42. Jesus Before Pilate: Part I (John 18:28-38)
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. 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?”
Last night, Jeannette and I were on our way home from our ministry group143 meeting. We approached a major intersection and observed that the traffic light was out. We slowed down to make sure it was safe to proceed through the intersection. Two other automobiles did not. One approached us from the east as the other, a pickup truck, was headed south. Within a second or so, the pickup truck struck the other vehicle broadside. Both cars ricocheted off each other. The passenger car toppled a utility pole and finally came to a rest on the median. It took me a little while to find a place to park our car off the road, ask a neighbor to call for help, and get back to the scene of the accident. When I arrived, glass and debris were all over the road. The passengers of the pickup truck were out of their vehicle, as were three of the four passengers from the sedan.
As I came near the wrecked car, I saw a sizeable puddle of fluids on the ground that had escaped from the badly damaged sedan. It was my opinion that some of this exposed fluid was gasoline. There were electrical wires on the ground nearby, severed and exposed when the utility pole was struck. I concluded that the one passenger who was still trapped in the badly damaged automobile needed to be removed as quickly as possible. I forced the rear door open to free the dazed young woman inside, shaken and bleeding, but apparently not seriously wounded. She was covered with glass fragments from the window beside her that had virtually exploded as the car was struck. Blood was running down her forehead from one cut, and there was blood all over her hands from the cuts she had received from the broken glass. When I held out my hand to her, she took it and slid out of the car. Firemen and an ambulance quickly arrived, and when I knew that she was in good hands, I went back to our car and we set out, once again, for home.
In the car, I happened to look at my hands and saw they had blood on them. I realized that when I had taken the injured woman’s hand to help her out of that car, some of her blood had gotten on my hands. With all of the health concerns that exist today, I washed my hands as soon as I got home—three times! And then I sat down to work further on this text in the Gospel of John. I could not help but see a connection. Pilate did not literally have blood on his hands, but nevertheless, he washed his hands—in a futile effort to rid himself of any responsibility for his part in the death of Jesus Christ. What a horrible feeling of guilt this man must have carried with him from that day forward.
This is not the first time I have preached on the death of our Lord, although this is the first time I have preached through the Gospel of John. I must admit that in doing so, I have come to realize that I have been mistaken in some of my assumptions. John’s Gospel has forced me to take a second look at the way I view our Lord’s death. It was my assumption that the Jews really wanted to crucify Jesus, and that they wished to enlist the assistance of the Roman government to do so. It was my opinion that God allowed the Jews to gain the upper hand for a short period of time, so that Jesus would die on a Roman cross. John’s Gospel calls some of these assumptions into question.
I also assumed that the Jews got exactly what they wanted, and when Jesus died on that Roman cross, they were jubilant. There was a measure of rejoicing on the part of those who appeared to prevail over Jesus at the cross (see John 16:20), but we must also take Luke’s words into account when he informs us that, seeing what had happened at the cross, the multitudes went away “beating their breasts” (Luke 23:48). Those who crucified Jesus did not get everything they wanted. They wanted to stone Jesus, but they had to settle for crucifixion. They wanted to kill Jesus themselves, and yet they had to involve Rome. Annas wanted to compel Jesus to incriminate Himself, and instead, Jesus indicted the high priest for wrong-doing. Pilate wanted to find a way to make the “Jesus crisis” go away, but he did not succeed. Strange as it may seem, at the cross of Calvary, it was only our Lord who got His way.
My goal in this lesson is to focus on the “big picture” of our Lord’s trial before Pilate. Once this picture is clear in our minds, the details will be more easily grasped. I shall attempt to set the scene by concentrating on four statements found in our text. The first is a statement by the Jews in verse 31: “We cannot legally put anyone to death.” The second is the question raised by Pilate in verse 38: “What is truth?” The third is the declaration of our Lord in verse 37: “You [rightly or correctly] say that I am a King.” The final statement is made by John in verse 32: “This happened to fulfill the word Jesus spoke, indicating what kind of death he was going to die.”
Before we turn to these four statements, I want to call your attention to a summary144 of the sequence of events which occurred from the time the Jews decided that Jesus must be put to death, to the time when Jesus rose from the dead. This summary not only reminds us of the final events of our Lord’s life, it also points out the unique contributions of each of the Gospels. Allow me to call your attention to some of the unique contributions of each of the four Gospels.
