33 Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again, called Jesus, and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?”
34 Jesus answered him, “Are you speaking for yourself about this, or did others tell you this concerning Me?”
35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered You to me. What have You done?”
36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.”
37 Pilate therefore said to Him, “Are You a king then?”
Jesus answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”
38 Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews, and said to them, “I find no fault in Him at all.
It is an iconic scene from a classic movie. The setting is a military courtroom, the characters are polished military brass and the tension in the room can be cut with a knife:
Lt. Kaffee: Colonel Jessup, did you order the Code Red?
Judge Randolph: You don't have to answer that question!
Col. Jessup: I'll answer the question!
Col. Jessup: You want answers?
Lt. Kaffee: I think I'm entitled to.
Col. Jessep: You want answers?
Lt. Kaffee: I WANT THE TRUTH!
Col. Jessup: YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!
The movie is the 1992 blockbuster, “A Few Good Men,” a legal thriller focused on the court-martial of two young Marines. In the climactic scene above, decorated general Nathan Jessup, played by a snarling Jack Nicholson (in his finest role as, well, Jack Nicholson in a military uniform) who reveals himself to be the true villain of the story–by finally getting to the truth of the crime that had occurred.
When Nicholson shouted his now oft-quoted phrase he followed it with a speech about military duty that was lost to the moviegoing audience that had already come to hate him with the same seething passion that he seemed to show them.
After a decade of Hollywood movies depicting the American military in heroic roles and following the lightning-fast success of the first Gulf War, movies like “A Few Good Men” kicked off a decade of cynical cinematic portrayals of the military and war that seemed to ride on the echoes of Col. Jessup’s courtroom shout.
Over two thousand years ago a similar exchange took place in a courtroom in Jerusalem. During that exchange, not only was the truth revealed, the very author of truth was present–for He was the One who IS the Truth.
It is night. Jesus has been arrested in the garden, His friends–His true brothers–have been scattered. One brother, Peter, has just denied Him three times. His enemies spit on Him, mock Him and strike Him with their hands and fists.
Jesus is first brought by His accusers to Annas’ house, father-in-law to the High Priest Caiaphas. There, in an illegal night-time meeting they hurl accusations at Him, summon false witnesses who contradict each other, tear their clothes, and work themselves into a frenzy.
Jesus spoke only the truth to them and took all of this abuse as it was foretold:
7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth;
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,
And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.–Isaiah 53:7
Caiaphas has advised the only sentence that would satisfy their blood lust: death. Annas has heard enough and as the early morning hours creep in Jesus is hauled to the only man in the land who can order it so: Pontius Pilate.
You know this name. You say it in the Apostle’s Creed:
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate…
Soon followed by the heartbreaking words:
…was crucified, died, and was buried…
Who is this man who held such power over men? Pilate was the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judea. It is at this point that commentators often go off on a mini-biography of Pilate but his identity and role can be summed up in two basic ways: he was a bureaucrat and a cruel one at that.
Pilate can often seem like a sympathetic character in this pageant of death, just someone doing his job and caught up in the drama of events. There is an element to this but Pilate was not innocent. His rule had been characterized by terror, and even massacre in his stormy dealing with “these troublesome Jews."
Pilate is on the outs with high command and even has a reprimand from the emperor in Rome in his permanent file. No one in the military wants a bad fitness report–and Pilate is walking on eggs.
Pilate knows that if you find yourself walking on eggs, you don’t hop.
And now this. The Jews bring him an insurrectionist, this “miracle rabbi” hillbilly from Galilee who has been causing trouble. Pilate, has troops on edge and Rome on his back, has a full day ahead of him–but now he must somehow untie this Gordian knot of Jewish nonsense. Plus, Pilate’s wife has been on him because she is having nightmares about this man, this Jesus of Nazareth.
It’s not yet 6am and already Pilate can feel a headache coming on.
Pilate’s position reminds me of the Roger Whittaker song The Governor’s Dream. This is a Christmas song by the South African folk singer and I would not know it but that my mom loved and played his music when I was young. I admit his voice is reminiscent of my own grandfathers melodious baritone and so it is little wonder why.
In this song, a Roman governor struggles with ruling the unruly Judeans during a time when a star and a stable mark the birth of a king. The governor’s restless sleep is interrupted by unsettling dreams of this king and how He will change his world:
I but dream...
But this cannot be Rome
O holy, O holy
The Forum's gone, the flesh and bone
O holy, O holy
And what is this within my sight
A temple holy filled with light
A dome across a ringing bell
I hear a million voices swell
And they sing
And they sing…
The Jews bring Jesus to Pilate in the pre-dawn hours–a time when he was likely most available as the rest of his day would be spent in the leisure activities of a Roman official. The priests refuse to enter Pilate’s house so as to not be rendered unclean during Passover (John 18:28). Jesus goes in–effectively defiling Himself even more in their pious eyes!
Pilate gets down to business:
33 Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again, called Jesus, and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?”–John 18:33
Jesus, battered and bloody, nevertheless meets Pilate where he is and asks for clarification:
34 Jesus answered him, “Are you speaking for yourself about this, or did others tell you this concerning Me?”–John 18:34
Jesus is not playing dumb, He is laying ground rules. In other words, Jesus asks, “Are you asking whether I am a political king or are you asking for the Jews if I am the Messiah?”
Oh boy, here we go with this stuff again, thinks Pilate, you’re not suckering me into a debate. He will have none of it and sneers at Jesus:
35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered You to me. What have You done?”–John 18:35
Jesus answers with the truth:
36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.”–John 18:36
Bingo! thinks the Roman, Pilate, old boy, you can still hook ‘em! Jesus is practically admitting His guilt–along with some “mumbo-jumbo” about kingdoms and servants. Pilate rocks back in his chair:
37 Pilate therefore said to Him, “Are You a king then?”
This is interrogatory but not inquisitive. Pilate is a lawyer in court getting a criminal to repeat his claim.
Jesus answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”–John 18:37
“I am a king,” Jesus says, “but a King like no other.” He is a king but not of an earthly kingdom and He has come to reveal the truth of God. What is this truth of God? The truth is a man, the living Word of God:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.–John 1:1-5
Here, in chains and facing not only certain death but foreordained death as part of His Father’s plan, Jesus witnesses to the Roman governor.
This is astounding, is it not? Could you do this? I have serious doubts that I could.
Pilate, however, has heard enough:
38 Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews, and said to them, “I find no fault in Him at all.–John 18:38
This phrase of Pilates has sparked centuries of discussion. Is he listening to Jesus and deciding to seek the truth? No, his tone is of resignation, frustration and disgust. D. A. Carson describes:
Pilate abruptly terminates the interrogation with a curt and cynical question: What is truth?–and just as abruptly turns away, either because he is convinced there is no answer, or, more likely, because he does not want to hear it. He thus proves he is not amongst those whom the Father has given to the Son.–D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John
Pilate, simply put, could not handle the truth.
How does our modern west consider Pilate’s question: What is truth? We live in an age when every man has his own truth, and that these truths clash until one is claimed to be “harmful” and thus condemned.
There is a double-mindedness forced on people. Freedom means slavery, truth means falsehood, 2+2=5, men can be women, women can be men. The mind races to both accept these absurdities while holding to timeless principles.
These are lies. We must, as Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “refuse to live by lies.” He pledged himself to live by several principles, paraphrased here in Rod Dreher’s astounding book “Live not by Lies:”
Will not write, affirm or distribute anything that distorts the truth.
Will not go to a demonstration or participate in a collective action unless he truly believes in the cause.
Will not take part in a meeting in which the discussion is forced and no one can speak the truth.
Will not vote for a candidate or proposal he considers “dubious or unworthy.”
Will walk out of an event “as soon as he hears the speaker utter a lie, ideological drivel or shameless propaganda.”
Will not support journalism that “distorts or hides the underlying facts.”
It is one thing to do this and think of politics but as a follower of the One who came to bear witness to the truth you must seek to live a daily life free of lies. This means that in love you may need to confront other believers in their sins–or be willing to face your own if they are pointed out to you. Start by seeking to speak and be truthful to your family, other believers and even yourself.
This will be painful. This may cost you dear. To live the message of the gospel in a world that has abandoned truth is to invite the same treatment Jesus received.
The truth of Jesus will also fill you with a sense of comfort peace and strength. For it is in Jesus that you will find your true refuge from the lies of this world, for He will uphold you.
Can you handle the truth? Peter, who pledged he would never betray Jesus, could not withstand the storm for a mere few hours and denied Christ when a young girl questioned him. Will you stand?
The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:
The weekly study guides, which include the Monday–Friday devotionals plus related questions for discussion or meditation, are available for download here:
Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.