John 18:19-38a, The High Priest and King


[March 20, 2011] Last week we considered the scene of Jesus’ arrest. We saw the boldness with which He took possession of the scene and met the power of the sword with an altogether different kind of power. In the beginning of John’s gospel, Jesus turned to those following Him—and to us—and asked, “What are you seeking?” (John 1:38). Now He asks those who would capture Him, “Who do you seek?” (18:4; the only difference is the gender of the pronoun: the first neuter, the second masculine.) The first time, they wanted to know where He was abiding and His response was, “Come and you will see.” The situation is different now. Having heard the gospel until this point, a decision is upon the reader. Like His captors, we are confronted with the sheer power of His presence, “I AM.” What will we do? Here Jesus faces the power of the world. Does the reader see Jesus from that perspective? Perhaps we are knocked down by His “I am” but are still blind to our subjugation to the powers of darkness.

Or have we taken sides? Are we among His followers? But even those who have followed and love Him may not know what they are doing. Peter takes up a sword and strikes with it. He meets power with power, taking up the sword to meet the sword. Jesus rebukes Him. Another disciple is nearby who merely witnesses. This beloved disciple seems to understand, and follows Jesus to the end, whereas Peter, for all his boldness, eventually fled.

Peter takes up the sword and is told by Jesus to put it away. Then He follows Jesus to the courtyard of the high priest, but stays only by disguising himself and pretending to not be who he is. He lies. When the rooster crows, it is as if Jesus rebukes him a second time. After this we do not hear of him again until Easter; he fled. The other disciple, the disciple whom Jesus loved, stays with Jesus, apparently even entering the high priest’s house; he was inside while Peter was outside. He follows Jesus to the cross, and Jesus even speaks to him from the cross. At Jesus’ dying moment, the beloved disciple was there. “And he who has seen this has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he says what is true, that you may believe” (John 19:35).

The Sword and the Cup

“Put the sword into its sheath. The cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11). These two symbols are placed side by side, the sword and the cup. One is stoutly rejected, the other embraced and consumed. Yet the sword is decidedly a masculine symbol and the cup a feminine one. Let us ponder this for a moment.

The masculine represents the outward and agential, the “where.” The feminine represents the inward and communal, the “what.” They both have power, and both involute into each other. They are dichotomous, yet only relative to each other. As heaven and earth struggle, the roles reverse and reverse again. At the risk of giving things away, let me say that in the end, they are subsumed in each other and what is heavenly sublates (aufhaben) that which is earthly.

It is hard to ignore the role that the feminine has in the Gospel according to John. We have considered the position of the four key stories that revolve around women: the wedding of Cana that turns on Mary the mother of Jesus, the living water and the woman of Samaria, the anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany, and Mary of Magdala at the tomb. But there are others. The story of Lazarus is about Martha and Mary; there is the adulteress in chapter 8; there are the women at the cross (19:25) and in particular Mary the mother of Jesus; and even here the porteress, to whom the unnamed disciple speaks who lets Peter into the courtyard, is a girl.

The feminine has been given special prominence from the beginning of the gospel. There is the prominence of the symbol of water and its connection to birthing and life. The only begotten Son is in the womb (kolpos) of the Father (John 1:18; check a classical Greek dictionary), and the Father gives birth to children (1:13). The disciples too, who are the Bride of the Groom, are also the woman who gives birth in 16:21.

One might generalize and suggest that Matthew and Mark emphasize the masculine while Luke and John emphasize the feminine, if only people did not oppose these instead of recognizing their relativity and complementarity.

The captors of Jesus come to Him with the sword, but He takes the Father’s cup. In submitting to the Father’s will He hands Himself over to be seized and bound. Yet, as we already noticed, He is the One in charge during this scene. If they take Him it is only because He allows it. In fact, it is He who offers Himself up and not they who capture Him. Confronting the sword, the cup may be feminine, yet in this case, its sheer power overcomes the sword. They reverse roles.

As we will see, this is what keeps happening. They reverse roles as the heavenly always sublates the earthly. The outgoing earthly and masculine power of the world is always overcome by the inward and heavenly power of the Father and the Son, who actually drive the drama forward. The Son is here the earthly sacrifice, but He is also the heavenly One who offers the sacrifice. The earth in its masculine role resists what is heavenly, but in its feminine role it receives it. The heavens in its masculine role is a Lover and Warrior, who overcomes the earth’s resistance, but in its feminine role the heavens are also a Lover who gives birth to and nurtures the new creation. The masculine and feminine collapse into each other and become interchangeable as each faces the other in their diversity and their oneness. At first heaven and earth face each other at a distance, but in the end—through judgment and resurrection—the earthly is “glorified” as it becomes heavenly. The transcendental Father acts also as a Mother as the agential (masculine) Son and immanent (feminine) Spirit bring into being the (essentially feminine) community of the new creation. We can keep reflecting on these symbols ad infinitum but let us move on.

