A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on May 9, 2021.
So Pilate entered his headquarters 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 delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him” (John 18:33–38).
Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, and conviction were done in the dark, both literally and figuratively. He who was sent in love and came in truth encountered neither on that dark night. He was betrayed with a kiss, arrested without cause, tried on false testimony, convicted though innocent. Yet, everything that happened to him on that night, including Peter’s denial, was presented as truth. The entire evening was Satanically staged to have the appearance of truth. The fallen angel of light is an expert at this.
Judas’ garden greeting was one of a beloved-brother. It was not. Jesus’ arrest by the weapon-wielding light brigade was one of justice. It was not. Jesus was struck for inappropriately responding to the supposed high priest. He did not. Jesus’ figurative claim of rebuilding a torn-down temple in three days was construed to be a terroristic threat. It was not. Just because someone presents something as truth, acts like it is truth, or defends it as truth does not make it truth.
Such deceit is not isolated to first-century Israel, of course. There is a reason that one of the Ten Commandments is “You shall not bear false witness.” There is a reason the Proverbs warn of those who utter deceit, have a lying tongue, or a deceitful heart (Prov. 12:17, 19-20). There is a reason that Scripture reveals that “Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD” (Prov. 12:22). Given the human propensity to deceive, lie, and bear false witness, how can anyone know the truth? Perhaps the Roman governor Pontius Pilate summed up this sentiment best when he asked, “What is truth?”
Though Pilate was skeptical or honest, or both, as Christians we know that truth is not relative but absolute. We know that truth is not situational but eternal. We know that in this present darkness all truth is God’s truth, a gift of his common grace. Truth shows up sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. And we know that truth is not a social construct but is divinely revealed, as Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” And truth may be standing in front of you, and yet still be ignored.
Ignoring the Truth
John’s account of Jesus’ interaction with Pilate differs from the other Gospels in scope and focus. He does not record everything they discuss, or even Pilate’s attempted delegation to Herod, but instead he focuses on documenting a conversation that ultimately leads to Pilate’s famous question. But while the conversation concludes with Pilate’s seemingly unanswered question, it appears to drive his inquiry. For example, Pilate firsts asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” While we may be tempted to read sarcasm into his question, surely it cannot be a legitimate inquiry. He has been governor of Judea for seven long years, years filled with insurrectionists, and clashes with the Jewish people in general. He knows Israel has no king, no king but Caesar (John 19:15).
We know that according to Luke, Israel’s leaders falsely accused Jesus of attempting to keep the nation from “giving tribute to Caesar,” in claiming to be the “Christ, a king” (Luke 23:2). We also know, according to Matthew, that Pilate sees through their false accusation. He knows they are envious (Matt. 27:18). He knows they are lying. As a pagan, he knows that the supposed people of the One, true God are liars.
Actually, Pilate doesn’t really want to know if Jesus is the “King of the Jews,” and Jesus knows it, asking, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate is neither a Jew nor does he care if Jesus is called their “King.” Pilate really wants to know what Jesus has done. It is a point of expediency: What did Jesus do that led to Israel’s leaders’ pursuit of capital punishment?
In truth, what has Jesus done? True or false: Jesus preached the gospel; Jesus taught Scripture with authority; Jesus worked miracles, healing the sick and even raising the dead to life. True or false: Jesus taught and worked miracles in the presence of Israel’s leaders; Jesus confronted their hypocrisy; Jesus confronted their socially-accepted sins and even their deepest secret sins. Jesus shown the light on their darkness, and they “loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:19-20). All of these statements are true, and for all of them they killed him.
If Pilate knows that Israel’s leaders are lying in order to have Jesus executed, why does Pilate ignore the truth? It is easy to ignore what you consider irrelevant. He who could ask, “What is truth?”, considers the truth of the matter a trifle rather than a necessity. We see this clearly with Pilate’s negotiation with the life of Barabbas. Whether the guilty is set free and the innocent punished is of little consequence to him. The truth was crucified both figuratively and literally, but what did it matter to Pilate? Does it matter to you?
