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“Criminal or King?”

John 18:28-40
Bob DeGray
March 21, 2004

Key Sentence

Like Pilate, we have a choice to make about Jesus.


I. The Criminal (John 18:28-32)
III. The King (John 18:33-37)
II. The Truth (John 18:37-40)


        C. S. Lewis’ most influential book may have been Mere Christianity. Sixty years after it’s publication, it’s still a great way to thoughtfully share the Good News about Jesus. One key concept from the book is what has come to be called ‘the trilemma’, like a dilemma only with three options. While describing the claims of Christ, especially his claim to be the Son of God, Lewis says “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who is merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic _ on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg _ or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

        Jesus confronts us with a choice - to worship or to condemn. In that sense Pontius Pilate stands for all of us in John 18 as he makes his judgment about Christ. Will he brand him as a criminal, which is what his accusers wanted? Or will he recognize him as the king, which he truly was. Will he believe a lie or embrace the truth? These stark choices that confront Pilate are recorded in Scripture because each person needs to confront the same dilemma. Like Pilate, we have to make a choice about Jesus.

I. The Ciminal (John 18:28-32)

        Let’s begin with John 18:28-32, where Jesus is presented to Pilate as an evil-doer: Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. 29So Pilate came out to them and asked, "What charges are you bringing against this man?" 30"If he were not a criminal," they replied, "we would not have handed him over to you." 31Pilate said, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law." "But we have no right to execute anyone," the Jews objected. 32This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled.

        When we last left that crucial day, Jesus had been interrogated by Annas, the former high priest, and then taken to Caiaphas, the current high priest for trial. I mentioned last week that John seems to have been writing partially to provide details not provided by the other passion accounts, with which he seems to have been familiar. The other accounts, for example, omit the interview before Annas, which John details, but detail the interview before Caiaphas, which John skips.

        John tells us that Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin sent Jesus to Pilate early in the morning. The Roman military used this term to formally talk about the hours from 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. One might ask whether the Roman governor would take cases at that hour, and the answer is actually yes. Many in the Roman ruling class carried on their official duties early in the day, beginning before dawn and ending before noon. People also ask how everything that happened on Good Friday can be fit in before sundown, and this is part of the answer - things got off to a very early start.

        This trial takes place at the Praetorium, the headquarters of a Roman military governor. Pilate’s normal praetorium was in Caesarea, but he, his predecessors and successors made it a point to be in Jerusalem for the feasts, and while there his praetorium was probably the Antonia Fortress. But the Jewish leaders would not enter the building because they would become ceremonially unclean. Entering Gentile quarters would make any Jew unclean until sundown, and if there was suspicion that the place had been defiled by a dead body, as was commonly suspected when Roman soldiers were involved, then the Jew would be unclean for a week. Either condition would embarrass these very religious leaders during the feast. So Pilate came out either to a courtyard or to a balcony to speak with them.

        A lot of debate revolves around John’s comment that they wished to avoid this uncleanness so they could eat the Passover. This appears to imply that the Passover meal had not yet taken place, whereas Jesus and the disciples seem to have celebrated it the night before. Thoughtful people come down on either side of this, but it’s my opinion that less explaining needs to be done if we agree that Thursday night was the Passover feast, and Friday was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Luke 22:1 says that “The Feast of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover, was approaching.” This equates the two, which was common. In my opinion these leaders had already had the Passover meal, but wanted to be able to participate in all the activities of the Passover week, including a special offering that very morning.

        Pontius Pilate had been appointed governor under Emperor Tiberius in AD 26, and served until AD 37. Reviews of his rule are mixed, but most agree that he was morally weak and vacillating, and that he hid his weakness behind a mask of cruelty and brutality. History records many incidents in the life of Pilate both before and during his rule in Palestine, and while he did have some accomplishments, he also had miserable failures, and earned much hatred from those he ruled. So it’s in character that Pilate, despite the fact that he had almost certainly agreed to the arrest of Jesus, now mocks the Jewish leaders by gathering data as if for a trial. "What charges are you bringing against this man?" In response they say "If he were not a criminal we would not have handed him over to you." This, in turn, seems an insolent reply. It’s probably because the question was unexpected. Pilate had been briefed, and he’d already agreed to send soldiers to the arrest of Jesus. The Jewish leaders must have assumed he would automatically go along with their judgment.

