For most of his early life C.S. Lewis, being a convinced atheist, rejected Christianity. But slowly but surely he began to convinced otherwise. Through reading G.K. Chesterton and others he began seeing the holes in the atheistic argument. He began reading Scripture and was more and more convinced that Christianity was proving true. Then in the late 1920’s he found himself surrounded by Christians and discussing these things more than he was comfortable doing so. But at last in 1929 he gave in. Lewis describes the moment like this, “You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed; perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
He would describe this moment in many ways afterwards saying things like: ‘after plumbing the depths of divine mercy I felt compelled by God to come to Him.’ In another place he says, ‘…for many years, I viewed the land of peace from a distance, now I have begun walking the road that led to it.’ Or perhaps the most pronounced way he described it forms the title to his autobiography: in this moment Lewis says he was ‘surprised by joy.’
‘Surprised by joy’ is a wonderful way to explain becoming a Christian. I mention Lewis’ conversion, not just because it’s so encouraging, but because our passage this morning is filled with a similar tone of surprise. Pilate is surprised by the Jews, he is surprised by his own fear, and most of all Pilate is surprised by Jesus Himself. Above all of this, I think we will be surprised in these few verses as we behold the majestic power and merciful love of our Lord Jesus, even though Jesus is moving closer toward the cross.
Let’s see these things firsthand now.
Surprised by the Jews (v7)
Having sensed Pilate’s frustration with this whole ordeal and his unwillingness to execute Jesus on political grounds, the Jews now make their real argument known, and it isn’t political, it’s entirely religious. In v7 the Jews say, “We have a law, and according to that law He ought to die because He has made Himself the Son of God.” They know Pilate’s job requirements. They know that the Roman prefect is to keep peace, but they also know one way he’s supposed to keep the peace is by allowing local law to remain in place as long as Rome isn’t threatened by doing so. So, the Jews speak of a law they have, not referring to whole of the Old Testament or the whole of the books of Moses using the word ‘law’ but only referring to one small part of it. That those who make themselves out to be the Son of God ought to die. This comes from Leviticus 24:16 which says, “Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death.” In other words, no man must ever attribute to himself any honor that belongs to God, to do so will only give you the right to be stoned. To these Jews, Jesus has done this very thing, so he must die.
For us, working our way through John’s gospel, this is nothing new to see. Blasphemy is a theme that rises as John’s gospel progresses.In John 5:18 the Jews sought to kill Jesus because He made Himself equal with God. In John 8:59 the Jews take up stones and try to kill Jesus for using the divine name of God, I AM, to refer to Himself. In John 10:33 the Jews again seek to stone Him saying this time, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone You but for blasphemy, because You, being a man, make yourself God.” Here in chapter 19 these same Jews are still in a frenzied fervor. Not so much from Jesus’ ministry but from His claim to a divine identity.So, they ask Pilate to execute Jesus on the basis of Jewish law because he clearly won’t do it on the basis of Roman law.
Now, don’t miss what’s actually happening within the Jew’s statement in v7. It is the weightiest of claims to make yourself out to be God. This is true, all day long. A man ought to never attribute to himself what belongs to God alone. And Jesus truly did, as we’ve seen time and time again, claim to be one with the Father, claim to be the great I AM, and claim to be the very Son of God. In this sense the Jews are not wrong. But, from this right foundation they arrive at the wrong conclusion. Stones should fly at one who makes such a claim, for it is blasphemy indeed…unless, those claims are true. The Jews missed what was staring them in the face. Jesus didn’t just claim to be God, He was God (!) and remains to be God (!) and will forever be fully and truly God! This fact though, they were unwilling to believe, and so to them the conclusion is clear: Jesus must die.
We now transition back to Pilate. The Jews have made their religious argument clear from this law they have, and you’d think this would do nothing but further frustrate Pilate for having to now consider Jesus’ case from a religious viewpoint…but it doesn’t. Look next at v8-10 as we see Pilate surprised by fear.
Surprised by Fear (v8-10)
“When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are You from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to Him, “You will not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You and authority to crucify You?”
‘Why?’ is the proper response to v8. Pilate has cared very little and has even dismissed everything Jesus said to him during this trial about Himself, His kingdom, and the truth. Why then does Pilate grow ‘even more’ fearful when he hears that Jesus has made Himself to be the Son of God? Part of it is certainly that Pilate has never encountered such a Man as Jesus. But the other part of it is found in Pilate’s culture.The Greco-Roman worldview and culture was very superstitious. Stories abounded in their culture about various gods at various times coming down to earth and taking on human form. Paul and Barnabas had to deal with this very thing belief in Acts 14 when the people of Lystra thought they were Zeus and Hermes. Pilate would’ve been raised in and steeped in these things. A Jewish ear hearing Jesus state that He is God would’ve sounded immediately blasphemous…but to a Greco-Roman ear it would’ve sounded quite different. Pilate wasn’t a religious man, as we’ve seen, but the thought that 1) Jesus could be a ‘divine man’ or a god in human form…that 2) he had just had Jesus flogged…and that 3) his own wife just had a dream (as Matthew tells us, Matt. 27:19) about Jesus causing her to warn him against having anything to do with this Jesus…all these things taken together made Pilate tremble.
