John 18:33-40 33 Pilate went back into the Praetorium and summoned Jesus. He asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
34 Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”
36 Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight so that I would not be handed over to the Jews. But now my kingdom is not from here.”
37 “You are a king then?” Pilate asked.
Jesus answered, “I am, as you say, a king. For this reason I was born, and for this reason I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
38 “What is truth?” Pilate said to him.
After he said this, he went out again to the Jews and told them, “I find no basis for a charge against him. 39 But you have a custom that I release one prisoner to you at the Passover. So do you want me to release the King of the Jews for you?”
40 Then they shouted back, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” (Now Barabbas was a rebel.)
The title on the web banner was enticing: “Fight Back With Un-Fake News!” More than enticing, it struck one of our society’s recently exposed nerves. In March 2017, 60 Minutes also ran a segment investigating the production of fake news. The segment showed how writers design stories to look official and believable. One programmer demonstrated how the number of “Likes” on Facebook can be manipulated to make fake news stories look much, much more popular than they actually are. People fall for the trick: If so many appear to be reading it, it must be true. Sadly, this is our world. Photoshopped pictures alter reality. Breaking news is written on a blog from a couch in a man cave. What to believe?
Pilate, I think, was not a bitter cynic. Rather, he lived in a world similar to ours, with multiple groups claiming this, claiming that—a world with various religions and philosophies for life. In the end, he probably was just a Roman governor trying to do his job and keep the peace. To do that, however, he had to find out who was telling the truth. Was the Sanhedrin? Was Jesus? What is a “kingdom of truth”? And so he spoke those three famous words: What is truth?
But that question wasn’t just prompted by the situation in Jerusalem on that Friday morning. The question really sprung—and still does—from an emptiness, from fear, and from the doubts inside every human being. So many claiming to be right. So many claiming to be the only ones right. So many warnings about not being right. In our weakness, we sometimes find ourselves wondering too: What is truth? Or, more bluntly, “Are we Christians right? Because eternity is an awfully long time. . . .”
What is truth? We want to know for certain too. And even though Jesus didn’t directly answer Pilate’s question, this text does provide the answers we’re looking for: Truth: Jesus isn’t who people want him to be. Truth: Jesus is—thank God!—who he claims to be.
When you think about it, the arrest and trial of Jesus before the Jewish leaders weren’t so much about anything he had done. Rather, the entire trial really hinged on who Jesus said he was. Yet the opposition to Jesus started long before the trial, didn’t it? In John’s gospel, for instance, we read about how Jesus was almost stoned to death for blasphemy for claiming to be God when he said, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (Jn 8:58). Sure, at the trial before the high priest they tried to pin on Jesus a charge about threatening to do something—destroy the temple—but that went nowhere. Give the high priest credit for this: He saw through things to the very heart of the matter. Here was a preacher from Nazareth who was claiming to be the divine Messiah. So when all other accusations failed, Caiaphas pointedly asked, “Are you in fact the son of the Blessed One? Tell us!” Because the high priest had invoked God’s name that he tell the truth, Jesus replied, “Yes, it is as you say.”
Naturally, the Jewish authorities did not present the case to Pilate in that way. They changed the accusation to make it a political problem: “He is claiming to be a king!” Pilate could understand and be concerned about that. But when Pilate looked at Jesus—humble, bound, bruised, yet quiet and peaceful—he couldn’t believe that Jesus actually was a king. “You are a king, then”? Really?
Pilate and Jesus’ accusers had this in common: Jesus wasn’t who they expected him to be, and Jesus wasn’t who they wanted him to be. For Pilate it would have been a lot easier if Jesus actually had been a rebel. Then he could have executed him with complete freedom of conscience. But before the governor stood a king who didn’t look or act like a king. There was something not right about this situation that caused both Pilate and his wife to be troubled. In the end, however, the Roman went against his conscience and simply did what was pragmatic (as Romans do): he sentenced Jesus to death. It is also difficult to say if the sign Pilate had posted above Jesus’ cross, “The King of the Jews,” was a jab at the Sanhedrin or a joke on Jesus.
