Passion 2: John 18:28-19:16

The King is Crowned: Trial Before Pilate

Have you ever criticized the President of the United States? Why? In retrospect, was your criticism justified? Why or why not?

In most democracies, freedom of speech is a right, not a privilege. We Americans can criticize our leaders, even with satire and caricature. We can (if we choose) vilify the President. We can use the pomp and trappings of the Commander in Chief to show the absurdity of his personality and/or actions. In this way, we can exorcize our skeptical demons.

With the same skepticism, Pilate's soldiers crowned the King of the Jews. And the King of all.

Popular Translation

28 The Jewish leaders led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace where Governor Pilate lived. Jesus was taken inside. But, the leaders didn't want the house of a non-Jew to pollute them. So, they would not enter Pilate's palace. That way, they could eat the Passover meal. 29 To honor their customs, Pilate talked to them outside. "What charge have you brought against this man?"

30 "If he didn't do something wrong, we won't have brought him to you," they replied.

31 "Well then," Pilate said, "take him away and condemn him according to your Law."

"But we can't execute anyone," they replied. "Only you Romans can do that!"

32 Jesus told others how he would die. When they said this, the words of Jesus came true.

33 Pilate went into his palace and said to Jesus, "Come here. Tell me. Are you the King of the Jews?"

34 "Is that what you really think? Or, have you heard other people made claims about me?" Jesus replied.

35 "I'm not Jewish!" Pilate stated. "Your leaders handed you over to me. What have you done?"

36 "My kingdom is different from those on earth," Jesus said. "If I ruled an earthly kingdom, my followers would have fought to free me from the leaders. But my kingdom is not here."

37 "So you're a king?" Pilate asked.

"You're the one who says I'm a king," Jesus stated. "I was born into this world and came to this moment so I could tell everyone the Truth. Everyone who belongs to the Truth listens to me."

38a "Truth! What's that?" Pilate said.

After that, Pilate went outside to the leaders and told them, "I don't find a single reason to condemn him. 39 But you have a custom. Every Passover I free a prisoner. So, should I give you the 'King of the Jews?'"

40 "No!" they shouted. "Not this man! Give us Barabbas!" (Barabbas was a thief.)

19:1 Pilate had his soldiers whip Jesus. 2 The soldiers twisted a branch of thorns into a crown and put it on his head. They dressed him in with a purple robe. 3 Then, they kept coming up to Jesus and slapping him as they said, "Greetings, King of the Jews!"

4 Meanwhile, Pilate went outside to the leaders again and told them, "Look! My soldiers are bringing Jesus outside so you will know I don't have any reason to condemn him." 5 Jesus walked outside. He had the crown of thorns on his head and wore a purple robe. "Look! Here's the man!" Pilate declared.

6 But, when the chief priests and their helpers saw him, they shouted, "Crucify him!"

"You take him away and crucify him!" Pilate objected. "I can't find any reason to condemn him."

7 "We have God's Law!" they shouted back. "According to his Law, this man should die because he said he was God's Son."

8 When Pilate heard this, he grew afraid. 9 So, he went inside the palace and asked Jesus, "Where do you come from?" But Jesus remained silent. 10 "You don't talk to me?" Pilate continued. "Don't you know I have the power to free you or to crucify you?"

11 "You wouldn't have any power unless God gave it to you," Jesus answered. "The person who handed me over to you has more guilt than you. You don't understand God's power. But he does."

12 After this, Pilate tried to find a way to free Jesus. But the Jewish leaders kept shouting, "If you free Jesus, you're no 'Friend of Caesar!' Anyone who claims to be a king commits treason against Caesar!"

13 When Pilate heard these words, he had his soldiers bring Jesus outside. Pilate sat on the judge's chair that was on a raised step (called the 'Stone Pavement'). 14 It was about noon on the Preparation Day, the day before Passover when Jews got ready for the evening meal. Pilate told the leaders, "Look! Your King!"

15 "Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!" the leaders shouted.

"Should I crucify your King?" Pilate asked.

"We have no king but Caesar!" they shouted back.

16a In the end, Pilate handed Jesus over to them so he could be crucified.

