This week two separate events converged in such a way as to put our text into perspective. On Thursday evening I happened upon the ABC network television program, 20/20, titled “Judgment at Midnight.”155 It was about the execution of two-time convicted murderer, Antonio James, at the Angola State Prison in Louisiana. Antonio James was convicted for two separate murders. Mr. James admitted that twice he had participated in a robbery which resulted in the death of the victim. He had a different partner for each of the two robberies. He claims that in both robberies, it was his partner who pulled the trigger while the victim pled for mercy. Both partners offered to testify against Mr. James, in exchange for greatly reduced punishment.
I was most interested in those whose lives intersected that of Antonio James, even if only for a few hours. For example, the warden of the Angola State Prison, Burl Cain, was certainly an exceptional individual. Burl Cain had developed a unique relationship with Antonio James over the years that Mr. James was on death row. Before the execution, ABC reporter Cynthia McFadden asked Warden Cain, “If Antonio asks you to hold his hand [during the execution], would you?” Warden Cain responded,
“The victims are going to say, ‘I wish someone had held my daughter’s hand while somebody was … killing her.’ And I’m going to say, ‘If I had been there with your daughter and I was in a position where I could have done that, I would have held your daughter’s hand.’ … But since I couldn’t be there, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do what I should do while I’m here with him. The answer then has to be, ‘Yes, I’d hold his hand.’”
And so he did. Afterwards, Burl Cain described the execution:
“Well, he was laying there, and then he kind of grabbed my hand, so I held his hand, and then I told him, ‘He’s waiting for us. Get ready, we’re going for the ride.’ And I said, ‘The angels are here.’ He kind of smiled, and he said, ‘Bless you.’ That’s the last words he said. And then I nodded my head to go ahead. He was holding my hand real tight. And then after a couple of minutes, he took about three or four deep breaths, and then he relaxed my hand. I do believe right now his soul is in heaven, and he’s OK. And since I believe that, then that makes it easier.”
Outside the prison, a couple was waiting to hear the news that Antonio James was dead. Sixteen years earlier, their daughter had been brutally murdered. They were not there this night because Antonio James had killed their daughter. For the past 16 years, they held their own vigil, supporting every execution at this prison. For these individuals and those whose family members were killed by Antonio James (or his partners in crime), there was a sense of having seen justice meted out.
In addition to the warden and to those who were eagerly awaiting news that the execution had been carried out, there was the family of Antonio James. Earlier, they wept as they said their final farewells inside the prison. Now they wept when they learned that every last minute appeal had been turned down, and that the execution was taking place. Antonio James Jr. was convinced of his father’s innocence. When asked how he felt, he said, “That’s my father! How do you think I feel? … [He’s] about to be killed for something he hasn’t done!” Antonio’s emotions undoubtedly reflect the way the women who stood by the cross of our Lord felt, as they saw One they knew to be innocent put to death.
Also this week, I read a very different interpretation of John’s account of the trial of our Lord before Pilate. This account was written by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. His book is entitled, Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History.156 As I cite his words below, I would remind you that I do not agree with his conclusions. I include them so that you will see how some in Judaism view the words of the Gospel writers, like John. Again I would caution you that these are not the words of a Christian, committed to the inerrancy of the Word of God:
Concerning Jesus’ executioner, Pontius Pilate, we have a considerable body of data that contradicts the largely sympathetic portrayal of him in the New Testament. Even among the long line of cruel procurators who ruled Judea, Pilate stood out as a notoriously vicious man. He eventually was replaced after murdering a group of Samaritans: The Romans realized that keeping him in power would only provoke continual rebellions. The gentle, kind-hearted Pilate of the New Testament—who in his ‘heart of hearts’ really did not want to harm Jesus—is fictional. Like most fictions, the story was created with a purpose. When the New Testament was written, Christianity was banned by Roman law. The Romans, well aware that they had executed Christianity’s founder—indeed the reference to Jesus’ crucifixion by the Roman historian Tacitus is among the earliest allusions to him outside the New Testament—had no reason to rescind their anti-Christian legislation. Christianity’s only hope for gaining legitimacy was to ‘prove’ to Rome that its crucifixion of Jesus had been a terrible error, and had only come about because the Jews forced Pilate to do it. Thus, the New Testament depicts Pilate as wishing to spare Jesus from punishment, only to be stymied by a large Jewish mob yelling, ‘Crucify him.’ The account ignores one simple fact. Pilate’s power in Judea was absolute.157 Had he wanted to absolve Jesus, he would have done so: He certainly would not have allowed a mob of Jews, whom he detested, to force him into killing someone whom he admired.158
While I strongly differ with Rabbi Telushkin in most of his conclusions, I did find a couple of his other statements most interesting and informative:
Crucifixion itself, a Roman form of execution, was forbidden by Jewish law because it was torture. Some 50,000 to 100,000 Jews were themselves crucified by the Romans in the first century. How ironic, therefore, that Jews have historically been associated with the cross as the ones who brought about Jesus’ crucifixion (see Christ-killer).159
My understanding of Jesus has been largely shaped by Hyam Maccoby, Revolution in Judaea.160
Most statements attributed to Jesus in the New Testament conform to Jewish teachings. This is, of course, not surprising, since Jesus generally practiced *Pharisaic (rabbinic) Judaism. However, at least three innovative teachings ascribed to Jesus diametrically oppose Jewish teachings.
