Jesus before Pilate John 18:26-19:16


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John 18:26-19:16

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John reports more of the details of the Lord’s trial before Pontius Pilate than the other three Gospel writers combined.  On the other hand, he does not give a full account of the Lord’s trial before the Jews, he simply assumes that they condemned him.

v.28     “Early morning” is a phrase that could be rendered technically to mean the last watch of the night, sometime between 3 and 6 a.m.  That is not impossible.  Roman officials often began the day very early and had completed their work by 10 or 11 a.m.  But the phrase can also be given the general sense of “early in the morning.”

Pilate usually resided and worked in Caesarea, in the palace that King Herod the Great – the king when Jesus was born – had built for himself.  But it was the policy of the Roman governors of the period to be in Jerusalem during the great feasts.  And so they led Jesus to the Praetorium, which is the word that the NIV renders as “palace of the Roman governor.”

As the Passover meal per se had been eaten the night before, the reference to Passover here is to the entire weeklong feast of Unleavened Bread, also called the Passover Feast or simply the Passover.  The Jews wanted to continue their participation in the feast.  There is, of course, high irony in all of this.  The Jews are concerned about their ceremonial purity during Passover while, at the same time, unjustly and cruelly manipulating the judicial system to secure the execution of the one who is the Passover Lamb and the fulfillment of the meaning of the Feast.

v.29     Pilate was willing to defer to Jewish religious sensibilities, especially during one of the high feasts, when it was particularly important to avoid trouble, and so comes out to them instead of requiring them to come in to him.  Pilate, is, of course, known to us as well from the materials of classical history.  Historians describe him as a weak and vacillating man who could, at the same time, be savage and merciless.  His governorship earned him the loathing of the Jewish people.

v.30     The words of the religious authorities seem too disrespectful for the situation, but, remember, almost certainly they had spoken to Pilate about the situation before this, because the detachment of Roman soldiers who had assisted in the arrest of the Lord would have had to be approved by Pilate.  Pilate seems to be opening up a new trial and they were expecting a summary judgment.

v.31     Pilate’s dismissiveness, his subjecting them to this humiliating admission, is indication enough of what attitude each had toward the other.  The Pilate that is known from the historical materials was precisely the sort of man who would enjoy making the Jews recognize his authority and grovel before him.  He knew what they wanted, but they were going to have to jump through his hoops to get it.

v.32     Out of all this personal spite and ill-will, jealousy and arrogance, will come the very kind of death – a crucifixion – such as had been prophesied and was most fitting for the Savior of the world, who was to bear the curse in the place of his people.  The Lord had spoken of his being “lifted up from the earth” as his manner of death in John 12:32-33.

v.33     This is, of course, the charge that the religious authorities had brought, because that would be interesting and important to Pilate.  A king suggests an authority other than that of Rome.  Pilate would have been completely uninterested in their religious controversies.

v.35     Pilate’s response is contemptuous.  He hardly cares about Jewish disputes; but, at the same time, the last sentence suggests that he didn’t really believe the Sanhedrin’s charge either.  He wonders what Jesus did to make them so determined to eliminate him.  Other Gospel writers make it clear that he fully understood that the religious authorities were motivated by jealously.

v.36     Jesus acknowledges that he is a king, but of another kind with another kind of kingdom.

v.37     For Christ, to be a king and to witness to the truth amount to one and the same thing.  His is a kingdom of truth, quite unlike the kingdom of lies that both the Jews and the Romans have created for themselves.  For Christ, revealing the truth was the way in which he made subjects and built his kingdom.  The verse ends with an implicit invitation for Pilate to hear the truth and become a follower of Jesus himself.  But Pilate is now uncomfortable, curtly ends the discussion, and returns to the religious authorities waiting outside.

v.38     Pilate’s declaration that he could find no basis for a charge against Jesus indicates that he understood the Lord’s answer at least to the extent that he could tell that Jesus was posing no danger to Roman authority in Judea.  But, the fact that he made such a pronouncement and then proceeded to execute Jesus will forever be the proof of Pilate’s guilt.  The way he frames his question – “Do you want me to release the king of the Jews?” – indicates that he was still determined to make the religious leaders squirm.

v.40     The irony mounts.  The crowds, spurred on by the religious leadership, asks for the release of a real political terrorist and danger to the peace, while posing as if they care to protect Rome from political uprising in the case of Jesus, whom everyone knows is innocent.

