“Pilate entered the praetorium again and called Jesus, and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me; what have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews, but my kingship is not from the world.” Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
John 18:33-38 (RSV)
I’ve been thinking about this text all week. I guess it’s appropriate, given that we have entered the Easter season. This exchange, in various forms is found in all four of the Gospels, by the way. There are variances of the exchange but, in all four Gospels, the question “Are you the King of the Jews” is asked and answered.
This is something we’re meant to pay attention to.
I have some thoughts and questions for us to consider on this most holy weekend.
Pilate’s question seems kind of funny, don’t you think? Why does he care who calls themself a king in Judea? It’s not like his power or the power of Rome could actually be threatened by some backwater, podunk carpenter who claims to be a king, right?!
It’s fascinating to me that Pilate asks a question that is markedly sarcastic and seems politically motivated…at least on the surface. Consider it for a moment. Pilate was governor of Judea. This was probably not exactly a choice spot for someone with political ambitions. I mean, it’s the middle of the desert and he probably had to put down insurrections frequently. But…if this man he’s questioning is some type of king that the people will listen to, he could become an ally for Pilate to help him control this district. Pilate is thinking about his own personal agenda.
So Pilate asks a political question. But it was also prophetic. What Pilate probably didn’t know was that the Messiah foretold, the king that had been prophesied, was to be the King of all the world. He would, according to prophecy, bring all nations pouring in to Zion to worship and he would rule the whole world with justice and mercy. This was foretold.
I doubt Pilate knew that or had studied the Hebrew Scriptures much. His question, as sarcastic as it was, underhanded and politically motivated, was also prophetic. Out of the mouth of a pagan Gentile was Old Testament prophecy fulfilled.
Jesus’ answer is telling. He sees through Pilate’s question and answers him accordingly. Pilate is thinking worldly power and Jesus throws it back in his face. Jesus says to him, basically, “You’re coming at this all wrong, Pilate. If this was a political power struggle, my people would have never let this happen. If this was a power grab on my part, I wouldn’t be here. My people would have fought to make sure this didn’t happen.” Jesus confronts Pilate’s question head on and identifies what’s really important to Pilate: power and ambition.
Pilate was looking for an opportunity to get ahead. Jesus was fulfilling the Father’s will.
Here are the questions I’ve been considering all week as I’ve thought about this text.
How do I see Jesus?
Is He a means to an end, as He was with Pilate?
Or, is He the King of the world?
Here’s the thing. It really didn’t matter if Pilate acknowledged Jesus to be the King. Jesus was, and is, the King. Jesus didn’t need Pilate to acknowledge that, or even believe it. It was and is a fact regardless of Pilate’s belief. And Jesus tries to tell Pilate that. He says, “I have come into the world to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.”
There are some things that are objective fact, no matter how you or I feel about them. There was something that was objective fact staring Pilate right in the face.
The Truth was standing in front of him and Pilate asks, “What is truth?”
The King of the world was standing in front of him and Pilate is thinking about his own ambitions.
It really doesn’t matter if Pilate acquiesces to the fact of Jesus’ kingship. Jesus is King, no matter what Pilate thought. Jesus is truth, despite Pilate’s sarcasm.
How do you see Jesus?
Your King stands before you on this most holy weekend. Not like a king you would expect in pomp and circumstance. Not one who can fulfill your own personal ambitions or give you power. Your King stands before you bloody and beaten, dying on your behalf, proclaiming to the world the truth of sin and redemption.
The King has died so that you and I may live. Look long at your bloody and crucified King today. Worship at the foot of the cursed tree where Life died so that we may live. Go to that rocky tomb; anoint His body with the oil of your tears.
But know that He did not stay dead! In three days, He rose again! He has beaten back all our ambitions and selfishness with His love and obedience and sacrifice! He has risen again so that we may know freedom! He has risen so that we may know joy! He has risen again so that we may know the truth!
Behold your King!