1. Jesus forgives all sins …
2. Jesus’ attitude toward evil people: …
3. Jesus’ claim that people can come to God only through him: …161
I could not help but see a relationship between Pilate according to John, Pilate according to Rabbi Telushkin, and Burl Cain at the Angola State Prison. Rabbi Telushkin wants us to view Pilate as a cruel and heartless Roman governor, who due to his own hatred and political ambitions, put Jesus to death. By his version, the Jewish religious leaders hardly played a role in the death of Christ. To Telushkin, John’s Gospel is a myth, fabricated to make the Jews look bad, and the Roman governor look good, with the hope of shaming Rome into protecting Christianity. Telushkin views John’s description of Pilate as making this cruel and vindictive governor appear to be as kind and merciful toward Jesus as Burl Cain was toward Antonio James. The fact is that John does no such thing. John’s account of the trial and crucifixion of our Lord depicts the sin and guilt of Pilate, the Roman soldiers, the Jews, and even (to some degree) the disciples—especially Peter. The purpose of this lesson is to consider the condemnation of Jesus as John portrays it, so that we see the guilt of Jews and Gentiles alike. No one but our Lord comes out of this looking good.162
28 Then they brought Jesus from Caiaphas to the Roman governor’s residence. (Now it was very early morning.) They did not go into the governor’s residence so they would not be ceremonially defiled, but could eat the Passover meal. 29 So Pilate came outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” 30 They replied, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” 31 Pilate told them, “Take him yourselves and pass judgment on him according to your own law!” The Jewish religious leaders replied, “We cannot legally put anyone to death.” 32 This happened to fulfill the word Jesus spoke indicating what kind of death he was going to die.
The Jewish religious leaders brought Jesus to Pilate’s residence, rudely summoned the governor at a most uncivilized hour, and then refused to enter his residence, lest they defile themselves! This forced Pilate to come out to them. This is hardly the way for a subject people to treat their Roman governor. Pilate asks the Jews to state their formal charges against Jesus, and they have no direct answer, only the evasion, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” This is the equivalent to, “Don’t ask questions, just trust us.”
I find it very difficult to believe that Pilate is as ignorant and uninformed about Jesus as he lets on to these Jews. I believe there must have been the equivalent of what I would call “the Jesus file” in Pilate’s possession. Think about it for a minute. Today, the CIA, the FBI, and who knows how many other federal agencies make it their business to keep track of any person or group that seeks the overthrow of our government. The identity and activities of every known enemy, as well as all those even suspected, are closely monitored, and all of this information is kept on file. So each possible enemy of the state would have his or her own file, containing all kinds of information concerning their statements and their activities.
Do you think it reasonable that Rome would not have kept a “file” on Jesus in that day? It may not have been a file, as such, but I am virtually certain that Pilate kept track of anyone who was popular and had a following among the Jews. Such people had the potential of leading the Jews in rebellion against Rome. Every time Jesus made an appearance in Jerusalem, there was some kind of commotion or disturbance. Surely Pilate was aware of this and kept track of Jesus’ activities. When the Jews brought Jesus before Pilate, it is difficult to believe that He was unknown to the governor, at least by reputation. Pilate no doubt knew what Jesus had claimed, and how the Jewish leaders reacted to Him and His teaching.163 But Pilate is initially playing out this trial “by the book,” and so he insists that they declare formal charges against Jesus.
When they fail to come up with a suitable charge against Jesus, Pilate instructs them to handle this matter themselves, according to their law. Why are they troubling him with such matters? They could handle the problem, except for the fact that they have already decided upon the penalty. Those who could not articulate the crime had already determined the punishment. They were forced to admit it—the reason they brought Jesus to Pilate was because they wanted Him put to death, and according to Roman law, the Jews could not execute anyone. Only Rome could do this, and that is what they are asking Pilate to do, even without a formal charge.
Unwittingly, the Jews were fulfilling prophecy: “This happened to fulfill the word Jesus spoke indicating what kind of death he was going to die” (verse 32). Old Testament prophecies (such as Psalm 22, for example) had hinted that the Messiah would die by crucifixion. Stoning was the penalty the Old Testament law prescribed for blasphemy, but Jesus Himself had indicated that He would die by being “lifted up” (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32). From eternity past, it had been determined that Jesus would die by crucifixion. Though the Jews often tried to stone Jesus, this was not the way He must die. And so the words of the Jews to Pilate, indicating that Jesus must die, and that they could not execute Him, meant that Jesus must die the “Roman way,” by crucifixion, and not by the “Jewish way” of stoning.
33 So Pilate went back into the governor’s residence, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” 34 Jesus replied, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or have others said it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own people and your chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would fight to prevent me being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But now my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Then Pilate said, “So you are a king!” Jesus replied, “You say that I am a king. I have been born and have come into the world for this reason—to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked, “What is truth?”