        So now they tell him he’s dealing with an evil-doer. That’s a literal translation. The Greek phrase also implies habitual evil. He’s not just a ‘criminal’, but a ‘hardened criminal’, a constant evil-doer. Pilate, perhaps offended by the insolence of the reply, says essentially ‘well, if he is an evil-doer, try him by your own law.’ No doubt Pilate knew the Jewish authorities wanted the death penalty, but if they were going to give him vague generalities like these they should stick to their own courts.

        Pilate, like any petty politician, is forcing them to admit that he’s the one with the power. It was typical for occupied territories to keep their own legal systems, except for the death penalty, which was always in Roman hands. The only exception was temple-desecration, which may be why during the trial before Caiaphas they tried to prove ‘anti-temple’ statements by Jesus. Failing that, they had to get Pilate to agree that Jesus was guilty of a capital crime by Roman standards. Theological motivations and religious misdemeanors would probably not interest Pilate.

        From God’s point of view, however, all this political maneuvering allowed his plan for Jesus to be accomplished. Verse 32 “This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled.” Jesus had said “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself." and John adds “He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die”, that is, death on a cross, lifted up on a cross. Jewish law said that anyone hung on a tree was accursed, and it was convenient for the Jews that Roman execution made a theological statement they agreed with, in this case. But even this death, this kind of death was foreseen and prophesied by Jesus.

I. The Kign (John 18:33-37)

        So we’ve seen that the Jewish leaders declare before Pilate that Jesus is a criminal. We’ve seen that Pilate is skeptical. How will he respond to Jesus? Verses 33 to 37: Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" 34"Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?" 35"Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?" 36Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place." 37"You are a king, then!" said Pilate. Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king"

        Pilate’s question “Are you the king of the Jews?” implies that the charges he received from the Sanhedrin used that phrase. Pilate is asking Jesus for his opinion of this charge. In reality the Sanhedrin opposed Jesus for his large following, for his theological threat to their insistence on the letter of the law, and for his exposure of their hypocrisy. But those things don’t carry a death sentence. So they take Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah, and reformulate it into a threat to Roman rule. The Jews did expect the Messiah, the Son of David, to reign as king over Israel. So it’s legitimate to make his supposed kingship the crucial factor in his execution.

        Rather than responding, Jesus asks a question in return “Is that your idea or did others talk to you about me?” In other words, are you seeking the truth or merely parroting what the Sanhedrin said? Pilate’s response shows it’s not a heart interest for him: “Am I a Jew?” In other words, ‘even if you were the king of this tumultuous clan of rag-tag rebels and religious fanatics, what would that be to me? I’m a Roman - I rule over petty kingdoms like this one.’ Pilate didn’t seek Jesus out, as Herod did, or take seriously the rumors about Jesus as king. In fact, Pilate thought him a rather poor candidate for ‘king of the Jews’ considering his own people weren’t even behind him. Pilate knows something is going on among the chief priests other than loyalty to Rome, that Jesus must have done something to offend their interests. He also knows that whatever it was may not deserve Roman justice. So he asks “What is it you have done?"

        But Jesus is still clarifying his kingship: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” He acknowledges he’s a king, but he defines his kingdom primarily in terms of kingship not territory. If he had been an earthly king and desired Israel’s throne, he would have gathered forces, and those people would have fought for him at his arrest. The fact that he was arrested so easily is evidence to Pilate that his kingship, if any, is of a different kind.

        That’s what Jesus says: “My kingdom is not of this world; my kingdom is not from here.” To know what he means we have to remember how Jesus and John have used the term ‘world’ throughout this Gospel. We know on the one hand that Jesus was God’s agent in the creation of the world, John 1:9, and that God so loved the world that he sent Jesus, John 3:16. John also tells us that Jesus was the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, John 1:29. On the other hand, Jesus says that he is not of this world, John 8:23, and that the world hates him, John 7:7. He says that he has come into the world as the Light of the world, John 8:12, that the world is in darkness, and that he has chosen his followers out of the world, John 15:19. Finally, Jesus is leaving this world and returning to the Father, John 16:28, and he has prayed that the Father will protect those he leaves behind in the world.

        So Jesus sees the world not primarily as that which was created, but as that which has fallen, the realm of darkness, rebellion, blindness and sin. His kingdom is not of that world. Rather, his kingdom is the result of loving those trapped in that world, giving himself for them, and calling them to come out of the darkness and into his light through faith. When he says ‘my kingdom is not of this world’ he is not saying that his kingdom is not active in this world, nor that it has nothing to do with this world, but that it’s purpose is to create a new society of believers who are in the world but not of it. This new society has Jesus as it’s king, and because he is leaving this world, the focus of the kingdom in our age is not on territories and earthly dominion, but on the reign of Jesus over the people he has chosen.

