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December 7, 2003
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of John, chapter 18, and follow along as I read verse 33 to 37. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?"
34 Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?"
35 Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?"
36 Jesus answered, "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."
37 Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "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."
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Old-timers thought Bobby Bonds was a great baseball player. Then his son, Barry, came of age and started his thunder run to baseball immortality. Last summer, he stole his 500th base, and became the only player in the history of the game to hit 500 home runs and steal 500 bases, demonstrating a unique combination of both power and speed. Actually some people say that Barry is too unique, and, as you may have noted in the newspapers, he is being called to testify in a case involving steroidal type drugs. Still, what he did on the baseball diamond was very hard to do—which raises a question: What is the hardest thing to do in sports?
The sports writers at USA Today (March 3, 2003) put their heads together to list what, in their opinion, were the ten hardest things to do in sports.
10. Skiing the alpine downhill race at 80 mph.
9. Saving a penalty kick in soccer.
8. Bicycling the Tour de France covering 2,114 miles.
7. Running a marathon.
6. Landing a quadruple toe loop on figure skates — with grace.
5. Returning a 130-140 mph tennis serve.
4. Hitting a golf ball straight and long.
3. Pole vaulting.
2. Driving a race car while enduring 5 G’s in the corners in 120 degree heat, knowing a mistake can kill you.
1. Hitting a major-league baseball pitch thrown at 90 plus mph by judging it in 1/1,000th of a second. If you can do that successfully just three out of 10 times any major league team will give you a multimillion dollar contract.
Some sports feats are difficult. They take endurance, skill, training, and talent, but let us put this all in perspective. Ultimately, sports are not important. They are just games people play and at the end of the play they do not matter. Yes, that even includes the Clemson-Carolina football game. It includes the World Series and the Super Bowl. Ten years from now, no one will care who won. Hardly anyone will even remember who won. So let us talk about something that is harder and much more challenging than any sport. Let us talk about life.
And let us ask our question again: What is the hardest thing to do in life? Someone has said, “The hardest thing in life is to know which bridge to cross and which to burn.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, from the WB Television series, said, “The hardest thing to do in life is to live in it.” I will bet that you never thought I would quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
In fact, the answer to the question about the hardest thing in life depends upon the individual. What is very hard for some is not as hard for others. Nevertheless I have compiled a list of ten of life’s most challenging events. Each of these requires daring, hope, talent, and skill:
10. Raising children.
9. Giving forgiveness.
8. Asking forgiveness.
7. Loving your enemy.
6. Abandoning an addiction. It does not matter whether it is alcohol or tobacco, or food. Addictions are tough things to overcome.
5. Regaining the lost trust of loved ones. A trust that is lost is very hard to regain.
4. Keeping faith in God amidst trials and tribulations.
3. Living homeless.
2. Burying a child.
1. Removing hospital life support for a loved one.
This is only one list of life’s tough things. You might compile your own. But this list, and similar lists, show that life’s tough judgments are much harder than skiing at 80 mph, pole vaulting, or hitting a baseball.
The last one on my list would probably be on anyone’s list—making decisions about life or death. Even when all the medical facts are known and understood, after the prognosis is clear, even when the choice is obvious, it is a tremendously agonizing decision to remove a respirator from a loved one. You have become the judge. You are going to decide between life and death. Top world athletes, even on their hardest days, never make that kind of choice. Will it be thumbs up, or thumbs down?
That brings us to Pontius Pilate, procurator of the province of Judea for Rome in the time of Jesus. Among Christians, Pilate is not well-regarded, to say the least, because of the way he wimped out in the trial of Jesus. But having said that, we must also admit that Pilate was like us. He was troubled in difficult situations, did not know what to do, felt overwhelmed by all these people who were trying to pressure him. He tried to listen to his wife, tried to have courage, tried to recognize goodness, but ultimately, to keep the peace, he did what he knew was wrong. He allowed the crucifixion of Jesus.
