Let us focus on Jesus’s words in John 18:37. He said, ‘For this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.’ Jesus’s words here are fascinating for two reasons.
Firstly, it’s clear he believed he was born for a purpose. Most of us are simply born. Some achieve a sense of purpose as time passes but a high and noble destiny beckoned Jesus from the moment he left his mother’s womb.
Secondly, there is a clue in these words that Jesus was the man from outside – one who existed before the world itself. He had existed from all eternity as the uncreated Son of God yet he entered our world as a human baby. He came to claim our allegiance and assert his right to rule over us.
We need to see the birth in a stable for what it was, the arrival of a sovereign Lord who claims the hearts of men.
Setting the scene
It was the first Good Friday. A short life of 33 years would soon end in humiliation, intense pain, unimaginable horror, desolation of soul, and a criminal’s death.
In the meantime, the farce of a trial dragged on. Jesus’s enemies – the Jewish aristocracy who controlled the Temple in Jerusalem – had brought him before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor and emissary of Caesar.
They did so because their own corrupt show trial was over. They had found the defendant guilty and wanted him executed. They would never have willingly referred the matter to uncircumcised Gentiles, but their hands were tied. The Roman authorities kept the power of capital punishment in their own hands.
If Jesus was to be silenced for good, the Jewish leaders had to go cap in hand to the hated Romans and request the death penalty. Pilate might even refuse. If their plan was to work, they had to convince him that Jesus was worthy of death.
They thought they had a foolproof case, namely Jesus’s claim to be a king. It all came to a head later that same day: ‘If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend. Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar’ (John 19:12).
This brings us to the exchanges recorded in our passage. The two key figures were alone. The preacher faced the politician.
One man was tired and weak after a night of several interrogations without sleep. The other, well-fed and rested, was churned up inside. A high official in the service of the greatest military power of the age looked at a village carpenter and had no idea what to make of him.
His first question, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ is heavy with irony. What kind of king gets arrested by his own subjects?
Why did Pilate raise this matter of kingship? What kind of king did he have in mind? Was Pilate worried that Jesus might be the kind of king the Jewish elite feared: a national Messiah? Or was he troubled that he might even want to make a bid for the throne of the Caesars? Was he planning a march on Jerusalem or perhaps a march on Rome?
Pilate asked another question, ‘Am I a Jew?’ If Jesus only claimed the allegiance of Jews, he had no jurisdiction over Pilate. In effect, the Roman governor asked, ‘Are you claiming to be my King, Roman that I am?’ Jesus’s next words left Pilate bemused: ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’
Pilate had an enigma before him. This king did not fit the usual mould. The usual kingly obsessions meant nothing to him. Status and wealth, the lust for power, the craving to increase his dominions did not move the Galilean prophet at all. He had no army at his back. No uprising would take place. The existing order was safe. Caiaphas, Pilate, and Caesar could lie safe in their beds.
His kingdom was real but ‘not from here’. The world had not seen a kingdom like it. This brings us to Pilate’s question in verse 37, ‘Are you a king then?’ Jesus’s reply was to let Pilate know that he had spoken no more than the truth. Yes, he was born to be king.
The man born to be king
What kind of king did Jesus come to be? Firstly, his kingship was not primarily a matter of territory. Earthly kingdoms have frontiers. They compete for land.
Jesus’s kingdom, however, has no national flag, no embassies in foreign capitals, and no seat at the United Nations. Yet its subjects are everywhere.
This kingdom cuts across every earthly jurisdiction. In almost every nation under heaven and in almost all the world’s great cities, men and women bow the knee to Jesus.
For all the pathos of that moment as he stood in lonely dignity before the cynical Roman grandee there are now millions who marvel at the grandeur of the king who would soon give his life as a ransom for many.
Secondly, Jesus claims lordship over the human conscience. How do you reach moral decisions? Who is the judge of right and wrong in your personal world? Read the Sermon on the Mount and you will find again and again that Jesus claimed the right to lay down authoritative moral teaching.
