John's account of the trial before Pilate is much more extensive than the accounts in the Synoptics. The literary power is evident here as John presents seven scenes in a chiastic pattern that alternates between the Jewish opponents on the outside and Jesus inside, with Pilate going back and forth between them (Brown 1970: 859, from which the following diagram is adapted):
A Outside (18:28-32) The Jews demand Jesus' death
B Inside (18:33-38a) Pilate questions Jesus about kingship
C Outside (18:38b-40) Pilate finds Jesus not guilty; Barabbas choice
D Inside (19:1-3) Soldiers scourge Jesus
C' Outside (19:4-8) Pilate finds Jesus not guilty; "Behold the man"
B' Inside (19:9-11) Pilate talks with Jesus about power
A' Outside (19:12-16a) The Jews obtain Jesus' death
Inside Jesus exhibits a royal calmness while outside the opponents are greatly agitated (Brown 1994:1:758-59). "Pilate must shuttle back and forth, for he is the person-in-between who does not wish to make a decision and so vainly tries to reconcile the opposing forces" (Brown 1994:1:744). Jesus is no more cowed by Pilate than he was by Annas. Just as he offered Annas a chance to accept him (v. 23), so will he confront Pilate with the claims of his identity and demand a decision. He reveals himself as king of an otherworldly kingdom and as witness to the truth--terms that transcend Jewish categories in Jesus' addresses to this Gentile. But Pilate in his own way rejects Jesus as decisively as had Annas. Both Jew and Gentile collaborate in the Passion of Jesus. Both Jew and Gentile are graciously offered a chance even now to accept Jesus rather than reject him.
The glory of the love of God shines forth, as it has throughout the story, in the way Jesus relates to everyone with whom he comes in contact as he suffers through this humiliating and painful climax to his ministry.
The Jewish opponents refuse to enter the praetorium to avoid ceremonial uncleanness (v. 28). There is no law in the Old Testament against entering a Gentile's home, but in later teaching it is laid down that "the dwelling-places of gentiles are unclean" (m. Oholot 18:7; cf. Brown 1994:1:745; Beasley-Murray 1987:327). The opponents sought to avoid defilement because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover (v. 28). Since Jesus has already eaten with his disciples a meal that the Synoptics say was the Passover (Mt 26:17 par. Mk 14:12 par. Lk 22:8; 22:15), this verse raises questions. Many interpreters argue either that John has shifted the chronology in order to have Jesus dying at the very time the Passover lambs are being sacrificed--making the point dramatically that he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (for example, Lindars 1972:444-46; Barrett 1978:48-51)--or that his chronology is historically accurate (especially Brown 1994:2:1351-73; cf. Robinson 1985:147-51) and therefore the meal he shared with his disciples was not Passover.
Others have attempted to maintain that the meal in all four Gospels is the Passover. One solution suggests that John is referring here not to the Passover meal itself, but to the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a week-long celebration that took place in conjunction with it. This longer celebration can be referred to as Passover, as it is, for example, in Luke: "Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover, was approaching" (22:1; cf. Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 14.21). These Jewish opponents, then, wish to be able to take part in the seven-day feast about to begin (cf. Carson 1991:589; Ridderbos 1997:457). Alternatively, some suggest that "John has in mind the lunchtime meal known as the chagigah, celebrated during midday after the first evening of Passover" (Blomberg 1987:177). But although the term Passover may be applied to the whole sequence, including the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the expression "eat the Passover" is not a natural way to refer to keeping the whole feast nor to eating the chagigah, but rather a way to refer to the Passover meal specifically. For example, the references in the Synoptics just cited use exactly the expression here (esthio to pascha) to speak of sharing in the Passover meal. Furthermore, there is no evidence the term Passover was used to refer to the Feast of Unleavened Bread apart from the Passover itself (Morris 1971:778-79, but cf. Blomberg 1987:177 n. 2).
