Monday, October 18, 2021

John 18:33-40

John 18:33–40: My Kingdom Is Not of This World


We are now at the part of Jesus’ “trial(s)1” in which he’s brought before Pilate, the Roman governor. This is significant because the Jewish religious leaders want Jesus to be put to death, but they don’t have the authority under Roman rule to put people to death, so this trial before Pilate is where Jesus’ life is actually under threat, under Roman law. Of course, this is Jesus’ goal in the first place, but the religious leaders don’t know that, and neither does Pilate.

As soon as Pilate enters the room, he asks Jesus the question upon which all of this hangs: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (verse 33) But Jesus’ non-answer is interesting:

Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” (verse 34)

I’m not 100% sure what Jesus’ point is here; is he accusing this of being a sham trial, and Pilate just following the wishes of the Jewish religious leaders? Is he asking a clarifying question because he’s curious where the charge comes from? Is he asking about Pilate’s faith in him as Lord (which is a pretty unlikely option)?

But then Pilate answers Jesus, and it’s even more fascinating (to me):

Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” (verse 35)

I read a couple of things in Pilate’s response here:

  1. He doesn’t really care about all of this “religious stuff” that the Jews are complaining about.
  2. That being said, whatever he personally feels about the Jews (which doesn’t seem flattering—“Am I a Jew?” sounds kind of scornful), he still assumes that they must have brought Jesus to him for some reason.
  3. So… what is that reason? What has Jesus done? Pilate isn’t just taking the Jewish religious leaders’ recommendations and throwing Jesus up onto a cross, he wants to know what Jesus has actually done. (But doesn’t seem clear what the religious authorities are accusing him of.)

But Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate’s second question (“What have you done?”), he goes back to the first question (“Are you the King of the Jews?”):

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.” (verse 36)

Which is an interesting point: there aren’t scores of people outside, fighting on Jesus’ behalf, trying to get him released. Fighting aside, his disciples aren’t even asking for Jesus’ release—they’re too busy hiding! But luckily (for us) Jesus’ kingdom is not from the world, it’s bigger than that.

Pilate is trying to follow Jesus’ train of thought:

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.” (verse 37)

Jesus’ “You say that I am…” response is always frustrating to a 21st Century English-speaking reader, because he’s using a kind of idiom that we don’t have. Every time I come across Jesus answering a question with “you say…” there is always a commentary saying that this is sort of a way of not answering a question but turning it back on the questioner. Which I don’t think I just described properly, but like I say, we don’t have an English equivalent of what Jesus just did, so I can’t “translate.” (If we did I wouldn’t have to translate because the ESV and NIV and other English translations of the Bible would already translate it in a way that makes more sense to us.) As near as I can understand, the conversation is something like:

Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “I’m not saying I’m a king, but you just said I am.”

Which might be close to how the conversation went, but I still don’t think is accurate. There’s some nuance that I don’t get, and therefore can’t articulate.

Regardless, after all of Jesus’ words about truth, Pilate gives a very famous reaction:

Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (verse 38)

A rhetorical question that resonates very well with 20th Century2 Westerners in the Postmodern age of thinking! I can see any 20-something person in Canada in 2021 unironically asking that exact same question.

However, whatever Pilate might feel about the concept of “truth,” he doesn’t feel that Jesus has done anything deserving of death.

After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber. (verses 38–40)

Other Gospel writers tell us that the religious leaders were stirring up the crowd to say this, but John doesn’t bother to record that detail. The fact is that the crowd was demanding Jesus’ death, regardless of who’s idea it was initially.


I didn’t initially intend to go verse by verse on this passage, but the conversation between Pilate and Jesus was so fascinating to me that that’s how it ended up happening. (Not a surprise in the book of John, where he always packs so much into every verse!)

Jesus Could Have Had the Charges Dropped

One interesting thing about these trials against Jesus is that he could have “played the game,” and answered Pilate’s questions in such a way that Pilate would have found him innocent and let him go. Pilate seemed to be inclined that way anyway.

What the Jewish religious leaders are accusing Jesus of is treason against Rome; they claim he’s setting himself up to be a “king,” and therefore trying to rebel against the rule of the Romans. When Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus could have said, “Not in the way they’re accusing me of! I’m not trying to set up an earthly kingdom, and I’m not trying to overthrow Rome, I’m just trying to save my people from their sins.” Or something like that. He could have clarified that there was no treason—and there would have been lots of evidence that Jesus’ ministry never involved building an army or planning to overthrow Rome, even though all of his disciples wanted him to!—and Pilate would have let him go. There is a definite hesitancy on Pilate’s side to put Jesus to death; he knows that the religious leaders are persecuting Jesus out of jealousy, so he’d rather release him.

In the end, Pilate still should have released him. There wasn’t enough evidence of any wrongdoing to execute him; Pilate put Jesus to death to keep the Jewish religious leaders happy. And, in retrospect, that’s a good thing: being sacrificed, once and for all, for our sins—that is, for the sins of all Christians, across all time—is what allows us to have a relationship with God, unencumbered by our sin. It’s why Jesus came to Earth in the first place: to be a sacrifice in our place.

Jesus could have argued his way out of that trial. Once he was found guilty, he could have had a legion of angels come forth and rescue him from his execution. Even once he was on the cross, he could have simply stepped down off it! But if he’d done any of those things, there would be no Christianity, no Christians, and no human would be able to have a relationship with God. We’d all be lost.

  1. I’m continuing to put “trials” in quotes to emphasize that they’re not real trials. I’m just stating this in a footnote instead of making a big deal out of it because it’s not like anyone’s arguing with the point. ↩︎

  2. I said “20th Century” instead of “21st Century” (when I wrote this) because it felt like we might have been coming to the end of the Postmodern age of thinking by the 21st Century. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, here’s a very overly simplified version of the last few ages of thought: sometime just before the 20th Century, in the West, we entered what we called the Modern age, which was a reaction against what we perceived as an overly superstitious approach to thinking. No more burning of witches or looking to the gods for answers; the Modern age was one in which we believed that science could provide answers to all of the important questions. The Postmodern age started in the mid-to-late 20th Century, as a reaction against the Modern age; clearly science wasn’t able to provide all of the answers! And so the pendulum kind of swung completely in the opposite direction: there’s no such thing as truth! What you believe to be true is fine for you, but that doesn’t mean it’s my truth. Anyone can believe anything they want, and nobody can tell them that they can’t believe it; the only “belief” that seems to be out of bounds, in Postmodernism, is the belief that “you’re wrong and I’m right.” And as I say, when I wrote this (in 2021), it felt like Postmodernism was probably on its way out, too, but I wasn’t plugged into the world of Philosophy, and had no inkling what might have been coming after. My guess was that there’s be another pendulum swing in the other direction toward “rationality” or beliefs about “absolute truth,” but that was just a guess on my part. ↩︎

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