John 18:28-40, The King and the King

[November 25, 2012] This division of the text is chosen by the RCL and not one that I would prefer. Nevertheless, let us listen to it. Keeping in mind that the Gospel according to John is highly symbolic, we need to seek what is offered to us underneath the surface of the narrative.

Pilate had left it to Annas to have Caiaphas and his coterie of chief priests and elders and scribes trump up some legal charges against Jesus so that he can have grounds to crucify Him. So when they arrive very early in the morning and stand outside the door of Pilate’s judgment hall (the praetorium), Pilate asks them, “What accusation do you bring against this man.” He wants to get this business done before the population wakes up. It is the morning following the Passover Seder, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Even though they harangued Jesus all night, they did not come up with a legal charge. He was guilty—and guilty of death—as far as they were concerned (He committed blaspheme) but not in a way that would satisfy Roman justice. “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered Him to you,” an entirely unhelpful indictment. Pilate throws it back at them, “You take Him and judge Him according to your law.” But they do not have the right to do so; for to them He deserves death and they are not allowed to execute anyone.

Pilate wants to crucify Jesus on the grounds that He claims to be a King. The embassy from Caiaphas does not accuse Him of this. This is a Roman charge. Pilate will go ahead and charge Jesus with this but without the collaboration of the Jewish leaders. This is not what he wanted. He wanted them to take the blame. By doing so, it would demonstrate their support of the Roman government (and occupation), and so reinforce in the eyes of the populace its right to rule: by condemning anyone who claims to be a king the Jewish authorities show their recognition of Roman authority. They, however, do not come through. They hand Jesus over to the Romans for them to do what they will with Him.

Pilate comes straight to the point: “Are You the King of the Jews?” that is, Is this what You say about Yourself? Jesus answers him as a legitimate authority (He would not cooperate with the chief priests and He refused to speak to Herod). But He does not answer the question directly. He asks Pilate about the question: “Are you saying this of yourself, or did others tell you about Me?” By this question, in which He calls into question His questioner, He turns the table, as though Pilate—presuming to be His judge—were now on trial.

Pilate tries to avoid the examination. “Am I a Jew? Your nation and its chief priests have delivered You to me. What have You done?” Normally a person cannot be arrested and handed over to a judge without an accusation. Since this did not happen, Pilate asks Jesus to accuse Himself.

Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world … My kingdom is not from here.” If it were, “My attendants would be struggling so that I would not be delivered to the Jews.” Jesus says He has a kingdom, but He says it does not play by the same rules as the kingdoms of the world. It is not in competition with them. It is categorically something different than they are. Therefore it renounces the use of force or violence, to which the kingdoms of the world are enslaved for their survival and maintenance. The work of God does not need, and renounces, the resort to violence. Instead, it takes up the cross to conquer its enemies, enemies which have no comparable weapon. The cross is not a method or strategy such as “nonviolence”; rather it is the death of that which belongs to the world as a system or gestalt.

Pilate is basically not interested. He only hears what he wants to hear. Jesus said that He has a kingdom. “So then You are a King?” Jesus answers, “You say that I am a King.” This does not reply yes or no. It says that “King” is Pilate’s own terminology, and according to Pilate’s way of looking at things, Jesus is in fact a King, but Jesus’ retort implies that Jesus is not a king in the way that Pilate imagines. He is a King in a categorically different way. “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, that I would testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Truth here means reality, and this gets to the heart of it. Jesus came into the world to bear witness to reality. Whoever is in touch with reality can hear the voice with which He testifies to it. They recognize Him and the testimony of His speech because they recognize reality. The implication is that the world exists in the unreality of a delusion. What Pilate means by kings and kingdoms and political power is a delusion. Such things have no substance, no weight as far as reality is concerned. Pilate either can recognize who and what Jesus is, or he cannot.

Pilate says, “What is truth?” He locks himself into his post-modern cynicism and thereby pronounces that he is lost in the realm of delusion.