John does not record all the accusations that the Jews had made against Jesus, but Luke’s Gospel indicates that Jesus was accused of several offenses:
1 Then the whole group of them rose up and brought Jesus before Pilate. 2 They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation, forbidding us to pay the tribute tax to Caesar and claiming that he himself is Christ, a king” (Luke 23:1-2).
Only one of these charges seems to interest Pilate—the charge that Jesus claimed to be Christ, a king. Was Jesus a threat to his throne? Would He attempt to overthrow Roman rule? If this were the case, Pilate could not ignore it, not just for Caesar’s sake, but for his own.
And so Pilate goes back inside, into his own residence, away from the clamoring crowd outside. He summoned Jesus to him and asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus does answer Pilate’s question, as we see in verse 37, but first He probes Pilate concerning his interest in such matters: “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or have others said it to you about me?” (verse 34). In other words, is Pilate asking for himself, personally, or is he merely interrogating Him? Does Pilate really have an interest in Jesus’ identity? Does he care about such things? It would surely appear that Jesus was gently probing Pilate, testing for any spiritual interest on his part. Our Lord knew who His sheep were (John 10:14, 26-27; 13:18), but even so He sought to encourage Pilate to seek Him.
Pilate’s answer effectively shuts off this line of conversation: “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own people and your chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?” (verse 35). First of all, his answer informs Jesus that he is not really interested in pursuing the spiritual issues that are involved here. Second, Pilate’s response reveals that he does not think that he, as a Gentile, has any part in what this Jew is doing. All he wishes to know is why Jesus has managed to get the Jews so worked up. What kind of trouble was Jesus stirring up? The people who had gathered outside were certainly agitated about something Jesus had said or done, so just what was it He did to provoke them? He must have done something very wrong.
Jesus would not deny that He was the King of the Jews, for this was the truth. Instead, He assured Pilate that His “kingdom” was of no immediate political threat to him. “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would fight to prevent me being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But now my kingdom is not from here” (verses 36-37). This is why Jesus would not allow Peter to continue fighting against those who were seeking to arrest Jesus.
Pilate did not miss the meaning of our Lord’s words, which were clear enough for him: “You are a king, then?” (verse 37). Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king” (verse 38). I believe the NIV rightly captures the sense of our Lord’s words with the rendering, “You are right in saying I am a king.” This closely resembles the translations of the NKJV and the NASB, which have the reputation of being more literal.164 Our Lord’s response informs Pilate that he is right to understand Him to mean that He is the King of the Jews. But Jesus wants it to be clear that His purpose in coming is revelation, not revolution. He has come to testify to the truth. Those who belong to the truth pay attention to His words.
Pilate’s answer, which we looked at more closely in our last lesson, reveals his cynical attitude: “What is truth?” He had sat in judgment on countless occasions. In Pilate’s mind, he had heard every explanation, every excuse, every justification known to man. He had come to doubt that anyone really spoke the truth. Worse yet, it would seem, he seems to have come to the conclusion that there was no such thing as truth.
Several years ago, I received a traffic ticket for making what was alleged to be an illegal turn. I did it in front of a police officer, as he was giving a ticket to another driver. I knew he saw what I was doing, and yet it never occurred to me that I was doing anything wrong. In fact, I wasn’t. I pled my case, and the judge threw it out, along with several other tickets for the same “offense.” But while I was waiting for my chance to play Perry Mason, I had to listen to some other drivers as they attempted to justify their actions to the judge. The person who was just before me was a young fellow, who owned a high performance automobile and was cited for speeding. He tried to convince the judge that his car would not idle slow enough to allow him to drive it 35 miles per hour. The judge was unimpressed. Pilate must have heard many such explanations.
When he had said this he went back outside to the Jewish religious leaders and said, “I find no reason for an accusation against him. 39 But it is your custom that I release one prisoner for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release for you the king of the Jews?” 40 Then they shouted back, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” (Now Barabbas was a revolutionary.)
Inside his private quarters, and apart from the clamor of the Jews, Pilate interrogates Jesus. Jesus’ claim to be the King of the Jews explains, at least in part, the animosity of the Jewish religious leaders. They have no intention of relinquishing their authority. But whatever threat Jesus poses to them, Pilate seems confident that Jesus is not a threat to him. He returns, intending to announce his “not guilty” verdict to the Jews who are waiting outside. He declares that the charges against Jesus are ill-founded, and thus he has concluded that Jesus does not deserve to die.
At this point, Pilate seems to have an inspiration. Perhaps they would settle for a victory in principle. Pilate could appease them by declaring Jesus guilty, and then graciously releasing Him to them, as was his custom at Passover. In this way, Jesus would not be put to death, but He would have been declared guilty. It was a sort of compromise, which gave both sides (the Jews and Pilate) a token victory. The Jews could boast that Pilate had declared Jesus guilty; Pilate could be at ease that he had not crucified an innocent man. And so he put the matter before the Jews. Should he release Jesus to them on this Passover?
