With permission, it is my great pleasure to give you the full text of Professor N.T. Wright’s first address as professor at the University of St Andrews. My own notes from this lecture were previously posted on this blog, here.
St Andrews University: Distance Learning Programme
‘The Bible and the Contemporary World’
Special Lecture by Professor N. T. Wright, St Mary’s College
Kingdom, Power and Truth: God and Caesar Then and Now
Tuesday September 14 2010, 6.30 pm
I am very grateful for the invitation to lecture this evening, and for the welcome you have given me. This is in no sense an official inaugural lecture – there may be time for that in due course; but I couldn’t resist the invitation to say something as part of a series on ‘the Bible and the contemporary world’. I have spent most of my adult life trying to hold the Bible and the contemporary world together and to discern the ways in which what most Christian churches call ‘the authority of the Bible’ actually impinges on the real world rather than merely on the private reality, or even the virtual reality, of a Christian existence which has detached itself from that world. Conversely, I have tried to discern ways in which the questions of our own day, framed in their own terms, can be brought to the Bible in the hope of finding, if not exact and complete answers, at least wisdom by which to take matters forward. I was delighted to hear of the distance learning project which was taking exactly this double topic as its theme this summer; and my mind went at once to one of the most remarkable of the conversations which Jesus has with an individual in John’s gospel, that final and fateful dialogue with Pontius Pilate in John chapters 18 and 19. I shall try to suggest this evening that this conversation contains within it the key elements of several of our most urgent and thorny public debates right now, and that reflecting on it in the light of them, and them in the light of it, may help us both to understand John’s gospel a bit better and to address our contemporary issues with a more biblically grounded Christian comment. I shall then offer some concluding reflections on the sort of exercise I have been undertaking, not for the sake of navel-gazing but because some remarks on method, in the light of some actual practice, may be of interest or even of value to those taking the present course.
A few introductory words about John’s gospel and this discourse as part of it, and then about the questions we face in our contemporary world.
Jesus and Pilate in John 18-19: introduction
John’s gospel, as we all know, is different – different from Matthew, Mark and Luke, but also different in tone and mood from the other great theologian of the New Testament, namely Paul. Some who are temperamentally attracted to Paul are repelled by John, and vice versa, and I have come to hope that it may be a mark of maturity that, after decades of studying Paul and the synoptic gospels, I have come late to a fascination with John. That fascination has not had time to extend, just yet, to studying much that has been written about the gospel, and it’s quite possible that I shall either tread on some toes or leave rather obvious omissions tonight. Three things, though, strike me as particularly interesting for tonight’s topic.
First, the extended conversation between Jesus and Pilate comes within a long line of such Johannine conversations. Jesus has engaged in conversation with many others, from Nicodemus in chapter 3 and the Samaritan woman in chapter 4 right through to this point. Then, after the resurrection, we have the three brief but explosive conversations, first with Mary at the tomb, then with Thomas in the upper room and finally with Peter by the lake. This sort of conversation simply doesn’t happen in the synoptic gospels, where we tend to get either longer discourses such as the sermon on the mount or the one-liner with which Jesus either answers an interlocutor or comments on something that’s going on. And those who have studied and preached on John, and have drawn attention to these conversations, have not always, I think, taken so seriously this one with Pilate. Elsewhere, Jesus can be presented as engaging with people with a view to bringing them to faith, or to stirring up a greater faith. You could just suggest that this is present too in the conversation with Pilate, but that doesn’t seem to be front and centre. Rather, what I think is going on is, in a sense, the same thing that your course has focussed on: the bringing together of the word of God with the words of the world. The specific conversations between Jesus and these various individuals, powerful though they are as personal encounters (and that’s one of the things that makes John’s gospel so eminently preachable), are also signs and symptoms of something much larger that is going on. That larger thing is flagged up in the Prologue: he was in the world, the world was made by him, but the world didn’t know him. He came to his own, and his own didn’t receive him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to be called God’s children. These conversations are designedly representative, drawing together the quintessence of Jesus’ challenge, and hence God’s challenge through his incarnate Word, both to his own people of Israel and to the larger world. And here at last, climactically, we shouldn’t be surprised that we find a sharp extended conversation between Jesus, representing and embodying the living word of the creator God to his world, and Pontius Pilate, representing obviously the kingdom of Caesar, widely and of course rightly regarded at the time as the climactic and quintessential pagan world empire. There is thus a sense in which all the other conversations are focussed in this one; it isn’t so much that this is the odd one out, but rather that in this one the basic challenge of the word of God to the world as it is can be seen at its starkest.
