Commentary on John 18:28-40
Jesus is led, bound, from Caiaphas’ house to Pilate’s headquarters on the day of preparation for Passover (cf. John 18:24, 28.).
On the day of preparation for Passover, the religious leaders come to Pilate to sacrifice the Lamb of God. For it is as Jesus stands before Pilate that he is revealed to be both a king and the true Passover lamb. In actuality, two trials take place. Inside Pilate’s headquarters, Jesus stands trial before Pilate; outside Pilate’s headquarters, Pilate stands trial before the Judeans.
When they arrive with Jesus, the religious leaders remain outside the headquarters to maintain their ritual purity. Pilate goes out to the religious leaders (John 18:29-32) and the trial of Pilate begins. He asks what accusation they bring against Jesus. Rather than state the charges, the religious leaders respond that they have already determined that Jesus is a criminal. Pilate answers that, if the religious leaders found Jesus guilty, they should also punish him. The leaders indicate that Jesus must die at Roman hands. Jesus must be lifted up from the earth in order to draw people to himself, just as he said (cf. John 12:32).
If Jesus is to die a Roman death, he must be a revolutionary. Pilate must go in and question Jesus to determine if he is one (John 18:33-38). “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks, “What have you done that the chief priests handed you over to me?” Jesus answers that his kingdom is not of this world; it is not political, violent, or revolutionary. Jesus’ kingdom rests on making God known in the world, bearing witness to the truth, and gathering those who listen to the truth to his kingdom (cf. John 18:36-37).
Though Pilate asks Jesus whether he is a king, Jesus speaks of a “kingdom” — a place where God reigns, a community of those who are of God. Rather than threatening Rome, Jesus subtly invites Pilate to enter this place. Jesus invites Pilate to receive his testimony and be part of the truth, but Pilate dismisses Jesus’ offer with his question, “What is truth?”
Though Pilate cannot enter Jesus’ kingdom of truth, he does not find Jesus to be a political revolutionary. So Pilate goes out to Jesus’ accusers and declares Jesus innocent (John 18:38-40). Pilate has found a legal loophole to release Jesus — the custom of setting someone free at Passover. But Jesus’ accusers ask for Barabbas, a violent revolutionary.
Not ready to crucify Jesus, Pilate has him flogged (John 19:1). In the process of torturing Jesus, the soldiers ironically coronate him king. They crown Jesus with thorns and dress him in a purple robe. Then the soldiers mockingly but truthfully hail Jesus as “the king of the Jews” (John 19:3). Jesus is crowned, clothed, and proclaimed king by Roman soldiers.
Pilate goes out to Jesus’ accusers again (John 19:4-7) and declares Jesus innocent a second time. Jesus comes out under his own power, still in control, dressed as a king. Unlike the synoptic gospels, Jesus remains dressed in purple robe and crown. He goes to the cross, his glorification, as a king. Pilate calls Jesus “the man,” as in Son-of-Man. The chief priests and police demand that Pilate crucify Jesus.
Presented with their coroneted king, “the innocent Son-of-Man1”, Jesus’ accusers fulfill his words: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he” (John 8:28). They finally bring their charge against Jesus to Pilate: Jesus claims to be the Son of God (John 19:7). Jesus’ accusers cannot or will not see that Jesus is.
Pilate is “more frightened than ever” (John 19:8) by the possibility that Jesus might be “the Son of God.” He enters the headquarters again and asks Jesus the foundational question of John’s Gospel: “Where are you from?” (John 19:9). But Jesus gives no answer to what we understand to be this foundational Christological question.
In his previous encounter with Pilate, Jesus tried to invite the Roman governor into God’s kingdom and was rejected. Now, Jesus remains silent. Pilate threatens Jesus with his political power over life and death, but Jesus is not impressed. Jesus points to the one “from above,” who has ultimate power over life and death, and in so doing answers Pilate’s question of where Jesus comes from. Could it be that Jesus cannot help himself, but gives even Pilate one more chance to enter Jesus’ kingdom of truth?
Though Pilate is still not ready to enter Jesus’ kingdom of truth, he does, at least, seek to release Jesus. But now, Jesus’ accusers put Pilate on trial. They cry, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor” (John 19:12).
On the day of preparation for Passover, Pilate brings Jesus out, judges him innocent, declares him king, and expresses surprise that Jesus’ accusers would crucify their king. Then, at noon — the precise hour when the Passover lambs are sacrificed, as the chief priests declare themselves to be better friends of the emperor than Pilate (John 19:14), Pilate capitulates to their demands and hands Jesus over to be crucified, to be lifted up. The chief priests, who insisted that Jesus be put to death for claiming to be the Son of God, have claimed first Barabbas and now the emperor as their king. Yet, on the cross, Jesus, who has been coroneted, will be enthroned and glorified.
Now we see what John who baptized with water saw long ago: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). My goal in preaching on this narrative is simply to help my hearers see the Lamb of God as well.
1 Francis J. Maloney and Daniel J. Harrington, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998), p. 495.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of truth,
Too often we bend truth to fit our needs. Show us how to recognize and follow your truth, shown 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