MATTHEW. Matthew’s Gospel has several unique contributions. It is Matthew’s account that includes an account of the suicide of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus and handed Him over to the Jewish religious leaders. This story is inserted into Matthew’s report of our Lord’s arrest. Matthew 27 begins with Jesus being brought to Pilate by the chief priests and elders of Israel (verses 1-2). Verses 3-10 then contain an account of Judas’ suicide. Then, at verse 11, the account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate continues. It seems to me that Matthew wants his readers to know that in the midst of our Lord’s trials, the one who turned Jesus over to the authorities has already come to regret his treachery. The testimony of Judas is added to that of others, including Pilate: “Jesus is innocent!”
Matthew also records the intervention of Pilate’s wife, who had a sleepless night and therefore warned her husband not to be a part of the execution of Jesus, since He was an innocent man. Actually, she did not refer to Jesus merely as innocent, but as righteous (27:19, NAB). Matthew is the one who includes an account of Pilate washing his hands (27:24), a symbolic gesture intended to indicate that he did not approve of the crucifixion of Jesus. This does not release him from his guilt for taking part in the death of Jesus. He gave Jesus over to the Jews to put to death, and he facilitated their plans by having Roman soldiers conduct the crucifixion. And this Pilate did, knowing that Jesus was innocent. Finally, Matthew records that incredible statement of the Jews: “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” (27:25).
MARK. Mark has the distinction of being the shortest account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, a mere 20 verses long. Mark makes no unique contribution here, although he does join Matthew in telling us that Pilate had figured out that the Jews had turned Jesus over to him out of envy (Mark 15:10; see also Matthew 27:18).
LUKE. Luke’s account is only 25 verses long. Luke alone informs us that Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, who declared Jesus innocent as well, and then returned Him to Pilate (23:6-12). We also learn that these two men were at odds with each other, and that they were somehow reconciled in the midst of their mutual dealings with Jesus.
JOHN. John has the longest and most detailed account of our Lord’s hearing before Pilate. In John, we see an increasing sense of awe and dread on the part of Pilate. We are also told of his cynical remark, “What is truth?” (verse 38). But perhaps the most interesting contribution John makes is his record of the conversation which occurred between Pilate and Jesus. In the other Gospels, Jesus says almost nothing, either to the Jews, to Pilate, or to Herod. In John’s account, Jesus and Pilate do have a conversation of sorts. There is no contradiction here, however. When Jesus refuses to speak, it is (1) because the law does not require Him to testify against Himself, and (2) because He refuses to defend Himself. Jesus would not interact with Herod because he was merely hoping to see some miracle. If Jesus had defended Himself by speaking or performing miracles, it could have prevented His death. When Jesus refused to speak, it was when He was in the presence of the Jews. When Jesus did speak with Pilate, it was inside his residence, where the Jews would not enter. The conversation was not of His guilt or innocence, but about His identity and His mission. We might say that it was evangelistic.
The Jews: “We Cannot Legally Put Anyone to Death.”
The Jewish religious leaders appear to have incorrectly assessed the situation. They may have assumed that since Pilate had provided Roman soldiers to assist in the arrest of Jesus, he was giving them a “blank check” to deal with Jesus as they saw fit. Their appearance before Pilate early on this morning does not look like a humble petition being made by the religious leaders of a subject nation. The Jewish leaders boldly arrive at Pilate’s home in the early hours of the morning, with Jesus in their custody (verse 28). It may have been at the very first signs of light. Their arrival at this early hour could almost be characterized as “cruel and unusual.” They further insult Pilate by refusing to enter his residence. In their minds, to do so would be to defile themselves by entering the house of a Gentile. Consequently, they virtually force Pilate to come outside to speak with them. Such actions would not be unusual, if it were Pilate demanding such things of the Jews, but for the Jews to act this way toward Pilate is nothing less than insulting.
Pilate’s response to their demands caught the religious leaders off guard. They seem to have expected Pilate to “rubber stamp” their indictment of Jesus and to quickly authorize His execution. Instead, Pilate required them to declare formal charges against Jesus, charges that they had not been able to establish, even though they worked at this all night long (see Matthew 26:59-60; Mark 14:57-59). Before the Jews, Jesus had confessed that He was “guilty” of being the Son of God. They reasoned that this “confession” made Him guilty of blasphemy, and that because of this, Jesus must be put to death (Matthew 26:62-65, Mark 14:64). However, they were not able to substantiate any charges that would make Jesus worthy of death under Roman law. As they stand before Pilate, they find themselves in a real bind. They believe Jesus is guilty of blasphemy, and deserving of death, but they do not have any solid evidence that Jesus is guilty of any capital offense under Roman law; thus, they are hard pressed to convince Pilate that Jesus really should be put to death.