That leads to the second introductory point about St John’s gospel and about this conversation within it. One of the main questions Christians have asked down the centuries concerns the meaning of Jesus’ death: we all know he died for our sins, but we all have different ways of saying what exactly that means. Now traditionally this question, as applied to the gospels, has precipitated a search for particular clues that send us to the various models of atonement theology: representative, substitute, exemplar, and so forth. But John, and I have to say here Matthew, Mark and Luke are on the same page, doesn’t give much help. Even the famous final cry from the cross, tetelestai, ‘it is finished’, is not primarily designed to make the point many preachers have found in it, that of a bill or final account being settled or paid. The echo, I think, is older and more deeply biblical: we are meant to hear the statement in Genesis, that at the end of the sixth day God ‘finished’ all the work that he had begun. No: what all four gospels do, with John here in the lead, is to explain the meaning of Jesus’ death by means of their various accounts of the trials, or hearings, to which Jesus was subject. These are not simply the historical appendage of ‘what actually happened’, leaving the question of theological meaning to a different level altogether. After all, it is vital for John that in hearing the story of Jesus we are discovering what it meant that the Word became flesh and dwelt, pitched his tent, in our midst. If John is explaining the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion he is doing so not by adding extra bits of atonement theology to the conversation with Pilate but in that conversation itself. The discourse before us, which concerns the charge against Jesus, the nature of his kingdom if any, the question of truth, and the wrangle about power, and especially imperial power, is not something other than the meaning of the cross, and vice versa. One of the most disturbing phenomena about the interchange between the Bible and the contemporary world, I shall suggest, is that when we bring together our various worlds we find that even our most cherished doctrines may look different, may have more dimensions than we had imagined. I do not say, as an older liberal theology was perhaps too eager to say, that when we bring the Bible and the world together we find we have to give up cherished formulations. Rather, I believe, we find those formulations brought up in three dimensions, casting both new light and new shadows in perhaps unfamiliar ways. My second point about Jesus and Pilate in John 18 and 19, then, is the observation that this conversation cannot simply be a detached discourse about politics and philosophy. It draws those topics into the question of the meaning of the death Jesus is about to suffer.
This leads directly to my third initial observation about the conversation between Jesus and Pilate: that it picks up and draws together various important threads from earlier in the gospel which it is all too easy for the ordinary contemporary western reader to ignore. In fact, there has been a crescendo of important hints about what Jesus is going to accomplish when he gets to Jerusalem, and unless we see the conversation with Pilate as the place where they reach their climax we will understand neither them nor it. I simply trace them without further comment.
In chapter 12, on arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus receives a request from some Greeks that they should see him (12.21). Rather than respond directly, he comments that ‘the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’, and continues with the saying about a grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying so that it may bear much fruit. Jesus then, troubled in spirit, prays that the Father would glorify his name, and a voice comes from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ Jesus comments that the voice has come for the crowd’s sake, because ‘Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ (12.31-32). In case we miss the point, John comments that Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death he would die. It is sometimes pointed out that the saying about drawing all people to himself appears to be the somewhat long-range answer to the question from the Greeks, eleven verses earlier. But it is quite a new thought in the gospel, and one for which many contemporary readers are quite unprepared, that central to the Johannine meaning of Jesus’ death might be the idea of judging the world and driving out its present ruler. Only in this light, however, I suggest, can we understand what is actually going on throughout John 18 and 19, not least the way in which Jesus appears to take charge, though in a way hitherto unprecedented. Jesus appears to be saying that the citizens of the wider world are at present under the rulership of a usurper, but that when he is ‘lifted up’ that rule will be broken and his rule will take its place.
