The Charge (John 18:28-38a)
[March 27, 2011] In 18:28-32 Jesus was brought before the governor without a charge, for the governor to put Him to death. The historical background of this is that Pilate was the one who probably had them arrest in the first place, and had demanded that they drum up a charge against Jesus. They bullied Jesus all night but were unable to come up with a criminal charge that they could make stick. So now they bring Jesus to Pilate and leave it with him to charge Jesus.
With or without a charge, the High Priest offers the sacrifice up for slaughter. While Annas and Caiaphas unwittingly fulfill their role as Israel’s high priests, Jesus (not the successor but the archetype of Aaron) acts as the heavenly High Priest offering Himself up as the sacrifice. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
In 18:33-38 Pilate attempts to charge Jesus with claiming to be the King of the Jews, a capital offence of treason. Pilate was aware of how the crowds paraded Jesus into Jerusalem a few days earlier and hailed Him as their King. He was determined to crucify Jesus as a lesson to the people. But in John’s gospel those who brought Jesus to him brought no criminal charges against Jesus (though in Luke’s gospel, 23:2, they accused Jesus of “perverting our nation and forbidding people to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King”). Pilate then demands to know from Jesus if He thinks He is the “King of the Jews.” Jesus answers that His kingdom is not of this world. When Pilate tried to nail Him (“So then You are a king!”), Jesus refused to say so (“You say that I am a king”). Instead, He says that He came to testify to the truth—to reality. Pilate scoffs.
Yet while Pilate has his Victim and acts very much in charge as governor, playing the role of king (under Caesar, of course), Jesus speaks calmly to Pilate, putting the governor off guard. In this whole scene, Jesus is the heavenly King, of which King David was the type, and He rules over Pilate.
Thrice Pronounced Innocent (18:38—19:6)
Pilate is not satisfied with Jesus’ answer. He returns to those who brought Jesus, who had remained standing outside the praetorium. In 18:38 Pilate declares, “I find no fault in Him.” After having Jesus scourged and mocked by the soldiers, he says, “Behold, I am bringing Him out to you that you may know that I find no fault in Him” (19:4). He has Jesus brought out to them (now named as the chief priests and the attendants) to examine and says, “Behold, the man!” They demand Jesus’ death. Pilate then says the third, “You take Him and crucify Him, for I do not find fault in Him” (19:6).
Besides the obvious fact that Pilate cannot legally crucify an innocent man, and therefore when he hands Jesus over to be crucified he does so illegally—the whole proceedings is a farce—what else is going on with this? Unlike a person charged with a capital crime who cannot be executed until they are presumably proven guilty, a sacrificial animal has to be examined to be sure that it is without fault. Annas had attempted to examine Jesus (and Caiaphas too, though this is not recounted in John’s gospel), but not finding any fault, he passed Jesus on to Caiaphas who pass over the innocent victim to Pilate to now be examined by him. Pilate too finds no fault in Him. The Lamb has been handed over to be examined, to be determined whether It is suitable for sacrifice, and the examining “priest” (Pilate) declares—thrice—that It is.
In other words, while on one level we have the narration of a mock trial (if one would like to call it that; it is more like a lynching), on another, symbolic level, we have an innocent victim being prepared for slaughter as a sacrifice.
The Scapegoat (18:39-40)
Whether historical or not, the exchange of Jesus for Barabbas is interesting. At this point in the story, Jesus has just been declared innocent, yet Pilate offers to free Jesus as a gesture to the people. This is strange since if Jesus has been declared innocent, Pilate can release Him in any case. Instead, because he makes this gesture, he ends up releasing a guilty man. Jesus remains in captivity though Pilate can find no fault in Him. It is terribly ironic. The story only makes sense if Jesus is seen as a sacrifice offered in our place. Barabbas—whose name means “son of a father”—would represent Israel (and by extension, the whole world), in whose place Jesus suffers the judgment of God in death.
