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These verses begin John’s account of Christ’s sufferings and crucifixion. We now enter on the closing scene of our Lord’s ministry, and pass at once from His intercession to His sacrifice. We shall find that, like the other Gospel-writers, the beloved disciple enters fully into the story of the cross. But we shall also find, if we read carefully, that he mentions several interesting points in the story, which Matthew, Mark, and Luke, for some wise reasons, have passed over.
We should notice, first, in these verses, the exceeding hardness of heart to which a backsliding professor may attain. We are told that Judas, one of the twelve Apostles, became guide to them that took Jesus. We are told that he used his knowledge of the place of our Lord’s retirement, in order to bring His deadly enemies upon Him; and we are told that when the band of men and officers approached his Master in order to make Him prisoner, Judas "stood with them."—Yet this was a man who for three years had been a constant companion of Christ, had seen His miracles, had heard His sermons, had enjoyed the benefit of His private instruction, had professed himself a believer, had even worked and preached in Christ’s name!—"Lord," we may well say, "what is man?" From the highest degree of privilege down to the lowest depth of sin, there is but a succession of steps. Privileges misused seem to paralyze the conscience. The same fire that melts wax, will harden clay.
Let us beware of resting our hopes of salvation on religious knowledge, however great; or religious advantages, however many. We may know all doctrinal truth and be able to teach others, and yet prove rotten at heart, and go down to the pit with Judas. We may bask in the full sunshine of spiritual privileges, and hear the best of Christian teaching, and yet bear no fruit to God’s glory, and be found withered branches of the vine, only fit to be burned. "Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall." (1 Corinthians 10:12.) Above all, let us beware of cherishing within our hearts any secret besetting sin, such as love of money or love of the world. One faulty link in a chain-cable may cause a shipwreck. One little leak may sink a ship. One allowed and unmortified sin may ruin a professing Christian. Let him that is tempted to be a careless man in his religious life, consider these things, and take care. Let him remember Judas Iscariot. His history is meant to be a lesson.
We should notice, secondly, in these verses, the entire voluntariness of Christ’s sufferings. We are told that the first time that our Lord said to the soldiers, "I am He, they went backward, and fell to the ground." A secret invisible power, no doubt, accompanied the words. In no other way can we account for a band of hardy Roman soldiers falling prostrate before a single unarmed man. The same miraculous influence which tied the hands of the angry crowd at Nazareth,—which made the priests and Pharisees powerless at the triumphant entry into Jerusalem,—which stopped all opposition when the temple was purged of buyers and sellers,—that same mysterious influence was present now. A real miracle was wrought, though few had eyes to see it. At the moment when our Lord seemed weak, He showed that He was strong.
Let us carefully remember that our blessed Lord suffered and died of His own free will. He did not die because He could not help it; He did not suffer because He could not escape. All the soldiers of Pilate’s army could not have taken Him, if He had not been willing to be taken. They could not have hurt a hair of His head, if He had not given them permission. But here, as in all His earthly ministry, Jesus was a willing sufferer. He had set His heart on accomplishing our redemption. He loved us, and gave Himself for us, cheerfully, willingly, gladly, in order to make atonement for our sins. It was "the joy set before Him" which made Him endure the cross, and despise the shame, and yield Himself up without reluctance into the hands of His enemies. Let this thought abide in our hearts, and refresh our souls. We have a Savior who was far more willing to save us than we are willing to be saved. If we are not saved, the fault is all our own. Christ is just as willing to receive and pardon, as He was willing to be taken prisoner, to bleed, and to die.
We should notice, thirdly, in these verses, our Lord’s tender care for His disciples’ safety. Even at this critical moment, when His own unspeakable sufferings were about to begin, He did not forget the little band of believers who stood around Him. He remembered their weakness. He knew how little fit they were to go into the fiery furnace of the High Priest’s Palace, and Pilate’s judgment-hall. He mercifully makes for them a way of escape.—"If ye seek Me, let these go their way."—It seems most probable that here also a miraculous influence accompanied his words. At any rate, not a hair of the disciples’ heads was touched. While the Shepherd was taken, the sheep were allowed to flee away unharmed.
We need not hesitate to see in this incident an instructive type of all our Savior’s dealings with His people even at this day. He will not suffer them "to be tempted above that which they are able to bear." He will hold the winds and storms in His hands, and not allow believers, however sifted and buffeted, to be utterly destroyed. He watches tenderly over every one of His children, and, like a wise physician, measures out the right quantity of their trials with unerring skill. "They shall never perish, neither shall any one pluck them out of His hand." (John 10:28.) Forever let us lean our souls on this precious truth. In the darkest hour the eye of the Lord Jesus is upon us, and our final safety is sure.
We should notice, lastly, in these verses, our Lord’s perfect submission to his Father’s will. Once, in another place, we find Him saying, "If it be possible, let this cup pass from Me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt." Again, in another place, we find Him saying, "If this cup may not pass away from Me except I drink it, Thy will be done." Here, however, we find even a higher pitch of cheerful acquiescence: "The cup which my Father hath given Me, shall I not drink it?" (Matthew 26:39-42; John 18:11.)
Let us see in this blessed frame of mind, a pattern for all who profess and call themselves Christians. Far as we may come short of the Master’s standard, let this be the mark at which we continually aim. Determination to have our own way, and do only what we like, is one great source of unhappiness in the world. The habit of laying all our matters before God in prayer, and asking Him to choose our portion, is one chief secret of peace. He is the truly wise man who has learned to say at every stage of his journey, "Give me what Thou wilt, place me where Thou wilt, do with me as Thou wilt; but not my will, but Thine be done." This is the man who has the mind of Christ. By self-will Adam and Eve fell, and brought sin and misery into the world. Entire submission of will to the will of God is the best preparation for that heaven where God will be all.
v1.—[When Jesus...these words.] This would have been more literally rendered, "Jesus having said these things." The "things" referred to, seem to me to include the discourse of the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters, as well as the prayer of the seventeenth.
Henry observes, "The office of the priest was to teach and pray and offer sacrifice. Christ, after teaching and praying, applies Himself to make atonement. He had said all He had to say as a prophet. He now addresses Himself to His work as priest."
[He went forth...disciples.] The question arises, "From what place did He go forth?" and it receives very different answers.
Many, as Cyril, Ecolampadius, Maldonatus, Doddridge, and Ellicott, think that it only means He went forth from the room where He had held the Lord’s Supper and delivered His parting address and prayer. The advocates of this view hold that our Lord did not actually go out of the room, when He said, at the end of the fourteenth chapter, "Arise, let us go hence," and that He probably continued His discourse, and prayed standing. This, to say the least, seems a very unnatural view.
Some, as Burgon, think that our Lord spoke the latter part of His address and prayer within the precincts of the temple, and that the words before us mean that He moved away from the temple. This, however, seems hardly probable. It was night, we know. There is no evidence that gatherings of people by night were held within the temple precincts.
The most probable view, in my opinion, seems to be that Jesus went forth out of the city, after concluding His discourse and prayer, and that after leaving the room where the Lord’s Supper was held, at the end of the fourteenth chapter, He spoke and prayed near the gates, or within the city walls. He left the room when He said, "Arise, let us go hence." Then having reached some quiet spot near the walls, He continued His discourse and prayed. Then after that He went out of the city. This seems to me the more natural account.
[Over the brook Cedron.] The Cedron here mentioned, is the same as the Kidron named more than once in the Old Testament. The word "brook" means, literally, a "winter torrent," and this, according to all travellers, is precisely what the Kidron is. Excepting in winter, or after rains, it is merely the dry bed of a water-course. It lies on the east side of Jerusalem, between the city and the Mount of Olives. It is the same Kidron which David passed over weeping, when obliged to flee from Jerusalem by the rebellion of Absalom. (2 Samuel 15:23.) It is the same Kidron by the side of which Asa burnt the idol of his mother Maachah (2 Chronicles 15:16), and into which Josiah cast the dust of the idolatrous altars which he destroyed. (2 Kings 23:12.)
Lampe says that the way by which our Lord left the city, was the way by which the scape-goat, Azazel, was annually sent out into the wilderness on the great day of atonement.
Bishop Andrews say that "the first breach made by the Romans, when Titus took Jerusalem, was at the brook Cedron, where they took Christ."
[Where was a garden...disciples.] There can be little doubt that this garden is the same as the "place called Gethsemane." What kind of a garden it was we know not, unless a garden of olive trees. Probably it was neither a garden of flowers nor of herbs, but simply a place enclosed, where trees were sheltered and encouraged to grow, in order to provide a quiet shady retirement away from the bustle of the city. Whether it was a public garden, or private property, we know not. Hengstenberg conjectures that "the owner of the place must have stood in some special relation to Jesus," and that this accounts for His frequent and free resort to the place. He also conjectures that the "young man" named in Mark 14:51-52, must have belonged to the family of the owner. This however is pure conjecture.
Almost all commentators notice the curious fact that the fall of Adam and Eve took place in a garden, and Christ’s passion also began in a garden, and the sepulchre where Christ was laid was in a garden, and the place where He was crucified, was in a garden. (John 19:41.)
Augustine remarks, "It was fitting that the blood of the Physician should there be poured out, where the disease of the sick man first commenced."
Gualter remarks that the first Adam had everything that was pleasant in the Garden of Eden, and yet fell. The second Adam had everything that was painful and trying in the Garden of Gethsemane, but was a glorious Conqueror.
The agony in Gethsemane, we may observe, is entirely passed over by John in his Gospel; and for wise reasons, we need not doubt. But it is evident that it took place at this point of the narrative. The order of things is: first, the Lord’s Supper,—then the long discourse recorded by John alone,—then the marvellous prayer,—then the going over Cedron into the garden,—then the agony,—and then the arrival of Judas and the capture of our Lord. It is plain therefore that there is a pause in the narrative of John’s Gospel at this point, and that we must allow a little space of time for the agony, after our Lord "went out" of the city and crossed the Cedron. This would make the arrival of Judas and the soldiers far on in the night.
Lightfoot mentions a curious fact which he draws from a Jewish writer,—that the blood from the sacrifices in the temple ran down a drain into the brook Kidron, and was then sold to the gardeners for the purpose of dressing their gardens. The blood having been consecrated, could not be put to common uses without sin, and therefore the gardeners paid for it as much as would buy a trespass offering. This is curious, if true.
v2.—[And Judas also, etc.] This verse is one of John’s peculiar explanatory comments. He tells us that this garden was a place where our Lord and His disciples were in the habit of assembling together, when they went up to Jerusalem at the great Jewish feasts. At such seasons the crowd of worshippers was very great; and many had to content themselves with such shelter as they could find under trees, or rocks, in the open air. This is what Luke means when he says, "At night He went out and abode in the mount that is called the mount of Olives." (Luke 21:37.) Excepting at the celebration of the first Lord’s Supper, we have no mention of our Lord ever being in any house in Jerusalem.
Chrysostom remarks, "It is evident from this that Jesus generally passed the night out of doors."
Bucer thinks that Judas specially knew the place where our Lord used to pray. Our Lord’s habits of prayer were as well known as those of Daniel.
The fact that the traitor Judas "knew the place," while our Lord deliberately went there, shows three things. One is, that our Lord went to His death willingly and voluntarily; He went to the "garden," knowing well that Judas was acquainted with the place.—Another thing is, that our Lord was in the habit of going to this garden so "often," that Judas felt sure He would be found there.—Another thing is, that the heart of Judas must have been desperately hard, when, after so many seasons of spiritual refreshment as he must have seen in this garden, he could use his knowledge for the purpose of betraying his Master. He "knew the place," because he had often heard his Master teaching and praying there. He knew it from spiritual associations, and yet turned his knowledge to wicked ends!
May we not learn from this verse that there is nothing to be ashamed of, nothing wrong, in loving one place more than another, and choosing one place more than another, for communion with God? Even our blessed Lord had one special place, near Jerusalem, more than other places, to which He often resorted. The common idea of some, that it matters not where or in what place we worship, and that it is unspiritual and wrong to care for one seat in church more than another, can hardly be reconciled with this verse.
The Greek words rendered "resorted thither," are literally "were gathered together there."
v3.—[Judas then having received, etc.] This verse begins John’s circumstantial account of the taking and subsequent passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. A careful reader will not fail to observe that John entirely passes over several points in this history which are mentioned by the three other Gospel writers, and not least the bargaining of Judas with the priests to betray our Lord for money. But it is evident that John assumes that his readers were acquainted with the other three Gospels, and purposely dwells on points which they had not mentioned.
The expression "a band of men," can only mean "the detachment of Roman soldiers" which had been lent by Pilate to the priests for the occasion. Some think that it means literally "a cohort," which was the tenth part of a legion, and consisted of four or five hundred men. This, however, seems doubtful. Yet Matthew speaks of Judas coming, and "a great multitude with him." (Matthew 26:47.)
The "officers" mean the Jewish servants of the priests and Pharisees, who accompanied the Roman soldiers. The party, therefore, which Judas led consisted of two distinct elements,—Roman soldiers detached from the garrison of Jerusalem, and Jewish servants got together by the leaders of the Jews. Gentiles and Jews were, therefore, equally concerned in the arrest. The number of the party was probably large, from the fear of an attempt at a rescue by the Galilean Jews, who were supposed to favour our Lord. They would be at Jerusalem in large numbers at the Passover, and after our Lord’s recent triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the priests might well feel doubts whether they would allow Him to be made a prisoner without a struggle.
Chrysostom remarks that "these men had often, at other times, sent to seize Him, but had not been able. Hence it is plain that at this time He voluntarily surrendered Himself."
