Do you say this of your own accord? (John 18:34, ESV)
One of the most well-known events in Scriptures is Jesus' exchange with Pontius Pilate at his trial as described in John 18. In verse 38 of that chapter, Pilate asks the question that may be the most ironic in the history of the world, "What is truth?"
A less known but equally intriguing saying of Jesus from an apologetics viewpoint can be found in Jesus' response to an earlier question in the same trial. It is a question that is not often quoted, but on those rare occasions when it is quoted, Jesus' response is often overlooked as not particularly important or relevant to today's world. However, it is my experience (as well as the experience of many people who have truly spent time studying the Scriptures) that little, if any, of what Jesus said in the Bible lacks significance across time.
To best understand the response, it's important to see the response in context. The situation is this: Jesus has been arrested following His betrayal by Judas Iscariot. He has appeared before the Annas, the father-in-law of the High Priest, and is being brought by the Jews to stand trial before Pontius Pilate. Pilate, for his part, appears to be rather shrewd, and discerns that the Jews are bringing Jesus to him with some unspoken, ulterior motive. Pilate asks, "What accusation do you bring against this man?" (John 18:29) Pilate wants to know what charges justify Jesus' appearance before Pilate, but it is reasonable to conclude that he really wants to know why the Jews are bringing Jesus before him instead of handling the situation on their own. The Jews answer in rather vague language, "If this man were not an evildoer we would not have delivered him to you." (John 18:30) Not much in the way of specifics are stated in their response - just an assurance that Jesus is evil and his appearance before Pilate was appropriate. Pilate tries to dismiss their efforts to involve him and responds, "Take him yourself and judge him according to your law." (John 18:31a) The Jews, however, argued that Jesus deserved death for what he had done and he could not be killed without the Pilate's consent. More specifically, they want Jesus crucified under Roman law as an example to the people of the cost of standing up to the Pharisees.
Although the text does not specifically say everything that Pilate and the Jews said in their exchange, it is apparent that either Pilate already knew that Jesus was called the King of the Jews or the Jews accused Jesus of being the King, because Pilate went in and asked Jesus, "Are you the King of the Jews?" If Jesus were leading a rebellion, that might constitute grounds for crucifying him under Roman law. Thus, it appears clear that Pilate is asking Jesus the question because he is trying to get him to say something to justify crucifixion.
What Jesus says next is actually quite significant even though it can be (and has been) treated superficially. According to John 18:33-34:
33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews? 34 Jesus answered, “ Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?"Most commentaries interpret this verse as Jesus calling out Pilate for being a puppet of the Jews. In other words, they suggest that a good restatement of what Jesus is saying here would be: "You wouldn't be asking me that question if the Jews had not put you up to it." This is a perfectly legitimate interpretation of Jesus' words, and if that is how people understand/interpret it, I won't tell them that they're definitively wrong. But, at the same time, I don't think that that interpretation is the only way to understand Jesus' words, and it may be a rather shallow understanding of what Jesus meant. Just as many Bible verses have more than one layer of meaning, so too can Jesus' words in verse 34 be read as having a deeper application.
Instead of simply accusing Pilate of being a mouthpiece for self-righteous Jews who were seeking to gain political cover for his execution and have Jesus crucified as an example, perhaps Jesus was also asking a question of Pilate about the importance of the question to him personally. When Jesus asks Pilate if he is asking this of his own accord, perhaps a better interpretation of his words might be, "Are you asking because you want to know for yourself, or are you asking because you are seeking justification to hurt me?" In other words, Jesus was asking Pilate to confront his own heart. "Are you wanting to know if I am the King of the Jews because you want to know the truth about me, or are you asking on behalf of those who hate me?"
In this age of Internet evangelism, there are lots of people who spend time on discussion boards and who write or comment on blogs who are asking the question that has been asked since Jesus first asked the question of his disciples: Who is this Jesus? ("Who do you say that I am?) Is Jesus really God incarnate (God with us) or is he just a religious myth or fraud? As I have pointed out repeatedly, the problem is that many times those asking the questions in the toxic environment of the Internet are not serious when asking questions. They don't really care if he is the divine redeemer sent by God to redeem mankind from sin. Their motivation for asking questions about the Bible isn't to discern the truth, but to seek to dismiss him and to find fault with his body (which is his church, i.e., Christians).
Pilate, for his part, wasn't asking Jesus if he was the King of the Jews in order to find the truth of the claim. He was asking Jesus if he was the King of the Jews to establish a basis to do what the Jews were asking him to do - crucify him. Jesus, who had the ability to see into men's hearts (Luke 9:47), knew why Pilate was asking the question, and he was definitely not interested in the truth. In fact, when Jesus later tells Pilate that he has come to testify to the truth, Pilate responds with the aforementioned infamous question: "What is truth?" How can he be interested in truth when he doesn't know what truth is?
After years of engaging in discussions of the truth of Christ on-line (I have been engaging in Internet apologetics on-and-off for 17 years), it has become apparent to me that many (not all) unbelievers arguing against Christianity are very similar to Pilate. They ask questions - lots and lots of questions - but they ask not to learn the truth, but to attack Him or those who believe in Him. I expect that if they had ears to hear and asked honestly and openly, Jesus might give them the answers they seek and they might be open to actually hearing the truth. But alas, that is not what they do since that is nowhere near their heart.
The truth is Jesus is the truth. The truth is Jesus is the King. Search your heart and ask yourself, am I really asking these questions to seek the truth or to crucify Christ?