“Behold the Man!”
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they struck him in the face.
Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”
The eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of John’s Gospel deal with the trials of Jesus of Nazareth beginning with his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane and culminating in his crucifixion, as recorded in John 19:16–30. But strictly speaking, what we have in the first part of chapter 19 is not a trial. In fact, we have not been dealing with a trial in any strict sense since Pilate’s initial verdict of acquittal recorded in verse 38 of the preceding chapter. Jesus is still in the hands of the Roman procurator; the words that were to deliver him over to be crucified have not been uttered. But the trial actually ended earlier when Pilate said, “I find no basis for any charge against him.”
What occurs in the interval between the formal verdict of acquittal (John 18:38) and the execution of Jesus (John 19:16–30) is a series of attempts by Pilate to escape the people’s wishes. He knew Jesus was innocent of the charges brought against him; but since the rulers wanted Jesus crucified, Pilate (1) sent Jesus to Herod hoping that Herod would solve his dilemma, (2) attempted to release Jesus instead of Barabbas in honor of Jewish custom, and (3) caused Jesus to be beaten, hoping by this means to evoke pity from the leaders and mob. None of these stratagems worked. But each, as we have already begun to see, shows much about the nature of the human heart and its sin as well as about God’s plan for the redemption of the race through Jesus’ crucifixion.
Each event is pregnant with meaning, for never in the entire history of the world has so much, done in so short a time, been so significant.
What Man is This?
It was asked on an earlier occasion when Jesus had stilled the wind and waves on the Sea of Galilee, “What manner of man is this?” We may well ask the same question as we see him brought forth by Pilate after the merciless scourging by the soldiers of Rome. Here was One who, though he had been beaten unjustly, nevertheless bore himself with such dignity that the invitation of Pilate to “behold the man” is to see that which clearly overwhelms us. We hear the invitation: “Ecce homo (Behold the man!)” We look, and we conclude, “Never in all the history of the world has there been one like Jesus!”
Let me challenge you to behold him. Behold him first before Pilate, and ask, “Who is this one who stands before Pilate, beaten to the point of death, wearing a purple robe, crowned with thorns, ridiculed as the carnival King of the Jews?”
First of all, he is an innocent man. No crime has been proven against him. And not only has he already been pronounced innocent by Pilate, he is to be pronounced innocent several times more. It was the verdict of all who had dealings with him in these hours. First, Judas declared, “I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood” (Matt. 27:4). Second, Pilate’s wife sent to the Roman procurator, saying, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him” (Matt. 27:19). Third, Pilate himself declared Christ innocent: “I find no basis for a charge against him” (John 18:38). Fourth, Herod found Christ blameless, for Pilate reported of Herod’s verdict, “Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death” (Luke 23:15). Fifth, the dying thief expostulated, “We are punished justly; for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41). Sixth, the centurion in charge of the crucifixion said, “Surely this was a righteous man” (Luke 23:47). Lastly, the crowds at the cross, seeing the earthquake and the other supernatural signs accompanying his death, exclaimed, “Surely this was the Son of God” (Matt. 27:54).
This is the verdict of all who have looked at Jesus of Nazareth closely. It is the verdict of God and man, friend and foe, ancient and modern—as pointed out in a previous study.
As we look at Jesus before Pilate we also notice that he is a brave man. He had been beaten mercilessly, yet there is nothing cringing or compromising about his bearing. We have never seen a scourging, so it is hard to imagine the suffering involved in it. We should remember that the victim was stripped of clothing and tied to a post in a way that fully exposed the back. Being struck with a long leather thong (into which sharp pieces of lead, bone, and rock had been inserted) literally tore the person’s back into strips. Besides, the beating was so prolonged that few remained conscious throughout the ordeal and some died. Jesus bore this. Yet it was after his suffering that Pilate led him forth and called the people to “Behold the man!”
Was there wonder, even admiration in Pilate’s voice as he said this? There is room to think so. I suspect that William Barclay is on the right track when he writes: “It must have been Pilate’s first intention to awaken the pity of the Jews. ‘Look!’ he said. ‘Look at this poor, bruised, bleeding creature! Look at this wretchedness! Can you possibly wish to hound a creature like this to an utterly unnecessary death?’ But even as he said it, we can almost hear the tone of Pilate’s voice change and see the wonder dawn in his eyes. And instead of saying it half-contemptuously, to awaken pity, he says it with a dawning wonder and an admiration that will not be repressed.” In wartime soldiers will frequently admire the bravery of a defeated enemy, wondering how they themselves might bear up under similar suffering were the roles reversed. Did Pilate, an old soldier, perhaps inwardly respect Christ’s fortitude?
