If … then.
If you continue in my word… then are you my disciples indeed… and you shall know the truth… and the truth shall make you free.
If… then… and then… and then.
Jesus answered, “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.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” [John 18:37-38]
Nobel prize-winning British playwright Harold Pinter neatly summed up what has become known as post-modernism when he wrote this in 1958:
There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false. [http://www.haroldpinter.org/home/index. shtml]
As followers of Jesus Christ, we must necessarily reject that idea.
Of course, as soon as I say that, we all know that using words like “must” and “necessarily” and “reject” raises a lot of hackles in the twenty-first century church. Must we really take a united stand on an entirely human philosophy? It is necessary for all Christians to come down on the same side of this particular topic? Does Christianity require that we deny what much of the world says is the case?
Yes. Truth exists.
The people in this room know me well. You know that I am not a fundamentalist, not a literalist, not a reactionary purveyor of my own pet interpretations. At least, I hope you know that. I hope you know that I am steeped in the idea of debate, the premise that there are multiple sides to virtually every question and that the marketplace of ideas allows and indeed requires that we freely hear and evaluate a multiplicity of views. I hope that you don’t paint me as narrow-minded.
But I don’t think it makes one narrow-minded to claim and defend the proposition that there is truth, that some things are true and some things are not. And I am in good company when I proclaim to you that there is truth that can set us free.
Many would probably not intentionally choose to wear the label post-modernist or moral relativist, but in fact they should own these names. They trumpet – or at least live according to – the idea that we make and find our own truth, that what is right and wrong varies with circumstances, that the ends justify almost any means. Politics is but one example, and it is too easy a target, so let’s stay out of that. What about how we talk to each other? Again, too easy a target.
I want to focus on what we profess to know. As I have said before from this pulpit, too many Christians gravitate away from declaring knowledge of the truth, choosing instead to talk about what they prefer, how they “read it,” what “makes sense” to them.
Jesus is not shy about what we can, do, and will know, telling His disciples, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” [Matthew 13:11] and “If anyone's will is to do God's will, he will know whether the teaching is from God.” [John 7:17] Neither does Paul back away, writing to the church that we are enriched by the grace of Jesus in all knowledge [1 Corinthians 1:5] and that, “In Him we have … the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us in all wisdom and insight, making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ.” [Ephesians 1:7-9] John tells us that Jesus has made God known. [John 1:18] The concept of clarity or insight or knowledge as one of the key attributes of faith is fundamental, if you will allow me to use that word.
Now, let me give a couple of obligatory caveats. Yes, we see through a glass darkly. [1 Corinthians 13:12] We do not know now what we shall know, nor do we see many things clearly. God works in mystery, and much of it is beyond our ken. I accept and believe, indeed I embrace, the mystery of God.
And yes, far too many – on both ends of the spectrum – abuse this idea of knowledge, claiming to know all the keys and bashing those who disagree with them over the head with their own interpretation. Condemnation, schism, radical fundamentalism on one side, and vicious anti-religiosity on the other arise as a result.
But just because our knowledge is not perfect does not mean that we cannot know the truth. And just because some claim to know more than they do and are rude about it does not mean that we should not seek to know the truth.
That said, there is another huge caveat here. That caveat is the “how.” How is it that we come to know the truth?
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” You have heard that verse 32 many times. It is plastered on courthouses where I practice. Those of us of a certain age sang Ragan Courtney’s lyrics in “Celebrate Life” to Buryl Red’s catchy piano and guitar riffs and may not have thought about how we know the truth that sets us free. We just understood that we were supposed to know the truth and that we were made free. And that music helped us. I am not knocking it. It was great as far as it went.
But many never take it any further. Many never go back to verse 31.
Mathematics and logic both teach us about what are called “if/then” statements, conditional hypotheses where a variable depends on the given, where the conclusion is shaped by a hypothetical. Computer languages have borrowed and capitalized on the idea, as many programs run on if/then logic. We can say, “If you get grades, you will get into a good college.” “If you get good grades” is the hypothetical, or the given. “You will get into a good college” is the conclusion, or the variable. The conclusion depends on the truth of the conditional statement’s logic. If you do not get good grades, presumably you will not get into a good college. Of course, perhaps you are a good athlete or musician, or maybe you are a legacy, or conceivably your parents give a lot of money, or (these days) possibly your family has conspired illegally to get you admitted. The point is that the hypothesis may or may not be correct. It may well be that you can get into a good college with rotten grades. That means the “if/then” statement is illogical.