Two passages in the ‘farewell discourses’, chapters 13 to 17, bear this out. They, too, are often ignored but are in fact a key – one among many – to the deeper meaning. Chapter 14, in which Jesus has spoken of his imminent ‘going away’, ends (verses 30 and 31) with him declaring that ‘the ruler of this world is coming; he has no power over me, but I do as the Father has commanded, so that the world may know that I love the Father.’ Here it is becoming clear: ‘the ruler of this world’ is the dark power which embodies itself in this or that particular human authority structure, and the greatest of those structures – the high priesthood of the Jews on the one hand and the representative of Caesar on the other – are going to combine to do something to Jesus which they would not be able to do were it not the Father’s will. This then points ahead to the extraordinary and dense passage in chapter 16, in which Jesus describes the future work of the Spirit: ‘When he comes,’ he says in verses 8-11, ‘he will convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in me; of righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you see me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged.’ I shall return later on to this passage, because it is important for working out how the church in the power of the Spirit is meant to carry forward the achievement of Jesus; for the moment I simply note that Jesus speaks of the judgment, or condemnation, of ‘the ruler of this world’ as effectively a past event. It has happened. That is why, at the end of chapter 16, in verse 33, he can declare: ‘In the world you face persecution; but take courage, I have conquered the world!’ From the exhilarating perspective of Jesus’ fellowship with his disciples on that last night, it all appears as already accomplished. The world’s ruler is judged and condemned; the world itself has been conquered. Somehow, that which is about to happen to Jesus is to bear this meaning, not incidentally, a kind of political ‘extra’ sitting uncomfortably beside a normal sin-and-salvation atonement theology, but as part of the core meaning of Jesus’ imminent death. And it is this sequence of thought, I suggest, that then bursts into full flower in the conversation with Pilate.
A representative conversation, then; a conversation which gives meaning to Jesus’ death; and a conversation which draws out and displays more fully the earlier hints about Jesus’ victory over the ruler of this world, a victory through which he himself will be installed as the rightful ruler who will draw to himself the peoples who up to now have been subject to this other, usurping ruler. I now turn to some introductory words on what might seem a totally different subject, namely some of the challenges that face us in our contemporary world. I shall then do my best to bring the two together.
Contemporary world: introduction
When I have, on occasion, brainstormed with groups of students on the key issues facing us in today’s world, I get a bewildering range of topics. War, including nuclear war; global warming and the care of the environment; poverty and hunger; natural disasters; economic crises and strategies, not least international debt (which I have often highlighted as the major moral issue of our day); the failure of the secularisation thesis in our increasingly obviously highly religious world, and the shrill reaction to that failure from some who regard all religion as dangerous delusion. Then there is the ongoing crisis about gender roles and behaviour, about cultural and ethnic diversity and the question of what can and what cannot be embraced within a plural society; the various questions of medical ethics, of the beginnings and endings of human life, of crime and punishment, of education and literacy, of the impact of IT on every aspect of human life, the role and regulation of the media, and so on, and so on. And, in and behind it all, often unnoticed but massive, there is the crisis of global politics: the present American empire and the question of the next superpowers, China and/or India, the important but weak United Nations, and – let’s call a spade a spade – the crisis of western democracy itself, which could be summarized by saying that we now all have the vote but we’ve all forgotten what it’s for. Our present muddles about possible constitutional reform reflect the multiple uncertainties in our society as to what political power is and what it’s for. To imagine, as some seem to do, that western democracy is the perfect political system, and that if only everyone else adopted it Utopia would finally arrive, looks like a bit of displacement activity to distract attention from the fact that we’ve had this democracy for two centuries and many of our problems are just as intractable as they were before. In the diocese I was privileged to serve until two weeks ago, there are still schools where the teachers pool a few pounds to buy shoes for the children so they can attend, while a Labour government pooled a few billion pounds to enable the very rich to go on paying themselves enormous bonuses. Nine years ago this month, Tony Blair declared that he was going to solve the problem of evil both in the Middle East and in Africa, but he couldn’t solve it in his own constituency.
Well, that’s an agenda for an entire course of lectures, on most of which I am cheerfully incompetent to pronounce. I want to highlight three contemporary flashpoints of interest which draw together some of these themes, and to place them within a larger trio of issues which will enable us to ask how on earth a book like John’s gospel might have something to say to a world like ours.
