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. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice. Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” —John 18:33-38
The name of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate has been famous throughout the centuries for one reason: other than Jesus and Mary, he is the only other human being named in our creeds. Christ “suffered under Pontius Pilate”: He was the official who ordered the execution of our Lord, and he asked Jesus two important questions: Are you the King of the Jews? and What is truth?
Why are these questions important? First, let’s consider Jesus as the king of a nation, or a people. Americans are fascinated with royalty, but we have not wanted nor do we want to be ruled by a king or queen but by ourselves: “We the people.” Nor do we want to pay for a hereditary royal family that does not actually rule anymore, as some nations do. So, when we speak of Jesus as king, it may seem obvious to us that the title is symbolic and metaphorical: we are talking about a spiritual realm, not politics. But it isn’t so obvious in our time, is it?
To take one example, ISIS is bent on restoring an Islamic Caliphate, an earthly political entity to seek the domination of the whole world here and now, according to its understanding of the commands of God, issued through Muhammad. A key component to this caliphate is, of course, a caliph, an earthly ruler. We need to be careful to make the distinction, then. When we sing, from Handel’s Messiah at Christmas time, “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (see Rev. 11:15), we are expressing primarily an eschatological hope, not a contemporary fact.
Romans in Jesus’ day despised kings even more than the founders of the United States of America would centuries later. They prided themselves on not having a king. Rex was one of the most hated words in Latin because of the seven hated kings of Rome, the last of whom was Tarquin the Proud. When he was overthrown in 509 B.C., the Roman Republic was established and two consuls were elected for set terms of service. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible unfortunately translates Caesar in the Greek as the Emperor, obscuring the fact that the leaders of Rome after the death of Julius Caesar took his name as their own, whether there was any kinship or not, precisely because they did not want a title other than those of the Roman Republic. The Roman ruler would never use the title king.
But the Romans allowed various states they had conquered to retain their royalty and the title king with their permission. For this reason, it would have been considered insurrection if Jesus sought to call himself a king without that permission. Pilate’s question is serious: Are you the King of the Jews? And the sign he ordered to be placed over Jesus’ head on the Cross, in three languages so everyone could read it (“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”), was not just meant to mock the helpless man hanging there. It expressed his contempt for the leaders of the Jews, the troublesome people who were so eager to have one of their own teachers and prophets crucified.
Jesus’ response to Pilate concerned his kingdom, not his status as a king. Perhaps what is more important, however, is that Jesus changed the subject from kingdom to truth; what is important in this world, according to Jesus, is not who is on the throne or in power politically but what is true. Get that right and the rest will follow, he seems to say in this, his very last teaching in his life on earth.
“Truth lies wrapped up and hidden in the depths,” said Seneca the Younger, a Roman philosopher from the time of Jesus (De beneficiis VII.1). “We sometimes discover truth where we least expected to find it,” said Quintilian, another Roman of the first century (De institutione oratoria XII.8.3). The practical political philosopher Pilate went further, questioning the reality of the concept itself: What is truth?
At that time, Jesus did not respond verbally to Pilate’s question; but we his followers hear his voice and thus know the truth. Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes unto the Father but by me” (John 14:6). We who follow him must ask ourselves again and again, “Are we listening?”
Consider the voice of the tempter in Eden contradicting the voice of the Lord God: “You will not die,” he said to Eve. She listened to him instead of God, and her husband listened to her. Our first disobedience involved ignoring and questioning the one who is the truth, turning to another. In this way, in a sense, Pilate recapitulates the Fall of man, washing his hands of the crisis.
Jesus, the Word made flesh who dwelt among us, still teaches his disciples: “The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the son of God and those who hear will live” (John 5:25). “If you continue in my word … you will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).
The Word preached that one last time to Pilate, the Roman procurator who had the power to sentence him to death, and he spoke of the truth. Pilate questioned if the truth was knowable; he asked the Truth himself. The truth is knowable: we know it by listening to Jesus and looking to him, not because he is a king, whether you like kings or not, not because “we have no king but Caesar” or no king but “we the people,” but because the truth of eternal life has been revealed to us, and beckons us, and saves us on this Good Friday: not your truth or my truth, but the Truth.