Pilate's Question



Pilate saith unto Him, What is truth?

S. John- xviii. 38.

First Sunday after Trinity, 18751.

S. John is especially distinguished among the four evangelists for his subtle delineation of character. We do not commonly remember, it costs us an effort to remember, how very largely we are indebted to the fourth Gospel for our conceptions of the chief personages who bear a part in the evangelical history, when these conceptions are most distinct . If we analyse the sources of our information, we find again and again, that while something is told us about a particular person in the other Gospels, yet it is S. John who gives those touches to the picture, which

1 Preached before the Lord Mayor and the Judges.

make it stand out with its own individuality as a real, living, speaking man. The other Evangelists will record a name, or perhaps an incident. S. John will add one or two sayings, and the whole person is instinct with life. The character flashes out in half-adozen words. From the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. So it is with Thomas, with Philip, with Martha and Mary, with several others who might be named.

This vividness of portraiture is our strongest assurance (if assurance were needed) that the narrative was indeed written by him whose name it bears, by the beloved disciple and eyewitness. For there is no effort at delineation of character; there is no delineation of character at all, properly so-called. The Evangelist does not describe the persons whom he introduces. They describe themselves. The incidental act, the incidental movement or gesture, the incidental saying, tells the tale. That which he had heard, that which he had seen with his eyes, that which he had looked upon, that which his hands had handled, of the Word of Life, that and that only he declared.

Pilate furnishes a remarkable illustration of this feature in the fourth Gospel. Pilate is the chief agent in the crowning scene of the Evangelical history. He is necessarily a prominent figure in all the four narratives of this crisis. In the three first Gospels we learn much about him; we find him there, as we find him in S. John, at cross purposes with the Jews; he is represented there, not less than by S. John, as giving an unwilling consent to the judicial murder of Jesus. His Roman sense of justice is too strong to allow him to yield without an effort; his personal courage is too weak to persevere in the struggle when the consequences threaten to become inconvenient. He is timid, politic, timeserving, as represented by all alike; he has just enough conscience to wish to shake off the responsibility, but far too little conscience to shrink from committing a sin.

But in S. John's narrative we pierce far below the surface. Here he is revealed to us as the sarcastic, cynical worldling, who doubts everything, distrusts everything, despises everything. He has an intense scorn for the Jews, and yet he has a craven dread of them. He has a certain professional regard for justice, and yet he has no real belief in truth or honour. Throughout he manifests a malicious irony in his conduct at this crisis. There is a lofty scorn in his answer, when he repudiates any sympathy with the accusers, 'Am I a Jew?' There is a sarcastic pity in the question, which he addresses to the Prisoner before him. 'Art Thou the King of the Jews?' 'Art Thou then a King, Thou poor, weak, helpless fanatic, Whom with a single word I could doom to death?' He is half-bewildered, half-diverted, with the incongruity of this claim. And yet there is a certain propriety that a wild enthusiast should assert his sovereignty over a nation of bigots. So he sarcastically adopts the title: 'Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews?' Even when at length he is obliged to yield to the popular clamour, he will at least have his revenge by a studied contempt. 'Behold your King.' 'Shall I crucify your King?' And to the very last moment he indulges his cynical scorn. The title on the cross was indeed unconsciously a proclamation of a Divine truth, but in its immediate purpose and intent it was the mere gratification of Pilate's sarcastic humour. 'Jesus of Nazareth (could any good thing come out of Nazareth?), Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.' He has sacrificed his honour to them; but he will not sacrifice his contempt: 'What I have written, I have written.'

But it is more especially in the sentence which I have chosen for my text that the whole character of the man is revealed. The Prisoner before him had accepted the title of a king. He based His claim to this title on the fact that He had come to bear witness of the truth. He declared that those, who were themselves of the truth, would acknowledge His claim; they were His rightful subjects; they were the enfranchised citizens of His kingdom. Strange language this in the ears of a cynical, worldly sceptic, to whose eyes the most attractive type of humanity was a judicious admixture of force and fraud. 'Pilate saith unto Him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out.' The altercation could be carried no further. Was not human life itself one great query, without an answer? What was truth, what else, except that which each man thought?

Truth! This helpless prisoner claimed to be a king, and He appealed forsooth to His truthfulness as the credential of His sovereign rights. Was ever any claim more contradictory of all human experience, more palpably absurd than this? Truth! When had truth anything to do with founding a kingdom? The mighty engine of imperial power, the iron sceptre which ruled the world, whence came it? Certainly it owed nothing to truth. Had not Augustus established his sovereignty by an unscrupulous employment of force, and maintained it by an astute use of artifice? And his successor, the present occupant of the imperial throne, was he not an archdissembler, the darkest of all dark enigmas? The name of Tiberius was a byword for impenetrable disguise.