From the arrest of Jesus, we now turn our attention to the trial before Pilate. According to the late Raymond Brown (pp. 758, Death of the Messiah, Doubleday, New York, NY, 1994) the trial scene formed a parallel ("chiastic") structure. He listed the structure as:

1. Outside (18:28-32): Jews demand death of Jesus.

2. Inside (18:33-38a): Pilate and Jesus on kingship.

3. Outside (18:38b-40): Pilate finds no guilt; choice of Barrabbas.

4. Inside (19:1-3): Soldiers scourge Jesus.

5. Outside (19:4-8): Pilate finds no guilt; "Behold the Man."

6. Inside (19:9-11): Pilate and Jesus on power.

7. Outside (19:12-16a): Jews obtain death of Jesus.

Such a parallel structure began with the outside elements and worked toward the center. The parallels highlighted the one element that had no parallel. Compare the themes 1 and 7, 2 and 6 (in italic), 3 and 4 (in bold). Unlike our modern narrative structure of building toward a climax and a brief conclusion, the high point (and moral) was the centerpiece.

Let's look at the trial through the lens of this parallel structure.

Scene 1: Outside, the Jewish Leaders demanded the death of Jesus. (18:28-32)

28 They lead Jesus from Caiaphas into the praetorium. But, it was morning and they did not go into the praetorium, so that they might not be defiled, but they could eat the Passover (meal). 29 So, Pilate went outside toward them and said, "What charge do you bring to bear against this man?" 30 They answered and said to him, "If this (man) was not doing evil, we would have not given him over (to you)." 31 Pilate said to them, "You take him and judge him according to your Law." The Jewish (leaders) said to him, "It is not possible for us to execute anyone." 32 (This was said) so that the word of Jesus could be fulfilled what he said signifying what kind of death he was about do die.

18:28 " was morning and they did not go into the praetorium, so that they might not be defiled, but they could eat the Passover (meal)." Entering the home of a Gentile made a Jew ritually unclean. By definition, someone who is unclean cannot worship God in the community, even at a ritual meal. The praetorium, one of the two Davidic palaces Pilate used, was his Jerusalem residence. Jesus was questioned at dawn.

18:31 "Jewish (leaders)" is actually "the Jews." Jewish Christians in John's audience had undergone excommunication from the synagogue. So the title was polemical. They (the Jews) vs. Us (the Christians). In the context of the gospel, however, John clearly referred to the leadership of the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

"It is not possible for us to execute anyone." Some biblical scholars hold the Romans kept capital punishment to themselves. In this way, local collaborators with Rome could be protected against the whims of local authorities. Others point to the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7:57-60 to show ambiguity on the subject. Regardless, all gospel accounts (and, so, traditions) agree the Romans executed Jesus on a cross. John may have used the leaders' argument to advance one of his core themes: Jesus was raised up at his hour of glory (John 12:32-33).

When we compare Scene 1 with Scene 7, a few items stand out. First, the time frame of the questioning lasted six hours, from dawn until noon. Second, the leader did not want to defile themselves before the Passover (18:28); yet, they would become unclean by spilling the blood of an innocent man (19:16). Third, the leaders did not specifically charge Jesus in 18:29-30; Pilate presented them with the charge in 19:14 ("Look! Your King!"). Fourth, Pilate's challenge to the leaders for execution in 18:31 was answered by his "handing over" of Jesus to "them" (i.e., the power of the Jewish leaders) in 19:16.

John painted the leaders as hypocrites. They were far more concerned with style (keeping the Law) than substance (plotting the death of an adversary by giving responsibility to the Romans.) Thematically, John advanced the notion of Jesus' "hour" the moment of his death and glory. Crucifixion would raise him up (18:32), just as the leaders demanded (19:15, "Those shouted, 'Lift away (his life)! Lift away (his life)! Crucify him!'")

Scene 2: Inside, Pilate and Jesus discussed his Kingship. (18:33-38a)

33 Again Pilate went into the praetorium, called JESUS, and said to HIM, "Are you the King of the Jews?" 34 JESUS answered, "Do you say this by yourself or did others say (it) to you about me?" 35 Pilate answered, "I am not Jewish! Your people and your chief priests handed you over to me. What did you do?" 36 JESUS answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom was from this world, my associates would struggle so that I might not be handed over to the Jewish (leaders). But my kingdom is not from here." 37 Then Pilate said to HIM, "So you are a king?" JESUS answered, "You say that I am a king. I have been born into this world and I have come into this (world), so I might testify to the truth. Everyone belonging to the truth hears MY voice." 38a Pilate said to HIM, "What is truth?"

18:37 "I have been born into this world and I have come into this (world)..." The flexibility of Greek allows for one noun ("world") to be the object of two verbs ("born" and "come"). In one sense, the two verbs are redundant. In another sense, "born" referred to his human origins, while "come" referred to his divine mission. Both verbs have the same result: "witness to the truth."

