The wisdom of God is often only fully seen in retrospect. When man’s wisdom has passed as a fad, the mountain of God’s truth remains. Whereas time exposes the world’s wisdom, it will only vindicate God’s — and anyone who faithfully declared it to the world.
If you want a good picture of what the church looks like before the world, think of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Put yourself as an observer in the governor’s headquarters that morning, witnessing the interaction between the two. Who appeared weak and who appeared strong? Who sounded foolish and who sounded sensible? Which one seemed to be pursuing the best outcome for all involved?
The Governor and the Lord
“Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33).
“My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
You have got to be kidding! Pilate rubbed his eyes in exasperation.
For Pontius Pilate, the man standing before him was a major inconvenience. The Roman governor’s agenda for the day hadn’t included trying some renegade rabbi in trouble with the Sanhedrin. And first thing in the morning! The council wanted him to pronounce this man guilty of capital treason. Today. Before the Passover. Pilate resented the pressure. His patience strained at the seams.
He’d heard of this controversial Jesus before, but hadn’t felt a need to bother with him. The intelligence he’d received profiled just another Jewish mystical teacher. Some claimed he had miracle powers. But there’d been no reports of Jesus denouncing the emperor or calling for revolt against Rome. Apparently, he had even inspired some Roman soldiers, but there were no accounts of disloyalty as a result.
Easy Way Out
It wasn’t that Pilate had qualms over dispatching a Jewish troublemaker when needed. But this situation gave him a bad feeling. Jerusalem was swelling with Passover celebrants — not a good time for a political “dispatch.” If Jesus himself hadn’t called for revolt, executing him just might. He was popular with the peasants, and the Jewish zealots would seize any opportune moment.
Yet Jesus wasn’t helping his own cause. Had he no political savvy at all? In asking, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate had essentially offered him a quick exit from execution. All Jesus needed to give were a couple quick, clear denials and he’d be off Rome’s excruciating hook. The Sanhedrin would have to solve their own problem, and the governor could get on with the day’s important work.
But Jesus’s reply — “My kingdom is not of this world” — just made the unnecessary situation worse. Come on, man. If you don’t want to die, don’t mention a kingdom — imaginary or not — to the Roman governor! Now Pilate was forced to probe further.
Who Was Delusional?
“So you are a king?” Pilate asked. Jesus answered him, “You [rightly] 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” (John 18:37).
Pilate couldn’t help a sardonic snort. Just what he thought: a Jewish mystic with his head in the clouds. Delusional? Clearly. But a real political threat to Rome or anyone else? Clearly not. Jesus was a King of Truth whose only subjects were those willing to listen to his voice. Pilate figured they would never amount to enough for a rebellion. Plus, Jesus’s servants didn’t want to fight worldly powers (John 18:36). This was religious madness, not treason. Jesus didn’t need to be killed.
Then Pilate had an idea. There was a way out of this mess, a way to release Jesus so Rome looked benevolent, the Sanhedrin saved face, and the Jewish masses would be placated: the Passover prisoner release! As he got up to pitch the idea to the Jews, he sarcastically remarked to the King of Truth, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)
World and Church
Sitting in his headquarters that morning, Pilate had the full authority of the Roman Empire behind him. Jesus appeared to have no one; he stood there “despised and rejected” (Isaiah 53:3).
Pilate’s words must have sounded reasonable, given the apparent context. Jesus’s words must have sounded delusional and strange. Pilate seemed to be pursuing a politically pragmatic course that would stave off an unjust execution, frustrating but not alienating the Jewish council, and keeping the civil peace in Jerusalem. Jesus inexplicably seemed to do nothing to avoid crucifixion.
However, with the benefit of retrospect, we see that Jesus was strong and Pilate was weak: Pilate only wielded authority by God’s decree (John 19:11). We see that Jesus was wise and Pilate was foolish: the governor only found Jesus’s words unintelligible because he heard them as a “natural man” (1 Corinthians 2:14 NASB). And we see that Jesus, not Pilate, knew what would make for the best outcome of all involved: Pilate had no idea of the peace Jesus was pursuing for billions as he sought merely to keep the peace of the city.
This is the position of the church in the world. Though God will station his people in places of governmental influence as “Josephs” and “Daniels” and “those of Caesar’s household” (Philippians 4:22), the church will not wield the power of the world. It will stand in the weak places, saying truths that sound delusional to worldly authorities, and pursuing aims that will be misunderstood and misinterpreted. But its position will, in reality, be strong, because “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25).
You Will Be My Witnesses
As Jesus witnessed to his governing authorities, and as Paul witnessed to his (and was told, “Paul, you are out of your mind,” Acts 26:24), so Jesus tells us, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). For some of us, that will literally mean “stand[ing] before governors and kings for [his] sake” (Mark 13:9).
But whether we’re called to stand before government officials or coworkers or neighbors or family members, what we have to say often will, in the immediate context, sound strange. We will feel how foolish it sounds to them, and we will feel our apparently weak position.
That’s when we need to remember Jesus before Pilate. What matters is not how things appear and sound in the awkward or even deathly serious moment. What matters is being faithful to the truth — even if that audacious-sounding claim only elicits a sardonic snort. What is ultimately significant, what God is actually doing in and through that moment, is frequently only seen in retrospect.