08 February 2022

“The truth will set you free.”

John 8.32.

After I got my journalism degree, I went to a bible college to get a biblical and theological studies degree. People are sometimes surprised by this, as if it’s a huge shift in studies. Nah. They’re both pursuits of truth, y’know.

Anyway, at that bible college I became editor of the school newspaper (’cause I did have a journalism degree, y’know). When I redesigned the nameplate, I knocked around the idea of tacking a bible verse onto it… and originally went with John 8.32.

John 8.32 NIV
“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Which is not at all a verse about journalism. Yep, I took it out of context. Bad biblical studies major.

I’m hardly the first Christian to do it. People love to quote that verse whenever the subject of truth comes up. Sometimes they quote the entire verse, but most of the time they shorten it to “Truth will set you free.” Hey, it’s from the bible; the bible says truth will set you free! And sometimes they notice it’s written in the bible in red letters: Hey, Jesus says truth will set you free!

And y’know what else: Often the truth does set you free. Especially if you’ve been lying your head off, trying to keep secrets, and the stresses of juggling so many lies is wearing you down. Or if you’ve been lied to, and don’t know why problem after problem keeps cropping up, because you don’t realize these problems are the effect of the lies you’ve been told. Like a husband who cheated on his wife, gave her a social disease, and she doesn’t know why she’s now sick all the time. Truth would be freeing in a lot of ways, for the both of them.

But not every truth is freeing. In an oppressive society, under a totalitarian government, truth is not freeing; truth gets you jailed and killed. The government doesn’t want its citizens to know truth; it wants them to know only what it figures will make them productive and comfortable.

And even in a free society, people really do love their comfortable lies. Back to that problematic couple: Once the wife finds out her husband is a rotten cheater, it’s probably the end of her marriage. It’s gonna take a lot for her to ever trust him again. Especially if he’s got a number of other secrets he’s keeping from her, like how deeply in debt they are, how little he’s actually working, and of course the grandfather clock in the study is the secret entrance to the Batcave. True, before she learned the truth, her life was based on a lot of lies, but they were comfortable lies. And in fact she might prefer those comfortable lies; so much, she’s willing to pretend they’re true. There are a lot of people who deliberately turn a blind eye to reality because they actually feel more free under lies. It’s nuts, but true.

But back to my point: Jesus is not talking about truth in general. Not talking about any and every kind of truth. The passage is about a very specific truth, and that truth will make us free. Applying this verse willy-nilly to any and every kind of truth, means we’re gonna miss Jesus’s point. Truth is important, but his truth takes far greater precedence. And truth may often be freeing, but his truth makes people free.

Jesus’s truth.

The context of this verse is Jesus’s teaching on the light of the world. Namely that he’s the light of the world. You follow him, you won’t be in darkness. Jn 8.12

Naturally, Pharisees objected because they liked to think their rabbis were the light of the world; they alone provided the proper interpretation of the Law which made everything make sense. Problem is, their rabbis regularly contradicted one another, giving Pharisees a number of loopholes which sometimes even let ’em ignore the Law. They had patches of light. But lots of clouds. Pitch-black clouds.

So they argued back and forth with Jesus a bit; he’d make statements and they’d pettily pick ’em apart. But some Judeans believed in him nonetheless—and here’s the part in the chapter where Jesus addressed them in particular.

John 8.31-32 NET
31 Then Jesus said to those Judeans who had believed him, “If you continue to follow my teaching, you are really my disciples 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Jesus himself is the truth, Jn 14.6 but here he’s talking about his teachings. If you wanna dig into the original Greek, it’s τῷ λόγῳ τῷ ἐμῷ/to lóyo to emó, “my word”—if we follow his word, by which he clearly means the whole of the things he teaches us, so the NET’s “my teaching” is a pretty good translation—we’ll know the truth. We’ll know who God is, what he expects of his kids, how to behave towards him and one another, how to love him and one another, how to do life. We’ll know truth, instead of popular culture’s best guesses… heavily mixed in, of course, with selfish schemes to separate us from our money.

Knowing Jesus’s truth is way more important than truth in general. It is a truth that the speed of light in a vacuum is 186,282 miles (299,792 km) per second. Now, unless you’re into telecommunications or astronomy, is that a truth you’re gonna use on a frequent daily basis? Your phone might (’cause cell towers use it to triangulate where you are), but you won’t. Unless you’re helping ’em memorize facts for a science class, it won’t help you love your neighbor any better. It doesn’t free you in any of the ways we humans seriously need freeing. It doesn’t help our relationship with God any; in fact, if we imagine God lives way out in space, it might even hinder things, ’cause we’ll wrongly imagine our prayers have to travel vast distances, and take a long time, before God hears them. (They don’t; he’s right here.)

Truth is relevant, but for what Jesus is talking about, only his truths are relevant. And these are the truths which set people free. Really free; Jn 8.36 free in ways our society doesn’t set us free, which is what his audience was largely hung up about. Jn 8.33-36

If you wanna talk about truth in general, or argue truth in general is freeing: Go for it. But if you wanna quote Jesus in order to back your claim: That’s not what he means. He’s talking about following him, not generic truths. He will set us free. He’s the truth. And the way, and the life, and how we get to the Father and inherit the kingdom. Not all truth is of equal value, and Jesus’s truth outranks them all. Don’t swap his truth for inferior substitutes!