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Tuesday, November 28th, 2023
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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Bible Commentaries
John 18

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New TestamentSchaff's NT Commentary

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Verse 1

John 18:1. When Jesus had spoken these things, he went forth with his disciples over the winter-torrent Kidron. The last discourse of Jesus to His disciples and His intercessory prayer to His Father have been spoken; and, from the upper room in which we have already seen that this took place, Jesus now ‘went forth ’ to meet the fate that had been prepared for Him. More than this seems, however, to be expressed by the word ‘went forth.’ It is the solemn word by which the Evangelist would express the free surrender of Himself by Jesus to His approaching fate (comp. its use in John 18:4). It is the continuation of His ‘going forth’ from the Father (chap. John 8:42).

Descending the steep slope then which here leads from the temple-mount into the valley bounding Jerusalem on the east, Jesus first crossed the brook which flowed down the valley, although in a course at that date much nearer the temple walls than is indicated by its present channel. Some doubt exists as to the precise meaning of the name given to the brook. The Greek words may signify either ‘The Kidron ’ or ‘The Cedars,’ there being evidence to show that a tree of dark foliage, probably a species of cedar, is known in the Talmud by the name Cedrun. The first signification seems, however, to be the more probable, and the apparently plural termination of the original may be easily explained: it is the Grecising of the Aramaic name ending in ‘on,’ as Enon, Kishon, Arnon. The context compels us to ask whether the name is used only in its geographical force, or whether it is associated in the Evangelist’s mind with any of those deeper ideas so often connected by him with names. The epithet affixed to it guides us to a solution of this question. It is the only occasion on which in the New Testament the term ‘winter torrent ’ is applied to the Kidron, a term derived from that word ‘winter ’ which we have already found used in this Gospel with a reference deeper than to the season of the year (chap. John 10:22); while in the Old Testament it is the symbol of tribulation, trial, and judgment (Psalms 18:4; Psalms 110:7; Psalms 124:4: Jeremiah 47:2). The Hebrew name Kidron again is derived from a verb signifying to be black or dirty, hence to mourn or to be distressed, mourners being wont to cover themselves with sackcloth and ashes (Psalms 35:13-14; Psalms 38:6; Psalms 42:9; Psalms 43:2). Putting these considerations together, we cannot doubt that the Evangelist sees in the Kidron the stream of trouble, the ‘winter-torrent ’ of sorrow and affliction. If we may suppose that the stream took its name from the dark colour given to its waters by the blood of the sacrifices drained off into its course from the temple-mount, the meaning involved in the language before us will be still more striking. It was over this brook that David passed in the darkest hour of his history, that in which he fled from Absalom (2 Samuel 15:23). When, accordingly, we observe that the quotation in John 13:18 is from a Psalm (Psalms 41:0) in which the events of that sad day are commemorated, and that the quotation is made in illustration of these last scenes of the life of Jesus, it seems clear that we are invited to behold in this crossing of the black mountain-torrent the crossing of the true David, ‘the King of Israel’ (chap. John 12:13), in the hour of a still deeper anguish than that in which His great prototype had been involved.

Where was a garden, into the which he entered, himself and his disciples. The garden is that of Gethsemane; not so much a garden in our sense of the word as an orchard, a garden with trees, and these, as appears from the derivation of its Hebrew name, olives. Peculiar attention is drawn to the leading person of the scene by the addition of the word ‘Himself.’

Verses 1-11

With the beginning of this chapter we enter upon a new section of the Gospel, extending to the close of chap. 19 . The section contains the final assault of the devil and the world upon Jesus. But the struggle is of a kind entirely different from that contained in the fourth or leading section of the Gospel, chaps. 5 - 12 . There Jesus contended with His foes. Here He submits Himself into their hands, and they appear to be the conquerors. Yet they are not really so. God Himself takes up the cause of His Son, and so bears witness to Him, that all the suffering which He endures is but a ‘lifting on high, ’ and that the death upon the cross is victory. The first paragraph of this section records the betrayal by Judas, and the seizure of Jesus by the officers of the chief priests and Pharisees accompanied by the Roman soldiers.

