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Why Foreign Missions? 20i. The Gospel According to Paul—Word Study: Alētheia and Alētheuō (Truth)

Why Foreign Missions? 20i. The Gospel According to Paul—Word Study: Alētheia and Alētheuō (Truth)

In addition to the words ‘Gospel,’ ‘Proclamation,’ ‘Word,’ ‘Witness,’ and ‘Mystery,’ the word ‘Truth’ (alētheia) is also used in Paul’s letters in reference to the Gospel.  A study of this word will round out my investigation of word studies into what the content of the Gospel was for Paul.  Some further discussion on the Gospel for Paul will follow this study.

The word ‘truth’ in Paul encompasses both the Gospel and related teaching.  It also encompasses true belief, true life, and true behaviour.  Truth is, moreover, personal, since it has to do with God himself.  In this regard, it is most clearly known in the Gospel, which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  To reject Jesus is to reject the truth; to accept Jesus is to receive salvation.  Again, this is not only a matter of accepting what should be believed about Jesus—the content of truth.  It is also to enter into a true life in Christ, which includes the ethical life of the believer.  It is related to the idea of ‘knowing God,’ which also covers the content of our convictions, our life experience, and our conduct.  Truth, then, is a very broad concept in Paul that includes the Gospel while also being a very specific and personal concept that is focussed on Jesus Christ.

Word Frequencies

The word appears one or more times in Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Acts.  It is a favourite word in John’s Gospel and letters, appearing 25 times in 20 verses in his Gospel and 20 times in 17 verses in the three epistles.  The ‘truth’ was already discussed in an earlier study on ‘Gospel’ in John.[1]

The noun, alētheia (truth), appears 110 times in 99 verses in the New Testament and 48 times in 45 verses in Paul’s letters.  As a verb, alētheuō, it is found twice in Paul (Gal. 4.16 and Eph. 4.15).  Two adjectives for ‘true’ are also used by Paul: ‘alēthēs is found 3 times (Rom. 3.4; Phl. 4.8; Tit. 1.13), and ‘alēthinos’ is found once (1 Th. 1.9).  This takes Paul’s total usage of terms for ‘truth’ to 54.  The word ‘truth’ is absent only in 1 Thessalonians and Philemon in Paul’s 13 letters, although not every use of the word in Paul’s other letters relates to the Gospel.  ‘Truth’ in Paul has already been noted briefly because the word is found with other ‘Gospel’ vocabulary.[2]  What follows is a more focussed study.

Truth and Knowing God

Truth is a notion that might be found without the word being present.  It has to do with having the right knowledge about God, and so a statement such as the following is worth considering to make this point:

For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you,  7 and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels  8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus (2 Th. 1.6-8).

Here, the Gospel, whose content and source is the Lord Jesus, is not simply to be believed but is to be obeyed.  It is, furthermore, a revelation of God.  The Gospel is knowledge of God through Jesus Christ, and it is an ethic requiring obedience.  To reject the Gospel is to reject the Truth, to reject knowing God, to reject obedience to what Jesus taught, and to reject his authority.  Thus, a future punishment will take place when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven.

This understanding of knowing God can be found in the Old Testament.  The phrase, ‘know God,’ is only found in Job 18.21, where it is said that the wicked do not know God.  Yet the notion of knowing God is frequently found in the Old Testament.  In fact, the mission Dei (mission of God) in the Old Testament can be summarized in terms of God revealing Himself to all nations through His people, Israel.  Redemption from slavery in Egypt is not merely liberation from slavery and oppression; it is firstly a liberation in order for God to make Israel His own people so that He can reveal His identity as YHWH to them (cf. Ex. 6.1-8).  Those outside of God’s people, idolaters, people who do not know God, as Isaiah says, will one day bow their knees and swear allegiance to YHWH (Is. 45.23). 

Moreover, not knowing God is to be separated from truth and walk in sinfulness.  Jeremiah says,

O LORD, do your eyes not look for truth? You have struck them, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to turn back.  4 Then I said, "These are only the poor, they have no sense; for they do not know the way of the LORD, the law of their God (Jer. 5.3-4).

Paul speaks of knowing God in several other passages.  That those who do not know God are outside the faith is not only stated in 2 Th. 1.6-8 but also in the following places:

Galatians 4:8-9   8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods.  9 Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?
1 Thessalonians 4:3-5  3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication;  4 that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor,  5 not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God….
1 Corinthians 1:21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.

In Romans 1.18, 25; 2.2, 8, 20, and 3.7, Paul discusses how Gentiles and Jews both deny the truth, which has to do with either acknowledging God or obeying Him.  In Rom. 15.8-9a, he says, ‘For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy….’  Truth is related to God’s revealing His mercy from the time of promises to the patriarchs to the fulfillment in Jesus Christ.  God reveals the truth about Himself as the God of mercy and faithfulness, and, by fulfilling His promises, He reveals Himself as truthful.  Indeed, Paul is concerned in Romans to defend God as true:

By no means! Let God be true (alēthēs) though every one were a liar, as it is written, "That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged" (Rom. 3.4).