        Some years ago, before I became a pastor, I listened to a program called “Chapel of the Air” with David Mains. We’ve often read his “Tales of the Kingdom” books to our children. His adult definition of the kingdom is about the best I’ve read, and I think Jesus would agree with it: “Christ’s kingdom is any situation in which (1) Christ is recognized as king, (2) his will is obeyed, and (3) obedient subjects reap the benefits of his rule.” Here in John Jesus is saying ‘The important part of my kingdom has nothing to do with territorial reign, but with my reign over hearts.’

        Now let me say, in passing, that it will not always be limited to this. As you study Christ’s teaching it becomes clear that the kingdom is ‘now and not yet’. It is now: it is Christ’s reign over us, our obedience to his will, and his bestowal of blessing on his subjects. But it’s also ‘not yet’. A day will come when the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ and he shall reign for ever and ever.’ There is, first of all, a millennial kingdom, in which Christ returns to this world and reigns on earth from Jerusalem, a reign during which all of God’s promises to the nation and people of Israel are fulfilled. Then there is the final reign, in which the Father, the Son and the Spirit dwell in glory in a new heaven and a new earth populated by us, the eternally living redeemed trophies of his grace. The kingdom is now in the hearts of all who recognize Christ, but it is still to come in the glorious fulfillment of all that has been promised.

        Pilate understands little of this. He says “Ah, you are a king, then!” He’s being sarcastic: all he can see is the captive, the man with no obvious power or wealth or following or support, the man already bruised and probably bleeding from the cruelty of his captors. At this point Jesus answers his accuser in a way recorded in all four Gospels. “You are right in saying I am a king.” The statement literally means something like ‘you say so’, but as used in Greek it affirms what the speaker says; it doesn’t deny it or belittle it. Jesus is the king, but he emphasizes that it is the speaker who has said so, probably to get the speaker to think about his own words.

        Pilate is now faced with a choice. The Jews have claimed that Jesus is a criminal worthy of death, partially because he claims to be a king. Pilate has explored this enough to know that Jesus’ claim is no threat to Rome, because his kingdom isn’t focused on the fallen world, but on himself. Pilate is faced with the choice Lewis described in our opening discussion. Will he see Jesus as evil and therefore worthy of death, as a deluded madman, and therefore of no account at all, alive or dead, or will he take him as he is, the ruler of men by means of a kingdom not of this world, worthy even of allegiance from Rome’s governor? This is the same choice that confronts each person here today. Will you dismiss Jesus as a mere man, will you belittle him as having nothing to do with your life today, or will you accept that though his kingdom is not an earthly one, he still seeks to reign in your heart, if you will recognize him as rightful Lord and ruler, and trust him as your Savior? Will you have him as your king, or be a rebel against him? That’s Pilate’s choice and yours.

        In the last few verses of our section today Jesus sharpens that choice. He wants Pilate to see that this isn’t a choice between two opinions, but between the truth and lies. Verses 37 to 40 Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." 38"What is truth?" Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, "I find no basis for a charge against him. 39But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release 'the king of the Jews'?" 40They shouted back, "No, not him! Give us Barabbas!" Now Barabbas had taken part in a rebellion.

I. The Truth (John 18:37-40)

        A few years back we did a Christmas series focused on what Jesus said about why he was born, but somehow I missed this verse: “For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” ‘For this reason’ probably refers back to his affirmation that he is a king: that’s what he came to be. But it also refers forward to the idea that he came to testify to the truth. A few minutes ago we ran through John to see what Jesus said about the world. Let’s do it again and see what it says about the truth. The first thing is that Jesus was the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth, John 1:14. Jesus is the light of the world, and whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, John 3:21. In the same way Jesus tells us that the Father is seeking those who will worship him in spirit and in truth, John 4:24. He says to his followers “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

        Over and over Jesus says ‘truly, truly’ or ‘I tell you the truth.” John 3:3 In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." John 5:24 "I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned.” John 6:47 “I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life.” Jesus came to tell the truth so people would hear and believe. And in a very real sense he was that truth. John 14:6 “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” When Jesus tells Pilate he came to be a witness to the truth, he means he came to reveal himself and to reveal the Father with whom he was one. And he promised to continue revealing through the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of truth, who will guide you into all truth.” Further, he left us his word, and he prays “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” John 17:17.

