For almost two thousand years now millions of Christians around the globe have confessed and continue to confess their faith using the Apostles Creed…which contains within it the phrase, “Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” Why Pilate? Why not mention one of the high priests like Annas or Caiaphas here instead? Theologians and historians alike tell us the reason we recite Pilate’s name in the creed is because in the trials and sentencing of our Lord Jesus Pilate functioned as the persona publica, the highest position of authority. He declared Jesus was without guilt in John 18:38b, yet he delivered Him over to be crucified anyway.
This morning I’d like to call your attention to something. Though Pilate seems to hold a prominent position in our text today…he questions the Jews in v28-32 and then questions Jesus in v33-38a…the main character isn’t Pilate, it is Jesus Christ. He Himself and the nature of His Kingdom occupy center stage.Having seen the Jewish trial conclude the Roman trial now begins in v28-32 where…
Pilate Questions the Jews (v28-32)
“Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this Man?” They answered him, “If this Man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered Him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take Him yourselves and judge Him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death He was going to die.”
After Peter’s three denials and after Annas is done questioning Jesus he sends Jesus to Caiaphas. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describe that trial at length, John does not. You ever wondered why? Perhaps his eyewitness account was limited to only what occurred before Annas, perhaps John omits it because most of his readers were Greek and not Jewish, or perhaps John believes his readers already know about that trial from the other gospels so he doesn’t see reason enough to include it here. All of these options are good options to land on, but whatever the reason is for not including the trial before Caiaphas we again must remember this is John’s gospel and John is writing from his perspective to make his unique purposes clear. So, after mentioning that Jesus is sent to Caiaphas in v24 John simply tells us in v28 that Jesus is sent on to Pilate. John may not include the second Jewish trial before Caiaphas, but what follows is the most thorough description of the trial before Pilate we have in all four gospels.
The rest of v28 mentions a few more particulars. We learn it’s early morning by this point, somewhere around 6:00 a.m., which is important because the Jews couldn’t hold an official trial to condemn Jesus during the night. It seems then, they held Jesus in custody in their Jewish courts with Annas and Caiaphas until the time arrived when they could have a legitimate trial before Pilate. This isn’t very surprising because most Roman officials began their day’s work very early in the morning so they could be done with their work by 11:00 a.m.Upon arriving at the governor’s headquarters, or the Praetorium, we find the Jewish authorities refusing to enter because they didn’t want to be ceremonially unclean or defiled for Passover. They did this because, for Jews, to enter the dwelling of a Gentile would make one unclean for seven days, and since they wanted to keep all the feasts of the entire Passover celebration they remained outside.
You might be wondering why a detail like this is given to us here. Well, isn’t it telling how these Jews are so careful to do anything that would prevent them from keeping Passover while at the same time they’re not at all concerned about carrying out an illegal and unlawful trial in an effort to commit murder? I think John includes this detail to show us the gross wickedness of these Jews.Here are those who honored God with their lips while their hearts were far from Him. This is a wonderful example of why so many Old Testament prophets said God hates the religion of His people. So often the Israelites went through all the motions, maintained all the rituals, and ‘kept themselves clean’ while being involved in sin of all kinds.These Jews are no different. Thinking they can be clean in the eyes of God to eat the meal of God while orchestrating the death of the Son of God! Only in a fallen world could such a contradictory religion exist, and we know this kind of phoniness didn’t just exist back then. It is alive and well today in us. For this reason some say they won’t ever become a Christian, because the Church is full of hypocrites and frauds. I wish many of us would begin answering that objection like this: “You know, I think you’re right…but if I’m being honest, you don’t even know the half of it…God’s Church is full of sinners! But we have a great Savior who has loved us despite what we once were and what we still are in part. Would you like to come with me to see all of this for yourself?”
May this contradictory reality not only lead us to repentance for our own faithlessness, may it lead us to embrace anew a religion that pleases God, a religion that is honest about who we are, a religion that brings a harmony between our lips and our hearts, a religion that reveals a deep unity between what we profess and what we actually possess.