Peter’s “I Am Not”

When Jesus boldly confronted His captors, He presented Himself with the divine name. “I AM” (ego eimi), He said, and they drew back and fell to the ground. Yet when the slave girl (paidiskē) asked Peter if he was associated with the prisoner, he cowardly said, “I am not” (ouk eimi). He did this two more times. Twice we are told he was standing and warming himself by the fire while Jesus was being interrogated inside.

Of course, it is a simple denial: “I am not who you think I am.” But in contrast to Jesus’ confession, the words “I am not” stand out. Literally, Jesus IS. Peter, disassociating himself from Jesus, is NOT. Jesus is personally present, in the eternal present, here and now. He is the overwhelming presence of God—to which we are blind. Only when we “see” Him do we also see reality. We are blind because we live in an opaque bubble of our own mental creation, through which we cannot see. We live in our minds, but our minds have become opaque to the real world, to the creation, and to God’s presence that always and everywhere overwhelms it, calling it into being and making it real and alive.

When Peter disassociates himself from Jesus, he unwittingly identifies with the nothingness that is in reality what our “bubble” is. The world that we identify with, that is blind to who Jesus is, that opposes the divine, is a delusion of our own making. It is not real. It is that which God did not create. It is nothingness. While Peter is kept by Jesus (John 10:28-29) without his awareness, his words contradict this reality. He is putting himself in the position of the unbeliever. He is identifying with the delusion that humanity is in.

Every believer is never far from where Peter was at that moment. Peter’s failure gave him knowledge of himself. He saw where he was, where he always is apart from Jesus. Other believers may not accept the knowledge of themselves that comes from their failure as disciples. It is too painful; and so we deny it. What we are—our very “soul”—is not, which is why, if we would know the salvation of our soul, we need to deny our soul. What we are as part of the “world” does not even exist! It is a delusion that only exists because we act on it. By acting on it, we bring it into a kind of existence. But in the light of God’s revelation, it has no substance, no truth. It only exists in our minds and shared beliefs.

The believer needs to deny themselves and confess Jesus. That is living in reality. It is also what brings the church into being in this world. Our confession of the truth interrupts the apparent reality that the world claims for itself. The world thinks that what it is is a closed system, but the confession of reality breaks through that closure. We live in the world, but we do not believe in it; we give it no credence; we do not acknowledge its claims; and so we remain free of it, at least inwardly. And possibly, the Word of God spoken through us, by the immanent action of the Holy Spirit, can open someone else’s eyes to see beyond the barrier of the opaque “bubble” of the world.

Both High Priest and Sacrifice

As Peter warms himself by the fire outside, Jesus is inside, being interrogated by Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, in charge of the family and with very strong connections to the Romans. The other gospels do not record this; instead they only speak of Jesus before Caiaphas and the illegal “council.” John, in contrast, makes no mention of the Sanhedrin. Jesus is sent bound to Caiaphas, but only to be taken by him to the Roman praetorium. In John there is no illegal meeting of the elders. This is not to deny that it took place; we are just noticing this difference. In John’s gospel, which is more retrospective than the others, the role of the Romans is more obvious. There was nothing legal about the meeting that Caiaphas had with the elders and scribes. These were his henchmen. They did not represent the people.

In any case, Jesus will not deal with Annas. He recognizes the injustice of these “proceedings” and refuses to cooperate. Nevertheless, Annas—called the High Priest in verse 19—hands Jesus over bound to Caiaphas, also called the High Priest, who then hands Him over to Pilate at the crack of dawn.

Connect this, however, to the boldness of Jesus at His arrest and the way in which He seemed to take charge of the situation. This is of a piece with that. At that time He asked those who came for Him, “Who do you seek?” The first time He asked this question, in 1:38, it was when the disciples began following Him after John proclaimed of Him, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” Who do you seek? We can be sure they did not understand, but they had come to take the Lamb of God, to take Him to be inspected by the priests and to be offered as a sacrifice. The role of the High Priest was to offer up the sacrifice on behalf of the nation (see John 11:51-52 where Caiaphas prophesied that “Jesus was to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but that He might also gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad”).

Jesus offered Himself up to the earthly High Priest as the Lamb of God that the Temple and its sacrificial system might fulfill their reason for existence. They did not take Him, though they thought they did; rather, He offered up Himself.

