Therefore Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?” Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” (18:33–38a)
Leaving the Jewish leaders standing outside, Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus. Luke 23:2 provides the background to his question, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Realizing that they had to come up with a charge that would impress a Roman judge, the Jewish leaders “began to accuse [Jesus], saying, ‘We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King.’ ” The charges, of course, were completely false; Jesus had actually said the opposite: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). Their goal was to portray Him as an insurrectionist, bent on overthrowing Roman rule and establishing His own.
Pilate could not overlook such a threat to Roman power. His question, “Are You the King of the Jews?” was in effect asking Jesus whether He was pleading guilty or not guilty to the charge of insurrection. “Pilate’s question seeks to determine whether or not Jesus constituted a political threat to Roman imperial power” (Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004], 527). In all four gospel accounts this is the first question Pilate asks Jesus, and in all four the pronoun “You” is emphatic. The Greek text literally reads, “You, are You the King of the Jews?” Pilate was incredulous; from a human perspective, Jesus did not look like a king. And if He was a king, where were His followers and His army? And how was He a threat to Rome?
Jesus could not answer Pilate’s question with an unqualified “Yes” or “No” without first defining exactly what His kingship entails. His counterquestion, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?” was intended to clarify the issue. If Pilate was saying this on his own initiative, he would be asking if Jesus was a king in the political sense (and hence a threat to Rome). Jesus’ answer in that case would be no; He was not a king in the sense of a military or political leader. He had earlier rejected the crowd’s attempt to make Him such a king (6:15). But neither could the Lord deny that as the Messiah He was Israel’s true king.
Pilate’s sharp retort, “I am not a Jew, am I?” reflects both his disdain for the Jewish people, and his growing exasperation with the frustrating, puzzling ethnic case set before him. His further elaboration, Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me, makes it clear that the governor was merely repeating the charge leveled against Jesus by the Jewish leaders; the accusation was theirs, not Rome’s. Exactly why they had done so still eluded Pilate. He knew perfectly well that the Jews would not have handed over to him someone hostile to Rome unless they stood to gain from doing so.
Attempting once again to get to the bottom of things, Pilate asked the question that he should have asked at the outset: what have You done? Unlike Jewish practice (see the discussion of 18:19 in the previous chapter of this volume), Roman legal procedure allowed the accused to be questioned in detail (Köstenberger, John, 527). Pilate understood that the Jewish leaders had handed Jesus over to him because of envy (Matt. 27:18). What he still did not understand was what Jesus had done to provoke such vehement hostility from them and what, if any, crime He had committed.
Since it was now clear that Pilate was merely repeating the charge of the Jewish leaders, Jesus answered his question. He was a king, but not a political ruler intent on challenging Rome’s rule. “My kingdom is not of (Greek ek; “out from the midst of”) this world,” He declared. Its source was not the world system, nor did Jesus derive His authority from any human source. As noted earlier, He had rejected the crowd’s attempt to crown Him king. He also passed up an opportunity to proclaim Himself king at the triumphal entry, when He rode into Jerusalem at the head of tens of thousands of frenzied hopefuls.
To reinforce His point, Jesus noted that if His kingdom were of this world, then His servants would be fighting so that He would not be handed over to the Jews. No earthly king would have allowed himself to have been captured so easily. But when one of His followers (Peter) attempted to defend Him, Jesus rebuked him. The messianic kingdom does not originate from human effort, but through the Son of Man’s conquering of sin in the lives of those who belong to His spiritual kingdom.
Christ’s kingdom is spiritually active in the world today, and one day He will return to physically reign on the earth in millennial glory (Rev. 11:15; 20:6). But until then His Kingdom exists in the hearts of believers, where He is undisputed King and sovereign Lord. He was absolutely no threat either to the national identity of Israel, or to the political and military identity of Rome.
That the Lord spoke of being handed over to the Jews is significant. Far from leading them in a revolt against Rome, Jesus spoke of the Jews (especially the leaders) as His enemies. He was a king, but since He disavowed the use of force and fighting, He was clearly no threat to Rome’s interests. The Lord’s statement rendered the Jews’ charge that He was a revolutionary bent on overthrowing Rome absurd.
