Pontius Pilate famously asked Jesus a rhetorical, and probably cynical, question: “What is truth?”
The context of this episode in John 18 is important. Jesus was being tried on trumped up charges by the religious leaders of the day. They knew they needed to charge him with a capital crime but nothing he had done came even close to being worthy of death. Nothing except his power to lead people. Jesus had all the makings of a great political leader. He was charismatic, determined, clear-sighted, and devoted to his followers and to his mission. Remember how often the gospel writers state that the authorities were unable to confront or arrest Jesus “because of the crowds”.
It was this powerful appeal to the public that Jesus used to stymie his religious opponents again and again. When no one else was ready to stand up against the hypocrisy of self-concerned spiritual rulers—John the Baptist excepted—Jesus exposed them to the crowds. To the power-sensitive religious leaders this was tantamount to leading an insurrection—the issue implicit in the ironic “prophesy” of Caiaphas [John 11:48-53]. Caiaphas and his clan were control junkies and Jesus was not under their control. Nor was the local Roman ruler, Pilate.
So it was that they hatched a plan that would rid themselves of one enemy—Jesus—by manipulating the other—Pilate. Their strategy was to charge Jesus with sedition. If they could show that Jesus was aiming to become the “king of the Jews” they had a charge that would stick. And, given the tenuous military-political occupation of Judea by the Romans, it was a charge worthy of capital punishment. Yet it was more than obvious that Jesus was not a political power-broker—he had already dismissed some who tried to recruit him to lead a Jewish resistance movement. Still they charged Jesus with ambitions to become a king. And they knew that if word ever got back to Rome—and they would be sure that it did—that Pilate had refused to quash a potential political rival to Roman power, that would lead to a quick end to Pilate’s career. So the high priest’s party settled on charging Jesus with rebellion against Rome, a charge based on his obvious power over the crowds and his occasional comments about a coming kingdom.
Which brings us back to the question about truth that Pilate expressed to Jesus. Pilate—a politician himself—understood in a nanosecond that he was being manipulated by the priestly party of Caiaphas who was working in league with the Jewish Sanhedrin. So, for the sake of full investigation—and for his eventual report back to Rome, if needed—he had asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Today that would be a bit like the governor of a given state—let’s say Oregon—asking “are you the ruler of Oregon?” Any governor worth his pay would know already of any serious insurrectionist, so asking the question would be nonsensical. The question was strictly pro forma.
But Jesus answered, “Yes”! And that answer certainly sealed his fate.
Jesus was too honest for his own good—perhaps he could have avoided crucifixion by insisting, “Oh, no, sir, I’m not a king and never plan to be one!” Instead he answered in a way that caused a startled Pilate to respond, “So you are a king?” What Jesus had said is that “My kingdom is not of this world.”
I’m intentionally ironic here about Jesus being too honest—he was in control in the entire situation, and death on the cross was his self-appointed destiny. But we must not lose the point that Jesus had, indeed, talked about his rule of a coming kingdom. Earlier he had answered questions about his future cabinet ministers—those seated on his right and left hand once he entered into his kingdom—without a pause. So Jesus answered Pilate with the truth about himself. He already was a king . . . or, more accurately, The King! But not a king in immediate competition with the Roman emperor, or with Pilate as the local Roman ruler.
The context for Pilate’s question holds one additional feature that calls for special attention in the rest of this post. As Jesus offered his ‘self-incriminating’ answer to Pilate he explained the basis for his bold and dangerous honesty:
My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world. … You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.
So Jesus is, indeed, king. And his kingdom represents and reveals the truth. And his followers are people of truth. The magnetic attractiveness of Jesus for truth seekers is located in this fact: he can be trusted! Everything he says and does is always true. He never lies, falsifies, bifurcates, distorts, or rationalizes away the truth. Because to do so would be to deny his own being as the ultimate source of truth, something he expressed in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life . . .”
So let’s broaden our frame of reference for a moment in light of what Jesus claimed for himself. The broader frame was used by later Bible writers as they spoke of him. In Paul’s terms, for instance—see Colossians—Jesus is the God-man through whom all things are created and hold together. That sets up a basis, in our modern terms, for the “truths” of science to be seen as derivative and reflective of his ongoing creative task of ruling the universe in the terms he determined. Truth is centered in Christ’s very being.
Truth is also the touchstone of salvation. Life under Christ’s rule is truth-centered so that Jesus used truth to discriminate true disciples from pseudo-disciples in his blunt statements of John 8:31 and following, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
What Jesus was saying there anticipated what he told Pilate. Some people will be drawn to Christ’s teachings—represented today in Scriptures—and some “Christians” won’t be. Which tells us—unless Jesus was speaking nonsense—that those in the church who are not deeply attracted to the word are not true disciples. Truth attracts those who love truth. Lies—including self-deceptions of the sort found among Christ’s often extraordinarily religious opponents—will dissolve any appetite for relational Bible reading.
The bottom line for Jesus—what he touched on in the John 8 confrontation—is that truth is actually an affective quality of new birth: “If God were your Father,” Jesus told his so-called disciples, “you would love me, for I came from God and I am here.” The sole alternative is another paternity:
Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has no truth in him. When he speaks the Lie, he speaks from his own character, for he is a liar and the father of It” [i.e. the ultimate Lie that God can be displaced as in “you can be like God”].
So Pilate’s question of “What is truth?” would have better been expressed as “Who is truth?” And the answer to that question was standing in front of him, awaiting crucifixion for having told Pilate the truth.
I’m ready to admit, in line with my earlier confession of sin, that I’m not as honest as many people might expect. I like to shape things in my favor—to always offer a self-rescuing spin on things. I tell half truths—the “I’m too busy” when, in reality, I should say, “that’s just not a priority for me”—and so on, ad nauseum. The truth is, that apart from Christ I’m nothing . . . and all too often I operate apart from Christ.
But I love the Truth. I want him more and more. And I find myself disgusted and shamed by my self-deceptions as the Spirit gently illuminates my heart. And I realize that a love for the truth is critical to all that I do and all that I am. Paul, drawing on Christ’s radical bifurcation, warned our current generation about the issue—as we approach the time of Christ’s return—with incredible bluntness in 2 Thessalonians 2:
The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing because they refused to love the truth and so be saved . . . . but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
This is such weighty truth. And truth has incredible power, in a world accustomed to falsity, wherever an appetite for truth is alive by God’s mercy. Jesus, once again, gave us the answer we need to hear (linking some of the “abide” uses in John’s gospel): “If you abide in my word” and “in me” and “in my love” you . . . we. . . will be set free by our growing love for the winsome presence of Truth himself.