Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him.”
John 18:38 | ESV | Other Versions | Context
Pilate was a selfish man. I have no desire to launch a defense on his character or on his circumstances. His involvement in the crucifixion of Christ was heavy – he was in the very position to be able to say, no, I will not allow this man to be crucified, and while he did struggle a couple of times against the Jews, he eventually chose to wash his hands off the matter. I find Pilate a very fascinating character, and I believe that as much as it was crucial that Pilate said gave the green light, it was really down to the will of God that was the reason why Jesus was crucified. As powerful as Pilate was, he was merely a piece in the fulfillment of the greatest ever prophecy. I’m not trying to defend Pilate, but in this study, I just want to point out that none of us are more righteous than he was, and many of us are, in our own walks of life, standing in his position today.
In general, all four writers of the gospel books depicted Pilate rather kindlyor perhaps neutrally, though that doesn’t mean that those who have come after them have been kind in their depiction of him. Throughout history Pilate has been remembered as the man who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. What kind of man, really, was Pilate? What was he thinking at that point? What did he really want, and whose interests was he really looking out for?
I think Pilate faced his own demons over this entire incident. When he asked Jesus, What is truth? – Isn’t that what we always question ourselves? The Greeks were famous for their line of philosophers especially in that era, and is this not one of the most prominent questions in philosophy? Or even, in life in general? What is truth?
I am the way and the truth and the life [John 14:6].
It is hard to believe that Pilate asked this earnestly. In most versions it was rendered he ‘said‘, but in the NIV it was interpreted as ‘retorted‘. Pilate had most likely asked this in a tone of contempt, rather than to try and learn the truth from Jesus. He very likely believed in the innocence of Jesus, and considered him harmless to the Roman Empire, but perhaps ignorant and radical. The point in which he had asked, “What is truth?” came immediately after Jesus claimed that he is on the side of truth, and testifies the truth [John 18:37]. I’m quite sure that many will still look at Jesus with contempt if this very conversation happened in this day and age. I’m quite certain that some people will still scorn Jesus for his ignorance should they read the entire conversation between the two.
Perhaps Pilate’s greatest mistake in this entire episode was him not staying to listen to Christ’s answer to his question, “What is truth?” granted, maybe Jesus wouldn’t even bother answering him, just like how he had ignored Herod [Luke 23:9], who asked questions only for the sake of mockery and not in earnest. But if Pilate had stayed to listen to an answer, perhaps his demons would have been exorcised. Metaphorically, of course. Surely Jesus will still be crucified, whether by Pilate’s order or any one else – because God’s will is absolute, and the Messianic prophecies will definitely be fulfilled to the very word.
I shouldn’t be, but admittedly I’m rather sympathetic of Pilate. In fact, I wrote a Good Friday play last year, and thinking back, my depiction of Pilate was actually very sympathetic. Don’t you find such people sympathetic? In their entire lives they seek the truth, even after climbing up to high places in life; and yet when faced with the truth itself, they fail to recognize it, and so they narrowly miss it. We all try to be someone morally upright – we don’t go out and slaughter anybody we disagree with. So was Pilate. He saw that Jesus was innocent, and as a man of authority, he tried to do the right thing, he tried to be morally correct. But when faced with the pressures of the world, when faced with the persistent threat of the Jews, when faced with the possibility of a punishment from Caesar should the Jews riot, when our own benefits are compromised and we are asked to sacrifice for the sake of our morals, we are unable to.
So very much like us. Even us, who claim to be Christians and who claim to know Jesus, who is the truth. Yet often in our own lives we struggle and turn everywhere in our search for the truth, for the light, for love – everywhere except to Christ, everywhere except God.
Pilate tried to wash his hands off the matter literally and symbolically, but could he? No, it’s hard to leave him out of a serious conversation regarding the death of Christ. We can pretend not to see, we can pretend it’s none of our business, but are we clean of it? Probably not. I am sympathetic to the character Pilate. But I’m not absolving him of his selfishness and his worldliness. He tried to separate himself from the entire incident, but history has proven that he has been implicated. We are not any better than he was – by the standards of the world he did his best, he was arguably a good man. But the standards of the world should mean nothing to us, for the only stick by which we measure ourselves should come from the word of the Lord.
Even as we acknowledge Pilate as a selfish man who took the easy way out, let us be reminded that, in our own lives, though in a much smaller scale and not as world-changing and history-making as Pilate, we are in Pilate’s shoes. We are in his shoes as he faced Christ and asked him, What is truth? and yet walked away before hearing the answer. We are in Pilate’s shoes when he beseeched the Jews to let Jesus go, even finding ways to appease the crowd, trying to do the right thing. We are in Pilate’s shoes when we eventually, when threatened with the name of Caesar, when threatened with our future, when our benefits become compromised, we choose to compromise our values and our faith. We are in Pilate’s shoes when he washed his hands and said, “it is your responsibility” [Matthew 27:24] – when forced and pressured to make a decision, we attempt to vilify others and victimize ourselves, and give excuses to say that we had no choice, and attempt to shirk the responsibility. We are very much like Pilate. So much that it is scary. Let us seize the truth when it is right in front of us. And let us cease to shirk our responsibilities, especially when it comes to making decisions.