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Doctrinal Matters: Bible Interpretation

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Lessons Learned in the Practice of Law: The Truth

by  Kevin Cain, J.D.

“I object, your Honor. Hearsay!” Whether on television, the movies, or in real life, nearly all of us have heard these words. I know from experience in talking with jurors that people often wonder, “What is the attorney trying to hide by keeping this testimony from the jury?” All of the 50 states have rules that exclude “hearsay” evidence, including the Federal Rules of Evidence. In essence, the hearsay rule excludes evidence of a statement made by someone who is not present at trial (Fed. R. Evid. 801, 802). For example, the hearsay rule would exclude testimony of what was overheard by another person after an accident took place. If I try to testify about what someone else said at the scene of an accident, a hearsay objection will likely be asserted.

The purpose of this rule is not to suppress the truth, but to safeguard the reliability of the testimony that is considered by the jury. Because an attorney cannot cross-examine, look into the eyes, or administer the oath to the absent witness who purportedly made the statement, courts deem these second-hand statements unreliable, and therefore, inadmissible (California v. Green, 1970). To make this rule even more complicated, there are statements that are excluded from being deemed hearsay; and there are exceptions that, even though the testimony is hearsay, the exception makes it admissible (Fed. R. Evid. 801(d); 803 (listing 24 exceptions), 804, 807). Therefore, what evidence is deemed reliable and, ultimately admissible, may have more to do with the ability of the attorney to navigate these rules of evidence as opposed to what the truth really is. On many occasions I have observed clients express frustration over the fact that the truth did not come out at trial because of the evidence excluded by the judge. At the end of the day, we simply want the jury to know what the truth is so they can make an informed decision and get it right.

But what is the truth? Where did Anna Nicole Smith really want to be buried? Where was O.J. on the night of June 12, 1994? Did Barry Bonds know that he was taking steroids? Did Coach Tressel know about his players’ misconduct? These are the kinds of questions that jurors must answer, and they simply want to know the truth.

“What is truth?” That was the question asked of Jesus by Pilate, and, ironically, it was asked in the context of a trial (John 18:38). Jesus is on trial, and He and Pilate are having a private deposition. The Jews have asked for Roman permission to put Jesus to death, knowing that they cannot legally do this themselves under Roman law (John 18:28-32). In response to this request, Pilate takes Jesus into his palace and privately cross-examines Him (John 18:33).

Pilate asks Jesus if He is the king of the Jews (John 18:33).  Jesus responds by asking if Pilate came up with that question on his own or was he told this by others (John 18:34).  Pilate responds defensively, as if he were the one on trial, and says, “Am I a Jew? It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” (John 18:35). Jesus now answers the question, and declares that His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). Pilate, believing he has a smoking gun, declares, “You are a king, then” (John 18:37). Jesus answers that He is a king, and He was born for the purpose of testifying to the truth (John 18:37). It is at this point that Pilate asks the eternally important question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). John does not record that Jesus answered this question (John 18:38). Pilate’s response to this silence is to go to the mob and declare, “I find no fault in him” (John 18:38). Is it possible that Jesus did not answer this profound question because the answer was literally staring Pilate in the face? It was this same Jesus who proclaimed earlier in His ministry, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

Hours before this sham trial, Jesus had been praying in the garden (John 17). In that prayer, Jesus expressed the sentiment, “Sanctify them through your truth, your word is truth” (John 17:17). God’s Word, the Bible, is truth. That truth was personified in the body and life of Jesus, and Jesus is called the Word (John 1:1,14). Moreover, Jesus called Himself the truth (John 14:6). Therefore, we cannot separate truth from God’s Word from Jesus Himself. They are one and the same. 

The author John makes a final point about truth that must not escape our attention. We can know the truth. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). As jurors who are listening to the testimony of the life, death, burial, resurrection, and teaching of Jesus, we are told that the truth is something we can know. It is not some gray, amorphous, intangible thing floating around out there that we can never presume to understand. We may never know the truth about where a suspect was on the night his wife was murdered, but we can know the truth of God’s holy Word. It is reliable and understandable.

Just pause for a moment and consider the many passages that emphasize that we can know and understand God’s Word. God implored the people of Isaiah’s day, “Come now, and let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). The saints at Berea “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). We are to “test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Moreover, we are commanded to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). John instructs us to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). When Jesus referred to the book of Daniel, the verse concludes by stating, “Let the reader understand” (Matthew 24:15).