When we compare Scene 2 with Scene 4, Pilate questioned Jesus about his status and power as King. In their discussion, there was an understood triangle of relationships that spoke directly to John's audience: Pilate (the pagan Gentile perspective), the Jewish leaders (the synagogue perspective), and Jesus (the Christian perspective).

When the pagan Gentiles looked upon Christians one of their basic questions would be: "Who is this Christ? Is he the Jewish king?" After all, Christians honored Jesus as God; so, to the outsider, he might take on regal attributes. Since Christianity grew out of Judaism, a Gentile might have confused the differences between the two. The sign of Christ's death might have added even more confusion to the Gentiles: "If this Christ died on the cross, what did he do to deserve such a death?" For John's audience, Pilate spoke for the questions of the Gentiles.

Christians answered in a way and in a language that Gentiles might have found strange. John had spiritualized the notion of the Christ. His kingdom was not to be found in the political arena, otherwise there would have been a revolution. No, John's Christ came to answer the greater question: what was God saying to humanity? That was the truth Pilate failed to understand, just like many of his Gentile brethren. That was the truth Christians held and professed.

Scene 3: Outside, Pilate found Jesus innocent; the crowd demanded Barabbas. (18:38b-40)

38b Having said this, he went out again to the Jewish (leaders) and said to them, "I find not a single reason in HIM (for condemnation). 39 But it is a custom for you that I will release one (prisoner) to on the Passover. Do you will then (that) I release to you the KING OF THE JEWS?'" 40 Then, they shouted, saying "Not this (man), but Barabbas!" (Barabbas was a thief.)

When we compare Scene 3 with Scene 5, Pilate did not see any reason for condemnation while the leaders (and implicitly the crowd who were one and the same) called for his blood. The charge was "King of the Jews" in Scene 3, while the charge was a violation of the Law in Scene 5.

Scene 3 was the only one to include the reference to Barabbas. In other studies of this series, the name and meaning of Barabbas were mentioned. Barabbas loosely meant "Son of the Man," an equivalent to a faceless imagine for anyone, like "Joe Citizen." Yet, Matthew gave Barabbas a first name (interestingly enough, "Jesus Barabbas," in Matthew 27:16) As a title for the average person, Barabbas represented everyone who sinned (i.e., all humanity). Jesus of Nazareth would take the place of all for humanity's rejection of God.

Yet, John seemed to mention Barabbas only in passing. Without a parallel in Scene 5, John simply seemed to reduce the importance of the thief to a detail. But that detail acted as a counterweight to the climax of the trial, the scourging of Jesus.

Scene 4: Inside, Jesus is scourged as a King. (19:1-3)

1 Then Pilate took JESUS and (had) him whipped. 2 The soldiers, having twisted a crown out of thorns, placed (it) on HIS head, threw a purple mantle around HIM, 3 kept approaching HIM, kept saying, "Greetings, KING OF THE JEWS!" and gave HIM slaps (on the face).

19:1 "(had) him whipped" is literally "Pilate...whipped him." Obviously he ordered his soldiers to scourge Jesus.

19:2 "having twisted a crown out of thorns" is literally "having plaited a crown out of thorns." The term "plaited" is used loosely, and so translated "twisted."

"Greetings, KING OF THE JEWS!" is literally "Rejoice, KING OF THE JEWS!" "Rejoice" was the Greek greeting, while "Hail" was the Latin. The salutation in the context of the scourging was a mock coronation. After crowning their King, the soldiers sarcastically greeted him as they would any new monarch.

These three verses created the high point for the trial of Jesus. This scene had no parallel. As the note above stated, this was John's vision of the Messiah's coronation ceremony. The crowning, the color of the mantle (purple for royalty), and greeting were all trappings of such a ritual. Of course, the soldiers' treatment (whipping and slapping) created sarcastic bookends to the ritual. But, John's theme of divine kingship comes through. The King of all would die for all. This was the gospel writer's view of leadership. And of God.

Scene 5: Outside, Pilate presented Jesus to his accusers and found him innocent.

4 Pilate went outside again and said to them, "Look! I (am having my soldiers) bring HIM outside to you, so that you might know that I find not a single reason in HIM (for condemnation)." 5 Then, JESUS went outside, bearing the thorn crown and the purple mantle. He said to them, "Look! The man!" 6 When the chief priests and assistants saw HIM, they shouted, saying, "Crucify HIM!" Pilate said to them, "You take HIM and crucify (HIM). For I find not a single reason in HIM (for condemnation)." 7 The Jewish (leaders) answered him, "We have (the) Law, and, according to the Law, he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God!"