The story also reminds us of the scapegoat of Leviticus 16. On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), two goats were to be brought to Aaron, the high priest. One goat was chosen for YHWH and the other for Azazel (possibly meaning “for absolute removal”). The first goat was to be slaughtered as a sin offering and its blood was to be brought into the Holy of Holies (“inside the veil”) and sprinkled on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant to make expiation for the “uncleanness of the children of Israel, their transgressions, and all their sins.” Aaron was then lay his hands on the head of the other goat and confess “all the iniquities of the children of Israel and all their transgressions, even all their sins” and “put them on the head of the goat” and then send the goat away into the wilderness. “Thus the goat shall bear away all their iniquities on itself to a solitary land, and … go into the wilderness.”
The goat that is slaughtered is obviously a picture of Christ, but what are we to make of this other goat—this Barabbas? Traditionally, Christians interpret Azazel to be Satan. While Jesus expiates the sins of those who believe, these sins are sent back to Satan who now bears them into perdition. I do not find this a satisfactory interpretation. Perhaps the outcast goat is us—that is, everyone—and refers to our continued existence in this world under the judgment of God. For while Christ is the expiation of our sins before God—and “we [believers] have peace towards God [and] have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand and boast because of the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2; see Ephesians 3:12), in this world we continue to live under the umbrella of God’s judgment until the coming again of our Lord Jesus—Jews, Gentiles and Christians in solidarity with the Jews.
Jesus alone bore the full weight of God’s judgment—which is utter abandonment by God. This is not true of us. No one has ever been abandoned like that. But the world continues nevertheless to be under God’s provisional judgment. Jerusalem was sacked and the Temple was destroyed, and since then both Israel and the church have lived in the Gentile world in exile from our homeland. The Gentile nations continue under rule of God’s historic judgments while Israel and the church live under the rule of God’s kingdom, which provides for us in this wilderness and also disciplines us. We are not abandoned by God but neither are we released from our wilderness sojourn, except—in a provisional way—inwardly and spiritually.
Barabbas was not a believer. He represents everyman. He bears his guilt but is released from the execution of God’s absolute judgment to wander in the wilderness, under the provisional care of God, until the final Day of Reckoning.
In 18:39 Pilate offers both Jesus and Barabbas to the “Jews” (possibly meaning Judeans, though so far, we only know them as the chief priests and their attendants in 18:28 and 19:6) and says, “Is it your will that I release to you the King of the Jews?” They reject Jesus, who is their King and demand Barabbas. Barabbas was a robber, though Luke explains that he was in prison “for a certain insurrection that occurred in the City and for murder” (Luke 23:19). He represents, in other words, the Zealot cause that led to the Jewish War in 66-70 AD. In attempting to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, taking things into their own hands instead of submitting to the judgment of God, Jerusalem and the Temple came under God’s historic judgment. This was the course that the priestly establishment was choosing when they rejected the Messiah who came in Jesus.
We see what happens to the kingship of Jesus in the hands of the world. Jesus—the misunderstood King—is scourged and in mockery the Gentile soldiers weave a crown of thorns and put it on His head and they throw a purple garment around Him and say to Him, “Hail, King of the Jews,” while slapping Him. Pilate allows this and in fact puts Jesus on display, presenting Him, the supposed “King of the Jews,” dressed with the thorny crown and the purple garment—after having been scourged and slapped around—declares, “Behold the Man!”
The words are interesting for they speak of Jesus as both the final Adam and the Second Man, the Adam who does not fail the test but is obedient to the Father in love, gratuitously submitting to the judgment of the first Adam. He now offers Himself up to the Father as a burnt offering, utterly consecrated to the Father, and acceptable to the Father, so that in intercession for us He can offer Himself as the sin and trespass offering, so that He can be a meal offering and the peace offering.
Pilate mocks Him and puts Him on display as an example of anyone who would make himself a king in competition with the power of Rome. See this broken and powerless man. This is what you should make of such claimants! The chief priests with their attendants—who accept Roman rule—reject this image and cry out that Jesus be crucified. But Pilate refuses, for no one has established the accusation.