But it is not only bravery that we see in the man before Pilate. There is also majesty, and such majesty as befits the Son of God. Behold the man? Yes. But behold the King, too! And here we do not mean merely the mock king of the soldiers’ devising. We mean the true King, the King of kings, whose dignity and grace shone through even in the moment of his greatest physical humiliation. This was a great man. But this was also God, as the resurrection was soon to indicate (Rom. 1:4).
Before the Crowds
Jesus appeared that day not only before Pilate. He also appeared before the crowds. Indeed, this seems to be the reason for the scourging; for with the stage presence and sense of audience psychology characteristic of a great trial lawyer, Pilate first seemed to pronounce him innocent and then suddenly produced him to have the crowd see him in his beaten and humiliated state. We know what Pilate expected—an upsurge of pity from the fickle mob. But Pilate miscalculated, for there broke forth a new round of hatred and hostility against Jesus.
Why was this? Why did the presence of Jesus incite such violent hatred? Some writers have suggested that it was an easily understood pattern of psychological reaction: the people saw mirrored in the beaten and disfigured Jesus that moral deformity that they saw, or feared to discover, in themselves. It would be similar to that distaste that so many show for the poor, the deformed, or the dead. There is fear that they will be like them. But this is not the real explanation of the crowd’s increasing opposition to and hatred of Jesus. The thing that bothered them about Jesus on this occasion was what had bothered them all along. It was his sinlessness, the awareness of which was heightened by the entirely unwarranted scourging of Jesus and their culpability in that injustice. None care to admit it, but there is in the unsaved person’s heart that which leads people to oppose true righteousness.
In his commentary on John, Harry Ironside tells of a meeting of the Synod of the Free Church of Scotland many years ago. One minister was invited to preach the sermon on a particular Sunday morning, and he gave a marvelous oration on the beauty of virtue. He concluded, “Oh, my friends, if virtue incarnate could only appear on earth, men would be so ravished with her beauty that they would fall down and worship her.” Many went out saying, “What a magnificent oration that was!”
The same evening another man preached. He did not preach about virtue and beauty. He preached Christ and him crucified. As he closed his sermon he said, “My friends, Virtue Incarnate has appeared on earth, and men instead of being ravished with his beauty and falling down and worshipping him, cried out, ‘Away with him! Crucify him! We will not have this man to rule over us!’ ” The second man was right. We do not like to hear it. We resent those who tell us. But the truth is that the natural man hates God’s holiness and will do anything rather than allow the light of Christ to penetrate his own deep darkness.
The Masses Today
Third, I want you to “behold the man” as he appears before the masses today. It is the same man, the same Jesus of Nazareth. But while it is true that some do hate him and openly seek to destroy his influence and even his good name, most in our day simply ignore him and thus add insult to injury, suggesting by their neglect that he is hardly worthy of attention.
Those who work on the campuses of our country think this is the case. I received an appeal letter from the head of a large Christian college organization. It said in part, “Some of these institutions and their faculty are openly hostile to the Christian faith. Their students ridicule the Bible and those who believe it. At other schools, God is simply ignored.” I would like to have asked this leader how he would balance the percentages. Are most hostile? Or are most unconcerned? I believe that most are unconcerned, or at least try to be. And if this is true on the campuses, it is even more true of the nation at large. Most people will talk about anything but Christianity. And if we were to judge matters by the secular press and other media, we would be hard pressed to know that Jesus even existed, let alone discover anything accurate or significant about him.
To these we wish to say, “Behold the master! Do not look away. Do not be too busy. It would be tragic were you to gain the whole world and lose your soul.” Yet this is precisely what many will do. They will be lost and not even know they are lost until the reality of the final judgment comes grimly upon them.
