John 18:28-40 - Can We Handle the Truth?

“What is truth?” That is the question we’re all asking – and should be asking – from the smallest child among us to the ivy league professors. The answer matters, because once we know the truth we know how to measure our lives. Without the truth as a measuring line and a level, our lives are very likely to be built on lies. 

28 Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?”

30 “If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.”

31 Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.”

“But we have no right to execute anyone,” they objected. 32 This took place to fulfill what Jesus had said about the kind of death he was going to die.

(Commentary: John loves to highlight irony. The religious elite want to do away with Jesus quickly in order to celebrate the passover sacrifice, while Jesus himself, the one whose blood they are demanding, happens to be the ultimate passover sacrifice. Pilate knows he is being manipulated by the religious elite here, and so he makes it difficult for them. He knew very well what charges were being brought against Jesus – that he allegedly claimed to be the King of the Jews. At least Pilate says so a few verses later without any prompting, which shows that he had somehow been informed in advance. He knows they are trying to get this over with quickly so they can hypocritically keep their feast, so he tries to slow them down by forcing them to admit they want Jesus formally executed, which, by Roman law, would require a Roman trial.)

33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “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.”

(A little more commentary… It is as if Jesus is saying: “‘King’ … that metaphor is inadequate to describe me. Kings are about intrigue and treasure, war and bloodlust. I am about spiritual, higher things. I am here to reveal something bigger, something eternal: truth. Not just any truth – THE truth. The religious elite who have brought me to you and requested this mockery of a trial understand the title of ‘king,’ but you, a Greco-Roman, understand the imagery of ‘truth’. It’s all the same, to those who seek a king, I am that king; to the philosophers, I am truth. They are one and the same… both king and truth are the apex, the highest authority. You may label me a king or call me the truth, it makes no difference. In the end, Pontius Pilate, I who stand before you in this court am the highest reality in heaven and on earth. I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. I am the author of truth, the beginning and the end of philosophy, I am the maker of kings, the government of this world is on my shoulders. ‘What is truth?’ you ask. Truth is an idea, like ‘king’, that aims to express the highest reality; what is most real, most authoritative, and what must guide every man’s existence.”)

38 “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him. 39 But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?”

40 They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas had taken part in an uprising.

(Commentary: And so the world chooses to embrace the murderer rather than risk releasing, and being exposed to, the truth. Barabbas, they rightly calculate, will not ask them to change.)


This passage is not particularly Christmassy, but I’m pressing on for a few reasons today. For one, I would like to finish our Journey through John before January 15, when we will explore the promise of heaven and the book of Revelation. For another, it’s hard to miss Jesus’ reference to His birth in this passage, in verse 37: “the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth.” And so, even though it may feel like a thematic stretch, the trial of Jesus is actually the reason we celebrate Christmas. Without the truth of Easter’s cross and resurrection, Christmas would lose its significance. And so I hope you will forgive me for staying on this course for another few weeks. On Christmas Day, I fully plan to share a very merry Christmas devotional that will be short and sweet. 

Are we good? Good enough? All right. On to the message:

I read a story in the news last week that made me smile. Astronomers were able to pinpoint the time and place of a tiny asteroid’s arrival on earth with unprecedented accuracy. The asteroid was detected at midnight, and less than an hour later astronomy user groups (including one amateur group calling themselves Farpoint Observatory – let the TNG fans understand) had calculated that it would hit southern Ontario, Canada, at 3:27am that same morning. Sure enough, at 3:27am, dozens of door cams in Southern Ontario filmed the asteroid as it intersected with earth.

I may be a little eccentric, but I couldn’t help but enjoy this report as a little Advent wink from God, a reminder not to forget that another star once marked the accurate predictions of the prophets. Did you know that dozens of Biblical prophecies were fulfilled in that little manger? From a virgin giving birth predicted by Isaiah, to that little town of Bethlehem predicted by Micah, the birth of Christ was foretold by the prophets hundreds of years before with pinpoint accuracy. 

Bethlehem. A king in a manger. The ultimate intersection of the glory of heaven with the stuff of earth. Celestial goings-on which we know little about until they light up the sky and practically land on our heads. Yet no matter how advanced human knowledge becomes, there are still mysteries that remain beyond our grasp. We may catch one asteroid, but we’ll never catch them all. The truth is bigger than we can imagine. 

Which brings us back to today's scripture and Pilate’s famous question of Jesus, "What is truth?"

“What is truth?” Now that is a tall order. That is THE question, isn’t it? Because presumably, if we knew the truth we would walk in it. Although I’m not convinced we’re all so noble as that. 