v.3       It shocks us that a judge should punish a man he has declared to be innocent, but not only were such things done in Roman law, it appears that this was, in fact, an attempt on Pilate’s part to set Jesus free.  He thought the flogging would satisfy their lust to see Jesus punished and, perhaps, illicit a little sympathy for him from the crowd.  [Carson, 596]

v.6       This is not an actual offer from Pilate, but a taunt, and the reply the Jews make proves that they knew he wasn’t really offering them the right to execute Jesus.

v.7       As their strategy to depict Jesus as a political pretender and so danger to Roman authority in Judea seems to be getting nowhere, the Jews reveal the true basis of their animus toward Jesus.  It is clear, at any rate, that the Jews had grasped something of the nature of the claim that Jesus was making – a claim of some equality with God.

v.8       Pilate hasn’t seemed afraid to this point.  But the notion that Jesus was the Son of God unsettled Pilate.  He had been in the man’s presence, had perhaps had some vague sense of the majesty of his person, but had had him flogged.  He wondered what he was getting himself into.

v.9       Pilate had no real interest in getting to the truth, so Jesus did not accommodate him in his question.

v.11     That Jesus is under Pilate’s power is the result of the divine will.  But that does not excuse the ones who have put him there by their own malice and deceit.  It is not entirely clear whether “the one who handed me over to you” is a reference to Judas or to Caiaphas.

v.12     The fact is, Tiberius Caesar was known to be the sort of ruler who easily suspected the loyalty of his subordinates and could be brutal in exacting punishment.  The Jews had, once before this, communicated their displeasure with Pilate to the Imperial authorities and Pilate had no reason to think they wouldn’t do the same again.  Influences as far away as Rome itself are bearing down on Jesus and ensuring his death.  And finally, humanly speaking, Jesus was executed because the Roman governor didn’t want to risk the displeasure of his higher-ups.  How many times have crimes been committed for that reason!

v.14     The Day of Preparation is Friday.  It means the day of preparation for the Sabbath.  In this case it was the Friday of Passover week.  You will see this point made again in v. 31. Still today in Greece the name for Friday is this same word “Preparation.”

Perhaps, in resentment, because the Jews have laid a trap for him that he knows he cannot escape, he digs the knife in once more, “Here is your king.”  Of course, Jesus is standing there bloodied and beaten and helpless.  The irony is thick.  Pilate is in fact speaking the truth.  This is the King of the Jews.

v.15     The crowd is enraged by Pilate’s taunt but he gives them more of the same, leading the priests to utter their own blasphemy.

v.16     He didn’t literally hand Jesus over to the Jews.  It would be Roman soldiers who actually crucified him.  But, as Luke puts it (23:24), Pilate handed Jesus over “to their will.”

What we have here is a flagrant lack of integrity all around and the Lord Jesus being caught up in a maelstrom of petty, wicked, selfish emotion.  When Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” he knew full well that he had nothing to fear from Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus had been a public figure for nearly three years.    If he had really constituted some threat to the state, if he had been prevailing upon the Jews to withhold their taxes from Rome, if he had been fomenting rebellion among the young men of the country, Pilate would have heard about that long before this.  Indeed, it is not at all unlikely that Pilate had heard that very morning from the officer who commanded the detachment of soldiers sent to arrest Jesus how quietly Jesus came with them and how he had prevented his followers from resistance; perhaps, even, how he had restored the ear of Malchus after one of his disciples had cut it off.  Pilate knew very well that the Roman state had nothing to fear from Jesus.  But Pilate was a man who had no compunction about sacrificing an innocent man to protect his own situation from even the hint of danger.  Jesus died because Pilate did not want to risk trouble by acquitting a man he knew was innocent but whom the Jewish people wanted dead.

The Jews likewise were willing to sell their souls to secure the execution of Jesus of Nazareth.  They were willing to lie, and they did; they were willing to blaspheme, and they did; they were willing to sell out to the Romans, and they did.  And so was the Prince of Life ground up in the machinery of human spite and pride and cowardice and self-love.

And over against all of this stood the Lord Jesus, the king of Truth.  That is what he claimed, that his was the kingdom of the truth.  A very different kingdom than that in which all of these people lived.  It would have been so easy for Jesus to bring these proceedings against him to a shuddering stop, to exercise his authority over Pilate.  Even as a man, had he wished, he could have spoken to Pilate in such as way as to persuade the governor that the one thing he could not do was to deliver Jesus over to the Jews.  But Jesus spoke very little.  He said enough to render Pilate entirely blameworthy for his cowardly acquiescence to the demand of the people that Jesus be crucified.  But he made no effort to save himself.  He had come to die and die he would, for reasons none of these people understood at all.  To the ancient near eastern mind, to the Roman mind, the king was a despot.  The king was the one who was served, whom everyone served.  But  here was a king who had come not to be served, but to serve others and to give his life a ransom for many.