If Pilate expected this ploy to work, he had greatly underestimated how determined the Jews were to kill Jesus. They shouted back, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” (verse 40). In John’s Gospel, the name “Barabbas” seems to appear out of nowhere, mentioned first by the Jews. One senses that some orchestration has already occurred behind the scenes. John tells us, parenthetically, that Barabbas was a revolutionary. The Synoptic Gospels provide us with some very helpful additional details at this point. Luke’s account seems to confirm our suspicions that the Jews were the first ones to think of Barabbas.
18 But they all shouted out together, “Take this man away! Release Barabbas for us!” 19 (He was a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city, and for murder). 20 Pilate addressed them once again because he wanted to release Jesus. 21 But they kept on shouting out, “Crucify, crucify him!” (Luke 23:18-20)
Even Mark’s account leaves room for the view that the idea of releasing Barabbas originated with the Jews, rather than Pilate.
6 During the feast it was customary to release a prisoner to them, whom they requested. 7 A man named Barabbas was imprisoned with rebels who had committed murder in a riot. 8 Then the crowd came up and asked Pilate to carry out the custom for them. 9 So Pilate asked them, “Do you want the king of the Jews released to you?” 10 (For he knew that the chief priests had handed him over because of envy.) 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. 12 So Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you want me to do with the one you call king of the Jews?” 13 They shouted back, “Crucify him!” 14 Pilate asked them, “Why, what has he done wrong?” But they shouted more insistently, “Crucify him!” 15 Because he wanted to satisfy the crowd Pilate released Barabbas for them. Then he had Jesus flogged and handed over to be crucified (Mark 15:6-15).
Mark first informs us that Pilate would, at Passover, release one prisoner to the Jews, whomever they requested. In other words, this was a matter requiring Jewish initiative. (Surely Pilate was not eager to release anyone whom he had imprisoned.) Mark then goes on to tell us about Barabbas, and what a menace he was to society. When the Jews approached Pilate, to request the release of a prisoner, he leaped at the chance to release Jesus in this way, but they immediately rejected this proposal, insisting rather that Barabbas be released to them. I do not think that all of this happened spontaneously, but rather that it was planned by the Jewish leaders, and then the crowds were persuaded by their leaders to carry out this plan. It may have appeared spontaneous to Pilate. It was probably designed to look this way. But from the beginning, the Jews sought to gain the release of Barabbas, knowing that Pilate’s desire was to release Jesus. In my opinion, they were skillfully removing this option.
I realize that one could interpret these texts differently, so that releasing Barabbas is initially Pilate’s idea, but I am inclined to see it the other way. To me, Mark and Luke imply that the people first brought up the name of Barabbas. The Jews could see that Pilate did not want to put Jesus to death. They knew from his own lips that he wanted to release Him. The Jews made one last, desperate, move. It was the custom for Pilate to release one man before the Passover, as a gesture of goodwill. The Jews could see that Pilate was about to release Jesus. What if they beat him to the punch, asking for the release of Barabbas, instead? Regardless of who first raised the name of Barabbas,165 the Gospels agree as to how wicked and violent Barabbas was. He really did deserve to die! He was a robber (John 18:40), and a revolutionary who was guilty of murder (Mark 15:7-8; Luke 23:18-19). Matthew sums it up by calling Barabbas “notorious” (Matthew 27:16).
Pilate is obliged to release someone to the Jews. The Jews have made it clear that it must not be Jesus. They have asked, instead, for Pilate to release Barabbas. As dangerous as Barabbas is, they do not consider him as great a threat as Jesus to the well-being of their nation. In their minds, Jesus is worse than a robber, a revolutionary, and a murderer. They want Jesus executed, and Barabbas released.
Isn’t it interesting that Barabbas is substituted for Jesus, and Jesus for Barabbas? Jesus, the Prince of Peace, dies in the place of a revolutionary, intent on overthrowing Roman rule. Jesus, who restores the dead to life, is put to death in the place of a murderer. Jesus, who instructed Peter to put away his sword, and who restored the ear of Malchus, is portrayed as a greater threat to Roman rule than Barabbas. When man rebels against God, he always seems to substitute something for God. The heathen worship the creature, rather than the Creator (Romans 1:18-23).
1 Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged severely. 2 The soldiers braided a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they clothed him in a purple robe. 3 They came up to him again and again and said, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they struck him repeatedly in the face. 4 Again Pilate went out and said to the Jewish religious leaders, “Look, I am bringing him out to you, so that you may know that I find no reason for an accusation against him.” 5 So Jesus came outside, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Look, here is the man!” 6 When the chief priests and their officers saw him, they shouted out, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said, “You take him and crucify him! For I find no reason for an accusation against him!” 7 The Jewish religious leaders replied, “We have a law, and according to our law he ought to die, because he claimed to be the Son of God!”
Have you ever heard a child say something like this: “When I grow up, I’m going to be the President of the United States, and then I can do whatever I want!” What a tempting thought—to be a person so powerful you can have your way. The fact is, it isn’t true. Pilate is proof of this. In the introduction to this lesson, I quoted from the words of Rabbi Telushkin, who contends that John deliberately distorted the facts about Pilate. According to Telushkin, John painted a picture of Pilate as a kind and compassionate man, who really cared about Jesus, and who wanted to keep Him out of harm’s way, but was forced by the Jews to crucify Him.