Religion is scarcely out of the news for a minute today, even if often for the wrong reasons. The fussing and fretting about the imminent visit to our shores of Pope Benedict XVI brings together several issues on which, we might suggest, our contemporary world simply hasn’t worked out what to think and so relies on gut reaction. The crisis of revelations about sexual abuse is of course important, but that’s by no means the heart of it. People can’t get their heads around the fact that the Pope is both a religious leader and a head of state (though our own Queen could be said to be both, the parallel being of course, for historical reasons, not accidental). But the secular press also can’t get its collective head around the fact that millions of people still take Christianity, in whatever form, very seriously; it used to be fashionable to speak of our increasingly secular society, but the rumour of angels hasn’t gone away even though many who hunger for ‘spirituality’ or experience it in some form or other assume today that it isn’t what the church is about. I suspect that Benedict will clear that one up, though having heard him speak in New York a few years ago and then read what the newspapers said I would advise you to study his actual text rather than the journalistic summaries. It’s quite clear, though, that despite some contrary surface noise there has been considerable rapprochement over the last decades between almost all Christian denominations, so that for many of us non-Romans the Pope comes as the leader of a dangerous alternative religion but of a sister church, with whom we still have serious differences but with whom, we increasingly realise, we share far more than we used to think. The Papal visit, then, raises for us questions not only of the truth-claims of Christians in general and Roman Catholics in particular – the current discussion of John Henry Newman has given interesting historical depth to some of that – but of the place of ‘religion’ in today’s western world, and of the possibility that he might point out to us that Britain has become, if it was not de facto already, a world centre of atheism (as well of some very lively Christianity). One way or another, this visit and the reactions to it are worth watching very closely as an index of where we are on several fronts.
The second feature of our contemporary world I want to highlight is the odd and I believe dangerous mixture of pragmatism and idealism that passes for political philosophy among our elected politicians. Tony Blair’s autobiography, widely reviewed just now, has produced predictable comments; one I haven’t seen, but which I think should be made, is that for someone who made no secret of his own Christian faith, and latterly Catholic faith, there is nothing I can see in the book, and certainly nothing in the index, to indicate any mention of or interaction with any bishops, archbishops, cardinals or other religious leaders. It seems as if Alastair Campbell’s famous phrase that ‘Downing Street doesn’t do God’ really went all the way to the top, and that the massive assumed disjunction between religious faith and public life which has been the staple of post-Deist European and particularly American society for two hundred years continued unabated both in the shiny idealism of Blair himself and the less shiny but still idealistic approach of his successor. (I have to say that one of the finest speeches I have ever heard from a politician was that by Gordon Brown during the 2008 Lambeth Conference, on the ending of poverty; sadly, little happened as a result.) With Blair, of course, there was a very serious knock-on problem, which still exists: that if you don’t think through a serious Christian political theology your private Christian faith may encourage you to think that you are the person to stand in the breach, to overthrow evil, to cast out the ruler of this world. Secularism cannot prevent, but rather enhances, the messianic temptation. But at no point – and I think particularly of the various debates about constitutional issues that we continue to have, both north and south of Berwick-upon-Tweed – do I detect a serious engagement with questions of what democracy ought to be and how it ought to work, still less any thought that Christian faith, which many leading politicians still profess, has anything particular to say on the subject. As a result, all the ancillary debates, about such things as bishops in the House of Lords, are framed in what to my mind is the wrong context.
This continuing separation of religion from public life has not, of course, been easy to maintain. Several times recently magazines you might have thought would never touch God with a bargepole – magazines like the New Statesman and The Economist – have devoted cover issues to the questions raised by issues like the banning of muslim headscarves or indeed Christian crosses. It has become clear that many in our society know there’s a tricky issue there but don’t know what to do about it. Some paint a caricature of totalitarian theocracy as a way of frightening people into leaving God out of the equation. Many, including alas many Christians, have no idea that Christianity has anything interestingly different to say on the relevant topics.
Among the caricaturists we find the third flashpoint in today’s news, the continuing and shrill anti-God protests of Richard Dawkins and similar writers. Dawkins, we might suggest with tongue only slightly in cheek, is to today’s increasingly religious society what Bob Crowe is to New Labour or indeed to our present coalition: someone insisting on yesterday’s analysis, and indeed yesterday’s solution, to tomorrow’s problem. The political attempt to make all issues fit an Old Labour agenda, like someone with a hammer insisting that all problems can be reduced to nails, matches the would-be scientific attempt to have one last heave and get God off the map once and for all. In both cases, what we are witnessing is an essentially modernist response to aspects of an essentially postmodern world – just as the Bush/Blair coalition produced a classic modernist response, namely lots of bombs and tanks, to a classic postmodern problem, the rise of global terrorism. As I shall suggest in a minute, part of our problem is that just as the left/right politics of a former generation doesn’t fit today’s confused society, and just as the ‘let’s go and bomb them’ geopolitics doesn’t fit today’s dangerous world, so the ‘let’s get rid of God’ philosophy of Dawkins, and the much cooler suggestion of Stephen Hawking that the final ‘gap’ for God may have disappeared, simply don’t fit the question. As many people have pointed out, Stephen Hawking was still assuming an eighteenth-century god-of-the-gaps theology which no serious Christian or Jew would propose. But the public discussion of such issues shows, I think, that as a society we still lapse back to conceiving of problems in their eighteenth-century guise, whether it be left-right politics or god-of-the-gaps science-versus-religion standoff or gunship diplomacy. All the philosophy of the last two centuries and we still can’t break out of the public mindset that preceded them. And many, if not most, western Christians still assume that their faith has little or nothing to say to such politics, such worldview-crises, or such global behaviour.
