentially throws his hands up and makes a rash decision.
Jesus has established that he is a king and that he has come to bring people to a knowledge of the truth. Pilate now asks what seems like a logical question:
“What is truth?”
Philosophy has asked this question as long as there have been philosophers. So is Pilate being serious? Is he joking? Being sarcastic? It could be that since Jesus has just said everyone who listens to his voice is of the truth, that Pilate now really wants to know what that truth is. But his actions betray him.
Jesus seemingly gives no response—but he has actually already answered Pilate’s question. If Jesus answered Pilate’s questions affirming his kingship, then he has also answered Pilate’s questions affirming that he is the truth. So what is truth? What does Jesus say it is?
Truth doesn’t start with a proposition. Truth starts with a person.
This really isn’t a genuine question from Pilate. We know that because after going back out to to the people one more time, he finally decides to have Jesus killed. As governor, he has to make an impossible decision: free the innocent man or feed the mob.
It was customary to free one prisoner this time of the year. Barabbas has genuinely been charged with insurrection and found guilty. Jesus has been charged with blasphemy, but the governor can’t give a sentence for that. Besides that, even the priests can’t clarify the blasphemy charges.
Ultimately Pilate rejects the truth placed before him. He can’t deal with the tension of what people expect of him and the truth that he’s just been confronted with.
If you want to find truth, where do you go? Do you even believe in truth? Our post-modern age rejects the notion of objective truth. If truth even exists at all, it’s subjective, relative, open for debate, individual choice. For example, standpoint theory says truth and knowledge is dependent on you social position.
Christianity outright rejects this claim. The very definition of truth is altered in such a way that it’s unrecognizable.
The end of the search for truth is Christ and him crucified. There’s always more to learn, more truth to find, but the only starting point is Christ himself.
We all want to know the point—of living, of working, of raising kids, of being married—we want to know the point of why we exist. So the most important question we can ask is “What is truth?”
What Pilate got wrong was that he was face to face with the truth, but because the truth interfered with his life, because he would have to answer to people who hated Jesus, he backed down and couldn’t stand the idea of being mocked and harassed by the right people.
The same choice is yours, and you’ll be faced with the same problem as Pilate. As you answer the question, “What is truth,” there will be people and groups who do all they can to force you to answer a certain way.
The answer to all of life’s questions are found not in a proposition but in a person. No other philosophy or theory of why something exists instead of nothing can account for our search for meaning. The Christian embraces all the hard questions because the search for truth is over. We have found the truth, or rather, the truth has found us. And the truth is a person—the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
Until we know Christ, that God is holy, we are not, but he can make us so, we will fill in the gaps in the truth we know and believe just about anything. We see that going on all over.
Christ says everyone who is in the truth listens to his voice. The fact that there is truth means that error is possible. We can believe wrong things and we can believe right things. Yes, Jesus is exclusive in his claims, but he offers the narrow path to all who will come and listen.
The subjectivity of our culture is a lie. Christ calls on you to decide whether or not you really want the answer to the question, “What is truth?”
The accusation of bigotry and closed-mindedness is nearly meaningless is today’s culture. Don’t fear being mocked or rejected like Pilate. Stand firm in the truth and embrace it.
Christians especially can embrace the truth, because truth is a person.
Jesus is facing a sham sentencing after facing a sham trial. He stands before Pilate, and Pilate has no idea what to do with him. Pilate has an angry mob of people whose religion and culture looks nothing like his own. He doesn't understand. But as governor, the buck stops with him. He's going to give the people an answer, and both answers are going to end poorly.
Pilate is facing two disparate truths: Jesus appears innocent of the charges, but there is no one coming to his defense. Pilate seemingly hasn't even heard of Jesus before this day. Why of all a sudden is Jesus a villain?
Pilate has asked two other questions of Jesus so far: who are you? and why should I care?
And Jesus has answered both of those questions truthfully, even if they weren't the clear answers for which Pilate had hoped.
Now Pilate asks a third question in John 18:37. "Then Pilate said to him, 'So you are a king?' Jesus answered, 'You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.'"
You can sense the frustration. Pilate thinks he's getting nowhere. But Jesus's answer is perfect. He definitely answers Pilate's question, but he gives the answer Pilate doesn't know he needs to hear.
Jesus clearly admits to being a king. "For this purpose I was born..."
Jesus did not arrive in the incarnation like a king that Pilate was used to. Jesus is a king who came to be the king of truth. Everything Jesus says is true, regardless of how much work it takes to understand it, no matter if the world understands it or not. There will always be people to reject the truth of Christ, but that should not deter Christians from embracing every word that comes from the mouth of God.