“What is truth?” That is the question we’re all asking – and should be asking – from the smallest child among us to the ivy league professors. The answer matters, because once we know the truth we know how to measure our lives. Without the truth as a measuring line and a level, our lives are very likely to be built on lies. As Jesus said, most people choose the broad path of falsehood that leads to destruction, but there are only a few who choose the narrow path of truth that leads to life. 

I’m no philosopher, and I’m hardly qualified to give a lecture on the subject, but there is a debate among philosophers about what truth and reality are. There are essentially two camps when it comes to debating reality: existentialists and idealists. Existentialists basically think that the highest reality is whatever you feel: reality is what you can touch, taste, and see with your senses. Idealists, on the other hand, think that the highest reality is something bigger. That it transcends the five senses and hits on deeper, more eternal truths that transcend our physical experiences. 

For example, a pure existentialist might say that a kiss is more real than love, because you can experience a kiss, but you cannot see love.  An idealist would say that love is more real than a kiss, because the idea of love is what makes the experience of a kiss have meaning. 

In other words, existentialists believe that the material world is the most real. Idealists believe that the spiritual world is the most real. Now, to be fair, the two camps intermingle a lot, and most existentialists won’t completely deny spiritual things, and most idealists won’t completely deny the material world. The argument isn’t really about whether the material world or the spiritual world is the only reality. It boils down to which one is MOST real -- the material world or the spiritual? 

If you know your 80’s pop music, Madonna’s an existentialist: living in a material world, as a material girl. Sting is an idealist: we are spirits in the material world. But this debate goes way back, well before MTV. Some say Kierkegaard was the father of existentialism in the 1800s, but epicureans in ancient Greece were saying many of the same things. 

There is a pretty good chance that Pilate was aware of this philosophical debate when he asks, “What is truth?”

Sadly, however, Pilate doesn’t give Jesus time to answer. Oh, the irony! To ask the greatest question of all to the greatest teacher of all – but only rhetorically, and then walk away. What a tragic mistake! 

In reality, it is more likely that the exasperation in Pilate’s voice stems from his knowledge that he and the religious elite are wrapped up in a game of lies where neither side is telling the truth. From the way Pilate treats Jesus in the rest of this passage, it seems that he recognizes that the only one with any claim to truth in this kangaroo trial is the accused, Jesus. Pilate is lying to the religious elite. The religious elite are lying to Pilate. And in the end, the only one who speaks the truth will be crucified. The world guards its lies carefully, and is cruelly opposed to the truth. 

Archimedes famously said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

If ever there was a victim of the leverage exerted on him, it was Pontius pilate.

Pilate was easily manipulated from seeing the truth. The same forces at work against Pilate as he sought the truth are at work against each of us today. If we can learn to recognize the forces working to keep us from truth, perhaps we will be able to avoid the pitfalls Pilate succumbed to.

We must watch out for the three elements of the leverage that did Pilate in:

The lever of limited input, the fulcrum of affection for the world, and the force of fast decision making.

The Lever of Limited Input

Pilate was kept in the dark about most of the things Jesus said about himself. He unwisely placed his trust in the only evidence that was presented to him, and, as we will see later, is stunned when he hears that there is more to the story.

In the same way, we must be careful in our quest for the highest truth not to be fooled by limited input. One book or source is not enough to get a complete picture on any subject. One of my sisters has been blind in one eye since she was three years old. It was very difficult for her to learn to drive because she has no depth perception. We need more than one window to the world in order to see depth. I am always puzzled by the lack of depth of someone who will quote one 20th century novel like the DaVinci Code as more authoritative than the dozens of first century historical witnesses we have about Jesus. 

You may have read about the new artificial intelligence search engine, ChatGPT, that has been making waves this week. You ask it a question and it gives you an answer like a human. I thought I would put it to the test this week. I asked the robot if Jesus was real. It replied that there is a lot of scholarly debate on that issue. Then I asked if Socrates was real. It replied that yes, Socrates was real. Knowing that there is far less evidence for the existence of Socrates than for Jesus, I then asked the device how many historical sources refer to Socrates versus Jesus. The cursor blinked for about thirty seconds before I got an error message. I logged back in after the machine recovered and asked, “Was Jesus real?” This time the bot answered, “Yes, Jesus was a real person who lived in the first century and claimed to be the Son of God.” Now, that revised answer will probably last until someone else comes along and gives the machine different input. But it still felt good at the time. I have screenshots if anyone would like to see them later. 

