Pilate and the Truth

Jesus and Pilate

What is Truth? / Nikolai Ge, 1890

Pontius Pilate famously asked, “What is truth” and turned away without waiting for the answer. He had no inkling that Truth stood in front of him. He had no inkling that he was about to condemn Truth to crucifixion.

Fulfillment of Scripture demanded that Jesus be crucified. The ordinary way of executing prisoners under Jewish law was stoning. Only the Roman governor, Pilate, could authorize a crucifixion. He was initially unwilling.

Pilate thought he was in charge of the situation. He was wrong. Jesus was in charge. In the face of many obstacles, he had to insure his own crucifixion. It turned out to be hard work.

So let’s not make Pilate into a mere villain and cluck at him with disapproval. Let’s not dismiss him until we are sure we aren’t like him.

Pilate and the Jews

Jewish leaders had already decided they wanted to have Jesus put to death before they arrested him. They held an illegal night-time trial looking for evidence to justify the verdict they had already reached, and after some difficulty, they found it.

I suppose they could have taken Jesus out and stoned him, like they did Stephen, but they didn’t. Instead, they took him to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate to have him crucified.

So here’s the setting. Pilate’s headquarters were located adjacent to the temple walls. In fact, his walls were taller, which gave him an unimpeded view of the temple court and everything that happened there, including all the sacrifices. The Jewish leaders greatly resented that.

Going up to see Pilate was certainly humiliating. If they actually went inside his compound, they would all be ceremonially unclean. So they woke Pilate up, but refused to go inside.

He had to perform some kind of shuttle diplomacy, because of course all of them wanted to stay ceremonially clean so they could perform their leadership roles and eat the Passover. They stayed outside, while the prisoner, Jesus, was inside, and Pilate went back and forth between them. He couldn’t have been happy about that.

Meanwhile, the Jews declined to tell Pilate just what the charge was. When he asked for the accusation, they said they wouldn’t have bothered him if Jesus weren’t a criminal. Somehow they must have conveyed the charge of sedition, of being a direct danger to Rome by claiming that he was king of the Jews without any authorization from Rome.

The witnesses at Jesus’ trial before the Sannhedrin couldn’t get their story straight. Finally, in effect, the high priest had to get him to testify against himself.  The simple truth of the case before Pilate was that Jesus was no threat to Roman authority.

Roman justice demanded his release. Only God’s judgment against sin demanded his death. With that in mind, let’s look carefully at the conversations between Pilate and Jesus as recorded in John 18:28-38.

Pilate and Jesus

Jesus and Pilate

Ecce Homo (Behold! The Man) / Antonio Ciseri, 1871

Why didn’t Pilate take that obvious course and simply dismiss the charges? I suspect he was mad at being disturbed so early in the morning and mad at having to play the fool to preserve the Jews’ ceremonial purity for laws he had no use for.

He regarded the Jewish leadership with great contempt and wanted to humiliate them with his superior authority. They had already prepared for that and out-maneuvered him entirely

Pilate asked Jesus point blank, “Are you the King of the Jews.” That’s a question that seems to invite a one-word answer, yes or no. Instead, Jesus responded with another question: are you asking that question on your own, or did someone else put you up to it?

With that question, Jesus asked Pilate to consider his own authority. Was Pilate running the show, as he imagined, or was the Sannhedrin manipulating him? What an embarrassing question for a prisoner to ask the judge! It’s one that had probably occurred to Pilate himself, and his pride would not let him face it.

Like Jesus, Pilate evaded giving an answer and deflected the question with two more. “I am not a Jew, am I?” and “What have you done?”

Again, Jesus didn’t answer the question. After all, the answer is that he had preached, taught, worked various miracles. He had challenged the moral authority of the leadership of the synagogues and temple, but had made no attempt to remove anyone from office.

He had never mentioned the Romans at all except in direct response to a question from Jews. On that occasion, he only said that they should give Caesar whatever belonged to him. In other words, Jesus had done nothing whatsoever that could have troubled Pilate.

But remember. Jesus’ object was not to gain the acquittal that he deserved under Roman law. He had come to Jerusalem to be crucified. So when Pilate asked him what he had done, he said nothing at all about what he had done. Instead he went back to the earlier question about being king of the Jews. He brought up his kingdom and said that is it not the kind of kingdom Pilate knew anything about.

Jesus is rightful king of the universe. Satan stole the human race and planet Earth when he persuaded Adam and Eve to rebel against God. Jesus’ kingdom has nothing to do with who sits on some earthly throne. Jesus’ kingdom is neither political nor military.

Satan set up the system by which kings fight and depose each other with military violence. Jesus would depose Satan by becoming a victim of violence. The ways of Satan’s world require accumulation and use of power. Jesus intended to defeat him through weakness, the weakness of dying to pay the price of Adam’s sin.

Or as he said to Pilate, his kingdom is not from this world. It is not from this physical planet. It is not from the system of the world that Satan built. He would not take power by having armies fight on his behalf. He would not take power by committing violence.

That has to have taken Pilate by surprise. He probably never expected this grubby-looking peasant to say anything at all about being a king. He asked, “So you are a king?”

And again Jesus didn’t answer directly. The only possible direct answer would have been, “Yes. I am.” Instead he asserted, “You say that I am a king.” Pilate had used the word, and Jesus wasn’t about to tell him he was wrong.

 Pilate and us

Jesus died for us

Adam’s skull on Calvary / Fra Angelico, ca. 1435

The kingdom Jesus spoke about, not being of this world, is only for people concerned with ultimate justice, not the imperfect approximation that is the best human judges can find. It operates on a spiritual and moral power, not physical or political power.

Therefore, it is only for people who understand the strength of love and absolute, non-contingent truth. Jesus came into the world in order to testify to a level of truth that no world system can deal with. Individuals who want to know truth on that level will listen to Jesus’ voice.

But will we? Or will we, like Pilate, let ourselves be jerked around by our feelings of pride and fear? PIlate was willing to settle for the world’s standard of truth and justice. It’s hard to testify to the truth of a heavenly king, as much as we might want to, if we insist on thinking and acting according to the ways of this world.

Pilate asked, “what is truth” and walked away.  If we want to belong to the truth, we have to listen to Jesus—especially when he makes us uncomfortable.

Photo credits: Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons

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