Misunderstanding the Truth
Interestingly, Jesus says nothing to refute the false accusations, nor does he tell Pilate all he has done. Instead, he returns to Pilate’s first question to not only answer but to also explain, saying, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Consider Jesus’ words carefully. There is a heavenly kingdom and an earthly kingdom. In the earthly kingdom, dominated by sin, truth may be ignored for the sake of agenda, motive, expediency, among other things. In the heavenly kingdom, where truth prevails, the King reigns supreme. Through the incarnation of the Son of God, the heavenly kingdom is revealed here on earth. That which is true supernaturally was revealed naturally in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And the purpose of his coming was not to wage war of flesh and blood but to shed his blood to redeem his own.
Pilate misses the point. Rather than considering the magnitude of Jesus’ statement, Pilate remains focused on Israel’s accusation, asking, “So you are a king?” Again, it is a matter of expediency. Why wrestle with Jesus’ supernatural claims when his words seemingly match the accusations? How often we hear what someone says through the filter of what we want to hear rather than listening for truth.
Truth matters. Neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the title of king, Jesus reveals why the King of heaven is falsely being tried in an earthly court: “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth.” True or false? Christ’s coming was prophesied from the protoevangelium of Genesis 3 all the way to the ministry of John the Baptist? True of false? Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a perfectly righteous life, and testified to his identity as the Son of God by word and deed. But what was the purpose? According to Jesus, it was “to bear witness to the truth.”
What does Jesus mean by this? He means that the truth of heaven is revealed in the Son of God, who is the truth. He means that only through him will rebel citizens of earth be reconciled to the Father in heaven, redeemed from this kingdom of falsehood and made citizens of the kingdom of God, where truth reigns forever. In short, Jesus means that he came to testify of himself for the sake of sinners like you and me.
This is, to borrow the term from Francis Schaeffer, “true truth.” What Schaffer meant is that truth is not relativistic but absolute, true truth. If something is true, the opposite is always false. Consider how this differs from the idea that truth is relative to our personal perspective. If truth for you is not truth for me or vice versa, truth becomes subjective. You and I individually become the basis for what is true or false. Sound familiar?
But what if truth is not individually determined but is an individual person, a living divine standard? What if truth is not relative to our age but is eternal? When Jesus said, “I am…the truth” (John 14:6), he was not merely saying that he told the truth or that his life is in keeping with the truth or even that he taught the truth, although all of this is true. What he is saying is that there is absolute, objective, eternal truth, and he is it. Anything contrary to him, whether as revealed in his earthly ministry, or by his Spirit, or in his Word, is falsehood. And this living Truth is not an abstract concept but is the Son of God, Savior of sinners, and you may know him.
Knowing the Truth
Jesus’ parting words to Pilate are also inviting: “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Whether Jew or Gentile, everyone hears the voice of truth through faith in him. It is, in a sense, a gospel invitation to the Roman governor. As D.A. Carson puts it, “The man in the dock invites his judge to be his follower, to align himself with those who are ‘of the truth’”. It is an invitation to all who would believe.
Apart from Christ, everyone is shackled to their sin, living out life in this earthly kingdom with no hope of the heavenly. Jesus said, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Although these words are often manipulated and used out of context, what Jesus means is liberating: It is only through faith in him that we are freed from the spiritual bondage of this sin, including its lies. It is only through faith in him that we are enabled and empowered to live our lives in his truth. As his Spirit conforms us to his truth, we realize that true freedom is found only in the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Pilate was blind to this, and consciously chose to ignore the truth, deny his invitation, and question its existence: “What is truth?” His question goes unanswered. Or does it?
In the pages that follow in John’s Gospel, Pilate’s question is actually answered as we read the truth of Jesus’ persecution, his crucifixion, his burial, and resurrection. We read the testimony of his life as truth embodied. As one commentator put it, “On the cross and at the empty tomb we may learn what God’s truth is.” And we may know God’s truth by his grace through faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us.
He who is the way, the truth, and the life, points us to the gospel of himself. I think Thomas a’ Kempis summarized this truth brilliantly, writing, “Follow thou me. I am the way and the truth and the life. Without the way there is no going; without the truth there is no knowing; without the life there is no living. I am the way which thou must believe; the life for which thou must hope. I am the inviolable way; the infallible truth, the never-ending life. I am the straightest way; the sovereign truth; life true, life blessed, life uncreated.” This is true, for our Lord Jesus Christ is the Truth.
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).
 Francis A. Schaeffer, “The God Who Is There,” in The Complete Works of Francis a. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview (Wheaton: Crossway, 1985).
 D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 595.
 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 682.
 Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, quoted in D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 492.