The "lanterns and torches" at first sight may seem to have been needless, as the moon at Passover time was full. But they were doubtless intended to assist the party in searching for our Lord if he endeavoured to hide Himself among the rocks and trees. And in a deep valley there would be many dark and shady places.
The "weapons" most probably apply to the Jewish servants of the priests. It is unreasonable to suppose that Roman soldiers would ever move without their arms. For fear of resistance the Jewish portion of the party took arms also.
Burkitt remarks on the activity and energy of wicked men, "At the very time when Peter, James, and John were sleeping in the garden, Judas and his bloody followers were gathering, marching, and planning a murder."
The confidence of Judas that our Lord would be in the garden, shows plainly how familiar he was with our Lord’s habits on the occasion of his visits to Jerusalem.
v4.—[Jesus...knowing...come upon Him.] This sentence shows our Lord’s perfect foreknowledge of everything that was about to happen to Him. Never was there a more willing, deliberate, and voluntary sufferer than our Lord. The words "things that should come" would be more literally rendered "the things coming," in the present tense.
The best of martyrs, like Ridley and Latimer, did not know for certain, up to the moment of their deaths, that something might not occur to alter the mind of their persecutors and save their lives. Our Lord knew perfectly well that His death was sure, by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God.
Ford quotes a saying of Pinart, that "what rendered Christ’s sufferings most terrible was the perfect foreknowledge He had of the torments He should endure. From the first moment of His life He had present to His mind the scourge, the thorns, the cross, and the agonizing death which awaited Him. Saw He a lamb in the meadow or a victim in the temple, the sight reminded Him that He was the lamb of God, and that He was to be offered up a sacrifice."
[Went forth.] This must mean that our Lord came forward from that part of the garden where He was, and did not wait for the party of Judas to find Him. On the contrary he suddenly showed Himself, and met them face to face. The effect of this action alone must have been startling to the soldiers. They would feel at once that they had to do with no common person.
Henry remarks, "When the people would have forced Him to take a crown and wished to make Him a king, he withdrew and hid Himself. (John 6:15.) But when they came to force Him to His cross He offered Himself. He came to this world to suffer, and went to the other world to reign."
Lampe remarks that the first Adam hid himself in the garden. The second Adam went forth to meet His enemies. The first felt guilty, the second innocent.
[And said...Whom seek ye?] Jesus Himself was the first to speak, and did not wait to be challenged or commanded to surrender. This sudden question no doubt would take the party of Judas by surprise, and prepare the way for the mighty miracle which followed. The soldiers must needs have felt, "this is not the language or manner of a malefactor or a guilty man."
v5.—[They answered...Jesus...Nazareth.] This would be more literally rendered "Jesus the Nazarene." It is certainly hard to suppose that those who said this could have known that Jesus Himself was speaking to them. It looks as if they did not know our Lord by sight, or could not believe that the bold speaker before them could be the prisoner they came to apprehend. That many of the party did not know our Lord by sight, is clear from the fact mentioned by Matthew and Mark, that Judas had given them a sign: "Whomsoever I kiss, that same is He: hold Him fast." This sign, therefore, had not yet been given. Probably there was no time for it. The coming forward and question of our Lord had taken place so suddenly that they took the whole party by surprise.
Chrysostom, Cyril, Theophylact, Gualter, Brentius, Gerhard, and Ferus, think that our Lord miraculously blinded the eyes of the party, so that they did not recognize him, as Elisha blinded the Syrians. (2 Kings 6:18.) They had lights, and they must have known his voice. But they seem to have been unable to know him. Musculus thinks they did not recognize Him, and thought Him a disciple.
[Jesus saith...I am He.] Our Lord here makes a plain, bold, full avowal that He is the very person whom they seek. It must have been a most startling announcement.
The words in the Greek are literally "I am." Some have thought that there was intentional reference to the famous passage in Exodus, where the Lord says, "I AM hath sent you" (Exodus 3:14), to which also our Lord certainly did refer in John 8:58. But it seems very doubtful whether such a reference would have been used in speaking to such a party as those who came to seize our Lord.
[And Judas...stood with them.] It is not quite clear why this little sentence is put in here. It may be meant to show the desperate wickedness of Judas. He stood side by side with the enemies of Jesus.—It may be meant to show that even Judas himself was staggered and confounded by our Lord’s boldness, and did not give his companions the promised sign, not recognising him any more than the others. The false apostle stood there like one struck dumb.—It may be meant to show that Judas himself was a witness and a subject of one of the last great miracles our Lord wrought. He himself was once more to feel, and experience proof, that the Master he betrayed had divine power. There seems to me much probability in this last idea.
v6.—[As soon then as He had said, etc.] I cannot doubt that the thing here related was a great miracle. I have not the slightest sympathy with Alford and others, who try to explain it away partially, by reminding us of the awe and reverence which a great and good man sometimes inspires in inferior minds. Such an explanation will never account for the fact here recorded,—that the band of Roman soldiers and the servants of the priests, in fact the whole body of armed men who came to seize on our Lord, "went backward and fell on the earth," on hearing our Lord say, "I am He." The Roman soldiers, especially, knew nothing about our Lord, and had no cause to fear Him. The only reasonable account of the event is that it was a miracle. It was an exercise for the last time of that same Divine power by which our Lord calmed the waves, stilled the winds, cast out devils, healed the sick, and raised the dead. And it was a miracle purposely wrought at this juncture, in order to show the disciples and their enemies that our Lord was not taken because He could not help it, or crucified because He could not prevent it; but because He was willing to suffer and die for sinners. He came to be a willing sufferer for our sins, that the Scriptures might be fulfilled. (Comp. Matthew 26:53.) The effect of the miraculous influence put forth by our Lord, seems to have been that the party who came to seize Him were for a little time struck down to the ground, like men struck down, but not killed, by lightning, and rendered so helpless that our Lord and His disciples might easily have escaped. How long they lay on the ground we are not told, but there certainly seems to be some pause at the end of the verse. It seems clear to me that the miracle saved the disciples from being taken prisoners, and so far awed the party of Judas that they were satisfied to seize our Lord only, and either intentionally let the eleven go, or, in their fear of some further display of miraculous power, neglected them, and gave them time to escape. That it also made the whole party of Judas without excuse, is equally clear. They could never say they had no evidence of our Lord’s divine power. They had felt it in their own persons.
Burgon sees in this incident something which recalls to mind the prophetic words of the Psalmist: "When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell." (Psalms 27:2.)
Augustine remarks, "What shall He do when He comes to judge, who did this when about to be judged? What shall be His might when He comes to reign, who had this might when He was at the point to die?"
The effort of some to lessen the miraculous character of this circumstance, by quoting such a case as the classical story of the soldier being daunted by the appearance of the Roman General Cains Marius, is weak and evasive. A whole cohort of Roman soldiers would not fall down without miraculous interference. If not a miracle, the event is utterly inexplicable and contrary to experience.
v7.—[Then asked He them again, etc.] Our Lord repeats His question, as if to test the effect of the miraculous exhibition of power which He had just given to His enemies. But they were hardened, like Pharaoh and the Egyptians under the miraculous plagues of Egypt. As soon as they rose from the ground, they proved, that though frightened, they were not turned from their purpose. They still seek to take Jesus of Nazareth.
v8.—[Jesus answered...I am He.] The dignity and calmness of our Lord at this point are very striking. Knowing full well all the insults and barbarous usage about to begin in a few minutes, He repeats His declaration. "I am He whom you seek. Behold Me: here I am, ready to surrender myself into your hands."
[If therefore...Me...let them...way.] The tender thoughtfulness of our Lord for His weak disciples is strikingly shown in this sentence. Even at this trying moment He thought more of others than of Himself. "If I alone am the person you seek to make prisoner, if your commission is to seize Me only, then let these my followers go away, and do not harm them." Once more, we need not doubt that miraculous power accompanied these words, and that insensibly a restraint was laid upon our Lord’s enemies, so that they felt obliged to let the disciples escape.
The tender sympathy and consideration of our great High Priest for His people come out very beautifully in this place, and would doubtless be remembered by the eleven long afterwards. They would remember that the very last thought of their Master, before He was made a prisoner, was for them and their safety.
Christ’s protecting power over all His believing people is plainly taught in this passage.
Jansenius remarks, that to this saying we may attribute the safety of Peter, though he smote with the sword and got inside the high priest’s palace, and of John, though he stood by the cross.
Besser quotes a saying of Luther, that this was as great a miracle as that of casting the party to the ground. To tie the hands of the party of Judas and prevent them touching His disciples, was a mighty exercise of Divine power.
v9.—[That the saying might be fulfilled, etc.] In this verse we have one of those parenthetical comments or explanations which are so often found in John’s Gospel. He reminds us that our Lord’s interference to secure the safety of His disciples at this crisis was a fulfilment in fact of His expression in prayer, "none of them is lost."
Some persons see a difficulty here, and object that in the prayer our Lord speaks of eternal salvation, while here He is only speaking of temporal safety. Yet there seems no solid ground for the objection. Our Lord’s preservation of His disciples included the means as well as the end. One means of preserving them from making shipwreck of the faith altogether, was to keep them from being tempted above what they could bear. Our Lord knew that they would be so tempted, and that their souls were not strong enough to bear the trial. If they had been taken prisoners and brought before Caiaphas and Pilate, with Himself, their faith would have failed entirely. He therefore provides for their escape, and overrules the plans of His enemies, so, that the eleven were "let go." And thus He literally carried out what He had mentioned in prayer. He prevented any of them being lost. They would have been lost, so far as man’s eye can judge, if He had not provided a way of escape, and prevented them being tempted beyond their strength. The care of Jesus over His people provides the means of perseverance and continuance in the faith, as well as the great end of eternal salvation.
Chrysostom remarks, "By loss He doth not here mean temporal death, but eternal."
Calvin remarks, "The Evangelist does not speak merely of their bodily life, but means that Christ, sparing them for a time, provided for their eternal salvation. Consider how great their weakness was. What do we think they would have done alone, if brought to the test? Christ did not choose they should be tried beyond the strength He had given, and rescued them from eternal destruction."
It seems to me most probable that at this point of the history the "kiss" of Judas and His "Hail Master" come in. At any rate it is difficult to suppose that Judas could have kissed our Lord, when He first "went forth," and surprised the band by meeting them. There does not seem time for the salutation, nor does it seem probable that Judas would first kiss our Lord and then fall to the ground. Nor does the repeated answer of the band to the question "Whom seek ye?" give the idea that they had as yet recognized our Lord, or had any sign from Judas. I give this as my own conjecture, and admit that the matter is doubtful. But I must think that as soon as the band of soldiers recovered their presence of mind, Judas came forward and kissed our Lord, and then the capture took place. This is the order of events maintained by Chrysostom, Cyril, Theophylact, Gerhard, Jansenius, Lightfoot, Stier, and Alford.
v10.—[Then Simon Peter having a sword, etc.] The event here mentioned is recorded by all the four Gospel-writers, but John alone gives the name of Peter as the striker, and of Malchus as the person struck. The reason commonly assigned for this is probably correct. John’s Gospel was written long after the other three, when Peter and Malchus were both dead, and their names could, therefore, be safely mentioned.
Peter’s impetuous temperament comes out in the action before us. Impulsive, earnest, zealous, and inconsiderate of consequences, he acted hastily, and his zeal soon cooled down and was changed into fear. It is not those who are for a time most demonstrative and fervent, whose religion is deepest. John never smote with the sword; but John never denied his Lord, and was at the foot of the cross when Christ died.
The use of the article "the" before "servant" would seem to indicate that Malchus was some person well-known as an attendant of Caiaphas.
Whether the ear was cut off entirely, or only so cut as to hang down by the skin, may be left to conjecture. In any case we know that it gave occasion for the last miracle of bodily cure which our Lord ever wrought. Luke tells us that He "touched" the ear, and it was instantaneously healed. To the very end of His ministry our Lord did good to His enemies, and gave proof of His divine power. But His hardened enemies gave no heed. Miracles alone convert no one. As in the case of Pharaoh, they only seem to make some men harder and more wicked.
We cannot doubt that Peter meant to kill Malchus with this blow, which was probably aimed at his head. His own agitation probably, and the special interposition of God, alone prevented him taking away the life of another, and endangering his own life and that of his fellow-disciples. What might have happened if Malchus had been killed, no one can tell.
Musculus remarks how entirely Peter seems to have forgotten all his Master’s frequent predictions that he would be delivered to the Gentiles and be condemned to death, and acts as if he could prevent what was coming. It was clearly an impulsive act, done without reflection. Zeal not according to knowledge often drives a man into foolish actions, and makes work for repentance.
v11.—[Then said Jesus...the sheath.] This was the language of firm and decided rebuke. It was meant to teach Peter, and all Christians in every age, that the Gospel is not to be propagated or maintained by carnal weapons, or by smiting and violence. Matthew adds the solemn words "All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword." How needful the rebuke, and how true the comment, have often been proved by the history of the Church of Christ. The appeal to the sword can rarely be justified, and has often recoiled on the head of its promoters. The wars of the Protestants on the Continent after the Reformation, and the American war between North and South, furnished melancholy proofs of this. Some of the best Christians have died on battle-fields. Taking the sword, they perished by the sword.
John, for wise reasons, does not mention the miraculous healing of Malchus. Burgon takes occasion to remark that even in the hour of our Lord’s apparent weakness He gave His enemies a miracle of power and a miracle of mercy,—power in striking them to the ground, mercy in healing.