The Judeans then say that “He made Himself [out to be] the Son of God.” Whatever this evoked in Pilate’s pagan mind, it made him very uncomfortable. This is the first time we see any doubt in Pilate’s mind. The high priests did not establish an accusation against Jesus, but Pilate seems to have been confident that he still had things under control and he could make things work as he intended, even if he had to force things (illegally) a bit. Now, however, he seems to hesitate, as if he might have over calculated. What if he got it wrong? Who was this calm man whom he was so arrogantly mocking?
He goes back inside and asks Jesus Himself, “Where are you from?” Jesus, however, refuses to answer. Pilate gets angry with Him, betraying a sense of doubt and frustration: “You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You and I have authority to crucify You?”
Jesus answers, “You would have no authority against Me if it were not given to you from Above; for this reason, he who has delivered Me to you has the greater sin.” In other words, Jesus did not feel that He was in Pilate’s hands but rather in God’s hands. Pilate was merely a puppet in the hand of God, not forcibly but in ignorance. It was the malice of these others, indeed the household of the high priest, who are truly guilty. For while it was Pilate who initiated Jesus’ arrest, the chief priests also wanted to arrest Jesus but felt that their hands were tied because of Jesus’ popularity with the multitudes (especially the pilgrims who swelled the City during the Passover festival). They wanted to wait until the crowds left the City. Pilate forced their hand. But Pilate was “only” guilty of arrogance and political intrigue and cruelty. As a pagan, he had no way to understand who Jesus claimed to be. The priestly establishment was not in this position of ignorance. Their rejection of Jesus was a rejection of the prophets’ promise of the Messiah and the right of this greater Son of David to the throne of David. Their political intrigue was a different kind of spiritual blindness, for when they arrested Jesus, they did so as the guardians of the Scriptures.
Pilate had no authority over Jesus that was not given to Him by God. In other words, what was taking place was under God’s control, not Pilate’s. If Jesus was the Son of God, Pilate had no authority over Him at all. He was a victim of the Fates. From the point of view of the gospel’s author, however, it is Jesus who is in charge. Jesus is the High Priest offering Himself as the sacrifice; Pilate was merely serving Him. Jesus is the King, not only the King of the Jews but the King of Kings, and Pilate was in fact under His authority.
This frightened Pilate, apparently, and for a brief moment, he sought to release Jesus. He did not want to be a victim of the gods.
The “Judeans,” however, prevailed on his political good sense. Caesar was after all divine too. The gods are in competition with each other, playing with people as pawns, and he had to choose among them. Political intrigue meant choosing which gods to placate and when to do it.
The Judgment (19:12-16)
Pilate brings Jesus out of the praetorium again and sits down on the judgment seat. He is ready to make a decision. He says to the Judeans, “Behold your King!” He is back to his original game. To satisfy him with their loyalty to Rome, they must reject all contenders. They cooperate. They cry out, “Take away! Take away! Crucify Him?” To make his point further, he says, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests make their allegiance absolutely clear. “We have no king except Caesar.” This satisfies Pilate. The imposter is condemned by the leaders of His own people who by condemning Him affirm their allegiance to Caesar.
As if he were submitting to the will of the people, He delivers Jesus over to his soldiers to be crucified. In reality, as governor it was entirely within his power to release Jesus. It was his own will to crucify Jesus. The show, however, was that it was the will of the “people.” Is not this usually how tyranny works? Whenever we see the label, “the people” we can suspect tyranny to be at work.
In fact, this supposed “trial” took place at six o’clock in the morning (John 19:14). The Passover Seder took place the night before and populous was sleeping late. Jesus was arrested late in the night and most people would not even have known about it. He was on the cross before the people even knew He had been arrested. The condemnation by the “Jews” was not by the people who welcomed Him into the City but rather by the “stewards of the vineyard,” an elite group of aristocrats who were keenly interested in protecting their status with their Roman overlords.
