A sermon on John 18 and 19 by Rev Richard Keith on Good Friday 2021
“What is truth?” Pilate asked Jesus and then walked out. If a deeper thinker than Pilate had been there with Jesus the world might have been a different place. Any half-decent philosopher from any age would have fought for the chance to listen to Jesus’ answer. Plato. Socrates. Aristotle. They would have queued for days to hear the answer to the question. What is truth?
We used to know what the truth was. It used to mean that there was some correspondence between what you believe and what is real. Nowadays, people seem to make up their own truth and if it works for them then that’s all right. Relativism, it’s called, when there is no truth and everything is relative. When there is no absolute truth, no standard against which everything is measured, except the truth that there is no absolute truth. But imagine an answer from Jesus to the question. What is truth? At last a definition from the Master himself that would settle all arguments for all time to come.
But Pilate was no philosopher. The job of governing Judea didn’t attract that kind of man. Pilate’s main duties were collecting the taxes and keeping the peace. Getting money without having to kill everyone. It really only required a keen eye for the bottom line and a firm hand on the reins of power. And so Pilate was a blunt, plain speaking and pragmatic man.
What is truth? Pilate’s question, in fact, wasn’t really a question at all. Jesus had said, For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.
And Pilate said, “What is truth?” And walked away without waiting for an answer. So it wasn’t really a question at all. It’s like when you say to someone, “You need a good night sleep.” And they say, “Sleep? What’s that?” Meaning that it is so long since they had a decent sleep, they’ve forgotten what it’s like? Truth? said Pilate. Meaning, What’s that? Implying that it was an idea that he had no time or use for in the real world.
What is truth? Pilate didn’t know or care about any philosophical definition. His approach was very simple. When it came to Jesus, the truth was that the Jewish leaders were lying to him, trying to manipulate him into doing what they wanted. The truth was that they were just jealous of the power Jesus had over the people. The truth was that they were setting Jesus up, using trumped up charges to kill an innocent man. The truth was that Jesus was no threat to Pilate or to the Roman people. He was just some kind of prophet or spiritual guru, whose kingdom was pie in the sky, not one built on solid ground, fought for and won with swords and shields.
What is truth? In Pilate’s actions and choices we see the truth of power. Because for Pilate the only truth was power. For example, he knew that Jesus was innocent. He knew that Jesus had done nothing deserving death. He knew that there was no basis for the charge against him. So what did he do? He had Jesus flogged. As you do.
It seems an odd thing to do to an innocent man. But it did prove too important facts. Firstly, that Jesus was under his control. Pilate could do to him whatever he wanted. As he later said to Jesus, “Don’t you realise I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Flogging Jesus made that point loud and painfully. To underline it he dressed Jesus in a costume like a king. In a purple robe and a crown of thorns. Because he could.
The second thing it proved was that Jesus was no threat. That he was no danger to anyone. Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews, “Look I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” And he dragged Jesus out in front of the crowd, bloodied and bruised in his royal costume. And Pilate said to them, “Behold the man.” Look at him, Pilate was saying. He is no king. He is nothing. He is less than nothing. There is no one here to be afraid of except me. Let him go and just ignore him.”
What is truth? If power is the only truth, then truth was not on Pilate’s side. There were only two powers that Pilate feared and they were both used against him. The first power he feared was the mob. Pilate only had 3000 soldiers in the whole country. The closest legions were hundreds of kilometres away. And if the situation in Judea got out of hand, by the time those legions turned up, Pilate, his family, and his soldiers would have been dead. He couldn’t afford a rebellion.
The only other power Pilate feared was Caesar. If there was a rebellion in Judea, if Pilate had to put it down with force, then he would have a lot of explaining to do to his boss in Rome. “What happened to all the people?” would be Caesar’s first question. “What happened to all the money?” would be his second. The mob could take his life. But Caesar could take his job and then his life.
What is truth? The Jewish leaders used both those powers that Pilate feared against him.
If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.
It was the second last straw. Pilate brought Jesus out and sat on his judgment seat. “Here is your king,” Pilate said. It was meant to be an insult. He had hurt and degraded Jesus in every way he knew how short of the sentence they demanded. If the Jews still took his claims seriously, if the Jews thought this broken man was a threat, then they were more pathetic than he was.
“Take him away,” they shouted. “Crucify him.” “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate practically begged them to let him go. “We have no king but Caesar,” they replied. It was the last straw. They had won. And Pilate let them have what they wanted.
What is truth? If power is the only truth then injustice and evil are the inevitable results. Fear will always cave in and let power do whatever it wants. Whether it is the teacher at school, or the bully on the playground, or the boss at work, or the loudest speaker at the meeting or the will of the mob. If power is the only truth it will always get what it wants, and even if what it wants is right, it will get the right thing the wrong way.
What is truth? In the light of Easter Day we see the power of the truth. Because the execution of Jesus was not just the death of one man. It is nothing less than the attempted murder of all that is good in the world. Pilate’s execution of Jesus proclaims the triumph of power over principle and of fear over love. And so it’s a reminder that there is no Good Friday without Easter. That this Friday is not good at all unless there is a better day. Because what the empty tomb of Jesus says is that what happened on the cross was wrong. That power and fear are not the only truths, but that there is a higher power who will put all wrongs right. And that Pilate spoke with more truth than he realised when he said of Jesus, “Behold the man.” Behold the true human being who takes the place of all other human beings lost in their lies. Behold your king, the one before whom all kings and emperors must kneel, the one who raises up the poor and afflicted.
What is truth? Jesus said,
For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.
Jesus came to tell us the truth about God. That God is not just some faceless power who does whatever he wants. God is not our heavenly bully but our heavenly Father. He cares for the birds and the flowers and for us. And he shows his grace to all, sending the sun to shine on both the good and the bad, sending the rain to fall on the righteous and the wicked.
And Jesus came to tell us the truth about love. Love your neighbour as yourself. Love your enemy and pray for him. Love one another as I have loved you.
And Jesus came to tell us the truth about service. When he ate with tax collectors and sinners. When he let the children come to him. When he washed his disciples feet. When he surrendered his life to the soldiers in Gethsemane.
“Don’t you know,” he said in the Garden, “that I could call on my Father and that he would send me more than twelve legions of angels.” He could, but he didn’t. “Put away your sword,” he said to Peter. “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said to Pilate. “If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest.” The truth is that Jesus’ life was his own. It was not taken from him against his will. But he gave it to bring life to us all.
As it is written in 1 Peter chapter 2,
Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin, and no lies were found in his mouth. When they hurled insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.
There is a truth greater than power. The truth of love. Power rules by fear, but there is no fear in love.
So in a way, Pilate asked the wrong question. He had asked, “What is truth?” when he should have asked, “Who is truth?” Because that is the question Jesus answered the night he was betrayed.
I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
So in the end, truth is not something that is under our control. That we can put in a book and leave on a shelf and take it out when we want. The truth is not something that we can use against someone to get what we want, to force others to cave in and to insist on our way. The truth is not something we have to shout to get heard and to drown out all other alternatives. Because the truth is a person, the living Lord Jesus, and the truth is his way of life, following in his footsteps. And so in all we do, let us speak the truth, let us live the truth and let us follow the truth, our Lord Jesus, the way to the Father.