Lesson 28: Jesus’ Majestic Interview with Pilate

This Lesson is part of John’s Gospel Easy Notes Series. 

John devotes more space to the trial of Jesus before Pilate than in the other gospels (John 18:28—19:16). We find Pilate unable to make a decision in favour of Jesus and yielding to the unjust demand of the Jews, “Crucify! Crucify!”

In spite of certain omissions, the trial of Jesus before Pilate is given more space in JOHN than in the other three gospels. John’s portrayal of this incident was designed to bring the personalities of Pilate and Jesus into sharp relief. As he narrated it, the judicial aspect of the occasion became less prominent, and the character of Pilate became more important. It was a trial of Pilate before Christ instead of Christ before Pilate. – Merrill C. Tenney

It is Jesus who is standing before Pilate. But if you read between the lines, you will see the roles reversed. Jesus is standing before Pilate with a calmness that he alone has. The reply Jesus makes to each of Pilate’s questions make Pilate look weak.

For example,

Pilate: “Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus: “Is that your own idea, or did others to talk to you about me?”

The Jews, according to their Law, could only stone someone to death. But at the time of Jesus they were under Roman Law and had no legal right to put someone to death. Therefore the Jews tried their best to persuade Pilate to put Jesus to death (see John 18:30—32). But we need to remember that it was Jesus who is in control of the situation not Jews or Pilate.

Jesus had said that he would be “lifted up,” that is, when he was crucified, he would draw all men to him (see 18:32 and also 3:14, 12:32, 33). Crucifixion was the Roman method. The fact that Jesus was sentenced to death by a Roman court made his death an imperial (related to the empire) one and not a local affair.

The Jews hated Jesus so intensely that they kept crying, “Crucify! Crucify!” The Jews were careful not to become ceremonially unclean because of the Passover but were ready to kill the Son of God. The Jews twisted their charge against Jesus to make sure that he was killed. In their own trial, the charge against Jesus was blasphemy (Matthew 26:65). But they accused Jesus of claiming to be a king so that the case against him will become a charge of rebellion and political insurrection. Finally, instead of saying that God is their King, the Jews in an unbelievable moment said, “We have no king but Caesar (John 19:15b).”

From other writings available we come to know that Pilate had a bad history of confrontation with the Jews. When the Jews blackmailed him saying, “If you let this man go you are no friend of Caesar (John 19:12),” Pilate’s previous mistakes made it impossible for him to defy the Jews and keep his post. “He crucified Jesus in order to keep his job.” – Barclay.

There is a Pilate in each one of us. Jesus stands in front of us. If Pilate is given command of our lives, what all things will we do?

Pilate tried to put the responsibility on the Jews. “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law (John 18:31).” You cannot evade the responsibility of dealing with Jesus.

Pilate tried to evade responsibility by using the custom of releasing a prisoner at the time of the Passover (John 18:39). You cannot escape making a personal decision about Jesus.

Pilate tried compromise. He had Jesus scourged. That was a punishment usually given to base criminals to obtain a confession. He thought that would satisfy the hatred of the Jews toward Jesus. We need to remember that there is no half-way following Jesus. Either you are for him or against him.

Pilate tried emotional appeal. He asked the Jews: “Shall I crucify your king (19:15)?” You cannot appeal to others to make a decision you alone can make. No one can evade making a personal decision for or against Christ.

“Pilate by this world’s standards was a successful man. He had come almost to the top of the Roman civil service; he was governor-general of a Roman province; but there was something missing. . . . Into his life came Jesus, and suddenly he saw what he had missed. That day he might have found all that he had missed; but he had not the courage to defy the world in spite of his past, and to take his stand with Christ and a future which was glorious.” – William Barclay.

Note the sheer majesty of Jesus during the whole trial. Jesus speaks in clear terms that he is king and that his kingdom is not political. He reigns in the hearts of men by love and sacrifice not by force of muscle and might. Jesus says that he came to this world to testify to the truth—the truth about God and the truth about people. He himself is the truth.

Pilate asked, “What is truth (18:38)?” But he did not wait for an answer. Finally, Pilate presents Jesus to the Jews saying, “Here is the man (19:5b)!” Pilate wanted to make the Jews feel pity for Jesus but we can also see an underlying admiration Pilate felt for the sheer courage of Jesus under scourging and the majesty he showed.

Jesus reminds Pilate that he has no power over him unless given from above (19:11a). [The one who handed me over to you and guilty of a greater sin is a reference to Caiphas the high priest.] If Pilate really had power to release Jesus why didn’t he do it especially when he found Jesus innocent (19:4)?

We find Jesus giving Pilate no answer at times (John 19:9). To not speak when asked to by a Roman Governor was equivalent to contempt of court. But Jesus is in absolute control. He knew that Pilate was not serious when he asked him “Where do you come from?” He was simply afraid according to popular legends and superstitions of the time this “Son of God” the Jews were accusing him of was some kind of half-god. He feared whether he was angering the gods (19:7). Jesus had nothing to say in answer to that kind of superstitions.

We have Pilate seated on the judge’s seat at the Stone Pavement to give a final verdict. The role will be reversed one day. We all will stand before the judgement seat of Christ.  This scene should never be wiped out of our minds. The world is fast and furious heading towards this day when Jesus will judge the world—both believers and sinners (though these are two occasions and two different types of judgements. 2 Corinthians 5:10, Revelation 20:12—15). Are you ready to stand before him?

Let us look at it again:

Pilate: “Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus: “Is that your own idea, or did others to talk to you about me?”

Pilate is half-mocking. If you read it this way, “So YOU are the king of the Jews.” He had heard that there was someone posing as king and he is being brought before him in the early hours of the morning to be questioned. Pilate couldn’t see any rebellious attitude in Jesus.

But then Jesus’ counter question took Pilate by surprise. Jesus did not plead his innocence nor did he show defiance. Instead Jesus treated Pilate as an equal, not as a superior; and questioned him in turn.

Jesus, by this question, is changing the direction of the case. Pilate was concerned about the legal side of the pending case against Jesus. But Jesus is directing the question to Pilate’s personal decision and destiny.

It was impossible for Jesus to give a simple “Yes” or “No” answer.

Jesus was asking Pilate whether it was a personal inquiry he was making. If so, Jesus could engage in a conversation and try to talk to him about spiritual truths. If Pilate were willing to listen, Jesus would have given him a fair chance to understand salvation just like he gave the chance to Nicodemus as well as the Samaritan woman.

If he was just repeating what others or the Sanhedrin told him, then Jesus might have to give a long explanation to clarify. A commentator Carson says, “Jesus . . .has become the interrogator; the prisoner has become the judge.”

The sad situation of Pilate was that he was convinced that Jesus was no criminal; but he never understood Jesus’ claim to be king of a kingdom that comes with life-changing power. This is what the world also does today. They agree to everything Jesus is; but will not allow him to exercise kingship in their lives so that he can transform their lives.

Jesus is king. Nowhere else in Scripture than here does it come with such majestic force. Are you willing to allow him to change your lives? He is king. A king commands and does not beg. Let us not play the role of Pilate as we stand before Jesus. But let us accept him for he who he truly is—the King!

Pilate seemed unwilling to be part of the action. He was uneasy throughout the trial shown by the fact that he makes at least four trips between the outer court where he met the Jews and the inner court where he took Jesus for questioning.

Jesus made Pilate confront the real issue at stake: his attitude towards truth. “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me (John 18:37b)” said Jesus. If Pilate was devoted to the truth he would hear it in Jesus’ voice; if not he would brand himself as not belonging to the truth.

Pilate had the chance of a lifetime. But he was not on the side of truth. He was not ready to act on what he knew was right. “The story of Pilate is the tragedy of unbelief.” Merril C. Tenney.