[The cup...Father...given...drink it.] This beautiful saying is peculiar to John’s Gospel. It was meant to show our Lord’s perfect willingness and readiness to drink the bitter cup of suffering which was before Him. It should always be read in connection with the two other expressions about "the cup" which our Lord had very shortly before used in the garden of Gethsemane. First came the prayer, "If it be possible let this cup pass from Me." Then came the resigned declaration, "If this cup may not pass from Me except I drink it, Thy will be done." And last of all comes the firm and composed assertion of perfect readiness for anything: "Shall I not drink the cup given to Me by my Father?" The three expressions taken together are deeply instructive. They show that our Lord in His agony prayed for relief. They show that His prayer was first answered by His being able to submit entirely to His Father’s will. They show that His prayer was finally answered by His being able to show complete willingness to suffer. What an example this is for all believers in the time of trouble! Like our Master we may pray about it, and hope that like Him we shall obtain help by prayer. What a proof this is of our Lord’s power to sympathize with suffering believers. He knows their conflicts by experience.
The absolute voluntariness of Jesus Christ’s suffering for us is nowhere perhaps more remarkably brought out than in this passage. He resents and rebukes the effort of a zealous disciple to repel force by force. He speaks of His sufferings as "a cup" given to Him by His Father, and appointed in the everlasting counsels of the Trinity, and as one which He cheerfully and willingly drinks. "Shall I not drink it? Would you have Me refuse it? Would you prevent my dying for sinners?" It is the more marvellous when we reflect that He who thus willingly suffered was God Almighty as well as man. Nothing can account for the whole scene but the doctrine of atonement and substitution.
To the eye of some, our Lord’s sufferings were forced on Him by the Jews. Yet when He speaks of them here, He looks far above second causes. He says, His sufferings were "the cup given to Him by the Father." Are not all the sufferings of God’s children to be regarded in the same light?
Calvin warns us here that while we ought to be ready to drink any cup appointed by our Father, "we must not listen to those fanatics who tell us that we may not seek remedies for diseases and any other kind of distresses, lest we reject the cup presented to us by our heavenly Father."
Henry observes on the word "cup" as applied to affliction: "It is but a cup, a small matter comparatively, be it what it will.—It is not a sea, a Red sea, or a Dead sea, for it is not hell; it is light, and but for a moment.—It is a cup that is given us: sufferings are gifts.—It is given us by a Father, by one who has a Father’s authority, and does us no wrong,—a Father’s affection, and means us no hurt."
Bengel remarks that John here evidently pre-supposes the particulars detailed by Matthew about "the cup," named by our Lord in prayer, to be things known by his readers. Paley also notices the expression as one of the undesigned coincidences of Scripture.
In this part of John’s history of Christ’s sufferings, three wonderful things stand out upon the surface of the narrative. To these three let us confine our attention.
We should mark, for one thing, the amazing hardness of unconverted men. We see this in the conduct of the men by whom our Lord was taken prisoner. Some of them most probably were Roman soldiers, and some of them were Jewish servants of the priests and Pharisees. But in one respect they were all alike. Both parties saw our Lord’s divine power exhibited, when they "went backward, and fell to the ground." Both saw a miracle, according to Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus touched the ear of Malchus and healed him. Yet both remained unmoved, cold, indifferent and insensible, as if they had seen nothing out of the common way. They went on coolly with their odious business; "They took Jesus, bound Him, and led Him away."
The degree of hardness and insensibility of conscience to which men may attain, when they live twenty or thirty years without the slightest contact with religion, is something dreadful and appalling. God and the things of God seem to sink out of sight and disappear from the mind’s eye. The world and the things of the world seem to absorb the whole attention. In such cases we may well believe miracles would produce little or no effect, as in the case before us. The eye would gaze on them, like the eye of a beast looking at a romantic landscape, without any impression being made on the heart. He who thinks that seeing a miracle would convert him into a thorough Christian has got much to learn.
Let us not wonder if we see cases of hardness and unbelief in our own day and generation. Such cases will continually be found among those classes of mankind, who from their profession or position are completely cut off from means of grace. Twenty or thirty years of total irreligion, without the influence of Sunday, Bible, or Christian teaching, will make a man’s heart hard as the nether mill-stone. His conscience at last will seem dead, buried, and gone. He will appear past feeling. Painful as these cases are, we must not think them peculiar to our own times. They existed under Christ’s own eyes, and they will exist till Christ returns. The Church which allows any portion of a population to grow up in practical heathenism, must never be surprised to see a rank crop of practical infidelity.
We should mark, for another thing, the amazing condescension of our Lord Jesus Christ. We see the Son of God taken prisoner and led away bound like a malefactor,—arraigned before wicked and unjust judges,—insulted and treated with contempt. And yet this unresisting prisoner had only to will His deliverance, and He would at once have been free. He had only to command the confusion of His enemies, and they would at once have been confounded. Above all He was One who knew full well that Annas and Caiaphas, and all their companions, would one day stand before His judgment seat and receive an eternal sentence. He knew all these things, and yet condescended to be treated as a malefactor without resisting.
One thing at any rate is very clear. The love of Christ to sinners is "a love that passeth knowledge." To suffer for those whom we love, and who are in some sense worthy of our affections, is suffering that we can understand. To submit to ill-treatment quietly, when we have no power to resist, is submission that is both graceful and wise. But to suffer voluntarily, when we have the power to prevent it, and to suffer for a world of unbelieving and ungodly sinners, unasked and unthanked,—this is a line of conduct which passes man’s understanding. Never let us forget that this is the peculiar beauty of Christ’s sufferings, when we read the wondrous story of His cross and passion. He was led away captive, and dragged before the High Priest’s bar, not because He could not help Himself, but because He had set His whole heart on saving sinners,—by bearing their sins, by being treated as a sinner, and by being punished in their stead. He was a willing prisoner, that we might be set free. He was willingly arraigned and condemned, that we might be absolved and declared innocent.—"He suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us unto God."—"Though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor, that we through His poverty might be rich."—"He was made sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him." (1 Peter 3:18; 2 Corinthians 8:9; 2 Corinthians 5:21.) Surely if there is any doctrine of the Gospel which needs to be clearly known, it is the doctrine of Christ’s voluntary substitution. He suffered and died willingly and unresistingly, because He knew that He had come to be our substitute, and by substitution to purchase our salvation.
We should mark, lastly, the amazing degree of weakness that may be found in a real Christian. We see this exemplified in a most striking manner, in the conduct of the Apostle Peter. We see that famous disciple forsaking his Master, and acting like a coward,—running away when he ought to have stood by His side,—ashamed to own Him when he ought to have confessed Him,—and finally denying three times that He knew Him. And this takes place immediately after receiving the Lord’s Supper,—after hearing the most touching address and prayer that mortal ear ever heard—after the plainest possible warnings,—under the pressure of no very serious temptation. "Lord," we may well say, "what is man that Thou art mindful of him?" "Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall." (1 Corinthians 10:12.)
This fall of Peter is doubtless intended to be a lesson to the whole Church of Christ. It is recorded for our learning, that we be kept from like sorrowful overthrow. It is a beacon mercifully set up in Scripture, to prevent others making shipwreck. It shows us the danger of pride and self-confidence. If Peter had not been so sure that although all denied Christ, he never would, he would probably never have fallen.—It shows us the danger of laziness. If Peter had watched and prayed, when our Lord advised him to do so, he would have found grace to help him in the time of need.—It shows us, not least, the painful influence of the fear of man. Few are aware, perhaps, how much more they fear the face of man whom they can see, than the eye of God whom they cannot see. These things are written for our admonition. Let us remember Peter and be wise.
After all let us leave the passage with the comfortable reflection that we have a merciful and pitiful High Priest, who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, and will not break the bruised reed. Peter no doubt fell shamefully, and only rose again after heartfelt repentance and bitter tears. But he did rise again. He was not left to reap the consequence of his sin, and cast off for evermore. The same pitiful hand that saved him from drowning, when his faith failed him on the waters, was once more stretched out to raise him when he fell in the High Priest’s hall. Can we doubt that he rose a wiser and better man? If Peter’s fall has made Christians see more clearly their own great weakness and Christ’s great compassion, then Peter’s fall has not been recorded in vain.
v12.—[Then the band and the captain, etc.] This verse begins the story of our Lord when He was actually in the hands of His deadly enemies. For the first time in His earthly ministry we see Him not a free agent, but submitting to be a passive sufferer, and allowing His foes to work their will. The last miracle had been wrought in vain. Like a malefactor He is seized and put in chains.
The "captain" must mean the Roman officer who commanded the "band," cohort, or detachment, which was sent to apprehend our Lord. The "officers" must mean the civil servants of the priest’s who accompanied them. The "binding" must mean the putting of chains or handcuffs on our Lord’s arms and wrists.
v13.—[And led Him away to Annas, etc.] This is a fact which is mentioned by no Gospel-writer except John. The explanation of it is probably something of this kind. In the time when our Lord Jesus was on earth, the office of the high priest among the Jews was filled up with the utmost disorder and irregularity. Instead of the high-priest being high priest for life, he was often elected for a year or two, and then deposed, and his office given to another. There were often living at one time several priests who had served the office of high priest, and then ceased to hold it, like sheriffs or mayors among ourselves. In the case before us, Annas appears, after ceasing to be high priest himself, to have lived in the same palace with his son-in-law Caiaphas, and to have assisted him as an assessor and adviser in the discharge of his duties, which from his age and official experience he would be well qualified to do. Remembering this, we may understand our Lord being "led away to Annas first," and then passed on by him to Caiaphas. So intimate were the relations between the two, that in Luke 3:2 we are told that "Annas and Caiaphas were high-priests." In Acts 4:6, Annas is called "the high priest." Yet it is very certain that Caiaphas was the acting high priest the year that our Lord was crucified. John distinctly asserts it.
The gross inconsistency of the Jews in making such ado about the law of Moses, while they permitted and tolerated such entire departures from its regulations about the high priest’s office, is a curious example of what blindness unconverted men may exhibit. As to there being two high priests at the same time, we must in fairness remember that even in holy David’s time "Zadok and Abiathar were the priests." (2 Samuel 20:25.) The gross irregularity in our Lord’s time consisted in making the high priest’s office an annual one.
The object of the Jews in bringing our Lord before the high priest and in the Sanhedrim first, is very plain. They wished to convict him of heresy and blasphemy, and then after that to denounce him to the Romans.
Augustine thinks that Caiaphas arranged that our Lord should be taken to Annas first, because he was his father-in-law. He also thinks that these two held the office of high-priest, each in his turn, year by year. Calvin thinks that our Lord was only taken to Annas first, because his house happened to be convenient, till the high priest and council assembled. Cyril and Musculus think that Annas was the contriver and designer of all done against Christ.
Cyril here interposes the verse which in most Bibles comes in as twenty-fourth: "Annas at once sent Him bound to Caiaphas the high priest." Luther, Flacius, and Beza, incline to approve of this. But it is fair to say that there is great lack of authority for this change.
Many commentators think that Jesus was taken to Annas first, by way of exhibiting to that old "enemy of all righteousness" the triumphant success of the attempt to capture the prisoner, whom the Sanhedrim had agreed to slay. They think that he was just shown to Annas, and then passed on to Caiaphas. But I cannot think this probable. I hold, with Alford and Ellicott, that our Lord was examined by Annas.
Cornelius á Lapide suggests that Annas was very likely the person with whom Judas bargained to betray our Lord for money; and that when the capture was effected, Judas brought the prisoner to the house of Annas, and remained there to claim his price, after Annas had seen Him. He observes with some acuteness that Judas does not appear after this in the history of the examination of our Lord.
Lightfoot quotes a Jewish writer, who says that "in the second temple, which only stood four hundred and twenty years, there were in that time more than three hundred high-priests!"
Henry remarks, "It was the ruin of Caiaphas that he was highpriest that year, and so became a ringleader in putting Christ to death. Many a man’s advancement has lost him his reputation; and he would not have been dishonoured if he had not been preferred and promoted."
v14.—[Now Caiaphas was he, etc.] This verse contains one of John’s peculiar explanatory comments, and as such comes in parenthetically. It is as though he said, "Let us not forget that this was the very Caiaphas, who after the raising of Lazarus, had said publicly that it was expedient that one man should die for the people. Behold how he is made the unconscious instrument of bringing that saying to pass, though in a widely different sense from that which he intended!" Calvin compares him to Balaam.
Let us note how the great wicked men of this world—the Sennacheribs and Neros, and bloody Marys, and Napoleons—are used by God as His saws and axes and hammers to do His work and carry out the building of His Church, though they are not themselves in the least aware of it. Indeed Caiaphas helps forward the one great sacrifice for the sins of the world!
v15.—[And Simon Peter followed Jesus.] The first flight and running away of the disciples is passed over entirely by John. He simply mentions that Peter followed his Master, though at a distance, lovingly anxious to see what was done to Him, yet not bold enough to keep near Him like a disciple. Any one can see that the unhappy disciple was under the influence of very mixed feelings. Love made him ashamed to run away and hide himself. Cowardice made him afraid to show his colours, and stick by his Lord’s side. Hence he chose a middle course,—the worst, as it happened, that he could have followed. After being self-confident when he should have been humble, and sleeping when he ought to have been praying, he could not have done a more foolish thing than to flutter round the fire, and place himself within reach of temptation. It teaches the foolishness of man when his grace is weak. No prayer is more useful than the familiar one: "Lead us not into temptation." Peter forgot it here.
[And so did another disciple.] This would be more literally rendered, "the other disciple." The opinion of many commentators is, that this disciple was John. Precisely the same expression is used in four successive verses (John 20:2-4, and John 20:8), where John is clearly referred to. This is the view of Chrysostom, Cyril, Alford, Wordsworth, and Burgon.
Chrysostom and Cyril observe that it was John’s humility that made him conceal his name both here and elsewhere. Here he would not proclaim that he stood while Peter fell. Ferus suggests that the presence of a disciple is mentioned in order to show that John saw with his own eyes all that went on at our Lord’s examination.