Truth might do well enough for fools and enthusiasts, for simple men; but for rulers, for diplomatists, for men of the world, it was the wildest of all wild dreams. Truth! What was truth? He had lived too long in the world to trust any such hollow pretensions. He had listened to the ceaseless din of philosophical disputations till he was weary of them. The Stoics, the Epicureans, the Platonists, all had their several specifics which they vended as truth. All were equally sure, and yet no two agreed. He had witnessed—certainly not without contempt, and yet not altogether without dismay—the rising flood of foreign superstitions, Greek, Syrian, Egyptian, Chaldean, which threatened to deluge the city and empire, and destroy all the ancient landmarks. Could he believe all, or any, of these? In this never-ending conflict of philosophical dogmas and religious creeds, what could he do, but resign himself to scepticism, to indifference, to a cold and cynical scorn of all enthusiastic convictions and all definite beliefs?

'What is truth?' And yet as he turned away, neither expecting nor desiring an answer to a question which he had asked merely to end an inconvenient controversy, some uneasy misgiving, we may well suppose, flashed across the mind of this proud, sarcastic worldling, that he was now brought face to face with Truth, as he had never been brought before. There was a reality about every word and action of this Jewish prisoner, which arrested and overawed him. The calmness with which He urged His claims, the fearlessness with which He defied death, the impressive words, the still more impressive silence, the manifest innocence and rectitude of the man (if he saw nothing more), could not be without their effect even on a Pilate—steeped as he was in the moral recklessness and religious despair of his age. At all events he would save the man, if he conveniently could.

But there had also been a nobler element in Pilate's education than moral scepticism and religious unbelief. He was a Roman governor; and, as a Roman governor, he was an administrator of Roman law. It was their appreciation of law, their respect for law, their study of law, far more than anything else, which gave its greatness to the character of the Roman people. Even in the most degraded ages of their history, and with the worst individual types of men, this is the one bright spot which relieves the gloom. It is the noble prerogative of law to set a standard of morality, clear, definite, precise. I have no concern here with other obligations to the law, which as Christians and as men we are bound to acknowledge—though speaking before the chief representatives of English law and justice I cannot fail to be reminded of them this afternoon. S. P. S. 7

But this exhibition of a moral standard is a gain, which it is hardly possible to overestimate. The standard will not always be the highest. From the nature of the case it cannot be so. Law deals with some departments of morality very imperfectly; with others it does not attempt to deal at all. But still, wheresoever it is felt and in so far as it penetrates, it creates an ideal, and it begets a habit, which will not be powerless even with the most indifferent and reckless. So it was with Pilate. Theological scepticism had eaten out his religious principles to the very core. Unscrupulous worldliness and self-seeking had shattered his moral constitution. But, though his principles were gone and his character was ruined, still he was haunted by some lingering sense of professional honour. Still the magnificent ideal of Roman justice, of Roman law, rose up before him, and would not lightly be thrust aside. He pleads repeatedly for justice against the relentless accusers. Three times he declares the prisoner's innocence in the same explicit words, 'I find no fault in Him.' Once and again he strives to shift the responsibility from his own shoulders; 'Take ye Him, and judge Him according to your law': 'Take ye Him and crucify Him.' But his efforts are all in vain. They will have none of this. The deed shall be done, and he shall do it.

It was not the first, and it would not be the last time, that Pilate found himself in conflict with the Jews. For ten years he was governor of this turbulent, unmanageable people. This was an unusually long period of office under an emperor like Tiberius, who was constantly changing his provincial governors from mere suspicion and distrust. It must have cost him no little trouble to steer his course so long and so successfully, without foundering either on the suspicions of his jealous master here or on the bigotry of his stubborn subjects there. And yet he was constantly wounding the religious susceptibilities of the Jews. At one time he shocked them by bringing the military ensigns with the effigies of Caesar within the walls of Jerusalem; at another he persisted by setting up some gilt shields inscribed with a profane heathen dedication in the palace of Herod within the same holy precincts. In both cases, he drove the Jews to the extreme verge of exasperation; in both cases he exhibits the same sarcastic and defiant scorn which is so apparent here; in both cases their obstinate zeal or bigotry triumphs as it triumphs here, and they forced him in the end to retrace his steps and undo his deed.

So then this was only one brief, inobtrusive episode in a protracted struggle between Pilate and the Jewish people. Doubtless, it seemed at the time quite insignificant compared with those other and fiercer conflicts which I have just mentioned. It is passed over in silence by contemporary Jewish writers. It concerned the life of a single person only; it was settled in a single night . And yet it involved nothing less than the eternal destiny of all mankind. Yes, there is a terrible irony in God's retributive justice, which so blinds men to the true proportions of things. A single moment may do a wrong which centuries cannot repair. It is a dangerous thing to defy Truth; the majesty of Truth is inviolable; and he, who insults it in a moment of recklessness, can never forecast the consequences. Time and space and notoriety are no measure of importance here. Our memories are still fresh from the longest trial on record in our English law-courts. For months upon months men read little else and talked of little else. As a monument of the care and patience of English law, it has the highest value; but for the destinies of our race it is, so far as we can see, quite devoid of real significance. The most important criminal trial on record in the history of mankind was hurried through in two or three short hours under cover of night and in the grey of early dawn.