That is not the picture we find in any of the Gospels, including John! We know that Pilate was a cruel and harsh governor. He did not care for the Jews; indeed, he seems to have despised them. It was not out of the kindness of his heart that he sought to spare the life of Jesus. It was out of self-interest, pure and simple, that he sought to release Jesus. It is not a tender-hearted man that we see here, which makes the point even more dramatic. Pilate is a cruel despot, who seems to take pleasure in offending the Jews. He has no concern for Jesus. He does not wish to make yet another politically incorrect blunder, for which he must give account to Caesar. And he does not wish to be pushed around by these troublesome Jews. He believes that he has no other choice but to give in to their demands, try as he had to persuade them otherwise.
I’ve watched men run their businesses like tyrants, only to go home and cower before their wives, and even their children. It does not make them any less tyrannical; it only accentuates the “power” of those who are able to push them around. Telushkin tries very hard to get the Jews off the hook, and to make Rome and Pilate the real villains in the story of Jesus’ condemnation and execution. It just isn’t true. These Jews (especially the leaders) have taken a very hard-line stance with Pilate. Even though they are a subject people, they would rather risk the wrath of Pilate and of Rome than to allow Jesus to remain alive and free. For them, it is “all or nothing.” They brought Jesus to Pilate to be condemned and to be put to death, and they will settle for nothing less. They “pull all the stops” in their effort to force Pilate to act as they wish. They do not intend to allow Pilate to release Jesus, and they virtually demand the release of the notorious Barabbas.
Pilate has Jesus severely beaten, and orders Him to be brought out for the crowd to look upon Him, wearing the clothing of a king. Is Pilate trying to inspire pity for Jesus on the part of the Jews?166 Or is he attempting to convince them that their fears of such a “king” are groundless? Does this beaten and bloody fellow really look like a king? Can such a fellow really pose a threat to these Jewish leaders? Pilate has Jesus brought out before them with the words, “Behold the man” (verse 5). Unwittingly, perhaps, Pilate has said more than he knows. The study notes on verse 5 in the NET Bible inform us,
Pilate may have meant no more than something like ‘Here is the accused!’ or in a contemptuous way, ‘Here is your king!’ Others have taken Pilate’s statement as intended to evoke pity from Jesus’ accusers: ‘Look at this poor fellow!’ (Jesus would certainly not have looked very impressive after the scourging). For the evangelist, however, Pilate’s words constituted an unconscious allusion to Zech 6:12, ‘Look here is the man whose name is the Branch.’ In this case Pilate (unknowingly and ironically) presented Jesus to the nation under a messianic title!
Like a teacher trying to gain control of an unruly class, Pilate is attempting to gain control over this situation, which has by now gotten quite out of hand (see Matthew 27:24). As he brought Jesus out for the Jews to behold this bloody and beaten king, Pilate informed them once again that he found no basis for condemning Him. The Jews cried out, demanding that Pilate crucify Jesus: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate saw that there was no way he could change their minds. And at this point, when his position and power were on thin ice with Rome, he sensed that he did not dare to anger these Jews once again. And so he responded, “You take him and crucify him! For I find no reason for an accusation against him!” (verse 6). The Jews quickly responded, “We have a law, and according to our law he ought to die, because he claimed to be the Son of God!”
8 When Pilate heard what they said, he was more afraid than ever, 9 and he went back into the governor’s residence and said to Jesus, “Where do you come from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. 10 So Pilate said, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Don’t you know I have the authority to release you, and to crucify you?” 11 Jesus replied, “You would have no authority over me167 at all, unless it was given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of greater sin.” 12 From this point on Pilate tried to release him. But the Jewish religious leaders shouted out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar! Everyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar!” 13 When Pilate heard these words he brought Jesus outside and sat down on the judgment seat in the place called ‘The Stone Pavement’ (Gabbatha in Aramaic). 14 (Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover, about noon.) Pilate said to the Jewish religious leaders, “Look, here is your king!” 15 Then they shouted out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked, “Shall I crucify your king?” The high priests replied, “We have no king except Caesar!” 16 Then Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.
Now, the real reason for the animosity of the Jews toward Jesus is out in the open. Jesus is not merely claiming to be the “King of the Jews,” He is claiming to be the Son of God.168 Pilate was uneasy before, but now he is truly afraid. It was one thing for him to condemn an innocent man. It was even worse to condemn the Jewish Messiah. But to crucify the Son of God—that was an entirely different matter. The stakes in this very risky competition could hardly get any higher than this! I don’t think that Pilate believed these claims were true; it was just that he was not certain that they were false. Pilate was caught in the middle, between a highly agitated and committed group of Jews, and a man whom he now understood was claiming to be more than a king, but that He was the Son of God.
