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Lesson 96: Jesus, the King of Truth (John 18:33-38a)

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June 14, 2014

In 2007, John MacArthur wrote a very important book, The Truth War [Thomas Nelson], that began (p. ix), “Who would have thought that people claiming to be Christians—even pastors—would attack the very notion of truth? But they are.” After citing some specific examples, MacArthur wrote (p. xi):

The idea that the Christian message should be kept pliable and ambiguous seems especially attractive to young people who are in tune with the culture and in love with the spirit of the age and can’t stand to have authoritative biblical truth applied with precision as a corrective to worldly lifestyles, unholy minds, and ungodly behavior. And the poison of this perspective is being increasingly injected into the evangelical church body.

He goes on to show how God and truth are inseparable. Satan tempted Eve with the lie that undermined God’s truthful word. Ever since, the enemy has attacked the truth, because truth is inextricably bound up with God (John 8:44) and His Son, who speaks the truth and who is the truth (John 8:45; 14:6). So if we love God and love Christ we must love the truth and defend the truth when it is under attack. One characteristic of those who incur God’s judgment is that “they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved” (2 Thess. 2:10). All will be judged who “did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness” (2 Thess. 2:12).

In John’s account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, he emphasizes two important truths about our Savior: First, He is the King of the Jews, and by rightful extension, of all people, because His kingdom is not of this world, but is spiritual. Second, John underscores the Lord’s emphasis on truth. Jesus tells Pilate (John 18:37), “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” To which Pilate scoffs, “What is truth?” and walks away. Bringing these two points together, we can say that…

Jesus is the King of truth and everyone who is of the truth hears His voice.

1. Jesus is the King of a spiritual kingdom founded on spiritual truth.

Pilate’s question, “Are You the King of the Jews?” was probably incredulous. You is emphatic, so the sense is, “You! You’re the King of the Jews?” If Pilate’s question had been sincere in terms of determining who Jesus really is, he would have been on the right path, because the most important question for every person to answer correctly is, “Who is Jesus Christ?” If He is who He claimed to be, then He is worthy of your trust and submission. If He is not, then no one should waste their time being a Christian.

Jesus could not answer Pilate’s question without further clarification. If Pilate meant, “Are you the political king of the Jews who is usurping authority from Rome?” the answer is, “No.” If he meant, “Are You the Messianic King of Israel, promised in the Old Testament?” the answer is, “Yes, but not in the way that most Jews envision that kingdom.” So Jesus’ question (John 18:34), “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?” is asking, “Have you personally investigated My claims and are wondering if I am the Jewish Messiah; or are you relying on the secondhand charges of the Jewish leaders?” Pilate’s contemptuous reply is (John 18:35): “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?” Pilate assumed that there must be something behind the Jewish leaders’ accusations, but he wasn’t sure exactly what.

Jesus does not reply to Pilate’s question, “What have You done?” Instead, He elaborates on the nature of His kingdom. We can learn two things from His reply:

A. As the King over the spiritual realm, Jesus is the rightful sovereign over all rule and authority.

Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, where the concept of the kingdom is prevalent, John only mentions the kingdom here and in John 3:3, 5 (but, cf. John 6:15). John 18:36-37: “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.’ Therefore Pilate said to Him, ‘So You are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’” Jesus’ reply was literally, “You say that I am a king,” but the expression is “unambiguously affirmative” (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 594; cf. Matt. 26:63-65).

When Pilate asked, “So You are a king?” he wasn’t looking for spiritual answers regarding Jesus’ identity. He was just trying to navigate through the Jews’ accusations to get to the bottom of why they really had brought Jesus to him. Jesus plainly let Pilate know that politically, His kingdom was no threat to Rome. If His kingdom were political, Jesus would have had soldiers defending Him from arrest. As anyone who had been in the garden could testify, Jesus in fact had rebuked one of His followers who had taken up arms to defend Him. As seen in his answer (John 18:38), “I find no guilt in Him,” Pilate discerned that Jesus was not a political threat.

But at the same time, Jesus makes it clear that He is a king, just not the kind that Pilate might envision. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, but is spiritual. The kings or rulers over earthly kingdoms rule by coercion over geographic territories and seek to conquer other territories through military might. They force their subjects to pay taxes so that they can live in luxurious palaces while they build and sustain their armies. But Jesus’ kingdom is different. As He explained to His disciples (Matt. 20:25-28):

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

In His first coming, Jesus came as a humble servant to establish His spiritual kingdom in the hearts of those He came to ransom from their sins. He came to offer salvation freely to all who willingly submit to Him. But at His second coming, He will forcefully subdue all opposition and judge all who have rebelled against Him. Daniel 7:13-14 describes it:

I kept looking in the night visions,
And behold, with the clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man was coming,
And He came up to the Ancient of Days
And was presented before Him.
And to Him was given dominion,
Glory and a kingdom,
That all the peoples, nations and men of every language
Might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And His kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed.

The apostle John pictured it like this (Rev. 19:11-16):

And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.”

