JOHN, Part 31

Jesus and Pilate

John 18:28–19:16

The account of Jesus before Pilate as recorded in John’s Gospel is the longer than it appears in the Synoptics.  While Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s accounts concentrate more on the legality of the proceedings, John focuses on Pilate and his attitudes throughout his encounters with Jesus.  The way John his written his account, what we have here a psychological study of Pilate.  There are, in fact, in the John’s Gospel a couple of mini-psychological studies; the Samaritan woman (chapter 4) and the blind man (chapter 9).

1.  The accusation, verses 28—32

We assume Jesus was held in some sort of cell from 3 am until this “early hour” when the Sanhedrin convened to decide His fate.  The rush was unprecedented; the religious leaders probably wanted to push our Lord to Pilate before the people of Jerusalem were awake enough to know what was going on.  But there was another reason to get this over with in a hurry:  the Sabbath.  The trial and crucifixion had to be done before the Sabbath.  And here we see the clash between religion and Jesus Christ.  About the sacrifice the Lamb of God, these religious types were more concerned with their religious observances than they were either the legality of this day’s activities or the fact that they were about put away the Son of God!

…to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.  So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?”  (verses 28b—29)

This clash between religion and Jesus continues to this day.  Many “Christians” follow their meticulous, religious rules and observances without a thought about the Man who wants to save them; they can’t see Jesus for their religion!

So, the Jews wouldn’t go into the palace (the judgment hall, really) for fear of contaminating themselves, so they made Pilate jump through a bunch of hoops in order to get Jesus prosecuted.  We have to feel a little sorry for Pilate, really.  He was a Roman governor—a politician—who hated Jerusalem, but as a good politician and Roman statist, he did his duty.  It’s almost humorous to watch the proceeding:

  • Pilate went out to Him, verse 29
  • Pilate went into the palace, verse 33
  • Pilate went back out to the Jews, verse 38
  • Pilate took Jesus in to get flogged, 19:1
  • Pilate went back out to the Jews, 19:4
  • Pilate went back into the palace, 19:13

No wonder Pilate couldn’t stand dealing with these arrogant, religious Jews!

Pilate needed to know what charges were being leveled against Jesus, so he did exactly what he should have done:  he simply asked the Jews what the charges were.  Their answer was full of insolence and dripped with arrogance—

“If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.”  (verse 30)

Their answer indicated clearly that they, the religious leaders, had already made up their minds and passed judgment.  Bringing Jesus before Pilate was merely a matter of form, leading Pilate to say—

“Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.”  (verse 31)

But the religious leaders knew the Law and had planned for every contingency—

“But we have no right to execute anyone,” they objected.  (verse 31b)

John interprets this whole byplay as part of God’s plan.  Matthew, in his account, is more practical—

…he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.  (Matthew 27:19)

2.  Where is Jesus King?  (verses 33—38a)

“We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.”  (Luke 23:2)

We don’t know why John leaves out this piece of information; it is critical, so he may have taken for granted that his readers knew that Jesus had been accused to Pilate of claiming to be a king.   Also from Luke’s account, we know that Pilate refused to try Jesus without cause, forcing the religious leaders to produce three reasons why Jesus had to die:  (1)  He perverts the nation; (b) He forbade the people to pay their taxes and, (c) He claimed to be a king.

The truth was all of the trumped up charges taken together presented Jesus as an enemy of the State, ultimately guilty of high treason.    Pilate was no fool, as we have seen.  He didn’t trust these Jews, and so he confronted Jesus with the most troublesome charge:  claiming to be a king.

Clearly, whatever Pilate saw in Jesus, he did not see a political revolutionary, so he pressed the question further, looking for some evidence of wrongdoing—

“Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”  (verse 35)

All Pilate wanted somebody to give him a truthful answer; all he was getting from the Jews was double talk.  It was time for Jesus to step up and set the record straight for all time—

“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”  (verse 36)

That was the perfect answer.  Jesus could not lie, but He had to clarify the Sanhedrin’s misstatements.  In doing so, He was sealing His fate.

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.  Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”  (verse 37)

Pilate’s words, “You are a king, then,” may be taken as a statement or as a question.  It is difficult to know which.  It seems as though Pilate acknowledged the truthfulness of Jesus’ claim, even if he didn’t understand it fully.  But it is Jesus’ response to Pilate that is of interest.  Jesus was not a King because the throne was passed on to Him by the death of His successor. He was not made a King by His followers.  Jesus Christ was born a king, and He came into this world from another, namely, from Heaven.   He came, not only to save dying humanity, but to “testify to the truth,” that is, He came as King of Heaven to share the Good News of the Gospel with man.

This exchange between Jesus and Pilate illustrates the age-old conflict between faith and doubt.  Pilate had been given an opportunity to know more of the truth.   Would he take it?  Or would he reject the truth when accepting it would prove too costly?   His answer seems to tell the tale—

“What is truth?”  (verse 38)

Pilate obviously heard the words but missed their meaning.  His question, “What is Truth?”  sounds almost cynical; like so many people today who see only in shades of gray.  And while Jesus never answered this question, He did show them the truth.  Truth is the way to life, even when that way leads to the Cross.