The opposite of truth is either idolatry (Rom. 1.18, 25) or sinful actions (Rom. 2.8; 1 Cor. 5.7; 13.6), for truth is what one finds in the Law (Rom. 2.20).  Also, God judges according to truth (Rom. 2.2; 3.7).

The following passage in Titus connects the notion of truth (v. 14) with knowing God (v. 16).  Truth, or knowledge of God has both a content (what is believed) and is an ethic (how one lives):

Titus 1:13-16   13 That testimony is true. For this reason rebuke them sharply, so that they may become sound in the faith,  14 not paying attention to Jewish myths or to commandments of those who reject the truth15 To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure. Their very minds and consciences are corrupted.  16 They profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.

The connection between ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge of God’ is significant in a study of the Gospel.  It shows that the mission of God is a revelation of Himself, which is also a revelation of what is true.  While mission might be studied in terms of the plan of God for salvation, it might also be studied in terms of the knowledge of God for salvation.  The former emphasises God’s actions, the latter God’s identity.  The missio Dei (‘mission of God’) is both the plan of God and God’s making Himself known among the nations.  A passage in Colossians nicely draws together several of these themes:

You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel  6 that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God (Col. 1.5-6).

In this passage, (1) ‘truth’ and ‘Gospel’ are related; (2) they are to be ‘heard’ as they are a message that Paul is proclaiming; (3) they bear fruit (entail a changed life); (4) they expand in the world in the sense that proclamation is being made and people are accepting the word of truth; (5) the truth and the Gospel are about the grace of God.  Finally, (6) the plan of God and the knowledge of God are interrelated: to hear about the grace of God is to comprehend something about God.

Truth and the Gospel

The meaning of Truth as the Gospel can be found further (Col. 1.5-6 has already been mentioned) in the following passages in Paul.  This connection appears early in Paul’s writings—in Galatians—as well as in the later epistles.  ‘Truth’ can refer to the content of the Gospel, but it also goes beyond this as a reference to ‘true’ living—to true conduct and true existence.

Galatians 2:4-5   4 But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us--  5 we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you.
Galatians 2:14 But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?"
Galatians 4:16 Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth? (alētheuō, verbal form)
Galatians 5:7 You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth?
2 Corinthians 4:2 We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God's word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.
2 Corinthians 11:10 As the truth of Christ is in me, this boast of mine will not be silenced in the regions of Achaia.

A truly profound use of the word ‘truth’ for the Gospel is found in 2 Cor. 13, where it encompasses theological, ethical, and existential aspects that interconnect with one another.  In 2 Cor.13.8, Paul says, ‘For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.’  Theologically, Paul says that ‘Jesus Christ is in you’ (2 Cor. 13.5).  This points to an existential meaning as well: theology is not merely truth in the sense of a fact or a philosophical claim, it is a reality that alters existence.  Christ was ‘crucified in weakness, but lives in the power of God’ (2 Cor. 13.4).  An allusion to Christ’s death and resurrection in these verses entails the theological truth of the Gospel, and yet this truth translates into a truth about Christian existence: ‘He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful in you’ (2 Cor. 13.3).  For Paul’s missionary team, this means that they ‘rejoice when [they] are weak and you are strong’ (2 Cor. 13.9).  This existence in the crucified and resurrected Christ means both a cruciform mode of existence and a new way of living in the faith—a new ethic: ‘Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?-- unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test! (2 Cor. 13.5).

Use of the word ‘truth’ for the Gospel allows Paul to consider deception as its opposite.  Deception can and does involve Satanically inspired false beliefs and false conduct.  Consider the following passage, where ‘truth’ is mentioned three times:

2 Thessalonians 2:9-13   9 The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders,  10 and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved11 For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false,  12 so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned.  13 But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.

Similarly, Colossians sees the Gospel as the truth in a sense that goes beyond true content or right belief or right ethical convictions.  It is something that can bear fruit—it is transformative:

Colossians 1:3-6   3 In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,  4 for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints,  5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel  6 that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.

I also contend that ‘truth’ in Ephesians refers to the Gospel.  It clearly does in Eph. 1.13: ‘In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit….’  Perhaps the ‘belt of truth’ is the Gospel in Eph. 6.14.  Ephesians 4 has four uses of ‘truth’—the first a verb—that also, I believe, refer to the Gospel.  In Eph. 4.14-15, Paul says,

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine [didaskalia, ‘teaching’], by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.  15 But speaking the truth [alētheuō] in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ….

To ‘speak the truth’ is not to tell things truthfully but to tell the truth, the Gospel, to those blown about by every wind of doctrine.  This idea of being taught the truth continues a little later in chapter 4:

For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus.  But you (pl.) did not so learn Christ, if indeed you heard him and were taught in him--since truth is in Jesus--to remove your former way of life, the old man, corrupt on account of deceptive desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your (pl.) mind, and to put on the new man, created according to God in the righteousness and holiness of the truth.[3]  So, taking off the lie, speak the truth each with his neighbor, for we are members of one another (Eph. 4.21-25, my translation).

