Jesus Speaks of Power and Guilt (19:9-11)

In Pilate's earlier discussion with Jesus, which forms the corresponding section in the first part of the chiasm (see introduction to 18:28—19:16), Jesus had clearly said he was not from this world (18:36-37). This obviously raises the question of where he is from. Now that Pilate knows Jesus claims to be a son of God he investigates more closely, asking Jesus, Where do you come from? (v. 9). From the context this is clearly not an inquiry about what country he is from, "but it is as if he had said, `Are you an earth-born man or some god?'" (Calvin 1959:172). Pilate's question gets at the central issue regarding Jesus—that he is from the Father in heaven. Jesus' origin was a major topic during his ministry (7:27-29; 8:14; 9:29-33), and now it comes to the fore at the end.

Jesus does not speak about his origin to Pilate. According to the Synoptics, Jesus has been silent already during his Passion, both before Pilate, when the chief priests and elders were accusing him (Mt 27:12-14 par. Mk 15:3-5), and before Herod, with the same opponents accusing him (Lk 23:9-10). Now he is also silent before Pilate in private (Jn 19:9). His silence echoes the silence of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah (53:7; cf. Acts 8:32; 1 Pet 2:22-23). He is silent, it seems, because Pilate has already revealed that he is not a man of truth and thus would not benefit from an answer to his question (see comment on 12:34-36).

Pilate has been exasperated by the Jewish leaders, and now he finds Jesus exasperating also. No one is cooperating with him! He threatens Jesus by referring to his power, though his threat comes across as a little lame given his obvious lack of power over the Jewish leaders: Don't you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you? (v. 10). In Roman law it was said, "No one who has power to condemn is without power to acquit" (Justinian Digest of Roman Law 50.17.37; cf. Bruce 1983:361-62). Pilate had a clear understanding of his legal power, that is, his authority (exousia). But he is thinking only in terms of this world.

Often in this Gospel we see people who are mistaken about Jesus and his teaching because they are viewing reality solely in this-worldly categories, for example, the woman of Samaria (chap. 4). Jesus has used their misunderstandings to help these people come to a better view of reality, and that is what he now does with Pilate also: You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above (v. 11). Pilate well understands that his power is dependent on the one who is over him, the emperor. He could understand Jesus to be saying nothing more than this. But now that Pilate realizes Jesus is claiming to be a son of God he has a chance to interpret Jesus correctly, to understand that God is the source of this power. Indeed, Jesus' reference to from above gives Pilate a hint as to the answer to his question of where Jesus is from (cf. 3:31; 8:23). Thus this is a saying that tests Pilate's heart. Will he hear it correctly?

There are further hints as well about Jesus and his Father. The word for power (exousia) is in the feminine, whereas the verb it were . . . given (en dedomenon) is in the neuter and thus refers to more than just the power: "You would not have any power over me if something had not been given to you from above." In other words, this expression puts all the emphasis on the verbal idea of giving, a reference to the Father who is the source of all—the one who gives. Jesus' point is that Pilate, like all of us, is a recipient. So Jesus is saying, in part, that the power of government has been given by God (3:27; Rom 13:1-7). Jesus speaks for this God upon whom Pilate himself is dependent, thereby further hinting as to his identity and the character of his Father.

In addition to making this general point, Jesus also refers specifically to the power Pilate has over me. No one has power over Jesus except the Father. And, in particular, no one takes Jesus' life from him, but rather he lays it down of his own accord in obedience to his Father (10:17-18). Here is yet another hint for Pilate: he may have power over everyone else in Israel, but not over Jesus. If Pilate realized who was standing before him, he would have a chance of making sense out of this situation and much more.

And he needs to make sense out of Jesus and this trial and his own relation to the Father because he is sinning. He should get this message from the conclusion of Jesus' statement that therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin (v. 11). Pilate's fear is quite justified. He will be held accountable to God for how he exercises his authority. His sin may not be as great as someone else's, but he is in fact sinning. Furthermore, this indictment of Pilate implies something about Jesus' own identity and role, for he is claiming to know God and God's will. Indeed, Jesus himself is the point of reference for sin in that to reject him is sin (16:9) and to receive him is to obey God (6:29). When Jesus used a similar indirect exposure of the sin of the woman of Samaria she was able to perceive something of what Jesus was saying about himself and respond to him (4:16-19). Pilate, however, does not pursue the issue further. He feels the pressure Jesus has exerted and thus tries all the harder to release him (v. 12), but he does not turn toward the light. He is still trying to be neutral and stay in control.

If Pilate's sin is great, who is the one who has a greater sin? The reference would not be to Judas, since he did not hand Jesus over to Pilate. Rather, as Pilate said to Jesus earlier, it was "your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me" (18:35). Now Jesus uses the singular, the one who, collecting all his opponents into a unit, perhaps in the person of the high priest, Caiaphas. All has been given from above, therefore there are degrees of sin in keeping with the differences in what has been given. If Pilate sins by not administering justice to a man he knows is innocent, how much more sinful are the leaders of God's people who have received not merely laws of justice but the divine law that bears witness to the Father and the one whom he has sent. To whom much is given, much is required (Lk 12:48).

Thus, both Jew and Gentile share in the sin, and therefore the guilt, of Jesus' death. Indeed, "each of us is as guilty of putting Jesus on the cross as Caiaphas" (Carson 1991:575) or Pilate, for that matter. But John clearly says the Jews' sin is greater, not because John is anti-Jewish, but precisely because of the greater gifts of God within Judaism. The problem is not Judaism as such but the rejection of their own Messiah by these particular leaders and their followers, despite what was available within Judaism. Thus, these members of the people of God are of this world, not of God (8:23).

Unfortunately, this Gospel has been read in anti-Jewish ways and thus has contributed to hatred of Jews and violence committed against them—all completely contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Although this Gospel reflects the conflict between the church and the synagogue late in the first century, it should not be seen as anti-Jewish (see comment on 8:44; cf. Brown 1994:1:383-97; Beasley-Murray 1987:308-10; Robinson 1985:271-75). It is, instead, anti-world. The Jews had a greater witness to the Light, so they should have embraced the Light more readily when he came. Accordingly their sin was greater than that of the Gentile Pilate. But from this perspective there is now a group whose sin is much greater yet. For from all appearances a great many Christians throughout the ages—and not least in our day—have been of the world as much as these Jewish opponents were, despite having not only the Old Testament but the Holy Spirit, the New Testament and the witness of the saints throughout the ages. Indeed, violence done against the Jews has itself been evidence of being of the world. Anyone, whether Jew or Gentile, who is of the world is allied with the evil one over against the Son of God (cf. 8:44). This spiritual contest is the real significance of what is taking place in the Passion (cf. 12:31; 14:30; 16:11).

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