Jesus and Pilate

The narrative lectionary gives us two weeks to consider Jesus’ interaction with Pilate in John 18:28-19:16a.

Psalm 23
"Psalm 23," John August Swanson. Used by permission from the artist. Image © by John August Swanson.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

March 11, 2018

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Commentary on John 18:28-40

The narrative lectionary gives us two weeks to consider Jesus’ interaction with Pilate in John 18:28-19:16a.

This is the climactic moment in a trial motif that spans the Gospel, beginning with God’s Word spoken into being as light in the world and the testimony of the first witness, John, and moving into the future with the Advocate, the Spirit of truth, inspiring Jesus’ followers as they also testify.

The text for this week is dominated by the dialogue at its center and the question “What is truth?”

The trial before Pilate, longer in John than in the Synoptics, comprises seven scenes. The first three, which make up this week’s text, begin outside the praetorium, where the religious authorities, who have brought Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate, are waiting outside in order to avoid ritual defilement; in John both the Sabbath and the Passover will begin on this night.

Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin want Jesus dead (John 11:47-53) but, having failed in their repeated attempts to stone him, need Pilate to do their dirty work for them. While they may remain outside, like us when we avert our gaze from injustice or cruelty perpetrated on our behalf, they are defiled by their complicity.

The movement between Jesus inside and the religious authorities outside continues the back-and-forth begun with Jesus inside and Peter outside in the previous text. Where there the connection was love, here the political and religious elite are bound in a union of violence, contempt, and fear.

It is daybreak, just after the cockcrow that marks Peter’s denial of Jesus. The word used to describe the early morning is used elsewhere only at the resurrection in John 20:1. The true light, like the dawn, appears even when all seems darkest (John 1:5; 13:30-31; 16:33).

The word for handed over is used repeatedly of Judas’ betrayal at Satan’s behest. Now the religious authorities do their part. Pilate wants them to judge Jesus by their own law. Who judges whom and by what law remains at issue throughout their interaction and comes to a head in next week’s text when the religious authorities finally persuade Pilate to crucify him on their behalf. The narrator reminds us that this ultimately fulfills Jesus’ own predictions of his death, which is a lifting up in John, with the lifting up of crucifixion swept up into the lifting up of resurrection and ascension into a single moment of exaltation, gathering all the world into God’s love (John 3:14-16; 8:28; 11:50-52; 12:23-33).

Pilate’s first attempt to interrogate the prisoner is undone when Jesus shifts the dialogue from Pilate’s questions about kingship “of this world” to the question of truth. Insofar as he is a king, it is not of a kingdom Pilate would recognize as such. Any earthly title fails to capture the fullness of the mission of one who is truth itself.

Verses 37b-38 offer the whole Gospel in a nutshell. The only-begotten Son, full of grace and truth, comes into the world to make God known. Then his servant-friends, also sanctified in truth, are sent into the world to continue the mission of love.

The word translated followers in John 18:36 (servant with reference to Paul, 1 Corinthians 4:1) refers to police in John 18:3-22 and 7:32-46. Jesus’ followers serve as ones set apart to love and, like him, to testify to the truth (17:14-19). If his kingdom were of this world, he says, his followers would be engaged in violent resistance, but he is not that sort of king, and Peter’s sword is sheathed.

“What is truth?” Pilate asks. The short answer would be, “I am.”

The word truth, which occurs once in Matthew and three times each in Mark and Luke, appears 25 times in John. The light coming into the world is full of grace and truth, and grace and truth come into the world through him. People doing the truth come to the light, and everyone who belongs to the truth recognizes the shepherd and listens to his voice. True worshippers worship in spirit and truth. Those who continue in the word of Jesus are freed by the truth, sanctified in truth, and sent into the world with the Spirit of truth dwelling in them.

The two words for true, which appear once in each of the other Gospels, appear 23 times in John. God is true. The testimony of Jesus and of the disciple whom he loves is true. Jesus is true light, true bread, true vine. His flesh is true food and his blood true drink.

Jesus’ truth — his testimony and his person — is an expression of the divine love he embodies and comes to reveal. This truth brings comfort (John 14:1-7), freedom (8:31-32), and joy (15:11). But it is still uncomfortable to many. Grounded in God’s being extending itself in love for the world, God’s truth is from above and offers a peace “not as the world gives.” It calls the one being freed to a new perspective and new life — abundant but also transformed. For those embedded in the view from below, whose identity is grounded in power and fear, the truth of God’s transforming love seems either irrelevant or threatening.

Pilate doesn’t stay long enough for an answer to his question. Maybe he loses interest in the truth even as the question is leaving his lips. Or maybe it is more than he can bear.

He returns to those who want Jesus dead. His reference to Jesus as king seems contemptuous mockery designed to stir them up, and they reject Jesus in favor of a bandit.

The word bandit refers in John 10:1 to the good shepherd’s opposite number. It is bandits in Luke 10:30-37 who rob a man and leave him for dead on the side of the road, where he is ignored by the kind of appropriate religious folk who will reject Jesus, but is saved by a loving outsider, who is very like Jesus himself.

We too are confronted with a choice about what and whom we will set free in the world and in our hearts. Do we choose the transforming, freeing love of a man on a cross and testify to his presence impossibly alive in a garden? Or is this kind of truth so deeply countercultural that we would rather have something un-mysterious, which lets us feel good without being disoriented, comfortable without being dangerously free?

Will we choose the truth of non-violent, testimony-bearing, sheep-tending love or quietly accept the company of a bandit and risk becoming one ourselves?


God of truth,

Too often we bend truth to fit our needs. Show us how to recognize and follow your truth, shown to us by the love and life of your son, Jesus. Amen.


Jesus calls us; o’er the tumult   ELW 696, H82 549, 550, UMH 398, NCH 171, 172
Change my heart, O God   ELW 801
Come to the table   ELW 481


Lead on, O King Eternal, Diane Bish