It was time for yet another conference behind closed doors, back in Pilate’s residence, away from the chaotic scene outside. Pilate asked Jesus, “Where do you come from?” Throughout His ministry (and throughout the Book of John), the answer to this question was given: Jesus came down to earth from the Father in heaven (John 3:13, 31; 6:38, 41-42, 50-51, 58). But this was not the time to be speaking of such things. Regardless of where Jesus came from, the issue was about His guilt or innocence under the law. The issue was whether or not Pilate would give in to the pressure being applied by the Jews. Although Jesus had spoken to Pilate earlier, He now keeps silent. (Can you imagine what Pilate might have thought or done had Jesus told him He had come down from heaven?)
Pilate is amazed, and baffled. He resorted to the only thing that seemed to work for him—his authority. Did Jesus not understand what he, as governor, could do? Pilate let Jesus know that His life was in his hands. He had the power to release Jesus, or to crucify Him. Now this ought to strike terror into His heart, or so Pilate must have thought. But it didn’t. The reason it didn’t is because Pilate’s power and authority were both limited and delegated. It was Jesus who was “Lord” here, as elsewhere. Pilate may have been a powerful man, but he was not sovereign. Jesus has one last thing to say to Pilate, something which seems to have caused Pilate’s knees to begin to meet each other. How amazing it is that Pilate’s most calculated words seem to have no impact on Jesus, but our Lord’s words strike terror into the heart of a man who loved to terrorize others: “You would have no authority over me at all, unless it was given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of greater sin.”
Verse 11 has always been a difficult verse for me to understand. Why does Jesus speak to Pilate about his authority over Him? What do these words about Pilate’s authority over Him mean? Who is “the one who handed Jesus over to Pilate”? Why would Jesus bother to mention this individual’s sin to Pilate? And why is Pilate so distressed by our Lord’s words? Let’s seek to answer these questions by looking once more at our Lord’s statements.
“You would have no authority over me at all, unless it was given to you from above.” As indicated previously in footnote 14, I am inclined to favor the rendering of the New King James Version which reads, “Jesus answered, ‘You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.’” When Jesus added perfect humanity to His undiminished deity at the incarnation, He submitted Himself to human authority—to His parents, as well as to religious and political leaders. He therefore did not challenge Pilate’s authority to try Him, and to release or crucify Him. He would fully agree with the truth that is stated later by the Apostle Paul:
1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment 3 (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear; for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:1-4).
I think Jesus goes beyond stating a general principle here. It was true that Pilate’s authority to rule was God-given, and that he would have to give account for his stewardship in this matter. I believe the words Jesus spoke to Pilate were more pointed. Pilate is trying to frighten Jesus into speaking. “Don’t you know who I am, and the power I possess? Don’t you know what I can do to you if you don’t cooperate? Your fate is in my hands.” Our Lord’s answer might be paraphrased this way: “I understand that you have certain power and authority, but you should understand that yours is a God-given authority. If you are trying to instill fear in Me, it won’t work, because you do not have the power to harm Me unless it is the will of God for Me, as indeed it is.” Pilate is issuing a threat, and Jesus’ response informs Pilate that his threat is an empty one. Pilate cannot do anything to Jesus that he wants; he can only do to Jesus what God wants. Pilate is not free to harm our Lord unless this is God’s will. And since it is God’s will, Pilate is surely not sovereign, as he wishes to imply. He cannot do whatever he chooses to Jesus.
Who is “the one who handed Jesus over to Pilate”? After qualifying Pilate’s power in relation to Himself, Jesus adds, “Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of greater sin.” Who is this person who has “handed Jesus over” to Pilate? Notice in the first place that Jesus uses the singular, not the plural. He speaks of one person “handing Him over,” and not a group of people. He can hardly be speaking of the Jews, or even of the Jewish religious leaders here. He cannot mean the Sanhedrin, who tried Jesus and condemned Him. He can hardly be referring to Annas alone, or to Caiaphas alone, since there are many Jewish leaders who have played a part in Jesus’ arrest, trial, and condemnation, leading up to this moment before Pilate.
John’s expression, “handed over,” is used 11 times previously in this Gospel (6:64, 71; 12:4; 13:2, 11, 21; 18:2, 5, 30, 35, 36). In its first 8 occurrences (6:64–18:5), this verb is consistently rendered “betray” by the NASB, and in each case, it clearly is used in reference to Judas. The next 3 instances of this verb (18:30, 35, 36) are found in the context of Jesus’ trials, after His betrayal and arrest, and thus they are rendered “handed over” by the NASB. I would have to conclude that when this verb is used here, it must be referring to Judas.
My conclusion is hardly new or novel. But why would Jesus mention Judas to Pilate? And why would Jesus’ reference to Judas strike such fear into the heart of Pilate? From Matthew’s Gospel, it would seem that Judas may already have died by his own hand (Matthew 27:3-10). Is it possible that Pilate knew about Judas’ role in all this, and also that Judas had already killed himself? That might give Pilate pause for thought!
