So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:33-38 ESV)
Two things stand out to me today about this passage.
First, is the proclamation that Jesus' kingdom is not of this world. He doesn't agree that "my kingdom is the Nation of Israel" nor does he say "My kingdom is not present in this world." He both contradicts the implication that he was "the King of the Jews" while also affirming he is a King of something present in the world while being very distinct from the world. This is such a key statement to the interaction with Pilate that Jesus states it twice. He demonstrates this separation in stating that the Jews, whom Pilate is questioning his kingship over, are the ones handing him over and that, were his kingdom of this world, it would not necessarily be over the Jews: "...my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews." So in one step, he renounces his kingship of the Jewish nation and of any normative earthly kingdom.
Matthew Henry gives the implications Jesus is placing very quietly at the feet of Pilate and the Jews (and now for ourselves):
An account of the nature and constitution of Christ’s kingdom: It is not of this world. It is expressed negatively to rectify the present mistakes concerning it; but the positive is implied, it is the kingdom of heaven, and belongs to another world. Christ is a king, and has a kingdom, but not of this world. First Its rise is not from this world; the kingdoms of men arise out of the sea and the earth (Dan. 7:3; Rev. 13:1, 11); but the holy city comes from God out of heaven, Rev. 22:2. His kingdom is not by succession, election, or conquest, but by the immediate and special designation of the divine will and counsel. Secondly, Its nature is not worldly; it is a kingdom within men (Lu. 16:21), set up in their hearts and consciences (Rom. 14:17), its riches spiritual, its powers spiritual, and all its glory within. The ministers of state in Christ’s kingdom have not the spirit of the world, 1 Co. 2:12. Thirdly, Its guards and supports are not worldly; its weapons are spiritual. It neither needed nor used secular force to maintain and advance it, nor was it carried on in a way hurtful to kings or provinces; it did not in the least interfere with the prerogatives of princes nor the property of their subjects; it tended not to alter any national establishment in secular things, nor opposed any kingdom but that of sin and Satan. Fourthly, Its tendency and design are not worldly. Christ neither aimed nor would allow his disciples to aim at the pomp and power of the great men of the earth. Fifthly, Its subjects, though they are in the world, yet are not of the world; they are called and chosen out of the world, are born from, and bound for, another world; they are neither the world’s pupils nor its darlings, neither governed by its wisdom nor enriched with its wealth.
We will return to these ideas in a moment.
Now see that Pilate recognizes that Jesus is claiming some form of kingship: "So you are a king?". I think the play on words Jesus engages with in saying "You say that I am a king." is for two purposes. First, to again highlight the fact that his kingdom is not of this world in the way that Pilate is thinking while still affirming his kingship in order to defeat the legal tangle Pilate is trying to unwind, namely to discover why the Jews have attempted to use the Roman legal system to prosecute a very Jewish problem. Second, to state more clearly the reason he stands before Pilate: "For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth." It is not the purpose of kingship (at the present time), but of bearing witness to the truth.
There is an important lesson here: Jesus is not about empire building or national identity. He is about proclaiming truth. And in this declaration, in the truth he is proclaiming, His other-worldly kingdom is being established. So we find ourselves echoing Pilate's question: What truth does Jesus speak of?
Earlier to this passage, in John 8, Jesus gives more details on what he means by this stated purpose:
Again Jesus spoke to [the Jewish crowds], saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” So the Pharisees said to him, “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.” Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true. I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.” They said to him therefore, “Where is your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come. (John 8:12-20 ESV)
Tying the two texts together, Jesus is testifying about truth (18:37) in himself (8:18). He confirms this later to the disciples more plainly:
Jesus said to [Thomas], “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves."" (John 14:6-11 ESV)
This then gives us insight into the nature of the declaration of truth and the kingdom founded upon it. Jesus is imaging the Father, not necessarily in his physical appearance, but by his life and actions. He is demonstrating and fulfilling the life God desires and requires. His kingdom will be of people who believe in him, both as the means to enter this kingdom, and empowered by this, live in accordance with his example.
