John 18.28-40 — Trial before Pilate

There’s irony here. In one of the most magnificent and opulent places in all of Israel is taking place one of the dirtiest deeds imaginable. The text specifically mentions how concerned the religious leaders were with ceremonial uncleanliness, but none of them seem to mind the moral mess they are making. Oh, they wanted to make sure their hands were clean while they murder an innocent man.

The Jewish leaders are involved in a grand and deceitful scheme. Initially they bring Jesus to Pilate as a common criminal. Only later, when it appears that Pilate is going to set him free for lack of evidence, do they “come clean” with the real reason: “He needs to die because he claims to be deity” (19.7).

It’s best to understand from the outset what he is on trial for. Before the Sanhedrin the accusation was “blasphemy” (he claimed to be God), and before Pilate the question is “Are you the king of the Jews?” (18.33). This is the vital problem, and all four gospels have Pilate asking this question. The Jews have sent him to Pilate with this accusation (or else Pilate would not have accepted the case). The specific wording would be an accusation of treason against the emperor.

Jesus is fully aware that “king of the Jews” is capable of more than one definition, so he is tactful with his answer: “Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?” He is not admitting either to the affirmative or negative, but is actually putting the question back on his inquisitor. In other words, as with Annas, Pilate is now on trial, not Jesus. Jesus is “asking” Pilate to define the sense in which he is and is not a king.

Several points interest me. First, if there was ever a misunderstanding to straighten out, this would be it. A quick way to end the trial and torture to follow would be to renege and say, “Listen, boys, I’m sorry you misunderstood. I never claimed to be God. Somewhere there must have been a miscommunication.” Obviously Jesus let the accusation stand as accurate.

Secondly, it’s intriguing how much of a threat to the system this simple man and his message were. Both the Jews and the Romans were defending themselves against what they perceived to be a serious threat. Since Jesus was not indicating the real possibility of armed and violent revolt, the message of his words must have seemed to them of intense political and religious relevance. Is it just possible that they could sense in his presence an earth-shaking, culture shattering, life-changing substance? Amazing.

What is more threatening to a ruler—an enemy with powerful armies, or an eternal king who rules the souls of men? The one can command behavior, but the eternal kind can command will and affections, demand absolute obedience, impart unlimited power, and radically change their lives. When Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world,” he was speaking of an authority far above anything Pilate could muster. Jesus caps it off with, “But I’m not here for military or political rule, but to testify to the truth.”

Pilate asks his famous question: “What is truth?” He doesn’t really want an answer, because he leaves without waiting for one. He’s a just a cynical old politician already tired of this case.

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