In this fearful state he pulls Jesus back inside and asks Him, “Where are You from?” Strange question indeed after all
Jesus has already said about His kingdom not being of this world, but a question we can understand knowing more of Pilate’s own culture and worldview. He wants to know if his fears are true or not. To his question Jesus responded with silence. Perhaps Jesus was silent because He thought Pilate would once again dismiss His words, or perhaps Jesus felt that He’d already said enough to answer the question.Whatever the reason behind Jesus’ silence we cannot help but think of Isaiah 53:7, “He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth.” How stunning that silence of the Savior would confirm and fulfill an ancient promise about the Messiah’s suffering.
This silence, to Pilate, wasn’t helpful at all. He was angered before when Jesus unexpectedly questioned him back in 18:34ff and now that Jesus is unexpectedly silent Pilate is angered even more. Why? He is afraid, v8 mentions he is more afraid than he’d been previously. And in this fearful anger Pilate responds in v10 saying, “You will not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You and authority to crucify You?” Or in other words, ‘Am I not the one in charge here? I alone have the authority to kill you, I alone have the authority to release you, and yet, to me you don’t speak?’ To Pilate Jesus’ silence must have felt very foolish. But again unexpectedly, Pilate’s words about his so-called authority unlock Jesus’ lips to speak about the greatest of all authorities in the universe in v11 where Pilate is surprised by authority.
Surprised by Authority (v11)
In v11 Jesus answered Pilate, “You would have no authority over Me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered Me over to you has the greater sin.”
v11 contains Jesus’ final words of Jesus to Pilate and in these words Jesus once again says something Pilate finds altogether unexpected. From Rome’s view there was no one in higher authority in all of Judea than this prefect Pilate. He had been sent there to rule over the people and to remind them of that rule using force if necessary. This meant that Pilate wasn’t a man you could approach like any other man. He likely had guards with him at all times similar to how the secret service continuously surrounds the president. Pilate was a man with great authority and during the exercise of that authority you can bet the one thing Pilate rarely heard from anyone was correction. He boldly stated he had the authority and power to crucify or let Jesus go. Jesus disagrees, and tells him as much. ‘You may have authority over Me Pilate, but the only authority you wield is authority given to you from above.’ Pilate likely believed Jesus was speaking about Caesar when He used the word ‘above.’ How wrong he was. If only Pilate knew how small Caesar was compared to God the Father. If only Pilate knew how small he was compared to the Son of God standing before him. None of the authority he so enjoyed came from Caesar or came from himself, it all came from God and Jesus reminds him of such reality; that even in this wicked and evil act of executing Christ, though Pilate and the Jews mean it for evil, God is sovereignly ruling over all these things, meaning them for great good. Perhaps you remember John 10:18 where Jesus taught His disciples that it was ultimately He Himself that had the authority to lay His life down. Who then is truly in charge of Judea? Who is truly in charge of this trial? Who has a true authority and power here and everywhere? Not Pilate or any other ruler, emperor, or President, but God and His Christ.
Do not be fooled, no one makes Jesus Lord. He is Lord. When someone converts they do what C.S. Lewis did, they ‘give in’ and admit that God is God, recognizing His Lordship over all things, themselves included.
Well, after this correction we find a strange statement in v11b, “Therefore he who delivered Me over to you has the greater sin.” On the surface of this comment we learn that Pilate has sinned in his dealing with Jesus. Having the authority and power to release Him and refusing to do so for political purposes (even though he believes he is innocent) is a sinful and wicked action. But Jesus mentions there is one who has a greater sin. Who is this ‘one’? At first you might think Judas, because he was the one who delivered Jesus over to the authorities in his betrayal. But Judas has been largely absent in the trial before Pilate and it seems Jesus is referring to being handed over specifically to Pilate, so I don’t think Judas is in view here. Could it then be Annas, Caiaphas, or the angry mob of Jews? They were the ones who delivered Jesus to Pilate and kept on urging the matter forward toward crucifixion. True, all of the above parties played a role in handing Jesus over to be killed but I think Jesus has the Jews in mind here. Being a privileged people, having received the Law, the promises, and the covenants, they still turned a blind eye, hardened their hearts, and betrayed their own Messiah. This is wicked indeed. Jesus isn’t saying Pilate is guiltless, but He is saying Pilate’s sin isn’t as great as the Jews.
