The Light Plunges Into the Darkness (John 18:1-19:42)


Jesus, the Light of the World, Before Pilate

This is a Bible study on the passage in the gospel of John where Jesus is arrested, tried, crucified, and buried. To understand this post, you should stop and read John 18:1-19:42 before moving on.

There are some signs in John 18:1-11 that Jesus is in charge even during his arrest.  What are they?  Earlier Jesus had dismissed Judas to go and do what he had planned to do. Jesus then took the 11 disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane—a place familiar to Judas. Jesus could have gone to a place where Judas could not find him, but instead he showed he was in control of his arrest by putting himself in the path of Judas the servants of darkness. When Judas and those he brought with him found Jesus and approached him, Jesus did not let the situation get out of hand, but instead asked the first question (“Whom are you looking for?”), thus identifying himself as Jesus and protecting his disciples with him. Then suddenly at Jesus’ words “I am he” (Greek: ego eimi) the crowd fell back as if they were in the presence of God. Jesus clearly showed he had power, but he restrained himself and surrendered to them. He actually had to ask the crowd again who they were looking for because their falling prostrate had perhaps knocked them out of the moment. Jesus thus brings them back to their business of arresting him. He then proceeds to give up and order the crowd to let his disciples go, which he did as a fulfillment of Scripture of the Messiah not losing one of those whom the Father gave to him. Peter saw that his Lord was being arrested, so he took matters into his own hands by drawing his sword and cutting off the ear of Malchus (one of the crowd). But Jesus diffuses the situation and protects Peter from arrest by ordering him to sheath his sword. Jesus is clearly in charge during his arrest.

 While Annas interrogates Jesus, Peter and John are outside waiting for news. Let’s compare and contrast how Jesus handles the questions of this powerful man (Jn 18:12-14, 19-24) to how Peter handles questions form servants (Jn 18:15-18, 25-27).  Jesus and Peter both deal with interrogators, but in contrasting ways. Jesus never wavers under enormous pressure, but Peter wilts under little pressure. Jesus takes control of his interrogation by calmly calling for witnesses to accuse him of something. Jesus says he always spoke openly, so such testimony should not be difficult to find. Even after being struck in the face, Jesus calmly replies by asking why he was struck for telling the truth. Jesus will not incriminate himself by sinning against his enemies. By marked contrast, Peter denies he is a disciple and even that he knows Jesus every time he is asked in casual conversation. True, there is danger in identifying with Jesus at this moment to the slaves and police hanging around the fire at the high priest’s courtyard, but Peter is not the one on trial. First he denies Jesus to the woman doorkeeper, then while warming himself at the fire with the police he denies that he is one of Jesus’ disciples, and finally Peter denies Jesus when a relative of Malchus identifies Peter as a follower of Jesus. Jesus asks for testimony and trusts his fate to the hands of God. Jesus does not sin. Peter does not ask for testimony because it seems the witnesses are testifying about him in their questioning, but Peter denies their allegations. He does not trust his fate to the hands of God but tries to save his own skin by sinning against Jesus.

Jesus’ kingship is the theme of his first scene with Pilate (Jn 18:33-38). The title “king of the Jews” probably meant to Pilate something very different than Christians think today?  But this might explain why it would be a criminal offense in Rome’s eyes for a man to claim to be king of the Jews.  At first, Pilate understands the title “king of the Jews” as a political office. He wants to know what Jesus has done to elicit his enemies delivering Jesus to Pilate. He probably thought that Jesus was some kind of Jewish political zealot, insurrectionist, or terrorist. This would be a criminal offense to claim the title “king of the Jews” because Rome ruled the province of Palestine and worked hard to keep the peace within its vast empire. No local kings were allowed to rule—unless they were puppet kings installed by Rome as local viceroys loyal to the Roman emperor. But Pilate quickly discovers through questioning Jesus that this is no ordinary king. Pilate concludes that Jesus is not a threat to Roman rule because Jesus is a philosopher, teacher, or religious man. In the end, Pilate thinks Jesus is the “religious” king of the Jews, and thus not deserving of punishment, much less capital punishment.

Now that we’ve considered Pilate’s perspective, what does being king of the Jews mean to Jesus?  Jesus knows that he is not just a descendant of the ancient Israelite king David, but he is the rightful heir to the throne of David. He is the Son of David, and thus the Son of God. To be king of the Jews for Jesus means to be the Son of God—the Messianic ruler of God’s people. The King of the Jews is the Lord of History—the King of kings and the Lord of lords. But his kingdom is a spiritual kingdom according to God’s ethos and rule. Jesus will be crowned king, but he will not be lifted up in earthly glory, but with the glory of the Suffering Servant. To be king of the Jews means that Jesus will suffer and die for the sins of his people. Jesus is a servant king.

Pilate is cynical about whether truth—Ultimate Reality, as well as clear right and wrong—exists (Jn 18:38). He’s certainly not willing to put his career in jeopardy out of commitment to truth. What truths does Pilate know but fail to act on?  Pilate is the consummate politician, and he perfectly acts out his part in the drama of Christ’s Passion. He knows that Jesus is innocent of the charges the Jews brought against him, and he knows that Jesus is not a criminal deserving of death. He also knows that it is wrong for innocent men to be punished. But Pilate fails to act on these truths. Instead he reacts to the crisis that is quickly spinning out of his control with expediency. He knows that if he fails to keep the peace (the sacred cow of Pax Romana) then he runs the risk of losing his position as governor and possibly his life at the hands of the emperor. If he is judged to be an enemy of peace, then he is an enemy of Rome and thus no friend of Caesar. People who were not friends of Caesar were in danger for their lives. Because of this very real possibility considering the escalating disturbance surrounding Jesus and the Jewish leaders, he failed to act justly. Pilate failed by handing Jesus over to an unruly crowd and to his bloodthirsty soldiers for flogging and crucifixion.

Now let’s bring this discussion home to our lives.  What happens today when people become cynical about whether we can know truth (about God, right and wrong, or the truth of a situation)?  The same things can happen today when we become cynical regarding Truth or God. Each of us is tempted to act in our own immediate interests at the expense of what is right. The more power or influence we have, the greater the potential for damage done to others when God, Truth, or right and wrong are trampled to toe the line, please the crowd, or gratify our lusts. Politicians are guilty of this all the time regardless of country or culture. Religious leaders are not immune at all. Spiritual influence is one of the most potent powers in the world, and there are many who abuse it. Pastors, priests, and other spiritual leaders must see that no one is too good to be able to fall prey to the temptation of abusive spiritual power. Parents, friends, employers, teachers, husbands (and wives), police, government bureaucrats are all susceptible to becoming cynical and running roughshod over Truth.

John 19:7-16 concerns power.  Who has power and where does that power come from? Who lacks power, and why?  In this passage, there are two perspectives—the view from the darkness (the world) and the view from the light (God). From the view of darkness, it appears that Pilate has power to crucify or to set free. Jesus reminds Pilate that he would have no power at all unless it was given him from God. From the view of darkness, it appears that the crowd is powerfully manipulating Pilate for their evil plan. But Jesus has already demonstrated at his arrest that he is in charge of the crowd. From the view of the light, Jesus is being glorified as king (albeit ironically). From the perspective of the light, God is crowning and thus glorifying his son. From the perspective of the darkness, Jesus completely lacks power. He appears to be a pawn in the hands of Pilate and the crowd of Jewish leaders. But they are enslaved to sin. Pilate is enslaved to his own lust for position and power; the Jewish leaders to their Roman occupiers and Caesar. Jesus and his Father are those who have the true power, and they show this power by orchestrating the coronation of Jesus through the workings of his enemies.

Power and kingship are intimately related.  How does kingship (Jesus’ kingship, Caesar’s kingship) again become an issue in John 19:12-16)?  At this point, Pilate was trying hard to release Jesus. But the crowd threatens to charge Pilate with disloyalty to Caesar. Pilate constantly refers Jesus to the crowd as “your king”, but the crowd rebukes his using the term king. No king in the Roman empire is allowed; only the emperor may be recognized as a sovereign political ruler. The crowd declares their loyalty to the emperor (Caesar), and then puts Pilate on trial demanding that he make clear his political allegiance. This move seals the fate of Jesus. Pilate will not be counted as an enemy of Caesar; that is where his loyalty lies. Neither Pilate nor the Jewish leaders will have Jesus as their king.

What do you think John means for us, his readers, to understand from all this about Jesus’ kingship?  Jesus’ kingship is not of this world. But it is ultimate reality. We must declare our ultimate allegiance when it comes to the kingship of Jesus. We can have only one sovereign. Will Caesar be Lord? Or will Jesus be Lord? Everyone must decide for himself.  So why is this important for us to know?  Whatever people choose regarding who is in charge, we must all know that Jesus has been crowned the King of the Jews, and this news goes out to Jews, Gentiles, Rulers and Subjects, to all the world—that Jesus Christ is Lord!

Slavery is a topic that tends to shut down rational discussion, but the Bible pushes us to consider our own condition as one of slavery.  Why is slavery to sin and death a crisis as terrible as slavery to the most abusive human master?  Because slavery to sin and death is in the end just as abusive as wicked human taskmasters. Human masters who abuse their subjects usually keep them subjected, dejected, and feeling rejected by all. Those enslaved to such masters lack the power and resolve to rebel. Fighting for freedom is futile. As Darth Vader famously quipped about the power of the dark side of the force, “It is useless to resist!” In other words, no enslaved person can free himself. Of course there are exceptions, but the rule is that a slave must be freed by someone else. It is the same with slavery to sin and death. No amount of moral effort can deliver a sinner from his slavery. But slavery to sin is terrible because it leads to death—spiritual and physical. Slavery to sin leads to hell—the eternal punishment of God. But thanks be to God that there is a redeemer—Jesus, God’s own Son.

Let’s bring this to a close now.  Why does it matter to us that Christ’s sacrifice for sin and his gift of the Holy Spirit go together?  Forgiveness is a legal and relational benefit that flows from Christ’s sacrifice for sin on the cross. The gift of the Holy Spirit is the benefit of new life that flows from that sacrifice. Christ did not merely come to forgive, but to give life—real spiritual life in him! In him is found forgiveness of sins and eternal life—a life that begins in this world, springing from forgiveness of sins, restored relationship with God the Father, and amazing life lived in fellowship with the triune God and his renewed spiritual people. Forgiveness and life must go together because forgiveness without life is mere clemency; life without forgiveness is estrangement from God. In the final analysis, forgiveness and life cannot be separated. They necessarily go together.

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