19:7 Leviticus 24:13-16 states:

"And the Lord said to Moses, 'Bring out of the camp him who cursed; and let all who heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And say to the people of Israel, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. He who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him; the sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.'" (RSV)

Once the king had been crowned, he was to be presented. John mentioned the presentation twice (19:4-5 and 19:13-14). The first time, Pilate brought the scourged monarch outside to his subjects and announced "Look! The man!" The leaders/crowd responded with a call for his death. When the Roman confronted the Jewish leader about the charge, they defended themselves with a call to the Law (in the parallel Scene 3, John mentioned the "custom" of the Jews).

When a monarch is crowned and presented to his/her subjects, the crowd usually roars with praise. This time, the crowd called for the glory of their King through his death.

Scene 6: Inside, Pilate and Jesus discussed power.

8 When Pilate heard this statement, he was more afraid, 9 he went into the praetorium again, and he said to JESUS, "From where do you come?" But JESUS did not give him an answer. 10 Pilate said to him, "You do not speak to me? Do you not know that I have the authority to release YOU and I have the authority to crucifix YOU?" 11 JESUS answered [him], "You would not have any authority over me unless it was given to you from above. Because of this, the (person) having handed me over to you has the greater sin."

John had Pilate return inside for thematic reasons. Like Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus in John 3, revelation would be received in private (i.e., "inside). However, Jesus did not speak to reveal. In fact, he was silent. That did not lessen the pressure on Pilate to see the true rank of the Christ. Here was the King, scourged, crowned, and dressed in royal robes. Yet, Pilate did not see his "glory," his stature. No, he wanted his questions answered about power, when the power of God stood before him. Jesus only answered by pointing out the obvious. Pilate's power to judge was temporal and dependent. But God's power was everlasting. The person who handed him over (Caiaphas or Judas depending upon one's point of view) had the greater sin because, as a Jew, he should have understood what God was doing. He should have received the revelation that Pilate failed to notice.

Scene 7: Outside, Jesus is condemned. (19:12-16a)

12 Out of this (exchange), Pilate sought to free him. But the Jewish (leaders) shouted, saying, "If you release this (one), you are no 'Friend of Caesar.' Anyone making himself a king speaks (treason) against Caesar." 13 Having heard these words, Pilate led JESUS outside and he sat (in judgment) on a raised step being called "Stone Pavement", in Hebrew "Gabbatha." 14 It was the Preparation (Day) of the Passover; it was the sixth hour. He said to the Jewish (leaders), "Look! Your KING!" 15 Those shouted, "Lift away (his life)! Lift away (his life)! Crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Should I crucify your KING?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king except Caesar!" 16a So, then, he handed HIM over to them so that HE might be crucified.

19:12 'Friend of Caesar' was a coveted title of honor given by the Emperor for service. The title implied the recipient had a personal relationship with the Caesar, and so, had political clout. For Pilate, the title would have meant an appointment to a much more desirable post than Judea.

19:13 "Stone Pavement", in Hebrew "Gabbatha." The place and make-up of this area is currently unknown.

19:14 "It was the Preparation (Day) of the Passover; it was the sixth hour." Preparation Day was the day before the Passover. Since Passover began at sunset for the Jews, the day was dedicated to prepare for the evening Passover meal. However, the sixth hour referred to noon in the Greek and Roman sense of time, when the day began at sunrise. John explained "day" in the Jewish sense, but assumed the time frame of the popular (i.e., Greek) culture.

After the challenge to Pilate's loyalty (as a "Friend of Caesar"), he brought Jesus out (again!). This time Pilate said, "Look! Your King!" John used the loyalty to the Emperor as a counterweight to the glory of the true King. The response of the leaders/crowd glorified the King ("Lift him away!" paralleled John 12: 32: " And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me"). When confronted with "your King," the leaders/crowd committed blasphemy. They had no king but Caesar, not even God. And, by judging the King, Pilate judged himself (see John 3:18). The enemies of the Christ handed him over to Pilate. Now, he would return the favor.

Reflect on the image of Jesus before Pilate. How is he your King? How is he the King of all?

From this point, Jesus would be taken to receive his glory. Our glory. Glory based upon suffering, humiliation, and rejection.

All hail the King!

Take a few moments to thank God for the gift of his Son on the cross.