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Pilate Error: The Truth About The Lies We Believe

John 18:33-34

You don’t have to love country music in order to appreciate the colossal humor contained in the titles to country songs. Let me share some of my favorites with you.

  • There’s the old classic: “I’ve Got Tears in My Ears From Lying on My Back Crying Over You!”
  • Or how about this romantic ballad: “She Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat!”
  • I love this one: “If You Leave Me, Walk Out Backwards So I’ll Think You’re Coming In!”
  • Well here’s a tender ballad: “King Kong Was Just a Little Old Monkey Compared to My Love for You.”
  • Tops on the charts was this song: “All My Exes Live in Texas, That’s Why I Make My Home in Tennessee!”
  • Last year the #1 hit on the Country Hit Parade was a song called: “Blame it on Your Heart”. That’s how they listed it in the papers, but the real title is (and let me be sure I get this right): “Blame it on Your Lyin’, Cheatin’, Dead-beatin’, Two-timin’, Double-dealin’, Mean Mistreatin’ Lovin’ Heart”.
  • But the other one that caught my attention recently was this one: “I’ll Tell Big Lies to Win Your Love, and That’s the Truth!”

Well, we can laugh at the obvious contradictions in that title “I’ll Tell Big Lies to Win Your Love, and That’s the Truth!”, but the fact is that in our own lives there are a lot of lies we believe to be true. We see it so clearly in the experience of Pontius Pilate.

In many ways Pilate was a tragic figure. He was a minor official in the hierarchy of the Roman government, serving an almost demeaning assignment as the governor of Judea. He was charged for the responsibility for people he did not like and did not understand. The feeling was mutual. Furthermore, his job was on the line and he knew it. There were some basic agreements between the Romans and the Jews, and one of them was that the Romans would never force the Jews to do anything they considered to be sacrilegious. Pilate had violated that trust agreement, and it had gotten him into trouble with the home office at Rome. He had made the Jews participate in a Roman parade, carrying symbols of the Roman Empire. The Roman government came down hard on Pilate for his poor judgment. One more mistake and Pilate would find himself in the unemployment line.

Now standing before him was this strange and compelling figure whose name was Jesus. Pilate did not need this. He was caught on the horns of a terrible dilemma. The Jewish leaders were demanding that Jesus be put to death because they alleged He claimed to be a king. Pilate was smart enough at least to see that any decision he rendered would not be universally acclaimed. So he decided to cross-examine Jesus himself in hopes of finding a way out of this mess. The interrogation did not go well because Jesus kept answering Pilate’s questions with a question. Pilate: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” It’s a rather frustrating thing when questions are thrown right back at us.

There’s an art to asking the right questions in the right way in order to gain information. Just ask any trial lawyer. Questions asked in the wrong way lead nowhere. Jan Goodsell, of the Associated Press, listed what she considered to be “The World’s Worst Questions”. Have you asked or been asked any of these?

  • “Will you promise not to get mad if I ask you something?”
  • “You don’t honestly expect me to believe that, do you?”
  • “Don’t you have any sense of humor?”
  • “You don’t remember me, do you?” (Preachers love that one!)
  • “Have I kept you waiting?”
  • “Are you asleep?”
  • “When are you going to grow up?”

Pilate needed to have the upper hand in this situation, and so he tossed out some questions he hoped would get to Jesus, but his questions fell short of the mark. He asked four questions. First, “Are you the King of the Jews?” His second question was a loaded one: “What have you done?” The third question was a trick question: “So you are a king?” The final question was a facetious one: “What is truth?”

Whenever I read this passage and analyze what is happening, I am struck with what I call “Pilate Error”. Here was Pilate wanting to get at the issue of truth, and he was looking truth right in the face, but he was so caught up in lies that he believed to be true, he was so tied up in his own interests, his own power, his own picture, that he couldn’t see the truth when it was standing directly in front of him.

Let’s not be too quick to put down Pilate. Too many of us today are also guilty of Pilate Error. Several years ago, a man was standing in line at the Louvre in Paris to see the Mona Lisa. When he finally got to where he could see it, he muttered: “I don’t see anything so great about that face”, to which a guard standing nearby responded: “Sir, the Mona Lisa is not on trial, you are.” Well, Jesus is not on trial here, Pilate is. Or, if you will, we are. Pilate error is believing lies and missing the truth. Pilate error is being so preoccupied with our own self interest that we fail to acknowledge the reign of King Jesus in our daily lives. Pilate asked: “Are you a king?” Jesus answered: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world.” Let’s look at some lies we believe to be true …

Pilate believed the lie that life is about success. Jesus declared the truth that life is about sacrifice.

Everything Pilate did and said that day was shaped by his concern for success, position, and rank. Jesus was interested in exactly the opposite. He would live a life of sacrifice because He believed that that was what God was calling Him to do. It is a calling which is ours as well. Mother Teresa puts it this way: “In life we are not called to be successful, but to be faithful.”