When the lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus responded by asking the lawyer how he read or interpreted the law (Luke 10:25-26). After the lawyer answered, Jesus stated, “You have answered correctly” (Luke 10:27-28). Surely if a lawyer could understand the Bible, anyone can. These passages are merely illustrative of the absolute fact that men and women can come to the truth, investigate and reason over the truth, and understand the truth.

Some may quickly turn and say, “But doesn’t the Bible itself admit that Scripture is difficult to understand?” The questioner is likely alluding to 2 Peter 3:16, wherein Peter, referring to Paul’s writings, states that there are “some things hard to understand.” First, notice that in 2 Peter 3:16 there are some things that are hard to understand, but not impossible to understand. More importantly, these things are not hard to understand because they contain concepts too deep for mankind to fathom and comprehend. Rather, this verse explicitly states that Paul’s writings are hard to understand because some come to God’s Word with a degree of ignorance and lack of maturity that cause them to twist not only Paul’s inspired writings, but all the Scripture. “He [Paul] writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). In other words, we can understand the Bible if we do not come with unhealthy predispositions and if we are willing to be taught. We can understand God’s Word if we approach it with good and honest hearts—hearts ready to accept and humbly obey God’s Word regardless of the consequences (Luke 8:15).

The issue with all Scripture is not whether we can understand it—the issue is whether we are willing to do it. When Jesus proclaimed some very basic principles of marriage as it relates to the subject of divorce and remarriage (Matthew 19:1-9), His disciples responded that this teaching was so harsh that it would be better for some not to marry (Matthew 19:10). Notice that the disciples did not say, “This teaching on divorce and remarriage is hard to comprehend so we should all just keep our opinions to ourselves.” No, they fully understood this hard saying—not because it was hard to understand, but because it was hard to live.

When Jesus spoke of the level of absolute commitment of His disciples in metaphorical terms of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus, His disciples responded, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). This was not a concept that could not be understood, it was simply a concept that required great sacrifice, great commitment, and great humility. As such, upon hearing this teaching, most disciples turned and never followed Jesus again (John 6:66). This would explain why Jesus immediately asked, “Does this offend you?” (John 6:61). This was not the first time that Jesus’ teachings were clearly understood, and caused others to be offended. When Jesus taught in his hometown, the people were offended (Matthew 13:57). The Pharisees were offended at the simple teaching of Jesus when he proclaimed that what makes a man unclean is determined by what comes out of that person, not that which goes in (Matthew 15:12). All of the apostles were offended because of Jesus on the night He was betrayed (Matthew 26:31). Jesus did not offend others because His teaching and doctrine were not clear. Rather, Jesus offended people in His lifetime because people understood what He taught, and did not like what Jesus had to say.

There is not a single instance in the Bible where someone exhibits such bold dishonesty by trying to argue that they disobeyed God because they were confused or could not understand what God had commanded. Adam blamed his wife (Genesis 3:12), Aaron blamed the people (Exodus 32:22), the Israelites blamed difficult circumstances (Numbers 13:31). But nowhere in the Bible does anyone have the gall to offer the immature excuse, “I simply could not understand what you meant, God.”

We can know the truth. We can know the truth about God, in spite of the fact that many in the world do not believe in the existence of the God of the Bible. We can know the truth about God’s teaching on divorce and remarriage—it may be hard to apply, but the teaching is clear.  We can know the truth about baptism—it may cause others to be offended because they themselves are not baptized, but that does not change the truth and our ability to know it.  Is this to say that we can know all things and claim to have knowledge parallel to God’s? Absolutely not. The Bible is clear that there are many matters we will never comprehend.  That was part of God’s response to Job (Job 38-40). However, the Bible plainly teaches that while there are matters beyond our comprehension, there are things that God has revealed to us that we can understand. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). It would surely be impossible to follow that which we cannot understand. Notice that the Israelites had the ability to “follow all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). We can understand every word, every sentence, every thought, and every precept that God has revealed to us. We call those words, sentences, thoughts, and precepts the holy Word of God—the Bible.

We can know God’s Word—the truth. God has given us His Word so that we can make informed decisions in life based on the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.

REFERENCES

California v. Green, 399 U.S. 149, 158 (1970).

Fed. R. Evid. 801, 802, 803, 804, 807.




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