John 18:28-19:1 – Pilate
Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Sept. 16, 2007. Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. It was homecoming weekend at WFU and we could not have had a beautiful day after the storms. Julie and I were able to attend the taping of the radio show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me in Wait Chapel on Thursday night. A word of thanks to Molly Davis of WFDD for all the work she and the whole crew put in to make it such a good event. Julie and I are fans of the show, but it was even better in person. Chris Paul was the guest host, and I think he impressed everyone with his poise, charm, and North Carolina manners. Chris is doing a lot of good things in our city and we should be proud of him.
Trial Drama: This week we are looking at John’s version of Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Palestine. I was really confused when I started seeming ads for Pilates around town, thinking they were talking about Pilates. I wonder if younger people are confused when they read the Apostles Creed and see that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilates. It is significant that the early church included Pilate in the Creed. Not only did this establish the historicity of the crucifixion, it also placed the blame for Jesus death right where it belonged. There have been those through the centuries who have tried to exonerate Pilate and the Roman Empire. We can see this process in the gospels themselves, but unlike Matthew and Luke, John makes no effort to mitigate Pilate’s guilt for Jesus’ death.
John tells the story of Jesus’ trial as if it were a play on a stage. Picture a stage where there are two scenes divided by a wall. The setting is the Praetorium or the residence of the Roman governor. On the right side of the stage is the courtyard, with its large, flat stones. There stand members of the Sanhedrin and curious bystanders. On the left side of the stage is the interior of the palace. This is where Jesus will be taken by the guards. Seven times Pilate passes from one side to the other until the final resolution. It is a beautifully crafted piece of drama in which the tension builds to a dramatic conclusion.
Just because John is a good dramatist, it doesn’t mean that there are not historical details that are reliable. We don’t need to go into this in depth today, but I will point out that John is probably correct that Jesus’ trial and execution were on the day before Passover began. John displays knowledge of Roman legal proceedings than some modern scholars. Though the local governments had authority over many legal matters, the Roman Empire reserved the right to decide capital offenses. The last thing the Romans wanted was for a local government to start executing people without the approval of the Empire. Thus, the Sanhedrin might have had the authority to stone an adulterous woman, but they could not execute a suspected insurrectionist on their own authority – particularly if the governor was in residence in Jerusalem. All in all, it appears that the evangelist took a reliable eye-witness account of Jesus’ trial and used it creatively to illustrate important theological points.
Read: John 18:28-19:1
Purity of the Priests The trial begins at dawn, which is when the Roman workday began. The priests and the police took Jesus to Pilate, but they refused to enter the praetorium so they would not be made unclean before the festival. According to some interpretations of the law, they would have been impure for seven days after entering the home of a Gentile. As with the parable of the Good Samaritan, these religious leaders are more concerned about purity than with human suffering. Here the contrast is even more severe. The priests are handing an innocent man over to be tortured and executed, but they try to avoid being defiled. John is not condemning the religion of Judaism; this is a condemnation of every person in authority who participates in violence and oppression while claiming to be innocent. We read about such people around the world in our newspapers today. They claim seats of honor on the world stage and parrot pious platitudes while justifying abuse and murder. John’s Gospel condemns all religions, including Christianity, when concerns over purity and ritual obscure justice and truth.
Pilate and the Priests John says that Pilate went out to the priests and asked them what accusation they brought against Jesus. This does not imply that Pilate was ignorant of the arrest of Jesus, as some scholars have claimed. Pilate was simply following the rules of the law. This was a ritual similar to ones judges perform today. There had to be a formal statement of the charges. The priests assure Pilate that the prisoner is an evil-doer and criminal, but their tone is almost rude. This probably reflects the distaste the priests felt for having to work with the Romans. Pilate tells the priests to judge Jesus according to their law. Scholars debate whether this reticence on Pilate’s part was genuine or was an invention of the evangelist. This may have been part of the formal procedures whereby the imperial governor affirms the right of the subject nation to govern itself, within certain limits. Or, it could be an indication that Pilate wanted the priests to judge Jesus so he would not have to make a decision about a popular preacher.
