Jesus and Pilate

This odd dance of power between Pilate and the Jews is absurd

"For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth." - John 18:37 (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

March 27, 2022

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Commentary on John 18:28-40

Building on last week’s text, we are now working one passage at a time through John to reach Resurrection Sunday. There is a coherence to the story as it progresses. Today is Jesus before Pilate, but this scene expands into next week when Jesus is condemned. 18:28-40 recounts the trial before Pilate; 19:1-16, the sentence.

The text invites an approach from many directions. After noting some interesting oddities in the narrative, I will attempt (as last week) to frame comments around the dialogue.

First, we should note that the beginning is disjointed. If we look at the previous text, verse 24 says Annas sent Jesus to Caiaphas. Verse 28 states that they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate, but John does not narrate any scene before Caiaphas. In John’s progression, the cock crows at Peter’s final denial, and the Jews hand Jesus to the Roman authorities.

Second, there is an odd dance over power and jurisdiction. The Jews have religious authority to charge but options for punishment are limited. They want Jesus dead, and only the Roman system has the power for the death sentence. To obtain the death penalty, the Jews must charge Jesus with a  political or legal (rather than religious) violation. When Pilate asks for the charge, the Jews do not seem to have carefully thought this through. All they say is “If he were not doing bad things, we would not deliver him here.” The implication is clear: Jesus is brought here so he can be sentenced to crucifixion1. “Figure it out, however you can” is the sense.

The movement in the scene presents a third oddity. It is early on Passover, and the Jews will not enter Roman property. Entering Gentile space would render them unclean and they would not have time to complete the purification process before the festival. Pilate must come out to them. Jesus, a Jew, is confined to the inside space with no regard for his defilement. Pilate comes inside to question Jesus (the investigation of the unspecified charge) and exits again. Jesus is, figuratively, jailed; the Jews are outside; and Pilate, who is in charge, is the one moving in and out. We can see the incongruity of the scene before anyone utters a word.

Outside: Jews, Pilate

Inside: Jesus, Pilate

Outside: Pilate, the Jews again

In the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus, we see that this odd dance of power between Pilate and the Jews is absurd. Jesus is in control here, just as he was with Annas.

  • Pilate: “Are you the King of the Jews?” This is a straightforward question that identifies a threat against the political stability of the Empire. However, it is a non-sequitur. The only charge is that Jesus did bad things.
  • Jesus: Instead of an answer, Jesus has a legitimate counter-question: “Why are you asking this? Does it come from you, or did someone tell you this?”
  • Pilate: Now Pilate is on the spot and must answer Jesus: “I am not a Jew, am I?” In other words, “I am an outsider in this mess, and they brought you to me for some reason. What did you do?”
  • Jesus: Jesus obviously has Pilate on the ropes, so to speak. Pilate senses what is expected but has no justification to do what the Jews are asking. Jesus implicitly acknowledges his kingship: “My kingdom … ” If Jesus has a kingdom, then he must be a king, but the kingdom is incomprehensible. The kingdom is not of this world, not from here. Jesus’ kingdom is different from the odd power struggle the Jews and Romans are having. If Jesus’ kingdom were earthly, his followers would be fighting to get him out of there (in the way that Jews supported Jewish priorities and Romans supported the Empire).
  • Pilate: Jesus has essentially defeated Pilate’s jousting word match. “So, you are a king,” is all that Pilate can muster. This is a downgrade from the earlier charge of King of the Jews. Now, perhaps Jesus is simply a king?
  • Jesus: “So you say.” He now confuses the conversation further by explaining why he has been born and why he has come into the world and what he is testifying about: “the truth.”
  • Pilate: We can almost see the exasperation of Pilate as he exits (stage left) muttering “What is truth?”

Earlier outside, the Jews told Pilate what they wanted from him. Inside, Pilate tried to extract evidence from Jesus to offer that. Now, outside again, Pilate is empty-handed. He found no reason to do what the Jews asked. 

He offers a compromise, an alternative conforming to Jewish custom2. They can choose the release of Jesus or Barabbas, a bandit in custody. Bandits mostly lived as groups who survived by randomly and individually creating chaos and stealing, especially at times of Jewish festivals. They were probably precursors to the zealots who initiated the revolt in 66 CE.

The final words illustrate the irony and peculiarity of the scene. “Now Barabbas was a bandit.” The Jews (and Pilate) choose a social insurrectionist over a king. The world is topsy-turvy, but the kingdom of this king does not conform to the ways of this world.

There is much here to think about and preach about considering our faith, our disordered world, and our choices.


  1. Death by crucifixion is necessary to fulfill Jesus’ own statements about the kind of death he would die (see John 3:14, 8:28, and 12:32-34).
  2.  This Jewish custom is not found outside biblical references here and Mark 15:6ff and Matthew 27:15ff.


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