Don’t miss the forest for the trees here. Both the political posturing of Pilate and the angry mob of Jews exercise authority in this scene. But remember, who is ultimately in charge of this trial? The sovereign Christ, who alone has the authority to lay His life down! He isn’t caught by surprise or led to this moment against His own will, no. Rather, it is His sovereign will that, behind the scenes, is moving the pieces into place for His own execution. What majestic power and merciful love for us to behold here! These difficult moments may be in the minor key, but they are building to a grand culmination soon to come!
Lastly, look at v12 where we see Pilate surprised by pressure.
Surprised by Pressure (v12)
Once again, we something surprising from Pilate. Based on this last interaction between he and Jesus, it seems Pilate truly did see something divine in Jesus. We don’t really know what, but we do know Pilate was now convinced of two things: Jesus, 1) wasn’t a threat to Rome, and 2) wasn’t guilty of the Jews charge of blasphemy. So v12a says, “From then on Pilate sought to release Him…” We don’t know how much time passed between this desire in Pilate and the Jews response, but that the very next thing we see is the Jews crying out in the v12b implies that Pilate had likely returned outside and once again told the Jews of his desire to let Jesus go.But, and this isn’t so surprising, we see the Jews stubbornness remaining strong. They knew the pressure points, and put on the pressure they did. v12b shows us their response, “If you release this Man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.”
To be a ‘friend of Caesar’ was a phrase that meant far more than just in agreement to Caesar’s rule or plans. It meant that you were held in high honor by Caesar and always pleased Caesar. It was an honor Pilate had enjoyed and an honor he would’ve done anything to keep. The Jews threat here then is simple: Pilate will be considered a traitor to Rome if he releases someone who claims to be the true King. This would’ve hit close to home for Pilate, because the man who put Pilate in power, Sejanus, was executed by Caesar for something similar. Which means the Jews were in effect saying, ‘If you don’t do what we want, we’ll tell Caesar and you’ll be next.’Pilate, likely didn’t have a squeaky-clean resume in Judea and knew if Caesar looked too closely into his affairs he might indeed be removed and executed. So even though he’s seeking the release of Jesus, Pilate is foiled again as the Jews pile on political pressure which creates a mess of paranoia within Pilate.
Again, don’t miss what’s going on here. In order for the Jews to be successful in convincing Pilate to execute Jesus they say they’re more faithful subjects of Caesar than he is!For a people who claim to believe and follow the one true God over all things to say something like this reveals where their true hearts lie. They don’t know God, they don’t know the Scriptures, they’re slaves to sin, and they’ll do anything to keep their own positions of power within the city. Their steadfast stubbornness is appalling.
Lord willing, we’ll pick up with what occurs after this next week. For now, think on this.
Pilate is again and again surprised in this text, yes by the Jews, yes by himself, but mainly Pilate was surprised by Jesus. Something about Him gripped Pilate and unnerved Pilate. He had believed that Jesus could truly be a divine man and even questioned Jesus about His origins. But though he was surprised by Jesus and feared who Jesus might be when the Jews mentioned the name Caesar in v12 he caved. Pilate would rather conspire to commit murder with these Jews than do anything to offend Caesar.Why? Simple. It was a question of fear. He feared Caesar more than he feared Jesus. Because of this it seems Pilate’s deepest desire was to be a ‘friend of Caesar’ and enjoy all the worldly pomp that comes with it. Little good it would do him in the end. In just a few short years Tiberius Caesar would exile Pilate, leaving him to live out his days as a stranger and outcast.‘Friend of Caesar’ huh? His faith was misplaced, he feared the wrong king.
Don’t make the same mistake. ‘Friend of Caesar’? HA! Those turn their back on sin and place their faith in Christ become the very ‘friends of God.’ Church, being friends of God will not give you worldly pomp and acclamation, no. But O’ the riches we gain when we gain Christ! C.S. Lewis was surprised by Christ, he gave in, knelt and prayed, admitted that God was God, and rose finding his feet walking down the road that leads to the land of peace.
May you be so surprised by Christ today! “Happy are His people, glad to be His servants, gladder still to be His friends.”
C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (London, England/Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Publishing, 1955) page 228-229.
D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John – PNTC (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1991) page 599.
R.C. Sproul, John – Saint Andrew’s Expositional Commentary(Orlando, Florida: Reformation Trust, 2009) page 358.
Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John – NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1971) page 795-796. See also Carson, page 600.
Morris, page 796.
Sproul, page 360.
Ibid., page 361.
Morris, page 798-799.
Carson, page 602-603.
Richard D. Phillips, John 11-21 – Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2014) page 536.
Ibid., page 539.
Charles Spurgeon Study Bible, notes on 15:15, page 1451.