“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . . He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” (John 1)
My dear child in the Lord,
As you grow older, you will probably hear some people say, “What is truth?” (Like Pilate did in John 18) They might say, “How can you tell me what’s truly good? There is no truth!” or something silly like that.
I told you before, God is the definition of true good. He’s the author and creator of everything. He made the sun, so He knows what the sun truly is. He made tiny subatomic particles, so He knows what those are and how they work. And He made you, so He knows what you truly are too. So of course God is the one who knows what true good is. But this goes for truth in general too.
So we know the answer to Pilate’s question: “Your word is truth.” That’s what Jesus says to God the Father (John 17). “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8).
So God’s Word is truth, and abiding in the Word is how we know the truth. God’s Word will teach you what you need to know. Jesus will teach you what you need to know. So listen to Him. Great!
“But but but!” someone might say, “How do I know what Jesus means when He says something? People misunderstand each other all the time!” It’s true, people do misunderstand each other a lot. Once, when I was a very small boy, I was at a party at someone else’s house. I was playing on the floor with some of the other kids who were there. We were playing with some toys they had at the house. One of the kids handed me a toy he had been playing with and said, “Here, you can have this,” and then he walked off to do something else. My eyes grew wide. I thought to myself, “He just gave me this toy and said that it was mine! All mine! I can take it home and play with it forever!” But later, when I and my parents were walking back to the car, my mom noticed I was taking the toy with me, and she promptly scolded me and told me to return it. I did as she asked, but I was very upset at the injustice—the toy was a present, or so I thought. I had the right to take it home! Of course, I know better now, as my mom knew then, that it wasn’t really meant to be a present. When the other boy said, “You can have this,” he wasn’t saying I could take it home. He just meant he was done playing with it for the moment, and I could play with it for a little while. (Actually, I don’t think that other boy even lived there, so it wasn’t even his toy to give to me.) So what was my problem in this story? I was listening to the other boy, and faithfully doing what he said, or so I thought. But I was still wrong. I misunderstood what he was telling me.
If we can misunderstand words like that, how do we know the truth from God’s Word, or know anything for that matter? How do we even know what words mean? When a person talks to you, they use words. Are you sure you can know what they are trying to tell you? Why should any words be any different to you from my justice canned probably chicken splat at 3am in petunia? (That made sense, right? Or did that sound like foolishness?)
Some people don’t think you can really know anything. They might say that, for all you can know, nothing you hear or see in the world can be trusted, not even your own senses, and especially not anything anyone else ever tells you. They might say that anything you can ever know is just in your head, and if the knowledge in your head is different from the knowledge in someone else’s head, who’s to say that their knowledge is more accurate than yours? Who’s to say that anyone’s knowledge is accurate?
But by their own words, these people know nothing. That’s basically what they say. And for them, it is kind of true. They aren’t willing to trust anything or anyone. And if they aren’t willing to trust or listen to anything or anyone, if they truly aren’t going to let any source of knowledge fill their heads, then it would be impossible for them to ever learn or know anything! (Though, they obviously must have gotten the idea that they shouldn’t trust anything by using knowledge that they received from somewhere. . .)
Some people do approach the Bible this way, even people who consider themselves Christian. A friend of mine in college studied how to make computers understand human language. He often liked to talk about how “words never transmit meaning.” He would say, “It’s up to the hearer to construct a meaning from what comes into his ears.” It was very sad, though, how he applied his ideas. He didn’t believe anyone could really find truth in the Bible. He believed the Bible was God’s Word, but he didn’t think he could trust words. Instead, he believed people have to construct their own ideas inside themselves to find God’s truth.
You see, my friend believed that listening to God meant that he should read the words God gave in the Bible, and then reshape and replace the words there with the ideas he felt in his heart. He told me he believed that it was impossible for him to get the intended meaning from reading the written Bible, so he needed to find the intended meaning from his heart. He believed that God sent His Holy Spirit to him directly to move his heart to come up with truths and ideas and words, even if those words seem to say very different things from what God’s written Word says. Once, I tried to tell him about the truth of God’s written Word, and he told me, “You shouldn’t be so inconsiderate, speaking as if what you say is true. I respect you by simply stating that what I believe is what I believe.” He was offended because I said that God’s Word had a definite meaning that my friend could know. He was offended, because if that was true, then that meant that he could be wrong in the ideas he had made up for himself. It meant that he could be wrong in how he defined good and truth for himself.
