What is Truth? It’s something we all claim to seek in our words, thoughts, and deeds. Those who choose to live a lie are found out; either now or in the judgment. So, what did the fifth prefect (AD 26–36) of the Roman province of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, mean when he asked this very question? The entire encounter he had with the Lord Jesus Christ was documented in John’s Gospel. Christ, responding to Pilate’s question: “So you are a king?” says, in summary, that He was born into the world for this very purpose — to bear witness to the truth; everyone who is of the truth hears His voice. Where upon:
Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him.”
John 18:38 English Standard Version (ESV)
Theologian John Calvin comments on this abrupt conversation Pilate had with the Lord:
What is truth? …Though we are all aware of our ignorance, yet there are few who are willing to confess it; and the consequence is, that the greater part of men reject the true doctrine. Afterwards, the Lord, who is the Teacher of the humble, blinds the proud, and thus inflicts on them the punishment which they deserve. From the same pride arises such disdain, that they do not choose to submit to learn, because all lay claim to sagacity and acuteness of mind. Truth is believed to be a common thing; but God declares, on the contrary, that it far exceeds the capacity of the human understanding.
…That Pilate spoke in mockery is evident from this circumstance, that he immediately goes out. In short, he is angry with Christ for boasting that he brings forward the truth, which formerly lay hidden in darkness. Yet this indignation of Pilate shows that wicked men never reject the doctrine of the Gospel so spitefully as not to be somewhat moved by its efficacy; for, though Pilate did not proceed so far as to become humble and teachable, yet he is constrained to feel some inward compunction.
Expositor Alexander MacLaren gave a sermon on this same interchange:
How little Pilate knew that he was standing at the very crisis of his fate! A yielding to the impression that was slightly touching his heart and conscience, and he, too, might have ‘heard’ Christ’s voice. But he was not ‘of the truth,’ though he might have been if he had willed, and so the words were wind to him, and he brushed aside all the mist, as he thought it, with the light question, which summed up a Roman man of the world’s indifference to ideas, and belief in solid facts like legions and swords. ‘What is truth?’ may be the cry of a seeking soul, or the sneer of a confirmed sceptic, or the shrug of indifference of the ‘practical man.’
It was the last in Pilate’s case, as is shown by his not waiting for an answer, but ending the conversation with it as a last shot. It meant, too, that he felt quite certain that this man, with his high-strained, unpractical talk about a kingdom resting on such a filmy nothing, was absolutely harmless.
Therefore, the only just thing for him to have done was to have gone out to the impatient crowd and said so, and flatly refused to do the dirty work of the priests for them, by killing an innocent man. But he was too cowardly for that, and, no doubt, thought that the murder of one poor Jew was a small price to pay for popularity with his troublesome subjects.
Still, like all weak men, he was not easy in his conscience, and made a futile attempt to get the right thing done, and yet not to suffer for doing it…
Preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon had also discussed the conversation between kings:
Our Lord, having explained His meaning, confessed that He was a King. This is that to which Paul refers when he says, “The Lord Jesus, who before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession.” He did not draw back and say, “I am no King.” Pilate might have delivered Him, then. But He spoke boldly concerning His blessed, mysterious and wonderful Kingdom and, therefore, it was not possible that He should be set free. This, indeed, was His accusation written over His Cross, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Poor Pilate, he did not understand our Lord, even as the men of this world understand not the kingdom of Christ. He said to Him, “What is truth?” and without waiting for a reply he went out to the Jews.
Ah, Brothers and Sisters, let us never deny that Jesus is a King—but we shall deny it if we do not live according to His bidding. Oh, you that claim to be Christ’s but do not live according to Christ’s Laws, you practically deny that He is King! I dread the men who say, “We believe and therefore we are saved,” and then do not live in holiness—for these divide our Lord’s offices setting up His priesthood and denying His kingship! Half a Christ is no Christ—a Christ who is a priest but never a king is not the Christ of God!
Oh Brethren, live as those who feel that every word of Jesus is Law and that you must do what He bids you, as He bids you and because He bids you—and so let all men know that unto you Jesus is both Lord and God.
Though each commentator points out something different in the encounter, each one observes that Pilate refuses to know the truth. Consider that earlier in the Lord’s ministry to His disciples, when Thomas asked Him the way He was going:
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6 (ESV)
You who have ears to hear, believe in Him and know the truth.
Alistair Begg: “No Place for Truth,” Ligonier Ministries