Pilate was good at keeping the peace, but keeping the peace is not always the same as doing right. It can be the opposite of doing right. We do this all the time. We see someone doing something wrong, or maybe just going the wrong way in life. We know we ought to confront them face to face, with that problem. But that is unpleasant. So we avoid the confrontation, we pretend that there is no problem. We keep the peace, like Pilate.
We usually consider the trial of Jesus from the viewpoint of Jesus. Today, let us consider the viewpoint of Pilate. It was just another workday for Pilate when Jesus showed up. This is what he does for a living. We can imagine Pilate putting down his scroll, getting up off his couch, going to see this criminal brought to his court. It is just another day of the week to keep the peace and to keep his post, just another life to judge. Ask questions, weigh the evidence, decide—live or die. That is what Pilate does.
The governor may have smirked at the irony of the circumstances — a captured, bound man accused of claiming to be a king. Pilate sees a powerless peasant, an unarmed, underclass Jew. Pilate asks, “Are you a king?” It seems likely that he was not asking seriously. Christians rejoice to proclaim Christ as our king, but Pontius Pilate was not a Christian.
On the face of it, it is a preposterous question. Obviously, to Pilate, Jesus was not a king. He had no army; He had no city; He had no money, no robes, no weapons. He had nothing. He was nothing.
Jesus responds to Pilate’s question with an unexpected question of his own. Jesus always seems to do the unexpected. “Governor,” says Jesus, “why ask your question? Do you think I am a king, or were you told I am a king?” Jesus you see, knows that Pilate is not serious. So he says, why are you playing this game with me?
Pilate may have wondered if Jesus were stupid or insolence, or or maybe very crafty, but he plays the situation with humor and skill. It is, after all, just a game to him. With slight irritation and perhaps a smirk, he replies, “How should I know? Am I one of your people? Your people, your leaders, brought you here to me.” How do I know whether you are a king or not? Your own people do not seem to think you are. Then getting to the serious point, Pilate asks, “What have you done?”
Give Pilate his due here. In the best tradition of Roman justice, he offers Jesus a chance to defend himself. He expects that Jesus will make a plea of innocence, will tell his side of the story, and will attempt to gain his freedom.
Jesus does not do anything like that. Again, he does the unexpected. He does not make a plea of innocence. Instead, he stays with the question of kingship. In v36 he says, "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." In other words, Jesus says, my kingdom is spiritual.
We should elaborate on that for a bit because this is an important point. A spiritual kingdom is eternal. All earthly governments pass away, but the kingdom of Christ will never pass away. This was the point of Nebuchadnezzer’s dream in Daniel chapter 2. In a dream, King Nebuchadnezzer saw a great image composed of various metals, but a stone smacked the image and shattered the whole thing. After that, the stone became a mountain. It seems more than a little weird. Nevertheless, Daniel interpreted the dream to mean that the image was the whole earthly system of empires, nations, and kingdoms. The stone was the spiritual kingdom of God, which is an altogether different order of things. Human kingdoms are for a time and place. God’s kingdom is forever. In Luke 1:33, when the Angel Gabriel spoke to Mary about her son Jesus, Gabriel said, “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." The kingdom of Christ is the church. Christ will protect and defend his church, and no matter what powers are arrayed against it, the church will stand forever. The kingdom of Christ is his people. Christ will protect and defend us, and each of us who have truly believed in Christ will stand forever.
But when we say that Christ has a spiritual kingdom, we should note that this also means that in this world, in earthly matters, a Christian may seem to be no better off than a non-Christian. Christians may be born into bad circumstances, may suffer and die, like everyone else. The happiness that we have in Christ is not in what we might call earthly or material things. Christ does not promise us a healthy and peaceful life, or rich possessions, or safety from all harm. Our happiness is of another kind. It is heavenly rather than earthly. In this world, our prosperity and well being depend upon accidents and circumstance and may all be blown away in a moment. But Christ enriches his people with all things necessary for eternal life. Thus he furnishes us with the gifts of the spirit and joins us to God in perfect blessedness. Therefore we can pass through this life with all its troubles and difficulties because we know that we are of another kingdom, and we have another king.