It wasn’t that the Jews never put anyone to death without Rome’s consent. We know from the account of the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 that the Jews were more than willing to put someone to death, without permission from Rome. Stephen’s death was different, however. It did not occur during the feast, and it would seem that Rome was not even aware of what took place. It was very different with Jesus and with Pilate. The words of the Jews in our text mean something like this: “We really want to kill Jesus ourselves, by stoning, but we can’t get away with that at the moment—not now anyway, during the feast, while all of your Roman soldiers are ‘on alert’ and watching us like a hawk.” If they could kill Jesus without Rome’s help, and even without Rome’s permission, they would gladly do so. But they are powerless to do so now, and they know it. Their words convey a feigned submission to Roman authority, but this is all hypocrisy, as Acts 7 underscores, and as Pilate surely knows.
This is not just a matter of obtaining Rome’s permission. The Jewish religious leaders are unwittingly revealing their inability to accomplish what they have attempted on many occasions. They do not seem to realize that they are (to use God’s words to Saul), “kicking against the goads” (Acts 9:5, KJV). I have not attempted to count all of the times that attempts to kill Jesus are recorded in the Gospels, but they are numerous. One of the first attempts came in our Lord’s hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:28-29). When we come to the fifth chapter of John, we read of the Jews’ desire to put Jesus to death, and John makes it very clear that this is not the first time the Jews wanted to kill Jesus. Here, John is telling us that they strengthened their (already existing) resolve to put Jesus to death (John 5:18). And so we often find references to the Jews’ intent to put Jesus (and even Lazarus—12:10) to death (7:1, 19, 25; 8:37, 40, 59; 10:31; 11:8, 16, 47-53, 57). Yet all of these efforts were thwarted, because it was not yet “His time” (see 7:30). It never seems to have occurred to them that they were seeking to accomplish that which God’s purposes and prophecies made impossible.145
It must have been their fumbled attempt to arrest Jesus in John 7 that convinced the Jewish religious leaders they needed all the help they could get if they were to arrest and execute Jesus. Officers were dispatched to apprehend Jesus. It was not that He was hard to find, because He was teaching openly in the Temple. The officers dispatched to arrest Jesus did not take Him into custody and bring Him to the chief priests and Pharisees because they had never heard anyone speak as He did (7:46). It is my opinion that from that time on, the religious leaders vowed they would not make the same mistake again. Did they seek to employ Roman soldiers in this final attempt to arrest Jesus because they felt confident these soldiers would not be favorably impressed with the words of a Jew (as the temple police had been)? Many failed attempts to stone Jesus may have led them to conclude that they must go about this legally, so that the power of Rome could be enlisted in their efforts to be rid of Jesus. It never seems to occur to these Jews that their words to Pilate were a confession of failure on their part and also an admission that our Lord was really in control.
Pilate: “What Is Truth?”
It might be helpful to remind ourselves of the political situation at this point in time. Rome had succeeded in gaining dominance as a world power, and had divided its subject territories into provinces for administration. Syria was one of these Roman provinces, of which Palestine was a part. Herod the Great once ruled over all five areas of Palestine, but when he died, his territory was divided among his three sons. Due to misrule, Archelaus (who governed Judea and Samaria) was removed and replaced by one known as “the Governor of Judea.” Pontius Pilate was the “Governor of Judea” at the time of our Lord’s crucifixion. At the same time, Herod Antipas146 ruled over Galilee and Perea. We know from Luke 23:12 that Herod and Pilate had been adversaries until the trials of our Lord.
Rome chose to give its subject provinces a fair degree of freedom, so long as they were submissive and cooperative. This meant that the Jews were allowed to govern themselves by making and enforcing laws, and by trying and punishing law-breakers. Rome could intervene at any time, at its discretion, but under normal conditions, they would not do so. The one exception came in the area of capital punishment. There was too much risk of abuse here, and so (in theory, at least) any execution required Roman permission and was normally carried out by crucifixion, at the hands of Roman soldiers.