Another solution to the discrepancy is that different calendars were followed. The main calendar used was a lunisolar calendar, but some groups, apparently including the community at Qumran, used a solar calendar of 364 days (cf. Schürer 1973-1987:1:587-601; Vanderkam 1992). The main drawback to this solution is the lack of evidence for Jesus' having followed the solar calendar (cf. Vanderkam 1992:820). The other main proposal is that the Galileans and the Pharisees reckoned days from sunrise to sunrise, while Judeans did so from sunset to sunset. This means the Judeans, including these opponents, would slaughter their lambs late Friday afternoon, whereas Jesus and his disciples had theirs slaughtered late Thursday afternoon (Hoehner 1977:83-90; cf. Morris 1971:782-85). It has also been suggested that the slaughtering of the lambs actually took place over two days because of the volume of lambs involved (Hoehner 1977:84). According to these solutions, Jesus has already eaten Passover, but the opponents have yet to do so. A major drawback to theories of different days for celebrating Passover is "the lack of any hint of such a distinction in the gospels themselves" (Blomberg 1987:176-77).
Whatever the solution to this puzzle, the irony of the opponents' concern is evident. They wish to remain ritually pure even while seeking to kill someone by the agency of the Romans. They avoid defilement while bringing about the death of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29), the root defilement that prevents one from intimacy with God and sharing in his life. Perhaps most ironic is the fact that their very act is a sin that defiles in this deep sense yet contributes to the cleansing of their sin and the sin of the whole world.
Pilate asks for the charges against Jesus (v. 29), and from the Jewish leaders' response it seems they were upset by this request: If he were not a criminal . . . we would not have handed him over to you (v. 30). They wanted Pilate simply to take their word for it and not begin his own investigation. Pilate is not inclined to do them such a favor and tells them to judge Jesus by their own law. In other words, if none of the charges mentioned are relevant to Roman rule, then this case is a matter for their own legal proceedings. A reluctance to get involved in matters of Jewish law was common among Roman governors (Sherwin-White 1965:112-13). It is unclear whether or not Pilate knew the opponents had already judged Jesus. John has omitted a description of the Jewish trial, but judging Jesus by their law is exactly what they have been doing throughout the Gospel.
Long before now they had come to the conclusion that Jesus had to be eliminated (7:19-20; 8:40, 44, 59; 10:31; 11:8, 16, 50). This is still their aim, and their specific request of Pilate now becomes clear when they respond that they do not have the right to execute people (v. 31). This could refer to Old Testament prohibitions against killing (Ex 20:13, Hoskyns 1940b:616; Michaels 1989:314), but more likely it refers to limitations imposed by the Romans (Brown 1994:1:747-48). Among the Romans, "the capital power was the most jealously guarded of all the attributes of government, not even entrusted to the principal assistants of the governors" (Sherwin-White 1963:36). There were occasions when Jews did put people to death through mob violence (for example the stoning of Stephen, Acts 7:58-60). And they were given permission to execute any Gentile, even a Roman, who entered the temple's inner courts (Josephus Jewish Wars 5.193-94; 6.124-26). But mob violence has not succeeded against Jesus, and his case is not one for which Rome has given permission for execution. Presumably they could request permission to kill Jesus themselves, but this would limit them to the methods of stoning, burning, beheading and strangling, at least according to later law, which may have been in effect in the first century (m. Sanhedrin 7:1). They seem set, however, on having Rome execute Jesus, for then it would be by crucifixion. They probably want him crucified (19:6, 15) not only because it was a particularly brutal and painful form of death, but also because it would signify that Jesus is accursed by God (Deut 21:23; cf. Gal 3:13, Robinson 1985:257 n. 147; Beasley-Murray 1987:328). In John's Gospel the focus is on Jesus as the revealer of God. His opponents have rejected that claim and desire his death in order to vindicate their conclusion.
John, however, sees this desire as a fulfillment of Jesus' statement that he would die by being lifted up from the earth (v. 32; 12:32-34). "Both Jewish accusers and Roman judge are actors in a drama scripted by a divine planner" (Brown 1994:1:748). John's note reminds us both of Jesus' identity as the Word whose words are God's words, which will be fulfilled, and of the significance of this death: "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (12:32). Even the actions of his enemies are used to bear witness to the glory of his identity and of what he is in the process of accomplishing.
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.
Pilate's use of the term king of the Jews (v. 39) is obviously sarcastic since he has just said Jesus poses no political threat. As is so often the case with sin, when one is succumbing to temptation one is given opportunities to come to one's senses and turn back (cf. 1 Cor 10:13; Ward 1994:44-50). Pilate's question can be seen as a chance for the opponents to renounce this determination to eliminate Jesus. But, of course, it is far too late. The Jewish opponents are rejecting Jesus precisely as their king.
