Commentary on John 18:1—19:42
John’s narrative of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion takes readers into the heart of the gospel.
Because the assigned reading is two chapters long, one might read and preach on only a portion of it. One might also read a section, then preach briefly on it; read another section and preach briefly on it, and so on. The story itself is powerful, yet preaching can help worshipers hear it as a word addressed to them. Here we will focus on several episodes that occur in the middle of the passage, culminating with the crucifixion itself.
Our theme is identity, which is rarely a simple matter. We try to shape our identities so that people see us in certain ways. The way we arrange items on our résumés and Facebook pages creates images of ourselves as we would like others to see us. We seek to show that we are accomplished in a certain field, exhibit leadership ability, have insights to share. The list could go on. Those one meets in the passion narrative also project images of strength and competence. Yet the narrative peels back the images that people project, so that their pretensions come to light in the presence of Christ. The reality is that they are not the people the pretend to be. All fall short. Consider several of the leading figures in turn.
Peter initially appears to be the consummate disciple. He has been following Jesus since the beginning (John 1:40-42), and even when others are offended by Jesus’ claims to have come from God, Peter is bold to declare, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (6:68). At the last supper, Peter objects when Jesus washes feet, but then asks for a more complete bath if that is what it takes to be in relationship with Jesus (13:6-9). He even vows that he will lay down his life for Jesus (13:37). Yet in the courtyard of the high priest, the one who seems to be such a loyal disciple proves to be no disciple. When a servant girl asks whether he is a disciple, Peter repeatedly says, “I am not … I am not” (18:17, 25). Faithfulness dissolves into unfaithfulness.
The Jewish authorities seem to be the consummate law-abiding citizens. They bring Jesus before Pilate, yet refuse to enter his house so that they will remain ritually pure according to the Jewish law (18:28). They tell Pilate that according to the law of Moses, Jesus deserves to die because he has tried to elevate himself to divine status by making himself into the Son of God (19:7). They seem to have a good case. What is more, they scrupulously defer to Roman authority when they tell Pilate that it would not be proper for them to pass sentence on Jesus. As good citizens they rely on the Roman governor for that (18:31).
Yet as they try to get Jesus convicted, they violate their own principles. They briefly show that they are not such good citizens by demanding the release of a terrorist (Greek lestes) named Barabbas (18:40), and this might give the impression that they are trying to subvert the established social order. So changing course in order to achieve their goals, they abruptly declare that they have no king but Caesar (19:15). Yet now the impression is that instead of serving God they serve only the emperor — i.e., the man who would play God — and that would be contrary to Jewish law. Their pretensions are exposed by their words.
Pilate is the Roman governor. He was the most powerful man in the country, accountable only to Rome. He was in charge of the military, the judicial system, and the finances. Pilate would seem to have it all. Pilate also realizes that Jesus is an innocent man, and he declares this three times (18:38; 19:4, 6). The implications would seem obvious. If Pilate really has such power, he should be able to do what he knows to be true by releasing this innocent prisoner. Yet as the narrative progresses, Pilate proves himself powerless to do what is true, and knowingly hands over an innocent man for execution (19:16).
The trial narrative is a sustained exercise in truth telling. Throughout these chapters everyone’s pretensions are exposed: Peter the Christian proves to be no disciple. The Jewish authorities violate their own principles to achieve their own ends. Pilate the Roman proves powerless to put the truth into practice. As the narrative peels back the facades of strength and propriety for these people, it also asks readers: Are you so different? What would happen if we looked closely? The story of the trial is important, because it shows us the fallen character of the world for which Jesus came to die. It discloses the dynamics of sin at work in human relationships. It prepares us for the final aspect of the story, which concerns God’s relationship with such a world.
The identity of Jesus is an issue throughout the passion narrative. He is called a threat to God and society (19:7, 12), and described as an innocent man (18:38; 19:4, 6). But from the evangelist’s point of view, the place that where Jesus’ identity is rightly proclaimed is on the sign over the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (19:19). This sign is written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek (19:20). It proclaims to the world what God is doing for the world by sending Jesus. The cross is where Jesus reigns because here is where the love of God reigns. In John’s gospel the power of God is revealed as the love of God that seeks to reclaim the world that has turned away from him. God sends Jesus to be the King who comes from the Jewish people in order to reign for the world. God’s kingdom is built through God’s self-giving love. In the crucified Jesus, the world comes to know the lengths to which God will go in order to reclaim the world in love.