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In this second of the seven scenes (see introduction to 18:28—19:16) we have the heart of the Roman interrogation. In a series of four questions Pilate probes the key topic of this Gospel—the identity and mission of Jesus. Here is Jesus' final teaching concerning himself before his resurrection.
We are not told what charges the Jewish opponents brought against Jesus to induce Pilate to consider condemning him to death. In the Jewish trial Caiaphas had asked, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" and Jesus said yes (Mt 26:63-64 par. Mk 14:61-62 par. Lk 22:67-70). John does not recount this exchange, although its substance is central to his revelation of Jesus throughout the Gospel and John does seem to allude to the exchange itself later (19:7, Beasley-Murray 1987:329). Presumably the opponents translated the matter for Pilate, saying that Jesus claimed to be the king of the Jews. This was obviously a political title and had even been used of Herod the Great (Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 14.385; 16.311). It was a claim that Pilate would have to take seriously, especially given the revolutionary setting in Israel, in which many desired the overthrow of Rome.
Many think Pilate's question expresses incredulity: Are you the King of the Jews? But more likely he is simply doing his job by putting the charge to the accused, using direct questions in keeping with Roman procedure (Sherwin-White 1965:105). What would he have expected to hear in response? Perhaps either cringing denial or stormy denunciations of Rome. The answer he gets is something quite different from either of these responses. Jesus neither affirms nor denies his identity as king, but he responds like a king. He speaks of his kingdom and quite calmly focuses the attention on Pilate, asking a question that tests Pilate's heart (v. 34). He is speaking to him as a human being, not as the Roman governor. Is he personally engaged, or is this just a formality? Such a question should signal to Pilate that he is dealing with someone who is not speaking merely on a political level. As seen earlier (e.g., see comments on 1:19-28), such personal interest is necessary to be able to recognize one come from God and to respond appropriately.
Pilate does not see how this question could be of interest to him since he is not a Jew (v. 35). He has not gone looking for Jesus, but rather Jesus has been handed over to him by his own nation and the high priests. Like the woman of Samaria and other people who have encountered Jesus, Pilate does not understand the full meaning of what Jesus says because he does not realize whom he is speaking with. And as he did with others earlier, Jesus now helps Pilate understand who he is and what he is offering.
Pilate asks what Jesus has done (v. 35). Jesus follows his common practice in this Gospel, for he does not directly address the question put to him, but in fact he gives a profound answer. Instead of speaking of what he has done he speaks of his kingdom (v. 36). This word only occurs one other place in John (3:3, 5), unlike in the Synoptics, where "kingdom" is Jesus' major theme. In Jewish thinking "kingdom" does not refer to a territory; it is an active concept referring to rule. "Kingdom of God," then, means God is king (cf. Kuhn 1964b:571-72). In the Gospels it includes also the realm of God's rule, in the sense not of a territory but of the community under his rule. While Jesus has not used this word much in this Gospel, all that he has done and said have been manifestations of God's rule and Jesus' own kingship. In this sense, "the whole Gospel is concerned with the kingship of God in Jesus" (Beasley-Murray 1987:330). Jesus has said a spiritual rebirth is necessary to even see the kingdom—the resources of this world are not sufficient (3:3, 5). Now Jesus continues this emphasis by saying his kingdom is not of this world. His kingdom is otherworldly because he himself is not of this world and neither are his followers (17:14, 16). He and his disciples have their source in God and reflect God's own life and character.
Both the divine source and the quality of his kingdom are evident, he says, in the fact that his disciples did not fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews (v. 36). Peter, of course, did try to do so and was out of step with Jesus' and the Father's will, as Jesus told him (18:11). Jesus' response to the opposition from the Jewish leaders had a divine source for it was determined by God's rule. Also, his response manifested God's characteristic gracious love. "Jesus' kingdom is based on something other than . . . power or protection. It is based on his self-surrender, on his offering of himself for the sin of the world" (Ridderbos 1997:595).
Thus, Jesus is working on a different level, one not of this world. Throughout the Gospel it is seen that he does not respond merely to stimuli from the environment; rather he acts in accordance with his Father's direction. So in a sense Jesus does answer Pilate's question about what he has done not by describing his teachings and signs, but by referring to his acceptance of suffering. If one does not realize who he is and why he has allowed himself to be handed over by his Jewish opponents, however, his glory is not evident. Nevertheless, his arrest, and everything else about him, bears witness that his kingdom is "not from here" (ouk estin enteuthen, paraphrased in the NIV as from another place). It is from the Father. If Pilate had an open heart he would have picked up this hint and asked where Jesus' kingdom is from, but he does not.