So the crowd cries out again (or shouted back, NIV) that they want Barabbas, not Jesus (v. 40). Such dispute between a crowd and a Roman governor might seem strange, but it was not that unusual. Indeed, "Roman jurists expressly warn magistrates against submitting to popular clamour" (Horbury 1972:67). The picture of Pilate in Josephus and Philo is of a violent man who hated the Jews, which would lead one not to expect him to make any such offer to the crowd. But their picture of Pilate is probably overdrawn (cf. Brown 1994:1:693-705). Both authors, in fact, cite an instance when Pilate did give in to Jewish pressure (Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 18.55-59 par. Josephus Jewish Wars 2.169-174; Philo Legatio ad Gaium 302). The present occasion, of course, will play out the same way.
John describes Barabbas as a lestes, which the NIV renders by saying he was one who had taken part in a rebellion. There were many sorts of revolutionary leaders in Israel in the first century (cf. Brown 1994:1:679-93; Horsley and Hanson 1985; Horsley 1992). The term lestes is not used to refer to such people during the time of Jesus, but it is so used later in the century, after the revolt of A.D. 66 (Brown 1994:1:687). However, two of the other Gospels mention that Barabbas was indeed involved in an insurrection (Mk 15:7; Lk 23:19), so this is probably how John is using the term. The crowd demands the release of one under arrest for his threat against Rome. Their decision is very much "of this world."
There is a stark contrast between Barabbas, a violent man concerned with this world's politics, albeit religious politics, and Jesus, whose kingdom is not of this world, though it is active in this world. There is also irony in the name Barabbas itself, since it means "son of Abba"--the word Abba, "father," was used as a proper name (Brown 1994:1:799-800), but, especially in John's Gospel, Jesus is known as the Son of the Father. The crowd was choosing between two different approaches to liberation as represented by two men identified, in different ways, as "son of Abba." Here is the deceptiveness of sin that has been evident since the Garden of Eden. There is a path that looks right and seems to be of God, yet it is actually against him and his ways. The people choose their own path of liberation rather than God's, and they therefore choose "not the Savior, but the murderer; not the Giver of life, but the destroyer" (Augustine In John 116.1). Every time we choose sin we do the same, whether the sin is blatant or deceptive.
Pilate has rejected Jesus, his otherworldly kingdom and the truth, so he is left responding to the demands of the pressures of this world. He does not like the alternatives offered him by either Jesus or the opponents, but he is being forced to decide. Here is a picture of John's dualism, indeed, the dualism found throughout the Scriptures. God and Satan are both putting pressure on. Both desire us, though for very different purposes. "There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan" (Lewis 1967:33). Each of us faces the same challenge Pilate here faces. Even though we are able to avoid the crunch for now, we will not be able to do so forever. The Mercy would not allow that.
Pilate turns Jesus over to the soldiers to be flogged (v. 1). In other Gospel accounts Jesus is flogged right before he is handed over for crucifixion (Mt 27:26 par. Mk 15:15), whereas here Pilate will make another effort to get Jesus released before he is eventually handed over (v. 16). Luke, like John, mentions several efforts made by Pilate to release Jesus (Lk 23:13-22), but Luke does not refer to the flogging itself, beyond Pilate's threat to punish Jesus (Lk 23:16, 22). Some think that Jesus was flogged once and that John has separated that event from the handing over (Sherwin-White 1965:104; Brown 1994:1:852-53), but more likely there were two floggings (Carson 1991:597). The Romans had several degrees of punishment (Brown 1994:1:851-52), with the lightest form being a beating that was both a pun-ishment and a warning (Sherwin-White 1963:27). The more severe forms were used in interrogations to extract information from people or in connection with other punishments (Sherwin-White 1963:27). Since the punishment at this point in John's account was neither of these severe forms, the reference would fit the lighter form better. Pilate, who considers Jesus innocent, may have wanted to satisfy Jesus' opponents with this relatively light punishment. The later flogging, referred to by Matthew and Mark in connection with the sentence of crucifixion, would have been the more severe form. This type of flogging employed a whip made of leather thongs with pieces of bone or lead attached, which chewed up the flesh. Such flogging could itself result in death. Jesus' own flogging, while brutal and inflicting great suffering, was not carried out to this extreme, since he did not die from it. Indeed, Pilate was surprised he died so quickly on the cross (Mk 15:44; cf. Blinzler 1959:226). Pilate, however, did not know the whole story, for he did not know of the spiritual wounds Jesus suffered as he took away the sin of the world (1:29), being "pierced for our transgressions" and "crushed for our iniquities" (Is 53:5).