Normally, Pilate would reside at his palace in Caesarea. During the Passover season, the population of Jerusalem would swell considerably. Pilgrims came from afar to celebrate this feast, and there was a very high level of messianic expectation and enthusiasm. Consequently, the chance of some kind of uprising was considered much greater at this time. Therefore, a sizeable force of Roman soldiers would be stationed in Jerusalem or nearby, and Pilate himself would temporarily reside in Jerusalem. Because of the season, Pilate must bear the burden of responsibility for dealing with the Jews and for determining the fate (humanly speaking, of course) of Jesus.
Until 1961, there was no archaeological proof of the existence of Pontius Pilate.147 In the summer of 1961, Italian archaeologists were excavating an ancient theater at Caesarea, the Mediterranean port which served as the Roman capital of Palestine.148 They unearthed a stone that bore a partial inscription, bearing the name of Pontius Pilate. It refers to the presentation of “the Tiberieum” to the Caesareans. The “Tiberieum” was apparently some kind of public structure named after the Roman emperor Tiberius.
Nevertheless, the name of Pontius Pilate has been well known to many over the centuries. His name has been repeated by countless Catholics and others reciting the Apostles’ Creed. It begins,
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ,
His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
Readers of the New Testament are familiar with Pilate, who is not portrayed in a very favorable light. Luke’s Gospel informs us that Pilate was governor when John the Baptist commenced his ministry (Luke 3:1-2). Later in Luke, we read of his abusive and blasphemous treatment of the Galileans: “Now there were some present on that occasion who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1).149
What we know of Pilate from history is not very flattering either. He made several major mistakes,150 which set the scene for what takes place in our text. Normally, when Roman governors arrived in Jerusalem, they removed their standards (a pole with a Roman eagle or an image of the emperor mounted on the top) because of the Jews’ disdain for such images.151 In spite of his awareness of these Jewish scruples and past Roman practice, Pilate’s troops marched into Jerusalem carrying medallions with the emperor’s image or bust among their standards. This precipitated a protest demonstration by the Jews lasting five days, and eventually, Pilate was forced to give in to public pressure by removing the standards.
A second incident occurred when Pilate later constructed an aqueduct to convey water from cisterns near Bethlehem to Jerusalem. This provoked a riot, not because of the aqueduct itself, but because Pilate funded the project with funds he took from the temple. Roman troops had to be used to put down the riot, and Pilate warned them not to use their swords. His instructions were not carried out properly, and there was bloodshed. Paul Maier enumerates some good reasons why Pilate’s actions may not have been as evil or as foolish as they seemed,152 but this did not prevent the riot or the resulting bloodshed. It was yet another black eye for Pilate’s administration.
The straw which broke the proverbial “camel’s back” seems to have occurred when Pilate set up several golden shields at his headquarters in Jerusalem. These shields had no images, but only an inscription of dedication to Tiberius. Nevertheless, the people protested strongly, backed up by Herod Antipas and his brothers. This time, Pilate refused to back down. In other places like Alexandria, shields were tolerated by the Jews. This was Jerusalem, however, and this was a “golden” opportunity for Herod to make Pilate look bad to Tiberias. Herod wrote a letter of official protest to the emperor, who ordered Pilate to have the shields sent to Caesarea, warning him about offending the Jews by violating their customs.
All of this is to say that Pilate was none too popular with the Jews at this point in time. I doubt very much that he cared either, because his actions toward the Jews seem to indicate that he held a great disdain for them. You can imagine, then, how Pilate must have responded to the knock on his palace door early that fateful morning. “He who blesses his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, It will be counted a curse to him” (Proverbs 27:14).
The Jews are in a hurry, and they need to dispense with the legal formalities as quickly as possible if they are to have this whole horrible thing finished by sunset (so that they can “worship God” at this Passover). They have been up all night with Jesus, preparing for this moment. Now, they demand to see Pilate, but they also refuse to “defile themselves” by entering into the dwelling of this Gentile pagan (18:28). And then, when Pilate asks them to indicate what formal charges they wish to press against Jesus, they are unable to articulate any charges which would make Him worthy of the death penalty. Instead, they come up with a pious sounding version of “trust me”: “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you” (verse 30).
Pilate is already impatient with them. If this is the way they want to go about this matter, then let them deal with Jesus according to their own law. Pilate does not yet seem to grasp that they will be content with nothing less than the death penalty. They now reveal this to him: “We cannot legally put anyone to death” (verse 31). Pilate is (as we would say in Texas) “caught between a rock and a hard place.” He is undoubtedly angry with these Jews for disturbing and insulting him, as they have done, and yet he does not wish to get into trouble with the Jews again, since he appears to be on “thin ice” with Rome at the moment. He hopes to be able to resolve this crisis in a way that does not anger the Jews, and yet does not give them what they demand.