Now, my friend was right about something. Words do not send meaning directly into your head when you hear them. If somebody spoke to me in Chinese (which I don’t understand), then no matter how much they spoke, no knowledge or meaning of what they were trying to say would come into my head. I would have to be trained in Chinese first, or else it would always sound like foolishness to me, just like my English would probably sound like foolishness to someone who only knew Chinese. You couldn’t understand a Chinese Bible unless you understood the language. You couldn’t understand an English Bible unless you understood the language.
Similarly, if I have a conversation with my friend (in English) about the Bible, I might say words that make perfect sense to me, but he might not understand the meaning I intend to convey. I might say the words, “Law and Gospel,” but these might sound foolish to him because he thinks of different meanings for these words than I think of. He might be missing the knowledge to understand what I mean by my English words just as I am missing the knowledge to understand Chinese.
If I wanted to understand Chinese, I’d need to learn Chinese words. I’d need to understand what Chinese speakers mean by those words. I’d need to be taught Chinese the way you and I have been taught English. And before my friend could understand what I mean by “Law and Gospel,” I might need to teach him what I mean by those words. I couldn’t give him the meaning by transmitting it directly into his brain or his heart. I would have to teach him.
The same goes for reading the Bible. God speaks to us using written and spoken words. And that means we have to be taught what words mean. We have to trust human teachers to tell us what words mean.
“Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’. . . And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch. . . and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over and join this chariot.’ So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ . . . Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’” (Acts 8)
God doesn’t just telepathically communicate with every person. He doesn’t mind-control you to make you have the ideas He wants to communicate. He speaks words into your ears, and asks you to listen. He asks you to know Him willingly by faith in His Word. God spoke to Philip using actual words, not just feelings. The Ethiopian eunuch read God’s written Word in Isaiah. What did God do when he didn’t understand it? Did God telepathically send him the right meaning? No, God sent him a teacher, Philip. And how did Philip explain Isaiah’s words? He talked about Jesus.
Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also” (John 14). That’s pretty definite. The Father’s words have a definite meaning, and knowing that meaning is not something I receive directly inside myself—it’s something I receive in Jesus! Jesus is the Word.
The Scriptures are about Jesus. Remember what Jesus said to the disciples on the road to Emmaus? “He said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24).
God teaches us truth using the Scriptures, His Word. Jesus is the Word and Jesus is what God’s Word is about. God doesn’t want us to rely on our own hearts. He wants us to rely on Jesus. If we want to understand God’s truth, like the Ethiopian eunuch did, we look to Jesus. God sent Jesus to be our true human teacher. His words are the Word of the Father who sent him.
“And Jesus cried out and said, ‘Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.’” (John 12)
So how do we come to understand Jesus’ words when we don’t already know how? Do we have to wait for someone to come up to us on the road and explain it to us?
Do you remember learning English? Do you remember what it was like when you didn’t know any English words at all? (People don’t usually remember back that far.) How did you come to learn English? When you were an infant, when your head had very little knowledge in it, did you choose what language you would learn? I certainly did not! I had no choice in the matter! (How could I even know what “English” was before I learned to speak?) So how did I learn English? Did my parents speak and instantly transmit their language directly into my head? No, my parents patiently taught me as they raised me. As their child, I was their disciple, and as their disciple I absorbed their language just from them using it around me and explaining what things meant when I didn’t understand. My knowledge and use of English was shaped by the way it was and is used in my earthly father’s house. In other words, I inherited my father’s words. With the faith of a child, my understanding and language conformed to my father’s understanding and language. I learned the way I speak and think about words by listening to my father’s words. It wasn’t something I did intentionally. I just learned English because I was my father’s child, and I listened to him. I learned English words from my father even when I knew absolutely no words to start with. If my parents were to adopt a six-year-old daughter who had been raised speaking Chinese and not English, she would probably eventually learn the English we speak in our family in the same way. Even though she would have been transferred into our house from the outside, she would learn to speak and understand our words by the same discipleship and by the same childlike faith that I used to learn the words of my adopted father. She would learn to speak the same words as her brothers and sisters.