So Pilate saw a man who outwardly did not look anything like a king. He looked like a common Galilean working man. He wasn’t wearing expensive clothing or jewelry. He wasn’t surrounded by servants. But Jesus was and is the King of kings and Lord of lords. He is presently at the Father’s right hand, awaiting the day when He will make His enemies a footstool for His feet (Ps. 110:1). Someday, Pilate, Caiaphas, Caesar, and every person who has ever lived, will see Jesus coming in the glory of His Father with the angels and bow before Him as King before He sentences them according to their deeds (Matt. 16:27; Phil. 2:9-11)! The clear application is: Make sure that your heart is in subjection to Jesus as your King now, so that you are not terrified by His coming later.

B. Jesus’ spiritual kingdom is founded on spiritual truth.

In John 18:37, Jesus testifies, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” This is the only reference in John to Jesus’ birth, which points to His humanity. But Jesus has repeatedly made reference to His coming into this world, which points to His pre-existence and deity (John 3:13, 31; 8:42; 9:39; 16:28). Here Jesus indicates that He has been born and come into the world to be a king, but the way He establishes His kingdom is not by military force, but by bearing witness to the truth. Mohammed established his kingdom with the power of the sword, which his most ardent followers still use: convert or be killed. In contrast Jesus set up His kingdom by the power of the truth and His love as seen at the cross.

Jesus’ claim shows that, contrary to the prevalent postmodern philosophy of our time, there is such a thing as absolute, objective, knowable truth in the spiritual realm. Such truth is true whether you feel it’s true or not. It’s true whether you like it or not. It’s true whether you believe it or not. Spiritual truth is not determined by pragmatism, or what works. Some methods and techniques seem to work in terms of success in business or relationships, but they aren’t spiritually true in light of eternity because they do not bring people into submission to Jesus Christ. Spiritual truth applies to all cultures and all people in all times. All spiritual truth comes from God, revealed to us in His Word, which points us to Jesus Christ. Spiritual truth is centered on the gospel, which transforms our hearts and brings us under Christ’s lordship so that we will not face His judgment on the last day.

It’s important to understand that truth is inextricably linked to the eternal God. To answer Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” John MacArthur offers this definition, drawn from Scripture (ibid., p. 2, italics his):

Truth is that which is consistent with the mind, will, character, glory, and being of God. Even more to the point: truth is the self-expression of God…. Therefore God is the author, source, determiner, governor, arbiter, ultimate standard, and final judge of all truth.

He adds (p. 1), “Every idea we have, every relationship we cultivate, every belief we cherish, every fact we know, every argument we make, every conversation we engage in, and every thought we think presupposes that there is such a thing as ‘truth.’”

The Bible calls God “the God of truth” (Ps. 31:5; Isa. 65:16). It is impossible for God to lie (Titus 1:2). Since God is the only eternal being, who created all that exists, and since He is spirit (John 4:24), we cannot know Him by human reason or speculation, but only as He has chosen to reveal Himself to us, which He has done supremely through Jesus Christ (John 1:1; cf. Luke 10:22; Heb. 1:1-3). John 1:14 affirms that Jesus, the Word who is God, is “full of grace and truth.” Jesus also referred to the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of truth,” who would guide His followers into all the truth by disclosing the things of Christ to us (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). Thus truth characterizes each person of the triune God.

Since we are to glorify God by being conformed to the image of His Son, truth should characterize every believer in Christ. We are to “practice the truth” (John 3:21). We are sanctified by God’s Word, which is the truth (John 17:17). We are to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Since Satan is a liar and the father of lies, in contrast to Jesus who always spoke the truth (John 8:44-45), all who want to be like Jesus must strive to be truthful both in word and in behavior. As Paul put it (Eph. 4:15), we are to speak the truth in love. He added (Eph. 4:25), “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.” This encompasses not only truthful speech, but also speaking that which is in line with biblical truth or sound doctrine.

The fact that there is absolute spiritual truth also means that there is absolute spiritual error. Some spiritual error is relatively minor in its effects, but some is devastating and damnable (Matt. 23:23, 24). Thus in Paul’s final three pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus, he exhorts them repeatedly to teach sound (= “healthy”) doctrine and to refute those who teach harmful doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3-11; 4:1-3, 7, 11, 16; 6:20-21; 2 Tim. 1:13; 2:14-18, 23-26; 3:1-17; 4:1-5; Titus 1:1, 9-14; 2:1; 3:9). The church is “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Jude 3 exhorts, “Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” He goes on to warn about false teachers who threatened the church. Also, 2 Peter and 1, 2, & 3 John all have strong warnings against false teachers and exhortations to hold to the truth.

To say that something is absolutely true is to say that anything contrary to it is a lie. But if you say this in today’s tolerant, postmodern culture, you will be labeled as a narrow-minded bigot. Over 100 years ago, C. H. Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 49:174) said that in his day, you would get three cheers if you went into the world and said that you were an agnostic—that you didn’t know anything or believe anything. Others say that it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere. This, Spurgeon said, is like believing that you can drink acid without harm or go without food and not starve. But, Spurgeon concluded, “Our blessed Savior is honestly intolerant.”

