What is truth?
In three words Pilate asked the question of questions. What is truth? For a moment, the worldly Roman had moved off into something beyond this world. Truth.
Jesus had said He was here to proclaim the truth. What truth? We, of course, know that was the truth of His Kingdom: that God loved the world so much that He had entered into it as the ultimate revelation – God as a human – to let the world know His will was that none should perish. God was for all of humanity, He wants all of us to spend eternity with Him.
That was the truth confronting Pilate on that Friday nearly two thousand years ago. Not just a truth, but the ultimate in truth.
Truth is easier to deal with if it can be just pushed off aside; redefined into something more comforting: What is truth? There were many truths Pilate faced that day. He faced the truth that the leaders of Jesus’ own people were dead set to see blood, and that they would take whatever means necessary to get it. This was the truth that Pilate’s job was in danger from his constituents. All of Pilate’s goals and dreams were at risk; he was a man outside of his league who had been given a job of power through influential connections (Houston 76). Despite those connections, he was a bungling leader and truth was that it wouldn’t be hard for a few angry people to ruin it all for him. What if they tried to turn Caesar against him? A few years later just that would happen: a mob of people and an attempt to put down a feared uprising led to Pilate’s demise as a politician.
What is truth? Truth was that his wife had warned Pilate to avoid having anything to do with the death of Jesus. As a relative of Caesar’s, she clearly could weld some power over him if she wanted (Houston 81). But I think that’s only part of the story: it seems that her words rang true to Pilate. Jesus did seem innocent, strangely, peculiarly innocent – perhaps more so because he refused to do anything to defend himself. Pilate beheld the man, and saw a truth: he was innocent.
What is truth? Truth is that Pilate’s job was to uphold the laws of the land (Barth Outline 111). His job was to uphold the laws, but would he have a job if he upheld them? Situational truth arose, perhaps: it was truer that his job was at stake than that he was a defender of laws. Pilate had seen more than his fair share of bloodshed under his reign, why should one innocent man stand in the way of his continued power over Judea? Perhaps for a moment he puzzled at why he had to be stuck at this far flung outpost of the empire, but regardless of that, the truth was that this was his post and like it or not, Jesus stood before him and a mob awaited him outside. Maybe truth could be redefined just a bit.
Pilate wouldn’t know this, but truth had much to do with his place in the scheme of things. Truth, the truth of Jesus’ innocent death, would be attested to for all time because of his act. As the Apostle’s creed says: He suffered under Pontius Pilate. Pilate served a very important role to truth: he cemented the fact that the Word of God Incarnate, the Savior was not an abstract philosopher’s idea or some kind of supersized metaphor, but a real life, flesh and blood reality: in his contact with Pilate, Jesus broke away from merely being a figment of Israelite history and into the history of the whole world, at least as it was known at the time: the Roman Empire (112). No longer was the “Jesus Question” one that needed to be dealt with only by Jews; years before Paul became the great Apostle to the Gentles, the Gentile Pilate was forced reluctantly to ponder this matter of what to do with Jesus. He had to ponder truth.
What is truth? Pilate had to rationalize: he had to make “his” truth out of what he surely knew was a lie: if he simply washed his hands of the matter, he could be done with it. Truth is that the very act of washing his hands is what would immortalize him as the indecisive one: the one who betrayed truth, betrayed Jesus by indecision. His one memorable action was actively choosing inaction. Pilate was confronted by Truth incarnate and he instead made his own truth: if he didn’t take sides, if he just let everyone else sort things out, he could just go on with life. Truth isn’t that simple.
What is Truth? Truth is that Jesus was for Pilate, and yet Pilate lived a lie of self-deception. He really had no choice to make: had he chosen to side with Christ, he would have received the election that Jesus was going to earn for him on the cross. Maybe he’d have lost his outpost, or maybe not, but in a much more significant way, all would have been well. But Pilate deceived himself into thinking there was another choice. He was torn: as a power hungry statesman, he opted to the route of the corrupt, but, nevertheless, the ideal of the statesman still could not be entirely covered by his corruption: a glimmer of truth was in him and it forced him to declare Jesus innocent (112). He wasn’t blind to the truth, he blinded himself to it. Confronted with truth, he rejected it actively. The cast would be set for Pilate: Jesus was for Pilate, but Pilate would be known as against Christ for all eternity.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate. Pilate was not a man chosen by God to do this evil inaction. Instead, he was chosen, like everyone else to receive God’s good news. Yet, failing to do just that, God still turned what Pilate meant for evil into good. As Joseph said in Genesis 50:22, “You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.” This thing was bigger than Pilate imagined, and though Pilate’s choice would condemn him to infamy, it was a meaningless choice (113). He was deceived from truth: God’s “superior will” was going to be done regardless of what Pilate chose to do, it was simply a matter of Pilate choosing on what side of that will he was to be known.
What is truth? That question still rings true today. Confronted with that question, beholding the man, what will you do with him?
Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business.
Originally presented on Good Friday, April 14, 2006 at St. Paul’s Evangelical Church, St. Louis, MO. Primary among sources consulted were Dogmatics in Outline (New York: Haper Torchbooks, 1959) and Church Dogmatics volume 2.2 (Edinburgh, Scotland, UK: T. & T. Clark, 1957), both by Karl Barth. Also referenced was Where You There? Seeing Yourself in the Drama of the Cross by Tom Houston (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1987).