Instead, he focuses on Jesus' reference to my kingdom. My kingdom (he basileia he eme) is repeated three times (one of them omitted in the NIV), and the expression my servants uses the same Greek construction that is used to emphasize the pronoun my (hoi hyperetai hoi emoi). His kingdom is quite distinct from other kingdoms, but he does indeed have a kingdom. Pilate picks up on this emphasis and presses his earlier question, again in keeping with the Roman practice of questioning the defendant three times (Sherwin-White 1965:105), and says, You are a king, then! (v. 37).
The grace and humility evident in the Passion itself comes through also in the gentleness of Jesus' dealing with this Roman politician (cf. Chrysostom In John 84.1). Jesus replies, "You say that I am a king" (v. 37). This is often taken as an affirmative, almost as if Jesus were saying, "You said it!" (cf. NIV). This interpretation is possible (Beasley-Murray 1987:317); however, it is more likely that Jesus is saying, "That's your term." He is clearly claiming kingship, but he does not commit to the label of "king," probably because it is loaded with misunderstanding (6:15; cf. 1:49; 12:13). It is very much a term "of this world"! His reticence here is similar to his attitude toward other titles, such as "Messiah," elsewhere in the Gospels.
Jesus' further explanation reveals that he is king in a sense that transcends all other kings: for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world (v. 37). Given what this Gospel has revealed of Jesus' identity, this is a profound statement of pre-existence (for example, 1:1-18; 3:13; 9:39). But if Pilate thought about what Jesus said at all, he would probably hear it only on a human level, that Jesus was claiming to be like any other child who was born a prince, in line to become king. Even this would be striking, since there was no such dynastic line functioning in Israel. But Pilate may not have gotten that far in his thinking, for Jesus says that he came into the world not to be king of the Jews, but to testify to the truth. This language makes obvious the contrast between his identity and mission on the one hand and the falsehood of his opponents on the other. "He is the king of Truth, and He manifests His royal power not by force, but by the witness He bears to the Truth (3:32; 5:33; cf. 3 Jn 3)" (Hoskyn 1940b:619). The truth he refers to is the truth of God.
By using the term "truth" rather than "God," Jesus is using language less likely to be misunderstood by Pilate. For he is still dealing here with Pilate himself: Everyone on the side of truth listens to me (v. 37), he says—everyone, whether Jew or Gentile. Jesus continues to walk through this trial on his own terms. Pilate thinks of Jesus as a defendant, but Jesus is taking the part of a witness (see comment on 5:31; cf. 1 Tim 6:13), who "has come to testify against the rule of the lie and for `the truth,' that is, for God and for God's claim on the world" (Ridderbos 1997:596). So Jesus is asking for Pilate to pass judgment not on him as king of the Jews, but on him as the revealer of truth. And he puts pressure on Pilate, for if he does not decide in favor of Jesus, he will judge himself as not being on the side of truth. This expression is, more literally, "of the truth" (ek tes aletheias); it refers to one's inner disposition as tuned to the truth, able to hear the voice of truth (cf. 8:47; 10:3). "Absolute truth is a very uncomfortable thing when we come in contact with it" (Ward 1994:30).
Pilate's response, What is truth? (v. 38), is probably not a great philosophical remark, but a dismissal of the whole subject as irrelevant. Pilate has heard enough to determine that Jesus is not a political threat, and, therefore, he has gotten from the interview what he was after. Jesus has sown seed, but it has fallen on a beaten path. Pilate does not listen to Jesus, so, according to what Jesus has just said, he is not of the truth. The judge has been judged and found self-condemned through his response to Jesus. The Jewish opponents had come to this same place during the course of Jesus' ministry. So now both Jew and Gentile have been given a chance to respond to the one come from God, and they have rejected him.Jesus' statement that his kingdom is not of this world does not mean that it has no impact in this world. Throughout the Gospels Jesus makes it clear that his kingdom is both otherworldly in its source and quality and present here in this world. Its focal point is the body of believers, who, through their union with the Father in the Son by the Spirit, are not of this world (cf. Augustine In John 115.2). Because it is a kingdom, it has to do with relationships, relationships inspired by God's own presence and manifesting his characteristic love. And because this network of relations is embodied in a community present in this world, it is expressed institutionally. Our passage does not indicate the shape of this institution, but it is clear that it is not of this world and that it is centered in the truth of God revealed by Jesus. These two criteria stand in judgment of much of the life of the church throughout the ages. All should be evaluated in the light of the pattern of life manifested in Jesus and revealed by him regarding the Godhead of the Father, the Son and the Spirit.