This is obviously not what Pilate is looking for. Jesus did not take the bait; instead He wanted to talk to Pilate about what to Pilate is totally irrelevant. Jesus’ kingdom has nothing to do with political machinations. In reality it does, but Pilate cannot see it. Having gotten nowhere with Jesus, he turns to the Jews and declares Jesus innocent: “I find no fault in Him.”

As governor, he was legally obligated to release Jesus, unless he could find a charge against him. But the declaration, “I find no fault in Him,” means that the trial is over.

However, instead of releasing Jesus he hands Him over to the mob of the lynchmen of the chief priests. These are not the general population of Jerusalem (who do not even know yet that Jesus has been arrested) but people who have been culled together for this purpose by the priests. “But you have a custom that I release one man to you at the Passover. Is it your will therefore that I release to you the King of the Jews?” The title, “King of the Jews,” is gentile. The Jews preferred the title, “King of Israel.” This choice should never have been made, since Jesus should already have been released. The people call for Barabbas, a prisoner who was a bandit, a term Josephus uses for revolutionaries. Matthew calls him a notorious prisoner and Luke and Mark report that he was involved in a riot. Pilate releases a true insurrectionist and listens to the mob when it demands the execution of One whom he has declared innocent. In this way he thinks he can shift the blame to the mob as if he were not responsible for the fate of his prisoner. Of course, he was responsible and the blame falls on him.

Nevertheless, the mob condemns itself by what it demands. The irony is that Jesus opposed the nascent Zealot movement against Rome (these were led by the extremist Pharisees of the Shammaite school who opposed Jesus all along). Symbolically by releasing Barabbas they allowed the Zealot movement to determine the fate of Jerusalem, the Temple establishment, and the survival of the Sadducean party. The Sadducees who incited the mob were themselves opposed to the Zealots. They were cosmopolitan and courted favor with Rome. By condemning Jesus they condemned themselves.

This piece of the Gospel according to John is part of a carefully composed whole, which we can only touch upon here. For John, Jesus is both the true High Priest and the Sacrifice of which the earthly high priest and the Temple sacrifices were only an image. As the image of the true High Priest, Caiaphas fulfills his role by offering Jesus as a Sacrifice (in a weak and incompetent way), though when he does so, it is in reality Jesus who offers Himself, perfectly. Likewise, Jesus is both the obedient One and the King, of which Pontus Pilate is only an image. Pilate rules over Jesus and has Him executed, but he does so in a weak and unjust manner. Jesus, however, is the real King who puts Pilate on trial and exposes his incompetency and injustice, and who, under the overruling of the Father, is in charge of what happens.

Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” What takes place on the stage of this world reflects heavenly realities (which include the whole created realm), but they are only the obscure reflection, a reflection that we can only recognize in the light of reality. What is visible to the human eye makes it appear that things happen by the cause and effect of the world, of human machinations. In reality, it is God who is at work, doing God’s own things, and making things happen that will change the whole fabric of cosmic reality. When Jesus is done with what He intends to do, which is to go through the process of death on the cross and the transformation of His humanity so that it is divinized and becomes inseparable from the reality of the Holy Spirit in temporal time, He will have overcome the world. The world will become a paltry illusion; nothing more than smoke that is in the process of dissipating.

Humanity may be a small thing in view of the size of the cosmos. Human consciousness, however, is not a small thing in terms of the structure of the cosmos; and it is this which is affected by Jesus. The delusion of humanity in this little speck of the universe will weigh as nothing and will disappear. But the effect of Jesus will last forever, and those who believe will be part of that. It is an effect that will bring about the consummation of the universe itself in the resurrection of the flesh and the divinization of the entire creation. The cost of that for the divinity in the particular death of Jesus is tremendous—this is the meaning of the Incarnation—even if it takes place in such an infinitesimally small time and space, as cosmic things go. For it is endemic in the divine nature itself, in the Trinity and the co-inherence of its Hypostases. Maybe it is reflected similarly throughout the universe (why not?) in a way that is mysterious to us whose minds are unconscious of the real fabric of space-time, of David Bohm’s implicate order (or whatever the underlying order is). That does not take away from the reality of the divine and the creation and the divinization of the creation that is revealed in Jesus; it only illumines the possibility of what is revealed as actual.


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