I shall shortly suggest that John’s gospel, and indeed the rest of the New Testament, is eager to tell us a different story; but let me very briefly locate these three contemporary flashpoints, and the welter of other issues I mentioned earlier, on the map of three larger concerns about which I have written and spoken elsewhere. Three of the big issues which shape our public life today, I have suggested, are Gnosticism, empire and postmodernity, which are toxic enough in themselves but particularly deadly in combination. Gnosticism declares that the world of space, time and matter is trivial or irrelevant, that some human beings have a divine spark within them which needs to be discerned and lived out, that for this you need, not the death and resurrection of Jesus but rather illumination or enlightenment which you might get from him or indeed from somewhere or someone else, and that when this enlightenment has come it will lead you not to the world of politics, of working for justice and peace, but to the cultivation of your own spirituality. Many, including many Christians, have eagerly embraced something like this, and indeed, though the western Enlightenment has brought great blessings to the world, it has also encouraged forms of Gnosticism which are all the more powerful for being usually unrecognized.
Gnosticism flourishes, historically, in a world where empires control the lives of so many that outward change seems unimaginable. By the same token, empires encourage Gnosticism, because, whereas someone who declares that ‘Jesus is Lord’ may draw the conclusion that Caesar is not, someone who says ‘Jesus has shown me that I am a spark of light needing to be set free from a wicked world’ is unlikely to cause much trouble. Today’s global empire is of a different sort from earlier ones, since the iron grip of America and not least its financial institutions is imposed on the world not through political institutions – indeed, if that were the case, local groups might have a chance to vote for their actual rulers, which at present they do not – but through economic pressures and the accident of the West being the ‘last man standing’ at the end of the Cold War. But, as many have pointed out, the ‘novus ordo saeclorum’ announced on every dollar bill was and remains a powerful evocation of Virgil’s hailing of the empire of Augustus as a ‘new order of the ages’; the ideology of the Enlightenment thus reinforces the apparently effortless superiority of the west, with all the malign consequences (as well as the obvious good ones) that have followed. Again, many Christians in today’s world have simply gone along for the ride.
Postmodernity has, of course, made all this much more confusing. Truth-claims have been unmasked as power-claims, which has then opened the way for all kinds of spin and smear as the gloves of civilised debate and public discourse come off and all sides try to scratch each other’s eyes out with whatever dirty tricks come to hand (there’s a case in point in the courts as we speak). Postmodernity has, I believe, the God-given role of announcing to arrogant modernity that all its righteousness was always a mess of filthy rags – in other words, of preaching the secular equivalent of the fall, of total depravity; but it has no gospel with which to follow up the bad news. The big stories have been deconstructed into little fragments; the once-powerful notion of the self has been torn apart into competing impulses and prejudices; and truth itself is ‘stranger than it used to be’. And notice how well this goes with Gnosticism and with empire. It is precisely the Gnostic claim that things are not what they seem; that’s the insight that made Dan Brown a millionaire several times over. And it is precisely the imperial claim that we, the powerful, create our own truth: truth is what we decide it will be. When Pontius Pilate asked Jesus ‘what is truth?’, he was expressing his own cynicism at someone else, in a position of utter weakness, having any truth to bear witness to. The only truth is what comes out of the barrel of a gun, or the scabbard of a sword.
Which brings us back neatly, in the second half of this lecture, to John chapter 18 and 19. What might John have to say, through this astonishing conversation of Jesus and Pilate, to the confused and confusing world of our own day?