As far as the Jewish people calling for Jesus’ death and Barabbas’ release—this is truly a sad scene. John’s gospel opens with these words: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (1:11). In his earthly ministry, Jesus had warned the crowds a number of times—his own disciples too—that he was not the kind of king they were looking for and that his kingdom was something different from what they had in mind. Had not Jesus rejected that popular, powerful kind of kingdom when he resisted Satan for a third time in the wilderness? “My kingdom is not of this world.” Many Jews were looking for a political king to restore the glory of David’s nation. Some were looking for a priest-king who would clean up worship in the temple and be a teacher of righteousness. But this carpenter’s son from Nazareth? No. He couldn’t possibly be who he claimed to be.
So also today, many people want Jesus to be something else. One international rock star, who also happens to be a serious Christian, nonetheless said, “My Jesus is the one who drove the money changers out of the temple.” Jesus—the social reformer, the activist. People want Jesus to be their financial planner. People want Jesus to run the government. People want Jesus to be someone who, in the name of love, never judges anyone for a lifestyle or habits that are contrary to God’s Word. Many want him to be nothing more than an influential teacher and good man who taught us how to be good to others. Many modern theologians have little trouble believing that Jesus may have been the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier, saying that this makes him all the more human, all the more real to us.
But what is the truth?
In our world people have a tendency to create their own truth, their own belief system, and they convince themselves that something is true for no other reason than that they believe it to be true. Or, at least, “It’s true for me—and that’s all that matters.”
Before Pilate stood not only someone who was true or even truthful—before Pilate stood Jesus, “the way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). John reminds us in his first chapter that—regardless if people believe him or not—the fact is that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1:17) to the world.
And this Word—the Bible—is truth too, given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. God gave it to us because, since the beginning, Satan’s main weapon of choice is lying. Satan is the great deceiver, the great word-twister, the great half-truth teller, the great photoshopper, the great “fake news” writer. This is how he fights; he fills the world with his lies. But just as Jesus fought back against the devil in the desert using nothing more than the Word of God, so also the Spirit has given us this book so that, continuing in his Word, we may know the truth and the truth will set us free.
But what is truth?
The truth is that Jesus of Nazareth is exactly who he claims to be. Thank God for that! He told Pilate he was a king with a kingdom from another place, a kingdom that operates in a completely different way than the kingdoms of this world. His is a kingdom of truth. In his kingdom, the last are first and the greatest are the servants of all. Truth: Jesus made himself last, taking the very nature of a servant. Truth: God became man in Jesus; Jesus perfectly obeyed everything his Father had commanded and faithfully did everything his Father had given him to do. Truth: Jesus did this to be our substitute.
But Jesus also did all this because there are other truths. Truth: The wages of sin is death, and all have sinned. Truth: Sin must be punished by a just and holy God. Truth: Jesus took our sins upon himself and offered to suffer our punishment—not only to be rejected by people but even forsaken by his own Father as he hung in agony on the cross. Truth: We should have suffered for all eternity because of our guilt. Truth: He poured out his holy blood for the forgiveness of all our sins.
Here is truth: We don’t need Jesus to be a financial planner or a social protester or just some nice guy who makes us feel good about ourselves. What we need is rescue from sin, death, and hell, otherwise we are lost. Thank God that here, in Pilate’s hall, stands the Truth—Jesus our Savior “who rescues us from God’s coming wrath.” The crowds will choose Barabbas, but Jesus will go to do what he came to do; he will save his people from their sins.
Pilate couldn’t believe it. The crowds rejected Jesus. The religious leaders didn’t want him to be that kind of king, that kind of Messiah. But with the eyes of faith he has graciously given us, we see a king standing there in Pilate’s hall—the King of kings who rules a different kind of kingdom, a kingdom of truth in which his people hear his voice and listen to him.
Listen, then! For the King of truth, who cannot lie, has promised you: “Whoever believes in [me] shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). Amen.