In a very cynical moment, Edith Sitwell said, “The public will believe anything, so long as it is not founded on truth.” Sir Winston Churchill added his own contribution to the difficulties of facing truth: “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.” Mark Twain’s famous quip has a ring of authenticity to it: “A lie is halfway around the world before truth has its boots on.” But Mark Twain added a deeper evaluation of truth as well: “The history of our race, and each individual's experience, are sown thick with evidence that a truth is not hard to kill and that a lie told well is immortal.”
Every day we are being challenged as to how truth needs to be handled. Finding the truth is a difficult prospect in a world where covering our tracks is viewed as being far superior to facing responsibility. Noted Christian Apologist, Dr. Ravi Zacharias offers a brilliant comment after the Oxford English Dictionary recently announced that “Post-truth” is their 2016 “Word of the Year.” Zacharias said: “It is interesting that the media, which flirts with untruths, and the academy, which never hesitates to replace absolutes by postmodern relativism, have come together to give our culture a new word. Their explanation was not so much that they were coining a new word as that they were affirming a reality—a truth about the way we coddle the lie, the ultimate self-defeating statement.”
My initial search for “alternative facts” on Google yielded 222,000,000 hits, an amazing stat for a phrase only days old! The British Guardian reported that sales of George Orwell’s dystopian drama 1984 have soared after Kellyanne Conway, adviser to President Donald Trump, used the phrase “alternative facts” in an interview after the inauguration. As of Tuesday, the book was the sixth best-selling book on Amazon. “Alternative facts” have been considered synonymous with terms in Orwell’s 1949 book: “newspeak” and “doublethink.” In the book, Orwell writes that it “means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” Keep in mind that Conway is describing reality while Orwell penned a piece of fiction.
Truth can be manipulated, withheld, suppressed, ignored, but we know that at some point in time it will have to be faced. A husband snuck up the stairs quietly after being out to a bar. He looked in the bathroom mirror and bandaged the bumps and bruises he'd received in a fight earlier that night. He then proceeded to climb into bed, smiling at the thought that he'd pulled one over on his wife. When morning came, he opened his eyes and there stood his wife. "You were drinking last night weren't you?!" "No, honey," he said. "Well, if you weren't, then who put all the band-aids on the bathroom mirror?" Truth has a way of sneaking out.
The people of Jesus’ day had to face the arrival of “the Truth” in bodily form. Jesus delivered the truth of a new kingdom that the world was not quite ready for. In fact, they persecuted and killed the One who is the truth. In the course of preaching for more than 30 years I have made several stops in Matthew 13 for the parables of the kingdom of God. What preacher could neglect the parable of the sower, the pearl of great price, the buried treasure, the yeast or the net? In some recent study I became convinced that I missed something in the preamble to this amazing set of parables. Let’s read the passage after the first parable in Matthew 13:10-17: 10 The disciples came to him and asked, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?" 11 He replied, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables: "Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. 14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: "'You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 15 For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise, they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.' 16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.
I’d never seen it before, but Matthew 13 has a subtle message that Jesus altered His way of teaching people at this point in His ministry. Up till then He plainly taught the people and unfolded the message of the kingdom, but the change is noticeable to the people with whom He spent most of His time – the disciples. After the parable of the sower, they came to Him and questioned Him why his methodology had changed to teaching in parables. The text states it clearly. Jesus had reached a point where He knew that many people could not grasp or accept the kind of truth He came to deliver. The parables made it necessary for them to think deeply about what he said. The common scenes of the stories had a hidden spiritual meaning that had to be extracted by those who would be in His company for more than the loaves and the fishes. There were religious groupies in Jesus’ day who were only interested in the free lunch.
I never cease to be amazed at how valuable truth is as a commodity. Jesus revealed its sacred and precious nature when He said to His disciples: "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” Allow me to cut through the verbal maze here: The mysteries of God’s kingdom was a message reserved for the disciples, not for those who followed for all the wrong reasons. This may very well explain why some people can’t seem to grasp what God was doing in sending Jesus as the Saviour of the world. There are truths that have to be spiritually discerned. Human wisdom may be great, but it is infantile compared to the excellency of knowledge God dispenses to those who truly desire to know Jesus. Paul discovered that the intelligence of the Greco-Roman world could not appropriate the message of Christ. People adopt “alternative facts” to avoid the real facts.
