A Word Study from the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament
By Billy Strother
Truth, these days, is all too often described as intangible or relative. At the altar of tolerance, people are coerced into unjust capitulation that “all truth claims are equal.”
At the end of Jesus’ public trial, Pilate sought to confirm that Jesus committed the crime of political insurrection against the Roman state.
He said to Jesus, “You are a king, then.”
Jesus replied, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37).
Pilate, caught in a political quagmire, settled for expediency. His final words to Jesus, before turning him over for flogging and crucifixion, were cynical and rhetorical “What is truth?”
In July 2022, Gallup reported, “A record-low 20 percent of Americans now say the Bible is the literal word of God, down from 24 percent the last time the question was asked in 2017, and half of what it was at its high points in 1980 and 1984.”
About 58 percent of Americans agree that the Bible is the Word of God, but that not everything in it should be taken literally. The view of the Bible as truth is corroding at an alarming pace, even for those involved in churches.
At what cost do we relinquish the faith and practice of biblical truth so that others might consider us more tolerant? Eternity is at stake. For church leaders, the slippery slope of conceding the territory of biblical truth to cultural truth will result in eternally lost lives. Congregational leaders, adult teachers, children’s teachers, small-group leaders . . . anyone who serves in the church is far too valuable to withhold God’s truth from them. As Christians, giving ground on biblical truth to curry social favor results in spiritual compromise, neglect of faithfulness, and eventually the weakening of our witness and our walk.
“My truth” is a popular phrase today. It simply is a way of saying, “I am going to do what is right in my own eyes.” Biblical truth is commonly exchanged for a flexible fantasy of ever-changing truth that is dependent on changing circumstances and emotions. Our definition of truth becomes the intellectual, moral, and spiritual scaffolding that shapes our ethics and daily actions. Our version of truth shapes us daily and eternally.
Multiple Hebrew and Greek words are translated as truth in English Bible translations, but the Old and New Testaments independently employ one word for truth over all others. In each case, it’s a different word.
OLD TESTAMENT TRUTH (Emet)
The primary word for truth (found 127 times) in the Hebrew Old Testament is emet. The word conveys not just the meaning of a body of truth, but a body of truth that shapes the practice of daily living. Emet may be considered in translation as not only truth, but faithfulness, fidelity, integrity, sincerity, authenticity, and honesty. Emet is a lived body of beliefs, not a simple list of knowledgeable points. What one believes may be deduced and proven from how one lives, rather than simply what one professes.
Truth is lived out. What we believe to be true is manifested in our daily living. David wrote, “Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name” (Psalm 86:11). The Psalms portray truth as a body of belief impacting our daily living. God’s truth may be taught and caught. We should model truth in real life. “Guide me in your truth and teach me,” Psalm 25:5 says, “for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.”
Lived truth shapes us as well as those whose lives we touch. Proverbs 14:25 says, “A truthful witness saves lives, but a false witness is deceitful.” How we live bears witness to the truth we claim to believe. How we live out truth may draw others to Christ; however, if our mouths profess one truth and yet we live out a lesser truth, this “false witness” may deter others from seeing Jesus.
Embedding God’s truth in mind and heart does not happen by accident. To grow, we must spend time focusing on holy writ. “I lift up my hands to your commands, which I love, and I meditate on your decrees” (Psalm 119:48). Loving the Word and meditating on it require a plan and follow-through to hear, understand, and live out the truth we discover in the Bible.
NEW TESTAMENT TRUTH (Aletheia)
In the Greek New Testament, the primary word for truth (found about 110 times in various forms) is aletheia, which primarily means “that which is true, pure from all error or falsehood”; the word may also mean “conduct conformed to a body of that which is believed to be true.”
A preferred theme in John’s Gospel is that Jesus embodies the truth. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus plainly stated, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Therefore, in Christ, we see the fullness of a life surrendered to the whole truth of God. Jesus was not only a moral example, but an expressly truthful example to be spiritually imitated. John recorded Jesus’ prayer connecting the process of us growing in holiness with truth. Jesus asked the Father, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).