We as Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ. The way you learned to understand English as an infant from your earthly father is the same way you learn to understand the Word of our heavenly Father. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3). That’s how you know the truth. As God’s child, you let His Word shape your words and your understanding as you read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it.
You could get your ideas about truth from all sorts of sources. You could get them from God. You could get them from the devil, or anyone else who wants to define good and evil differently than God does. Whoever you listen to in order to define how you understand words, that’s who you also listen to in order to define what you believe is truth. So listen to Christ. “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1). His Word is truth because He is the Word that defines what all of creation actually is. He is the Creator. We know that if my understanding of words, the world, or truth disagrees with the understanding defined by the Creator of what is true, my understanding is wrong. That means that for me to know the truth, to understand and speak about the world the way Jesus speaks about—and defines—the world, I must be His disciple. I must let my knowledge, my understanding, and my words be defined and shaped by Him and His Word. Like we read earlier, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth.”
God’s Word is written for you in Scripture. You can learn what it means by being exposed to it richly, just like you learned your first language. You can learn what one part of Scripture means by checking other parts, just like you learned new English words from your parents by asking them (with words) what those words meant. And you learn God’s Word through teachers too. You might still misunderstand the Bible from time to time as you learn the Word, just like I misunderstood the other boy when he gave me the toy. But thankfully, I had my mom there to correct me and teach me. You also have your parents, you have your pastors, and as best as I’m able to help, you have me too. God gives you people like us to be your human teachers of His Word. And we are only good teachers of truth if the Word we pass on to you is Christ’s, not just our own. None of us are perfect—we’re all still learning too. But God’s Word is perfect and it is knowable. God sent His Son into the world so that we could know it. And what we have learned, we pass on to you.
“And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; . . . giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. . . . And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. . . . according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known.” (Colossians 1)
That’s where my friend in college missed the truth. He knew that words were something that different people could understand in different ways, but he didn’t understand that words and their meanings are always things that we learn by having others pass them on to us. “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10). My friend never got his knowledge of English just from his heart. It was first passed on to him by his parents. You can’t get any knowledge without someone or something passing it on to you. So the real question is: who do you let pass knowledge and truth on to you?
Get truth from the source. Listen to Christ.
It’s important that we learn from our teachers rather than from telepathy. That’s how God designed us to learn. It’s important that we learn what has been passed down to us. We need translators even just to pass on to us God’s Word in a language that we can read. But Jesus must Himself be your first teacher. Ultimately, once you know a normal human language like English, you can read God’s Word for yourself. He’s the one who really knows the truth. Your teachers have to be accountable to Him, and to the plain Word He has left for us in Scripture. Good teachers teach you to find truth in God’s Word. So test the Scriptures always to be sure that what you listen to truly is what God’s Word says. Just like the Jews in Berea. “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed” (Acts 17). And translations really are good enough to do that. It’s always great to know the Word in its original languages. But you can search the Scriptures pretty well in English too.
And even as you read the Scriptures for yourself, listen to your pastors and those whom God has given authority to teach you. You do not come to God on your own, but are called and joined to Him through the body of Christ, which is His Church. “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4). And that includes your parents too. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’ Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6).
God’s Word with its true meaning is not something we get from or through our own hearts. God’s speech is not made from random sounds of foolishness so that we get to fill in the meaning ourselves. God’s Word is the Word that brought the order and design of our creation into being. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, . . . full of grace and truth. . . . He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1). And God’s words were written for you “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20).
Many people might believe in a different source of knowledge than Jesus. They may think that they, as created people, can define truth themselves. They may not believe there is truth at all. But real truth is the way the world actually is, as defined by its Creator, as spoken in His everlasting Word. You know the truth by abiding in the Word of Jesus Christ. Receive His Word, and let the Word dwell in you and define how you understand the world and what things mean.
Know and understand the truth by listening to Christ.
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
“And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
“Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. . . .
“Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made to us — eternal life.” (1 John 2)