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I used to think nothing of it until someone said, "it makes you wonder what he was saying the rest of the time".

Now I don't believe for one moment Jesus was a liar, but why did He use that strange expression?

One of 22 examples exists here:

John 16:7 (NIV)
But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.

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@Richard: thx, done. Interesting that it covers all four Gospels. –  Wikis Oct 13 '11 at 21:13
I was under the impression that "I tell you the truth" was simply a common expression at the time, in the same was as "I won't lie to you" is in Wales today (as any viewer of the sitcom Gavin and Stacy will know well!) –  Waggers Oct 14 '11 at 8:47
@Waggers: possible, but I don't recall anyone else in the Bible using the same expression. –  Wikis Oct 14 '11 at 8:55

4 Answers 4

up vote 16 down vote accepted

It was likely a common expression in that day to emphasize the importance of what would be spoken immediately after that.

And, to tell you the truth, we have a similar phrase in English. We don't mean that we weren't telling the truth before and are only now beginning to do so.

So, can I be honest with you? I wasn't being dishonest with you before, but now my degree of openness is greater and I'm being more transparent than I would otherwise be in the course of conversations with acquaintances.

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Are you saying it is emphasis? –  Wikis Oct 14 '11 at 14:10
Yes, it seems that it is used to emphasize and stress that what He was saying next was very important and critical. –  Narnian Oct 14 '11 at 14:15
The fact is, we have a lot of expressions like that in English. –  Kyralessa Mar 6 '12 at 2:07
Seriously, we have a lot of ways to grab the attention of the listener. –  styfle Mar 11 '12 at 21:01

When Jesus says "I tell you the truth" the Greek word "amen" is being used. Amen can be translated as "I tell you the truth," "verily," and "so be it" or "let it be.". We have difficulty translating it into English, and the reason it is so odd is because we don't use those phrases colloqioully today.

I hope this helps!

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This is really not true at all: ēgo tēn alētheian legō umin I [the truth] tell you. –  Richard Oct 13 '11 at 21:14
Is 'Amen, I say to you' only in Catholic bibles? –  Peter Turner Oct 13 '11 at 21:19
Latin: Amen dico vobis, Greek: ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν –  Peter Turner Oct 13 '11 at 21:21
@PeterTurner For Matthew 18:3, the Catholic Bible is the only one that has it. However, for John 16:7, for example, the Catholic Bible doesn't say Amen. –  Richard Oct 13 '11 at 21:24
That is one instance. However the construction of "amen amen" is translated in a number of ways across the gospels, as I referenced above. This does not exclude your observation Richard, but rather stands alongside it. The ultimate goal of these verbal constructions however is to grab attention, akin in contemporary parlance to a person saying "seriously,...", "legit,...", or some other phrase to imply that the following words are to be especially heeded –  jchaffee Oct 13 '11 at 21:30

When Jesus says "I tell you the truth", he does it to indicate that what he is telling is the truth.

John 23:42-43 (NIV)
42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Often times, Jesus speaks and replies using parables

For example, in Luke 10:25-37, a Pharisee asked him “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

However, when Jesus said "I tell you the truth", he was indicating that he was not speaking in parables, but telling the truth.

Obviously he wasn't lying at other times. He was just trying to illustrate the point that he was actually telling the truth. It's something that gets your attention.

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I voted this up but on reflection I wonder if I was too hasty: it's not as if He said, I tell you the truth every time He didn't tell a parable. Besides, it was usually or always pretty clear when Jesus used a parable. –  Wikis Oct 14 '11 at 14:20
Maybe I should have made the phrase "illustrate the point" a bit more obvious. Clearly, he doesn't say this every time he tells the truth. Otherwise, that's all he would say! He just says it to illustrate the point. –  Richard Oct 16 '11 at 19:43
OK, thanks, so I guess your answer is essentially the same as Namian's? –  Wikis Oct 16 '11 at 20:09
No. It wasn't an idiom. I need to update my answer, but that'll have to happen tomorrow. –  Richard Oct 17 '11 at 1:38
Parables are the Truth too...not literally true, but still the Truth. So this position doesn't really hold water. –  Steely Dan Mar 7 '12 at 0:04

Looking at multiple versions of the Bible I was somewhat amazed to find "I tell you the truth" only in the New Living Translation 68 times. In other versions it is rendered "truly I tell you" or "I assure you."

One site I saw says the original word was the four greek letters that are transliterated letter by letter into AMEN. Because there was no punctuation in the original manuscripts and also no verse numbers, this means the word was most likely inserted at the END of a statement rather than as a preface to one.

For example: “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. AMEN!

That is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face.

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"I assure you" seems to capture the intent very well as a translation into modern English. –  Lawrence Dol Feb 9 '13 at 21:46

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