Everyone on the side of truth he said, would listen to Jesus and follow him.  Pilate had no idea the significance of what Jesus said to him there in the Praetorium.  He had no idea that the truth of which Jesus spoke would soon be published to the whole world and that vast multitudes of people should follow the very man he put to death.  He would have thought utterly ridiculous the very idea that Roman emperors would some day be declaring their allegiance to this same Jesus of Nazareth, would be paying to build churches for his worship out of the imperial treasury, would be calling synods to settle questions concerning the best way to think of Godhead and manhood together in the one person, Jesus Christ.

And the religious leaders and the crowds would certainly never have admitted to themselves that they had sold their souls for an out and out lie, that they had betrayed everything they held sacred to exact their vengeance on Jesus of Nazareth because he hadn’t told them what they wanted to hear and done for them what they wanted him to do.

Arthur Schlesinger, speaking at Brown University in 1989, cited Huck Finn and its account at the end of Tom tearing up the letter incriminating Huck; where Tom says, “So I’ll go to hell…”;  “That,” said Schlesinger, “is what America is all about.”  He meant that our society is now living an experiment in open rebellion against the Christian God, has thrown off his authority in pursuit of what God would not permit us. It is daring God to punish us if he will.  Let God do his worst, says our society, we will have what we want.  No one puts it that way, of course, but, says Schlesinger, that is the real effect of what this society says and does.  We will have what we want.  We don’t care about truth or God or the judgment day.  We claim to care about such things, just as the Jews did in Jesus’ day, just as Pilate did in his own way, when he washed his hands before the people so as to absolve himself of any guilt in the proceedings.  But our actions speak louder than our words.  “So, we’ll go to hell…”  Schlesinger himself, of course, salutes this defiant American spirit.  But, of course he has no fear of God’s judgment either.  In the back of America’s mind there is an unspoken assumption, an assurance really, that either there is no hell, no price to pay for our living in open defiance of God’s commandments, or God will, at the last, forgive us anyway.  “C’est son metier.  That is his job.”  But, in any case, we will have what we want, the truth be damned.

For, you see, what happened to Jesus Christ that day long ago, the unjust judgment rendered against him, the false accusations, did not cease when he was crucified.  He has been judged falsely ever since.  He has been condemned by generation after generation of men and women and for the very same reasons he was condemned on that long ago Friday.  What we see in our text is men acting as men still act, rejecting Jesus Christ for precisely those same reasons that men reject him today.  We will never appreciate this account of the Lord’s mockery of a trial if we cannot see first ourselves and then our neighbors in Pilate and in the crowds.  Why do people reject Jesus Christ today?  Why do they refuse to acknowledge him as the King of Truth?  For the very same reasons that animated these people on that fateful Friday long ago.

I have just completed a fascinating book by Bruce Lockerbie, entitled Dismissing God: Modern Writers’ Struggle Against Religion.  It is an account of modern unbelief as expressed and as fostered by some of the lions of Western literature from the early 19th century onwards to our own day.  Lockerbie considers, among others, Matthew Arnold and Emily Dickinson; Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain; Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, and D.H. Lawrence; F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.  All of these writers were exposed to Christian influences, most of them to evangelical Christian faith when they were young.   I had forgotten, if I ever knew, that Emily Dickinson had strong evangelical conviction in her family, her father, her brother and her sister all being converted in their adulthood; Stephen Crane was the son of a devout Methodist minister; that Thomas Hardy lived for a time in his young adulthood as a devout Anglican; or that Ernest Hemingway had a devout evangelical mother.

All of them rejected Christianity, of course, which is to say, they rejected Jesus Christ and made a great point of their rejection.  Some of them seemed to be preoccupied in their writing with their condemnation of Christian belief.

Lockerbie does a magnificent job of illustrating the price that was paid by these brilliant people for the rejection of the truth and the destructive, cruel, and foolish consequences that ensued in their own lives, and the emptiness of the philosophy of life they taught in their works.  But, I found more interesting his account of the reasons why they rejected Christ and Christianity, at least of the biblical type.  They were the very same reasons he was rejected, falsely judged and condemned those long ages ago in the Praetorium of Pontius Pilate.  What were those reasons?