Thus, in Ephesians, the Gospel is a truth that extends beyond a true content into an ethical way of life that is true.  Teaching truth that is in Jesus changes lives.

Paul also uses the word ‘truth’ for the Gospel in the Pastoral Epistles.  Twice it clearly refers to content.  In 1 Timothy 2.4, this content is the Gospel, explained in terms of the Shema, as I have argued earlier:[4]

1 Timothy 2:3-7   This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,  4 who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  5 For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human,  6 who gave himself a ransom for all-- this was attested at the right time.  7 For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

The content of the truth is also in view in 2 Timothy 2.15-18, although it very likely encompasses ethics as well:

2 Timothy 2:15-18   15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.  16 Avoid profane chatter, for it will lead people into more and more impiety,  17 and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus,  18 who have swerved from the truth by claiming that the resurrection has already taken place. They are upsetting the faith of some.

The church is to function in society like a pillar, holding up truth—and this is said in a letter where there is false teaching in the church.  Thus the church needs to deal with false teaching in its midst and uphold the truth:

1 Timothy 3:15 … if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.
2 Timothy 4:3-4   3 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires,  4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.

The following references to the truth in the Pastoral Epistles seem to have ethics more in view, although nothing is gained in trying to draw too fine a distinction between right belief and right behaviour in the notion of ‘truth’:

2 Timothy 2:24-26   24 And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient,  25 correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth26 and that they may escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.
2 Timothy 3:6-8 For among them are those who make their way into households and captivate silly women, overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires,  7 who are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth8 As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these people, of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith, also oppose the truth.
2 Timothy 3:8 As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these people, of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith, also oppose the truth.
Titus 1:1-3 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God's elect and the knowledge of the truth that is in accordance with godliness,  2 in the hope of eternal life that God, who never lies, promised before the ages began--  3 in due time he revealed his word through the proclamation with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior …. [Note the terms related to ‘truth,’ in bold]
Titus 1:13-14   13 That testimony is true. For this reason rebuke them sharply, so that they may become sound in the faith,  14 not paying attention to Jewish myths or to commandments of those who reject the truth.

Conclusion

The Gospel as ‘truth’ captures the idea that it is the opposite of falsity and deception.  The opposite of Truth, then, can capture both the idea of false belief and deception about how to live according to the ways of the Lord.  Ethics and theology are related and cannot be separated.  Indeed, in 2 Th. 2.13, salvation comes through both sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.  To have false beliefs inevitably entails having a false way of life, a false ethic, and a false existence.  Nowhere is this more clearly articulated than in Romans, where abandonment of the truth meant abandoning true theology about God revealed in creation for idolatry and abandoning true ethics for homosexuality, a conduct that is against nature as it is known through creation (Rom. 1.18-28).

While the ‘truth’ has this breadth of meaning, it is at times a term used like other words for what we understand of the Gospel.  This, we have seen, is repeatedly the case in Galatians.  Also, Col. 1.5 speaks of ‘the word of truth, the Gospel,’ and Eph. 1.13 of ‘the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.’

The truth as the content of the Gospel is focussed on Jesus.  The truth of Christ is in Paul (2 Cor. 11.10), and truth is in Jesus (Eph. 4.21).  In 2 Tim. 2.18, the truth extends beyond Jesus’ resurrection to include right teaching about the resurrection: it is opposed to the false teaching that the resurrection had already taken place.  This use of ‘truth’ is still related to an understanding of truth in terms of Jesus, but it extends to include right teaching about the resurrection.  Similarly, in 1 Tim. 2.3-7, the truth as the Gospel extends to include a Christological understanding of the Jewish Shema, the teaching that there is one God.  Thus, use of the word ‘truth’ allows an extension of the Gospel to include related convictions to the Gospel, still focussed on Jesus Christ.

The extension of ‘truth’ to include more than the content of faith pushes the meaning of the Gospel beyond convictions to existence and ethics.  This is an important point, since belief in the Gospel is sometimes considered the end of the matter.  The connection of the ‘Good News’ to ‘truth,’ however, will not allow one to separate orthodoxy from orthopraxy.  True faith, true living, and true conduct are inextricably intertwined.




[1] Blog post 15 of ‘Why Foreign Missions?’ offers some comments on ‘truth’ in John’s Gospel.
[2] Cf. 20g of ‘Why Foreign Missions?’ for the connection with ‘Word.’
[3] In this translation, I am suggesting that ‘truth’ in the Genitive case here should not be taken as an adjective (‘truthful’) but as a possessive Genitive, referring to ‘the Truth.’  So also the NASV.  Contrast the NRSV, NIV, and ESV: ‘…in true righteousness and holiness’ (Eph. 4.24).
[4] See the earlier blog posting, ‘Why Foreign Missions? 20f.’