But my point is this: when we limit our input about Jesus to rumors and bar room or breakroom spitballing, we are doing the truth a disservice. Read everything you can. But question everything you read. We’ve been given four very good eyewitness accounts of the life of Christ - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It seems to me it would be wisest to at least start there before getting into wild speculation about who he was. Jesus said that if we want answers, we need to “ask, seek, and knock.” Paul urges us to “test the spirits” to find out what is true. The truth rarely comes easily. We must guard ourselves against the lever of limited input that helped to do Pilate in.

The Fulcrum of Affection for the World

In addition to the lever of limited input, Pilate was easily manipulated by the fulcrum of his affection for the world. 

Pilate had one goal: self preservation. He wanted to assert Rome’s dominance over the region of Palestine so that he could receive a reward on his return to Rome. He was in love with the idea of his own glory, and therefore he could be easily manipulated. 

In the end, it was fear of losing face with Caesar that pushed Pilate to sanction the crucifixion of Jesus. He was manipulated by the crowd into doing what he knew was terribly wrong.

In the same way, our love for the world presents the world with a fulcrum with which to exercise its leverage over us. If we love money, power, success, looks, health, beauty, popularity, or any other thing the world has to offer more than we love the truth, we can be pushed into doing anything others want us to do.  

Now, I am not saying it is wrong to enjoy the earthly blessings of health, success, or any of those other things. None of them last very long, and if God chooses to bless you with any of them for a season, you should receive them with thanksgiving. But where we get into trouble is when we love those things more than truth, more than God. For as soon as we love the world more than God, we are susceptible to manipulation. I think of our missionary to Tijuana, Carlos Montoya of La Roca ministries. His safety is often threatened by drug dealers and pimps as he and his wife bring the gospel to the men and women caught up in the miserable existence of living in the red light district. Carlos shows that he does not love his safety more than God when he answers constant death threats this way: “You can’t kill me, I’m aready dead. I’ve been crucified with Christ, and now I no longer live, but it is Christ who lives in me. If you want to kill me, you want to kill Jesus who lives in me.” They always back down. Carlos, unlike Pilate, has learned to avoid the fulcrum of affection for the world. 

The Force of Fast Decisions

Finally, after the lever of limited input and the fulcrum of affection for the world are put in place, all that remains is for force to be applied. In Pilate’s case, that force was the pressure to make a fast decision. 

You’ve heard the saying, “haste makes waste?” It’s true. There is nothing in this world that can be done well in a hurry. You can’t make a good decision in a hurry. You can’t make a good meal in a hurry. And you certainly can’t love in a hurry.

Haste is the enemy of quality. The more quickly we do something, the more rapidly we manufacture something, the worse the result is. 

When it comes to making quality decisions, we must resist the temptation to do it quickly. The religious elite were putting Pilate under pressure to deal with Jesus that very day. For his part, Pilate was not interested in dragging things out any longer than he had to. And so he made a bad call. He missed the truth. He crucified the king. Little did he know that because of his desire to quickly put an end to this Jesus issue, history would forever be talking about him, and not in a good light. Pilate’s rush to judgment has become one of the most protracted topics of discussion in history. 

Poor Pilate. If he had only had the courage to slow down, to take his time. To make a good decision. Of course, Jesus was not crucified because of Pilate’s will or anyone else’s will but the Father. It would have happened whether Pilate agreed or not. But it certainly would have been better for Pilate if, instead of rushing into a bad decision, he had chosen to consider the truth before him carefully. Perhaps he would have come to believe and someone else would be remembered for one of the most unjust sentences ever handed down.

When we are tempted to judge quickly, may we be reminded of the blessing that God is slow to anger and abounding in love. 

May we also call to mind the words James wrote in James 1:19: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”

The next time you are tempted to make a hasty decision, bring it down a notch. Good results rarely come from big decisions made in haste. Take your time. Bring your requests to God. Take time to listen for His answer.

“What is Truth?” Good question Pontius Pilate. I wonder how things might have been different if you hadn’t allowed yourself to be manipulated by the lever of limited input, the fulcrum of affection for the world, and the force of a rushed decision?

May we learn from Pilate’s tragic story. May we ask, seek, and knock for answers, may we not love the world so much as to be easily manipulated by the fleeting pleasures it has to offer, and may we have the courage to slow things down when we are pressured to make big decisions in a hurry. 

What is truth? Can we handle the truth? I think the better question is this: can we handle life without the truth?

Let us pray.

Lord, guide us into all truth by the power of your Spirit. We submit ourselves to you today, in all things. Give us the wisdom to ask, seek and knock, to break down every door in search of your truth. Give us the insight to avoid loving the world so much that we can be compromised by our affections. And grant us the courage to seek to do all things according to your timeline, and not the timeline of ourselves or anyone else.


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