Commentary on John 18:33-37
Jesus’ kingship begins with the opening verse of the gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).
The evangelist continues the theme of Jesus’ kingship incarnate in human flesh: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (1:14; RSV).
In the verse immediately following our assigned text for Christ the King Sunday, Pilate responds to Jesus’ witness to his kingship, “What is truth?” (18:38).
These verses (1:1, 14; 18:38) provide the framework of the text for Christ the King Sunday. What events in the gospel have led us to hear Jesus’ witness of his kingship to Pilate? “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world” (18:36; RSV).
Christ’s kingship is both hidden and revealed throughout the gospel of John. At Jesus’ baptism, John expresses a vision of his kingship revealed in the cross: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29), and proclaims, “And I have seen and have borne witness, ‘This is the Son of God'” (1:34; my translation).
As the story continues to unfold all within the opening verses of the gospel of John, Jesus responds to two followers of John with an invitation and promise, “Come and you will see” (1:39; my translation). One of the followers is Andrew who in turn invites his brother Simon with the confession, “We have found the Messiah” (1:41).
Jesus again takes the initiative and calls Philip who in turn invites Nathanael, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth” (1:45). Nathanael in turn confesses of Jesus, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”(1:49).
Jesus’ vision of the Son of Man concludes the confessions of chapter one: “And he (Jesus) said to him (Nathanael), ‘Very truly, I tell you, you (both pronouns are plural and thus promise to all who read the gospel) will see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man'” (1:51).
Confessions of Jesus’ kingship are present throughout the opening chapter of the gospel of John. This is a uniqueness of the gospel of John in relationship to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And yet the identity of Jesus’ kingship will remain veiled to the world throughout the gospel of John.
The first public act of Jesus’ ministry in this gospel takes place at the wedding in Cana. As the supply of wine is diminished, Jesus’ mother calls this to his attention. Jesus’ words appear to be a rebuff but in reality point to the cross: “Woman, what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come” (2:4). This is the first time Jesus refers to the hour of crucifixion as “the hour” when his kingship will be most clearly seen and most certainly veiled. How is crucifixion regal and kingly?
To Nicodemus, Jesus discloses the truth of his crucifixion in being lifted up or exalted. The sign of salvation for the Israelites from the fiery serpents in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4-9) is the ensign of Jesus’ cross: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so it is necessary (Greek: dei “it is necessary”) for the Son of Man to be lifted up/exalted, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (3:14-15; my translation).
Throughout the gospel, the evangelist is bringing us to the hearing of Jesus before Pilate. His own people have brought Jesus in deceit. They perjure themselves before Pilate by saying, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death” (18:31). It was lawful in the Torah to stone someone on the charge of blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16). Several times Jesus identifies himself with the name of God: “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I, I AM” (8:58; my emphasis). The identity of Jesus with the “I, I AM” name of YHWH (Exodus 3:13-15) is present in all the “I, I AM” (Greek: ego eimi) sayings throughout the gospel of John.
The deception of the religious leaders before Pilate “signifies the sign” of Jesus’ death by Roman crucifixion: “This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he signified the kind of death he was to die” (18:32; my translation). Jesus will be physically lifted up on the cross of crucifixion; Jesus will be exalted or enthroned on the cross. (This is a double entendre verb in Greek meaning “to lift up” and “to exalt.”)
The trial before Pilate begins with either a question or statement: “Are you the King of the Jews?” or “You are the King of the Jews.” (18:33; the Greek text allows for both translations). Jesus’ response to Pilate indicates that it is a statement: “Do you say (Greek verb is “say” as RSV and not “ask” as NRSV) this on your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” (18:34, RSV). Since Jesus’ own nation and chief priests have handed him over, Pilate needs to know the charges: “What have you done?”(18:35).
Jesus’ response to Pilate says that he has made no pretense of an earthly kingship with his own people and thus provides no threat to Pilate’s rule since his kingship is not from this world (18:36). Pilate says to Jesus’ response, “So then you are a king.” In the Greek text, this can be a statement of affirmation (as my translation) or a question (as in the RSV and NRSV). Once again it would appear that Jesus accepts Pilate’s words as a statement and not a question as Jesus affirms to Pilate “You say that I am a king” (18:37).
Jesus’ witness brings the text to a crescendo witness: “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice” (18:37). The scene between Jesus and Pilate is the height of the gospel’s irony as Pilate does not question Jesus’ kingship or guilt of the charges brought before him. Pilate rather affirms Jesus’ kingship as his title on the cross witnesses and his resolve against the chief priests not to change the title in Hebrew (Aramaic), Latin and Greek: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (19:19-22).
Truth is embodied in Jesus Christ. Truth is not an axiom that can be proven. Truth is the one who stands on trial before Pilate. Following the assigned text is Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” (18:38). We have heard the true witness of the text. Truth is standing before us in Jesus Christ. Truth is “the Word became flesh” (1:14). This indeed is Christ the King and the true witness and proclamation on Christ the King Sunday.