Pilate now enters the scene. He normally resided in Caesarea but during Jewish festivals he would reside in Jerusalem to keep the peace. In this mindset he allows the Jews to maintain their religious scruples about not entering his home so he comes out to meet them in v29 saying, “What accusation do you bring against this Man?” They respond in v30, “If this Man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered Him over to you.” That they respond to Pilate with such an irritable tone shows something of what they were expecting from Pilate. Pilate had, after all, agreed to send a few hundred soldiers with their chief priests to arrest Jesus earlier. Now he wants to know what the charges are (?) as if he desires to begin another new trial? The Jews are angrily frustrated and respond the way they do because they expected Pilate to immediately confirm their judgment and proceed to the execution. But Pilate wants to know the charges and all they can say is Jesus is ‘doing evil.’ That it’s the first thing in the morning, that the Jews are bringing him a vague theological case to decide on, and that there hasn’t been any Roman law broken Pilate understandably responds in an equally frustrated manner, “Take Him yourselves and judge Him by your own law.” He has a hunch to what they desire and his response shows he wants no part in it. Their motives are made clear as they respond to him in v31b, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.”
There it is.
They’ve decided Jesus is guilty by their own laws and customs, and while they often stirred up mobs to stone someone to death they cannot legally execute anyone without Roman approval, so they come to Pilate wanting approval to do just that. They had tried to stone Jesus a time or two before but now nothing less than a Roman cross will do. Why? They know what Moses said in Deut. 21:23, “…a hanged man is cursed by God.” To them crucifixion would discredit Jesus completely as He hung there helpless and dying. But O what an irony is in view in v32 as John reminds us that crucifixion won’t discredit Jesus but glorify Jesus as He is lifted up to draw all His own in to Himself (John 12:32).Even here in their angry hostility in seeking His death, the Sovereign Christ is using them as His instruments for His own great glory and our great good.
Pilate Questions Jesus (v33-38a)
“So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about Me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered You over to me. What have You done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But My kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to My voice.” Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?”
In a surprising scene the seemingly lowly Jesus is now interrogated before the proud prefect representing Rome.God is in the dock as man sits in judgment over Him. Having agreed to hear and try their case against Jesus Pilate takes Jesus inside to question Him further. “Are You the King of the Jews?” In all four gospels as Pilate questions Jesus these are the first words out of his mouth, and in each case the emphasis is placed on the word “You.” “Are Youthe King of the Jews?” From what the Jews had told him of this Jesus you can imagine Pilate to expect Jesus to be someone who carried himself with great pomp and circumstance, but one glance at this prisoner would’ve made it crystal clear to him that for someone like Jesus to claim to kingship is highly dubious.
For someone who had free reign to do as he pleased with those under his rule, Pilate would’ve expected Jesus to immediately answer his question but instead he finds himself on the dock as Jesus begins questioning him. “Are you speaking for yourself, or is this the thought of others?” If it’s Pilate’s own thought than he’s wanting to know if Jesus intends to begin some kind insurrection against Roman authority. If it’s the Jews words coming out of Pilate’s mouth than he’s wanting to see how Jesus answer’s the Jew’s testimony about Him. Jesus asks what He does to answer the actual question being asked. He isn’t building a revolt against Rome, but He is the long anticipated Messianic King! Pilate clearly doesn’t like being questioned by others so he responds in v35 somewhat sharply, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered You over to me. What have You done?” His answer to Jesus shows he could care less about the claim of Jesus’ kingship, he’s not one of them and could care less about who Jesus is. For Pilate the matter of importance is that the Jews themselves handed him in, which means Jesus must have done something to trouble them so much. So he asks Jesus to get to the point and tell him plainly what He’s done.
Jesus responds in v36 with words that have become historic, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But My kingdom is not from the world.” Jesus is a King and He has a Kingdom, but His kingdom isn’t like any other kingdom. His kingdom’s origin cannot be found in this world and thus His kingdom isn’t of this world. If it were a kingdom like other kingdoms, a kingdom of the world like Rome, He and His disciples would be fighting and they certainly wouldn’t let Jesus be taken into the custody of the Jews. Now, don’t go where Jesus doesn’t go here. Yes His kingdom isn’t of the world, but He doesn’t mean His kingdom has nothing to do with the world and doesn’t mean His kingdom isn’t active in the world at this moment.It is! When He came into this world He came preaching about the kingdom saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Jesus has a kingdom, His kingdom has broken into the world and is changing more hearts every day, and one day His kingdom will come in full when He returns in royal power.
