Commentary on John 18:33-37
In 1925, Pope Pius XI instituted a new liturgical observance, the Feast of Christ the King.
The Pope felt that the followers of Christ were being lured away by the increasing secularism of the world. They were choosing to live in the “kingdom” of the world rather than in the reign of God. Therefore, as we prepare to begin a new church year with the First Sunday of Advent, the coming of Jesus, not only in Bethlehem, but the second coming as well, we pause and reflect upon who Jesus the Christ is in our lives. To challenge our thinking we turn, not to stables and shepherds, but to the final trial of Jesus. If we are to live in God’s reign we, like Pilate, need to know who this man Jesus is, “are you Christ the King?”
In her exploration of the Gospel of John in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Gail O’Day plots Jesus’ trial before Pilate (John 18:28 -19:16a) into seven scenes.1 The opening scene of the trial begins when Jesus is brought to Pilate’s headquarters. The procurator asks the Jewish officials with what they wish to charge Jesus. The only response they give is that Jesus is a criminal. While they do not specify his crimes, we know that they have been seeking for ways to arrest and kill him because of his challenging proclamations, “Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Messiah?” (John 7:26) Since their goal is to have Jesus put to death for breaking religious law, something they cannot do, the Jewish leaders must rely on the Romans to do that.
Our text, according to O’Day, is scene two. Having heard the demand of the Jewish leaders, Pilate goes into his headquarters and speaks with Jesus for the first time. He asks Jesus, not if he is the Messiah, but rather, if he is the “King of the Jews.” This is a political rather than religious charge. Pilate would not care if Jesus was the anointed one of God because as he asks ironically, “I am not a Jew, am I?” (John 18:35). But he would care if a new political ruler was arising, one who might challenge the Roman rule. Jesus asks Pilate what has prompted this question — the procurator’s curiosity, or charges brought by the Jewish leaders, and in doing so takes control of the interrogation.
The author has been telling us, from the beginning of the gospel, that Jesus is in fact the King of Israel. When seeking Jesus, whom his brother, Phillip, has told him is the one spoken of by Moses and the prophets, Nathanael declares, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49). The gospel then goes on to explore that Jesus is not a king that the world would ever recognize. This is a king who speaks to the lowly and the rejected. This is a king who serves rather than being served. This is a king who enters the holy city, not triumphantly on a horse, but seated on a donkey (John 12:14).
He is a king unlike any other king, and his kingdom is unlike any other, for it is not of this world. What is this kingdom, this reign, like? That is the important question for us today as we reflect upon Christ as our king.
Pilate asks Jesus what he has done. Why have the authorities handed him over to be killed? What terrible thing has he done? Jesus then, in a seeming non-sequitur, declares to Pilate that he does have a kingdom, but it is not a kingdom of this world.
We know that Jesus is the Word of God that has become “flesh and lived among us.” Jesus has come from God and has come “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16b). We also know that, in order to recognize this king, this only Son, we must be “born from above” (John 3:3). Unless we have experienced this new birth we are unable to recognize the reign of God that surrounds us on all sides. And if we do accept that Jesus is the one who has come from God, if we are willing to listen to the truth he speaks, then one is no longer part of this world, but is a part of the reign of God.
In the end, Pilate mocks Jesus and mocks the Jews. He can never understand that Jesus is a king unlike any king of this world. Yet ultimately Pilate unknowingly speaks the truth. He declares to the Jews, “Here is your king” (John 19:14). And over the cross Pilate places the announcement for all to see, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19).
This text challenges us to answer important questions. Are we willing to accept Jesus as our king? We, too, are tempted by the allure of secularism and the power of the world. In the end, according to John, the Jewish leaders rejected their faith and bowed to the empire, “We have no king but the emperor” (John 19:15). In what ways do we bow to the empire?
Do we live in the reign of God following the servant king? Do we live lives that reflect that service? Do we reach out to the least and the lost? Do we seek to serve rather than be served? Do we testify to the truth of God? It is the truth that Jesus came to the world to bring love and forgiveness. Are we citizens of that kingdom?
- O’Day, Gail, The Gospel of John in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995, p. 813.