Sometimes, the actual logic of the world changes. Once upon a time, Europeans would declare with all sincerity that if you sail west far enough, then you will reach the end of the world, and you might just sail right on off the edge. That conclusion was simply wrong, but it took exploration and science and simple experience to disprove it (at least for most people). One of the textbook examples used for decades in universities is this simple construct: If 50% of the population of a city are male, then the other 50% of the people are female. That logic seems impeccable to many of us, yet in today’s world, we know that this statement is routinely rejected, not because the hypothesis is wrong but rather because the conclusion is rebuffed. If you believe that there are more than two genders, then this if/then statement does not make sense.
So, an if/then statement can be wrong if the initial hypothesis is wrong or incomplete or if the logic that leads to the conclusion is faulty or counter to real-life experience. Otherwise, the conclusion depends on the condition.
So back to the big caveat on the truth shall set you free. The “how” caveat. The if/then hypothesis. God’s logic is not wrong. It is not disproved by experience, and it is not subject to changing cultural whims. So the conclusion, that we will know the truth that makes us free, is conditioned on the if statement.
If you continue in my word, then are you my disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.
The hypothetical … the condition … the given here is that we continue in the Word of Christ. Please do not hear me as saying that we can lose our salvation if we do not continue, because that is not at all the point. Jesus is not giving a lesson here on how to be saved. Jesus is speaking to people who already believe; their salvation is not the issue here. Don’t get sidetracked by that.
We need to explore the idea of “continuing in the Word,” because in our vocabulary of the 21st century church, “the Word” typically means the Bible. And I believe that reading and studying the Bible are a huge part of what Jesus is saying here. God speaks to us through the Bible, and scripture is the written Word of God. When anyone – whether it is a preacher or a deacon or a long-time churchgoer or a televangelist or a charlatan – starts telling me what is allegedly spiritual truth and cannot back up the statement with scripture, I start running. And I don’t mean having a few pet prooftexts. I mean a systematic understanding of scripture, cover to cover. If you continue in the Word, you learn, and you gain an understanding. Only then do you begin to know the truth.
I hope you are involved in daily Bible study. Whether you are reading the Bible through or simply spending time with a few verses, whether you are using a devotional guide or reading on your own, I hope you are continuing in the written Word of God. I hope you have not decided either that daily Bible study is irrelevant or that you read it once a few decades ago and so you know it. My experience – and the experience of many others in this room – leads us to testify that no matter how many times you read the Bible, and no matter how well you think you have mastered it, continuing study yields multiple benefits and new understandings, and it just makes life better. Ask some others in here if you don’t believe me. Mysterious as it sounds, God speaks through His written word to those willing to listen.
There is a reason we use so much scripture in our worship services here. Believing that scripture is true and authoritative does not make you a fundamentalist; or if it does, then I guess I need to rethink the label I want to wear. All scripture is inspired, God-breathed, and useful for teaching. [2 Timothy 3:16] If you continue in the Word, then are you Jesus’s disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth.
But there is more to this condition, to this “if” statement. If you continue in my Word…
What else can it mean to continue in the Word? There was no Bible – at least as we know it – at the time Jesus said these words, so this verse has to mean more than reading and studying scripture. John tells us in His gospel that the Word became flesh [John 1:14] and in Revelation that the rider on the white horse is named “the Word of God.” [Revelation 19:13] When Jesus tells His listeners that to be disciples they must continue in His Word, He is talking about relationship with Him. While the King James and the New American Standard translations use the word continue that I have been using – “if you continue in my word,” the NIV translates verse 31 “if you hold to my teachings,” and the English Standard Version that I read earlier uses the word “abide.”
Jesus is talking about abiding and obeying, about living in Him and holding to His teachings. If you want to be set free, then you need to know the truth; and if you want to know the truth, you need to be Christ’s disciple; and if you want to be Christ’s disciple, you must continue, must hold to, must abide in the Word, who was made flesh and dwelt among us, who will ride in on the white horse at the end of time and take us home.
How are you doing with that? How is your daily relationship with the Living Word of God?
I have hundreds of people who are called my “friends” on Facebook. I speak to some of them weekly if not daily. There are some who are far away, and I may not speak to them often, but when I do, we can pick up right where we left off. And then there are some whom I might not recognize today if I met them on the street – I knew them somewhere along the way and accepted their friend request, but I have no ongoing real relationship with them.
At various times, I have met Baylor basketball coach Scott Drew, Senator John Cornyn, the late actor who played Hopalong Cassidy, and Alana de le Garza, who used to be on “Law and Order;” but I don’t know any of them, don’t have a relationship with them. They could not pick me out of a lineup or even recognize my name.