Look once more at what Jesus said to Pilate: “You would have no authority over me at all, unless it was given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of greater sin.” Jesus has pointed out that Judas was guilty of a great sin. Judas is now dead, by suicide. While Judas may be guilty of greater sin, Jesus implies that Pilate will also be guilty, of a somewhat lesser sin. Now we begin to see why Pilate is getting more and more uneasy about condemning Jesus, and why he wants so much to release Him. Pilate seeks to instill fear in Jesus, by trying to impress Him with his authority. Instead, Jesus instills fear in Pilate, by reminding this governor where his power comes from, and by indicating that any harm done to Him is God’s will. Even though the death of Christ is God’s will, it will also be the result of Pilate’s sin, for which he must some day give account. No wonder Pilate is getting nervous!
This may be a very important point. Pilate seems to have been involved in the arrest of Jesus from the early stages. Judas’ role in this matter must have been known to Pilate. How else would Roman soldiers have been dispatched, along with Judas and the arresting party (see John 18:3, 12)? This may also help to explain why the Jews brought Jesus to Pilate, expecting him to pronounce Jesus guilty, without formal charges.169 Pilate may well have sought to rationalize his role in this whole affair by trying to convince himself that he was not to blame for the outcome of this matter. After all, wasn’t this the doing of Judas? Hadn’t he made the deal with the Jewish leaders and set up the arrest of Jesus? Wasn’t it really Judas who had handed Jesus over for trial? Our Lord’s words send Pilate a very disturbing message: “Judas bears the guilt for his great sin, Pilate, but you will bear the guilt of your sin, too, even if it is a lesser sin.” The guilt of one man in the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus does not absolve the other guilty parties of their guilt.
Pilate must now go back out to the hostile Jewish mob, which is demanding the release of Barabbas and the death of Jesus. Pilate earlier was convinced that Jesus must have done something terribly wrong to provoke the wrath of these Jews. Then he realized that Jesus was innocent. Now, he is aware that Jesus could be far more than an innocent man; He may be the Son of God. And so he goes out to face the crowd, intent on convincing them that Jesus must be released. The crowd will have none of this talk! In desperation, they finally play their trump card: If Pilate releases Jesus, he proves that he is no friend of Caesar.170 And, the inference is that they will see to it that Caesar hears about this. Jesus has claimed to be a king; let Caesar hear about Pilate turning such a fellow loose in Jerusalem.
Pilate has been out-maneuvered, and he knows it. And so he has Jesus brought outside, and then he sits down on the judgment seat called Gabbatha, to render his verdict. Time is marching on, and time is of the essence, not so much for Pilate as for the Jews. It is the day of preparation for the Passover. The crucifixion must be over by nightfall, and it was already almost noon. Was it out of malice that he said to the Jews, “Look, here is your king!”? Their response was predictable. They shouted out, “Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate then asked them, “Shall I crucify your king?” This was a foregone conclusion, wasn’t it? Why does Pilate go through all these seemingly needless motions? I think this is his attempt to endear himself to these folks (who had just threatened to destroy his career by registering their complaint with Caesar) by seemingly bowing to their will. They know they have this governor by the throat (or, “over a barrel,” as we would say), and that they have won. And so Pilate gives Jesus over to them to be crucified.
The words of the Jews are chilling. In response to Pilate’s question, “Shall I crucify your king?” the high priests reply, “We have no king except Caesar!” This statement is matched by the equally sobering words recorded in Matthew: “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25). In one final act of rebellion against God, the Jewish religious leaders have seemingly renounced all Messianic hope, placing their faith and hope in Caesar, rather than in Jesus, the Christ (the Messiah). They have exchanged Jesus Barabbas for Jesus of Nazareth, and Caesar for Christ. What a horrible bargain they have made!
The great question which is still hotly debated today is, “Who was guilty for the death of Jesus Christ?” We can see from our text that Judas was certainly guilty. We know as well that Pilate was guilty. He was not a kind-hearted man, eager to release Jesus. He was a cruel and calculating tyrant, who sought to release Jesus for his own self-serving reasons, and not out of justice or compassion. He wanted to release Jesus because the Jews wanted to kill Him. This governor, though one of the meanest, most powerful men in history, was powerless to save Jesus from death, even though he sought to do so.
Pilate was guilty for condemning Jesus to death, but he does not bear the guilt alone. The Jews were guilty as well. They were the ones who sought to execute Jesus, even though they could not even legally condemn Him for wrong-doing. They were the ones who pressured and threatened Pilate, so that he finally gave in to their demands and handed Jesus over for crucifixion. As hard as some may work to excuse the Jews for what they did, they too were guilty for the death of our Lord.
The point is that both Jews and Gentiles are responsible for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah, and for nailing Him to the cross. All men are guilty before God. If we had been there that day, we also would have cried out, “Away with Him! Crucify Him!” John’s account makes the guilt of all those present evident, both Jews and Gentiles. At the same time, as our Lord had indicated to Pilate, His death was the plan and purpose of God—His means for providing salvation for lost men:
23 When they were released, Peter and John went to their fellow believers and reported everything the high priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices to God with one mind and said, “Master of all, you who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything that is in them, 25 who said by the Holy Spirit through your servant David our forefather, ‘Why do the nations rage, And the peoples plot foolish things? 26 The kings of the earth stood together, And the rulers assembled together, Against the Lord and against his Christ,’ 27 For both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together in this city against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, 28 to do as much as your power and your plan had decided beforehand would happen (Acts 4:23-28).
