John 18:29-40

The Roman Trial

The trial before Pilate would consist of seven movements, with the governor alternating between being outside with the accusers and inside with Jesus.

John 18:29-32     Accusation – A Criminal

The trial began with Pilate outside.

29 So Pilate came outside to them.  
He asked them, “What criminal charge do you bring against this man?”
30 They said to him in reply, “If this man were not acting wrongly,
we would not have handed him over to you.”
31 Pilate then said to them,
“Take him yourselves and try him according to your own law.”  
The Jews said to him, “We have no power to put anyone to death.”
32 (In this way Jesus’ statement would be fulfilled
when he had pointed out the means by which he would be killed.)

Jesus’ accusers identified themselves as those who handed him over to you. Judas had previously been identified similarly. The narrative referred to the accusers simply as the Jews. Obviously, it did not refer to all Jews. It is clear that the term in this instance was restricted purely to elements of the leadership. However, by the time the Gospel was written, mainstream Judaism had rejected the claims of Jesus and his disciples, and Jews indiscriminately had unfairly come to be labelled by the disciples as enemies of Jesus.

Jesus’ accusers quickly made it clear that they were seeking the death penalty. The narrative’s insistence on the means by which he would be killed was probably an indication that they wanted crucifixion. At the same time, it served to fulfil Jesus’ previous observation that he must be lifted up:

“I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”.     
He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die [12:32-33].

There was a hidden power-play going on between the chief priests and Pilate. Though expedience dictated that each needed the other, their relationship was not a friendly one. The Jews resented Roman power; and Rome looked down on them. The chief priests wanted Pilate to do their dirty work; but Pilate had no desire to cooperate compliantly and, in the process, to be seen to “lose face”.

First Interrogation

The scene changed to the inside, and took the form of a dialogue between Jesus and Pilate. Readers might well wonder who was on trial, Jesus or Pilate. The narrative was consistent in its portrayal of Jesus always in control.

John 18:33-38     Jesus as King

33 So Pilate went inside again, into the Praetorium,
and interrogated Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
34 Jesus answered him, “Do you ask this of your own accord,
or have others told you about me?”
35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew!
Your own people and the chief priests have handed you over to me.  
What have you done?”

To adopt the role and title of king, without formal confirmation by Rome, was clearly to stand in opposition to the Empire, and amounted to revolution. Rome would brook no opposition. The fate of revolutionaries was crucifixion. Already, during Jesus’ boyhood, there had been a brief revolution in Galilee, and for some time afterwards the roads of Galilee had been lined with crucified rebels. Minor unorganized revolts occurred from time to time, and there were occasional simmering incidents of unorganised guerrilla activity, particularly at times of religious ferment – as at Passover. 

The theme of kingship had hardly figured explicitly in the narrative up to this point. It is important to remember, however, that the term Messiah (or Christ), an Anointed One, regularly referred in contemporary Judaism to a fervently anticipated descendant of King David – who would liberate the nation from the Roman yoke. The author would indicate at the conclusion of his Gospel that his writing of the work had for its purpose the hope that its readers would believe that Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son of God” [20:31]. Jesus had firstly, however, to redefine the understanding of his kingship. He was not the kind of king that many were hoping for (including the Galilean crowd of five thousand whom he had fed earlier with the loaves and fishes [6:15]).

36 Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not from this world.  
If my kingdom were from this world,
my supporters would be fighting
to ensure that I not be handed over to the Jews.  
But my kingdom is not from here.” 

The title of king did not sit easily with Jesus. The essence of kingship from this world is to maintain social unity and the cultivation of order through the exercise of power. Such social unity is usually maintained by clearly delineating boundaries, and protecting those who belong by defending them against those who do not belong, if necessary, by violent means. Jesus was not interested in political power, nor would he sanction violence of any kind. (When arrested in the garden, Jesus had made a similar point to his disciples [18:11].) Yet, while not from this world, Jesus’ redefined kingship would certainly be in this world. Not defined by constitution, it would be based on love as the way, truth as the context, and life as the experienced outcome [14:6].

37 So Pilate said to him, “So are you not a king then?”  
Jesus answered, “You are the one saying that I am a king.  
For this I was born and for this I have come into the world,
that I might give witness to truth.  
Everyone who is from the side of truth listens to what I say.”  

In the Gospel’s typical cryptic way, the Beloved Disciple connected Jesus’ kingship with the proclamation of truth. Jesus could not be other than what he in fact was. Full of grace and truth [1:14], he was the criterion of genuine humanity, according to which all human interactions were to be discerned and governed. Those with genuine sensitivity, and not blinded by sin, would recognise the truth of Jesus, and ensure their lives were ordered in line with his values.

38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

Pilate’s question is the question to be confronted by every person who would seek eternal life. In the context, most commentators read Pilate’s comment as a tired, cynical dismissal of the whole subject – typical of all imprisoned in their social and cultural constructs.

John 18:38b-40     First Attempt to Release Jesus

Pilate went outside for the second time, for further engagement with the Jews. 

When he had said this, Pilate went outside again to the Jews.  
He said to them, “I find no fault in him.

This was Pilate’s first declaration of Jesus’ innocence. His conversation with Jesus had made it clear to him that Jesus’ kingship was a religious issue, and that Jesus had no political pretensions. However, a further dynamic was being enacted. Pilate seemed reluctant to release the obviously innocent Jesus. Perhaps, though he effectively despised them, he was reluctant to upset the fanatical Jewish leaders who were clearly intent on eliminating Jesus. He did, after all, need their general co-operation. Having closed his mind to the truth, to the transcendent, he abdicated responsibility and left it to the crowd whom he despised to determine his choices for him.

39 Now you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover.
Would you agree therefore that I release for you the king of the Jews?” 
40 They shouted back to him, “Not this fellow, but Barabbas”.  
Barabbas was a rebel.

The narrative made no mention of crowds, beyond the chief priests and police. Pilate hoped to resolve his dilemma by enlisting the support of others. (Though not mentioned, the narrative would seem to require the presence of an otherwise supportive or even indifferent crowd who, he presumed, would ask for the release of Jesus.) His ruse did not work. The unidentified person for whose release they shouted out was Barabbas, a genuine rebel.

Earlier in the narrative, Jesus had claimed: anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit [10:1]. In declaring themselves for a rebel, the chief priests and police identified themselves as bad shepherds, come to steal and kill and destroy 10:10].

Next >> John 19:1-16