        So Jesus is a witness to truth - he reveals the truth about God and about us, he reveals the truth about himself and his salvation, which comes through believing in Him. Only through him can people like Pilate or anyone else come to the Father. He brings this to a sharp decision point when he says to Pilate “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." Who you gonna listen to Pilate? The chief priests and the leaders of the Jews, who you know to be liars, or this man who lives and teaches truth?

        Pilate is faced with a tough choice: political expediency that believes a lie, or integrity that turns to the truth. Part of him seems to want that truth. He hesitates and equivocates and thrashes around far too much in the Gospel accounts to allow us to avoid that conclusion. But when push comes to shove he takes the politician’s path, sacrifices truth for expediency, and allows this man he knows innocent to be crucified. Why? He reveals part of the answer in his next three words “What is truth?”

        I call this the modern heresy. When confronted with truths they don’t like, moderns almost invariably question not the truths themselves, but the existence of truth. “My truth is my truth” we say “and yours is yours”. Truth is relative, a false category. Everything is subjective and depends on the point of view of the individual, so I can only do what seems best to me, and for me. Thus we justify abortion, divorce, homosexuality and a whole host of attitudes and behaviors that used to be clearly wrong. “What is truth?” Pilate asked, and thus dismissed the possibility that Jesus was telling the truth, belittled the possibility that truth could be known or mattered. There are more important things than truth, he as much as said, though in his case the only other important thing seems to have been his standing with Caesar. There are more important things than truth, our culture says, but at the core of their lists there seems only to be personal self-interest. If we get the discussion away from the area of truth and into the area of personal feelings, personal desires, personal well being - we can justify anything.

        Pilate is an early example of this modern mind set. Nonetheless, he doesn’t feel quite right in condemning a man he knows to be innocent, so he begins a series of pointless vacillations before succumbing to the pressure of expidency. The first of these occurs at the end of this chapter, and the rest will be taken up by Tim Rask when he preaches for us next week. In Verse 38: Pilate returns to the outer colonnade and attempts to bring his verdict to the leaders and the crowd, which seems to have grown large and unruly: "I find no basis for a charge against him.” He understood Jesus’ words well enough to grasp that nothing in his definition of kingship was a threat to the empire in any political sense.

        But then Pilate gets too clever. He thinks the crowd is probably on Jesus’ side, and that he can get around the Jewish leaders by appealing directly to the crowd, as custom allows him to do at this time of year. Verse 39 “But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release 'the king of the Jews'?” This custom was apparently instituted by the Romans as a means of calming national fervor at the feast. I’m sure the Romans didn’t want to release insurrectionists, but they must have figured it would be better to appease the emotions of the mob than to hold any particular man. But in this case the chief preists and the leaders had persuaded the crowd that they wanted the insurrectionist Barabbas rather than Jesus. Verse 40 “They shouted back, "No, not him! Give us Barabbas!"

        Barabbas was an insurrectionist. The Greek word literally means robber or a plunderer, but first century writers regularly used of terrorists or rebels. Mark’s gospel tells us that Barabbas had participated in a bloody insurrection. So Pilate, who has abandoned truth as a means of making moral choices is now impaled on the fatal flaw of relativism - that right and wrong now becomes the property of whoever can shout the loudest. If you leave it to the crowd to choose between Jesus and Barabbas, then whatever the crowd says is right. In the same way in our day, right and wrong are being defined by whoever has the loudest voice in the public arena. If the homosexual lobby has the loudest voice, homosexual marriage will become a reality, just as a few generations ago the voice of the sexual revolution legitimized sex outside of marriage and no-fault divorce. If supporters of abortion have the ear of the media and politicians then the right to choose will be right, and the right to life wrong. It’s an endless slippery slope. There is no moral choice: oppression, euthanasia, murder, genocide, holocaust that cannot be justified by those with power, if right is defined as what people say is right.

        So Pilate had a choice, and he blew it. The leaders of the Jews presented him with a lie about Jesus. He listened to Jesus and heard the truth. But he choose the modern heresy and would not accept that truth was truth. He chose instead, to be swayed by the loudest voices. How about you? How about me? We have this choice about Jesus as well. Is he the way, the truth and the life, or is he a misguided and possibly mad martyr. There isn’t a real place to stand between those two, unless you want to accept the idea that there is no truth, that whatever voice has the most power and gets the most attention defines what’s right and wrong. If you want to accept truth, that means accepting that Jesus is the king he claimed to be, the one who calls us to trust him for salvation by faith, and to serve him as our king now, and to cling to the truth. Pilate wimped on his choice. What have we done? What will you do?