In Romans, Paul described a tragic exchange that is all too common in our own culture. He wrote, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). The process of growing spiritually in Christ is reciprocal—the more we exchange our false truths (lies) for the truth of God, the greater our spiritual growth and health, and the greater spiritual impact we will have on others, including family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and persons we have yet to meet.
For Paul, the love of the truth of God leads to and affirms salvation (2 Thessalonians 2:10). If one loves the truth of God, then one will live the truth of God. The choice is ever on the horizon. Living God’s truth is a daily challenge; temptation always exists to supplant God’s truth with a more convenient truth in our lives. Paul cautioned the young evangelist Timothy, “They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:4). Such is ever the potential pitfall—to supplant God’s truth for the adoption of new cultural myths. We need not worry so much about others, but we should focus on our own faithfulness to God’s truth lived in our lives. We can definitely wander away from truth (James 5:19). Though we fail, Peter gives us hope in living out God’s truth. Readopting and living God’s truth in the forgiveness of Jesus, even after failure, purifies us when we begin anew to obey God’s truth (1 Peter 1:22).
How might we measure our faithfulness to living God’s truth? Perhaps the more we live and look like Jesus, the more we may be in danger of being crucified. The apostle John outlined a way to measure ourselves: “If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth” (1 John 1:6). The converse is true as well: If we claim to have fellowship with Jesus and walk in the light, we live by the truth.
As we study select references to the two primary words for truth in the Old and New Testaments, a pattern develops. God’s truth is . . .
- Protective (Psalm 40:11)
- Instructive (Psalm 25:5; 86:11; Luke 20:21)
- Illuminating (Psalm 43:3)
- Codified (Daniel 10:21; John 17:17; Colossians 1:15)
- Salvific (Proverbs 14:25)
- Liberating (John 8:32)
- Incarnate (John 1:14, 17; 14:6)
- Strengthening (John 17:17)
- Knowable (1 John 2:21)
- Eternal (2 John 2)
We are beings of free will. We are free to choose to live our own shifting relative truth, which will cause us to become broken, twisted, and regretful. Or we can choose to live God’s truth, thus transforming us into the likeness of Jesus; if we do this, we will live an abundant life now and eternally, which God purposes for us. The benefit of living God’s truth is we need not guess and then trust ourselves. We trust God, in Christ, when we live committed to biblical truth.
In May 1984, I was a newly minted graduate of Cincinnati Christian University’s undergraduate program with a double major in Bible and ministry. That August, I started an MDiv program at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville I went from a grounded, conservative, and small Stone-Campbell Bible college to a large seminary in the midst of a theological “war” on what was biblical truth. Faculty, staff, administrators, trustees, and even SBTS’s new president declared sides. The battle was over the Bible . . . whether true in historicity and as an authoritative guide for all faith and practice, and whether its clear meaning and claims were undeniably true.
I was quickly swamped with a need for grounding in clarity. Those days were soulfully disrupting and disturbing. A well-known preacher and scholar was invited to preach in chapel. The preacher, Dr. E. V. Hill, gave a gift not only to me that day, but to many others in attendance. Hill spoke of the battle for the Bible. He then gave us advice that continues to guide me in my own studies, faith, and practice. To a chapel full of scholars, guests, students, and leaders in crisis, Hill preached, “My grandmother told me, and I advise you to hear and live these words, ‘When it comes to the Bible, don’t adjust it; trust it!’”
We live in an age when most people conceive of truth as subjective, an ever-changing consensual cultural construct that shifts with passage of time and the winds of faddish social favor. But, as Christians, there is a truth to which we may surrender—a truth that will shape us, guide us, preserve and strengthen us not only to eternal life, but through a life worth living now. That eternal and unchanging truth is plainly stated, implied, taught, and exampled in the history, poetry, songs, prophecies, doctrines, and stories in the 66 books we call the Bible.
When it comes to the Bible, “Don’t adjust it; trust it!”
Billy Strother, PhD, serves as dean of graduate studies and as professor of preaching, New Testament, and leadership with Central Christian College of the Bible, Moberly, Missouri.