I think here of Will McLaughlin who was a law student at Northwestern University. His uncle was the minister of the First Congregational Church of Chicago. Their congregation had outgrown their church and so they were building a new one. The church was not ready for occupancy on Easter Sunday, so the services that day were to be held in a huge theatre which had just been built. Will McLaughlin visited his uncle the night before Easter, and he asked his uncle what the text was going to be for the sermon the next day. His uncle quoted these words from John: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world.” Will said that he would look forward to hearing that sermon. The next day when Will drove up to the theatre, he saw that it was engulfed in flames. Apparently everyone had gotten out in time. But then Will heard screams coming from inside the burning theatre. He discovered that there were some people trapped up in the balcony. The workmen had not yet built a fire escape on the building. There was a door on the balcony leading to an escape, but it simply dropped off to the alley below. So Will ran into the flames, made his way to the balcony, found a plank left by the workmen, slid it across the threshold of the door to the window sill of the Law Library on the other side of the alley. He then helped the people trapped in the balcony one by one to cross the plank to safety. By the time Will managed to get everyone out of the balcony, the flames had reached the plank. When Will stepped on it, it gave way, and he plunged to the alley far below. As he lay dying, his uncle and others crowded around. When Will saw his uncle, he said: “I think your Easter sermon is about me. For this is why I was born. This is why I came into the world.” Those were his last words. The scarred plank has been preserved. It can still be seen today with these words inscribed upon it: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world. Will McLaughlin.”

Pilate’s error was that he failed to realize that the One he was talking to was a king—a king whose crown was a cross.

And Pilate believed the lie that we are the center of life in this world. Jesus declared the truth that God is the center of life in this world.

From the time of childhood, I suppose, we have known William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus”.

“Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.”

Great poetry. Lousy theology. Pilate thought that he was the master of his own fate, the captain of his own soul. He thought life revolved around him. That’s Pilate error: focusing on ourselves leads to a distortion of our own importance. Every “twelve-step program” begins by encouraging followers to recognize the presence of a Higher Power. Pilate error is when we think that we are the center of life. It takes a strong person indeed to allow another source of power to be at life’s center.

When Queen Victoria of England was a young woman she was instructed in the matters of protocol and court etiquette. She was told that in the presence of other people she was always to remain seated—everyone else would stand in deference to her power and her position. Shortly thereafter she attended a performance of Handel’s “Messiah”. When the chorus came to the place where they sing “King of kings and Lord of lords”, the queen could not contain herself. In violation of all custom, and to the profound shock of the audience, she stood and bowed her head in homage. The audience then scrambled to their feet, and people have been standing during the singing of the “Hallelujah Chorus” ever since. That took place at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign. Near the end of her rule, she was listening to a powerful sermon about the second coming of Christ. Afterward she asked the preacher to come to the queen’s box. Her majesty said to the preacher: “Dr. Farrar, I wish that the Savior might come while I am still on the throne, because I should like to take the crown of England and lay it at His feet.”

Avoid Pilate error. Put Christ at the center of your life.

And then Pilate believed the lie that force prevails in this world. But Jesus declared the truth that love prevails.

Pilate said to Jesus: “Do you not know that I have the power to release you and the power to crucify you?” Pilate thought that the power of force which was his would prevail. It was a lie. Jesus responded: “You have no power over me unless it is given you from above.” The only power that matters, the only power that prevails is the power of love!

This profound theological truth is clearly revealed in a beautiful story called “Heart Song.” It seems that there was a great man who married the woman of his dreams, and out of their love they gave birth to a little girl. The great man loved the little girl very much. When she was a baby, he would hold her in his arms and say: “I love you, little girl, I love you, little girl.” When the little girl was growing up, he would reach out and pick her up and hug her and say: “I love you, little girl.” And she would say: “But I’m not a little girl anymore.” The great man would laugh and say: “But to me, you’ll always be my little girl.”

Eventually the little girl who-was-not-little-anymore, grew up and left home and went into the world. There the more she learned about herself, the more she learned about her Dad. She began to recognize his great strengths, especially his ability to express love to his family. Wherever she would go in the world, he would call her and say: “I love you, little girl.” One day the little girl who-was-not-little anymore received word that her dad had suffered a stroke. He couldn’t talk anymore. It wasn’t even clear that he could understand words spoken to him. He could no longer smile, or laugh, or hug, or walk, or dance, or tell the little girl who-wasn’t-little-anymore that he loved her. So then the little girl who-was-not-little-anymore hastened to the great man’s bedside. He seemed so small, so frail, so weak. He looked at her and tried to speak, but he could not. So she climbed up on his bed beside him, and with tears in her eyes, she put her arms about his useless shoulders and rested her head on his chest. She remembered the wonderful moments they had shared together. Then she heard from within the great man the beat of his heart. Then it happened. She heard what she had yearned to hear. His heart beat out the words that his voice could no longer say: “I love you, little girl. I love you, little girl. I love you, little girl.”

Dear friends, avoid Pilate error in your life. Listen carefully and prayerfully to the voice of our reigning, sovereign, all-powerful Lord as He says: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Literally translated that reads: “I am the way of truth, and I am the way to life.” Listen carefully and prayerfully to the beat of His heart as He hangs dying on the cross: “I love you. I love you. I love you.”

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