James Montgomery Boice, commenting on this passage, once said “…when we say that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, what we are really saying is that Christ’s kingdom is of heaven and therefore has an even greater claim over us andthe earthly kingdoms we know so well…Over these is Christ, and all who deny His kingship do sonot only at the peril of theirearthlylives but at the peril of theireternal souls.”Worldly eyes sees nothing kingly in Christ, but for those who have eyes to see before this Roman prefect stands the King of kings.
Pilate’s brief reply could be a mere statement “So you are a king” or it could be a question “So you are a king?” or it could be something of a rude remark “So, it is a king that you are?”Whatever it is, Pilate doesn’t get it. He only hears Jesus speaking of a kingdom and concludes that He is or claims to be some kind of king. Before in v36 Jesus spoke of His kingdom negatively saying what it isn’t, here in v37 He speaks of His kingdom positively saying, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to My voice.” Jesus affirms Pilate’s words and adds that herein lies the purpose for which He came into this world, the nature of His kingdom is that it is a kingdom of truth that bears witness to the truth. John likely intends us to remember what Jesus said earlier about Himself in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The implication Jesus brings out here is that the truth His kingdom bears witness to is Himself: who He is, why He’s come, what He’s doing, and what He will do. But we learn more. All Romans were steeped in the philosophies of Greek Hellenism and proudly saw themselves as a people of ‘truth.’But just as all those who are sheep hear and heed the voice of the Good Shepherd, all those who are of the truth hear and heed the teaching of Jesus, which reveals the true spiritual state of the Jews who handed Him over and Pilate who doesn’t get it, they’re not of the truth.
Pilate’s response to all of this is as historic as Jesus’ words. In v38a he says, “What is truth?” Pilate isn’t requesting a crash course on truth by asking this question. No, he doesn’t even wait for, nor really wants, a reply as the rest v38 shows. Which makes his question “What is truth?” a dismissive statement flowing from a skeptical heart. He, like many throughout history and many our own day, clearly doesn’t think this question can be answered.
Is this not one of the most offensive things about Christianity today? Not that we claim to know a truth, but that we claim to know thetruth, the one grand meta-narrative, that alonegives meaning to all of life? Indeed it is. While perception and opinion truly does matter about this or that, does someone’s perception or opinion of ultimate truth change ultimate truth? No! C.S. Lewis describes this so well when he says, “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”
So friends: when it comes to the truth of Jesus Christ, you can reject it, disagree with it, rebel against it, or run from it…it won’t change the fact that one day all will stand where Pilate stood here; before the King of Truth. Pilate may have asked ‘What is truth?’ thinking it is a question that cannot be answered, but I assure you on that day no questions will be asked. Jesus Christ is the pattern and prototype of truth, such that there is nothing true but Him and what comes from Him.Everyone who rejects Him rejects truth itself and will be exposed by the truth in the judgment to come. But all who embrace Him, is of the truth, they know the truth and the truth has set them free (John 8:32).
R.C. Sproul, John – Saint Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Orlando, Florida: Reformation Trust, 2009) page 348.
D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John – PNTC (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1991) page 587.
Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John – NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1971) page 761-762.
Carson, page 588.
Most commentators point out the reason Gentile homes were unclean was that it was common custom for Gentiles to bury aborted babies under their home, or wash them down the plumbing, which would bring a Jew coming into that home into contact with a dead body, thus making them defiled for a week (Numbers 9:7-10).
Morris, page 763.
Sproul, page 350.
Morris, page 766.
Ibid., page 767.
Carson, page 594.
James Montgomery Boice, quoted in Richard D. Phillips, John 11-21 – Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 2014) page 515. Italicized emphasis my own.
Morris, page 770.
Grant Osborne, John – Verse by Verse (Bellingham, Washington: Lexham Press, 2018) page 425.
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain…unsure of page number.
Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, reprinted 2012.