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CHRIST AND HIS CAPTORS
Joh_18:6 - Joh_18:9 .
This remarkable incident is narrated by John only. It fits in with the purpose which he himself tells us governed his selection of the incidents which he records. ‘These things are written,’ says he, near the end of the Gospel, ‘that ye might believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that, believing, ye might have life in His name.’ The whole of the peculiarities of the substance of John’s Gospel are to be explained on the two grounds that he was writing a supplement to, and not a substitute for, or a correction of, the Gospels already in existence; and that his special business was to narrate such facts and words as set forth the glory of Christ as ‘the Only Begotten of the Father.’
The incident before us is, as I think, one of these. The Evangelist would have us see in it, as I gather from his manner of narrating it, mainly three things. He emphasises that strange recoil of the would-be captors before Christ’s majestic, calm ‘I am He’; that was a manifestation of Christ’s glory. He emphasises our Lord’s patient standing there, in the midst of the awe-struck crowd, and even inciting them, as it would seem, to do the work for which they had come out; that was a manifestation of the voluntariness of Christ’s sufferings. And He emphasises the self-forgetting care with which at that supreme moment He steps between His faithless, weak friends and danger, with the wonderful words, ‘If ye seek Me, let these go their way’; to the Evangelist that little incident is an illustration, on a very low level, and in regard to a comparatively trivial matter, of the very same principle by which salvation from all evil in time and in eternity, is guaranteed to all that believe on Him:-
I. First, then, consider this remarkable, momentary manifestation of our Lord’s glory.
‘I am He!’ When the Band were thus doubly assured by the traitor’s kiss and by His own confession, why did they not lay hands upon Him? There He stood in the midst of them, alone, defenceless; there was nothing to hinder their binding Him on the spot. Instead of that they recoil, and fall in a huddled heap before Him. Some strange awe and terror, of which they themselves could have given no account, was upon their spirits. How came it about? Many things may have conspired to produce it. I am by no means anxious to insist that this was a miracle. Things of the same sort, though much less in degree, have been often enough seen; when some innocent and illustrious victim has for a moment paralysed the hands of his would-be captors and made them feel, though it were but transiently, ‘how awful goodness is.’ There must have been many in that band who had heard Him, though, in the uncertain light of quivering moonbeams and smoking torches, they failed to recognise Him till He spoke. There must have been many more who had heard of Him, and many who suspected that they were about to lay hands on a holy man, perhaps on a prophet. There must have been reluctant tools among the inferiors, and no doubt some among the leaders whoso consciences needed but a touch to be roused to action. To all, His calmness and dignity would appeal, and the manifest freedom from fear or desire to flee would tend to deepen the strange thoughts which began to stir in their hearts.
But the impression which the narrative seems intended to leave, appears to me to be of something more than this. It looks as if there were something more than human in Christ’s look and tone. It may have been the same in kind as the ascendency which a pure and calm nature has over rude and inferior ones. It may have been the same in kind as has sometimes made the headsman on the scaffold pause before he struck, and has bowed rude gaolers into converts before some grey-haired saint or virgin martyr; yet the difference is so great in degree as practically to become quite another thing. Though I do not want to insist upon any ‘miraculous’ explanation of the cause of this incident, yet I would ask, May it not be that here we see, perhaps apart from Christ’s will altogether, rising up for one moment to the surface, the indwelling majesty which was always there?
We do not know the laws that regulated the dwelling of the Godhead, bodily, within that human frame, but we do know that at one other time there came upon His features a transfiguration, and over His very garments a lustre which was not thrown upon them from without, but rose up from within. And I am inclined to think that here, as there, though under such widely different circumstances and to such various issues, there was for a moment a little rending of the veil of His flesh, and an emission of some flash of the brightness that always tabernacled within Him; and that, therefore, just as Isaiah, when He saw the King in His glory, said, ‘Woe is me, for I am undone!’ and just as Moses could not look upon the Face, but could only see the back parts, so here the one stray beam of manifest divinity that shot through the crevice, as it were, for an instant, was enough to prostrate with a strange awe even those rude and insensitive men. When He had said ‘I am He,’ there was something that made them feel, ‘This is One before whom violence cowers abashed, and in whose presence impurity has to hide its face.’ I do not assert that this is the explanation of that panic terror. I only ask, May it not be?
But whatever we may think was the reason, at all events the incident brings out very strikingly the elevation and dignity of Christ, and the powerful impressions made by His personality, even at such a time of humiliation. This Evangelist is always careful to bring out the glory of Christ, especially when that glory lies side by side with His lowliness. The blending of these two is one of the remarkable features in the New Testament portraiture of Jesus Christ. Wherever in our Lord’s life any incident indicates more emphatically than usual the lowliness of His humiliation, there, by the side of it, you get something that indicates the majesty of His glory. For instance, He is born a weak infant, but angels herald His birth; He lies in a manger, but a star hangs trembling above it, and leads sages from afar, with their myrrh, and incense, and gold. He submits Himself to the baptism of repentance, but the heavens open and a voice proclaims, ‘This is My beloved Son!’ He sits wearied, on the stone coping of the well, and craves for water from a peasant woman; but He gives her the Water of Life. He lies down and sleeps, from pure exhaustion, in the stern of the little fishing-boat, but He wakes to command the storm, and it is still. He weeps beside the grave, but He flings His voice into its inmost recesses, and the sheeted dead comes forth. He well-nigh faints under the agony in the garden, but an angel from Heaven strengthens Him. He stands a prisoner at a human bar, but He judges and condemns His judges. He dies, and that hour of defeat is His hour of triumph, and the union of shame and glory is most conspicuous in that hour when on the Cross the ‘Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in Him.’
This strange blending of opposites-the glory in the lowliness, and the abasement in the glory-is the keynote of this singular event. He will be ‘delivered into the hands of men.’ Yes; but ere He is delivered He pauses for an instant, and in that instant comes a flash ‘above the brightness of the noonday sun’ to tell of the hidden glory.
Do not forget that we may well look upon that incident as a prophecy of what shall be. As one of the suggestive, old commentators on this verse says: ‘He will say “I am He,” again, a third time. What will He do coming to reign, when He did this coming to die? And what will His manifestation be as a Judge when this was the effect of the manifestation as He went to be judged?’ ‘Every eye shall see Him’; and they that loved not His appearing shall fall before Him when He cometh to be our Judge; and shall call on the rocks and the hills to cover them.
II. There is here, secondly, a manifestation of the voluntariness of our Lord’s suffering.
When that terrified mob recoiled from Him, why did He stand there so patiently? The time was propitious for flight, if He had cared to flee. He might have ‘passed through the midst of them and gone His way.’ as He did once before, if He had chosen. He comes from the garden; there shall be no difficulty in finding Him. He tells who He is; there shall be no need for the traitor’s kiss. He lays them low for a moment, but He will not flee. When Peter draws his sword He rebukes his ill-advised appeal to force, and then He holds out His hands and lets them bind Him. It was not their fetters, but the ‘cords of love’ which held Him prisoner. It was not their power, but His own pity which drew Him to the judgment hall and the Cross.
Let us dwell upon that thought for a moment. The whole story of the Gospels is constructed upon the principle, and illustrates the fact, that our Lord’s life, as our Lord’s death, was a voluntary surrender of Himself for man’s sin, and that nothing led Him to, and fastened Him on, the Cross but His own will. He willed to be born. He ‘came into the world’ by His own choice. He ‘took upon Him the form of a servant.’ He ‘took part’ of the children’s ‘flesh and blood.’ His birth was His own act, the first of the long series of the acts, by which for the sake of the love which He bore us, He ‘humbled Himself.’ Step by step He voluntarily journeyed towards the Cross, which stood clear before Him from the very beginning as the necessary end, made necessary by His love.
As we get nearer and nearer to the close of the history, we see more and more distinctly that He willingly went towards the Cross, Take; for instance, the account of the last portion of our Lord’s life, and you see in the whole of it a deliberate intention to precipitate the final conflict. Hence the last journey to Jerusalem when ‘His face was set,’ and His disciples followed Him amazed. Hence the studied publicity of His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Hence the studied, growing severity of His rebukes to the priests and rulers. The same impression is given, though in a somewhat different way, by His momentary retreat from the city and by the precautions taken against premature arrest, that He might not die before the Passover. In both the hastening toward the city and in the retreating from it, there is apparent the same design: that He Himself shall lay down His life, and shall determine the how, and the when, and the where as seems good to Him.
If we look at the act of death itself, Jesus did not die because He must. It was not the nails of the Cross, the physical exhaustion, the nervous shock of crucifixion that killed Him. He died because He would. ‘I have power to lay down My life,’ He said, ‘and I have power’-of course-’to take it again.’ At that last moment, He was Lord and Master of death when He bowed His head to death, and, if I might so say, He summoned that grim servant with a ‘Come!’ and he came, and He set him his task with a ‘Do this!’ and he did it. He was manifested as the Lord of death, having its ‘keys’ in His hands, when He died upon the Cross.
Now I pray you to ask yourselves the question, if it be true that Christ died because He would, why was it that He would die? If because He chose, what was it that determined His choice? And there are but two answers, which two are one. The divine motive that ruled His life is doubly expressed: ‘I must do the will of My Father,’ and ‘I must save the world.’
The taunt that those Jewish rulers threw at Him had a deeper truth than they dreamed, and was an encomium, and not a taunt. ‘He saved others’-yes, and therefore, ‘Himself He cannot save.’ He cannot, because His choice and will to die are determined by His free love to us and to all the world. His fixed will ‘bore His body to the tree,’ and His love was the strong spring which kept His will fixed.
You and I have our share in these voluntary sufferings, and our place in that loving heart which underwent them for us. Oh! should not that thought speak to all our hearts, and bind us in grateful service and lifelong surrender to Him who gave Himself for us; and must die because He loved us all so much that He could not leave us unsaved?
III. We have, lastly, here, a symbol, or, perhaps, more accurately, an instance, on a small scale, of Christ’s self-sacrificing care for us.
His words: ‘If ye seek Me, let these go their way,’ sound more like the command of a prince than the intercession of a prisoner. The calm dignity of them strikes one just as much as the perfect self-forgetfulness of them.
It was a very small matter which He was securing thereby. The Apostles would have to die for Him some day, but they were not ready for it yet, and so He casts the shield of His protection round them for a moment, and interposes Himself between them and the band of soldiers in order that their weakness may have a little more time to grow strong. And though it was wrong and cowardly for them to forsake Him and flee, yet these words of my text more than half gave them permission and warrant for their departure: ‘Let these go their way.’
Now John did not think that this small deliverance was all that Christ meant by these great words: ‘Of them which Thou gavest Me have I lost none!’ He saw that it was one case, a very trifling one, a merely transitory one, yet ruled by the same principles which are at work in the immensely higher region to which the words properly refer. Of course they have their proper fulfilment in the spiritual realm, and are not fulfilled, in the highest sense, till all who have loved and followed Christ are presented faultless before the Father in the home above. But the little incident may be a result of the same cause as the final deliverance is. A dew-drop is shaped by the same laws which mould the mightiest of the planets. The old divines used to say that God was greatest in the smallest things, and the self-sacrificing care of Jesus Christ, as He gives Himself a prisoner that His disciples may go free, comes from the same deep heart of pitying love, which led Him to die, the ‘just for the unjust.’ It may then well stand for a partial fulfilment of His mighty words, even though these wait for their complete accomplishment till the hour when all the sheep are gathered into the one fold, and no evil beasts, nor weary journeys, nor barren pastures can harass them any more.
This trivial incident, then, becomes an exposition of highest truth. Let us learn from such an use of such an event to look upon all common and transitory circumstances as governed by the same loving hands, and working to the same ends, as the most purely spiritual. The visible is the veil which drapes the invisible, and clings so closely to it as to reveal its outline. The common events of life are all parables to the devout heart, which is the wise heart. They speak mystic meanings to ears that can hear. The redeeming love of Jesus is proclaimed by every mercy which perishes in the using; and all things should tell us of His self-forgetting, self-sacrificing care.
Thus, then, we may see in that picture of our Lord’s surrendering Himself that His trembling disciples might go free, an emblem of what He does for us, in regard to all our foes. He stands between us and them, receives their arrows into His own bosom, and says, ‘Let these go their way.’ God’s law comes with its terrors, with its penalties, to us who have broken it a thousand times. The consciousness of guilt and sin threatens us all more or less, and with varying intensity in different minds. The weariness of the world, ‘the ills that flesh is heir to,’ the last grim enemy, Death, and that which lies beyond them all, ring you round. My friends! what are you going to do in order to escape from them? You are a sinful man, you have broken God’s law. That law goes on crashing its way and crushing down all that is opposed to it. You have a weary life before you, however joyful it may sometimes be. Cares, and troubles, and sorrows, and tears, and losses, and disappointments, and hard duties that you will not be able to perform, and dark days in which you will be able to see but very little light, are all certain to come sooner or later; and the last moment will draw near when the King of Terrors will be at your side; and beyond death there is a life of retribution in which men reap the things that they have sown here. All that is true, much of it is true about you at this moment, and it will all be true some day. In view of that, what are you going to do?
I preach to you a Saviour who has endured all for us. As a mother might fling herself out of the sledge that her child might escape the wolves in full chase, here is One that comes and fronts all your foes, and says to them, ‘Let these go their way. Take Me.’ ‘By His stripes we are healed.’ ‘On Him was laid the iniquity of us all.’
He died because He chose; He chose because He loved. His love had to die in order that His death might be our life, and that in it we should find our forgiveness and peace. He stands between our foes and us. No evil can strike us unless it strike Him first. He takes into His own heart the sharpest of all the darts which can pierce ours. He has borne the guilt and punishment of a world’s sin. These solemn penalties have fallen upon Him that we, trusting in Him, ‘may go our way,’ and that there may be ‘no condemnation’ to us if we are in Christ Jesus. And if there be no condemnation, we can stand whatever other blows may fall upon us. They are easier to bear, and their whole character is different, when we know that Christ has borne them already. Two of the three whom Christ protected in the garden died a martyr’s death; but do you not think that James bowed his neck to Herod’s sword, and Peter let them gird him and lead him to his cross, more joyfully and with a different heart, when they thought of Him that had died before them? The darkest prison cell will not be so very dark if we remember that Christ has been there before us, and death itself will be softened into sleep because our Lord has died. ‘If therefore,’ says He, to the whole pack of evils baying round us, with their cruel eyes and their hungry mouths, ‘ye seek Me, let these go their way.’ So, brother, if you will fix your trust, as a poor, sinful soul, on that dear Christ, and get behind Him, and put Him between you and your enemies, then, in time and in eternity, that saying will be fulfilled in you which He spake, ‘Of them which Thou gavest Me, have I lost none.’
JESUS BEFORE CAIAPHAS
Joh_18:15 - Joh_18:27 .
The last verses of the preceding passage belong properly to this one, for they tell us that Jesus was ‘first’ brought before Annas, a fact which we owe to John only. Annas himself and his five sons held the high-priesthood in succession. To the sons has to be added Caiaphas, who, as we learn from John only, was Annas’ son-in-law, and so one of the family party. That Jesus should have been taken to him, though he held no office at the time, shows who pulled the strings in the Sanhedrim. The reference to Caiaphas in Joh_18:14 seems intended to suggest what sort of a trial might be expected, presided over by such a man. But Joh_18:15 tells us that Jesus entered in, accompanied by ‘another disciple,’ ‘to the court,’ not, as we should have expected, of Annas, but ‘of the high priest,’ who, by the testimony of Joh_18:13 , can be no one but Caiaphas. How came that about? Apparently, because Annas had apartments in the high-priest’s official residence. As he obviously exercised the influence through his sons and son-in-law, who successively held the office, it was very natural that he should be a fixture in the palace.
What John’s connection was with this veteran intriguer assuming that John was that ‘other disciple’ we do not know. Probably it was some family bond that united two such antipathetic natures. At all events, the Apostle’s acquaintance with the judge so far condoned his discipleship to the criminal, that the doors of the audience chamber were open to him, though he was known as ‘one of them.’
So he and poor Peter were parted, and the latter left shivering outside in the grey of the morning. John had not missed him at first, for he would be too much absorbed in watching Jesus to have thoughts to spare for Peter, and would conclude that he was following him; but, when he did miss him, like a brave man he ran the risk of being observed, and went for him. The sharp-witted porteress, whose business it was to judge applicants for entrance by a quick glance, at once inferred that Peter ‘also’ was one of this man’s disciples. Her ‘also’ shows that she knew John to be one; and her ‘this man’ shows that either she did not know Jesus’ name, or thought Him too far beneath her to be named by her! The time during which Peter had been left outside alone, repenting now of, and alarmed for what might happen to him on account of, his ill-aimed blow at Malchus, and feeling the nipping cold, had taken all his courage out of him. The one thing he wished was to slip in unnoticed, and so the first denial came to his lips as rashly as many another word had come in old days. He does not seem to have remained with John, who probably went up to the upper end of the hall, where the examination was going on, while Peter, not having the entree and very much terrified as well as miserable, stayed at the lower end, where the understrappers were making themselves comfortable round a charcoal fire, and paying no attention to the proceedings at the other end. He seemed to be as indifferent as they were, and to be intent only on getting himself warmed. But what surges of emotion would be tossing in his heart, which yet he was trying to hide under the mask of being an unconcerned spectator, like the others!
The examination of our Lord was conducted by ‘the high priest,’ by which title John must mean Caiaphas, as he has just emphatically noted that he then filled the office. But how is that to be reconciled with the statement that Jesus was taken to Annas? Apparently by supposing that, though Annas was present, Caiaphas was spokesman. But did not a formal trial before Caiaphas follow, and does not John tell us Joh_18:24 that, after the first examination, Annas sent Jesus bound to Caiaphas? Yes. And are these things compatible with this account of an examination conducted by the latter? Yes, if we remember that flagrant wresting of justice marked the whole proceedings. The condemnation of Jesus was a judicial murder, in which the highest court of the Jews ‘decreed iniquity by a law’; and it was of a piece with all the rest that he, who was to pose as an impartial judge presently, should, in the spirit of a partisan, conduct this preliminary inquiry. Observe that no sentence was pronounced in the case at this stage. This was not a court at all. What was it? An attempt to entrap the prisoner into admissions which might be used against Him in the court to be held presently. The rulers had Jesus in their hands, and they did not know what to do with Him now that they had Him. They were at a loss to know what His indictment was to be. To kill Him was the only thing on which they had made up their minds; the pretext had yet to be found, and so they tried to get Him to say something which would serve their purpose.
‘The high priest therefore asked Jesus of His disciples, and of His teaching’! If they did not know about either, why had they arrested Him? Cunning outwits itself, and falls into the pit it digs for the innocent. Jesus passed by the question as to His disciples unnoticed, and by His calm answer as to His teaching showed that He saw the snare. He reduced Caiaphas and Annas to perpetrating plain injustice, or to letting Him go free. Elementary fair play to a prisoner prescribes that he should be accused of some crime by some one, and not that he should furnish his judges with materials for his own indictment. ‘Why askest thou Me? ask them that have heard Me,’ is unanswerable, except by such an answer as the officious ‘servant’ gave-a blow and a violent speech. But Christ’s words reach far beyond the momentary purpose; they contain a wide truth. His teaching loves the daylight. There are no muttered oracles, no whispered secrets for the initiated, no double voice, one for the multitude, and another for the adepts. All is above-board, and all is spoken ‘openly to the world.’ Christianity has no cliques or coteries, nothing sectional, nothing reserved. It is for mankind, for all mankind, all for mankind. True, there are depths in it; true, the secrets which Jesus can only speak to loving ears in secret are His sweetest words, but they are ‘spoken in the ear’ that they may be ‘proclaimed on the housetops.’
The high-priest is silent, for there was nothing that he could say to so undeniable a demand, and he had no witnesses ready. How many since his day have treated Jesus as he treated Him-condemned Him or rejected Him without reason, and then looked about for reasons to justify their attitude, or even sought to make Him condemn Himself!
An unjust judge breeds insolent underlings, and if everything else fails, blows and foul words cover defeat, and treat calm assertion of right as impertinence to high-placed officials. Caiaphas degraded his own dignity more than any words of a prisoner could degrade it.
Our Lord’s answer ‘reviled not again.’ It is meek in majesty and majestic in meekness. Patient endurance is not forbidden to remonstrate with insolent injustice, if only its remonstrance bears no heat of personal anger in it. But Jesus was not so much vindicating His words to Caiaphas in saying, ‘If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil,’ as reiterating the challenge for ‘witnesses.’ He brands the injustice of Caiaphas, while meekly rebuking the brutality of his servant. Master and man were alike in smiting Him for words of which they could not prove the evil.
There was obviously nothing to be gained by further examination. No crime had been alleged, much less established; therefore Jesus ought to have been let go. But Annas treated Him as a criminal, and handed Him over ‘bound,’ to be formally tried before the man who had just been foiled in his attempt to play the inquisitor. What a hideous mockery of legal procedure! How well the pair, father-in-law and son-in-law, understood each other! What a confession of a foregone conclusion, evidence or no evidence, in shackling Jesus as a malefactor! And it was all done in the name of religion! and perhaps the couple of priests did not know that they were hypocrites, but really thought that they were ‘doing God service.’
John’s account of Peter’s denials rises to a climax of peril and of keenness of suspicion. The unnamed persons who put the second question must have had their suspicions roused by something in his manner as he stood by the glinting fire, perhaps by agitation too great to be concealed. The third question was put by a more dangerous person still, who not only recognised Peter’s features as the firelight fitfully showed them, but had a personal ground of hostility in his relationship to Malchus.
John lovingly spares telling of the oaths and curses accompanying the denials, but dares not spare the narration of the fact. It has too precious lessons of humility, of self-distrust, of the possibility of genuine love being overborne by sudden and strong temptation, to be omitted. And the sequel of the denials has yet more precious teaching, which has brought balm to many a contrite heart, conscious of having been untrue to its deepest love. For the sound of the cock-crow, and the look from the Lord as He was led away bound past the place where Peter stood, brought him back to himself, and brought tears to his eyes, which were sweet as well as bitter. On the resurrection morning the risen Lord sent the message of forgiveness and special love to the broken-hearted Apostle, when He said, ‘Go, tell My disciples and Peter,’ and on that day there was an interview of which Paul knew 1Co_15:5, but the details of which were apparently communicated by the Apostle to none of his brethren. The denier who weeps is taken to Christ’s heart, and in sacred secrecy has His forgiveness freely given, though, before he can be restored to his public office, he must, by his threefold public avowal of love, efface his threefold denial. We may say, ‘Thou knowest that I love thee,’ even if we have said, ‘I know Him not,’ and come nearer to Jesus, by reason of the experience of His pardoning love, than we were before we fell.
ART THOU A KING?
Joh_18:28 - Joh_18:40 .
John evidently intends to supplement the synoptic Gospels’ account. He tells of Christ’s appearance before Annas, but passes by that before Caiaphas, though he shows his knowledge of it. Similarly he touches lightly on the public hearing before Pilate, but gives us in detail the private conversation in this section, which he alone records. We may suppose that he was present at both the hearing before Annas and the interview within the palace between Jesus and Herod, for he would not be deterred from entering, as the Jews were, and there seems to have been no other impediment in the way. The passage has three stages-the fencing between the Sanhedrists and Pilate, the ‘good confession before Pontius Pilate,’ and the preference of Barabbas to Jesus.
I. The passage of arms between the priests and the governor.
‘It was early,’ probably before 6 A.M. A hurried meeting of the Sanhedrim had condemned Jesus to death, and the next thing was to get the Roman authority to carry out the sentence. The necessity of appeal to it was a bitter pill, but it had to be swallowed, for the right of capital punishment had been withdrawn. A ‘religious’ scruple, too, stood in the way-very characteristic of such formalists. Killing an innocent man would not in the least defile them, or unfit for eating the passover, but to go into a house that had not been purged of ‘leaven,’ and was further unclean as the residence of a Gentile, though he was the governor, that would stain their consciences-a singular scale of magnitude, which saw no sin in condemning Jesus, and great sin in going into Pilate’s palace! Perhaps some of our conventional sins are of a like sort.
Pilate was, probably, not over-pleased at being roused so early, nor at having to defer to a scruple which would to him look like insolence; and through all his bearing to the Sanhedrim a certain irritation shows itself, which sometimes flashes out in sarcasm, but is for the most part kept down. His first question is, perhaps, not so simple as it looks, for he must have had some previous knowledge of the case, since Roman soldiers had been used for the arrest. But, clearly, those who brought him a prisoner were bound to be the prosecutors.
Whether or not Pilate knew that his question was embarrassing, the rulers felt it so. Why did they not wish to formulate a charge? Partly from pride. They hugged the delusion that their court was competent to condemn, and wanted, as we all often do, to shut their eyes to a plain fact, as if ignoring it annihilated it. Partly because the charge on which they had condemned Jesus-that of blasphemy in calling Himself ‘the Son of God’-was not a crime known to Roman law, and to allege it would probably have ended in the whole matter being scornfully dismissed. So they stood on their dignity and tried to bluster. ‘We have condemned Him; that is enough. We look to you to carry out the sentence at our bidding.’ So the ‘ecclesiastical authority’ has often said to the ‘secular arm’ since then, and unfortunately the civil authority has not always been as wise as Pilate was.
He saw an opening to get rid of the whole matter, and with just a faint flavour of irony suggests that, as they have ‘a law’-which he, no doubt, thought of as a very barbarous code-they had better go by it, and punish as well as condemn. That sarcastic proposal compelled them to acknowledge their subjection. Pilate had given the reins the least touch, but enough to make them feel the bit; and though it went sore against the grain, they will own their master rather than lose their victim. So their reluctant lips say, ‘It is not lawful for us.’ Pilate has brought them on their knees at last, and they forget their dignity, and own the truth. Malicious hatred will eat any amount of dirt and humiliation to gain its ends, especially if it calls itself religious zeal.
John sees in the issue of this first round in the duel between Pilate and the rulers the sequence of events which brought about the fulfilment of our Lord’s prediction of His crucifixion, since that was not a Jewish mode of execution. This encounter of keen wits becomes tragical and awful when we remember Who it was that these men were wrangling about.
II. We have Jesus and Pilate; the ‘good confession,’ and the indifferent answer.
We must suppose that, unwillingly, the rulers had brought the accusation that Jesus had attempted rebellion against Rome. John omits that, because he takes it for granted that it is known. It is implied in the conversation which now ensued. We must note as remarkable that Pilate does not conduct his first examination in the presence of the rulers, but has Jesus brought to him in the palace. Perhaps he simply wished to annoy the accusers, but more probably his Roman sense of justice combined with his wish to assert his authority, and perhaps with a suspicion that there was something strange about the whole matter-and not least strange that the Sanhedrim, who were not enthusiastic supporters of Rome, should all at once display such loyalty-to make him wish to have the prisoner by himself, and try to fathom the business. With Roman directness he went straight to the point: ‘Art Thou the King of the Jews, as they have been saying?’ There is emphasis on ‘Thou’-the emphasis which a practical Roman official would be likely to put as he looked at the weak, wearied, evidently poor and helpless man bound before him. There is almost a touch of pity in the question, and certainly the beginning of the conviction that this was not a very formidable rival to Caesar.
The answer to be given depended on the sense in which Pilate asked the question, to bring out which is the object of Christ’s question in reply. If Pilate was asking of himself, then what he meant by ‘a king’ was one of earth’s monarchs after the emperor’s pattern, and the answer would be ‘No.’ If he was repeating a Jewish charge, then, ‘a king’ might mean the prophetic King of Israel, who was no rival of earthly monarchs, and the answer would be ‘Yes,’ but that ‘Yes’ would give Pilate no more reason to crucify Him than the ‘No’ would have given.
Pilate is getting tired of fencing, and impatiently answers, with true Roman contempt for subject-people’s thoughts as well as their weapons. ‘I . . . a Jew?’ is said with a curl of the firm lips. He points to his informants, ‘Thine own nation and the chief priests,’ and does not say that their surrender of a would-be leader in a war of independence struck him as suspicious. But he brushes aside the cobwebs which he felt were being spun round him, and comes to the point, ‘What hast Thou done?’ He is supremely indifferent to ideas and vagaries of enthusiasts. This poor man before him may call Himself anything He chooses, but his only concern is with overt acts. Strange to ask the Prisoner what He had done! It had been well for Pilate if he had held fast by that question, and based his judgment resolutely on its answer! He kept asking it all through the case, he never succeeded in getting an answer; he was convinced that Jesus had done nothing worthy of death, and yet fear, and a wish to curry favour with the rulers, drove him to stain the judge’s robe with innocent blood, from which he vainly sought to cleanse his hands.