Jesus related to His disciples just how privileged they were to be “in the know” concerning the power of the Gospel. But a hidden gospel defies our understanding of how God works. We’re told to go everywhere, like the Early Church, and preach the Gospel. That the Gospel is shared with us and we understand it is a major piece of evidence that the Holy Spirit has done a work in our life. More than human intelligence is at work when we grasp who Christ is. Yet that knowledge is not a matter of pride. Rather, it underlines a clear principle Jesus articulates in this passage of Scripture. Let me illustrate it with a coupon I received recently from a major retailer. The coupon offered me a significant discount on any item and I had an item in mind. I believed in the coupon; I knew it had value, but I failed to act within the appointed time. I was four days too late! Our common expression for this type of situation is “use it or lose it!” I lost it.
I believe there are well-meaning people who feel they know the Gospel. They have a grasp of the truth and its power, but it’s something that is largely inactive. It’s tucked away for a time of greater convenience. Can we grasp what Jesus is saying? Truth that is not acted upon will be lost to us. It applies to countries and churches and individuals and the examples are too numerous to count. When Jesus chose His disciples, he chose men and women whose hearts were ready to act upon the truth He came to deliver. They came out of many walks of life with different ideologies with only one common thread to unite them – they believed in Jesus and they followed when they were called! On the other side of the equation, there’s a huge price to pay for neglecting or rejecting the truth.
The history of the Early Church runs parallel with the later history of the Roman Empire. Jesus was born into a Roman colony. Paul was a Roman citizen and traveled Roman roads to his various preaching points. He was later martyred by Emperor Nero after being escorted to Rome by a centurion named Julius. Jesus was tried by Pontius Pilate the Roman governor and put to death by the Roman method of execution, crucifixion. Many of the apostles died at the hands of the Roman government, among them Peter who was crucified upside down. Shortly after the death of Paul, persecution broke out and continued in waves for more than 200 years. In that time, history has been unable to record just how many were killed, but the extreme prejudice and unspeakable brutality has been preserved by those who chronicled the bloodied pathway of the Church of Jesus Christ.
My point is not to revisit the atrocities committed in the arena and on the frontiers of the Empire. Rather, it is to highlight the fact that truth was presented first by Christ and then by the apostles and Church fathers and by other generations of Christians. With rare exception until the fourth century Rome slaughtered Christians and suppressed the truth. When the barbarian hordes swept in from the northern steppes, Rome was already so decayed from within, so politically and morally corrupt that the iron legions fell like freshly-mown grass. The Empire subjected the Christians to wild beasts and fire and sword, but were no match for the ferocious warriors who cared less for the philosophy, the democracy or the artistry of the Caesars and their imperialism. It matters how we handle truth!
Why do we feel that we can be selective about which truths we can accept and just brush off the rest? If the truth was hidden from people in Jesus day, it was hidden because they refused the responsibility of living in tune with its demands. We have taken sacred Scriptures and time-honoured commands of God and turned them into options. It is no longer a matter of the enemy being at the gate – the enemy is inside and truth is quickly becoming a victim. The Christian world is fragmenting over issues of truth and individual lives are coming apart for the same reasons. Our beliefs about truth are revealing in North American society. More than two-thirds of people believe there is no absolute truth which means we cannot be certain. These people believe two people can look at the same thing in different ways and whatever seems right for that person is right and true. For younger people, according to Christianity Today, the “absolute truth” scenario is even scarier. For the population between 18 and 25 more than three-quarters of people do not believe in absolute truth. And if they don’t, doesn’t this mean they’ve chosen “alternative facts”? Doesn’t it support the contention that we are living in a “post-truth” society? This kind of attitude has serious repercussions for establishing the truth of God’s word or the realities of moral living.
