Every week or so, we will post about one of the sites on our upcoming Israel tours for pastors and everyone. The stories of these people and places in the Bible have the power to form us, first as humans made in the image of God, but also as servant leaders who have been called to join the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. Read more about how you can be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime experience in the Holy Land that will Renew your Faith, Refresh your Ministry, and help you to Realize the Story. This week: The Ecce Homo Arch.
I am fascinated that—for all its brevity—the Apostles’ Creed includes the name of Pontius Pilate. I understand why the apostles included the name of this Roman prefect who reigned over Judea for only a decade; they felt it crucial to canonize the historicity of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. When we confess that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate”, we are affirming that Jesus did not merely live “once upon a time”, but that the Messiah came into human history in order to save us. Still, almost every Sunday when we recite the creed, I find my attention drawn to this man.
In John’s gospel we read the most detailed exchange between Pilate and Jesus. Having sought to avoid having to deal with Jesus, Pilate eventually summons Jesus in order to examine him. Pilate wants to know about his claims to kingship—because of course a man who saw himself as a king would present a problem for the Romans who worshipped Caesar.
Witness to the Truth
Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, as is made plain by the fact that his followers have not engaged in any violent revolution. He has not come to supplant the earthly rule of Caesar. But Pilate can’t let him off that easily. To claim even a supernatural kingdom is still to identify as a king. Jesus echos Pilate’s own words back to him: “You say that I am a king.” And then Jesus provides a profound insight about his leadership.
He explains that he was born and came into the world to bear witness to the truth. He is equating his identity as a king with this role of bearing witness to truth. Pause there for a moment. Jesus is saying that a leader will bear witness, will testify, to truth. This is reminiscent of what Jesus earlier told his disciples in John 5:19, that he only does “what he sees the Father doing.” Jesus isn’t anxious in his leadership about what to do once all eyes are on him. He isn’t straining his genius or his talents to ensure he has enough to offer. Instead, he offers them a faithful witness to the truth and goodness he experiences from his relationship with the Father.
And, he says, those people who are searching for the truth, the ones who understand that there is something bigger and more profound than the strained efforts of the Pharisees and scribes to project a cohesive, honest way of living in the world—those people listen to his voice. Jesus’ authority, his irresistibility, was completely bound up in his ability to give a faithful witness to the truth of his Father.
“What is Truth?”
In the face of that remarkable statement, Pilate’s next question is telling: “What is truth?” Here is Pilate, a prefect of Rome, governor of all Judea, a man who surely ought to be able to lead and…he has no idea where he’s going. It turns out that Pilate spent too much time wringing his hands over how to project himself as someone who had something to offer. So concerned with being ‘the man’, he’d become dizzied by the various calls and pulls of the crowds. No one was listening to him because he simply had no testimony to offer.
His question hangs in the air, unanswered. He leaves the presence of Jesus and goes out to the crowds, hoping beyond hope that they will point his way.
After Jesus has been beaten, flogged, and mocked with the trappings of a king, he comes again to Pilate. There is nothing left to say to one another. With his purple robe and thorny crown, Jesus bears witness to a truth so revolutionary that, despite being told again and again, his disciples wouldn’t fully understand it until after the resurrection. And Pilate, who still has no testimony to offer his supposed subjects, says: “Behold the man!”
These words are memorialized by the Ecce Homo Arch along the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Ecce Homo is Latin for “Behold the man.”) When you join us on our tour of Israel in January, you will see this place for yourself and realize the story of these two ‘kings’, thrown together by circumstances and linked forever by history.
Maybe you are at a point of exhaustion or burnout in your own ministry. Maybe the sense of needing to be ‘the man’ for everyone all the time has you at a point where you feel you have nothing left to offer. Maybe you could use a pilgrimage like this to be alone with your Father, to allow him to speak truth into your heart, that you might be able to bear witness to the truth with integrity.
In the meantime, when you recite the creed this Sunday, pause and remember Pilate and his tragic question: What is truth? Then, when you approach the table and receive the elements, you can savor the answer for yourself.