Out of the many things that could be said I want to explore the three themes of my title: Kingdom, power and truth. The opening exchange between Pilate and the Judaean leaders (18.28-32) looks like a kind of shadow-boxing: Pilate, with his own intelligence networks, surely knew what charge they were proposing to bring, but wanted to force them into a concession of their own judicial impotence to deal with what they regarded as a capital charge. Pilate then (18.33-38) asks Jesus directly whether he is ‘the King of the Jews’: this was the substance of the charge, as we see later in 19.12, where the Judaean leaders declare that ‘everyone who makes himself a king is setting himself up against Caesar’, which leads directly to their own counter-victory over Pilate. After a preliminary verbal skirmish, Jesus launches in to a description of his ‘kingdom’, the substance of which is, Yes, I am a king and have a kingdom, but No, it isn’t the sort of kingdom you might imagine (18.36).
This is the point at which semi- or crypto-gnostic readings of the text have held sway for a long time, partly due to the King James Version translation: ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, which has then been read in the straightforward, but deeply mistaken, sense of ‘My kingdom consists of a place called “heaven” which has nothing much to do with this world.’ But the Greek speaks of the kingdom being not ek tou kosmou toutou, not from this world. It comes from somewhere else – as, indeed, Jesus had earlier strikingly claimed about himself (8.23), and then, even more strikingly, about his followers (17.14). Granted all that we know about Jesus on the one hand and about first-century Jewish kingdom-of-God language on the other (begging, of course, several major questions at this point), we must say that the ‘kingdom’ of which Jesus was speaking was not from this world, but was emphatically for this world: a kingdom from the creator, the one Jesus called ‘Father’, and intended as the sovereignty which would replace the usurped sovereignty of ‘the ruler of this world’ and the human agents which that dark power had employed. This is, I think, the first and greatest point to be got across in relation not only to contemporary muddles and misunderstandings but to many generations of misreadings of all four canonical gospels: that, over against all Gnostic attempts, ancient and modern, to make ‘kingdom’-language denote an otherworldly bliss, it stubbornly retains its full Jewish sense, world-affirming and indeed world-reclaiming. God’s kingdom must come ‘on earth as in heaven’, and precisely for that reason it is not ‘from’ this world. That which is only from this world can only imitate the way things are done from within the world; and the key example given by Jesus, presupposing that he is a king but demonstrating the difference between his sort of kingdom and all others, is that if his kingdom were from this world his followers would fight to prevent him being handed over. This marks almost as radical a departure from normal kingdom-ideas as the gnostic one does, but in a very different direction. In the present world, violence is what kingdoms do: however much they dress it up, sovereignty is enforced, and sooner or later that means restraint, and sooner or later restraint means violence. But, as Jesus said to James and John in Mark 10, ‘It shall not be so among you.’
This point is rammed home with massive though characteristic Johannine irony in the next chapter when Jesus is mocked by the soldiers, crowned with thorns, dressed in purple and hailed as king. The resonances of the next charge – that Jesus made himself to be the Son of God (19.7) – are wider, but in the Roman world amount to the same thing: the phrase ‘son of God’ was of course in regular use as a key epithet for Caesar, Tiberius being the adopted son of the deified Augustus as he had been of Julius Caesar. But Caesar’s divine rule was implemented by threatening and inflicting violence, not by suffering it. Pilate then emphasizes Jesus’ kingship, both in his ironic statement and question to the crowd (19.14-15), and then at last, paying them back, in the inscription on the cross. Earlier, when Caiaphas had predicted that one man would die for the people, John had commented that this was an unwitting prophecy of Jesus’ upcoming redeeming death (11.49-52). John seldom repeats such a hint, and we should be in no doubt what he intends here. When Pilate has the words ‘King of the Jews’ written out and stuck on Jesus’ cross, and when he refuses to alter it, John is emphasizing that Jesus is indeed ‘the king of the Jews’, the only one in fact who had understood, let alone been obedient to, the strange servant-vocation of the ancient people of God, to whom he had come as his own and not been received. And the point about being ‘the king of the Jews’ is that, in ancient messianic expectation reflecting beliefs and poems about David and Solomon, the ultimate king of the Jews will be the ultimate king of the world. His dominion will be from the one sea to the other, and from the River to the ends of the earth. Early Christianity did not have to shed its Jewish Messianism in order to be relevant to the wider world, as so many scholars used to think. It is precisely because they believed Jesus to be the King of the Jews that the early Christians proclaimed him as the true Lord of the world. Pilate, in refusing to change the inscription, has done in his own way, to his own status, what the chief priests had done a few verses earlier to theirs. They had said ‘we have no king but Caesar’, thus stepping down drastically from everything that made Israel Israel (and anticipating the move made by Flavius Josephus a generation later). Now Pilate declares, however unwittingly, that Jesus is in fact ‘the king of the Jews’, and is thereby hailing him as the true king, the reality of which Caesar was just a dull and dangerous parody. (Perhaps this is the moment to acknowledge the ancient legend that Pilate was British, in fact Scottish, in fact from St Andrews itself.)