The flesh, or the world, has one set of presuppositions. The flesh presupposes that we can define ourselves without relation to God, that we can determine our own destiny, and that we are free.
The spirit, or the kingdom of God, has another set of presuppositions. The spirit presupposes that we are defined by our relation to our heavenly Father, that God is sovereign, and that we are either slaves to sin or slaves to Christ.
One set of presuppositions is true, and the other set is damning. One set results in human flourishing, and the other set is the result of the fall.
Each one of us needs to examine ourselves and what we believe so we know which set of presuppositions we adhere to. Do we believe a lie, or do we believe in the one who came to show us the truth?
Everyone who is of the truth listens to Christ's voice and adjusts their philosophies and theologies accordingly. That is discipleship. So if you are not living according to the truth, the spirit calls us to repent and change our system of belief.
You can apply this to your identity. Am I forming my own identity based on what culture tells me, or am I increasingly learning about who God says I am?
You can apply this to your relationships. Am I seeking personal satisfaction and using other people to do so, or am I seeking to serve other people before myself?
You can apply this to your job. Am I building cars, practicing medicine, or sweeping floors and complaining about it, or am I dutifully serving my Lord in whatever capacity he has placed me?
"Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice."
Jesus is standing before Pilate because a group of Jewish priests are at the end of their rope with him. The priests want to kill him, but Rome won't allow it. Rome wants to wield the power of the sword themselves. But the Jews are happy to create a problem for the Romans so they'll want to kill Jesus.
This episode takes places in John 18. Pilate poses a series of 4 questions to Jesus, the first of which was essentially, "Who are you?" Pilate asks Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" He knows the priests are up to something, so he asks Jesus himself if the charges are true. In true Jesus fashion, he answers Pilate with another question.
When Pilate doesn't get the answer he wants, he gets frustrated. He asks Jesus another question: "Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?"
Basically, Pilate asks, "Why should I care?"
He's getting nowhere with Jesus, he doesn't know what to charge Jesus with, so it's almost like he's stalling. He doesn't want to sentence an innocent man to capital punishment. But there surely has to be something to you. So...what have you done?
As Pilate tries to get to the truth, all he finds are more questions. He's also a political man. He knows that sometimes, politicians will do whatever it takes to keep their power, whether or not they wield it rightly. This is true in the case of the priests.
In Matthew 23:27, Jesus calls the Pharisees "white-washed tombs." They're impeccable on the outside, but on the inside, they're a rotted corpse.
In John 10, Jesus tells the parable of the good shepherd, which of course, is him. In the Old Testament prophets, they routinely call the religious leaders bad shepherds. And since the Pharisees and priests know the Old Testament quite well, they understand that Jesus is contrasting the present religious state of the leaders with himself.
In short, Jesus has made no bones about the quality of spiritual leadership in Jerusalem. And the spiritual leaders are tired of it. So, they have enlisted another politician to take care of the problem.
Pilate asks this question, but this time, Jesus doesn't respond with a question. This time Jesus says, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world--to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
Sure, Jesus is a king—the cosmic king of the universe. He will inherit everything as God's only begotten Son, and then he will hand the kingdom over to the Father at the end of the age, when the last enemy—death—is defeated.
But for now, Jesus outlines his purpose. He has come to bear witness to the truth, which is equal to listening to his voice. Jesus speaks the words of truth.
Do you want to know what God is like? Listen to Christ. Do you want to know the purpose of creation? Listen to Christ. Do you want to know how your sins can be atoned for? Listen to Christ.
Jesus is a king, but he's a very particular kind of king. Yes, he is a threat to Pilate, but Jesus also isn't a politician. He's a teacher, a healer, and the agent of creation. Can Pilate claim any of those titles?
He's a threat to Pilate, but not in the way Pilate thinks. Pilate is actually playing right into God's hand, his sovereign plan, this whole time.
Jesus does essentially answer Pilate's first question, "Who are you?" Though he answers in the form of a question, he affirms his Jewishness and his kingship (even if Pilate doesn't see the enormity of it).
If Jesus' kingship is established, then "Why should I care?" isn't a bad follow-up question, especially if the people are trying to kill their king. What kind of king is Jesus, anyway?
Jesus is the cosmic king of the universe. Through Jesus Christ, the Father brought all things into being. Through Jesus Christ, the Father redeems fallen humanity from total depravity. Through Jesus Christ, the Father is establishing an eternal kingdom where God will dwell his redeemed, glorified people.
Pilate should, in fact, care quite a bit.