For the last 2,000 years, the question has not changed; only those who must decide have changed. John’s Gospel puts before us the assertion that Jesus is indeed who He claimed to be—the Son of God, who came to this earth as the God-man, by adding perfect humanity to His undiminished deity. He came to reveal God to men, and to be rejected by His own people, the Jews, and also by the Gentiles. He was crucified, buried, and raised from the dead. He shed His blood for the salvation of all who trust in Him. And so as you read the words of our text, the decision you must make is virtually the same as that which faced Pilate: Who do you believe Jesus to be, and what will you do with Him? The answer of the Bible is this: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
157 Is this not precisely the point Pilate tries to make with Jesus, and which Jesus challenged so forcefully that it instilled even greater fear in Pilate? This we shall discuss shortly, when we come to John 19:10-11.
158 Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, p. 127. Rabbi Telushkin’s conclusions fall short of the facts in a number of areas. He tries very hard to pin the death of our Lord on Rome, rather than upon the Jews. Throughout the Gospel of John, the term “the Jews” is employed to show that it was, in fact, the Jews to whom Jesus came and presented Himself as their Messiah, and it was these same Jews who rejected Him, and who orchestrated His death. The Romans share in the guilt of the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus, but the guilt of the Jews is emphasized in John’s Gospel. Further, Telushkin states that Christianity was banned by Roman law. This was not the case. Christianity was viewed as a faction of Judaism. The Jews sought to isolate Christianity from Judaism in Acts chapter 18, but this effort failed miserably. The decision of Gallio (Acts 18:12-17) that Christianity was, in fact, Jewish assured the protection of the church for some time to come, and Paul’s protection under Roman law demonstrates this, as we see in later chapters of the Book of Acts. One would be hard pressed to conclude from the New Testament that the Gospels portray Pilate in a favorable and sympathetic light. In our previous chapter, we have already shown the cruelty of Pilate. It is true that the more information Pilate obtained from and about Jesus, the more uneasy he was about putting Him to death, but this in no way suggests that he felt kindly towards Jesus. Pilate was concerned with only one thing—protecting his interests and promoting his own agenda.
163 For example, we read in Matthew 27:18 and Mark 15:10 that Pilate knew the religious leaders had delivered Jesus to him “out of envy.” This would seem to be information he had discerned or obtained before this trial.
165 It is interesting that some manuscripts refer to Barabbas as “Jesus Barabbas,” and thus the question of Pilate, as rendered by the NET Bible: “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Christ?” (Matthew 27:17).
166 The parallel accounts have a slightly different emphasis. There, it does not seem as though Pilate beats Jesus in order to appease the Jews, and to turn them from their plans to have Him crucified. There it would seem that Jesus is beaten by the Romans soldiers, out of sight of the Jews, for the amusement of the soldiers, and in preparation for His crucifixion. If they can beat the life out of Jesus, so that He is already half-dead before He is placed on the cross, the whole process will go more quickly. When we read that our Lord’s cross was taken up by Simon of Cyrene, it does seem as though our Lord has little strength left. The beatings (He was beaten several times) would surely account for much of this.
167 After tracking the use of this expression, I have come to prefer the rendering of the NKJV (followed closely by the KJV) which reads, “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above.”
169 As suggested earlier, the “trial” of our Lord before the Jewish Sanhedrin may have been a formality, to salve their consciences, and to silence the objections of members like Nicodemus (see John 7:50-51).
170 The NET Bible has a very helpful study note here, which I quote in part: “… Pilate was of the equestrian order, that is, of lower nobility as opposed to senatorial rank. As such he would have been eligible to receive such an honor. It also appears that the powerful Sejanus was his patron in Rome, and Sejanus held considerable influence with Tiberius. Tacitus (Annals 6.8) quotes Marcus Terentius in his defense before the Senate as saying that close friendship with Sejanus “was in every case a powerful recommendation to the Emperor’s friendship.” Thus it is possible that Pilate held this honor. Therefore it appears that the Jewish authorities were putting a good deal of psychological pressure on Pilate to convict Jesus. They had, in effect, finally specified the charge against Jesus as treason: “Everyone who makes himself to be king opposes Caesar.” If Pilate now failed to convict Jesus the Jewish authorities could complain to Rome that Pilate had released a traitor. This possibility carried more weight with Pilate than might at first be evident: (1) Pilate’s record as governor was not entirely above reproach; (2) Tiberius, who lived away from Rome as a virtual recluse on the island of Capri, was known for his suspicious nature, especially toward rivals or those who posed a political threat; and (3) worst of all, Pilate’s patron in Rome, Sejanus, had recently come under suspicion of plotting to seize the imperial succession for himself. Sejanus was deposed in October of AD 31. It may have been to Sejanus that Pilate owed his appointment in Judea. Pilate was now in a very delicate position. The Jewish authorities may have known something of this and deliberately used it as leverage against him. Whether or not they knew just how potent their veiled threat was, it had the desired effect. Pilate went directly to the judgment seat to pronounce his judgment.”