There has been a long scholarly debate over whether John is accurate that the Sanhedrin could not put Jesus to death. Unfortunately, there is no conclusive evidence for the situation during the time of Pilate. The best evidence that John is correct is that the priests did not take Jesus out and stone him to death for the charge of blasphemy. But it is possible that they brought Jesus to Pilate as a way to avoid taking the blame for the death of the prophet from Nazareth. It is also possible that the Sanhedrin wanted to prove to Pilate that they were supportive of Roman rule by handing over a rebel. It is even possible that all of these factors played a role in the decision to hand a fellow Jew over to the Gentiles to be crucified. It was a shrewd ploy.
Are you the King? Once the initial public dialog with the accusers is completed, Pilate goes inside to question Jesus further. He cuts right to the heart of the matter and asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews. This was the formal change that Jesus would be convicted of. He was on trial for sedition, but Jesus challenges the charge by asking if he has been arrested by the Romans or the Jews. Has he done anything so bad that Pilate saw him as a threat, or was Pilate relying on the evidence of the priests? Pilate responds with contempt: “Do I look like a Jew?” It is an odd response, but the meaning is clear enough. Pilate sees this as a Jewish matter that he has been forced to deal with. He tells Jesus that his own people have handed him over. Readers of the Gospel will remember the prologue: He came to his own people, but they did not receive him.
Finally Pilate asks Jesus to tell him what he has done, but instead Jesus answers the first question. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he states. In the other gospels, Jesus is strangely silent before Pilate. It is almost like he did not understand what Pilate was asking him. It is only in John that Jesus engages Pilate in a discussion. It is possible that John was the only evangelist whose sources of information included an eye-witness account of what went on in the praetorium. Or, it is possible that the trial allowed the evangelist to construct the defense that he thought Jesus would have made. In any case, Jesus tells Pilate that he is no threat to the Roman Empire. If Jesus had been plotting to claim the throne of King David, his followers would have fought back when he was arrested. Jesus, in effect, was pointing out to Pilate how ridiculous the charges against him were. Do I look like a king? Kings have subjects, but Jesus had disciples.
Since the early days of the church, this statement in John has been used to talk about Jesus’ kingdom as a spiritual reality rather than a political reality. Martin Luther used this in developing his theory of two realms, which has had the unfortunately consequence of convincing many theologians and ordinary Christians that God is not concerned about secular affairs or the misdeeds of governments. Thus, Jesus’ prayer that God’s “kingdom come and his will be done on earth” gets distorted by using this statement that Jesus’ reign is not of this world. When interpreting this verse we should recall that John typically uses the word “world” to refer to the forces that are opposed to God. Jesus’ kingdom is not of the world because it is from above.
Just as Nicodemus had to be born from above in order to enter into eternal life; Jesus kingdom is not based on the corrupt world of politics and military might. We saw that his disciples were to be in the world, but not of the world; likewise his kingdom would not be of the world. In short, Jesus is telling Pilate that he cannot even begin to understand the nature of Jesus’ Lordship because his knowledge of power is limited to legions, tribunals, and crucifixions. Pilate understands kingship in terms of oppression, of lording it over others. Jesus’ kingdom is not like that and never will. His kingdom is not like earthly kingdoms. Those who long to create a Christian theocracy under King Jesus also misuse this verse by failing to recognize that Jesus does not rule as other kings.
Not a King? Pilate pushes further, asking, “So, you are a king?” But Jesus gives an ambiguous answer. The translators of the NIV were so dissatisfied with his answer that they added words. They have Jesus say, “you are right in saying that I am king,” but the Greek does not say that. It may mean that, but literally Jesus replies: “you say I am a king.” Jesus could have been rejecting the title of king entirely. The ambiguity in the text continues with the next sentence. Jesus says that it was for this reason that he came into the world. Some translators think this phrase belongs to what comes before; that this refers to his status as King of the Jews. But most translators think these words lead into what follows: “The reason I came into the world was to bear witness to the truth.” In other words, Jesus deflects the question of his kingship and then tells Pilate clearly why he came into the world. He is not a ruler, he is a truth-teller. He is the one who reveals the hidden mysteries of God. This is why he is hated by the world. He reveals the truth about the world and its corruptions, including the corruption of power. This interpretation of 18:37 is consistent with the rest of the Gospel, and I think it is to be preferred.