[That disciple...known...priest.] How and in what manner this acquaintance originated we are not told, nor is there any clue to a knowledge of it. On the face of things it certainly seems strange that a humble Galilean fisherman, like John, should be personally known to Caiaphas! On the other hand we must not forget that every devout Jew went up to Jerusalem at the three great feasts; and on these occasions might easily become acquainted with the high priest; and the more likely to get acquainted, if a conscientious and godly man. Moreover we must remember that John was once a disciple of John the Baptist, and that there was a time when "Jerusalem and all Judea" attended on John’s ministry. Acquaintance might have been formed then. Some have thought that John’s calling as a fisherman might easily bring him into communication with the family of Caiaphas, when he visited Jerusalem on business. All these, it must be confessed, are only conjectures; and it is perhaps the safest to admit our ignorance. Enough for us to read that the high-priest knew John; but why and how we cannot tell.
Hengstenberg suggests an explanation, which is so singular that I think it best to give it in his own words: "The character of John leads to the obvious supposition that his acquaintance with the high priest rested on religious grounds. Searching for goodly pearls, John had earlier sought from the high priest what, after the intervening ministry of the Baptist, he found in Christ. With what eyes he had formerly regarded the position of high priest, is shown by the fact that though a disciple of Christ, he nevertheless assigned to the word of the high priest a prophetic significance. (John 11:51.) John, by his internally devout nature, had so attracted the good-will of the high priest, that he did not wholly cast him off even after he had gone over to the true High Priest. Nor had John entirely abandoned Caiaphas. Real love cannot be so easily rooted from the heart; and it is characteristic of John to retain a pious regard to earlier relations. In the love which hopeth all things, he might hope yet to win the high priest to Christ." I make no comment on this extraordinary suggestion. I can not see the slightest warrant for it; but others, perhaps, who like the Athenians love new things, may see more in it than I can.
After all, it is only fair to remember that Augustine, Gerhard, Calovius, Lightfoot, Lampe, and many others, think it quite uncertain who this disciple, "known to the high priest," was. Grotius and Poole think it may have been the master of the house where Jesus had the Lord’s Supper. Toletus thinks it was one of those to whom the garden belonged. Bengel thinks it was Nicodemus. One German commentator suggests that it was Judas Iscariot. Calvin thinks it most improbable that a proud high priest would have known so mean a person as a fisherman. Yet, singularly enough, Gualter and others lean strongly to the theory that John’s business as a fisherman may have made him acquainted with the high priest. It certainly is rather remarkable that when John was brought before Annas and Caiaphas shortly after, they do not appear to have known much of him, except that he was unlearned and ignorant, and had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13.) The question, "who it was," is one which will probably never be settled.
[And went in with Jesus...Pilate...priest.] This sentence would seem to indicate that John went together with our Lord, either by His side, or in the crowd around Him, from the garden where He was taken, to the house of Annas and Caiaphas. We can hardly doubt that at first he fled, when we read, "All forsook Him and fled;" but we must suppose that he soon turned back, and mixed with the multitude escorting our Lord, which he might easily do by night, and amidst the confusion of the whole event.
It is noteworthy that some think the houses of Caiaphas and Annas were adjacent, and that "the hall" was common to both of them. I am strongly disposed to think that this is a correct view, and a remembrance of it may help us over several difficulties in the narrative of the four evangelists when compared.
v16.—[But Peter stood...door without.] This seems to indicate that at first Peter stood outside the door of the palace, not daring to go in. It is a little detail in the story of his fall which the three other Gospel-writers omit to mention. Again we see in him the mixture of good and bad feelings, cowardice and love contending for the mastery. Happy would it have been for him if he had stayed outside the door!
Rollock remarks that when Peter found the door shut, he ought not to have stood there, but gone away. "It was by God’s providence the door was shut. He got a warning then to leave off, but would not. These impediments, cast in our way when we purpose to do a thing, should not be idly looked at, but should make us carefully try the deed, whether it be lawful."
[Then went out that other...brought in Peter.] Here we see how Peter got inside the palace. It was through the mistaken, though well-meant, kindness of John. He must have seen through the door, when it occasionally opened, the well-known figure of his brother disciple, and with the best intentions got him admission. It is plain that John must have been well known to the household of the high priest, or else we should not be told that he had only to speak to the door-keeper, to get admission for Peter.
Let us mark what mistakes even the best believers may make in dealing with their brethren. John thought it would be a kind and useful thing to bring Peter into the high priest’s house. He was perfectly mistaken, and was unintentionally one link in the chain of causes which led to his fall. People may harm each other with the best intentions.
Quesnel remarks, "Men sometimes imagine they do a considerable piece of service to their friends who are clergymen, by introducing them to the great; and thereby they undesignedly expose them to sin and eternal damnation."
v17.—[Then saith...damsel...door...Peter.] Those who are best acquainted with Jewish customs say that it was a common practice to employ women as door-keepers. Thus a damsel named Rhoda went to the gate, when Peter knocked at the door of Mary’s house in Jerusalem, after his miraculous escape from prison. (Acts 12:13.) It is the same in large houses in Paris to this very day.
[Art not thou...I am not.] This was the first trial of Peter’s faith and courage. A woman asks him a simple question. There is nothing to show that she does it in a threatening manner, as if she desires to harm him. But at once the Apostle’s courage breaks down. He answers with a direct lie: "I am not."—How little we know our own hearts! Twelve hours before Peter would have told us this lie was impossible. "Is Thy servant a dog that he should do this thing?"—Why this door-keeper should have asked the question we know not. Perhaps Peter’s dress and appearance, like a Galilean fisherman of the very same stamp and style as John, made her guess that, like John, he was a disciple.—Perhaps Peter’s manner and demeanour made her guess it. There may have been agitation, anxiety, fear in the apostle’s countenance.—Perhaps the woman may have seen him in Jerusalem in company with Jesus.—Perhaps the mere fact that John knew him, and asked her to admit him, made her assume that he was a friend of John, and like John a disciple of Christ.—Perhaps the Galileans were marked men, not often seen in high priests’ houses, and known to be specially favourable to the cause of Jesus of Nazareth.—Any one of these solutions, or all, may be correct. In any case the woman only asked a simple question, and perhaps from no other motive than curiosity, and at once the great apostle falls into sin. How weak we are, when left to reap the consequence of self-confidence, and laziness, and neglect of prayer. Even an apostle, we see, could tell a cowardly lie.
Chrysostom observes, "What sayest thou, Peter? Didst not thou declare but now, ’I will lay down my life for Thee’? What hath happened then that thou canst not endure the questioning of a door-keeper? Is it a soldier who questions thee? Is it one of those who seized Him? No: it is a mean and abject door-keeper. Nor is the questioning of a rough kind. She saith not, Art thou a disciple of that cheat and corrupter,—but of that man; which was the expression rather of pitying and relenting. But Peter could not bear any of these words. The expression ’Art not thou also’ is used because John was already within."
Augustine remarks, "Behold that most firm pillar of the Church, touched but by one breath of danger, trembles all over. Where is now that boldness of promising,—that confident vaunting of himself?"
Brentius remarks how the impulsive, unstable character of the apostle Peter comes out here. One hour he draws his sword against a whole multitude of armed men. Another hour he is frightened out of his Christian profession, and driven into lying by one woman.
v18.—[And...servants...officers...stood there.] This seems to indicate that when Peter entered the hall, he found the common servants, and the higher attendants of the high priest, standing round a fire. It is the plu-perfect tense, "they had stood," or "had been standing there" some little time.
[Who had made...fire...coals...cold...themselves.] It is remarked by all travellers in Palestine, that the nights in that country about Easter time, are often so extremely cold that a fire is very acceptable. The servants and officers were in the act of warming themselves when Peter entered.
It is worth notice that the Greek word rendered "a fire of coals" is only used here and at John 21:9, in the marvelous account of Jesus appearing to the disciples at the sea of Galilee. Some have thought that the "fire of coals" on that latter occasion was purposely intended by our Lord to remind Peter of his fall.
[And Peter stood with them...himself.] The Greek words here would be more literally rendered and "there was among them Peter, standing and warming himself." The tense is imperfect, and conveys the idea of continuous action for a little time. The apostle stood among the crowd of his Master’s enemies, and warmed himself like one of them, as if he had nothing to think of but his bodily comfort; while his beloved Master stood in a distant part of the hall, cold, and a prisoner. Who can doubt that Peter, in his miserable cowardice, wished to appear one of the party who hated his Master, and thought to conceal his real character by doing as they did? And who can doubt that while he warmed his hands he felt cold, wretched, and comfortless in his own soul! "The backslider in heart is filled with his own ways." (Proverbs 14:14.)
How many do as others do, and go with the crowd, while they know inwardly they are wrong!
Cyril suggests that Peter wished to conceal his discipleship by warming himself, and trying to look comfortable among the high priest’s servants.
v19.—[The high-priest...asked...disciples...doctrine.] This verse describes the first judicial examination that our Lord underwent. He was questioned concerning "His disciples,"—that is, who they were, how many, what position they occupied, and what were their names. And concerning "His doctrine,"—that is, what were the principal points or truths of His creed, what were the peculiar things He called on man to believe. The object of this preliminary inquiry seems manifest. It was meant to elicit some admission from our Lord’s mouth, on which some formal charge of heresy and blasphemy before the Sanhedrim might be founded. There are two grave difficulties growing out of this verse both of which require consideration.
(a) Who was the "High Priest" in this verse? Most commentators think it was Caiaphas. He alone is called by John "the high priest," that same year in which Jesus was crucified. Some few think it was "Annas," because John says Jesus was brought to him. (John 18:13.) This at first sight seem the plain meaning of the narrative, and is confirmed by John 18:24. Yet this theory is open to the serious objection, that it makes John call Annas the high priest, and that it makes John omit altogether our Lord’s examination before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrim. Yet notwithstanding all these difficulties, I own to the opinion that this is the true view of the history. Augustine, Chrysostom, Casaubon, Ferus, Besser, Stier, Alford, and Ellicott maintain this view, but most of the commentators do not. We must remember that "Annas" is distinctly called "the High Priest" in Acts 4:6, and this probably before the year of the crucifixion had completely run out. Even in David’s time Zadok and Ahimelech are called "the priests" (2 Samuel 8:17), as if both were high priests.
(b) What was the examination recorded in this verse? It seems to be one entirely passed over by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They only record what took place before Caiaphas, which, on the other hand, is a part of the history passed over by John. It seems a kind of preliminary inquiry, intended to prepare the case for the Sanhedrim. In spite therefore of the common opinion, I decidedly hold the theory, that the examination here related is only described by John. It seems moreover to have been an examination conducted by Annas only, and quite of a separate character from that which took place at "day-break" before the whole Sanhedrim. This at any rate seems to my mind by far the most reasonable account of the passage, and the difficulties in the way of any other interpretation appear to me insuperable.
Ellicott remarks, "It only requires the simple and reasonable supposition that Annas and Caiaphas occupied one common official residence, to unite their testimony, and to remove many of the difficulties with which this portion of the sacred narrative is specially marked. Be this as it may, we can scarcely doubt, from the clear statement in John’s Gospel, that a preliminary examination, of an inquisitorial nature, in which our Lord was questioned, perhaps conversationally, about His followers and His teaching, and which the brutal conduct of one attendant present seems to show was private and informal, took place in the palace of Annas. There too, it would seem, we must place the three denials of Peter."
v20.—[Jesus answered him, etc.] This verse contains a calm, dignified statement from our Lord, of the general course of His ministry. He had done nothing in a clandestine or underhand way. He had always spoken openly "to the world," and not confined His teaching to any one class. He had always taught publicly in synagogues, and in the temple where the Jews resorted. He had said nothing privately and secretly, as if He had any cause to be ashamed of it.
The verse is mainly remarkable for the strong light it throws on our Lord’s habit of teaching throughout the three years of His ministry. It shows that He was eminently a public teacher,—kept back no part of His message from any class of the population,—and proclaimed it with equal boldness in every place. There was nothing whatever of reserve about His Gospel. This is His own account, and we therefore know that it is correct. "I have spoken in the most public manner, and taught in the most public places, and done nothing in a corner,"
Calvin remarks, "When Jesus says that He spoke nothing in secret, this refers to the substance of His doctrine, which was always the same, though the form of teaching it was various."
We should observe that our Lord did not refuse to use the synagogue and the temple on account of the corruption of the Jewish Church! Four times we read in John of our Lord being at Jerusalem at the feasts (John 2:13, John 5:1, John 7:14, John 10:22), and each time speaking in the temple.
v21.—[Why askest thou Me, etc.] This verse is a remonstrance against the gross injustice of Annas’s line of examination. Our Lord appeals to him whether it is reasonable, and just, and fair to call upon a prisoner to criminate himself, and to supply evidence which may be used against himself. "Why dost thou, the judge, ask information of Me, the prisoner, about my disciples and my doctrine? Ask rather of those who have heard Me teach and preach, what I have said to them. These know well, and can tell you what things I have said."
Cyril thinks there may be a reference here to those servants of the priest, who were sent on a former occasion to take Jesus, and returned, saying, "Never man spake like this Man." (John 7:46.)
The boldness and dignity of our Lord’s reply to Annas in this verse are very noteworthy. They are an example to all Christians of the courageous and unflinching tone which an innocent defendant may justly adopt before the bar of an unrighteous judge. "The righteous is bold as a lion."
The wide difference between the language of our Lord here, and that which He uses before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrim, as recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is very remarkable. It affords strong additional evidence that we are reading an account of an examination of a more private kind before Annas, quite distinct from that which took place before Caiaphas. The careful reader of the other three Gospels cannot fail to observe that not a word of all this is recorded in them.