The account of Jesus’ exchange with Pilate is therefore definitely intended by John to make it clear beyond doubt that Jesus, through his crucifixion, was enthroned as the true king of the Jews, the one therefore who should be seen as the proper lord of the whole world. One might go so far as to say that John and the other three gospels, in their different ways, all intend to tell the story, not of how Jesus died so that we could go to heaven, but of how Jesus died so that he might become the true king of Israel and of the whole world. For John, this is also the moment of his ‘glorification’; not that there is not resurrection, and then ascension, still to come, but that this is the moment at which, ‘having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the uttermost’ (13.1), the moment when the sovereign, saving love of God which Jesus embodied was on fullest display. John has thus, through his narrative, done what most theologians have failed to do: he has tied tightly together Jesus’ embodying and announcing of God’s kingdom with Jesus’ saving death. Most theologies keep kingdom and cross separate; for John they are part of the same single whole.
Once we have got the kingdom quite clear, with all its breathtaking revolutionary implications, we can ponder the strange words about power in 19.10-11. Pilate, berating Jesus for his silence, asks him, ‘Don’t you know that I have the power to release you, and the power to crucify you?’ Jesus’ answer belongs to the textbook of ancient Jewish monotheism: all earthly power, including that of monstrous pagan tyrants, is ultimately derived from God the creator. ‘You could have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.’ To have Jesus, whom we already recognise as the world’s true King, saying that to one of Caesar’s henchmen is remarkable, but it resonates exactly not only with much of the rest of ancient Judaism, and also with Paul in Romans 13, but also with, for instance, Polycarp in his dialogue with the tribune who was trying him. And this is a point that contemporary thought about politics and power has proved unwilling or unable to grasp. The fact that a particular ruler is wicked, corrupt, monstrous or whatever does not mean that the one creator God has nothing to do with that power. Without making God the author of evil, most ancient Jews and most early Christians believed that God remained sovereign, however much this appeared in the guise of a permissive sovereignty which would then issue (as in the similar point in Isaiah 10) in judgment on those who abused the power thus given to them. But the overall point, as with the kingdom, could hardly be clearer. There is no suggestion, in Jesus’ remark, that Pilate is actually quite a good governor, that he is doing his best, that he isn’t really to blame (though Jesus does ascribe ‘the greater sin’ to those who have handed him over (19.11)). The point is that all power belongs to God; or, to put it another way, that order, even tyrannous order, is ultimately better in God’s sight than chaos. This is where Jewish and early Christian political theology derives most obviously from creational and covenantal monotheism: God, having made the world, wants it to be ordered, to prevent wickedness getting out of hand, against the day when he will put everything to rights once and for all. The divinely delegated authority of civil magistrates, even a vacillating, self-serving and cynical one like Pilate, remains at the heart of a biblical doctrine of human authority. But, once again, the meaning of Jesus’ death is also defined in relation to this point. John, like the great storyteller he is, does not rub the point in any further. But his account of Jesus’ death has Jesus very much remaining in control: this is his victory, his assertion and embodiment of a power which is of a different type to that of Caesar. All Caesar can do is to kill you. God has given Jesus authority to lay down his life and to take it again, the word for ‘authority’, exousia, being the same as the one used here. Part of the message of Easter, in the light of the story we have followed to the end of chapter 19, must therefore be that this is the moment when Jesus’ exousia is unveiled at last. At this point John and Paul are at one: Jesus is ‘declared to be Son of God in power through the resurrection of the dead’ (Romans 1.4). Now, the reader is to understand, that exousia is launched upon the world, so that even though Caesar and his subordinates retain a limited and delegated exousia, that of Jesus outshines them and brings them to heel. This is the playing field, I suggest, upon which tomorrow’s Christians ought to try out fresh and prayerful insights and wisdom as to how public life might be organised, faced as we are with a creaky democracy in which it is often far from clear where precisely exousia of any real sort lies.