This is the great lesson of Pilate's crime. He was surprised by the Truth. He found himself unexpectedly confronted by the Truth, and he could not recognise it. His whole life long he had tampered with truth, he had despised truth, he had despaired of truth. Truth was the last thing which he had set before him as the aim of his life. He had thought much of policy, of artifice, of fraud, of force; but for truth in any of its manifold forms he had cared just nothing at all. And his sin had worked out its own retribution. Not truth only, but the Very Truth itself, Truth Incarnate, stood before him in human form, and he was blind to it. He scorned it, he played with it, he thrust it aside, he condemned and he gibbeted it. 'Suffered under Pontius Pilate' is the legend of eternal infamy, with which history has branded his name.

So it is now with us. The Lord appears suddenly in His temple—in the shrine of the human heart and conscience—suddenly at a time and in a form which we least expect. The truth visits us very frequently under the disguise of some common event or some insignificant person. It surprises us perhaps in the accidental saying of some little child, or in the insidiousness of some mean temptation, or in the emergency of some trivial choice. It stands before us at once our suppliant and our king. We fail to see its majesty veiled in this humble garb. We treat it as our prisoner, when in fact it is our judge and may become our gaoler. We flatter ourselves that we have power to condemn or to release it. We have no fault to find with it; but still we reject it. We crucify it; and before three days are gone it rises from its grave to bear eternal testimony against us. We could not see the truth, because we were not ourselves of the truth.

Here—in this judicial blindness—is the warning of Pilate's example. Like is drawn to like. Like only understands like. The truth is only for the children of truth.

But we must not unduly narrow the sense of truth and truthfulness. When our Lord called Himself the Truth, when He declared that the Truth should make us free, He meant very much more than is commonly understood by the word. Veracity is indeed truth, but it is only a small part of truth. A man may be scrupulously veracious, strictly a man of his word; he may always say that which he believes, he may always perform that which he promises; and yet he may not be in the highest sense true. He may be the slave of a thousand unrealities. A genuine child of the truth is very much more than a speaker of the truth; he is a doer of the truth, and a thinker of the truth also. He is frank, open, real in all things. Reality is the very soul of his being. He cares for nothing which is hollow, shadowy, superficial. Popularity, wealth, success, worldly ambition and display, are essentially unreal, because they are external, because they are transient. Therefore he estimates them at their true value.

The devotion of scientific men in pursuit of scientific truths wins our highest admiration. It is not without a thrill of national pride that we have just bidden 'God speed' to the gallant company which has started for the Arctic seas. To face untold hardships and possible death in such a cause is a worthy and noble ambition. For these are realities. But obviously there are truths of far higher moment to the temporal and eternal well-being of man, than the laws of magnetism, the causes of the Aurora, or the fauna of the polar seas. Whence came I? Whither go I? What is sin? What is conscience? Is there a God in heaven? Is there a providence, a moral government, a judgment? Is there a redemption, a sanctification, a life eternal? These are the momentous, the pressing questions, which a man can only shelve at his peril.

Christ is the answer to all these questions. Therefore He is the Verity of Verities. Therefore He claims for Himself the title of the Truth, as His absolute and indefeasible right.

An incapacity to see the Truth, when thus presented to us in its highest form, may arise from different causes. It may spring from bigoted partisanship, and religious pride and obstinate formalism, as in the case of the Jews; or it may spring from cold cynicism and worldliness and dishonesty, as in the case of Pilate. These two conspired to crucify the Truth.

As we sow, so also shall we reap. Pilate's life had been spent in untruthfulness. His government had been an alternation of violence and fraud. His aim had not been to rule uprightly, but to rule at all costs. He must calm the suspicions of his jealous master, and he must quell the turbulence of an unruly people. Whatever means would conduce to these ends, were legitimate means. Uprightness, honour, frankness, generosity, truth—what were these to him? He had no belief in them, and why should he practise them? He projected his own motives into his estimate of mankind at large. He read the characters of others in the distorted mirror of his own consciousness. Human life, as he viewed it, was false from beginning to end. It was after all the reflection of his own falsehood which he saw. He was ever looking out for the unrealities of existence; he had no eye for its realities. Men's convictions were their foibles. Men's beliefs were his playthings. Untruthfulness, cynicism, distrust, scorn, had withered his soul. They only will find the truth, who believe that the truth may be found. Pilate had no such belief. He had gone through life, asking half in bitterness, half in jest, What is truth? He asked it now again, and the question was fatal.

Pilate's temper of mind is a very real danger in an age like ours. Let us beware of thus jesting with truth, lest some time like him we crucify the Truth unawares.