The Word in the Wings
From the study: power in peace
By: KAYA PRASAD
John’s Gospel gives an account of Jesus’s trial and execution that centers around questions of kingship and power. The dialogue in John 19 among Jesus, Pilate, the Jewish religious leaders and others who are present illustrates two drastically different approaches to power. Through the contrast between those who adopt a political philosophy of expedient violence, on the one hand, and Jesus who submits to violence against himself, on the other hand, John’s account of Jesus’s crucifixion points to the hope that the peace of God’s kingdom is more powerful than this world’s armies and emperors.
5 So Jesus came out, wearing the thorny crown and the purple robe. And [Pilate] said to them, “Here is the person.”
Pilate brings Jesus out before the Jewish leaders arrayed in symbols of kingship, but the context is mockery and torture.
6 So when the chief priests and the officials saw him, they shouted, saying, “Crucify! Crucify!” Pilate said to them, “You take him and crucify him, for I don’t find any grounds to accuse him.”
As if Jesus’s raiment visualizes the Jewish leaders’ accusation against Jesus–the question of kingship around which John’s account of Good Friday centers–they respond to what they see by calling for his execution. But Pilate objects; he doesn’t see Jesus as a threat the way the Jewish leaders do.
Indeed, if Pilate’s standard for a king is someone like Caesar, then Jesus doesn’t fit the pattern. Worldly rulers enforce their sovereignty by force, enlisting violence to maintain their vision of political order (Wright 52). But Jesus has no army; he comes to Jerusalem riding a donkey (John 12:14), a symbol of peaceful reign rather than the threat of conquest. In the previous chapter, Jesus explains to Pilate that his kingdom is fundamentally different from kingdoms of this world because, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews” (John 18:36). As things stand, Jesus and his followers don’t impose their vision of order through force. In Pilate’s estimation, a king with no force of arms to impose his will is effectively not a king at all. A peaceful Jesus, he supposes, poses no threat to Caesar.
7 The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die, because he made himself out as a son of God.”
It’s possible that the Jews intend this accusation to convince Pilate to take their side in seeing Jesus as a threat to power. “Son of God” would have been a Roman royal epithet referring to the emperor’s claim to deity (Wright 52). It expresses both their religious sense that Jesus blasphemes when he speaks of his relationship to God and their political sense that Pilate might take their side if he’s convinced that Jesus poses a threat to Caesar.
12 From then on, Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews shouted, saying, “If you should release him, you are no friend of Caesar; anyone who makes himself king speaks against Caesar.”
Now the Jews make the issue of kingship and power more explicit. Still trying to win Pilate over to their side, they articulate an opposition between Jesus’s alleged claim to kingship and the sovereignty of Caesar, to whom Pilate owes allegiance. The Jews speak to Pilate in the second-person to place responsibility for Jesus, and for any threat he might pose to Caesar’s power, in Pilate’s hands.
13 So when Pilate heard these words, he led Jesus out, and he sat upon a dais in a place called “Lithostroton”–in Hebrew, “Gabbatha.” 14 Now it was preparation time for the Passover; it was near the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, “Here is your king.”
Pilate prods the Jewish leaders by turning their accusation against Jesus into a claim for which they appear responsible; they’re the ones who feel threatened by Jesus’s power, so they’re the ones who are troubled by others’ perception that he holds authority.
15 So they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him.” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your king?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king except Caesar.”
The Jews deny Jesus’s authority in exclusive terms. By claiming Caesar as sole sovereign, the chief priests are “stepping down drastically from everything that made Israel Israel” (Wright 53), effectively denying that they owe ultimate loyalty to God. The Jewish leaders demonstrate their alignment with Caesar by their willingness to use Caesar’s violent methods to enforce their vision of order, letting death instead of life reign through them in this moment.
16a So then he handed him over to them so he might be crucified.
Pilate does the same, submitting to the will of the shouting religious leaders rather than take on responsibility to defend the innocent. Pilate prefers to placate the Jews rather than risk an uprising, which could result in his death at their hands or at the hands of his higher-ups in the Roman government (Schmidtberger). Pilate manipulates Jesus’s accusers into taking on responsibility for his fate, choosing to wash his hands of the matter rather than risk leading with integrity.
25 But standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Klopas’s wife Mary, and Mary of Magdala. 26 So when Jesus saw his mother and the disciple he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that very hour the disciple took her to his own.
Later, as Jesus hangs from the cross, probably fighting for breath to speak, he sees a small gathering of people he loves and describes a new relationship between them. Jesus’s words have immediate effect; the way his words engender love, hospitality and generosity demonstrate that in this moment, Jesus has power. However, Jesus’s manner of exercising power contrasts sharply with that of Caesar, who exercises power by killing (Wright 55). Jesus instead brings life and love to fuller reality even in his own death at Caesar’s hands. After all this talk of kings and emperors, it’s the suffering servant who truly reigns, at least in the lives of those who follow him in the face of death and listen.
Biblical quotations in this post are my translation.
“Pilate, Caesar and Bible truth” in God in Public: How the Bible Speaks Truth to Power Today, by Tom Wright (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2016).
Sermon on John 18:24-40 by Robbie Schmidtberger at Iron Works Church (West Chester, PA) on March 13, 2022.
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