Here’s the way this perspective fleshes out when it became a study by George Barna. Even those who claim to be Born Again are not necessarily firmly grounded in the truths of the Bible. In his book, now several years old, which provides a statistical analysis of religious beliefs in America, George Barna cites several fascinating statistics which are based on a national survey. In chapter four he states, "The Devil, or Satan, is not a living being but is a symbol of evil." Then asking that segment of his survey respondents who have identified themselves at being Born Again, he states, "Do you agree strongly, agree somewhat, disagree somewhat, or disagree strongly with that statement?" The Born Again population reply with 32 percent agreeing strongly, 11 percent agreeing somewhat and 5 percent did not know. Thus, of the total number responding, 48 percent either agreed that Satan is only symbolic or did not know!
Should it then be surprising that a few pages later Barna would receive some very startling responses? His next question, "Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and others all pray to the same God, even though they use different names for that God." Again, the respondents were asked to agree strongly, agree somewhat, disagree somewhat or disagree strongly. Of that population surveyed who identified themselves as Born Again, 30 percent agreed strongly, 18 percent agreed somewhat and 12 percent did not know. That is a total of 60 percent! (What Americans Believe, pp. 206-212). If you take the time to check, you’ll find the stats have worsened!
Jesus highlighted a precedent for the days when the truth would be refused. He rooted His own experience in Isaiah’s record that people would not believe their eyes, their ears or the word of God which was being driven into their hearts. More than 700 years previously there was spiritual dullness and willing disobedience. God cut them off from the truth and gave them to the Babylonian Empire for 70 years of disciplinary captivity. The truth of Jesus ministry is that God’s Word only penetrates the hearts of those who are willing to accept it. That’s what set the disciples apart – they chose to believe, Jesus saw it and unveiled the parables to them privately. There may be people today that the truth lives all around them, but they won’t cultivate the capacity to hear and obey. You and I will always have to speak to our culture through the proclamation of biblical truth or we will simply parrot the “fake news” of the popular culture.
How sad it must have been for Jesus to view His world through a lens that revealed people according to their response to the truth. The rich young ruler walked away from the Lord’s counsel and hoped that his possessions would satisfy his empty soul. Conviction seared its way into the heart of Judas, but his politics was more important than his loyalty to the Lord who had called him to follow. Jesus exposed the false piety of the religious elite of his day and rather than face their hypocrisy and self-righteousness, they hated the messenger who saw beyond their rules and their religious facades. How different Peter was – impetuous, outspoken, brash – yet when Jesus performed a miracle, his reaction was so honest: “Lord, depart from me for I am a sinful man!” Peter knew the truth about himself and the truth of who Jesus was. He faced both realities and God turned him into a petros – a rock of solid faith!
Jesus’ words to His disciples as He unfolded the principles of the Kingdom must have been quite a reality check. Perhaps they laboured under the illusion that people would listen to them because they were the followers of Jesus. How their dreams must have been shattered when Jesus talked about how difficult it would be to make His generation understand God’s mission and their purpose. It would be easy to reason that if they refused to listen to the Messiah, how could they hope people would listen to them?
What an age we live in! If someone were to discover a cure for cancer, the world would embrace that research and hopefully implement treatment and healing on a global scale. The same is true for any major disease. We have been so swift to embrace insulin and polio vaccine and smallpox inoculation. We take our injections and our pills for every ailment we can possibly treat. We do it based on the assumption that the prescription is a true cure or at least a treatment. How irrational would it be if we denied the obvious benefit of many of the cures that are out there for our benefit? Yet people daily refuse the benefits delivered by Jesus Christ and depend on their own remedies for their sins and their problems. How odd that people grasp the “alternative facts” and reject the testimony of the Spirit of God who is sent to declare the truth of Christ.
What will we do with the truth? God’s truth is not something for academic study or the fodder for a good debate. It is living and capable of restoring our relationship with God. In order for truth to be good for us, it has to be acted upon. If it is not we may live like the multitudes in Jesus’ day, right on the fringes of salvation, but never fully comprehending God’s grace. As disciples we have a rare privilege. Jesus said: “Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” If you have embraced God’s truth in Christ, you have rejected the “alternative facts” and experienced the only truth that sets us free!