Jesus spoke of this shortly before his crucifixion. In the sermon given on the Mount of Olives in the middle of his last week in Jerusalem, Jesus used three gripping parables to teach what the final judgment would be like for such people. One parable was about ten virgins who had been invited to a wedding banquet. Five were wise and five were foolish. The five wise virgins prepared for the banquet by buying oil for their lamps. The five foolish virgins did not. As they waited in the long evening hours all the attendants fell asleep. Suddenly a cry went forth, “Behold the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him.” They rose, but the five foolish virgins had no oil for their lamps. On the advice of the wise they set out to buy some. But while they were getting their oil the bridegroom came and the wedding party followed him into the house and the door was shut. Later the five foolish virgins returned and called at the door, “Lord, Lord, open to us.”
But he answered, “Truly, I do not know you.”
Jesus concluded, “Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” (Matt. 25:13).
The second parable was about three servants. Their master was to go on a journey. So he called the servants to him and gave each money: to the first, five talents; to the second, two talents; and to the third, one talent—each according to his ability. Then he went away, and the servants who had received five talents and two talents respectively invested the money while the third servant hid his talent in the ground. After a long time the master returned and asked for an accounting. The man who had received five talents produced those talents plus five more. The servant who had received two talents produced two talents plus two more. But the one who had been given only one talent returned only that one to the Lord, saying, “Master, I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you” (Matt. 25:24–25). The master condemned that servant, taking away his talent and casting him forth “into the darkness” (v. 30).
Finally, the Lord told the parable of the separation of the sheep from the goats. The goats are the lost, and they are condemned because they neglected to feed the Lord when he was hungry, give him drink when he was thirsty, welcome him when he was a stranger, clothe him when he was naked, visit him when he was sick, and comfort him when he was cast in prison. They say, “But when did we see you hungry or thirsty or lonely or naked or sick?”
He replies, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these [my brothers], you did not do for me” (v. 45). On the other hand, he welcomes those who did these things for his brethren.
Each of these parables, though quite different from the others in detail, is nevertheless one with them in its essential features. In each case, there is a sudden return of the Lord which demands an accounting. In each case, there are some who are prepared for his coming and others who are not. In each case, there are rewards and judgments. Most remarkable of all, in each case those who are lost are totally amazed at the outcome. The foolish virgins are astounded that the bridegroom will not open the door to them. The wicked and lazy servant clearly expected the master to be pleased with his zero-growth performance. The goats cannot believe that they have actually rejected Jesus. They say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” (Matt. 25:44). They are overwhelmed as he sends them away unto “eternal punishment” (v. 46).
Thus it will be with our generation. We have more opportunities to learn about Christ in our day than ever before in human history. Books and magazines and radio programs and movies and television have all told about him. The call has gone forth, “Behold the man! Look to this one for salvation. He loves you, he died for you. He rose again. Turn from your sin and place your trust in him as your Savior!” But many go blithely on and will be overwhelmed in the day of God’s reckoning.
Behold the King
Today is the day of God’s grace. And the wisdom of the just in this day consists, as Paul expressed it, in knowing nothing among men save “Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Now we see him offered to us for salvation. His death is our life. But the day is coming when this period of grace will end, and the One who was judged by the tribunals of this world will be Judge.
One author writes, “How long may it be before we hear the sound of another ‘Ecce homo!’? But if we then lift up our eyes, a different form will present itself to our view than that which we saw on Gabbatha. The King of Glory will then have exchanged the robe of mockery for the starry mantle of divine Majesty, the wreath of thorns for a crown of glory, and the reed for the scepter of universal dominion.” What will it be in that day? Will it be judgment? Or will the rod be extended as a symbol of his gracious favor as he declares, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Matt. 25:34). The answer depends on how you behold him now and whether you will surrender to him as your Lord.
5 Jesus emerges into the bright light of the morning “wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe.” Though it is probably more conjecture than exegesis to discuss the precise nuance of Pilate’s declaration, a good case can be made from the context that what he said was something like, “Here he is, poor fellow! Isn’t it ridiculous to consider this hapless creature as holding any pretensions to kingship?” While Pilate may have spoken with feigned contempt, John and others across the centuries have understood “the man” quite differently. Morris, 793, writes that “John intends ‘the man’ to evoke memories of Jesus’ favorite self-designation.” Tasker, 208, says that as Christians reread these famous words, they see in them “humanity at its best, the suffering Servant in whom God delights.” Others discern an allusion to Zechariah 6:12 (“Here is the man whose name is the Branch”). In the Latin Bible the phrase is translated Ecce homo, which has provided the name for the famous arch that marks the starting place of the Via Dolorosa.
 Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 1465–1470). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Mounce, R. H. (2007). John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, p. 627). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.