Verse 2

John 18:2. And Judas also, which betrayed him, knew the place: for Jesus ofttimes assembled thither with his disciples. The ‘ofttimes’ must refer to many previous visits to the garden, and not to those connected with the present brief sojourn in Jerusalem. The omission at this point of all mention of the ‘Agony’ in the garden has often occasioned great surprise, and been even used as an argument against the fidelity of the narrative of the Fourth Gospel. Yet it may be observed (1) That, while the supplementary theory (see Introduction) cannot, as a whole, be received in explanation of the structure of our Gospel, it is quite natural to think that the Evangelist may have felt himself justified in the omission of particular scenes, because he was aware that they were already well known, through his predecessors, to the Church. (2) That his relation of the similar mental conflict and prayer in chap. 12 a relation in which he stands alone made it both more possible and more natural for him to omit this section here. (3) That his object being now to bring prominently forward the calm majesty with which Jesus met His final sufferings, he was led to select those parts of His actions and words which peculiarly illustrate this, and to say nothing of other parts by which the picture might seem to be disturbed. Such a proceeding is consistent with the most perfect faithfulness. It was not the aim of any one of the Evangelists to present us with a complete narrative of all the life of Jesus, or of all the aspects of His character and work. Each drew rather out of His infinite fulness what was peculiarly appropriate to the design which he had himself in view, or to the range in which he felt himself called upon to work. What we have to ask is not that each shall tell us all, but that the several narratives shall not be inconsistent with each other. No such inconsistency can be urged here. The Agony is the illustration of the words,’ O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: ‘the narrative before us is the illustration of the words,’ Nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt; and we know that both these sentences were uttered at the same moment by the lips of Jesus (Matthew 26:39).

Verse 3

John 18:3. Judas therefore having received the band of soldiers, and officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons. The circumstances here mentioned are in contrast with those of John 18:1, constituting the obverse side of the picture, before the ‘went forth’ of that verse is again taken up in John 18:4, and thus illustrating the same principles of structure as those which met us in the opening verses of chap. 13. The general situation is set before us from its two different sides: the first consisting of (1) Jesus, (2) His disciples; the second, of (I) Judas, (2) the band of soldiers, etc. The mention of ‘the band’ has been made an object of ridicule, as if it could only mean ‘half a Roman army.’ The ridicule is groundless, for (1) Even if we allow, what it is extremely possible was not the case, that the band was of its full strength, it was after all only the same as the ‘cohort,’ the tenth part of a legion. (2) The Romans in all probability did not think of one man only to be made prisoner, but of the danger of a popular tumult. (3) In Acts 23:23 we have a remarkable instance of the number of soldiers used upon a similar occasion. As the band now mentioned was obtained from the Roman authorities, we see that, from an early period of the night, they must have been led to interest themselves in the transactions taking place. The ‘officers’ were the servants of the chief priests and Pharisees. The trees of the garden made ‘lanterns and torches’ necessary. Although the moon was near the full, the Jews would imagine that Jesus might hide Himself in the covert and so escape.

Verse 4

John 18:4. Jesus therefore, knowing all the things that were coming upon him, went forth. It is in the full knowledge of all that was about to happen that Jesus speaks and acts. In this knowledge He ‘went forth,’ not merely out of the garden, or out of the shade of the trees into the moonlight, or out of the circle of the disciples, but (taking up again the ‘went forth ’ of John 18:1) to the fulfilment of the Divine purpose. At this instant the kiss of Judas mentioned by the first two Evangelists was given (Matthew 26:49; Mark 14:45).

And saith unto them, Whom seek ye? The object in all probability was partly to allow them to take Him, His hour being now come; partly to direct attention to Himself, so that the disciples might escape.

Verse 5

John 18:5. They answered him, Jesus of Nazareth. The answer may perhaps reveal the light in which Judas had represented Jesus to the Roman authorities, ‘of Nazareth,’ a Galilean, prone to revolt; or it may be that the Evangelist beholds in it one of those unconscious prophecies of the enemies of Jesus of which we have so many examples in this Gospel. In chap. John 1:45, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ is one of the three great aspects in which we are led to expect that we shall behold the Redeemer.

Jesus saith unto them, I am he. Before the effect produced by the reply is related, a parenthetical clause is introduced.