Bengel and Stier think that the expression, "these," points to the people there in the court, hearing and standing by.
v22.—[And when He had thus spoken, etc.] This verse mentions an event which John alone has recorded. One of the attendants standing by rudely interrupts our Lord by striking Him, and coarsely taxing Him with impertinence and disrespect in so speaking, as He had spoken, to the high-priest.
The Greek words literally rendered, mean "gave a blow on the face;" but whether with the palm of the hand, or with a stick, cannot be determined. The marginal reading renders it quite uncertain. Some see in the action a fulfillment of the prophecy, "They shall smite the judge of Israel with a rod upon the cheek." (Micah 5:1.)
Stier remarks that this was the first blow which the holy body of Jesus received from the hands of sinners.
We may learn from this circumstance what a low, degraded, and disorderly condition the Jewish courts of Ecclesiastical law must have been in at this period, when such a thing as publicly striking a prisoner could take place, and when violence could be shown to a prisoner in a full court of justice for answering boldly for himself. It supplies strong evidence of the miserably fallen state of the whole Jewish nation, when such an act could be done under the very eyes of a judge. Nothing is a surer index of the real condition of a nation than the conduct of its courts of justice, and its just or unjust treatment of prisoners. The sceptre had clearly fallen from Judah, and rottenness was at the core of the nation, when the thing mentioned in this verse could happen. Our Lord’s assailant evidently held that a prisoner must never reply to his judge, however unjust or corrupt the judge might be.
Theophylact suggests that the man who struck our Lord was one who had heard our Lord preach, and was now anxious to free himself from the suspicion of being one of His friends.
There is a striking resemblance between the treatment our Lord received here, and the treatment which Latimer, Ridley, Rogers, and other English martyrs, received at their examination before the Popish bishops.
Hutcheson remarks, "Corrupt masters have generally corrupt servants."
v23.—[Jesus answered him, etc.] Our Lord’s reply to him who smote is a calm and dignified reproof. "If I have spoken wickedly, bear witness in a just and orderly way becoming a court of law; but do not strike Me. If on the contrary I have spoken well, what reasonable cause canst thou allege for striking Me either here or out of court?"
Let us note that our Lord’s conduct at this point teaches that His maxim, "If anyone smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matthew 5:39), is a maxim which must be taken with reserve, and is not of unlimited application. There may be times when, in defense of truth and for the honour of justice, a Christian must firmly protest against violence, and publicly refuse to countenance it by tame submission.
Augustine observes, "Our Lord here showed that His great precepts of patience are to be put in practice, not by outward show of the body, but by preparedness of heart. Visibly to present the other cheek is no more than an angry man can do. How much better then that with mild answer he speak the truth, and with tranquil mind endure worse outrages."
v24.—[Now Annas had sent Him...Caiaphas...priest.] This verse undoubtedly contains a difficulty. Most commentators seem to think that it states a fact which ought to come in after the thirteenth verse; and that the questioning and smiting of the last four verses took place before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrim, and not before Annas. Some think that up to this point John only describes what took place before Annas; and that he entirely passes over all that took place before Caiaphas, as being well known to his readers. The question is undoubtedly rather a puzzling one, and there is much to be said on both sides.
On the one hand, it seems curious that the examination of our Lord before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrim should be so completely omitted by John in his Gospel, as it must be, if we take the highpriest of the nineteenth verse to be Annas.
On the other hand, we cannot see why John should so carefully mention our Lord being "led to Annas first," if after all Annas did not examine Him at all, and sent Him at once to Caiaphas.
If I must give an opinion, I must say that I agree with Stier, Ellicott, and Alford, and consider that this twenty-fourth verse describes our Lord’s first appearance before Caiaphas,—that for some wise reason John entirely omits, and silently passes over, our Lord’s examination before the Sanhedrim,—and that the examination of the nineteenth and four following verses was a kind of private, preliminary examination before Annas, which Matthew, Mark, and Luke entirely omit. My grounds for this conclusion are as follows:—
(a) The whole tone of John’s narrative would make any ordinary reader suppose that Annas, and not Caiaphas, was the examiner and high-priest of the nineteenth verse. The story reads straight on upon this theory; while upon the other it is most awkward and seemingly contradictory, and the twenty-fourth verse seems to come in at the wrong place.
(b) The tone of the high-priest’s examination in John, is entirely different from that of the other three Gospels, and so also are our Lord’s answers.
(c) There is nothing uncommon in John omitting something which is fully recorded in the other three Gospels. The institution of the Lord’s Supper is an example. His Gospel was eminently supplementary. Writing later than the others, he was specially inspired to dwell at great length on the examination of Jesus before Pilate the Gentile ruler, and to say comparatively little about the proceedings in the Jewish courts.
(d) Last, but not least, the Greek of the twenty-fourth verse cannot fairly and honestly bear the sense which our translators have put upon it. They have really strained the words to make the sense square with their evident interpretation. The word "sent" is not a pluperfect at all in the Greek! The verse literally translated is, "Annas sent Him bound to Caiaphas the high-priest." It is rather "did then send Him," than "now had sent Him." The natural sense that any ordinary reader would put on it is, that "Annas having asked our Lord about His disciples and His doctrine, and having found by His reply that he could make nothing of Him, did then send Him bound to Caiaphas." As to what THEN took place before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrim John tells us NOTHING, and leaves us to learn it from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Such are my reasons for the view which I adopt. If the reader does not think them valid, he must regard the twenty-fourth verse as one of John’s parenthetical explanations or comments, and carry the true place of the fact mentioned backwards to verse thirteenth; and must suppose that the examination of our Lord in the nineteenth and four following verses is the examination before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrim, and only another part of what Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe!—Not least, he must suppose that "did send" in the twenty-fourth verse, means "had sent" some time before!
Chrysostom says, "Annas questioned Jesus about His doctrine; and having heard Him, sent Him to Caiaphas; and he having in his turn questioned Him, and discovered nothing, sent Him to Pilate."
v25.—[And Simon Peter stood...warmed himself.] This would be more literally rendered, "was standing and warming himself." The expression seems to indicate, that all the time during which Annas was questioning and examining our Lord, Peter was standing by the fire in another part of the hall, and warming himself comfortably among the enemies of our Lord, like one of them. May not the light of the fire, as it burned up, have made Peter’s face and appearance more easily recognizable?
[They said...Art not thou...disciple?] Here comes Peter’s second trial. After a time, when the fire had burned up, and men could see better and felt more warm, they looked at Peter standing among them, and recognizing either by his dress and talk that he was a Galilean, or suspecting by his anxious manner that he was a friend of our Lord, they asked him plainly, "Art thou not one of this prisoner’s disciples?" We see what trials people bring on themselves by going where they ought not.
[He denied it...I am not.] A second time we find the unhappy Apostle telling a lie, and this time it is added emphatically, "he denied it." The further a backslider goes, the worse he becomes. The first time he seems to have said quietly, "I am not." The second time he flatly "denies." Even an apostle can fall into being a liar!
Bloomfield suggests that Peter heard our Lord’s examination, and was terrified at hearing inquiry made about His disciples. This, he supposes, hastened his fall.
v26.—[One of the servants, etc., etc.] Here comes Peter’s last trial. Attention seems to have been roused by his strong denial, and eyes were fixed on him. And the one who had seen him in the garden, and marked him as a forward man among the disciples by his using the sword, presses home the painful question, "Did not I see thee?"
v27.—[Peter then denied again.] This denial, we know from the other Gospels, was more loud and emphatic than any, and was made with cursing and swearing! The further a man falls, the heavier his fall.
Calvin remarks on the course of a backslider, "At first the fault will not be very great; next, it becomes habitual; and at last, after the conscience has been laid asleep, he who has accustomed himself to despise God will think nothing unlawful, but will dare to commit the greatest wickedness."
Henry remarks, "The sin of lying is a fruitful sin, and therefore exceeding sinful. One sin needs another to support it, and that needs another."
[And immediately the cock crew.] There was nothing uncommon in this, of course. Every one knows that cocks crow at night. But the bird’s familiar crow no doubt sounded in Peter’s ear like a clap of thunder, because it awoke him to a sense of his sin and his fall.
It will be noted that for wise reasons John says nothing about Peter’s weeping, or about our Lord turning and looking at him, or about Peter going out. He seems to have left the hall when the cock crew, without any attempt being made to detain him. This too MAY have been the overruling work of his gracious Master.
As long as the world stands, Peter’s fall will be an instructive example of what even a great saint may come to if he neglects to work and pray,—of the mercy of Christ in restoring such a backslider,—and of the honesty of the Gospel writers in recording such a history.
Let it never be forgotten that Peter’s fall is one of those few facts which all four Gospel writers carefully record for our learning.
The verses we have now read contain four striking points, which are only found in John’s narrative of Christ’s passion. We need not doubt that there were good reasons why Matthew, Mark, and Luke were not inspired to record them. But they are points of such deep interest, that we should feel thankful that they have been brought forward by John.
The first point that we should notice is the false conscientiousness of our Lord’s wicked enemies. We are told that the Jews who brought Christ before Pilate would not go into "the judgment hall, lest they should be defiled; but that they might eat the passover." That was scrupulosity indeed! These hardened men were actually engaged in doing the wickedest act that mortal man ever did. They wanted to kill their own Messiah. And yet at this very time they talked of being "defiled," and were very particular about the passover!
The conscience of unconverted men is a very curious part of their moral nature. While in some cases it becomes hardened, seared, and dead, until it feels nothing; in others it becomes morbidly scrupulous about the lesser matters of religion. It is no uncommon thing to find people excessively meticulous about the observance of trifling forms and outward ceremonies, while they are the slaves of degrading sins and detestable immoralities. Robbers and murderers in some countries are extremely strict about confession, and absolution, and prayers to saints. Fastings and self-imposed austerities in Lent, are often followed by excess of worldliness when Lent is over. There is but a step from Lent to Carnival. The attendants at daily services in the morning are not infrequently the patrons of balls and theaters at night. All these are symptoms of spiritual disease, and a heart secretly dissatisfied. Men who know they are wrong in one direction, often struggle to make things right by excess of zeal in another direction. That very zeal is their condemnation.
Let us pray that our consciences may always be enlightened by the Holy Ghost, and that we may be kept from a one-sided and deformed Christianity. A religion that makes a man neglect the weightier matters of daily holiness and separation from the world, and concentrate his whole attention on forms, sacraments, ceremonies, and public services, is to say the least, very suspicious. It may be accompanied by immense zeal and show of earnestness, but it is not sound in the sight of God. The Pharisees paid tithe of mint, anise, and cummin, and compassed sea and land to make proselytes, while they neglected "judgment, mercy, and faith." (Matthew 23:23.) The very Jews who thirsted for Christ’s blood were the Jews who feared the defilement of a Roman judgment hall, and made much ado about keeping the passover! Let their conduct be a beacon to Christians, as long as the world stands. That religion is worth little which does not make us say, "I esteem all Thy commandments concerning all things to be right, and I hate every false way." (Psalms 119:128.) That Christianity is worthless which makes us compound for the neglect of heart religion and practical holiness, by an extravagant zeal for man-made ceremonies or outward forms.
The second point that we should notice in these verses, is the account that our Lord Jesus Christ gives of His kingdom. He says, "My kingdom is not of this world." These famous words have been so often perverted and wrested out of their real sense, that their true meaning has been almost buried under a heap of false interpretations. Let us make sure that we know what they mean.
Our Lord’s main object in saying "My kingdom is not of this world," was to inform Pilate’s mind concerning the true nature of His kingdom, and to correct any false impression he might have received from the Jews. He tells him that He did not come to set up a kingdom which would interfere with the Roman Government. He did not aim at establishing a temporal power, to be supported by armies and maintained by taxes. The only dominion He exercised was over men’s hearts, and the only weapons that His subjects employed were spiritual weapons. A kingdom which required neither money nor servants for its support, was one of which the Roman Emperors need not be afraid. In the highest sense it was a kingdom "not of this world."
But our Lord did not intend to teach that the kings of this world have nothing to do with religion, and ought to ignore God altogether in the government of their subjects. No such idea, we may be sure, was in His mind. He knew perfectly well that it was written, "By Me kings reign" (Proverbs 8:15), and that kings are as much required to use their influence for God, as the meanest of their subjects. He knew that the prosperity of kingdoms is wholly dependent on the blessing of God, and that kings are as much bound to encourage righteousness and godliness, as to punish unrighteousness and immorality. To suppose that He meant to teach Pilate that, in His judgment, an infidel might be as good a king as a Christian, and a man like Gallio as good a ruler as David or Solomon, is simply absurd.
Let us carefully hold fast the true meaning of our Lord’s words in these latter days. Let us never be ashamed to maintain that no Government can expect to prosper which refuses to recognize religion, which deals with its subjects as if they had no souls, and cares not whether they serve God, or Baal, or no God at all. Such a Government will find, sooner or later, that its line of policy is suicidal, and damaging to its best interests. No doubt the kings of this world cannot make men Christians by laws and statutes. But they can encourage and support Christianity, and they will do so if they are wise. The kingdom where there is the most industry, temperance, truthfulness, and honesty, will always be the most prosperous of kingdoms. The king who wants to see these things abound among his subjects, should do all that lies in his power to help Christianity and to discourage irreligion.
The third point that we should notice in these verses is the account that our Lord gives of His own mission. He says, "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth."
Of course we are not to suppose our Lord meant that this was the only end of His mission. No doubt He spoke with special reference to what He knew was passing through Pilate’s mind. He did not come to win a kingdom with the sword, and to gather adherents and followers by force. He came armed with no other weapon but "truth." To testify to fallen man the truth about God, about sin, about the need of a Redeemer, about the nature of holiness,—to declare and lift up before man’s eyes this long lost and buried "truth,"—was one great purpose of His ministry. He came to be God’s witness to a lost and corrupt world. That the world needed such a testimony, He does not shrink from telling the proud Roman Governor. And this is what Paul had in view, when he tells Timothy, that "before Pontius Pilate Christ witnessed a good confession." (1 Timothy 6:13.)