While Annas attempts to examine Him, in fact He exposes Annas’ acting contrary to the Law (see Acts 23:3). He thus turns the tables on him; He will do this again with Pilate. There is more irony than this, however. For while Annas and Caiaphas are acting as High Priest on earth, unwittingly taking the Lamb of God and offering Him up in the outer court of the Roman theater (see Revelation 11:2), on the altar of the cross, Jesus is acting as the heavenly High Priest making the offering—the offering of Himself.

For while Christ, the Lamb of God, is offered on the brazen altar of the outer court given over to the Romans here on earth, Christ is also the heavenly High Priest who, by offering up Himself, will enter with His own blood into the Holy of Holies of the “more perfect Tabernacle not made by hands,” in the heavenly sanctuary, having obtained an eternal redemption (Hebrews 9; but see the whole argument beginning in chapter 4).

In the Gospel according to John we have seen this mirroring of the heavenly in the earthly repeatedly. The gospel takes us through the Sabbath, the Passover and Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Succoth, the Festival of Lights, and in each case shows us how Jesus is the meaning and fulfillment of these festivals. Even the wedding of Cana becomes a type. So likewise is it here. The Passover is being fulfilled as the Lamb of God is sacrificed on the cross. The High Priest on earth plays a role that merely reflects the role that the heavenly High Priest is the meaning of. Jesus comes to Annas and Caiaphas as the heavenly High Priest, just as later He will confront the Roman governor—who thinks he is in the role of the king—as the heavenly King.

Annas and Caiaphas fulfill their role, thinking that they are in control, but it is the Son of God who is in control. Annas and Caiaphas, both politically astute, do not know what they are doing, and yet nevertheless fulfill God’s will contrary to their own intentions.

This interpretation is not a Montanist rejection of Judaism, nor a Gnostic rejection of the earthly. The Gospel according to John does not say that Jesus replaces the Festivals of Israel or Judaism because He is their meaning and fulfillment. Like the entire New Testament, it recognizes the end of the Temple and the sacrificial system that it housed. Jesus fulfilled their meaning, but these things also came under the judgment of God. It was not the first time. It happened to the Tabernacle and to the First Temple. It did not mean the end of Judaism then, nor did the destruction of the Second Temple under the Romans mean the end of Judaism. Judaism exists under the judgment of God. That is what it means. This is the interpretation that the prophets give us (after the destruction of the First Temple). Let Christians be aware, however, that they too exist under the judgment of God. This judgment has not been lifted. The church exists under the same umbrella that Israel—and all the nations—exist under. Does not Paul’s epistle to the Romans teach us this? The judgment that the entire human race exists under, and under which the church also exists in solidarity with Israel, continues until the coming again of the Messiah.

Nor is this “Platonic” mirroring of heaven on earth a rejection of the earthly in favor of the heavenly. The earthly becomes the expression of the heavenly; it becomes transparent to it. Just as the humanity of Jesus does not disappear on account of His divinity but is rather glorified by it, so the earthly is not lost but rather its true nature becomes evident. While Annas and Caiaphas and Pilate are used unwittingly to fulfill the will of heaven because they exist under the condition of sin, this will not always be the case. Jesus rose from the dead, having borne the judgment of sin, as the firstborn of all creation and as the firstfruits of the resurrection. The entire creation will participate in the resurrection through Him. Heaven will come down to earth (Revelation 21:2) and the earth itself will be transfigured, without losing its essential nature but rather the opposite—it will be liberated from its frustration and move into that for which it was originally created.

The King and the Governor

The other gospels limit the exchange between Pilate and Jesus to Pilate’s asking Jesus if He is the King of the Jews. Jesus simply answers, “[So] you say” (su legeis). The other gospels then have the priests and elders accusing Jesus and Jesus refusing to answer them. In the Gospel according to John, Caiaphas’ men speak to Pilate outside the praetorium. Pilate wants them to come up with a charge, but they make no accusation. They seem to be throwing the responsibility back on Pilate who does not want it. He throws it back by declaring Jesus innocent.

Historically Pilate was the one who initiated the execution, not the priests. He arranged with Annas to have Jesus arrested at night and supplied the soldiers for it. The High Priests were supposed to come up with a charge to frame Jesus, but they could not (Jesus refused to cooperate). Pilate did not want to take the blame for the execution; he wanted the priestly establishment to take the blame. He wanted them to disavow themselves of this man who claimed to be the “King of the Jews.” This was a Roman accusation; not a Jewish one (who would have used instead the expression “the King of Israel”); but it was justified on the basis of Jesus’ entry into the city on Palm Sunday. He wanted to make an example of Jesus as a way to assert Roman authority without taking the blame for it. Hence, the early and rushed execution, before the city was even awake after the Passover celebration the evening before. But as much as Annas and Caiaphas want Pilate’s favor, their cooperation is not total. They play along, but only up to a point. Pilate is going to have to make the accusation stick.