The theme of kingship is not overly prominent in the Gospel according to John. Perhaps, especially in a time of persecution and when Christianity was officially considered illegal, it was a dangerous thing to emphasize. However, in chapter 12 when Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus it was on the eve of His entry into the City when He was hailed explicitly as “the King of Israel.” The reader may reasonably draw the implicit conclusion that this was a secret anointing of Jesus as King, just as David was secretly anointed by Samuel. The other gospels speak of Jesus as the Son of David, but here Jesus is portrayed in even larger terms: He is the Son of Man spoken of by the prophet Daniel. Yes, He is the “King of Israel” but also, when the Son of Man is glorified: “Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:31-32).
The motif is not just of a static kingship. It is a military motif. Jesus as the King has come to overthrow the “ruler of this world.” He is a King who overcomes His contenders, who defeats His enemies. He is like King David whose kingship was invisible in the days of Saul. The glorification of Jesus takes place when He defeats His enemies. Chapter 12 of John, then, is a turning point when He who came as Life, who presented Himself before the people as who He is, now takes things into hand to turn things around. He is no longer just the Revealer. He will now defeat His enemies.
He does so by going to the cross. David was the warrior who fought the Lord’s battles. As a result, because he was “a man of blood,” he could not build the Temple. His son was to build the Temple. Jesus went to the cross as the divine Warrior, the archetype of King David. When He rose from the dead, He became the archetype of Solomon the Temple-builder. No longer did He have any wars to fight. He was beyond the reach of His enemies, glorified.
When Jesus came to Jerusalem, secretly anointed by Mary and hailed by the people of Israel as their King, He came “militarily” but not with the armies of this world. Rather He would defeat His enemies by losing His soul, by falling into the ground and dying, by being lifted up on the cross. The cross was His means of Victor. In the other gospels, we see Him confront the leaders of Jerusalem in the days of Holy Week. He came into the City of David as the Son of David with the right to the throne, to take back the City from the unjust stewards. In John there is none of that (though this does not mean it did not happen). Rather Jesus confronts the “ruler of the world.” He does so not in the agony of the garden but with complete boldness and confidence. He confronts the serpent of the other garden, not in a face-to-face confrontation, but rather by the boldness of His self-offering and obedience to the Father. Satan is utterly routed by this. Jesus is an absolute Victor over him.
The path of victory for Jesus was as the burnt offering. It is probably true that Matthew and Mark portray Jesus as the sin and trespass offerings and that Luke portrays Jesus as the peace offering (all of them portray Jesus as the meal offering), but John portrays Jesus as the holocaust, the offering that is consumed by His total consecration to the Father. Of course, this aspect is also in all the gospels; I speak comparatively.
Awareness, Worship and the Fruit
We can follow Jesus by offering up ourselves also as burnt offerings. We too must lose our souls for His sake (John 12:25-26). But we can only do so if we offer up Jesus as all the offerings.
We need to “behold” Jesus and know Him beyond the outer image. He is the archetype of Aaron the High Priest, of which Annas and Caiaphas are a dark shadow as they offer Him up as a sacrifice. He is also the archetype of the kings David and Solomon, with which Pilate compares only as a usurper to the throne of Israel. From the divine point of view, the reality of Jesus gives the family of Annas and the rule of Rome only an illusory of reality. They have the power of force, but their power is an illusion. While Jesus seems weak and helpless as He is mocked and humiliated and tortured to death, He is actually at His strongest. While He seems defeated He is actually the Victor. The reality is actually the opposite of the illusion.
Worship comes out of awareness. Without awareness, awareness of Christ, of His reality, of heaven in the things of earth, of the divine in the midst of creation, of Christ as the source and goal of all things and the means to that goal, there cannot be worship. Worship comes from the awareness that the Gospel according to John (the Gospel in all of Scripture) offers us.
Our worship is the practical application of what we are reading in this passage, rather than straight-forward imitation. It is who Christ is, living within us as the Holy Spirit, who produces a change in us. Imitation—whatever form it may take—is the fruit of worship, as we learn to appreciate, adore and savor who Christ is. Then He who gave up His soul, offering it up to the Father for our sake, will be in us the offering up of our soul, the losing of our false self that we may find (keep) our authentic soul in Him.