In a fascinating dialogue, Pilate and Jesus explore the meaning of kingship. Pilate is the representative of the most powerful man on earth, Caesar. As a servant of the empire, Pilate has at his disposal the weapons and wealth that have made Rome master of the known world. What harm could come from the pretensions of this Jewish peasant, a pretender to a throne that didn’t exist? A revolutionary whose followers, by his own admission, did not fight. The only truth that Pilate knew was the truth that came at the edge of a Roman sword. In Jesus’s own mind, and even in the mind of his followers, he may be a king. But there was no power on earth that could ever make that a reality.
Or was there?
One of the things so compelling about this dialogue between Pilate and Jesus is the way in which Pilate’s question hangs in the air. Immediately after asking the question, Pilate breaks off the conversation to return outside and speak to Jesus’s accusers. Perhaps we ourselves have asked the same question, or one very similar, and waited as the question hung in the air without receiving an answer. I believe the gospel intends for the question to hang there, seemingly unanswered. Not because the question cannot be answered, but because the question must be asked before the answer can be given. The question hangs in the air because the answer will come not through the words of Jesus, but through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
A quick survey of the John’s Gospel shows that the word truth appears over 20 times. In many of these instances, it refers to who Jesus is, or what he reveals.
Jesus is full of truth: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 ESV).
Truth came through Jesus: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
The truth will set free those who believe in Jesus: “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’” (John 8:31-32).
Jesus is truth: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
During their conversation, Jesus even tells Pilate that his purpose is to bear witness to the truth: “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” (John 18:37).
How was the Word, Jesus, full of truth? How did truth come through Jesus Christ? How does the truth set us free? How is Jesus the truth? How did Jesus bear witness to the truth?
As his conversation with Pilate ends, Jesus says his purpose is to bear witness to the truth. From that point on, Jesus’s witness comes not through his words, but through what he endures. The answer to Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” comes with Jesus being lifted up on the cross, an event which John’s Gospel refers to as Jesus’s “glorification.”
What if we, as Jesus’s followers, took a cue from Jesus and his conversation with Pilate? Rather than trying to speak the truth to everyone, perhaps we should show them the truth of God’s love. There are times when, as a husband, telling my wife I love her isn’t enough. It is important to say the words to be sure, but it is more important to embody the words. A random gift or bouquet of flowers helps to demonstrate the truth of the words I say every day. As the church, perhaps it’s time we were as concerned with embodying truth as we are about speaking the truth. Sometimes the world needs more than words; it needs roses. It needs the cross.
Justin Simmons has served as minister for the Glenmora Church of Christ in central Louisiana since 2011. Previously he studied at the University of South Carolina (BA, MA), and the Candler School of Theology at Emory University (MDiv). He is blessed to call Melissa his wife, and has three wonderful step-children. He enjoys reading about history and practical theology, listening to Gregorian chants, and passionately following Braves baseball and Gamecock sports.