Jesus’ description of His kingdom had left Pilate somewhat confused. If His kingdom was not an earthly one, then was Jesus really a king at all? Seeking to clarify the issue, Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus’ answer was clear and unambiguous: “You say correctly that I am a king.” The Lord boldly “testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate” (1 Tim. 6:13). Unlike earthly kings, however, Jesus was not crowned a king by any human agency. For this I have been born, He declared, and for this I have come into the world. Jesus had not only been born like all other human beings, but also had come into the world from another realm—heaven (cf. 3:13, 31; 6:33; 8:23; 17:5). Taken together, the two phrases are an unmistakable reference to the preexistence and incarnation of the Son of God.
Jesus’ mission was not political but spiritual. It was to testify to the truth by “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23). Christ proclaimed the truth about God, men, sin, judgment, holiness, love, eternal life, in short, “everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). What people do with the message of truth Jesus proclaimed determines their eternal destiny; as He went on to declare, “Everyone who is of the truth hears (the Greek word includes the concept of obedience; cf. Luke 9:35) My voice.” Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through [Him]” (14:6). In 10:27 He added, “My sheep hear My voice and I know them, and they follow Me.” Only those who continue in His Word are truly His disciples; only those who are truly His disciples will know and be set free by the truth (8:31–32).
Jesus’ words were an implied invitation to Pilate to hear and obey the truth about Him. But they were lost on the governor, who abruptly ended his interrogation of Christ with the cynical, pessimistic remark, “What is truth?” Like skeptics of all ages, including contemporary postmodernists, Pilate despaired of finding universal truth. This is the tragedy of fallen man’s rejection of God. Without God, there cannot be any absolutes; without absolutes, there can be no objective, universal, normative truths. Truth becomes subjective, relative, pragmatic; objectivity gives way to subjectivity; timeless universal principles become mere personal or cultural preferences. All fallen mankind has accomplished by forsaking God, “the fountain of living waters,” is “to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). Pilate’s flippant retort proved that he was not one of those given by the Father to the Son, who hear and obey Christ’s voice.
Jesus Before Pilate
Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
“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?”
Jesus 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.”
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
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.”
“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.”
The previous study dealt with two puzzling aspects of the Roman trial: one, the contrast between what we know from secular sources regarding Pilate’s character—insensitive, impetuous, rude—and the way the four Gospels indicate he actually conducted the trial; the second, that Pilate pronounced Christ innocent and yet condemned him to be crucified. These elements make a study of the Roman trial quite difficult and suggest levels of mystery that are possibly unfathomable.
There is one aspect of the Roman trial that is not the least bit mysterious, however. It is the tendency of human nature meticulously to go through all the external forms required by a situation while at the same time denying the very reality the forms stand for. There are two examples of this in the second segment of Christ’s trial. On the one hand, there is the example of the Jewish rulers who, we are told, “to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover” (John 18:28). Here were men engaged in a most vile act, the judicial murder of Jesus; yet they were concerned about being ceremonially defiled. They had convicted an innocent man of crimes worthy of death, breaking scores of their own laws in the process. They were about to seek a parallel conviction from Pilate by illegally and unconscionably changing the nature of the accusation made against their prisoner. Yet they were concerned about a ritual purification.
The other example of this human tendency is Pilate, who made a great show of justice while actually allowing mob action to force his acquiescence in the death of a man whom he knew was innocent.
The Formal Indictment
Some students of the Roman trial of Jesus have insisted that the real trial was before the Jewish Sanhedrin and that this was merely an informal hearing. But their argument overlooks the actual stages of the trial as they are recorded for us by the New Testament authors. A Roman trial had four essential elements: the indictment, the examination, the defense, and the verdict. Each of these is present in Christ’s trial. The official nature of the proceedings is indicated by Pilate’s opening words: “What charges are you bringing against this man?” (v. 29). As Chandler observes, “This question is very keenly indicative of the presence of the judge and of the beginning of a solemn judicial proceeding. Every word rings with Roman authority and strongly suggests administrative action.”