In addition to beating Jesus, as ordered by Pilate, the soldiers mocked him. The crown of thorns (v. 2) was most likely made from the date palm (Hart 1952), the same plant that had supplied the fronds laid on Jesus' path as he entered Jerusalem a short time before (12:13). The spikes on this plant can reach twelve inches long and were notorious for inflicting pain (cf. Midrash Rabbah on Num 3:1). Such long spikes would give the effect of a starburst around Jesus' head, in imitation of the likeness of deified rulers on coins of the period and much earlier. (H. Hart's article includes photos of such coins and the spikes from a date palm.) The purple robe (v. 2) and the greeting "Hail, king of the Jews!" (v. 3)--an imitation of the greeting to Caesar, "Ave, Caesar"--furthered the sick entertainment. As they lined up and came forward to greet him (cf. Bruce 1983:358), instead of giving him the kiss of greeting, they struck him in the face (v. 3).
This scene presents a powerful picture of Christ's glory, since this caricature of Christian worship, as E. C. Hoskyns calls it 1940b:621), actually speaks of Jesus' true identity as King of the Jews and, indeed, Lord of all. But throughout the story we have seen the chief characteristic of the glory of God revealed in Jesus to be his love. Jesus really is a king beyond the wildest imaginings of these soldiers. When we realize the power Jesus had we understand more of his humility and see God's brilliant glory. "Thus the kingdom which was not of this world overcame that proud world, not by the ferocity of fighting, but by the humility of suffering" (Augustine In John 116.1).
Once again we have an "unconscious prophet" (Westcott 1908:2:299), like Caiaphas (11:49-52) or the centurion in Mark's Gospel (Mk 15:39; cf. Bruce 1983:359). Several proposals have been made for the significance of Pilate's calling Jesus the man (cf. Barrett 1978:541; Brown 1994:1:827-28). One of the more likely proposals is Jesus' identity as the Son of Man, since Jesus had said, "When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM" (8:28). Another possibility is an emphasis on Jesus' humanity: Jesus is indeed man (anthropos), for the Word became flesh (1:14). Since the real reason his opponents are against him is his claim to deity (19:7), we would have in Pilate's phrase references to both the humanity and the deity of Jesus. John may also see here allusions to Jesus as the last Adam, to use Paul's language (1 Cor 15:45), in keeping with similar possible allusions through the motif of the Garden (see comment on 18:1). This association with Adam is true, but since John does not make an explicit reference to him, we can't be sure he had it in mind here.
Pilate's bid to release Jesus is once again soundly rejected (v. 6a). The heart of the opposition to Jesus comes from the chief priests and their officials, and John singles these folk out as the ones crying, Crucify! Crucify! They want Jesus not merely dead, but crucified. The reason, most likely, is that this form of death was associated with the curse in the law against "anyone who is hung on a tree" (Deut 21:23, see comment on 18:32).
Pilate's little plan failed, so in exasperation he tells the leaders to take Jesus and crucify him themselves, since, as he says for the third time, he finds no charge against Jesus (v. 6). Pilate is trusting in political games rather than standing in integrity for what he knows to be true. When such people cannot control a situation they get frustrated and angry. He is not really offering them a chance to crucify Jesus themselves, and they understand that, as their actions show.
Pilate and the Jewish leaders are very agitated, but the appeal they both make is to law. According to Roman law Jesus is innocent, as Pilate has now said three times. But the leaders now assert that according to Jewish law (v. 7), Jesus must die because he claimed to be the Son of God (v. 7). This was the charge that was brought against Jesus at the trial before Caiaphas, though not recorded by John (Mt 26:63-66 par. Mk 14:61-64 par. Lk 22:67-71). The law they seem to have in mind says "anyone who blasphemes the name of the LORD must be put to death" (Lev 24:16). Later in the Mishnah blasphemy refers to pronouncing the divine name (m. Sanhedrin 7:5), but the concept was broader in the first century (cf. Robinson 1985:263). The claim to be a "son of God" is not necessarily a blasphemous claim to deity since the phrase was used in the Old Testament to describe beings other than God, in particular heavenly beings (Gen 6:2; Ps 29:1, obscured in the NIV) and the king of Israel (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:7; 89:26-27; cf. Wülfing von Martitz et al. 1972:347-53). Since "son of God" was used of the king, the opponents are not now shifting away from the charge that Jesus claims to be king, as seen in their repetition of this charge later (v. 12). Rather, they are helping Pilate understand that there is a religious as well as a political dimension to the kingship of Jesus, and the religious aspect is the crucial one. Throughout the Gospel they have rejected Jesus' claims to a special relationship with God, and they have already threatened his life because of such claims (5:18; 8:58-59; 10:33, 36). It is his claim to be God's Son in a special sense that constitutes the blasphemy (10:36).