I am afraid that is what too many churchgoers mean when they say they know Jesus. They met Him once. They may or may not have had a real experience with Him back in the day, but they have spoken to Him rarely if ever since then. They click “like” on some scriptural Facebook posts and acknowledge His birthday at Christmas time… and they might not know Him if they met Him on the street.
Abiding in the Word does not mean that you met Jesus once, that you were baptized, or even that you claim Christ as Savior. Abiding, continuing in the Word, comes after salvation. There are many baby Christians – Paul calls them “carnal Christians” or “people of the flesh” or “worldly Christians” or “infants” [1 Corinthians 3:1-2] – who have been converted but have never matured. They are not truly disciples, and they do not have much of a taste of the truth. I am not judging anyone’s salvation here; I am talking about what there is beyond salvation that is offered to those who would become disciples indeed.
I don’t think we all want to become disciples, and I think that is a tragedy. I think too many of us are satisfied with being labeled as “those who believe.” Take another look at verse 31 – Jesus is speaking to believers. This passage about what is possible ahead for those willing to continue further is for “those who believed.” They are already going to heaven. When He says, “The truth shall set you free,” He is offering something more, something in addition, something conditioned by an if/then statement in which the hypothetical is whether or not they will continue in His Word. This is beyond freedom from hell; this is freedom from their traditions that keep them enslaved, relying on their heritage and the dictates of their political leaders rather than on the grace of God. When Jesus says four verses later that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” [John 8:36], He is offering release to those who are resting on claiming someone or something other than God as their Father. In fact, He tells them that they are acting as if the devil is their father. [John 8:44] He is walking and ministering in a world of legalism and judgmentalism. He has just saved the woman caught in adultery. His audience is not made up of bad people; still, He tells them that they are not yet of God, that they are influenced by evil, that they do not yet hear the words of God.
Do you get it? Great as it is, being saved is not the end. Believing in Jesus is the beginning. Jesus turns to believers and says, “Here is what’s next. Continue in my Word. Be my disciples.” Jesus offers us so much more. I stand in this pulpit and preach to Christians, to those whose eternal destiny is secure but whose tomorrow is in turmoil. The gospel is about more than just the sweet by and by. Jesus offers to them and to us freedom from what enslaves us, from what terrorizes us, from what burdens us. And this audience does not want to hear it. This chapter ends with them picking up the very rocks they had moments before intended for the adulteress and throwing them at Jesus. [John 8:59]
How are you doing with abiding? Jim preached a series of sermons about the fruit we bear that evidences our abiding. Do we hear the words of Jesus? Do we seek to be His disciples indeed, to know the truth? Or are we satisfied with our initial label as “those who believe?”
How are you doing with obedience, with holding to the teachings of Jesus?
If you are convinced you know the truth but it is not setting you free, perhaps you need to examine your if/then logic. Is what you believe to be the truth a result of your discipleship, which in turn flows from continuing in the Word of Christ?
If you continue in my Word, if you hold to my teaching, if you abide in my Word, then are you truly my disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
Today, I am to be ordained as a minister of the gospel. You know that my call is not as a full-time pastor. It is as a visible Christian in the world who takes the opportunity to preach and speak publicly as it becomes available. My call is about abiding, about obeying, and about preaching the truth.
And I cannot preach truth if I start with what I think is the truth. I have to start with the Word of Christ, the Word of God. That means I have to know what this book says — all of it, not just the verses I learned in BSU or Vacation Bible School or mission trips—and what it means. I have to spend time in it. And when I stand to speak to you or to any congregation, any truth I choose to share must spring from the Word in which I have continued.
It also means that I have to continue in His Word in other ways. In relationship. In obedience.
You are wasting your time if you come to hear an important, relevant, life-changing spiritual word from someone who is not truly a disciple of Jesus. You can hear a better oration by pulling up a TED Talk on the internet, and you don’t even have to leave your den. You can be more entertained from the stage or screen, more enthralled by a magic show or a concert, more educated by a lecture. No, you are looking for the truth, because you want to be set free, because you have read somewhere that when Jesus sets you free, then you are free indeed. And you cannot know the truth if it is not based on the Word, if it does not come from a disciple. And I cannot preach it if I am not one of those disciples, if I am not continuing in His Word. For only then will I help others continue in His Word.
Jesus said to those who had believed Him, “If you continue in my Word, then are you my disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.