Pilate’s question seems to have caught the Jewish leaders by surprise, however. For instead of replying with a formal indictment, as they should have been prepared to do, they attempted to evade the question by answering: “If he were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you” (v. 30).
At the very least, the reply of the leaders suggests that the priests and scribes regarded their own trial as sufficient and were coming to Pilate merely to secure a formal signature to effect the execution. They were saying, “You should accept the judgment that he is worthy of death merely because we say so.” On the other hand, there may be more to it than this, as was argued in our earlier treatment of the Jewish trial. As we saw in that study, we can hardly suppose that the Jewish Sanhedrin launched into the trial of Jesus at this relatively late hour in Passover week without some understanding with Pilate that he would hear the case and concur in their verdict early on this particular morning. It is clear that the Jews expected a perfunctory endorsement of the verdict already arrived at by their own court. When Pilate surprised them by apparently intending to open the case anew and conduct a formal hearing, they were temporarily caught off guard and replied with this evasion.
Pilate said that if they were unwilling to make a formal accusation, they obviously did not need him and therefore should prosecute the case according to their own laws and inflict whatever penalties they were legally entitled to impose. It is possible that at this point Pilate did not understand that the Jews were seeking the death penalty in Jesus’ case, but it is far more likely that he understood this all too well and was speaking as he did merely to remind the priests that they were under the rule of Rome and would have to conform to Rome’s rules if they wished to have Christ executed. In a later incident involving the apostle Paul, the same principle was stated: “It is not the Roman custom to hand over any man before he has faced his accusers and has had an opportunity to defend himself against their charges” (Acts 25:16).
The unanticipated stubbornness of Pilate clearly thwarted the Jews in their designs. But they were resourceful and, therefore, produced an accusation on the spur of the moment. John does not record it; he passes instead to the heart of the accusation and Pilate’s examination of Jesus on this point. But Luke gives the accusation in full. It has three parts. “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be the Christ” (Luke 23:2).
This is not the crime of which Jesus had been convicted in their own court. Chandler writes, “In the passage from the Sanhedrin to the Praetorium, the indictment had completely changed. Jesus had not been condemned on any of the charges recorded in this sentence of St. Luke. He had been convicted on the charge of blasphemy. But before Pilate he is now charged with high treason. … Why? Because blasphemy was not an offense against Roman law, and Roman judges would generally assume cognizance of no such charges.
“The Jews understood perfectly well at the trial before Pilate the principle of Roman procedure so admirably expressed a few years later by Gallio, proconsul of Achaia, and brother of Seneca: ‘If it were a matter of wrong or wicked lewdness, O ye Jews, reason would that I should bear with you: but if it be a question of words and names, and of your law, look ye to it; for I will be no judge of such matters.’ This attitude of Roman governors toward offenses of a religious nature perfectly explains the Jewish change of front in the matter of the accusation against Jesus. They merely wanted to get themselves into a Roman court on charges that a Roman judge would consent to try. In the threefold accusation recorded by the third Evangelist, they fully accomplished this result.”
The first charge was that Christ was “perverting the nation.” This was indefinite. Had Pilate taken it seriously, it would have had to have been supported by specific examples of sedition. Still, it was a real offense. It was, in fact, the precise charge that the Jewish court had tried to prove against Jesus in reference to his claim to be able to tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days. The Jews had been unable to prove this in their court because of the contradictory testimony of their witnesses.
The second charge was also serious. In fact, it was more serious than the first in that it was a specific treasonable act under Roman law governing a captive state. The only problem with this charge is that it was clearly false. On an earlier occasion the nation’s leaders had attempted to trap Jesus on this very issue, but he had acquitted himself admirably. They had come to him with a trick question, asking, “What is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Matt. 22:17). They reasoned that if he said yes, they could denounce him to the people, saying, “What kind of Messiah is this who counsels abject subservience to Rome?” On the other hand, if he replied no, they could denounce him to Rome, saying “You have an insurrectionist on your hands.” But what did Christ answer? He asked for a coin and demanded of his questioners, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” (v. 20). When they replied, “Caesar’s,” he gave that ruling that has become the classical biblical statement of the separation of church and state, involving the proper responsibilities of and to each. He said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (v. 21). In this charge the leaders were therefore guilty of the most flagrant and malicious of lies.
