“What is truth?”
This is the sinister question Pontius Pilate asks Jesus in John 18. In just the last few hours, Jesus has been arrested, interrogated by his Israel’s priests, and delivered to Pilate (the Roman governor of Jerusalem) to be crucified. Pilate cares little what is actually true about Jesus, about the priests, about anything. The amount of power and authority he has allows him to condemn or pardon regardless of what’s true. In order to crucify Jesus, he doesn’t need Jesus to say anything true; he simply needs Jesus to claim to be king. Anyone claiming to be king without Rome’s permission would immediately qualify as a pesky revolutionary who must be put down. So Pilate asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
Jesus gives Pilate a bit of verbal sparring, saying nothing to concretely incriminate himself, but does say, “My kingdom is not from this world.” At first, Pilate assumes this is the confession he needs to get the crucifixion underway. “So you are a king?” Jesus answers, slippery as ever, “You say that I am a king. 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.”
“What is truth?” Pilate responds.
Pilate and the priests have too much power to care about what’s true, or if truth is even a real thing in the first place. The truth must take a backseat to whatever violence they must do to Jesus in order to keep their power, which is precisely the difference between Pilate’s kingdom vision and that of Jesus. “My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus says. “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.” The quintessential difference between the kingdom of Jesus and any other kingdom is: members of the kingdom of Jesus don’t fight. Violence solves zero problems and liberates zero prisoners in the kingdom of Jesus. Of course, Pilate is not the first person who needs to be told this, but Peter, who a few hours ago hastily grabbed a sword and took a swing at one of the men arresting Jesus, thinking it his responsibility to violently defend his Lord and teacher.
To say “not from this world” has nothing to do with this kingdom existing someplace other than earth or existing in a purely non-physical way (that would be a strange thing for Jesus to say after teaching us to pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”). “Not from this world” means that the kingdom of Jesus is not born out of what this world values, but is born solely from the heart of God.
The kingdom of Jesus is simply different from any other kingdom in every way. This is why Jesus often goes out of his way to avoid the title of king. Kingdoms run by people like Pilate are too busy fighting to maintain their power to busy themselves with something as trivial as truth. But in the kingdom of Jesus, we come to know the truth that is not a set of facts but is Jesus himself (John 14:6). And when we do, he leads us into a joyful reality free of fighting and conflict, free of the notion that the only way to be secure is to kill some villain. Everyone who belongs to this truth listens to his voice. Are we listening?