Pilate Missed the Truth
But that is speaking as a Christian. Pilate was, as I have said, not a Christian. Pilate must have been really confused when Jesus started speaking about his “kingdom,” since he did not claim to be the King of the Jews. If the Judeans were not the members of his kingdom, who were? Jesus uses the confusion to teach about the nature of his kingdom: It is “not from this world” (v. 36), and its subjects are not necessarily Judeans but rather “everyone who belongs to the truth” (v. 37). Notice here that Jesus shifts the focus of Pilate’s questions from the realm of political power to the idea of universal truth.
Pilate had two dialogues with Jesus (John 18 and 19). In both of these dialogues, Pilate wants to keep the conversation in terms of earthly power. Which one of us has the power here? That is what he asks. Of course Pilate believes that he has the power, since he is governor of Judaea. But Jeus speaks in terms of a spiritual kingdom founded upon universal truth. His kingdom is not reckoned in terms of earthly political power at all, and this is a concept that is so foreign to Pilate that eventually he says in frustration in v38, “What is truth?”
If we examine only Pilate’s side of the dialogue, we can see that he is driven solely by administrative expediency. He wants to get this job done and get back to whatever he was doing. He centers on whether Jesus is a political threat. His questions to Jesus are direct: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (v. 33), “What have you done?” (v. 35). In v37, he interrupts Jesus, feeling perhaps that he needs to get this conversation back on track, saying, “So you are a king?” Pilate is saying, “Forget this spiritual stuff. Let’s get back to the point!”
Jesus knows that Pilate is not listening to him. Perhaps that is why he says in verse 37 that the members of his kingdom are precisely those people who listen to his voice. Those who belong to the spiritual kingdom of God are people who listen to what Jesus said. We should note that in John 10:1-18, the parables of the sheepfold and the good shepherd, Jesus is able to lead the sheep because they hear and know his voice. To put it another way, Jesus’ people recognize the authority of Jesus—which, of course, Pilate does not.
Pilate probably thought that Jesus was a harmless lunatic. Certainly he knew that Jesus did not pose any threat to the peace of Judaea. There was no justification for killing him. He throws out the question in v38, “What is truth?” as a way of closing the case. Jesus spoke of bearing witness to the truth. Pilate replies flippantly, What is truth?—end of interview. He then goes out to the Jewish mob gathered outside his court to tell them that he has found no crime in Jesus.
if? What if Pilate had taken his question seriously. Truth was standing before
him in the person of Christ. Had he been willing to listen, the truth of God
was available to him. But Pilate was so distracted by playing the game of
keeping his post and keeping the peace that he missed eternal truth. He missed
the basket; he dropped the ball; he struck out. You can use whatever sports
metaphor you like, but to be blunt, Pilate made the wrong choice about Jesus,
and so he lost. He did not know at the time that he lost. He was still
procurator. He was still vested with all the power and pomp of a
Roman official. He had those earthly things, but he lost. He lost his soul.
Jesus, the gospels tell us, is the way, the truth and the life. That is the truth that Pilate missed. Is it the truth that we have missed? Perhaps we are so pressured by difficult choices that we forget, or never notice, that Christ is standing within us, beside us and among us as he told us he would. In life we are not abandoned. Jesus is present always.
We may have to face some hard choices sometimes. We may have to do some tough things. If Jesus is with us, we can do the right thing—not necessarily the easy thing, but the right thing. .
Sometimes, we are as puzzled as Pilate when confronted with the spiritual kingdom of Christ. We are bound to this world, to calendars and bank accounts. We struggle to conceive of a kingdom beyond what we know. Yet the Holy Spirit reveals to us that that is the only kingdom worth having. It is the kingdom of Christ, the kingdom of love. Christ calls us beyond our worldly boundaries, beyond our self-centered egoes, to be witnesses to his life-changing truth. Christ calls us to receive the truth of God’s forgiveness, and prepare ourselves for life in God’s kingdom. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 01/28/04