Pilate takes Jesus aside privately—into his quarters—where the Jews will not enter, lest they defile themselves. He asks Jesus this question: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (verse 33). We know from Luke’s Gospel that this charge was made against Jesus (Luke 23:3). Pilate is virtually forced to explore this charge further, and so he asks Jesus directly whether or not He is the “King of the Jews.” Jesus does not keep quiet, as He does before the Jews and Herod. Neither does Jesus deny the charge. Jesus is not seeking to defend Himself, but rather to probe the heart of Pilate. Does Pilate ask this for his own benefit, or is he simply doing so because he is forced to follow up on the charge of the Jews that He is a revolutionary, claiming to be the “King of the Jews”?
Pilate’s response to Jesus’ question is negative: “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). Pilate assumes that the real issues are Jewish, and thus that they do not really involve him. Jesus is a Jew. If He claims to be the “King of the Jews” that has nothing to do with Pilate, unless, of course, Jesus is actively seeking to overthrow Roman rule—otherwise, this a really a matter between Jesus and His Jewish countrymen. You will recall that this same approach was later employed by Gallio:
12 Now while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews attacked Paul together and brought him before the judgment seat, 13 saying, “This man is persuading people to worship God in a way contrary to the law.” 14 But just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of some crime or serious piece of villainy, I would have been justified in accepting the complaint of you Jews; 15 but since it concerns points of disagreement about words and names and your own law, settle it yourselves. I will not be a judge of these things.” 16 Then he had them forced away from the judgment seat (Acts 18:12-16).
This approach just does not work for Pilate. He seems to suspect that whatever Jesus did, it was not as serious as the Jews represented it to be. On the other hand, the intensity of their accusations would incline one to suppose that Jesus had done something pretty awful to get these folks so worked up. And so Pilate asks Jesus, in effect, “What have you done wrong to make these folks so angry?” In Pilate’s mind, there had to be some wrong-doing on Jesus’ part. How else could one explain the hostility of the Jews? As the case drags on, Pilate begins to see things for what they are. Those who so vehemently oppose Jesus are jealous of Him (Matthew 27:18; Mark 15:10).
Jesus does not deny that He is the “King of the Jews,” but He does explain to Pilate that this is no threat whatsoever to him, or to Roman rule. Jesus’ kingdom is “not from this world.” If it were, then His servants would fight to resist His arrest (as Peter had attempted to do, momentarily, before being stopped short by Jesus). His kingdom is not from earth. Pilate had nothing to worry about.
Pilate was listening carefully to what Jesus said. He drew the correct inference: “So then, you really are a King!” Jesus replies in a way that clearly indicates this is true: “You say that I am a King …” In more contemporary terminology, we would say, “You said it!” The Lord’s meaning is therefore something like this: “You are absolutely right that I am a King!” His “kingdom” is centered around revelation, not revolution; around truth, not treason. Jesus was a teacher, not a traitor. This was the purpose for His incarnation; this was His mission in life—to testify to the truth. And everyone who embraces Him as the promised Messiah (who “belongs to the truth”) listens to His voice.
Here is the challenge to Pilate—to accept Jesus’ teaching as the truth. Pilate’s response is tragic. It is phrased as a question, but it is really an admission of complete cynicism. He does not ask, “What is the truth?” Such a question would indicate that Pilate believes in truth but does not know what the truth is. The question, “What is truth?”, is a completely different matter. It is as though Pilate had said, “Truth? You don’t mean to tell me that you believe there is such a thing as truth, do you? Truth is whatever you want it to be.” I am sure Pilate had heard many who claimed to know the truth, and who were willing to reveal it to him (for a price of some kind). But here, it is as though Pilate has finally come to the point of giving up so far as ever knowing anything to be absolutely true.
I heard Josh McDowell speaking on the radio the other day, and he was describing the same attitude on the part of many college students today. He said that he has spoken on hundreds of college campuses over the years. In the past, students would argue with him as to whether or not the teachings of the Bible were true. They believed there was such a thing as truth; they just weren’t sure what the truth was. Today, McDowell said, when he goes onto a college campus, there is cynicism as to whether anyone can ever know anything to be absolutely true.