And Judas also, which betrayed him, was standing with them. What is the object of this clause? Not to explain what afterwards happened, as if Judas had been the first to fall, and so to produce a confusion which made his companions also fall; not merely to awaken indirectly a deeper feeling of abhorrence for the traitor who thus dared to present himself before his victim, and that, too, as we learn from the other Evangelists, with a kiss; least of all in order to connect this Gospel with the earlier ones, its author feeling that as he had not told the story of the kiss of Judas it would be well for him at least to indicate the place where it had been given. The explanation is to be found in chap. John 13:27. We have before us Judas possessed by Satan. The powers of evil are concentrated in him; and to bring him thus prominently forward as sharing the fate of others illustrates in the most striking; manner the victory of Jesus even in this hour of apparent defeat. Not man only but Satan shall fall prostrate before the Divine Son; and, if the latter is taken by His enemies, it is not because of their power but because He freely surrenders Himself into their hands (chap. John 10:18).

Verse 6

John 18:6. When therefore he said unto them, I am he, they went backward and fell to the ground. It is the Divine majesty and innocence of Jesus that produced the effect. Like the buyers and sellers in the temple, the history of whose terror at the presence of the Redeemer is vouched for by the testimony of the earlier gospels as much as by that of the fourth, they are overwhelmed with awe, and fall before Him (comp. on John 2:16). As soon as they recover, Jesus repeats His question.

Verse 7

John 18:7. Again therefore he asked them, Whom seek ye? Their reply is in the same terms as before.

And they said, Jesus of Nazareth. The moment is come when Jesus is to deliver Himself up, and His sole concern now is for the safety of His disciples.

Verse 8

John 18:8. Jesus answered, I told you that I am he: if therefore ye seek me, let these go their way. And then the Evangelist tells us of the illustration which he beheld in this of the meaning of certain words of Jesus uttered not long before.

Verse 9

John 18:9. That the word might be fulfilled, which he spake, Those which thou hast given me, I lost not one of them. The words thus referred to are those of chap. John 17:12. There they primarily apply to spiritual and eternal safety; here to what is, in the first instance at least, temporal deliverance.

It is impossible to imagine that the Evangelist did not understand this: but the powers of the world and of evil are so identified in his eyes that oppression by, or deliverance from, the one is oppression by, or deliverance from, the other. The temporal is the shadow of the eternal, and the principles working out upon man’s stage here stretch into the long hereafter. In addition to this, however, it is to be noticed that the temporal deliverance thus afforded was really a means to secure the spiritual safety of the disciples. Seized by the Roman guard, they would in all probability have denied their Master even more faithlessly than Peter was so soon to do.

Verse 10

John 18:10. Simon Peter therefore having a sword drew it, and smote the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear. And the servant’s name was Malchus. It is possible that the position of ‘therefore’ in the original, between ‘Simon’ and ‘Peter,’ may be designed to call attention to the import of the apostle’s name. It is not Simon only who does the act about to be mentioned, but Simon who is ‘Peter,’ the rock, the bold and determined one. The ‘servant’ is not one of the ‘officers’ formerly mentioned, but the high priest’s own attendant, who may have borne his master’s message to the ‘officers.’ His name was Malchus, and the mention of this fact, as well as of the minute circumstance that the ear cut off was the right ear, illustrates the personal knowledge possessed by John of what he describes. The earlier Evangelists, who all mention the incident, do not give the servant’s name (Matthew 26:51; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:50). As the great object of John in this passage is to illustrate the perfect submission of Jesus to the will of His heavenly Father in the ‘hour’ now come, nothing is said of the healing of the ear. Luke alone tells us of it (chap. Luke 22:51).

Verse 11

John 18:11. Jesus therefore said unto Peter, Put up the sword into the sheath: the cup which the Father hath given me, should I not drink it? The aid of all violence is disclaimed. Jesus speaks not of ‘thy’ sword but of ‘the’ sword, and thus shows that He can Himself resort to no measure of outward self-defence. It is His Father’s will that He should suffer and die, and to that will He unhesitatingly resigns Himself. The particular form in which the submission is expressed reminds us of the prayer in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39), and the same form of expression occurs at Matthew 20:22. It appears to have been frequent on the lips of the Son of man. Jesus is now of His own accord at the disposal of His enemies. His words have put a stop to all further steps for His defence.

Verse 12

John 18:12. The band of soldiers therefore, and the captain, and the officers of the Jews, took Jesus and bound him. The words addressed by Jesus to Peter lend boldness to His cowardly foes. They see that no further resistance is to be offered. A passive victim is before them; and they seize and bind Him.

Verses 12-27

We have in this passage the appearance of Jesus before Annas and Caiaphas, together with the three denials of the Apostle peter. The difficulties of the passage, both in itself and in its relation to the earlier Gospels, are unquestionably great. Our first aim must be to understand the narrative as it is here presented to us, without regard to any other narratives that we possess.

Verse 13

John 18:13. And led him to Annas first, for he was father-in-law to Caiaphas which was high priest of that year. The word ‘first’ is worthy of notice. It may be used only with reference to the narrative that follows; but it is also possible that we have here another instance, similar to that which we have already met in chap. John 3:24, of the clear and decided manner in which the writer of the Fourth Gospel corrects impressions drawn from the incomplete statements of the earlier Gospels. In the latter we read only of a hearing before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, and no mention is made of Annas. That Jesus was taken before Annas ‘first’ is the statement of John, and the very distinctness with which it is made is no small evidence that we are dealing with real history.

Verse 14

John 18:14. Now Caiaphas was he who had given counsel to the Jews, that it was expedient that one man should die for the people. The introduction of these words obviously indicates that the reason why Jesus was taken to Annas first is not to be found in the mere fact of his relationship to Caiaphas, but that it is to be sought also in that character of the latter which, it was hoped, would influence the former. By the reference made to chap. John 11:50 we are reminded that, in his hostility to Jesus, Caiaphas had lost self-control, and had become a mere instrument in the hands of higher powers who were urging him onward to fill up the measure of his guilt. Either, therefore, the Jews thought that the hostility to Jesus raging in his breast must have already influenced his whole family circle (comp. chaps. John 6:71, John 13:26), or they hoped that Annas, if not as yet so deeply implicated in the plot as his son-in-law, might now be persuaded to throw himself heartily into their plans. It was at the same time of the utmost importance to secure the co-operation of Annas, whose influence, as we learn from Josephus, was very great in Jerusalem. Before this powerful man then Jesus stands, bound, submissive, knowing the fate that is before Him. Resting upon this as its background, we have now what the Evangelist, as we shall yet more clearly see, is greatly concerned to describe, the faithlessness of Peter.

Verse 15

John 18:15. And Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Although not certain, it is upon the whole most probable that the ‘other disciple’ thus unnamed is John himself. He and Peter may have fled at first with the others; but, if so, they had immediately returned. The name given to Simon is again important. We have already seen at John 18:9 the manner in which the Evangelist brings out the force of ‘Peter.’ Of that force we must not here lose sight. Simon is still ‘the rock,’ notwithstanding what he is about to do. It is the very fact indeed that he is ‘Peter’ which shows how terrible is the moment, and how deep the stab inflicted upon Jesus. But so far is John from wishing to depreciate his fellow-apostle that he regards him, even in the midst of his greatest defection, as the lion of the apostolic band, the man to whom Jesus had given the name Peter in order to indicate his boldness, the man with whom he had himself stood side by side, in years at the time he wrote long gone by, fronting undismayed the very judges who made him tremble now. At the door opening into the high priest’s ‘court’ Peter is stopped. It is indeed only for a few moments, but they are full of weight for the understanding of the narrative. During them Jesus passes through. The two apostles do not pass through at the same instant: John alone finds immediate admittance; and we are justified in saying that, before Peter has well begun his parley at the door, Jesus will be out of sight. Had it not been for an accidental circumstance the two apostles would not have been admitted at all. This circumstance is next related.

And that disciple was known unto the high priest, and he went in with Jesus into the court of the high priest. Reserving until we come to the close of John 18:37 any inquiry into the question whether the ‘high priest’ here spoken of was Annas or Caiaphas, we remark only that it is unnecessary to ask by what means John was known to him. There is no improbability in the circumstance, especially when we remember that the relatives of the Apostle were persons in easy circumstances (Mark 1:20). Thus Known, he finds no difficulty in obtaining entrance into the court.

Verse 16

John 18:16. But Peter stood at the door without. Peter is stopped at the door; and, while he stands there, Jesus is lost to his view.

The other disciple therefore, which was known unto the high priest, went forth and spake unto her that kept the door, and brought in Peter. The circumstance thus related is in the highest degree natural, and it is related in the most simple manner.

Verse 17

John 18:17. The damsel therefore that kept the door saith unto Peter, Art thou also one of this man’s disciples? He saith, I am not. The maid knew that John was one of the disciples of Jesus, and the interest taken by him in Peter leads her to suppose that the latter must also be one of them. She asks the question, and the first denial takes place. As Peter enters the court, he says, ‘I am not.’ A little incident is now mentioned which, slight as it seems, must be carefully attended to.

Verse 18

John 18:18. And the servants and the officers were standing there, having made a fire of charcoal; for it was cold, and they were warning themselves; and Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself. These ‘servants’ and ‘officers,’ it must be remembered, are those who had so recently laid hold of Jesus, and who were the instruments of His sufferings. They had made a fire of charcoal, a circumstance in itself exceedingly natural in the cold of that spring night; and at it they stood and warmed themselves. ‘Peter’ also ‘with them’ was standing and warming himself. Such seems at first to be the sole meaning of the words: but the clause ‘for it was cold,’ reminding us of chap. John 10:22 and chap. John 13:30, forces upon us the impression that the Evangelist has something more in view than the simple fact apparent to the first glance at the words employed by him. The fact is historical. We know that even from the other Gospels. But it is more than historical. To the symbolic eye of John it has a deeper meaning. In this night of cold he sees Peter associating himself with the enemies of Jesus, perhaps consulting his own comfort while his Master suffers, at all events putting himself in a position where the faithlessness that had already led to his first denial must gain strength; and he thus prepares us to expect that the sin of which he has been already guilty may, probably will, be followed by a still greater fall. Whether this idea is brought out also by the ‘fire of charcoal’ is more difficult to say. It seems not unlikely that it is, for the word is not used by the other Evangelists; ‘coals of charcoal’ are in the Old Testament one of the symbols of Divine judgment (Psalms 18:13; Psalms 120:4; Psalms 140:10); and this symbolic meaning may be extended to chap. John 21:9, the only other passage of the New Testament where we find the word. Apart from this, however, there is enough to show that John 18:18 is not simply historical. The peculiar spirit of the Evangelist appears in it, and we have thus the less occasion for surprise if we meet in the narrative other traces of the same spirit.

Verse 19

John 18:19. The high priest therefore asked Jesus of his disciples and of his teaching. Again reserving for the moment any inquiry as to who the ‘high priest’ here spoken of was, and also as to the special character of the investigation itself, we remark only that the object of the narrative is to direct our attention mainly to Jesus. The Evangelist would place Him before us in the dignity and calmness with which He bore His sufferings, as well as in the consciousness of that perfect innocence through which He was able to confront, and really to defeat, His enemies in what seemed the very height of their power. To this, accordingly, he immediately proceeds.

Verses 20-21

John 18:20-21. Jesus answered him, I have spoken boldly to the world: I ever taught in synagogue and in the temple-courts, where all the Jews assemble, and in secret I spake nothing. Why askest thou me? Ask them which have heard me what I have said unto them: behold, these know the things that I said. The answer is dignified, self-possessed, and calm. Jesus simply makes His appeal to the frank openness of His whole past teaching. He is willing to cast Himself even on the testimony of His enemies. They know what He has spoken, and He has no need to fear if they tell the truth. At the same time the words are intended to rebuke the hypocrisy of those who pretended a wish to know more about His teaching, when in truth they sought only a pretext for accusation. The mention of ‘the world’ and of ‘all’ the Jews lends great force to what is said.

Verse 22

John 18:22. And when he had said these things, one of the officers which stood by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, Answerest thou the high priest so? When we remember that the ‘court’ in which the examination was going on could not be large, it seems probable that this ‘officer’ said to have been ‘standing by’ was one of those referred to in John 18:18 as the officers who ‘stood’ by the fire. If so, the circumstance is important, as showing that Peter must have been in the immediate vicinity of Jesus at the moment when the blow was given. Under no circumstances indeed can he have been far off; and the fact is to be kept in view, for it constitutes one of the points of distinction between his first and his subsequent denials. The blow was a rude, perhaps a cruel one. It was also wholly unprovoked, for in the answer of Jesus there had been no want of courtesy. Yet it failed to disturb in the least degree the equanimity of the Sufferer, or to provoke Him out of His spirit of submission to His Heavenly Father’s will.

Verse 23

John 18:23. Jesus answered him, If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why smitest thou me? ‘Bear witness’ here is certainly not equivalent to ‘prove by bearing testimony in a regular manner,’ an injunction which would have been out of place. It is simply the solemn word demanded by the circumstances of the moment. Jesus is where He is by Divine appointment; and everything relating to His present state bears impress of the solemnity of His position. It is precisely in John’s manner that no answer to these words is recorded. The picture of submission is complete. Mere historical detail, such as might satisfy curiosity, is of subordinate interest to the Evangelist. The fact, however, that this is the case is worthy of notice. It helps to throw light upon that structure of the narrative as a whole which we have not yet examined.

Verse 24

John 18:24. Annas therefore sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. The difficulty connected with these words will be best explained when we have completed the consideration of the three following verses. In the meanwhile it is enough to observe that in the original Annas is so introduced to our notice as to lead us directly back to the ‘Annas’ of John 18:13.

Verse 25

John 18:25. And Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. The remarkable taking up again in these words of the fact already mentioned in John 18:18 cannot fail to arrest attention. As far as mere history is concerned, the words are unnecessary. Nor does there seem to be any explanation of their presence here but that they are designed to elucidate the idea of the scene about to be described. Peter is no longer only near the door; he is within the court. He is no longer only in the cold; he is warming himself at the charcoal fire. He is no longer only with John; he is along with the servants and officers of the Jews. Everything corresponds to that more determined, that double, denial of our Lord now to be described.

They said therefore unto him, Art thou also one of his disciples? He denied and said, I am not. We are not told who asked the question. The general pronoun ‘they’ is used. In the narratives of the earlier Evangelists we find that, according to Matthew 26:71, this denial was drawn forth by ‘another maid;’ according to Mark 14:69 by ‘the maid,’ probably the maid of the porch; according to Luke 22:58 by ‘another man.’ In John we have what seems the solution of these apparent discrepancies. It was not one person only that thus spoke to Peter. The remark was made by many, in the excitement of the moment by many at the same time; and Peter (as is even implied in Mark 14:70) repeated his answer to one after another. The ‘they’ thus suggests what was the true course of events. The second denial, as in Matthew 26:72, was in boldness and recklessness an advance upon the first. At John 18:17 only the word ‘saith’ is used; now ‘denied and said.’

Verse 26

John 18:26. One of the servants of the high priest, being a kinsman of him whose ear Peter cut off, saith, Did not I see thee in the garden with him? It is natural to ask why mention is made of the relationship between the servant who asks this question and the other servant who had suffered through Peter’s hasty zeal. The probable answer is, that the circumstance is not merely historical, but that it aids in developing the idea which the Evangelist has in view. It heightens the effect. This man would ask his question with far more bitterness than the others (comp. the expression of Luke when he says in chap. Luke 22:59, ‘he confidently affirmed’). He had been personally aggrieved by the injury inflicted on his kinsman. His question too is much more pointed, not whether Peter is one of the disciples, but whether his own eyes had not seen him but a little before upon a spot which he could name.

Verse 27

John 18:27. Again therefore Peter denied. Nothing is said of the adjurations mentioned by the first two Evangelists

And immediately the cock crew. All else recorded in the earlier Gospels is omitted.

We are now in a position to look back upon the whole narrative from John 18:12 to the present point, with the view of endeavouring to meet the difficulties presented when we compare it with the narratives of the first three Evangelists. As to those connected with the three denials of Peter, it seems unnecessary to add much to what has been already said on John 18:25. We may only notice that a use of the pronoun ‘they’ exactly similar to its use in that verse meets us in Matthew 26:73 and Mark 14:70 when compared with Luke 22:59 and John 18:26. In these passages the third denial is in question, and in the first two Evangelists it is drawn forth by ‘them that stood by, in the last two by a single person. The solution depends upon the same principle as that of which we have spoken with regard to the second denial in John. Not one only but many of the eager and excited spectators would ask the question, and of that number Luke and John might easily single out the person peculiarly prominent. All three denials took place in the court of the high priest’s house, and within the range of both the light and the heat of the fire that had been kindled there, the first, immediately after Peter had been brought into the court; the second, when he had retired into the opening of the porch but was still within hearing of remarks made around the fire (Matthew 26:71); [1] the third, when he was again more fully within the court.