Pilate, however, is also powerless before Jesus. Certainly Pilate has the power to release Jesus, but he cannot legally execute him without a charge. In the end, he executes Jesus illegally (after he declared Jesus innocent).

As in the other gospels, here too Pilate asks Jesus if He is the King of the Jews (which, of course, He is). Jesus answers Him with a question, thus turning the tables around and putting Pilate on trial, as it were. “Are you saying this of yourself, or did others tell you about Me?” (Compare this to how He answered Annas: “Why do you question Me? Question those who have heard Me.”)

Pilate engages Jesus (which Annas did not, because Jesus would not cooperate with him). “Your nation and its chief priests have delivered You to me.” This was a fact, but it was a fabricated one, so that it would appear as though Pilate were not behind it. “What have You done?” he asks, allowing Jesus to accuse or defend Himself.

Jesus changes the rules. His kingship is not political. It is heavenly. Pilate plays with Him. “So then, You ARE a king!” Just answer yes or no. No explanations please! That way we can nail you.

But Jesus answers, “YOU say that I am a king.” It almost sounds as if Jesus is throwing the accusation back at Pilate—“you are the one saying that I am a king; in other words, you, not I, are guilty of this.” But Jesus probably means that Pilate is the one framing the issue in a criminal way, not He. Indeed, He has come to testify to the truth, to reality. This is, in fact, what Jesus has done throughout the gospel. He has testified to Himself. He is the truth of God.

But Jesus also says that that truth can only be heard by those who are “of the truth,” that is, whom God has Himself chosen and called, those who believe. Pilate, on the other hand, is a pagan. He responds, “What is truth?” The unbeliever is incapable of hearing the truth. This goes back to the “bubble” in which people exist. There is not truth, only the “closed system” of the opaque bubble that does not let the light of reality in. It is a self-reinforcing system, however it maintains itself. The beliefs that people have and hold on to, and the identifications to which they attach, prevent them from receiving that which is utterly new (to them). “What is truth?” speaks of Pilate’s complete inability to see the Truth that was standing in front of him speaking the truth forth to him.

Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from here.” Pilate is right to say, “So then You are a king!” but wrong in what he meant. In fact, Jesus stood before Pilate as the heavenly King. Pilate, as governor, was an earthly king and gives the executive order to have Jesus executed, but he only acts under the sovereignty of Jesus’ greater kingship. Jesus will say to him in 19:11, “You would have no authority against Me if it were not given to you from above.” Jesus’ own kingship was invisible, yet it was greater than the kingship that Pilate wielded, and in fact it was the source of Pilate’s kingship.

So like the earthly High Priests fulfilled the meaning of their office as the heavenly High Priest executed His, so Pilate was doing the same as Jesus the heavenly King executed His kingdom.

The Earthly and the Heavenly

The remarkable thing is that the earthly players seem to have the illusion that they are in charge and that Jesus is powerless when in fact Jesus was in charge and they were acting according to the divine will. Jesus will carry this through to His resurrection in which He will effect the revelation that He came to accomplish. He came presenting Himself as the revelation of the Triune God and the true meaning of creation. Through His death and resurrection His human nature will become divinized and the Holy Spirit of God Herself will be transformed by it. He will thus become communicable, able to inhabit His believers, and able to redeem the entire creation and make it capable of divinization. His death and resurrection is something that HE accomplishes and not something that happens TO Him.

The lesson though for us is the reality of the invisible at work in the visible, the heavenly in the earthly—in our own lives. Our vision is so limited. If only we could see through our myopia! If only we could see through the fog of our illusions, our delusions. The reality of heavenly things is in our lives right now, even in the midst of our confusions and uncertainties and problems. This was the failure of Peter in the courtyard. He only saw the dangers and the help that we ordinarily see, and so he was afraid and acted on the basis of those fears and his limited sight. Faith acts on the basis of what has been revealed, even when we cannot now see it. Faith looks for the divine and the heavenly in the midst of our earthly doings. Perchance we may even see it once in a while. One day we will see it all clearly.

May it be that when we look back, we will see that we acted wisely by trusting in the reality that we could not, for our blindness, see (but that was always there).

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