Jesus and Pilate
When we lived in St Petersburg, Prince Charles came to the city. I don’t think it was because we were there! There was a reception for British citizens who lived in the city, and we were invited. We were placed in small groups and told how to address his Royal Highness. He approached our group, saw my dog collar, found out that we worked in the Orthodox theological college and said how impressed he was with the way that they involved children in their services. Actually, that was not an area we would have considered a strength, but all I managed was a tongue-tied 'yes sir'.
Jesus was standing in front of the most powerful man in Judea – and it wasn't for a social gathering. He was on trial and the probability was that he would be sentenced to death. If anybody should have been tongue tied or over-awed it was Jesus. The whole weight of the establishment was directed against him.
And yet, as we look at these verses, we see something quite surprising. Pilate is meant to be questioning Jesus, but it seems to be Jesus who is questioning Pilate.
1. Jesus is utterly confident that God has given him a kingdom.
Pilate wants to know if Jesus believes he is the king of the Jews.
There had been quite a few people before Jesus who had claimed to be the king of the Jews, the Christ, Messiah. They had all led rebellions against the occupying Roman power. And they had all come to a nasty end. So Pilate needs to know if Jesus is one of those sort of people.
And yet - as often happens in John's gospel – the conversation is going on at two different levels.
Pilate is speaking at the level of human political reality
Jesus is speaking at a deeper level, the level of eternal reality.
And the conversation doesn't quite fit.
Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews.
Jesus refuses to say whether he is a king, but does say that he has a kingdom.
And when Pilate asks Jesus, 'What have you done to make the rulers of the Jews hand you over to me?' Jesus continues to talk about his kingdom.
Jesus is utterly confident that God has given him a kingdom, and that God has given him a people to be part of the kingdom. And his confidence lies in this: his kingdom is not based on military might, on wealth, on inheritance or even on a democratic mandate. It is based on the fact that God has given it to him, and nobody and nothing can take it away from him.
Three times he says that his Kingdom is not from this world: "My Kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here" (John 18.36)
That is why Jesus can be so ‘in control’ even though he facing the reality of a dreadful death. It is why he does not need to call on his followers to take up arms to defend him, or even to call on legions of angels to come to his defense.
Jesus knows that this is not the end of the story.
He knows that nothing can take away his Kingdom: not political pressure, threats, promises, ridicule, persecution, imprisonment, even torture and death.
2. Jesus is utterly confident of the truth
V37 is the final statement of Jesus before his crucifixion. So it is quite important. It is a summary of his ministry. 'For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth'.
Jesus came from God into this world in order to testify to the truth about God.
John the Baptist speaks of Jesus when he says, 'The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard'. (John 3.31-32)
So Jesus speaks the truth about God, the God who he knows as his heavenly Father, with whom he is completely one. He speaks of the God who loves us so much that he gave us his son, who draws people to Jesus so that they may have true life. The God who does not sit in judgement on people – like Pilate – but who speaks and allows people to judge themselves. His word offers life. There are those who hear, who respond to the truth, who come to Jesus and receive life, and there are those who simply do not hear and walk away. (John 3.17-21)
Jesus speaks the truth about this world. It is a world that has been ruled by 'the prince of this world', ‘the father of lies’, Satan. But now, says Jesus, judgement has come. Satan and evil is condemned (John 16.11). They may seem to rule - whether we see that in the appalling acts we have witnessed in the last 8 or so days, or in the deception that blinds us to God and persuades us to live for power and wealth and status, for the now-experience and for ourselves – but, in the heavenly law court, they have been condemned.
And Jesus speaks the truth about God's invitation to men and women: to come to him, to receive forgiveness, to receive the Holy Spirit, to become sons and daughters of God, part of the family of God, so that we may know and have real LIFE.
And Jesus speaks the truth about eternal life, about love that gives and gives and goes on giving, about the defeat of death, about profound intimate union with him, so that we too can call out to God as our Father, about deep joy and our ultimate destiny of god-likeness and sharing in the glory of God.
Jesus is utterly confident of this truth, and of the power of the truth.
So who is questioning who?
Pilate is obsessed by the King question, the status and power question.
He asks Jesus, 'Are you the King of the Jews?' (v33), and later, 'So you are a king?' (v37)
Neither time - and here the NIV is not a good translation - does Jesus say that he is a king.
In v34 Jesus says, 'Do you say this yourself, or is it something you have heard others say?'
In v37 Jesus does not say, as in the NIV, 'You are right in saying I am a king', but actually he says, 'You say that I am a king' (NRSV)
At one level Pilate is questioning Jesus
But at the more profound level, Pilate is being questioned by Jesus:
Who do you think I am? This is not about what other people think. It is about what you think. I will speak of my kingdom – a kingdom that does not depend on military might, I will speak of my calling to declare truth, but you have to decide whether I am King - not a king like Caesar but the king who has given Caesar life.
That is a choice that each one of us has.
Nathaniel was one of the first followers of Jesus. Jesus saw right into his heart. Nathaniel responded, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1.49)
Or there is the Samaritan woman. She had a conversation with Jesus. It made quite an impression on her. She returns to her home town and says ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!’ She adds: ‘Can he be the Messiah (another name for the King of the Jews)?’ (John 4.29)
Or I think of someone much more recent: Mother Theresa. She gets it, when she says: “By blood and origin, I am all Albanian. My citizenship is Indian. I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the whole world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to Jesus.”
In John’s gospel there are two levels of reality.
There is the Pilate level: which is all about political power and wealth and status.
And there is the Jesus level: which is about an unshakeable kingdom and the truth. It is about what is most real.
The problem is that we live on the Pilate level, and we rarely allow ourselves to go down to the Jesus level.
From the moment that our alarm goes off and the radio turns on, before we are even fully conscious, the concerns and conflicts of the world penetrate into our minds and shape the way we are going to live. They subconsciously tell us what is real, what is important, who is important and how importance is measured.
We need to tune into Jesus’ reality.
When we had to spend a night in Dubai airport, we were woken in the morning at 5am with the call to prayer. It made quite an impression on us. And in ages gone by, many Christian households would have begun the day with family prayers. Few people do that today. To my shame we don’t. But it meant that the day began with tuning into divine reality.
That is why we really should be spending at least 15 minutes each day, deliberately putting aside that time in order to read a few verses of the bible, think on what God is saying to us and examining ourselves in the light of that.
Because Jesus reality is very different to the reality that is portrayed to us through the news, or gossip, or celebrity reality show. It is about a Father God who loves us, about the lies of the evil one who would make us trust ourselves and not him, about the divine invitation to live and to love, and about our eternal destiny. It is about the kingdom of God and the true King. It is about what really matters. It is about ultimate reality.
There is the story told of John Knox, the C16th Scottish reformer. He had an audience with Queen Elizabeth – and in those days queens and kings really did have very immediate power. You did not mess with them. He was asked if he was nervous. He replied, ‘No. Why should I be nervous? Yes, I have an audience with the Queen. But this morning I had an hour long audience with the King of kings and the Lord of lords.’