The servants of Christ in every age must remember that our Lord’s conduct in this place is meant to be their example. Like Him we are to be witnesses to God’s truth, salt in the midst of corruption, light in the midst of darkness, men and women not afraid to stand alone, and to testify for God against the ways of sin and the world. To do so may entail on us much trouble, and even persecution. But the duty is clear and plain. If we love life, if we would keep a good conscience, and be owned by Christ at the last day, we must be "witnesses." It is written, "Whosoever shall be ashamed of Me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when He cometh in the glory of His Father with the holy angels." (Mark 8:38.)
The last point that we should notice in these verses is the question that Pontius Pilate addressed to our Lord. We are told that when our Lord spoke of the truth, the Roman Governor replied, "What is truth?" We are not told with what motive this question was asked, nor does it appear on the face of the narrative that he who asked it waited for an answer. It seems far more likely that the saying was the sarcastic, sneering exclamation of one who did not believe that there was any such thing as "truth." It sounds like the language of one who had heard, from his earliest youth, so many barren speculations about "truth" among Roman and Greek philosophers, that he doubted its very existence. "Truth indeed! What is truth?"
Melancholy as it may appear, there are multitudes in every Christian land whose state of mind is just like that of Pilate. Hundreds, it may be feared, among the upper classes, are continually excusing their own irreligion by the specious plea that, like the Roman Governor, they cannot find out "what is truth." They point to the endless controversies of Romanists and Protestants, of High Churchmen and Low Churchmen, of Churchmen and Dissenters, and pretend to say that they do not understand who is right and who is wrong. Sheltered under this favorite excuse, they pass through life without any decided religion, and in this wretched, comfortless state, too often die.
But is it really true that truth cannot be discovered? Nothing of the kind! God never left any honest, diligent inquirer without light and guidance. Pride is one reason why many cannot discover truth. They do not humbly go down on their knees and earnestly ask God to teach them.—Laziness is another reason. They do not honestly take pains, and search the Scriptures. The followers of unhappy Pilate, as a rule, do not deal fairly and honestly with their consciences. Their favorite question,—What is truth?—is nothing better than a pretense and an excuse. The words of Solomon will be found true as long as the world stands: "If thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding; if thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; then shalt thou understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God." (Proverbs 2:4-5.) No man ever followed that advice and missed the way to heaven.
v28.—[Then led they Jesus from Caiaphas.] A careful reader of the Gospels will not fail to observe here, that John entirely passes over the examination before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrim of the Jews, which is so fully described by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Specially he omits our Lord’s confession, when adjured, that He was the Christ. He takes it all for granted, as a thing well known, and passes on to dwell on His far more important examination before Pilate, the Roman Governor. In this he brings out many striking particulars, which, for wise reasons, Matthew, Mark, and Luke did not record. Writing, as John did, long after the other three, and writing more especially for Gentile readers, we can well understand that he would give far more prominence to the proceedings before the Gentile Governor, than to those before the Jewish Ecclesiastical Court. Yet it cannot be denied that there is a remarkable curtness and brevity in his statement of facts at this point. The Greek is literally they "lead,"—in the present tense.
[Unto the hall of judgment.] This is a Latin word, and admits of two views. The marginal reading, according to Schleusner and Parkhurst, is the correct translation. It is the "Governor’s palace," rather than the hall of judgment. According to Josephus, the prætors, or governors of Judæa, who ordinarily lived at Cæsarea, when they were at Jerusalem, used Herod’s palace, in the upper part of the city, as their residence. Some say it was the famous tower of Antonia.
[And it was early.] The precise time here meant we cannot exactly tell. It cannot have been so early as day-break, because we are specially told by Luke that the elders and chief priests and the Sanhedrim assembled to examine our Lord "as soon as it was day." (Luke 22:66.) Considering that the day begins at the equinox about six, we may assume that "early" cannot mean sooner than seven or eight o’clock.
[And they went not...judgment hall...defiled.] The meaning of this sentence is, that the Jews would not go within the walls of Pilate’s palace, lest by so doing they should contract ceremonial uncleanness. Pilate was a Gentile. Peter says in the Acts, "It is unlawful for a man that is a Jew to keep company or come unto one of another nation." (Acts 10:28.) If the Jews had gone inside Pilate’s house, they would have been made ceremonially unclean, and would have considered themselves defiled.
The sentence is an extraordinary example of the false scrupulosity of conscience which a wicked man may keep up, about forms and ceremonies and trifling externals in religion, at the very time when he is deliberately committing some gross and enormous sin. The notorious fact that Italian bandits and murderers will make much of fasting, keeping Lent, confession, absolution, Mary worship, saint worship, and image worship, at the very time when they are arranging robberies and assassinations, is an accurate illustration of the same principle. The extent to which formality and wickedness can go side by side is frightful, and little known. The Jews were afraid of being defiled by going into a Gentile’s house, at the very moment when they were doing the devil’s work, and murdering the Prince of life!—Just so, many people in England will attach immense importance to fasting and keeping Lent and attending saints’-day services, while they see no harm in going to races, operas, and balls, at other times! Persons who have very low notions about the Seventh Commandment, will actually tell you that it is wrong to be married in Lent! The very same persons who totally disregard Sunday abroad will make much ado about saints’-days at home! Absurd strictness about Lent, and excess of riot and licentiousness in carnival, will often go together.
Chrysostom remarks, "Though they had taken up a deed which was unlawful, and were shedding blood, they are scrupulous about the place, and bring forth Pilate unto them."
Augustine remarks, "O impious blindness! They would be defiled, forsooth, by a dwelling which was another’s, and not be defiled by a crime which was their own. They feared to be defiled by the prœtorium of an alien judge, and feared not to be defiled by the blood of an innocent brother."
Bishop Hall remarks, "Woe unto you priests, scribes, elders, hypocrites! can there be any roof so unclean as that of your own breasts? Not Pilate’s walls, but your own hearts, are impure. Is murder your errand, and do you stick at a local infection? God shall smite you, ye whited walls! Do you long to be stained with blood—with the blood of God? And do ye fear to be defiled with the touch of Pilate’s pavement? Doth so small a gnat stick in your throats, while ye swallow such a camel of flagitious wickedness? Go out of Jerusalem, ye false disbelievers, if ye would not be unclean! Pilate hath more cause to fear, lest his walls should be defiled with the presence of such prodigious monsters of iniquity."
Poole remarks, "Nothing is more common than for persons over zealous about rituals to be remiss about morals."
[That...eat...passover.] This sentence contains an undeniable difficulty. How could the Jews eat the passover now, when our Lord and His disciples had eaten it the evening before? That our Lord would eat the passover at the right time we may assume as a matter of course, and that time was Thursday evening. What then can be meant by the chief priests, and elders, and leaders of the Jews, eating the passover on Friday? This is a question which has received various answers.
(a) Some think that in our Lord’s time the whole Jewish Church had fallen into such disorder, and had so fallen away from original purity, that the passover was not kept strictly according to the primary institution, and might be eaten on almost any day within the passover feast.
(b) Some think that it was considered allowable to eat the passover at any time between sunset one day and sunset the next day, so long as it was eaten within the twenty-four hours.
(c) Some think that the passover eating here mentioned was not the eating of the passover lamb, but the eating of the passover feast, called "chagigah," which took place every day during the passover week.—This is Lightfoot’s view.
(d) Some think that as there is no law without an exception, and even the law of the passover admitted of alteration in case of necessity (see Numbers 9:11), so the chief priests persuaded themselves that as they had been occupied by duty—the duty (forsooth!) of apprehending our blessed Lord—throughout the night when they ought to have kept the passover, they were justified in deferring it till the next day.
All these, it must be confessed, are only conjectures. There is probably some explanation which, at this distance of time, we are unable to supply. For the present the third and fourth suggestions seem to me the most reasonable.
Chrysostom observes, "Either John calls the whole feast the passover, or means that they were then keeping the passover; while Jesus delivered it to His followers one day sooner, reserving His own sacrifice for His preparation day, when also of old His passion was celebrated."
One thing at any rate is very plain and noteworthy. The chief priests and their party made much ado about eating the passover lamb and keeping the feast, at the very time when they were about to slay the true Lamb of God, of whom this passover was a type! No wonder that Samuel says, "To obey is better than sacrifice." (1 Samuel 15:22.)
Bullinger calls attention here to the wide difference between inward sanctification of the heart, and outward sanctimoniousness about forms, ordinances, and ceremonies.
Calvin remarks, that it is one mark of hypocrisy, "that while it is careful in performing ceremonies, it makes no scruple of neglecting matters of the highest importance."
v29.—[Pilate then went out...said, etc.] This "going out" means that Pilate hearing that the chief priests had brought a prisoner to the courtyard, or open space before his palace, and knowing from experience, as a governor of Judæa, that they would not come into his palace for fear of defilement, but waited for him to come out to them, went out and spoke to them. His first question is one which became his office as a magistrate and judge. He inquires what is the charge or accusation brought against the prisoner before him. "Of what crime do you accuse this man?"
The well-known Valerian law among the Romans made it unlawful to judge or condemn any one without hearing the charge against him stated.
v30.—[They answered and said, etc.] The reply of the chief priests to Pilate’s inquiry, as given by John, is peculiar and elliptical. They began by saying that the prisoner was a convicted evil-doer according to their law, or else they would not have brought Him there. They had found Him, by examination before the Sanhedrim, to be a breaker of the law, and they only came there to have sentence pronounced on Him by Pilate. "If He were not a person guilty and worthy of death, we would not have delivered Him up to thee. We have discovered Him to be such a person, and we now ask thee to sentence Him to death. We have convicted Him, and we ask thee, as our chief ruler, to slay Him." There is a proud, haughty, supercilious tone, we may remark, about this answer, which was not likely to please a Roman Governor.
It is plain, by a comparison with Luke’s Gospel, that at this point the Jews added a statement which John has omitted. "If thou wouldest know the precise nature of this prisoner’s evil-doing, we tell thee that we found Him perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Cæsar, and saying that He is a King." (Luke 23:2.) Why John omitted this we cannot tell, but he evidently takes it for granted that his readers knew this accusation was made, by telling us in verse thirty-three, that Pilate asked Him if He was "the King of the Jews."
Tholuck remarks, that "if the authorities had not regarded the prisoner as worthy of death, they would not have brought him to the procurator, as none but criminal cases needed confirmation by him."
v31.—[Then said Pilate...take...judge...law.] This sentence indicates a desire on Pilate’s part to have nothing to do with the case. From the very first he evidently wished to put it away from him, and, if he could, to avoid condemning our Lord. How this feeling originated, we cannot tell. Matthew and Mark say that he knew Jesus was delivered to him from "envy." Matthew says that his wife warned him to have nothing to do with that "just person." (Matthew 27:18; Matthew 27:19; Mark 15:10.) It is quite possible that the fame and character of Jesus had reached Pilate’s ears long before He was brought before him. It is hard to suppose that such miracles as our Lord wrought, would never be talked of within the palace of the chief ruler of Judæa. The raising of Lazarus must surely have been reported among his servants. Our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, attended by myriads of people shouting, "Blessed is the King," must surely have been noted by the soldiers and officers of Pilate’s guard. Can we wonder that all this made him regard our Lord with something like awe? Wicked men are often very superstitious. His language now before us is that of one who would gladly evade the whole case, and leave the responsibility entirely with the Jews. "If He is, as you say, a malefactor, take Him into your hands, and condemn Him to death according to your own law. Do as you like with Him; but do not trouble me with the case." The word we render "judge," is literally much stronger in sense. It is rather condemn to death. The only punishment the Jews might inflict, if any (which is more than doubtful), was death by stoning.
The pitiable and miserable character of Pilate, the Roman Governor, begins to come into clear light from this point. We see him a man utterly destitute of moral courage,—knowing what was right and just in the case before him, yet afraid to act on his knowledge,—knowing that our Lord was innocent, yet not daring to displease the Jews by acquitting Him,—knowing that he was doing wrong, and yet afraid to do right. "The fear of man bringeth a snare." (Proverbs 29:25.) Wretched and contemptible are those rulers and statesmen whose first principle is to please the people, even at the expense of their own consciences, and who are ready to do what they know to be wrong rather than offend the mob! Wretched are those nations which for their sins are given over to be governed by such statesmen! True godly rulers should lead the people, and not be led by them, should do what is right and leave consequences to God. A base determination to keep in with the world at any price, and a slavish fear of man’s opinion, were leading principles in Pilate’s character. There are many like him. Nothing is more common than to see statesmen evading the plain line of duty, and trying to shuffle responsibility on others, rather than give offence to the mob. This is precisely what Pilate did here. The spirit of his reply to the Jews is, "I had rather not be troubled with the case: cannot you settle it yourselves, without asking me to interfere?"
Ellicott remarks, "It seems clear that from the first the sharpsighted Roman perceived that this was no case for his tribunal, that it was wholly a matter of religious difference and religious hate, and that the meek prisoner who stood before him was at least innocent of the political crime laid to his charge with such an unwonted and suspicious zeal." He also quotes the just and pertinent remark of a German writer, "Pilate knew too much of Jewish expectations to suppose that the Sanhedrim would hate and persecute one who would free them from Roman authority."
