Having missed the ultimate question Christ was asking him, Pilate proceeds to say the following: “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”[i] This is clearly not inquisitiveness on the part of the governor, because the charges against Jesus have been presented to him. No, he’s mocking Jesus. He is supposed to be the King of the Jews, and yet it is the Jews who are asking Pilate to execute Him. Pilate is basically taunting, “What kind of lousy king are you?”
Jesus doesn’t reply directly, which is very common for Him. Instead, he says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”[ii] Again, let’s ask the question, why does Jesus answer the way He does?
He has just asked Pilate a question to determine whether or not Pilate acknowledges Jesus for who He is. As we looked at, Pilate doesn’t recognize Truth as it stands in front of him. Pilate doesn’t even recognize that he should be seeking Truth. So Jesus introduces to Pilate this concept of a heavenly kingdom—a kingdom “not of this world.”
If Jesus was the earthly, solely physical “King of the Jews,” one of two things would happen: The Jews would claim Him as such and not arrest Him in the first place, or His servants—those closest and most loyal to Him—would fight to stave off the uprising and rebellion. This takes us back twenty-five verses, to the Garden, when “a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees”[iii] came to arrest Jesus:
Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.)
Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”[iv]
In Matthew’s Gospel, we read that Jesus also said, “all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”[v] Peter, who exhibited great faith by proclaiming Christ’s identity as the Son of God, is also known for showing a very human focus and perspective, perhaps never more so than in Gethsemane. But Jesus’ focus was not on avoiding arrest. It was not on putting down these usurpers to His kingdom. It was not about the physical, but the spiritual. Thus His words to Pilate.
Jesus gives Pilate a second encounter with the truth. This time, Pilate cannot claim ignorance—although such a claim wouldn’t really excuse him. “My kingdom is from another place,” Jesus says. He cannot be speaking of an earthly kingdom from another place (i.e., Greece or Persia) because His earlier statement about His servants fighting to prevent His arrest would still be true. Here before Pilate is a man who did not resist arrest, who did not defend Himself when accused, who engages the most powerful man in Jerusalem not with pleas for mercy but with a high-level debate. Weighing Jesus’ words and actions, we should infer—as should have Pilate—that Jesus is claiming something supernatural, a kingdom that transcends even the mighty Roman Empire by its very nature. And that should, considering Jesus displayed no symptoms of a madman, give Pilate pause. As we’ll see later, it appears that is—at least on some layer—the case.
Commentaries disagree on the tone of Pilate’s response, “You are a king, then!”[vi] Some suggest he is mocking Jesus, having some fun with Him as we might with someone who claimed to believe in aliens. Others claim that Pilate is uneasy and in awe of Christ’s manner. I tend to lean toward the former, as evidenced by Pilate’s next remark, and believe that he is patronizing Jesus.
Having introduced to Pilate the concept of a supernatural, eternal kingdom, Jesus now confronts him head on with the truth: “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth.”[vii] The phrase “you say” is essentially an affirmation, which is why the previous edition of the NIV stated it, “You are right in saying . . .”[viii] This is an important distinction because it is a definitive declaration by Jesus that He is indeed a king. He is not ducking the issue or avoiding going on the record.
Now note what comes next. Jesus tells Pilate His purpose in being born, the purpose of the incarnation, is “to testify to the truth.” Paul writes to Timothy of “Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession.”[ix] We must ask then, what is this truth that Jesus is confessing? What is this truth of which it is His purpose to testify? Is it truth in general—has Jesus come to be a human lie detector? Or is He speaking of a specific truth? Similarly, when Jesus told the Jews who had believed in Him, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,”[x] of what truth was He speaking? And how exactly is testifying to the truth His ultimate purpose? Didn’t He tell the disciples “the Son of Man [came to] give His life as a ransom for many,”[xi] the Pharisees that “I have come that they may have life,”[xii] and Zacchaeus that “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost”[xiii]? Did Jesus have a dual purpose? Was His primary purpose to speak truth and He just happened to also save the world while He was at it? What are we to make of this statement?
This question is important as we ultimately examine Pilate’s response (and, indeed, as we form our response to a questioning world). And I think John’s Gospel gives us the answer. In his extended dialogue with the Jews in John 8, Jesus made the following statements:
“I stand with the Father, who sent me.”[xiv]
“If you knew me, you would know my Father also.”[xv]
“[H]e who sent me is trustworthy, and what I have heard from him I tell the world.”[xvi]
“When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.”[xvii]
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”[xviii]
“[I]f you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins.”[xix]
“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”[xx]
Two observations from these verses: 1) Jesus is speaking and doing what the Father has told Him to say and do. The two are in union, a theme common in John’s Gospel. 2) Jesus’ actions lead to life and freedom. The context of the rest of the book and of the Gospels (and indeed of all Scripture) tell us that that life is eternal life and that freedom is freedom from sin and death, and both are a result of Christ’s death on the cross. Thus, when Jesus says, “As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God,”[xxi] we can conclude that the core of that truth to which he has testified or confessed is none other than the truth he told Nicodemus:
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.[xxii]
In other words, the truth Jesus came to testify to is also the work He came to do. This is how He can tell the disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Therefore we see that Jesus’ purpose as stated to Pilate is in harmony with the purpose He gave His disciples, the Pharisees, and Zacchaeus. So to recap, Jesus has told Pilate that He is a king, that His kingdom is not a mere physical kingdom, and that He has come to testify to the truth that He is the Savior of the world. This ties back to His initial question to Pilate, asking if the governor recognized Jesus as the King of the Jews—the true, rightful king—on his own. Jesus has in these few verses made a truth claim—not just any truth claim, the ultimate truth claim. It is the claim that divides all mankind into two categories— “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life.”[xxiii] And Jesus concludes his remarks to Pilate with the statement, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”[xxiv] He has put before the Roman governor “a time for choosing,” with the sides clearly defined.
Pilate’s response is haunting: “What is truth?”[xxv] The NIV tells us he “retorted” this question, and all versions inform us that he viewed this as the end of the discussion. This was not, then, an inquisitive remark. Pilate is not seeking wisdom from Jesus. He is dismissing Him. He is scoffing at the idea of truth. Perhaps he is a postmodernist who doesn’t believe in absolutes. More likely, the only truth that matters to Pilate is that he has power. Either way, he makes a grave error in devaluing truth. It’s a two thousand-year-old account, but it could be ripped from today’s headlines—a politician (or the average guy or gal on the street or in a church pew) who views truth as subservient to personal preference, emotion and feelings, and power or money. But Truth will not long be suppressed . . .
[i] John 18:35
[ii] John 18:36
[iii] John 18:3
[iv] John 18:10-11
[v] Matthew 26:52-54
[vi] John 18:37
[vii] John 18:37
[viii] Courtesy of StudyLight.org
[ix] I Timothy 6:13
[x] John 8:32
[xi] Matthew 20:28
[xii] John 10:10
[xiii] Luke 19:10
[xiv] John 8:16
[xv] John 8:19
[xvi] John 8:26
[xvii] John 8:28-29
[xviii] John 8:12
[xix] John 8:24
[xx] John 8:36
[xxi] John 8:40, emphasis added
[xxii] John 3:14-17
[xxiii] John 3:36
[xxiv] John 18:37
[xxv] John 18:38