John 18: 37-38 (ESV):
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?"
What, indeed, is truth? When we contemplate the deep mysteries of faith we summon many resources-scripture, reason, experience-and we do this in pursuit of truth. Faith may be necessarily uncertain, but truth is truth. What we believe-mustering our imperfect ability to have faith-we believe to be true.
Survey a group of Christians and you will discover an amazing variety of stories as to how each one came to relationship with God through Jesus Christ. For some, philosophical reasoning brought them to the doorway of faith. For others the drama and wisdom of Holy Scripture is persuasive enough all on its own. Many will describe forms of spiritual experience-fellowship, answers to prayer, intuitive insights-as their springboards to relationship with God. Sometimes, however, in our search for truth we might overlook the obvious. We will overlook the fact that the Bible is rooted in human history and geography. Jerusalem is no imaginary city-it exists and it has always existed since ancient times. Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee-these places were not created yesterday. They have existed before and since a fully human and fully divine man named Jesus walked around them, creating quite a stir.
For those of us who tend to be armchair rather than actual travelers, this-the geography of the Bible-is very worthwhile to ponder. We may not be feeling the hot sun of Israel on our backs, or have ancient dust blowing in our faces-but we can think and imagine.
There are probably many splendid guides to biblical geography. One of them is entitled In the Footsteps of Jesus by Jean-Pierre Isbouts. This book endeavors to offer an objective historical and geographical analysis of the origins of Christianity. In spite of its understated and scholarly tone, it is a brilliant encouragement to faith.
For example, when discussing Pontius Pilate, there is a photograph of a stone from a Roman theatre in Caesarea. This stone has a weathered but identifiable inscription indicating that it was part of a building dedicated by Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea. Moreover, it appears that much is known about the historical Pilate:
From the beginning of his term, Pilate never shied away from deliberately provoking Jewish sensitivities, and he wasted no time in crushing anyone whom he deemed a political threat. "Pilate," says the Jewish historian Philo, writing around 41 C.E., "[used] briberies, insults, robberies, outrages, wanton injuries, and "-significantly-"constantly repeated executions without trial"; a man, in short, of "ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty." Even Josephus, who wrote at the behest of the Roman Imperial House, felt compelled to document Pilate's misdeeds and his absolute disregard for human life."
The study of Pilate as historical figure helps our study of Jesus as historical figure-and our subsequent understanding of Jesus as the Messiah, the means of our salvation. It is supremely ironic that the man instrumental in the execution of Jesus and who so mockingly asked "what is truth" should be an historical signpost to biblical truth.
We might presume, at least, that Pilate asked "what is truth" in a mocking or contemptuous tone of voice. Perhaps we should be careful about this presumption. Perhaps on that fateful day, Pilate really was torn, wanting very much to know the truth. Max Lucado makes a number of objective observations about Pilate:
Pilate makes no fewer than four attempts to release Jesus. He tells the Jews to settle the matter (John 18:28-31). He refers the issue to Herod (Luke 23:4-7). He tries to persuade the Jews to accept Jesus as the prisoner released at Passover (Mark 15:6-10). He offers a compromise: scourging instead of execution (Luke 23:22). He does all he can to release Jesus. Why? "I find no fault in him at all (John 18: 38).
No fault in him at all. Well, no. Why would there be, seeing as how he was the very Son of God? Nevertheless the sinful crowd will be satisfied with nothing less than the criminal Barabbas being set free and Jesus being condemned to death. Pilate abandons his search for truth (if that is what it was) and commits the ultimate act of irresponsibility by acquiescing to the demands of the mob.
In retrospect, and knowing that God the Father is in control, we nevertheless see how every turn of these events is necessary. Lucado explains:
All ships that land at the shore of grace weigh anchor from the port of sin. We must start where God starts. We won't appreciate what grace does until we understand who we are. We are rebels. We are Barabbas. Like him, we deserve to die. Four prison walls, thickened with fear, hurt and hate surround us. We are incarcerated by our past, our low-road choices, and our high-minded pride. We have been found guilty.
Let us pause for a moment and try to imagine just how horrible it would be to sit in a jail cell, condemned to a painful death.
Our executioner's footsteps echo against stone walls. Head between our knees, we don't look up as he opens the door; we don't lift our eyes as he begins to speak. We know what he is going to say: "Time to pay for your sins." But we hear something else. "You're free to go. They took Jesus instead of you."
This is our faith: rooted in earthly reality, and revealed to us through extraordinary human drama, with God Incarnate at the center. This is our joy and our freedom: the grace of God, the undeserved love of God for us in our sinful state.
Praise the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!
In faith and fellowship,
Outreach Canada Ministries.
In faith and fellowship,
New Life Community Church
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