Jesus tells Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Clearly that is not the kind of thing most prisoners say to Pilate because Pilate is nonplussed. And so Pilate asks, “What is truth?”
It could not have been easy for Pilate to discern the truth about Jesus given the many voices telling him what to believe. The religious leaders of Israel are telling Pilate one thing. His gut is telling him another. And the crowd is pressuring Pilate for a quick decision. No surprise that Pilate is confused. No surprise that Pilate ends up making a bad decision, the decision to condemn an innocent man.
But at least he tries. Faced with Jesus, Pilate asks the question, what is truth?
Jesus does not answer Pilate. That is important, and I will come back to it shortly.
But what would have happened if Jesus had answered Pilate’s question? Presumably, whatever else he might have said, Jesus would have told Pilate that he was innocent. The truth, Jesus might have said, is that I do not deserve execution.
And how much good would that have done? If Jesus had answered Pilate’s question, Jesus would simply have added his voice to the collection of voices already telling Pilate what to believe. Pilate still would have had to decide which voice to heed.
If Jesus had answered Pilate’s question about the truth, Jesus would have become just one more voice alongside others competing for Pilate’s attention.
Jesus refuses to play that game. Jesus refuses to be one voice among others. Instead, Jesus just stands before Pilate, silent, unwavering, uncompromising.
Pilate keeps expecting Jesus to act like accused prisoners are supposed to act. Pilate expects Jesus to defend himself somehow, to present his version of the truth so that Pilate can make his decision, so that Pilate can stand in judgment over Jesus. Pilate gets so frustrated, he finally reminds Jesus that he could have Jesus executed or else let Jesus go.
But through the whole trial, Jesus refuses to bend even the littlest bit. Jesus refuses to recognize Pilate’s right to judge him. Jesus refuses to present his version of truth to Pilate so that Pilate can decide the truth of the matter. Jesus refuses to give Pilate the satisfaction of judging Jesus’ version of truth. Jesus just stands before Pilate, confronting Pilate with his silent presence, with his refusal to answer the question, what is truth?
But for those who have eyes to see, Jesus is, in fact, answering Pilate’s question as he stands there mutely. Just the day before, at the Last Supper, Jesus announced to his disciples, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6). I am the truth. Pilate has asked the question, what is truth? And the astonishing answer is, the Truth—God’s Truth—is standing right in front of him.
When Jesus stands silent before Pilate, Jesus is confronting Pilate as The Truth in the flesh. Jesus is not one voice among others, competing for Pilate’s attention. Jesus is the Truth incarnate, the Truth that exposes the lie in all other little t truths, the Truth that stands against the political domination of Rome and the religious exploitation of the temple authorities and every other worldly truth that ever claims to rival the absolute Truth of God.
Who knows what might have happened if Jesus had been an ordinary prisoner? An ordinary prisoner would have answered Pilate’s question. An ordinary prisoner would have presented his version of the truth, his voice among other voices, his truth claim among other truth claims.
Because he is no ordinary prisoner, Jesus just stands there, confronting all other puny truths with the absolute Truth of God. And that confrontation made Jesus’ fate inevitable.
The crowd sees more clearly than Pilate on this point. Pilate considers releasing Jesus. But the crowd insists that “Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” They are absolutely right. Standing silently before Pilate, Jesus is indeed setting himself against the emperor.
On one side stands the emperor, the most powerful man in the world. The emperor can enforce his version of the truth with all the armed might of Rome. On the other side stands Jesus. And Jesus refuses to submit to the emperor’s version of the truth. Instead Jesus stands silently before Pilate as the perfect expression of God’s Truth, as God’s Truth incarnate. And standing there silently, Jesus forces Pilate to choose, to choose his allegiance to the emperor or to bow before the Truth of God.
Jesus confronts the religious authorities in the same way. Jesus stands silently before them as God’s Truth incarnate, forcing them to choose between their familiar orthodoxies and the uncomfortable reality of God’s very Truth standing in their presence.
Jesus confronts the crowd of onlookers the same way. Unintentionally, Pilate gives the crowd an opportunity to bow before the King of Kings. And instead they proclaim their loyalty to the emperor, to the king of this world.
And, Jesus confronts us the same way. Like Pilate, we may well ask, what is truth? Like Pilate, we are confronted with multiple voices giving us their version of the truth. Like Pilate, we live in a fast-paced world that often does not give us much time to make careful decisions. And like Pilate, we are confronted with the witness of Christ, the incarnate Truth of God, who refuses to compete for our attention and belief, who simply confronts us as God’s Truth.
We know how the confrontation ended on that first Good Friday.
Jesus, the very Truth of God, is condemned to die. Jesus goes to the cross because people are unable to accept the Truth of God standing before them, because people prefer to remain faithful to the worldly truths they know rather than to the absolute Truth of God.
Good Friday is the perfect expression of how the world responds to the Truth of God. We turn away because we are too committed to other truths, to smaller truths and we cannot bear God’s absolute Truth.
And so Jesus dies, the Truth of God dies on the cross, killed by the lies and half-truths of the world. And there the story stops, at least for now.
But even on this bleak day, on this day when the Truth of God dies, we can learn something vitally important. On this day, more clearly than on any other, we can see that God’s Truth is different than the truths of the world, that God’s Truth stands over against all other apparent truths, not as one truth among others, but as the ultimate and absolute Truth over against the relative half-truths of the world.
If we can heed that lesson on this Good Friday, if we can acknowledge the Truth of God in Christ visible on the cross, then we will be ready to encounter God’s Truth in a new way come Easter. Then we will know the power of God to bring life and truth where there was no life and truth. Then we will be ready for the good news of great joy that God’s Truth lives, that God’s Truth wins, and that God’s Truth is love.
May we heed the lesson of Good Friday as we look forward in hope to the good news of resurrection. In Christ’s name. Amen.