The opponents had not introduced this underlying problem to Pilate at first but rather couched it in its political form to get him to act. Even now their expression allows Pilate to read his own content into it. For they say Jesus claims to be "a son of God" (hyion theou). For a Roman, as for a Jew, this could be a political claim since the emperor could be referred to as "son of God" (theou hyios, divi filius). But Pilate does not treat it as such but rather, it seems, as a claim to be a "divine man" (theios aner, Dodd 1953:250-51). These "divine men" were Hellenistic religious philosophers who were "characterized by moral virtue, wisdom and/or miraculous power so that they were held to be divine" (Blackburn 1992:189). Pilate's response is fear (v. 8). Some think this fear is due to his realization that the situation is getting out of his control and that "he will not be able to escape making a judgment about truth" (Brown 1994:1:830; cf. Ridderbos 1997:602). But John says it was this saying (touton ton logon) about Jesus as Son of God that caused Pilate's fear (v. 8) and led him to ask Jesus where he is from (v. 9). So he is probably experiencing a fear of the divine, on top of all the other problems this situation entails for him. The discussion Pilate had just had with Jesus about his kingdom now begins to make more sense to Pilate. He must take Jesus back inside and explore this new dimension to his case.
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).
It is, of course, highly ironic that Pilate's loyalty to Caesar should be threatened by Jews, members of the most disloyal and unruly section of the empire. Pilate is being humiliated by them. He knows he must give in to their wishes, but he is wily enough to humiliate them also in the process. Upon hearing their threat, he brings Jesus out and sits on the judge's seat (bema) to pass judgment. This is the climax of the trial and, indeed, of the ministry of Jesus.
John underscores the importance of this moment by specifying the place and time, though, unfortunately, the precise meaning of both is uncertain today. The place where the trial before Pilate occurred is uncertain (see comment on 18:28), and the addition of the term Gabbatha does not help. This Aramaic word does not mean Stone Pavement but is a different word for the same place, probably meaning something like "elevated" (McRay 1992). The location would have been well known in the first century because it was the place of judgment.
The reference to the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour (v. 14) is problematic when compared to the Synoptics. If Passover (pascha) refers to the Passover meal itself, then John has the trial and the crucifixion happening a day earlier than the Synoptics do (see comment on 18:28). This would mean that this dramatic point before Pilate's bema occurs just as the lambs are beginning to be slaughtered in the temple. Jesus' death then took place while they were continuing to be killed. This setting would tie in with Jesus' identity as the Lamb of God (1:29) and the several allusions to the pascal lamb in the Passion narrative (see comments on 19:19, 33-34, 36). On the other hand, if pascha refers to Passover Week, as in the NIV (cf. Torrey 1931; Carson 1991:603-4), then John's account is not in conflict with the Synoptics. If the word preparation (paraskeue) regularly referred to the day before the sabbath, that is, Friday, this would lend support to the latter interpretation (Ridderbos 1997:456). For then both John and the Synoptics would present Jesus as eating Passover on Thursday evening, the beginning of Friday according to Jewish reckoning in which days begin at sundown. This usage, however, is contested (cf. Zeitlin 1932; Brown 1994:1:846). Alternatively, the suggestion that two different calendars were used (see comment on 18:28) would also account for the differences, since for some it would still be the period of preparation for the Passover meal. In this way Jesus ate the Passover and also died while the Passover lambs continued to be killed. There is no clear solution to this quesstion.