Calvin thinks that Pilate said this ironically, as he would not have allowed them to inflict capital punishment. Gerhard also regards the saying as sarcastic and sneering. "If this prisoner has done anything against your Jewish superstitions, settle it yourselves." Yet a comparison with Luke makes this rather improbable in my opinion. The Jews there tell him plainly that Christ made Himself a King. (Luke 23:2.) This, even a Roman must allow, was a serious charge.
Henry suggests that perhaps Pilate thought they did not really want to kill Jesus, but only to chastise Him.
[The Jews...not lawful for us...death.] This answer of the Jews completely defeated the wretched Pilate’s attempt to put away the case before him, and avoid the necessity of judging our Lord. They reminded the Roman Governor that the power of taking away life was no longer in their hands, and that it was impossible for them to do as he suggested, and settle our Lord’s case in their own way.
Let us mark here what a striking confession the Jews here made, whether they were aware of it or not. They actually admitted that they were no longer rulers and governors of their own nation, and that they were under the dominion of a foreign power. They were no longer independent, but subjects of Rome. He that has power of condemning to death, and taking away the life of a prisoner, he is the governor of a country. "It is not lawful for us," said the Jews, "to take away life. You, the Roman Governor, alone can do it, and therefore we come to thee about this Jesus." By their own mouth and their own act they publicly declared that Jacob’s prophecy was fulfilled, that "the sceptre had departed from Judah," that they had no longer a lawgiver of their own stock, and that consequently the time of Shiloh, the promised Messiah, must have come. (Genesis 49:10.) How unconscious wicked men are that they fulfil prophecy!
The idea of Chrysostom and Augustine, that the sentence only means that the Jews could not put any one to death during the passover feast, appears to me utterly improbable.
v32.—[That the saying...fulfilled, etc.] This verse is one of John’s peculiar parenthetical comments, which are so frequent in his Gospel. Here, as in many other instances, the meaning is, "By this the saying of Jesus was fulfilled;" and not "The thing took place, in order that the saying might be fulfilled." What precise saying is referred to, is a point on which commentators have not quite agreed.
(a) Some think, as Theophylact, Bullinger, Musculus, and Gerhard, that John refers to the saying recorded in this very Gospel (John 12:33); and that the expression, "what death," only refers to the particular manner of His death by crucifixion.
(b) Others think, as Augustine, Calvin, and Beza, that John refers to the fuller saying in Matthew 20:19, where our Lord foretells His own delivery to the Gentiles as well as His crucifixion.
Of the two views, the second seems to me the preferable one. The previous verse distinctly points to the inability of the Jews to put Jesus to death, and the necessity of the Gentiles doing the murderous work. And John remarks that this was just what Jesus had predicted,—that He would die by the hand of the Gentiles. I think, at the same time, that the crucifixion was probably included, being the death which the Gentiles inflicted, in contradistinction to the Jewish custom of stoning.
v33.—[Then Pilate entered into the judgment hall.] The meaning of this must be that Pilate, disappointed in his attempt to put away the case from him, retired into his palace again, where he knew the Jews would not follow him, from fear of contracting ceremonial defilement, and resolved to have a private interview with our Lord, and examine Him alone.—It is quite clear that the conversation which follows, from this point down to the middle of John 18:38, took place within the Roman Governor’s walls, and most probably without the presence of any Jewish witnesses. If that was so, the substance of it could only have been revealed to John by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Pilate’s soldiers and a few guards of the prisoner may have been present. But it is highly improbable that John, or any friend of our Lord’s, could have got inside the Governor’s palace. If the beloved Apostle did manage to get in and hear the conversation, it is a striking example of his attachment to his Master. "Love is strong as death." (Song of Song of Solomon 8:6.)
[And called Jesus.] This expression literally means, that he called Jesus with a loud voice to follow him inside the palace; and came out of the outer court, or area, where he had first met the party which had brought the Prisoner to him. It is as though he said, "Come in hither, Prisoner, that I may speak with thee privately!"
[And said,...art Thou...King...Jews?] The first question that Pilate asked of our Lord, was whether he really admitted that He was what the Jews had just accused Him of being. "Tell me, is it true that Thou art the King of the Jews? Dost Thou really profess to be the King of this ancient people, over whom I and my soldiers are now rulers?"—It is far from improbable that Pilate, living so long in Jerusalem, may have often heard of the old Jewish kings, and of the dominion they received. It is far from unlikely, moreover, that he thought it possible he had before him one of those mock Messiahs, who, like Theudas, rose up at this period, and kept the minds of the Jews in agitation. "They accuse Thee of setting up Thyself as a King. Art Thou really a King? Dost Thou lay claim to any royal authority?" The humble attire and lowly appearance of our Lord can hardly fail to have struck Pilate. "Can it be true that Thou, a poor man, with no signs of a kingdom about Thee, art the King of the Jews?"
In order to estimate aright this question which Pilate put, we must remember that Suetonius, the Roman historian, distinctly says that a rumour was very prevalent throughout the East at this period, that a King was about to arise among the Jews, who would obtain dominion over the world. This singular rumour, originating no doubt from Jewish prophecies, had of course reached Pilate’s ears, and goes far to account for his question.
It is noteworthy that each of the four Gospel writers distinctly records that this was the first question that Pilate put to our Lord. It seems to show that the chief thing impressed on the mind of Pilate about Jesus, was that He was a King. As a King he examined Him, as a King he sentenced Him, and as a King he crucified Him. And one main object that he seems to have had in view in questioning our Lord, was to ascertain what kind of a kingdom He ruled over, and whether it was one that would interfere with the Roman authority. On the whole, the question seems a mixture of curiosity and contempt.
v34.—[Jesus answered him, Sayest thou, etc.] Our Lord’s motive in this answer to Pilate was probably to awaken Pilate’s conscience: "Dost thou say this of thine own independent self, in consequence of any complaints thou hast heard against Me as a seditious person? Or dost thou only ask it because the Jews have just accused Me of being a King? Hast thou, during all the years thou hast been a Governor, ever heard of Me as a leader of insurrection, or a rebel against the Romans? If thou hast never heard anything of this kind against Me, and hast no personal knowledge of my being a rebel, oughtest thou not to pay very little attention to the complaint of my enemies? Their bare assertion ought not to weigh with thee."
Grotius paraphrases the verse thus: "Thou hast been long a ruler, and a careful defender of the Roman majesty. Hast thou ever heard anything that would impeach Me of a desire to usurp authority against Rome? If thou hast never known anything of thyself, but others have suggested it, beware lest thou be deceived by an ambiguous word."
There is undoubtedly some little obscurity around the verse, and it becomes us to handle it reverently. It certainly looks like an appeal to the Roman Governor’s conscience. "Before I answer thy question let Me ask thee one. For what reason and from what motive art thou making this inquiry about my being a King? Canst thou say, from thy own personal knowledge, that thou hast ever heard Me complained of as setting up a kingdom? Thou knowest thou canst not say that. Art thou only asking Me because thou hast heard the Jews accuse Me of being a King to-day? If this is so, judge for thyself whether such a King as I appear to be is likely to interfere with thy authority."
Poole says, "Our Saviour desired to be satisfied from Pilate, whether he asked Him as a private person for his own satisfaction, or as a judge, having received any such accusation against Him. If he asked Him as a judge, he was bound to call others to prove what they had charged Him with."
Burgon remarks that Jesus did not need information in asking this question. He asked, as the Lord asked Adam, "Where art thou?" (Genesis 3:9) in order to arouse Pilate to a sense of the shameful injustice of the charge.
v35.—[Pilate answered, etc.] The answer of Pilate exhibits the haughty, high-minded, supercilious, fierce spirit of a Roman man of the world. So far from responding to our Lord’s appeal to his conscience, he fires up at the very idea of his knowing anything of the current opinions about Christ.—"Am I a Jew? Thinkest thou that a noble Roman like me knows anything about the superstitions of Thy people. I only know that Thine own countrymen, and the very leaders of Thy nation, have brought Thee unto me as a prisoner worthy of death. What they mean I do not pretend to understand. But I suppose there is some ground for their accusation. Tell me plainly what Thou hast done."
Pilate’s answer seems tantamount to an acknowledgment that he knew nothing against our Lord. But as He had been brought before him as a prisoner, and he was pressed to condemn Him, he asks Him what He has done to bring this hatred of the Jews upon Him.
He that would know the depth of scorn contained in that sentence, "Am I a Jew?" should mark the contemptuous way in which Horace, Juvenal, Tacitus, and Pliny speak of the Jews.
Stier remarks, "The Romans were only concerned with what was DONE; not with dreams, like the Jews; nor with wisdom, like the Greeks." Pilate’s question was characteristic of his nation.
v36.—[Jesus answered...kingdom...not...world.] In this famous sentence our Lord begins His answer to Pilate’s question, "Art Thou the King of the Jews?" "Thou askest whether I am a King. I reply that I certainly have a kingdom, but it is a kingdom entirely unlike the kingdoms of this world. It is a kingdom which is neither begun, nor propagated, nor defended by the power of this world, by the world’s arms or the world’s money. It is a kingdom which took its origin from heaven, and not from earth,—a spiritual kingdom,—a kingdom over hearts and wills and consciences,—a kingdom which needs no armies or revenues,—a kingdom which in no way interferes with the kingdoms of this world."
The literal rendering of the Greek would be "out of this world." But it evidently means "belonging to, dependent on, springing from, connected with." It is the same preposition that we find in John 8:23 : "Ye are from beneath; I am from above: ye are of this world; I am not of this World."
That the above was our Lord’s plain meaning, when He spoke the words before us, is to my mind as evident as the sun at noonday. The favourite theory of certain Christians that this text forbids Governments to have anything to do with religion, and condemns the union of Church and State, and renders all Established Churches unlawful, is, in my judgment, baseless, preposterous, and utterly devoid of common-sense. Whether the union of Church and State be right or wrong, it appears to me absurd to say that it is forbidden by this text. The text declares that Christ’s kingdom did not spring from the powers of this world, and is not dependent on them; but the text does not declare that the powers of this world ought to have nothing to do with Christ’s kingdom. Christ’s kingdom can get on very well without them; but they cannot get on very well without Christ’s kingdom.
The following leading principles are worth remembering, in looking at this vexed question:—
(a) Every Government is responsible to God, and no Government can expect to prosper without God’s blessing. Every Government therefore is bound to do all that lies in its power to obtain God’s favour and blessing. The Government that does not strive to promote true religion, has no right to expect God’s blessing.
(b) Every good Government should endeavour to promote truth, charity, temperance, honesty, diligence, industry, chastity among its subjects. True religion is the only root from which these things can grow. The Government that does not labour to promote true religion cannot be called either wise or good.
(c) To tell us that a Government must leave religion alone, because it cannot promote it without favouring one church more than another, is simply absurd. It is equivalent to saying that, as we cannot do good to everybody, we are to sit still and do no good at all
(d) To tell us that no Government can find out what true religion is, and that consequently a Government should regard all religions with equal indifference, is an argument only fit for an infidel. In England at any rate a belief that the Bible is true is a part of the Constitution; an insult to the Bible is a punishable offence, and the testimony of an avowed atheist goes for nothing in a court of law.
(e) It is undoubtedly true that Christ’s kingdom is a kingdom independent of the rulers of this world, and one which they can neither begin, increase, nor overthrow. But it is utterly false that the rulers of this world have nothing to do with Christ’s kingdom, may safely leave religion entirely alone, and may govern their subjects as if they were beasts and had no souls at all.
Chrysostom says that our Lord’s reply meant, "I am indeed a King; but not such a King as thou suspectest, but one far more glorious."
[If my kingdom...servants fight...Jews.] Our Lord proceeds to give proof that His kingdom was not of this world, and therefore not likely to interfere with the Roman authority. "If the kingdom of which I am head, were like the kingdoms of this world, and supported and maintained by worldly means, then my disciples would take up arms and fight, to prevent my being delivered to the Jews. This, as thou mayest know by inquiry, is the very thing which I forbade last night. Thine own soldiers can tell thee that they saw Me reprove a disciple for fighting, and heard Me tell him to put up his sword."
Let us mark that a religion propagated by the sword, or by violence, is a most unsatisfactory kind of Christianity. The weapons of Christ’s warfare are not carnal. Even true Christians who have appealed to the sword to support their opinions, have often found themselves losers by it. Taking the sword, they have perished by the sword. Zwingle dying in battle, and the Scotch Covenanters are examples.
Stier thinks that by "my servants" in this verse our Lord meant the angels! This, however, seems very improbable.
Bullinger makes some good remarks on this sentence, in reply to the Anabaptists of his time. He says, among other things, "Just as it does not follow that the Church is worldly, because we who are flesh and blood, and are the world, are members of the Church,—so no one, unless he wants common sense, will say that the Church is worldly, because in it Kings and Princes serve God, by defending the good and punishing the bad."
Calvin observes that this sentence "does not hinder Princes from defending the kingdom of Christ; partly by appointing external discipline, and partly by lending their protection to the Church against wicked men." Beza says much the same.
Hutcheson observes, "This text is not to be understood as if Christ disallowed that they to whom He has given the sword should defend His kingdom therewith; for if magistrates were as magistrates should be, nursing parents to the Church, and ought to kiss the Son, then certainly they may and should employ their power as magistrates for removing idolatry, and setting up the true worship of God, and defending it against violence."
[But now...my kingdom not...hence.] The true meaning of this little sentence is not very clear. May it not mean, "Now, in this dispensation, my kingdom is not an earthly one, and is not of this world. A day will come by and by, after my second advent, when my kingdom will be a visible one over the whole earth, and my saints shall rule over the renewed world."—This may seem fanciful to some; but I have a strong impression that it is the true meaning. The adverb "now" is very decided and emphatical.
v37.—[Pilate therefore...Art Thou a King?] Here Pilate returns to his question, though he puts it in a different way: "Art Thou in some sense a King, if not such a King as the Kings of this world? Thou speakest of Thy kingdom and Thy servants. Am I to understand that Thou art a King?" We should observe the distinction in the language here, compared with that of John 18:33. There it was, "Art Thou the King of the Jews?" Here it is simply, "Art Thou a King?"
