What is Truth? Good Friday Reflections on John 18:33-38
John 18:33-38a 33 (ESV): So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over 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 have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “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.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
Truth — would you recognize it if you saw it?
It is not as easy to recognize truth as it sounds. Not even at a trial. Perhaps especially NOT at a trial. It seems these days that there is always some big trial in the news, that grips people’s attention–These days it’s Oscar Pistorius down in South Africa. We are fascinated with trials–perhaps because of the suspense. What really happened? Will the truth come out? But is a trial the place to find truth?
This trial recorded for us in John chapter 18 didn’t make news in Rome. Jerusalem was a small town, really, not of great importance to the Roman Empire. It was in a troublesome provinces on the eastern border, with a troublesome neighbor to the east who often skirmished with Rome. Judea was not wealthy, it was not a trade center, it didn’t carry political importance. Only twice did someone as important as a Roman emperors come to Judea or Jerusalem, once about 60 years before Jesus was born, once about 70 years after Jesus was born — and both times those emperors came with armies to conquer and destroy Judea and Jerusalem. All Rome wanted was for Judea to not be a problem. Nobody cared what happened in Jerusalem, and nobody really cared about this trial, or this Jesus, who stood before Pontius Pilate. Truth, we find out at the end of this “trial,” was not really what Pontius Pilate was worried about.
Yet Jesus keeps talking about truth. Three times the word “truth” comes up in these few verses; already in the Gospel of John Jesus has used the word “Truth” 26 times, 26 times. So if Jesus talks about the truth much, why does Pilate not see it? Why do the crowds not see the truth? Why do you and I have a hard time seeing the truth?
Pilate does not see it, because he does not understand what truth is–and sometimes we don’t either. You see, there is a difference between something being true and the truth. There is a difference between determining that a statement or fact is “true,” and the “truth.” Let me give you an example. It is a true thing to say that the temperature of the flame of the candles burning behind me is about 175°. You can get out of thermometer can measure the temperature of the flame and determine that it is a true statement that candles burn at 175°. Or, it would be a true statement to say that the name of the highway that runs east-west through the center of St. Louis is called I-64. Well, I would call it that, because I am originally from Chicago. Those of you who are born and raised in St. Louis probably call that road “highway farty” — Your truth and my truth — and both would be true statements. It is true because we can go, look at a map, observe, report.
You notice the problem, though: that kind of truth, a true statement about something, relies on our observation, our judgment, our evaluation. You and I become the one who determines the truth–but if that is all that there is to truth, then we will never reach it, because truth, then, is subject to my judgment, my interpretation, or yours, or 5 billion other people’s interpretation, and how do you know which observation and judgment is right?
Is it any wonder that Pontius Pilate could not see the truth, when it was standing in front of him? He was used to being the one who decided what was a true statement and what was not. And here, thrust in front of him, is a small, weak, inoffensive man who lots of people wanted dead. This Jesus did not have an army, or weapons, or wealth, or power — none that Pilate could see. “Are you the King of the Jews”, Pilate asked? The answer seemed obvious–there was no “King of the Jews”. Rome was in power; “the Jews” were not a political group, they were an ethnic group living in the Roman Province of Syria. The claim is absurd that anyone could be King of the Jews, let alone this guy, standing in front of Pilate. To his observation, it was a true statement to say that Jesus was NOT King of the Jews. Just look at him.
And then Jesus answers: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Pilate doesn’t get this “kingdom is not of this world” — what other world is there? But he picks up on the “King” thing again. “So you are a King” Pilate asks?
Jesus response with “The Truth” — not with a true statement, subject to evaluation, but with the truth. Actually, with a story about him: “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.”
He does not say that he came to fill our heads with true statements –oh, he does some of that throughout the Gospels, but he tells us true things so that we can understand something about the truth.
You see, truth is not simply a collection of true statements, like the temperature of a burning candle flame or the name of highway. The truth is that upon which everything rests, “in whom we live and move and have our being,” is that Jesus Christ is the foundation upon which everything rests. Jesus Christ has come into the world to make known the Father to a people who were lost, separated from their God, by sin. Jesus Christ came to restore us to God, to undo the sin that Adam and Eve brought into the world and which we have inherited. Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, hung on a cross, died in our place, rose from the dead, and is coming again to restore us, body and soul, to God. That is the truth. You cannot measure it, you cannot test it, you are only baptized into it.
That is why Jesus uses that odd phrase at the end: everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice. He does not say, “everyone who believes true things listens to my voice.” Rather, only those who are “of the truth.” This is the key statement. “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” In other words, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate did not belong to the truth, and so when he sees this Jesus standing before he, he cannot see that he is the Son of God, that he is, indeed, King not only of the Jews but of all creation. The crowds outside Pilate’s headquarters were not of the truth. And so they could not see that this man was the one sent to save them, and so they asked Pilate to crucify him.
But you and I, who have been baptized into Christ and live by faith, we see it, because we are of the truth. And this changes everything. You see, it is a true statement to say that you and I do not live up to the standards of God’s law. We can measure ourselves, evaluate ourselves, but we will fall short. It is a true statement to say that every one of us has, at one time or another, put our trust and confidence in something other than God our Father‑whether that is our wealth, or our reputation, or our power. It is a true statement to say that we have faltered in our worship, that we have failed to love one another, that we have not cared for widows and orphans in their distress. Those are all true statements. They can all be observed and measured. And it is a true statement to say that as a result, we are all worthy of death and separation from God.
But that is not the truth. The truth is that because Jesus died on the cross for you and rose from the dead that you are holy. The truth is that because of Jesus Christ you are forgiven. The truth is that because of the work of the Son of God you are righteous in God’s sight, you are perfect in his eyes, you are his dearly loved child. That is the truth. And it is because of one man, Jesus Christ, because by his work and the sending of his Spirit he has called you by the Gospel, enlightened you with his gifts, sanctified and kept you in the true faith.
What is truth? It is Jesus Christ, and in our Gospel reading he stands before you, about to be crucified, for you. Because he is the way, and the truth, and the life.