The third charge was the greatest and most serious of the three, that Jesus had claimed to be “Christ, a king.” It was serious because it was true. It was also serious because it was the claim about which Rome was most sensitive and against which she was most on her guard. When Pilate heard this charge he gathered his robes about him, motioned for Jesus to follow him, made his way back into the palace (which John alone records) and began the examination, the second part of every Roman trial. Not content with receiving the formal accusation alone, Pilate now sought to determine whether the charges preferred against Jesus were true.
Each of the Gospel writers records the question with which Pilate began his interrogation. It is simply, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (Matt. 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3; John 18:33). With this question Pilate, it would appear, impatiently brushed aside the two lesser charges as unworthy of serious consideration and proceeded at once to examine Jesus on that charge which, if true, would unmistakably brand him Caesar’s enemy.
John records Christ’s full reply. As we read it, it seems like an evasion—“Is that your own idea or did others talk to you about me?” (v. 34)—but actually Jesus’ reply is much to the point. For having heard the charge first from the lips of the Jews and now from Pilate himself, Jesus wishes to know first of all in what sense the question is being put to him. What was the nature of the charge? If the question were being asked from a Roman point of view, one answer would be given; for Christ was not a king from Rome’s perspective. On the other hand, if the question were being asked from a Jewish perspective, quite another answer would be given; for Jesus was the Jews’ Messiah.
Pilate’s reply, while abrupt, is nevertheless also directly to the point at this stage in the examination. He asks, “Am I a Jew? It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” (v. 35). This means, “I am no Jew. I ask my question as a Roman administrator and, as such, purely religious questions have no interest for me. What I want to know is: What have you done that might affect the sovereignty of Caesar?”
At this point, although the interrogation continues, Jesus begins his defense by introducing what in modern law would be called a plea of confession and avoidance. This is a plea which admits, either in words or in effect, the truth of the accusation but which nevertheless introduces some new matter to avoid the guilt which normally would follow. For example, we may imagine a case in which a man is on trial for murder. The judge asks, “Did you shoot and kill John Smith on the date in question?” The defendant might answer, “Yes, I did, your honor; but you should know that I discovered him in my dining room near an open window trying to steal my silver chest and that when I discovered him he came at me with a knife. My plea is justified homicide and self-defense.” Here the defendant admits to the killing but pleads extenuating circumstances. In the same way, the Lord now admits to the charge of having claimed to be a king but describes his kingship in such a way that it is seen to be no threat to the legitimate claims of Caesar.
Jesus first explains the nature of his kingdom negatively: “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” (v. 36).
We do not know whether Pilate understood what Jesus was saying in this reply, but one phrase immediately caught his attention, the phrase “my kingdom.” Jesus seemed to be saying that this was not an earthly kingdom, but Pilate could take no chances on this crucial issue. He therefore picked up on this phrase and (probably) advanced on Christ threateningly to demand sternly, “You are a king, then!” (v. 37).
This time Jesus replies to the question with a positive affirmation: “You are right in saying that 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” (v. 37).
Jesus’ defense has two parts. One is a negative definition of his kingdom. It is “not of this world.” The proof is that his disciples did not fight to prevent his arrest by the Jewish authorities. The other is a positive definition of the kingdom. It is of “the truth.” That is, it is a kingdom ruling over people’s minds and aspirations. Chandler writes, “His was not an empire of matter, but a realm of truth. His kingdom differed widely from that of Caesar. Caesar’s empire was over the bodies of men; Christ’s over their souls. The strength of Caesar’s kingdom was in citadels, armies, navies, the towering Alps, the all-engirding seas. The strength of the kingdom of Christ was and is and will ever be in sentiments, principles, ideas, and the saving power of a divine word.”
Pilate could not fully appreciate this instruction. “Truth?” he asked. “What is truth?” Then he turned away, convinced at last that whatever Jesus’ peculiar ideas, he was certainly no worse than any other religious fanatic and was, at least from Rome’s point of view, perfectly innocent of any capital offenses.
