John (Part 67): Jesus Still Before Pilate (ch 18)
The Jews had accused Jesus of calling himself a king (Luke 23:2). Pilate, intent on judging the matter for himself, asked Jesus if he was the king of the Jews. Rather than answering him directly, Jesus asks whether Pilate is asking for himself or because someone else has said so. This sort of stunned Pilate.
Jesus meant in his question whether Pilate was really interested in what that title meant or was he just repeating the charge of the Jews. Pilate, not really interested in Jewish affairs, almost angrily asked back, “Am I a Jew?” meaning that he had no interest in Jewish affairs and therefore what that meant. “Of course,” he was effectively saying, “this is the accusation brought to me from your own people.”
Jesus asked his question not because he was curious. He knew the answer. Pilate was going through the motions of a treason trial. If Jesus had simply answered yes, Pilate would have found fault in him for treason against Rome, and the execution would have taken place based on the guilty verdict of treason. But Jesus wasn’t guilty of any wrong. And so he asked his question to shake Pilate into thinking about the charge. Jesus effectively told Pilate that this was merely the accusation of the people. When Pilate reaffirmed this in verse 35, he probably started to wonder more deeply, “Why are the Jewish leaders—people who are opposed to Rome—trying to put to death someone who is also opposed to Rome?” Jesus then replied that his kingdom was not of this world. What he was saying (and what Pilate understood) was that Jesus was no political threat to Rome. Jesus had a kingdom constructed on spiritual matters.
Pilate understood from Jesus’s response that he did consider himself a king, albeit not one to threaten Roman rule. Jesus affirmed this and added that his followers were those who sought truth. Of course, Jesus meant that his followers were those who recognized that truth, goodness, and beauty came from God alone. The fall and all the sinful world since the fall sought to find truth, goodness, and beauty in themselves—in humanity. But Jesus told Pilate that truth was found through him as he led people to God.
Pilate understood that Jesus was no threat, but he was still confused about truth. Pilate’s rhetorical question, “What is truth?” was meant actually as a counter to Jesus’s claim to have truth. Pilate was making the point that truth depended on the handling of problems such as the Jews that he went out to deal with at that time.
In verse 38 we read that Pilate told the Jews he found no fault in Jesus. A considerable amount of time transpires between verses 38 and 39. From the other Gospels we find that Pilate, surprised and frustrated by the Jews who continue to insist on crucifixion, learns that Jesus is from Galilee. Since Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and Perea is in town, Pilate sends Jesus to him. Herod sees in Jesus exactly what Pilate had seen in Jesus—someone who was no threat to anybody. Herod mocked the fact that anyone would actually consider Jesus a real king, and he sent Jesus back to Pilate.
It is then that Pilate decided on another plan. He resurrected an outdated custom that there would be a prisoner release on this Jewish holiday—Passover. Pilate saw this as an opportunity to release Jesus because surely he thought the Jews would not want Barabbas released. Barabbas was a zealot—an insurrectionist. Although zealots did want Israel freed from Rome, they had little patience with Jews who did not see things exactly as they did. Therefore, zealots would kill and plunder their own people to finance and further their cause. Pilate is very confident that the Jewish leaders would never want such a murderous evil doer released. But to his surprise they shouted to release Barabbas and have Jesus executed.
And so Pilate tried again. He had Jesus beaten. The lashes left his back in shreds. Pilate had a purple robe and crown of thorns placed on him. What Pilate hoped was that the Jews would be satisfied once they saw the beaten body of Jesus. They would, Pilate was sure, see that Jesus could not really be a threat to Rome as a king. He was broken and frail and brutalized and mocked. Pilate called out, “Here is the man!” in verse 5, begging the Jews to look at him, believing would look would have them back down in sympathy. But the Jews cried all the more to crucify Jesus.
Exasperated, Pilate told the Jews to take Jesus and execute him themselves. He would look the other way. But that’s not what the Jews wanted. They wanted Rome to execute Jesus to prove to the people Jesus was ineffectual, not the Messiah, and that they should have listened to the Sanhedrists all along. Therefore, they told Pilate that he committed a capital offense in claiming he was a god—something that was surely insurrection in Rome’s eyes.
Pilate was superstitious. His wife had been warned in a dream that they should have nothing to do with Jesus. Pilate had heard Jesus say that his kingdom was other worldly. Pilate, therefore, became fearful. What if Jesus did have some connection to the gods? Pilate called for Jesus again and asked him, “Where are you from?” (19:9). Of course, Pilate had already heard that Jesus was from Galilee. So his question was not one of physical locality. Pilate wanted to know if he was, in fact, from the gods.
Jesus didn’t respond. Perhaps Jesus didn’t answer because the Holy Spirit, not wanting to delay the execution, did not lead him to respond. But it also must be considered that the message that he was from God was still a message meant for the Jews alone. His mission was to Israel as fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant promises. And so, he remained silent.