There is no mistaking the force of his words, ‘You have heard that it was said to those of old, but I say to you…’
The authority to pronounce what is good and what is evil belongs to God alone. The king that Jesus was claiming to be is king of the whole universe.
In the same way, Jesus claims lordship over our appetites and longings. It was he who declared that murder and adultery begin in the heart (Matthew 5:21-30).
In doing so, he declared that our innermost impulses are beneath his jurisdiction. Jesus asserts the right to be judge of our attitudes and motives.
The apostle Paul later wrote of the challenge of ‘bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10:5).
Also, Jesus is a king who claims lordship over our priorities. ‘If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me’ (Luke 9:23).
This king asserts first claim on our loyalty, even to the death if need be. He claims more than our obedience, he claims our hearts and minds, our love and our very lives. And he is such a great king that no one ever lost who yielded to him.
Enlist in his service and you will be richly repaid. Here is a king whose love will enrich both time and eternity. Given the nature of his claims we face a set of stark choices. He does not seek a modest level of respect from us but absolute, unconditional devotion.
The baby in the stable has a question for you as pressing as the questions he used to probe Pilate’s defences. Where does your allegiance lie? Are you a king’s man or a traitor? Has the time come to turn yourself in and seek a royal pardon?
The man born to tell the truth
Jesus told Pilate that he had come into the world to ‘bear witness to the truth’. Pilate was a politician, a trade where honest men are all too few. Jesus never misled anybody. He told the truth with courage and consistency. His public ministry was marked by transparent honesty.
He told the truth when it made his hearers smart or put his own life at risk. He knew nothing of white lies, subterfuge, or petty deceit. He told sombre truths about sin, judgment, and the world to come and enticing truths about the mercy of God and the heaven that awaits those who love him.
Bethlehem’s manger saw the birth of the great truth-teller, one who never held back from afflicting the spiritually comfortable and comforting the spiritually afflicted.
Jesus gives us the facts about the human predicament. What is the truth about the plight of man? There is something desperately wrong at the core of our being. ‘Those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies’ (Matthew 15:18-19).
Our problem runs so deep that nothing short of a radical new beginning, a new birth, will suffice. Without it, no one ‘can see the kingdom of God’ (John 3:3). Jesus told the truth about God.
He is the tender-hearted, merciful Father that we meet in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, full of willingness to be reconciled to those who have taken his goodness for granted and abused his loving-kindness (Luke 15:11-32).
Jesus told the truth about our destiny, though many find it hard to take. While there is a great banquet in the world to come, some are excluded from it and left in the darkness outside. It was Jesus who told us that nothing in all of life is more critical than being prepared for the next one.
Above all, Jesus told us the truth about himself. What conclusion can we reach about a man who said, ‘I am the bread of life’ (John 6:48)? When we experience that gnawing spiritual hunger that is part of human experience, no one but Jesus can satisfy it.
His words, ‘I am the light of the world’ (John 9:5) imply that humanity is marooned in pitch black night of the soul, a terrible moral and spiritual darkness. We have lost our bearings and cannot see the way ahead. Jesus alone can show us the way.
What do you make of a man who said, ‘I am the door’ (John 10:9), as though the kingdom of God was a sheepfold with but one entrance? ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11).
The Jewish elite saw his impending death as the most expedient way to get rid of a troublemaker. Jesus himself saw it as a sacrifice to secure the eternal safety of his people.
The most startling statement of them all comes in 14:6, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’
It is not simply that Jesus told the truth, that he made accurate statements that corresponded with reality. Jesus is the truth. Truth originates in him; it begins with him, it finds its home in him. He is the fountain, the origin of truth.
Again, this was nothing less than a claim to be God. Jesus was not given to exaggeration. We must not mistake his meaning for there is too much at stake. He is either a monstrous fraud or the only person who deserves our allegiance.
Phil Arthur is former pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Lancaster.