1. It's an election year in America.
2. Many of us are currently enthralled by the series A Game of Thrones.
Two disparate facts that cohere around this common, crucial question: what makes for a good king?
John's trial scene is quite different from that of the Synoptics so you will want to lay those aside and immerse yourself in the flow and shape of John's narrative without distraction. John intentionally and dramatically arranges the trial of Jesus before Pilate into 7 or 8 scenes, punctuated by Pilate's egress to meet the Jews and ingress to interact with Jesus.1 Each scene -- and the whole trial -- centers on kingship.
Scene 1: 18:28-32 Jesus is accused; the charge will be sedition -- making himself a king.
Scene 2: 18:33-38a The nature of Jesus' kingship is raised.
Scene 3: 18:38b-40 The choice: King of the Jews or Barabbas? The people reject the king for a bandit.
Scene 4: 19:1-3 Jesus is crowned King of the Jews.
Scene 5: 19:4-7 Jesus is presented to the people dressed ironically as a king.
Scene 6: 19:8-11 Jesus' authority as king and Son of God is revealed.
Scene 7: 19:12-16a Jesus is presented as King of the Jews.
Some add an 8th scene: 19:16b-22 Jesus is exalted on the cross and reigns as King of the Jews.
The issue of Jesus' kingship is already raised in chapter 6. After he satisfies the bellies of the 5000, they try to seize him and force him to be king; but Jesus slips away. His authority as king originates not from this world but from God and his kingdom has to do with the reign of love, not political expediency aimed at personal aggrandizement.
He knows that we tend to enslave ourselves to cynical rulers for whom power and coercion are synonyms, so long as they satisfy our bellies and require no sacrifice. Jesus also already knows that later in the story the people of God will cry out, with the most devastating irony: "We have no King but Caesar!" (19:15) And how.
Our passage comprises Scene 2. Pilate has just returned from asking Jesus' accusers about the charge against him. We know from the historical record that Pilate was a brutal man. Assignment to the boondocks of Palestine was not part of his ambitious political career plans. He tries to send away the pesky Jews but they persist. So he comes to investigate whether Jesus is a political threat to Rome: are you the King of the Jews?
Rather than answer Pilate, Jesus becomes the interrogator and judge in this trial. Pilate is not as in control as he pretends to be and Jesus knows it (see their exchange in 19:10-11). This ironic blurring of juridical and political roles is a favorite technique of John's. Take 19:13, for example, where the text indicates that Pilate "brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge's bench." The way the verb is used here, it's not clear whether Pilate or Jesus is sitting on the judge's bench. But it is clear who the real judge is.
In response to Jesus' question, Pilate declares, "I'm not a Jew, am I?" Of course he's not; quite the opposite: he's a Roman representing the arm of the Empire that is oppressing Jesus' own people, the Jews. But insofar as John sometimes uses the term "the Jews" as a collective character representing opposition to Jesus, the irony becomes thick.2 John 1:11 declares, "He came to what was his own, and his own people didn't accept him." As Pilate remains opposed to Jesus and entirely uninterested in truth for truth's sake, he does in fact become indistinguishable from those in 1:11 who act out their rejection by handing Jesus over to Pilate.
In verse 36, Jesus responds, in a way, to Pilate's king question. But Jesus does not crow about being a king; rather, he immediately speaks not about himself but his community, calling it a kingdom (some prefer the word "kindom"). Here he contrasts himself with Pilate.
Jesus places all of this choice conversation material before Pilate, but he hears only Jesus' possible threat to Pilate's own authority: "So you ARE a king?" Jesus again pushes deeper to the heart of the matter: this is the trial of the ages. Truth itself is on trial and Jesus is the star witness. Will Pilate side with Truth or Cynicism? What about us?
In the end, Pilate attempts to crucify the Truth. He places a placard nearby mockingly announcing Jesus as The King of the Jews. The irony is thick, of course, because Pilate has unwittingly announced the truth. There on the cross the King is crowned, not with diamonds or a laurel wreath but with thorns. And from that lofty height, he births the church (John 19:25-27), his ally in announcing the truth: Loving Truth wins. Over and over again. Long live the King.
1Do yourself a favor and read Wayne Meeks' excellent treatment of these scenes in The Prophet-King (E.J. Brill, 1967), 61-81. See also the exceptional resources on Felix Just's website
2The translation of the term Ioudaioi (Jews, Judeans, etc.) remains problematic and fraught with ethical complications post-Shoah. Please see my entry for John 8:31-36