In our text, there are two responses to the truth that Jesus proclaimed: Pilate scoffed; but those who are of the truth hear Jesus’ voice.

2. Those who are not of the truth scoff at the very notion that there is truth in the spiritual realm.

I believe that Pilate’s reply, “What is truth?” was said with a cynical sneer. If he were asking sincerely, he would not have immediately walked away. When Jesus said (John 18:37), “Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice,” He was extending an implicit invitation to Pilate to respond: “Pilate, will you hear My voice? Will you listen to Me as I speak the truth to you about your soul?” Really, it was Pilate, not Jesus, who was on trial, because whenever a person comes in contact with Jesus Christ, his sins are exposed in the light of Christ’s holiness and he has a decision to make. Will he hear Jesus’ voice calling him to come to the light? Or will he walk away because he is uncomfortable in the presence of such light?

Apparently Pilate didn’t give much thought to his decision to scoff at Christ’s words and go back out to the Jews, but that was a spiritually fatal decision. On the surface, it seemed like a little thing. Pilate probably thought, “I need to get this case resolved so I can go have breakfast and get on with my day.” But sometimes seemingly small decisions have major eternal consequences: Will you go to church and hear the gospel preached or will you stay home and enjoy a leisurely breakfast while you read the paper? When you hear the gospel preached on the radio, will you listen and respond to Christ or will you hit the button for your favorite music station?

The apostle Paul said (1 Tim. 6:13) that Jesus “testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate.” So Pilate’s skeptical response was not because Christ’s witness was somehow lacking. You can give the gospel as clearly as you know how, and yet people scoff and walk away. Why do they do that?

The comprehensive answer is, “Sin.” And probably the major sin that keeps people from faith in Christ is pride. They think that they know more than God and so they sit in judgment on the Bible, rather than letting it sit in judgment on them. Pride keeps them from asking God to reveal the truth to them. Pride makes them think that their good works will qualify them for heaven.

Also, often as people get older, they often become cynical of any religion that claims to be exclusively true. Perhaps they’ve been ripped off financially by professing Christians. They’ve seen Christian leaders who preached holiness while they were secretly engaging in sexual sins. At the same time, they’ve met unbelievers who were decent, good people. So they wrongly conclude that no one can know spiritual truth and anyone who claims to have the truth is arrogant and narrow-minded.

Another reason people scoff at the truth in Jesus is laziness and resistance to change. They don’t diligently seek truth in God’s Word, because it takes effort. It’s easier just to live as they’ve been living and not do the hard work necessary to change old habits. Plus, they love their sin and the truth makes them uncomfortable. So, like Pilate, they scoff at the notion that there is truth in the spiritual realm. But by God’s power, some do respond:

3. Everyone who is of the truth hears Jesus’ voice.

Being “of the truth” suggests spiritual origin. As Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:6-7), “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” Those who have been spiritually reborn by the Spirit of truth are “of the truth.” They become seekers of the truth in Christ. So the crucial question is, “Have you been born again?”

If you wonder, “How can I know whether I’m of the truth? How can I know whether I’ve been born again?” Jesus gives the answer: You will hear His voice. Jesus often cried out (Matt. 11:15; 13:9), “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” He was challenging people to ponder the meaning of what He proclaimed and apply it to their hearts. Hearing Jesus in this sense means not only listening, but also obeying what He commanded. The fact that spiritual truth is knowable and objective means that, like science, it must be studied. God’s truth is like precious metal or hidden treasure that must be diligently sought after (Prov. 2:1-6). If you are “of the truth,” you will be a truth-seeker by studying God’s Word. But the aim is not just to acquire knowledge, but to apply that knowledge wisely so that your life is pleasing to God.

Conclusion

Years ago on a TV talk show, the Archbishop of Canterbury was speaking with actress Jane Fonda. He said, “Jesus is the Son of God, you know.” Fonda replied, “Maybe he is for you, but he’s not for me.” To which the Archbishop wisely answered, “Well, either he is or he isn’t.”

Although most Americans and even a large percentage of evangelical Christians reject the idea of absolute truth in the spiritual realm, that doesn’t undermine the fact of it. Jesus is the truth and He testified to the truth. And He is the King. If you are of the truth, you will hear His voice and submit your life to Him.

Application Questions

  1. How can you reply to a person who accuses you of being narrow-minded and bigoted because you believe in absolute truth?
  2. Often those who study God’s Word come across as spiritually proud know-it-alls who love to win an argument. How can we grow in spiritual knowledge and yet avoid such pride?
  3. Some Christians say that we should set aside doctrinal differences and come together in love and unity with all Christians. Is this sound advice or is it dangerous? Why?
  4. Sometimes the slogan, “All truth is God’s truth,” is used to smuggle worldly “truth” into the church. Is the slogan valid? What parameters need to be applied to it?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Christology

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