  1. He did not give them what they wanted. Mark Twain, for example, became embittered against God and Christ when his favorite daughter died – though, to be sure, that only completed a process begun before.  Somerset Maugham gave up Christ because God didn’t take away his stutter as a young man.  Just as these Jews gave up Christ because he did not take away their afflictions – especially their subjection to Rome.  He was not the king they wanted him to be and did not bring the kingdom they wanted him to bring.  They wanted certain favors and he did not provide them.  Off with his head!  He had seemed to promise everything, so they thought, but then he disappointed their hopes.  They felt he had betrayed them!
  2. Second, he did not allow them to do what they wanted to do. Jesus himself explained that the people hated him because he told them that what they were doing and how they were living was evil.  They never forgave him for that!  He condemned the hypocrisy of the religious leadership and accused them of a fundamental betrayal of the covenant that God had made with his people, and they never forgave him for that.  They did not cease to be religious, of course.  They were very religious.  But they wouldn’t receive the Messiah that had been sent to them, miracles or no, because he forbade them some of their favorite pleasures and had the temerity to make them feel guilty about their lives.  And so it was with James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald and with D.H. Lawrence.  This is a large part of the reason why sexual misbehavior plays such a large part in modern literature and, for that matter in modern society in general.  As one scholar put it, “modernity [is] rationalized sexual misbehavior.”  That is, the modern world pivots on the attempt to justify overturning Christian sexual norms.   As he puts it:

“All the intellectual and cultural breakthroughs of modernity were in some way or other linked to the sexual desires their progenitors knew to be illicit but which they chose nonetheless.  Their theories were ultimately rationalizations of the choices they knew to be wrong.”  [E. Michael Jones, Degenerate Moderns, in Lockerbie, 177.]

Yesterday’s newspaper treated us to the reports that the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly has now acted to overturn the ban enacted a few years ago on practicing homosexual clergy and the United Methodist Church Northwest Conference was treated to a minister member declaring his practice of homosexuality as its recent meeting.  Now, these people would not say that they rejected Jesus, of course; just as the Jews on that Friday would never have said they rejected the Messiah.  But, they have and they did precisely for the same reason:  he would not allow them what they wished to do and he condemned them for what he insisted were their sins, pure and simple.

  1. And, then, there was the cowardice. I suspect that many people have had, like Pontius Pilate, a shudder pass through them at the thought that Jesus really is the Son of God and that they really do need his salvation.  But they could not bring themselves publicly to join with him for fear of the reproach of their peers or their superiors.  One remarkable feature of Lockerbie’s book is the uniform witness it makes to the darkness, often nearly the despair that marked the thought of these men and women who had rejected Christ, too clever by far to accept the mindless superficiality that permits many ordinary folk somehow to imagine that we can lose God and Christ and still retain real meaning in life or real hope for the future.  But, “to go back to God and Christ…what would the world say and what would they think of me?”  Ah, how many times has Christ been condemned for the same fear of men that led Pontius Pilate to put him to death when he knew full well he was an innocent man.

Oh, no, my friends, the account of the Lord’s mockery of a trial is not merely history.  It is that, to be sure.  But it is also meta-history.  It is a picture of how men and women always judge the Lord Jesus and always reject him and for what reasons they reject him.  And so would you and I have done had it not been for the grace of God.

O break, O break, hard heart of mine!

Thy weak self-love and guilty pride

His Pilate and His Judas were:

Ah, but what became of Pilate?  No one knows for sure, of course.  The general opinion is that he died much the same man he had always been.  But it is at least possible that it were not so.  It is possible, surely it is possible, that if in my case and your case our judgment and rejection of Christ was overturned by the grace of God, and if we were made to see and to confess that although Christ was unjustly condemned and crucified, his death was absolutely necessary as the only conceivable payment for my sins and for yours, then, surely it is possible that by God’s grace Pilate came to see and believe the same.  Some of the priests who lusted for Christ’s death that Friday later became his followers.  We know that from the Book of Acts.  What a book could be written, if only we had the information, of the lives of those who had participated in the execution of the Prince of Life but who later came to trust him for their salvation and love him for having overcome their terrible sins against him.  Would Pilate be in that book?  No one knows.  But Jesus prayed on the cross, remember, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  And, then, when the Spirit came upon the church the stupendous message of Christ’s saving death and resurrection was spread throughout the world and people far and wide came to be Christ’s followers.  Was Pilate among them?  That he might have been; that it was certainly possible that even the sin that Pilate committed, and that the Jews committed, could be covered by Christ’s death and forgiven in Christ’s love, is the most important truth in all the world, the most important truth to know, to believe, and to live by.  That same sin, those same lies, were in every Christian heart before the grace of God came to it, so why not to their hearts as well?  Great sins, terrible evils indeed.  But a greater love and a more powerful grace in the Savior who could have saved himself but gave himself up to mockery, torture, and the cruelest death, that we might have life forever.

O love of God!  O sin of man!

In this dread act your strength is tried,

And victory remains with love: