This text is used for the Lectionary Year B on November 22, 2015.
Today’s passage offers a glimpse into Pilate’s private investigation of Jesus as described in the Gospel of John. Most of the conversation is comprised of material unique to this Gospel except for the central question from which this Sunday’s festival of “Christ the King” takes its name. Each one of the Gospels records that “Are you the King of the Jews?” was Pilate’s first question during his tête–à–tête with Jesus (Matthew 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3; John 18:33). The fact that all four preserve this same question and place it first speaks to the significance of the charge at Jesus’ trial and to the strength of this memory among the early Church.
Up to this point in the Gospel of John, “King” and “kingdom” language has been noticeably sparse (occurring only in 1:49; 3:5; and 12:13), especially in comparison with the emphasis on the “kingdom of God” in Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptics. In John’s passion narrative, however, Jesus’ kingship takes on a more prominent role (cf. 18:33, 36, 37; 19:19, 21) because of the trial charge.
Being called a “king” was no laughing matter in first-century Judea and was taken quite seriously by the Romans. In fact, Herod Antipas was exiled for requesting the title of “king,” which had previously belonged to his father Herod the Great (Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews. 18.7.1-2). At that time, Judea and Galilee were hotbeds of rebellion simmering in wait of a leader to catalyze the explosion. Josephus records that “anyone might make himself king as the head of a band of rebels” (Antiquities. 17.10.8), and many individuals tried to do just that, the last being Simon Bar Kokhba during the second Jewish uprising (AD 135). Accusing Jesus of making this claim was tantamount to telling Pilate that Jesus was a seditious traitor who posed a direct threat to the state and to the ultimate authority of Caesar.
After taking one look at this poor Rabbi from Galilee, however, Pilate probably found it difficult to believe that he was a rebel leader. One can imagine Pilate gasping in surprise when he saw Jesus. His question may have been one of incredulity with the emphasis placed on the personal pronoun, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Surely, the guards must have brought in the wrong prisoner because there was no way this man was capable of challenging the might of Rome. Whatever Pilate thought of Jesus though, Roman law still required that a magistrate question the accused and allow him a chance to defend himself against any accusations.
It is impossible, however, for Jesus to answer the governor’s question so long as Pilate defines “king” only in political and military terms. As the examination proceeds, Jesus tries to redefine the term into one that fits him and his kingdom. In an effort to reshape Pilate’s perspective, Jesus argues that the nature of his kingship cannot be political. If it were, then would he not have an army with soldiers fighting to prevent his arrest? Instead of leading an armed rebellion to overthrow the Romans and set up his own kingdom, Jesus has already rejected that path when a crowd tried to make him king by force (6:15). Likewise, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he commanded his followers to lay down weapons rather than fight to free him (18:10-11).
No, Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not from this world (v. 36), but the idea of a spiritual or otherworldly kingdom must have seemed as nonsensical to Pilate as it did to most Israelites who were expecting a military leader to re-establish the kingdom of Israel. He views Jesus’ admission of having a kingdom as an affirmation of his kingship, and in essence Pilate says, “Ah ha, I’ve got you now. So you are king, aren’t you?”
Pilate, however, has not “gotten” anything yet, so Jesus tries once again to explain. The purpose of his kingship is a spiritual one—to spread truth (v. 37). “Truth” has been a central theme throughout this Gospel culminating with Jesus’ declaration: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6). According to John, not only does Jesus testify to the true things he has seen and learned in his Father’s presence (cf. 3:11-13; 31-34; 8:28, 38; 12:49-50; 14:10-11; 17:7-8), but he is also Truth itself.
If this concept is difficult for us to wrap our minds around today, then we can sympathize with Pilate, who once again is incapable of grasping Jesus’ meaning and can reply only with another question: “What is truth?” (v. 38) The evangelist, however, most likely is not using Pilate’s final question to evoke sympathy but to point to one of the greatest ironies (and there are many!) in the Gospel of John. The irony is that the Truth (14:6) was standing right in front of him, but Pilate couldn’t even see it. He was in the presence of true royalty but could not recognize it.
No doubt, the evangelist also meant for his original audience in the early Church to reflect on their own messianic expectations as well as their ability to recognize truth. The same questions likewise remain pertinent for us today. In what ways have we misunderstood the nature of God’s kingdom or failed to recognize its king? How often have we, like Pilate, been faced with the Truth and been too blind to see him?
Dr. Meg Ramey
Associate Professor of Biblical Studies
Messiah College, Grantham, PA
Tags: messiah, King of Jews, kingdom, Israel, Pilate, Jesus, truth