There is a very important principle to be learned from our text, one that is just as relevant for today as it was for Pilate 2,000 years ago: “WHENEVER ONE LOSES FAITH IN THE FACT THAT THERE IS ABSOLUTE TRUTH, THERE IS ONLY ONE STANDARD BY WHICH THAT PERSON’S ACTIONS CAN BE MEASURED: POLITICAL CORRECTNESS.” Jesus claims to be the source of truth. Pilate has come to doubt that there is such a thing as absolute truth. And so Pilate’s actions are guided by the principle of political correctness. He does not do what is right. He has already come to the realization that Jesus is innocent. And if this is not enough, Pilate’s wife will send him the message that Jesus is much more than innocent, He is righteous: “While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him a message, saying, ‘Have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him’” (Matthew 27:19, NAB).153
And so it is that Pilate opts to do what is “politically correct,” even though it is morally wrong. Pilate decides to act out of expedience, handing Jesus over to those who are crying for His blood. Today, we are watching the very same thing happen before our very eyes. No longer are our leaders acting out of principle; all too many are acting out of pure pragmatism.
Jesus: “You Are Right in Saying I Am a King”
The Jewish religious leaders took issue with Jesus in slightly different terms:154
66 When day came, the council of the elders of the people gathered together, both the chief priests and the experts in the law. Then they led Jesus away to their council 67 and said, “If you are the Christ, tell us.” But he said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe; 68 and if I ask you, you will not answer. 69 But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” 70 So they all said, “Are you the Son of God, then?” He answered them, “You say that I am.” 71 Then they said, “Why do we need further testimony? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!” (Luke 22:66-71)
They were interested in His claim to be the Son of God, or as John expresses it in his Gospel, His claim to be equal with God (5:18; 10:33, 36). I don’t think Pilate really cared about such matters. His concern was much more pragmatic: Was Jesus claiming to be Israel’s king? Our Lord’s answer to the Jews and to Pilate was a very clear, “Yes, I am!”
And they all said, “Are You the Son of God, then?” And He said to them, “Yes, I am” (Luke 22:70, NAB).
They all asked, “Are you then the Son of God?” He replied, “You are right in saying I am” (NIV).
Then they all said, “Are You then the Son of God?” So He said to them, “You rightly say that I am” (NKJV).
Literally, Jesus responded, “You say that I am,” but that was the equivalent to His saying, “Yes, I am.” And so we see the translations cited above indicate this affirmation on the part of our Lord.
It was not the safest thing for Jesus to say. To tell Pilate that He was the King of the Jews was to risk being condemned for high treason (which, of course, He was). To admit to the Jews that He was the Son of God was to convince them that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy (for which they excused their initiative in putting Jesus to death). In both cases, the penalty for such offenses (if proven guilty) was death. The fact is that Jesus is not only “the way” and “the life,” He is also “the truth.” Jesus cannot lie about anything, and especially not about His identity. This is why I view our Lord’s statement to Pilate as the “great confession” in the Gospel of John. Peter’s “great confession,” recorded in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 16:16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20), is not found in John. It is Jesus Himself who is the true witness in John. “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” (John 18:37).
There are those who seek to convince us that Jesus never claimed to be God, that He never said He was the promised Messiah. Such people seem not to have read the Gospels, or at least to have read them very carefully. At the time when such a confession would likely lead to His death, Jesus testified that He was the Son of God and the King of the Jews. Jesus claims to be God and acknowledges that He is the One whom God has appointed to rule over the whole earth. Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of the world, and the King of the Jews. There may be those who reject Jesus as the Son of God and King of the Jews, but none should deny that this is who Jesus claimed to be. This is our Lord’s “great confession.” Thus, to reject Jesus as the Son of God is to reject His testimony as well.
This happened to fulfill the word Jesus spoke indicating what kind of death he was going to die (verse 32).
These words from the author of this Gospel are John’s explanation of what he has just described. The Jews had brought Jesus to Pilate, hoping that he would grant His execution. If they got what they really wanted, it would have been for Pilate to have handed Jesus over to them, so that they could stone Him. This would have been much quicker than crucifying Jesus, and it is something the Jews could have done for themselves. I think it is what they would have most enjoyed. And, to cap matters off, it would have looked more “legal,” so far as Old Testament law was concerned. Those guilty of blasphemy were to be stoned:
“‘And whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall certainly stone him, the stranger as well as him who is born in the land. When he blasphemes the name of the Lord, he shall be put to death’” (Leviticus 24:16, NKJV).