The sixth hour would be noon, which seems to conflict with Mark's statement that Jesus was crucified at the third hour, that is, 9 a.m. (Mk 15:25). Again there is a division of opinion, with some assuming the two accounts simply contradict one another (Robinson 1985:268), perhaps due to a corruption in the text (Alford 1980:897-98; Barrett 1978:545) or because both John and Mark cite an hour that has symbolic significance for them (Barrett 1978:545; Brown 1994:1:847). Others think the imprecision of telling time in the ancient world accounts for the discrepancy (Augustine In John 117.1; Morris 1971:800-801).
Whatever the solution to these puzzles, John emphasizes this particular moment because Jesus is now presented to his people as king: Here is your king (v. 14). Pilate may be making one last bid to get them to change their minds, but given their threat to him regarding his loyalty to Caesar this is unlikely. Rather, Pilate mocks the Jews by saying this battered, weak man dressed in sham regal trappings is their king. Pilate is perhaps imitating a ceremony formally recognizing a ruler, somewhat similar to what takes place today at the coronation of a British monarch (cf. Bruce 1983:365). Jesus is indeed their king, and here is their one last chance to receive him as such, but they will have nothing of it. Pilate thereby "makes the moment of his decision the moment of decision for the Jews" (Beasley-Murray 1987:342).
The Jewish opponents have trapped Pilate, and now he springs on them a trap of his own. When they once more reject Jesus as their king and call for his crucifixion, Pilate replies, Shall I crucify your king? (v. 15). What they should have said in return was, "We have no king but God," but in order to force Pilate's hand with their threat regarding his loyalty to Caesar the chief priests instead say, We have no king but Caesar (v. 15). Like Pilate, they are forced to choose which king they will serve, and they also fail to choose wisely. Here are the spiritual leaders of Israel denying the very faith they are claiming to uphold in their rejection of Jesus. God alone was Israel's king (Judg 8:23; 1 Sam 8:4-20). The human king was to be in submission to God as a son is to his father (2 Sam 7:11-16; Ps 2:7). These ancient attitudes found expression in one of the prayers these chief priests prayed every day: "May you be our King, you alone." Every year at this very feast of Passover they sang, "From everlasting to everlasting you are God; beside you we have no king, redeemer, or savior, no liberator, deliverer, provider, none who takes pity in every time of distress and trouble; we have no king but you" (Talbert 1992:241). The hope was for a redeemer to come, the Messiah, who would be a king like David. "But now hundreds of years of waiting had been cast aside: `the Jews' had proclaimed the half-mad exile of Capri to be their king" (Brown 1970:895; cf. Westcott 1908:2:306). These opponents stand self-condemned.
Jesus is indeed the King of Israel, and that means true Israel is found among those who owe allegiance to him. Jesus had already withdrawn from the temple (8:59) and formed the nucleus of the renewed people. Now the leadership of the nation completes this judgment, for "in the breaking of the covenant whereby God or his Messiah was Israel's king, the movement of replacement comes to a climax, for `the Jews' have renounced their status as God's people" (Brown 1970:895). The light is shining brightly at this point, and the darkness's rejection of the light is equally strong (cf. 3:20).
Pilate then hands Jesus over to them to crucify (v. 16). They themselves did not carry out the crucifixion, but this way of putting it completes the cycle of guilt. They had handed Jesus over to Pilate, and now he hands Jesus over to them. Both Jew and Gentile have rejected Jesus, and the way is now prepared for the ultimate revelation of the glory of God. This rejection of the Son of God is the essence of sin, and Jesus will now die to take away the sin of the world.
Jesus Is Confronted by Annas; Peter Is Confronted by People in the Courtyard
About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
Starting your free trial of Bible Gateway Plus is easy. You’re already logged in with your Bible Gateway account. The next step is to enter your payment information. Your credit card won’t be charged until the trial period is over. You can cancel anytime during the trial period.
Click the button below to continue.
You’ve already claimed your free trial of Bible Gateway Plus. To subscribe at our regular subscription rate of $3.99/month, click the button below.
It looks like you’re already subscribed to Bible Gateway Plus! To manage your subscription, visit your Bible Gateway account settings.
Now that you've created a Bible Gateway account, upgrade to Bible Gateway Plus: the ultimate online Bible reading & study experience! Bible Gateway Plus equips you to answer the toughest questions about faith, God, and the Bible with access to a vast digital Bible study library. And it's all integrated seamlessly into your Bible Gateway experience. Try it free for 30 days!
Three easy steps to start your free trial subscription to Bible Gateway Plus.