The last phase of the Roman trial followed immediately upon Pilate’s examination of Jesus and Jesus’ defense. John tells us that, having concluded this examination, “he went out again to the Jews, and said, ‘I find no basis for a charge against him’ ” (v. 38). Absolvo! Non fecisse videtur! Standing alone these phrases indicate the close of the trial and mark it as being an official court proceeding.
Pilate had tried and acquitted Jesus. Why then did he not release him or, if need be, place him in protective custody as a later Roman ruler did with the apostle Paul when his life was threatened (Acts 21:31–33; 23:12–24)? This is the question that the human race has asked of Pontius Pilate for nearly two thousand years. Pilate was guilty of nothing at all up to this point. In fact, he had conducted the trial with precision, wisdom, and dispatch. He had reached the right verdict. But now, in spite of his calling as a Roman governor and judge, the high example of many thousands of Roman administrators before him, and the power of the legions in Palestine, he failed to do the right thing by immediately setting Christ free. The mood of the crowd forestalled him. Then he settled down into a series of irregular and illegal proceedings that eventually ended in the prisoner’s execution. Pilate was a coward. This is the only proper analysis of his character and the ultimate explanation of why he failed to do right in this situation.
What does this mean? It means that in the true, eternal issues of the case it is Pilate who was judged by the Lord and found wanting. I have titled this chapter “Jesus before Pilate,” but we must never forget that in another and far more important sense it is also “Pilate before Jesus.” In the former Jesus was tried and found innocent. Rightly so. In the latter Pilate was tried and found guilty.
So are all who stand before Christ. He is the only perfect person who ever lived. His standard for us is perfection. We all fall short, each one. For “there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10–12). We stand condemned. But it is for such condemned men and women that Christ died. He died to bear the punishment for their sin and thereby free them from God’s righteous judgment and curse.
Has he done that for you? He has if you are a subject of his kingdom, which you have entered (if you have entered it) by a believing response to his truth and person. That response entails the belief that Jesus is who he says he is (the Son of God) and did what he said he would do (die for your sin), coupled with a personal commitment to follow him as your Savior and Lord.
37 Pilate’s response may be taken as a statement (“You are a king, then!”) or as a question (“So you are a king?”; NASB, NRSV). The exact nuance is difficult to determine, but Pilate seems to be saying that Jesus’ claim to a kingdom, even though this kingdom is not of this world, makes Jesus a “king” after all. Pilate is not making a formal declaration as much as he is suggesting a conclusion in which he invites Jesus to concur—So you are a king after all; is that not true? (Lindars, 559, says that when the particle oukoun is accented on the second syllable it loses its negative force and becomes inferential.)
Jesus does not give a direct answer. It was Pilate, not Jesus, who had used the term “king.” Nevertheless, he was not incorrect in doing so. Jesus neither refuses the title nor accepts it in the way Pilate meant it. For Pilate, “king” is a political term; for Jesus it means something quite distinct. Jesus is king in the sense that he entered this world “to testify to the truth.” A spiritual kingship deals with spiritual matters. If truth is to reign, the king will be the one who proclaims that truth. Note the strong contrast between “you say” and “for this reason I was born.” (The Greek pronouns sy and egō stand at the beginning of the two respective clauses.) “Born” and “came into the world” both refer to the ministry of Jesus on earth. The purpose of the incarnation is to testify to the truth. Earlier Jesus said that he came into the world “for judgment” (9:39). The revelation of truth has the effect of judging in the sense that those who refuse the truth place themselves outside the scope of God’s redemptive work, while those who accept the truth are forgiven. The reason so many resist the truth is that it carries with it the power of condemnation.
“Everyone on the side of truth,” declares Jesus, “listens to me.” To understand and accept truth is to recognize further truth when it comes (EDNT, 1:53, notes that in this verse akouō, GK 201, is to be understood “in the sense of an obedient listening”). To refuse the truth is to forfeit the moral sensitivity necessary to distinguish between truth and error. Since truth has a moral claim, the denial of truth leads to moral blindness.