The Jews did not get exactly what they wanted, but they did finally have Jesus in custody, and they are well on their way to getting rid of Jesus—or so they think.
Pilate certainly does not get what he wants. He wants this whole thing to just “go away.” Jesus makes him uneasy—which is an understatement. There is something going on here which Pilate does not fully grasp, but what he does grasp, he does not like. He wants to avoid angering the Jewish leaders one more time, and yet he really does not wish to give in to their demands. He does not like the idea of crucifying an innocent man, either. But Pilate does not get what he wants. He tries to avoid taking responsibility for his actions, but he nevertheless hands Jesus over to be crucified, knowing that He is innocent, indeed, that He is a righteous man.
At this moment in time—when one might wrongly conclude that things have “gotten out of hand”—John reminds us that everything he has been describing is taking place in accordance with the divine plan. It is not just that the Old Testament prophecies concerning Messiah’s death are being fulfilled; our Lord’s own words, by which He indicated how He would die, are being fulfilled. It was not enough that Jesus should die. It was not enough that He should die during Passover, as the Passover Lamb. It was also necessary that Jesus should die as He had indicated—by being lifted up on a Roman cross:
17 As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve aside privately and said to them on the way, 18 “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the experts in the law; they will condemn him to death, 19 and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged severely and crucified. And on the third day, he will be raised!” (Matthew 20:17-19)
14 “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
32 “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 (Now he said this to indicate clearly what kind of death he was going to die.) 34 Then the crowd responded, “We have heard from the law that the Christ will remain forever. How can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?” (John 12:32-34)
Although I have said it before, I must say it again—Jesus was Lord at His death. As we view the arrest, the trial and crucifixion of our Lord through John’s eyes, we should be overwhelmed with this truth. Jesus was not a helpless victim, who was overcome by His adversaries. Jesus was not only the sinless Son of God, He was the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe (see John 1). He was and is the Sovereign God, who does what He has purposed and promised to do. Every event which John describes is something which God purposed to accomplish. Many of these things were prophesied, not merely by the Old Testament prophets, but by our Lord Himself. Jesus was in complete control as the officers bound Him and led Him away from the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus was in control when He stood before Annas, before Caiaphas, the Sanhedrin, Pilate and Herod.
The irony is that the Jews and Pilate appear to be sitting in the judge’s seat, and that it is Jesus who is on trial. In one sense, of course, this is true. But in the ultimate sense, it is not Jesus who is on trial but the Jews and Pilate. And both of them fail the test. Both rejected Jesus as the Son of God, as the King of the Jews. It is possible that as you hear this message and the claims of Christ, you may somehow take the same posture as Pilate. You may think that you are giving Jesus a “hearing,” but that you haven’t yet decided in His favor. I can say to you with absolute certainty that there will be a day when you will stand before Him as your judge. The only means God has provided for your salvation is the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Those who trust in His death, burial, and resurrection for their salvation will enter into His kingdom. Those who do not receive His gift of salvation, brought about by His death, burial, and resurrection, will suffer eternal judgment. Trust Him today.
14 “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” 16 For this is the way God loved the world: he gave his one and only Son that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. 18 The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. 19 Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light, so that their deeds will not be exposed. 21 But the one who practices the truth comes to the light, so that it may be plainly evident that his deeds have been done in God (John 3:14-21).
His shed blood will either cleanse you from all sin, or it will be on your hands for all eternity.
Sequence of Events
Jews’ decision to kill Jesus, but not before the feast—Matthew 26:1-5; Mark 14:1-2; Luke 22:1-2; John 11:45-53 (a different occasion and time—the resurrection of Lazarus).
Judas’ decision to betray Jesus after anointing—Matthew 26:6-16; Mark 14:3-11; Luke 22:3-6 (Satan enters Judas, who makes deal to betray, but no account of anointing here); John 12:1-8 (no account of Judas’ decision to betray here).
Preparations—Matthew 26:17-19; Mark 14:12-16; Luke 22:7-12 (Peter and John are the two sent); not in John.
Prediction of Judas’ betrayal (Matthew 26:21-25, where Jesus lets Judas know that it is he—Mark 14:17-21; Luke 22:21-23 (followed by dispute about who was to be regarded as greatest, vv. 24-30); John 13:11, 18-30.