And it is because of this kingdom, and this power, that we can speak at last of truth. In the Farewell Discourses Jesus had spoken of the ‘Spirit of Truth’ who, coming from the Father, would lead the disciples ‘into all truth’. The debates about the nature of truth which have surfaced again in postmodernity, after the brittle certainties of modernity (including would-be Christian modernity!) have been exposed as self-serving fictions, have alerted us to the strangeness of the very concept of truth. Mere correspondence, though important, is obviously not enough – just as mere relationality, which always threatens to collapse into relativism, is even less adequate. Somehow, Jesus seems to be speaking of a truth which happens, which comes into being, under certain circumstances; and the circumstances in question are the obedience living and speaking of genuine human beings, Jesus himself above all. To understand truth, in fact, you need to hold in mind a version of the entire Christian story. Humans as they stand are bound to reach after truth and to try to use it for their own ends; they will end up grasping enough to rebuild the Tower of Babel. Postmodernity’s protest against arrogant truth-claims thus functions like God coming down to confuse the tongues of the builders. We live with a lot of that confusion right now. But Jesus has come to launch the new creation; the cry ‘it is finished’, we recall, will echo the triumphant completion of Genesis 2.1-2, and John emphasizes in chapter 20 that the resurrection of Jesus takes place on ‘the first day of the week’. The problem with ‘truth’ in the old creation, it seems, is both that creation itself is decaying, will not stay in place, and that the humans who are trying to speak truth about and into that world are themselves distorting lenses. What happens in and through Jesus is the redemption of the power of speech, so that Jesus himself can and does witness to the truth, and so that, according to the promise of chapter 16, Jesus’ followers will do the same, with similar effect, calling the world and its rulers to account. This is the really worrying thing about John 18 and 19: according to John 16, Jesus’ conversation with Pilate will become the template for the conversation the church must now have with the world, to implement Jesus’ kingdom, to put his exousia into effect, to be people who are not only led into all truth but enabled to speak it, especially when it’s uncomfortable. The truth is the truth about God’s creation, rescued and renewed in Jesus rather than, as in gnostic thought, irrelevant and abandoned. And, as is clear in 18.37, Jesus’ claim to be bearing witness to the truth lies at the heart of his claim to be a king; indeed, it is a central part of his redefinition of what true kingship actually is. To Pilate’s question, ‘Are you a king, then,’ Jesus’ response boils down to this: I have come to tell the truth. That is central to his kingship, and foundational for his new sort of power.
I hope it is thus clear that, at least in compact form, John has given us in these chapters the conceptual tools we need to address in a fresh way the combined challenge our generation is receiving from neo-gnosticism, neo-imperialism and postmodernity. I would love to think that followers of Jesus in our own day, and indeed any who, while yet agnostic, are prepared to think things through afresh, might try approaching the key issues of today and tomorrow in the light of this biblical vision. I suspect Pope Benedict would agree with almost everything I’ve said, and it might be better to assess his contribution in the light of a framework such as this rather than trying to fit it into the Procrustean bed of journalistic expectations and limitations. I suspect our politicians past and present would be puzzled by much of what I’ve said, since it fits neither their messianic idealism nor their shoulder-shrugging pragmatism. In particular, Jesus’ definition of his own kingdom in terms of a renunciation of violence should send us back to the events, and the downright lies, of 2003 with sorrow and shame. The threatened Koran-burning of three days ago is only the tip of the iceberg; millions of Muslims now firmly believe, as not all of them did before, that those who name the name of Jesus are committed to violence against them. Somehow we have to correct that message. And the supposedly scientific atheism of recent scepticism needs to be confronted with true speech both about the present state of God’s creation and about the launching of God’s new creation in and through Jesus. That is also the groundplan for a freshly conceived Christian aesthetic, though that is a topic for another time. My claim this evening has been that in the remarkable conversation between Jesus and Pilate we can glimpse the outline and contours of a genuinely Christian and biblical view of kingdom, power and truth, and that this glimpse is enough to give us a fresh angle of vision on some of the key problems and challenges that face us in tomorrow’s world. Of course, an angle of vision is not a place to rest content. Vision must turn into speech and speech into action. That is the point at which the lecturer hands the task on to the preacher. And as, this month, I return from the pulpit to the lecture room, I do not forget which task is the greater. ‘What is that to you?’ said Jesus to Peter when he asked about someone else’s calling. ‘You follow me.’