This final section of the chiastic account of the trial before Pilate (see introduction to 18:28—19:16) corresponds with the first section (18:29-32), in which Pilate was also outside the praetorium and the opponents called for Jesus' death. Jesus has just borne witness to the truth about himself, his Father, Pilate and the opponents. He has made Pilate even more uncomfortable, so Pilate begins to make further efforts to release him (v. 12; ezetei, NIV tried, is in the imperfect tense, here signifying repeated action). The Jewish leaders counter these efforts with a decisive move—they bring in the issue of Pilate's loyalty to Caesar (v. 12). A later emperor, Vespasian (A.D. 69-79), had a specific group of people whose loyalty and importance were recognized by the title friend of Caesar. It is possible that Tiberius also had such a group and Pilate was a member (Bammel 1952), though this is uncertain. In either case, the threat is to Pilate's position, and this settles the issue. Pilate has already revealed that he is a man of this world, insensitive to the truth of God. A threat to his political position is an attack upon the heart of what he knows and cares about. Such a choice between Jesus and other ultimate concerns in our lives faces each of us, for Jesus really is King and insists on complete loyalty as strongly as Tiberius. Pilate is faced with a choice of kings, and he does not choose wisely.
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.