Bread and cup—Matthew 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20; not in John.
Prediction of Peter’s denial—Matthew 26:31-25; Mark 14:26-31; Luke 22:31-34 (different from Matthew and Mark, then followed by need to take money and sword, 35-38); John 13:34-38.
Upper Room Discourse—(only in John 13-16), and High Priestly prayer (only in John 17).
Gethsemane—Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 29:39-46; John (virtually not there, see 18:1-2).
Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested—Matthew 26:47-56; Mark 14:43-52 (including naked escapee); Luke 22:47-53 (Jesus heals ear); John 18:2-11 (Peter named as the swordsman, also Malchus).
Jesus brought before Annas—John 18:12-27.
Jesus brought before Caiaphas and Sanhedrin—Matthew 26:57-68 (great confession of Jesus obtained; blasphemy claimed and verdict pronounced); Mark 14:53-65; Luke 22:54-63 (intertwined account of Jesus before the high priest, and Peter’s denial; then, when day comes, Jesus is brought before the council and condemned—verses 66-71; great confession, condemned); John 18:24, 28 (not really dealt with in John).
Peter’s denials—Matthew 26:69-75 (all in one paragraph); Mark 14:66-72; Luke (see above); in John (Peter’s denials are split between first denial, in verses 15-18, and the second and third in verses 25-27).
Jesus brought before Pilate, handed over for crucifixion—Matthew 27:1-2, 11-31; Mark 15:1-20; Luke 23:1-5 (sent to Herod, verses 6-12, and then back to Pilate, who caves in and turns an innocent man over to this mob to crucify Him, verses 13-25); John 18:28–19:16 (certainly the most detailed account).
Judas’ suicide—(Only in Matthew 27:3-10).
Jesus’ crucifixion—Matthew 27:32-44; Mark 15:21-32; Luke 23:26-43; John 19:27.
Jesus’ death—Matthew 27:45-56; Mark 15:33-41; Luke 23:44-46; John 19:28-37.
Jesus’ burial—Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:47-56; John 19:38-42.
Guard posted at tomb—Matthew 27:62-66.
Resurrection—Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 19:1-9.
Guards’ story concocted—Matthew 28:11-15.
143 Ministry groups are small groups which meet regularly to study the Bible, to share and sing and pray. They are a vital part of our church and are essential to our knowing and caring for the flock.
146 J. Sidlow Baxter writes, “He was the son of Herod the Great and Malthace, a Samaritan woman. Half Idumean and half Samaritan, there was not a drop of Jewish blood in his veins; and ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ seemed a fitting domain for such a prince.” J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, [six volumes in one] 1960), vol. 5. p. 65.
147 My young friend, Eric Ritchie, provided me with a reference to Pontius Pilatus by Tacitus in The Annals of Imperial Rome, Book XV, chapter 47: “… neither human resources, nor imperial generosity, nor appeasement of the gods, eliminated the sinister suspicion that the fire had been deliberately started. To stop the rumor, NERO, made scapegoats—and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved CHRISTIANS (as they were popularly called). Their originator, CHRIST, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the Procurator of Judaea, PONTIUS PILATUS (governor from 26 to 36 A.D.) But in spite of this temporary setback, the deadly superstition had broken out again, not just in Judaea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital. First, NERO had the self-admitted Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned—not so much for starting fires as because of their hatred for the human race. Their deaths were made amusing. Dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be set on fire after dark as illumination. … Despite their guilt as Christians, and the ruthless punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied. For it was felt that they were being sacrificed to one man’s brutality rather than to the national interest.”
149 A study note in the NET Bible reads, “This is an event that otherwise is unattested, though several events similar to it are noted in Josephus (Jewish War 2.169-74; 2.175-77; Antiquities 13.372; 18.55-59; 18.60-62; 18.85-87). It would have caused a major furor.” The NET Bible (Dallas, TX: Biblical Studies Press), 1998.
153 I am aware that the NET Bible renders it differently (“innocent”). Technically, the term can be rendered either “righteous” or “innocent,” but here it seems to me that “innocent” does not go quite far enough. Perhaps there is a two-fold meaning (not uncommon for John). She may have referred to Jesus as “innocent” when we know that He was really “righteous.”
154 Although the terms differ, the issue is really the same for both Pilate and the religious leaders. Both are concerned about their power and positions. Both are concerned that Jesus might cause their downfall (see John 11:47-48).
Related Topics: Crucifixion