What is truth? It’s a fundamental question. Everyone asks it at some point. The answer drives our sense of meaning and purpose, and what we pursue. Objective or subjective, our view of truth shapes our interpretation of life.
As important as the answer is, the how and why it is asked is just as important. To some, the answer seems so obvious and straightforward that the asking must be rooted in relativity and is asked dismissively and with sarcasm. To others, it can be a legitimate question, asked in curiosity with a sincere desire to know. It’s a humble question in which the asker recognizes the limitations (boundaries?) of their own knowledge.
Conversations about the nature of truth are not uncommon today. It is discussed in both theoretical terms and very practical (and personal) settings. It may be that this question has unique significance in present-day discussions, but it isn’t bound exclusively to our time. There is one story of when this question was asked that has some significant implications.
Home of Pilate, Roman governor of Judea, circa AD33 (roughly).
Jesus and Pilate stood regarding one another. Pilate was the one with official authority. He was the one who could make things happen. He held life and death. In fact, that was the reason that the Jewish had brought this man here in the first place. They wanted him executed.
Pilate met Jesus as a judge meets a defendant. This was a trial. Judge and accused standing face to face. This testimony revolved around one significant question. Pilate too the direct approach: “Are you the king of the Jews?” The answer to this determined the outcome of this trial: verdict and sentencing.
After a bit of cat and mouse, an answer to the question comes “My kingdom is not of this world. . . . “ Yes, I am a king. But my kingdom is not here. Open and shut. Guilty as charged. If only every court case were as quick and as easy as this. Claim of kingship was sedition against Rome, punishable by death.
But Pilate wanted to release Jesus. “I find no basis for a charge against him.” That stands in direct contradiction to the stated facts of the exchange. Pilate asked directly about the charges. In essence, Jesus pleaded guilty. Not only was there basis for charge, there was evidence for conviction. But instead of the logical sequence of events, Pilate attempts to do the opposite.
What made the difference? What would lead a Roman official to suggest releasing someone who claimed to be a king? The answer lies in the few lines between Jesus’s claim of kingship and Pilate’s suggestion of release. This is where the question of truth is asked:
“You are a king, then!” Pilate accepts his guilty plea.
“You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
“What is truth?”
After asking this fundamental and weighty question (with no recorded response). Pilate returns to the Jewish leaders who brought Jesus to him and pronounces not just a not guilty verdict, but claims that there isn’t even a basis for a charge. This exchange is the hinge between the guilty plea and the suggestion of release. It is the reason for Pilate’s verdict. This deserves our exploration.
It’s possible that Pilate thought Jesus was mentally unstable. Perhaps he was dismissing all charges on the grounds of insanity.
Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world and that if it was, his subjects would fight for him. It’s possible that Pilate saw this as no threat to Rome (a kingdom not of this world cannot threaten the power of Rome). Perhaps Pilate heard this answer and took pity on someone who seemed to be mentally unbalanced. A kingdom not of this world sounds like a kingdom of imagination. How many of us are the rulers of our imaginary kingdoms?
That scenario is plausible, and if true, it renders Pilate’s question about truth to the first category—asked dismissively and with sarcasm. But what if the question is of the second kind?
Jesus has claimed a kingdom, spoken of his servants, and made a proclamation about those who belong in and to this kingdom. All of this points clearly, and rather convincingly, to a guilty verdict. Rather than wipe his hands at a closed case, Pilate responds with a question.
Pilate’s question is a mark of genuine curiosity. Jesus probably had Pilate’s interest long before this meeting (it’s highly unlikely that Pilate was not aware of a miracle worker who had been travelling his province for three years). Curiosity about Jesus would have been understandable.
But in this exchange, Jesus says something that leads Pilate to ignore charges and tacit admissions of sedition to suggest letting Jesus go. Before the last utterance by Pilate to Jesus, the famous question, Jesus made a significant claim. He said that there is an inseparable connection between his kingdom subjects and the truth.
Pilate’s famous response, “what is truth?” has characterized his interaction with Jesus for millennia. And it’s tempting to read that as a question in line with a current postmodern mindset. Hearing that question from the 21st century, we’re likely to think that Pilate was suggesting that there is no objective truth, that truth is determined in the mind of the subject. But the likelihood that Pilate was that forward of a thinker is pretty slim.
What if Pilate was not posing a post-modern philosophical conundrum, but instead asking what it was that characterized those who belonged in Jesus’s kingdom? What, Jesus? What is it that those on your side support? Pilate may have been curious, not about the nature of truth per se, but specifically about it’s relationship to those who hear and follow Jesus. Pilate was following what Jesus had said. It’s possible that Pilate is trying to reconcile a not of this world kingdom with this claim that suggests it’s subject are indeed part of this world.
Pilate may not have been interested in becoming someone who listened to the truth, and being part of Jesus’s kingdom, but neither was dismissive and sarcastic. He was curious enough to ask questions. He was asking a sincere and deeply significant question. He wanted to know what was this truth that made people hear and follow Jesus. He wanted to know more about this man before him who had admitted to being a king, to having servants, and who identified those who were part of his kingdom. Pilate wanted to know what it meant to be in Jesus’s kingdom.
Pilate is a lot like us. Whether we are encountering Jesus for the first or the one thousandth time, there’s something about him that triggers curiosity and questions.
What Jesus said to Pilate is still true. Those on the side of truth listen to him. What Pilate asked remains a significant and important question, not because truth is relative or debatable, but because truth identifies those who are . Those who want to know Jesus continue to ask questions. They continue to seek the truth.