There is little evidence in the Gospel of John that Jesus claimed to be the Jewish Messiah, the king of the Jews, or the Son of David. Those titles are very important in the other gospels, particularly Matthew, but that is not how John portrays Jesus. Jesus will be crowned a king in John, but only in mockery. Here Jesus tells Pilate that those who belong to the truth listen to the voice of Jesus. He does not have subjects he lords over and sends to their deaths in battle; he has disciples who listen to the voice of the truth and respond. In effect, Jesus tells the Roman governor of Judea the parable of the Good Shepherd. At this moment in the trial, he offers Pilate the opportunity to listen to the truth and live in the truth. It is a climatic moment in the Gospel. Jesus offers the truth to a Gentile, but Pilate turns away muttering.
Truth? What is Truth? Mel Gibson used this question to create a portrait of Pilate as a philosopher-king who explores the meaning of truth with his wife and with Jesus. Gibson’s Pilate is a sympathetic figure who sincerely wants to do what is right while facing political realities. That is not John’s picture of Pilate. This question is not an opening to a deeper discussion with Jesus about the nature of truth. Pilate rejects the opening that Jesus gives him. He is not on a spiritual quest. He is of the world. Pilate is a cynic who believes that the only truth is power and the will to use it. Like all tyrants past and present, Pilate’s truth is what he declares it to be. He recognizes that Jesus is not a threat and that he may even be innocent of the charges brought against him, but he will not release him.
Pilate goes back outside where the priests are waiting for his official verdict, and he tells them that he finds no case against Jesus. This is like a judge ruling that there is no case against the accused and there is no need for further action. John, more so than the other gospels, makes it clear that Pilate knew Jesus was innocent and that he should be released, but he will not take responsibility for doing so. He decides to play a game with the priests. He wants them to ask for Jesus’ release. He says that he is willing to release Jesus as an act of mercy at Passover.
Barabbas: All of the gospels record that this was a custom at Passover. The scene is different in each of the gospels, and it is not clear if it was Pilate or the crowds that brought up this possibility. The trouble is that there is no evidence that this ever was ever a Passover custom in Jerusalem. No other source outside of the NT mentions that Pilate or any other Judean official pardoned a criminal each year at Passover. It would make sense to do this because Passover is the celebration of the release of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. It is possible that this happened; in many countries rulers engage in such a demonstration of power and mercy. Even in America, the President pardons a turkey at Thanksgiving, which is a pale echo of the right of rulers to show mercy to the condemned during a holiday. Thus, the release of a criminal at Passover is a plausible ritual, but there is no evidence to support it as a historical reality. This has led many scholars to claim that the Christians simply made it up. They have trouble explaining why they would do so or why such a fiction became a firm part of the Jesus tradition so early before the gospels were written. The truth is that we know very little about Pilate’s reign in Jerusalem and he may have introduced this custom.
Based on John’s account, it appears that Pilate wanted to use this custom as a loophole for releasing Jesus without offending the priests, but he failed. People called for the release of another person, known to tradition only as Barabbas. Barabbas is only the last part of the man’s name since Barabbas means “son of the father,” or possibly “son of our teacher.” Some scholars speculate that Jesus himself was known as Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus Son of the Father. Thus there may have been confusion over who to release. There is a report in one Jewish source that the Jews in Alexandria would dress a fool up as a king at Passover and call him Karabbas, but it is not clear what this tells us about Barabbas.
John says that Barabbas was a bandit. The word he uses means a terrorist. The other gospels expand on the Barabbas story and claim that he was murderer who participated in a recent uprising. Whoever he was, whether historical or fictional, the idea that Pilate released Barabbas who was guilty of serious crimes, but executed Jesus demonstrates just how corrupt the government had become. The church used this story to illustrate the doctrine that Jesus took the place of all sinners on the cross – even a murderer and thief. In John’s Gospel, this story illustrates the idea that the judgment of the world is flawed.
Conclusion Next week we will look at the rest of the trial before Pilate and the preparation for the crucifixion. There is merit in taking time to explore this story rather than moving quickly toward its resolution. John draws a contrast between two types of people; two types of leaders. There is Jesus who is a sojourner for truth, who invites his accusers into eternal life. And there is Pilate who has a legion at his command and the legitimacy of Roman law. He lives in the praetorium and sits on the judgment seat, but he is weak and frightened. He tries to avoid making a decision. He plays games with the priests and the crowds. In the end, he condemns a man he thinks is innocent. We see how weakness can cause someone to be immoral.