This is the profound question the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate put to Jesus as the two stood face to face (depicted above in the classic 1890 painting by Ukrainian artist Nikolai Ge). Here’s the conversation that led up to that moment:
Pilate summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” (John 18:33-38)
Jesus didn’t respond. It’s almost as if he purposely allowed Pilate’s words to echo through the halls of history so that we would have to face the challenge of giving an answer in our day and in our unique pressure cooker situation:
WHAT IS TRUTH? What is truth? What is truth? is truth? is truth?
We may be tempted to see Pilate as representing the sophisticated thinking of the secular world looking down at the folk-wisdom of this uneducated Middle Eastern pied-piper. But from what we know about Pilate, it doesn’t seem that he had a classical education, with knowledge of the great Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, who wrestled with questions about the nature of truth. Though he was from a modestly respected Roman family, his education was mostly at military schools, where he learned how to use strategic force to impose Rome’s will on subject nations. However, he doesn’t seem to have been very good even at that, because his assignment to be Governor of Judea, this fractious, backwater part of the Empire, was not a sign of a successful career. As a matter of fact, his confrontational approach to the local people groups, including the Jews, seems to have kept him from higher appointments. And about two years after this conversation with Jesus, Pilate overreacted to a minor uprising among the Samaritan people by unnecessarily slaughtering the leaders, and this got him recalled to Rome, from where he never returned. His career seems to have ended in oblivion, with some hints that he ultimately committed suicide.
So, Pilate’s question “What is truth?” is more likely an expression of his exasperation with the futility of looking for meaning in his life, that in spite of his advantages by birth, education and privilege, he had gone nowhere. His belief that the purpose of his life would emerge over the years, and in the process, he would come to understand the meaning of life itself, was turning out to be an illusion.
Here was an uneducated carpenter’s son, bloody from the abuse of the mob, standing before him saying,
“I came into the world, to testify to the truth.
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Pilate felt unmasked, defenseless, without an answer. He tried to turn this into a philosophical question, “What is truth?” – but the question mark, instead, turned as an arrow toward him.
This week’s sermon study in our Pressure Cooker series will be from the New Testament book known as Second John. It begins with this greeting:
The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth, and not only I but also all who know the truth, because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever. (2 John 1:1-2)
This is the same truth Jesus and Pilate were talking about. Through “the elder” who wrote this letter to the fellowship of believers decades later, in the midst of their persecution pressure cooker, Pilate’s question came alive again for a new generation of truth-seekers. Tune into Sunday’s service to hear what the old faith leader says about this in Second John and how it can be a comfort and a challenge to us in our pandemic pressure cooker.
– Pastor George Van Alstine