3.  The choice, verses 38b—40

While Pilate may not have grasped Jesus’ Kingship, he did not see in Jesus a dangerous, political subversive.  However, it was Passover and the last thing this Roman politician needed was trouble from disgruntled Jews.  Jesus was not worth the trouble, so he searched for the most expedient solution possible, one that might satisfy the Jews and one that would get this Man Jesus off the hook and off his hands.

But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?”  (verse 39)

Strangely enough, we have no record of such a custom, but Pilate seemed to know all about it, and he seized the opportunity.  Pilate was probably vaguely familiar with Jesus and assumed that, in spite of what these jealous religious leaders were trying to sell him; Jesus was still popular with the general population.   As is the case with all who use expediency alone as the basis of moral judgments, Pilate misjudged the crowd badly.  He had no idea they had been instructed by the priests to ask for the death of Jesus.  Instead of clamoring for Jesus to be released, they called for the release of Barabbas.  Pilate was now trapped by his own cleverness and words.  He was convinced of the innocence of Jesus, but had to release Barabbas.

It is a curious irony that Barabbas means literally “son of the father.”  Instead of releasing the Son of God, Pilate had to release the son of the father.

4.  Flogging and mockery, 19:1—11

What followed was a glorious display of the depravity of man.

The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face.  (19:2—3)

It was not at all unusual for Roman soldiers to treat some prisoners with extreme cruelty.  The flogging of a prisoner doomed for crucifixion was also a common practice.  In other words, Jesus was being treated no better or no worse than common criminal.  The flogging was sometimes so brutal that whole chunks of flesh were ripped from the victim’s back.  Frequently, perhaps mercifully, prisoners would die from the flogging before they could be crucified.

Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.”  (verse 4)

Why did Pilate do this?  He should have released his prisoner, yet he dilly dallies.  This time when Jesus appeared before the people, wearing the crown of thorns, bloodied from head to toe, He would have been a most pathetic, sympathetic character.  Pilate probably hoped sway the people with this spectacle.  Once again he miscalculated.  The people, egged on by the religious leaders, had fallen so far that even the sight of the sinless Jesus in a mock robe and crown failed to move them.  This exasperated Pilate—

“You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”  (verse 6)

Of course, crucifixion was the job for the Romans, not for Jewish priests.  So convinced was Pilate of Jesus’ innocence, he did all he within his power to free Him.  John indicates that Pilate was desperately afraid (verse 8).  Of what was he afraid?  Pilate was not a Jew, so while Jesus’ claim to divinity meant sacrilege to them, it meant something else to pagans, such as Pilate.  In pagan mythology, the gods of Olympus sometimes fathered semi-divine offspring with mortal women.  Was Jesus one of these?  He had already claimed to come from someplace else; was Pilate about offend the gods of Olympus?  In the off chance that Jesus really was some kind of divine being, Pilate did not want to mistreat Him.

“Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”  (verse 10)

Jesus refused to speak up, and this, maybe more than the attitude of the Jews, frustrated Pilate.  In desperation, Pilate almost guarantees that the shameful events of this day would go no further if only Jesus would speak to him.

“You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”  (verse 11)

This verse is important for two reasons.  First, for the umpteenth time, we see that Jesus is firmly in control of the events of this day.  Nothing had gotten hijacked by the religious leaders, the soldiers or Pilate.  Second, there is a theological value in verse 11.  We see that there are differences or degrees in sin.  Sin is not sin, as some like to say.  All sin is bad, of course, but Jesus makes it clear that not all sin is equal.  Those who delivered Jesus to Pilate—the Jews—had committed the greater sin because of the light they had.  That, however, does not absolve Pilate of his sin. He is quilty.

5. Pilate gives in and gives up, verses 12—16

From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”  (verse 12)

Any inner conflict Pilate may have had with the divine truth given Him by Jesus apparently vanished when his relationship with Rome was brought into question.  The Gospel calls for people to make a decision, and the decision they make reveals their character.  In Pilate’s case, he chose his career over his soul.  He caved into outward pressures.

…he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement.  (verse 13)

This “Stone Pavement” was the place of Roman judgment.  Julius Caesar actually had a portable one that he carried with him that he could set up wherever he was in order to pronounce judgments.  As Jesus stood there, Pilate passed sentence—

“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.  (verse 14b)

As Jesus stood there, beaten and bloody, for all the world appearing defeated, Pilate subconsciously, yet officially, pronounced the truth about Jesus Christ.  He is the King of Kings, just as He had said He was!   Still, the Jews wanted Jesus dead.  And here was Pilate’s master stroke of genius, whether he knew it or not—

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked. (verse 15b)

This single question sealed not only the fate of Jesus, but of the Jews as well.  They were now forced to pronounce judgment on Jesus and themselves.

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.  (verse 15c)

In declaring this, the Jews denied the sovereignty of God and surrendered their place of privilege as God’s children.  Israel had flirted with apostasy from her inception, but on this day, they had committed their final act of apostasy in rejecting their true and only King.  They rejected centuries of admonitions that said God alone is King of Israel.

So Pilate handed the Son of God over to the Jews.  It was not for them to crucify Him, but he was surrendering to their wishes.  Jealousy, for now, had won.  But while the battle was won, this was moment the war was lost.

(c)  2010 WitzEnd

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