Our Lord’s double answer claims a kingdom, but first shows what it is not, and then what it is. It is ‘not of this world,’ though it is in this world, being established and developed here, but having nothing in common with earthly dominions, nor being advanced by their weapons or methods. Pilate could convince himself that this ‘kingdom’ bore no menace to Rome, from the fact that no resistance had been offered to Christ’s capture. But the principle involved in these great words goes far beyond their immediate application. It forbids Christ’s ‘servants’ to assimilate His kingdom to the world, or to use worldly powers as the means for the kingdom’s advancement. The history of the Church has sadly proved how hard it is for Christian men to learn the lesson, and how fatal to the energy and purity of the Church the forgetfulness of it has been. The temptation to such assimilation besets all organised Christianity, and is as strong to-day as when Constantine gave the Church the paralysing gift of ‘establishing’ it as a kingdom ‘of this world.’
Pilate did pick out of this saying an increased certainty that he had nothing to fear from this strange ‘King’; and half-amused contempt for a dreamer, and half-pitying wonder at such lofty claims from such a helpless enthusiast, prompted his question, ‘Art Thou a king then?’ One can fancy the scornful emphasis on that ‘Thou.’ and can understand how grotesquely absurd the notion of his prisoner’s being a king must have seemed.
Having made clear part of the sense in which the avowal was to be taken, our Lord answered plainly ‘Yes.’ Thus before the high-priest, He declared Himself to be the Son of God, and before Pilate He claimed to be King, at each tribunal putting forward the claim which each was competent to examine-and, alas! at each meeting similar levity and refusal to inquire seriously into the validity of the claim. The solemn revelation to Pilate of the true nature of His kingdom and of Himself the King fell on careless ears. A deeper mystery than Pilate dreamed of lay beneath the double designation of His origin; for He not only had been ‘born’ like other men, but had ‘come into the world,’ having ‘come forth from the Father,’ and having been before He was born. It was scarcely possible that Pilate should apprehend the meaning of that duplication, but some vague impression of a mysterious personality might reach him, and Jesus would not have fully expressed His own consciousness if He had simply said, ‘I was born.’ Let us see that we keep firm hold of all which that utterance implies and declares.
The end of the Incarnation is to ‘bear witness to the truth.’ That witness is the one weapon by which Christ’s kingdom is established. That witness is not given by words only, precious as these are, but by deeds which are more than words. These witnessing deeds are not complete till Calvary and the empty grave and Olivet have witnessed at once to the perfect incarnation of divine love, to the perfect Sacrifice for the world’s sin, to the Victor over death, and to the opening of heaven to all believers. Jesus is ‘the faithful and true Witness,’ as John calls Him, not without reminiscences of this passage, just because He is ‘the First-begotten of the dead.’ As here He told Pilate that He was a ‘king,’ because a ‘witness,’ so John, in the passage referred to, bases His being ‘Prince of the kings of the earth’ on the same fact.
How little Pilate knew that he was standing at the very crisis of his fate! A yielding to the impression that was slightly touching his heart and conscience, and he, too, might have ‘heard’ Christ’s voice. But he was not ‘of the truth,’ though he might have been if he had willed, and so the words were wind to him, and he brushed aside all the mist, as he thought it, with the light question, which summed up a Roman man of the world’s indifference to ideas, and belief in solid facts like legions and swords. ‘What is truth?’ may be the cry of a seeking soul, or the sneer of a confirmed sceptic, or the shrug of indifference of the ‘practical man.’
It was the last in Pilate’s case, as is shown by his not waiting for an answer, but ending the conversation with it as a last shot. It meant, too, that he felt quite certain that this man, with his high-strained, unpractical talk about a kingdom resting on such a filmy nothing, was absolutely harmless. Therefore the only just thing for him to have done was to have gone out to the impatient crowd and said so, and flatly refused to do the dirty work of the priests for them, by killing an innocent man. But he was too cowardly for that, and, no doubt, thought that the murder of one poor Jew was a small price to pay for popularity with his troublesome subjects. Still, like all weak men, he was not easy in his conscience, and made a futile attempt to get the right thing done, and yet not to suffer for doing it. The rejection of Barabbas is touched very lightly by John, and must be left unnoticed here. The great contribution to our knowledge which John makes is this private interview between the King who reigns by the truth, and the representative of earthly rule, based on arms and worldly forces.
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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on John 18". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29