[Jesus answered, Thou sayest...I am a King.] This sentence is a direct acknowledgment from our Lord’s lips that He is a King: a King only over hearts, consciences, and wills, but still a real true King. "Thou sayest," is equivalent to an affirmation. "Thou sayest truly: I am what thou askest about. I admit that I am a King."
There can be no doubt that this "is the good confession before Pontius Pilate," which Paul specially impresses on the attention of the timid disciple Timothy, in his pastoral epistle. (1 Timothy 6:13.)
[To this end...born...witness...truth.] Here our Lord informs Pilate what was the great end and purpose of His incarnation. "It is true that I am a King, but not a King after the manner of the world. I am only a King over hearts and minds. The principal work for which I came into the world, is to be a witness of the truth concerning God, concerning man, and concerning the way of salvation. This truth has been long hidden and lost sight of. I came to bring it to light once more, and to be the King of all who receive it."
I think the "truth" in this sentence must be taken in the widest and fullest sense. The true doctrine about man, and God, and salvation, and sin, and holiness, was almost buried, lost, and gone, when Christ came into the world. To revive the dying light, and erect a new standard of godliness in a corrupt world, which neither Egypt, Assyria, Greece nor Rome could prevent rotting and decaying, was one grand end of Christ’s mission. He did not come to gather armies, build cities, amass treasure, and found a dynasty, as Pilate perhaps fancied. He came to be God’s witness, and to lift up God’s truth in the midst of a dark world. He that would know how miserably small is the amount of truth which even the most civilized nations know without Christianity, should examine the religion and morality of the Chinese and Hindoos in the present day.
Some think that "I was born" points to Christ’s humanity, and "came into the world," to His divinity.
[Every one...of truth...heareth my voice.] I think that in this sentence our Lord tells Pilate who are His subjects, disciples, and followers. "Wouldest thou know who are the members of my kingdom? I tell thee that it consists of all who really love the truth and desire to know more of God’s truth. All such hear my voice, are pleased with my principles, and subjects of my kingdom." It is like our Lord’s words to Nicodemus: "He that doeth truth cometh to the light." (John 3:21.)
Thus our Lord shows Pilate that His kingdom was not an earthly kingdom, that His business was not to wear a crown and found an earthly monarchy, but to proclaim truth; and that His followers were not soldiers and warriors, but all earnest seekers after truth. Pilate therefore might dismiss from his mind all idea of His kingdom interfering with the authority of Rome.
Let us note that the position of Christ in the world must be the position of all Christians. Like our Master we must be witnesses for God and truth against sin and ignorance. We must not be afraid to stand alone. We must testify.
The expression "every one that is of the truth" is remarkable. It must mean every one that really and honestly desires to know the truth, receives my teaching, and follows Me as a Master. Does it not show that our Lord, when He appeared, gathered round Him all who were true-hearted lovers of God’s revealed will, and were seeking, however feebly, to know more of it? (Compare John 3:20; and John 8:47.) That there were many such, like Nathanael, among the Jews, anxiously looking for a Redeemer, we cannot doubt. "These," says our Lord, "are my subjects, and make up my kingdom." Just as when He speaks of Himself as a shepherd, He says, "My sheep hear my voice;" so when He speaks of Himself as God’s great witness to truth, He says, "All friends of truth hear my voice."
The wise condescension with which our Lord adapts His language to Pilate’s habits of thought as a Roman, is very noteworthy. If He had used Jewish figures of speech, drawn from Old Testament language, Pilate might well have failed to understand Him. But every Roman in high position must have heard of the arguments of philosophers about "the truth." Therefore our Lord says, "I am a witness to truth." In speaking to unconverted people, it is wise to use terms which they can understand.
Theophylact suggests that here is an appeal to Pilate’s conscience: "If you are a real seeker after truth you will listen to Me."
v38.—[Pilate saith...What is truth?] This famous question, in my judgment, can only admit of one interpretation. It is the cold, sneering, sceptical interjection of a mere man of the world, who has persuaded himself that there is no such thing as truth, that all religions are equally false, that this life is all we have to care for, and that creeds and modes of faith are only words and names and superstitions, which no sensible person need attend to. It is precisely the state of mind in which thousands of great and rich men in every age live and die. Expanded and paraphrased, Pilate’s question comes to this:—"Truth indeed! What is truth? I have heard all my life of various philosophical systems, each asserting that it has found the truth, and each differing widely from the others. Who is to decide what is truth and what is not?"—The best proof that this is the right view of the sentence is Pilate’s behaviour when he has asked the question. He does not, as Lord Bacon remarked two centuries ago, wait for an answer, but breaks off the conversation and goes away.—The supposition that he asked a question, as an honest inquirer, with a real desire to get an answer, is too improbable and unreasonable to require any comment. The right way to understand Pilate’s meaning is to put ourselves in his place, and to consider how many sects and schools of philosophers there were in the world at the time when our Lord appeared,—some Roman, some Grecian, and some Egyptian,—all alleging that they had got the truth, and all equally unsatisfactory. In short Gallio, who thought Christianity a mere "question of words and names,"—Festus, who thought the dislike of the Jews to Paul arose from "questions of their own superstition,"—and Pontius Pilate, were all much alike. The worldly-minded Roman noble speaks like a man sick and weary of philosophical speculations;—"What is truth indeed? Who can tell?"—Nevertheless truth was very near him. If he had waited he might have learned!
Lightfoot alone thinks that Pilate only meant, "What is the true state of affairs? How can one so poor as Thou art be a King? How canst Thou be a King and yet not of this world?"
[And when...said this...went out...Jews.] The meaning of this sentence is that Pilate "went out" of the palace, where he had been conversing with our Lord apart from the Jews, and returned to the courtyard, or open space at the gate, where he had left the Jews at the thirty-third verse. He broke off the conversation at this point. Very likely the mention of "truth" touched his conscience, and he found it convenient to go out hurriedly, and cover his retreat with a sneer. A bad conscience generally dislikes a close conversation with a good man.
Augustine says, "I suppose that just when Pilate said, ’What is truth?’ the Jews’ custom, that one should be released at the passover, came into his mind at that instant, and for this reason he did not wait for Jesus to tell him what truth was, that no time might be lost!" This, however, seems rather improbable.
[And saith...I find....no fault at all.] In this sentence comes out the true impression of Pilate about our Lord.—"After examining this man I can discern in Him no guilt, and nothing certainly to warrant me in condemning Him to death. He says, no doubt, and does not hesitate to avow it, that He is a King. But I find that His kingdom is not one which interferes with the authority of Cæsar. Such Kings as this we Romans do not care for, or regard as criminals. In short, your charge against Him entirely breaks down, and I am disposed to dismiss Him as not guilty."
Our Lord, we may remember, came to be a sacrifice for our sins. It was only fitting that he who was one of the chief agents in killing Him, should publicly declare that, like a lamb without blemish, there was "no fault in Him."
v39.—[But ye have a custom, etc.] In this verse we see the cowardly, weak, double-minded character of Pilate coming out. He knows in his own conscience that our Lord is innocent, and that if he acts justly he ought to let Him go free. But he fears offending the Jews, and wants to contrive matters so as to please them. He therefore prepares a plan by which he hoped that Jesus might be found guilty and the Jews satisfied, and yet Jesus might depart unhurt, and his own secret desire to acquit Him be gratified.—The plan was this. The Jews had a custom that at passover time they might obtain from the Roman Governor the release of some notable prisoner. Pilate craftily suggests that the prisoner released this passover should be our Lord Jesus Christ.—"Let us suppose that Jesus is guilty," he seems to say: "I am willing to condemn Him, and declare Him a criminal worthy of death, and a malefactor, in order to please you. But having pronounced Him a guilty criminal, what say you to my letting Him go free, according to the passover custom?"—This cowardly and unjust judge hoped in this way to please the Jews, by declaring an innocent person guilty, and yet at the same time to please himself by getting His life spared. Such are the ways of worldly and unprincipled rulers. Between the base fear of men, the desire to please the mob, and the secret dictates of their own conscience, they are continually doing wicked things, and pleasing nobody at all, and least of all themselves.
About this "custom," and when it began, we know nothing. Mark’s account would lead us to suppose that as soon as Pilate came out of his palace, the multitude cried out for the usual passover favour to be granted to them. (See Mark 15:8.) Pilate would seem to have caught at the idea at once, and to have suggested that Jesus should be the person released.
There seems a latent meaning in Pilate’s use of the expression "the King of the Jews." Some think that it is a sneer.—"This miserable, poor, lowly King; will you not have Him let go?"—Others think that Pilate had in view our Lord’s claim to be the Messiah. "Would it not be better to release this man who asserts that He is your own Messiah? Would it not be a scandal to your nation to kill Him?"—A desire to release our Lord, side by side with a cowardly fear of offending the Jews by doing what was just and right, runs through all Pilate’s dealings. He evidently knows what he ought to do, but does not do it.
Henry thinks Pilate must have heard how popular Jesus was with some of the Jews, and must have known of His triumphal entry into Jerusalem a few days before. "He looked on Him as the darling of the multitude, and the envy of the rulers. Therefore he made no doubt they would demand the release of Jesus; and this would stop the prosecution, and all would be well." But he had not reckoned on the influence of the priests over the fickle multitude.
v40.—[Then cried they all, etc.] This verse describes the complete failure of Pilate’s notable plan, by which he hoped to satisfy the Jews and yet release Jesus. The fierce and bigoted party of Caiaphas would not listen to his proposal for a moment. They declared they would rather have Barabbas, a notorious prisoner in the hands of the Romans, released than Jesus. Nothing would content them but our Lord’s death. Barabbas, we know from Luke (Luke 23:19), was a murderer as well as a robber. The Jews were asked to decide whether the holy Jesus or the vile criminal should be let go free and released from prison.—Such was their utter hardness, bitterness, cruelty, and hatred of our Lord, that they actually declare they would rather have Barabbas set free than Jesus! Nothing in short would satisfy them but Christ’s blood. Thus they committed the great sin which Peter charges home on them not long after: "Ye denied Jesus in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let Him go.—Ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you." (Acts 3:13-14.) They publicly declared that they liked a robber and a murderer better than Christ!
The Greek word rendered "cried," signifies a very loud cry or shout. It is the same word that occurs at the raising of Lazarus. "He cried, Lazarus, come forth!" (John 11:43.)
The expression "again" must either refer to the loud cries the Jews had raised, when they first brought Jesus to Pilate and demanded His condemnation; or else it must refer to a former cry for Barabbas to be released. According to Matthew they TWICE demanded this, with an interval of time between. (Compare Matthew 27:15-26.)
The singularly typical character of all this transaction should be carefully noticed. Even here at this juncture we have a lively illustration of the great Christian doctrine of substitution. Barabbas, the real criminal, is acquitted and let go free. Jesus, innocent and guiltless, is condemned and sentenced to death. So is it in the salvation of our souls. We are all by nature like Barabbas, and deserve God’s wrath and condemnation; yet he was accounted righteous, and set free. The Lord Jesus Christ is perfectly innocent; and yet He is counted a sinner, punished as a sinner, and put to death that we may live. Christ suffers, though guiltless, that we may be pardoned. We are pardoned, though guilty, because of what Christ does for us. We are sinners, and yet counted righteous. Christ is righteous, and yet counted a sinner. Happy is that man who understands this doctrine, and has laid hold on it by faith for the salvation of his own soul.
In leaving this chapter, it is vain to deny that there are occasional difficulties in harmonizing the four different accounts of our Lord’s examination and crucifixion. This of course arises from one Gospel writer dwelling more fully on one set of facts, and another on another. But we need not doubt that all is perfectly harmonious, and that if we do not see it, the reason lies in our present want of perception. If each Evangelist had told the story in precisely the same words, the whole result would have been far less satisfactory. It would have savoured of imposture, concert, and collusion. The varieties in the four accounts are just what might be expected from four honest independent witnesses, and, fairly treated, admit of explanation.
Augustine remarks, "How all the Evangelists agree together, and nothing in any one Evangelist is at variance with the truth put forth by another,—this whosoever desires to know, let him seek it in laborious writings, and not in popular discourses, and not by standing and hearing, but by sitting and reading, or by lending a most attentive ear and mind to him that readeth. Yet let him believe, before he knows it, that there is nothing written by any one Evangelist, that can possibly be contrary either to his own or another’s narration."
Melancthon suggests that the whole history of the passion, in this chapter, is a vivid typical picture of the history of Christ’s Church in every age. He bids us observe what a multitude of portraits it contains! Saints both weak and strong,—enemies of many kinds—traitors, hypocrites, tyrants, priests, rulers, mobs, violence, treachery, the flight of friends, the bitter language of foes. What is it but a kind of prophetic history of Christ’s Church?
The character of Pontius Pilate is so ably drawn out by Ellicott, that it may be well to quote it, in concluding this chapter. "Pilate was a thorough and complete type of the later-Roman man of the world. Stern, but not relentless,—shrewd and world-worn,—prompt and practical,—haughtily just,—and yet, as the early writers correctly observed, self-seeking and cowardly,—able to perceive what was right, but without moral strength to follow it out,—the Procurator of Judæa stands forth a sad and terrible instance of a man whom the fear of endangered self-interest drove not only to act against the deliberate convictions of his heart and conscience, but further to commit an act of cruelty and injustice, even after those convictions had been deepened by warnings and strengthened by presentiment."
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Ryle, J. C. "Commentary on John 18". "Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels". https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent