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Pilate Questions Jesus

John 18:37 (ESV) … 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 seized on the word king. That was a word he could understand. A man obviously poor, a man bound, and a prisoner—a king?

Jesus gave him back his word: “Thou sayest that I am a king.” Pilate was the one who was toying with this word. Jesus put matters on another footing. “My realm is truth,” he said in effect. “I was born to be king. For this cause I came into the world.” We note the double emphasis: “I was born; I came.” As Son of man he was born king of the Jews (Matthew 2:1–6). As Son of God he came from another world, from another form of existence.

He came, he told Pilate, to “bear witness unto the truth.” He was claiming to be the incarnate word (John 1:14), the one who personally embodied truth. All who loved truth recognized him for what he was and crowned him king.

But things were now getting too close for comfort. Pilate had no wish to face the personal implications of all this. He countered with the speculative question (18:38a): “Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?” It was a flippant question in the sense that Pilate did not wait for an answer. The world’s religions and philosophies have debated that question for centuries. Nowadays the idea is current that truth is relative. Jesus stood before Pilate as the answer to that question. He was the truth (14:6), absolute, perfect, clothed for all to see in flesh and blood. Then and there Pilate could have slain his doubts, put his fears to rest, embraced Christ, and entered into the truth. But he was not serious. With a touch of cynicism he shrugged off the magic moment. It never came again, as far as we know. He simply dismissed the Lord’s statement. He was not going to discuss the nature of truth with this Galilean peasant. He abruptly left the Praetorium.

Now comes the scandalous question (18:38b–40). For the moment, Pilate had made up his vacillating mind. He was impressed by this prisoner, whatever else this Jesus of Nazareth had said or done, whatever it was he claimed to be, he was clearly no threat to Rome. He had committed no offense against Roman law, as Pilate understood that law. He said so: “And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all” (18:38b). He should have acquitted him and set him free. It would have been a feather in the cap of Roman justice. Pilate would have gone down in history as the ideal judge.

But Pilate did not stop there. He went on—to his undoing. He wanted to avoid a confrontation with the Jews just as much as he wanted to avoid a confrontation with Jesus. Because their frowns and angry murmurs were already threatening a very nasty storm, he asked a scandalous question: “But ye have a custom, that I should release unto you one at the passover: will ye therefore that I release unto you the King of the Jews?” (18:39).

All four gospels tell this sad story. It was a wholly unprincipled act on Pilate’s part to offer to release Jesus based on this custom rather than on the established basis of his innocence. Moreover, whatever Pilate hoped to gain by this move—and doubtless he hoped the Jews would accept Jesus, a good man, over Barabbas, a violent man—he did not further his end in the way he worded the offer. He could not resist the temptation of goading the Jews. He only annoyed them further by referring to Jesus as “the King of the Jews,” a title the Jewish authorities violently opposed.

Nor did he have long to wait for their response to this crass political maneuver: “Then cried they all again, saying, Not this man, but Barabbas. Now Barabbas was a robber” (18:40). He was a bandit, a highway robber. There is a note of terrible pathos in that brief comment by John. The Jews chose a bandit—and down through their history, from that day to this, they have been robbed and plundered.

Pilate still had Jesus on his hands. Moreover, the Jewish authorities now knew that Pilate was putty in theirs.[1]

[1] Phillips, J. (2009). Exploring the Gospel of John: An Expository Commentary (Jn 18:37–40). Kregel Publications; WORDsearch Corp.


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