The second thing that stands out is Pilate's response to this interaction. It is first to throw out a question, "What is truth?", and second, he immediately walks away. Jesus just told Pilate what (or perhaps better stated, who) truth is just as he had been telling the Jewish people around him the entire time. However:
- Pilate did not understand because he was not truly interested in the answer. He acted in apathy and willful ignorance.
- The religious leaders did not understand this because they wanted truth to be what they said it was. Their interest was in power and self-elevation.
- The Jewish people did not understand because they believed the coming Messiah would be a King coming to establish a Jewish Kingdom. They acted for the purpose of national interests and self-preservation.
And Jesus, in the final movements before his crucifixion and says, speaks against all these ideologies and attitudes: "My kingdom is not of this world, my kingdom is established upon the truth that is myself."
There is far more we could explore about this, but I want to step from exploration into application. In each of those groups above, we can see those agendas being acted out all around us (and often times, if we're honest, in our own lives). What do we take from this for ourselves today, a time when people are so divided over political, social, and racial issues? How ought we to speak and act in a time of such fear, anger, doubt and uncertainty?
Peter gives this description and purpose for those who claim to be members of this otherworldly kingdom:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:9-12 ESV)
Paul echoes the same:
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:17-21 ESV)
Believers reading this, I have a few requests of us based on these commands on the basis of our citizenship in Christ's kingdom for the sake of a lost and dying world:
First, let us not identify ourselves by the things of this world: Nationalities, political parties, special interests, social groups or ideologies. If we claim to be a member of Jesus' kingdom, we are, as it is, not of this world any longer. "You are now God's people." To claim any lower kingdom is to abandon his, for we cannot serve two masters (or kingdoms). While we must live in honor of the emperor, president or king (as we must do with all people), we do not fear them or recognize them as the one two whom we owe our allegiance. This does not mean absence from the issues and problems found in the world. It means simply that we engage with it as citizens of another kingdom.
Second, as we abstain from earthy identification, actively and eagerly proclaim the One from whom we do draw our identity. "Proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." The world is in desperate need of this kind of hope. Real, sustaining, meat-on-bones kind of hope and truly Christ is the only source of that hope. Any other source, any other answer will fail you and fail others searching for hope.
Third, do not give in to the temptation to fear. Yoda, as the expression of the thoughts of George Lucas, said "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." While stated in the setting of a fictional story, there is truth behind that statement that we can see in our world today. Peter goes on to say "For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor." Peter doesn't say the will of God is winning arguments, or posting things on Facebook or convincing friends and family to vote a certain way", he says "by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people." While we may not like our current leaders, our choice of political candidates, the state of the nation or our world, the only command ever given to fear (and given over and over again) is to fear God alone. We are a people set free.
Fourth and finally, do not avoid suffering in pursuit of this kingdom but rejoice in it. Remember that Jesus declared this other kind of kingdom at the cost of his own life. What's more, shortly before his interaction with Pilate, he spoke of those who would desire to partake in his kingdom:
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. (John 15:18-22 ESV)
This does not mean we seek suffering, only to know that to pursue this kingdom will inevitably bring with it suffering. Instead of bemoaning the state of the world, feeling pitiable and injured, or being smugly self-righteous when we can point to all the things wrong with "the others", we are rather to do good and to rejoice that we can be counted worthy of partaking in the suffering of our Savior and King:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4 ESV)
That kind of response to the insanity of our times, that kind of hope offered in the midst of the dying kingdoms of our world, that is the outworking of the otherworldly kingdom where Jesus reigns. Joy unspeakable, even when suffering. Hope where none exists. Love in response to persecution. Peace in chaos. The world does not understand this. That is why they ask "What is truth?" And we must live as a living, breathing example of this hope that is in us.
But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:14-16 ESV)
Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 2041. ↩︎