John (Part 66): Jesus Before Pilate (ch 18)
John’s point is not merely to recount the events of the night. The Synoptics had been around for years by the time John wrote his Gospel. People knew the events. John is interested in making certain points as he writes. Therefore certain events such as Jesus’s trial before Caiaphas and Pilate sending Jesus to Herod are simply left out—not because John forgot about those events but rather because they don’t further the point he wants to emphasize. Therefore, when John does spend time in explaining and arranging his material, we should take careful note to understand the point he is making.
We find symbolism in that which John tells us. When Peter draws his sword in the Garden, it was at the pregnant moment of God’s overwhelming revelation that had knocked the arresting party off their feet. Jesus had asked them again—there sprawled on the ground in revelatory wonder—who exactly they were looking for. But drawing his sword Peter ends their contemplation and consideration. He turns their minds back to their supposed duty as he cuts the ear off Malchus both literally and symbolically. Symbolically, their listening—their hearing of the revelation—was over.
There is importance also in the interspersing of scenes as we move from Annas’s courtyard to the questioning inside. Verse 19 tells us that Annas questioned Jesus “about His disciples and about His teaching.” As the chief priest asks Jesus about his disciples, in the courtyard they ask his disciple about relationship with Jesus. And in this interspersion of questioning we find Jesus to stand alone. Annas had asked about his teaching. Jesus answered that he should go ask those he taught—his disciples. But in asking Peter (representative here of the disciples) about Jesus, Peter denies Jesus, leaving Jesus to stand alone. Jesus had spoken truth, but his disciples refused to stand with him for that truth. Peter’s denial failed the counsel Jesus had just given a few hours earlier in 13:34-35 and 17:20.
When Jesus answered, one of the guards struck him. Jesus asks in reply for some legal/biblical reason for striking him. And it is there that John cuts the scene off, implying by his abruptness that no answer could be given. Jesus had spoken truth, and the Jews could not find fault.
Jesus is then sent to Caiaphas (probably in the temple), but the scene again concentrates on Peter waiting outside. Just as before (v18) Peter now in v25 stands “warming himself.” The repetition of Peter “warming himself” is an emphasis that Peter was not thinking of others as Jesus had urged them in the last five chapters. Rather, he was warming himself—he was concerned with self.
Jesus is then led to Pilate. The lack of accusation from the trial before Caiaphas again suggests that no fault could be found in Jesus. Yet they continue to lead him to the cross.
Pilate was a mediocre governor who didn’t much like the Jews and their power-hungry, honor-hungry, religion-laden leaders. But even though he didn’t like them, he had to balance that dislike with his concern for Rome’s evaluation of him. A prefect like Pilate had two duties: oversee the collection of taxes and maintain the peace and stability of the region. The Sanhedrists didn’t like Pilate either, or anybody from Rome for that matter. But they would use Pilate if it served their purpose. And it is in this scene that we see the Jews using Rome for their purpose with Jesus.
The Jews wanted Jesus dead. A minor problem was that they were told by Rome that they could not put people to death. It was a minor problem because, although that requirement was ostensibly in place, the Jews regularly ignored it. We know from historians that others were put to death by the Jews alone before Christ. And we know from Acts that Stephen was put to death without permission of Rome after Christ. But this time, they went to get Pilate to do the work. Why?
Jesus had claimed to be Messiah. In the peoples’ minds, the Messiah was supposed to be someone who would overthrow the oppressive government of Rome—who would rid their nation of bondage and exalt them to leadership in the world. Jesus had many people who followed him. So the Jewish leaders (probably dreamed up by Annas and Caiaphas) thought it would be perfect to showcase that Jesus could not possibly be the Messiah by having Rome—the empire the Messiah was to conquer—showing its power over Jesus by executing him. That, they may have thought, would surely end any belief that Jesus could be the Messiah.
So the Jews bring Jesus to Pilate, hand him over to the Roman guard, but wait outside Pilate’s judgment hall because to enter a Gentile place would make them technically and temporarily unclean. They didn’t want to become unclean on this day because the Passover meal would be eaten that evening. There is great irony here that John intends to point out. They bring God’s holy Messiah to the Romans, urging his death, while thinking they want to maintain a purity before God by not entering the building. Blindness with regard to truth is written all over this scene.
Pilate comes out to them to ask the charge. First thing to notice is that because they waited outside, we have the same sort of scene shifting that we saw earlier in the questioning of Jesus by Annas and the questioning of Peter by the servants. Now we have the questioning of Jesus contrasted with the questioning of the Jewish leaders. In both cases we Jesus spoke truth while Peter and then the Jewish leaders fail.
In reply to Pilate’s question about the charge, the Sanhedrists reply in verse 30 that if he weren’t guilty they wouldn’t have brought him. Why don’t they answer Pilate with the charge? Remember what’s going on. Pilate doesn’t like the Jews. The Jews don’t like Pilate. The Jews simply wanted to use Pilate. Pilate thought they had brought someone accused of something for him to judge. But that’s not what the Jews were doing. They were bringing someone they had already pronounced guilt for Pilate to execute. They were affronted when Pilate asked for the accusation. It was as if they replied, “You don’t need to know the accusation. You don’t need to try this case. We have found him guilty already. If this man weren’t a criminal, we wouldn’t have handed him over to you.” Upon hearing this, Pilate sneers back, “Take him yourself and judge him according to your law.” In other words, Pilate isn’t interested in trying to sort through their law just because they want his stamp of approval.
So then the Jews feel compelled to bring out more information. From the other Gospels, we learn that they accuse Jesus of subverting the nation by opposing taxes and claiming to be a king. In other words, they accuse Jesus of opposing the two duties assigned to Pilate—collecting taxes and maintaining the peace for the sake of Rome.
But surely this made Pilate suspicious. These Jews are pretending sympathy with Roman causes to have one of their own countrymen killed. Why? Perhaps Pilate thought this was some trick aimed at him. Whatever the case, Pilate decides to question Jesus further.