[1] The first impression produced by this verse is that the word ‘there’ in it relates to the interior of the porch. But it is absolutely impossible to think that many would be standing in such a place. They may have been around it, even within it, where it opened into the ‘court:’ in its deeper recesses they certainly would not be. In this point of view great interest and importance attach to an alternative reading of Matthew 26:71, which is very probably the true reading. not ‘and saith unto them.’ There this fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.’ but ‘and saith unto them, There this fellow also was with Jesus of Nazareth.’

From the denials of Peter we pass to the nature of the trial of Jesus here recorded and to the judge before whom it took place. Is the trial described by John the same as that of which an account is given us by Matthew (chap. Matthew 26:57-68)? or is it a preliminary examination, having the nature of a precognition, and instituted for the purpose of laying a foundation for the more formal trial before the Sanhedrin? The impression produced by the narrative is that it was the latter; that it is a record of the proceedings taken before Annas ‘first,’ and that at it therefore Annas presided. Yet two difficulties stand in the way of this interpretation, the first, that Caiaphas, not Annas, appears to be the high priest so repeatedly mentioned in John 18:15-22; the second, that in Matthew’s Gospel the first denial of Peter is related after the public trial is finished, while here, on the supposition of which we speak, it will be distinctly stated to have taken place before that trial began. As to the first of these, it is at least possible that Annas may be ‘the high priest’ of John 18:15-22. Though he had been deposed by the Roman authorities, the office was, according to the provision of the Old Testament, for life; and a Jew like John might well speak of him as still the rightful possessor of the title (comp. Luke 3:2). But if this solution is not very probable, there is another which fairly meets the case. Annas and Caiaphas may have occupied apartments in the same house surrounding the ‘court’ of our narrative. The structure of higher-class houses in Palestine, the relationship of the persons themselves, and the customs of the East, lead not unnaturally to such a view; and it was very early entertained. But if so, though Jesus was really taken to Annas, Caiaphas would in all probability be present at the examination; and, thus present, his more youthful years and the passionateness of his rage against Jesus would lead him to act the prominent part which is assigned to him. The second difficulty is still more easily met. We have to bear in mind the peculiar structure of the first Gospel, and the tendency of its author (of which we had a marked illustration in considering the supper at Bethany in chap. 12 ) to group his particulars according to their substance, rather than in strict chronological arrangement. Such may well be his object in chap. Matthew 26:69-75, where the three denials are obviously brought into the closest proximity to each other. We seem even to be furnished with a hint to this effect by the words of Matthew 26:69, ‘Now Peter sat without in the porch.’ It is not at all likely that, at the close of the trial, amidst the confusion and bustle of the moment, and when the enemies of Jesus were hurrying Him away, after having so far accomplished their object, a person of Peter’s impetuous disposition would continue sitting in the porch. There is indeed another difficulty, connected with John 18:24 of our passage; where, after Caiaphas has taken the part of which we have spoken, Annas is said to have ‘sent’ Jesus to him. This difficulty cannot be overcome by the rendering of the Authorised Version, ‘had sent;’ and the particle connecting the verse with those preceding it is undoubtedly not ‘now’ but ‘therefore.’ Yet we may well suppose that the reference is to the public trial which was yet to take place before Caiaphas as high priest by law: in this capacity, and not in the more private one in which he had been acting at the investigation before Annas, he is now to have Jesus sent to him. If to these considerations we add the fact that we are ignorant of many of those details which would throw light upon the customs of the time, we shall, while not denying that some difficulty still remains, be able to rest with perfect confidence in the general faithfulness of the narrative.

One word more may be permitted in regard to the mode in which the three denials of Peter are presented to us by John. It will be observed that they are given in two groups, and that between the two there is advance; the effect is heightened as we proceed. Thus, in the first group there is only one denial: in the second there are two. The first takes place at a moment when Jesus has passed out of Peter’s sight: the second and third at a moment when Jesus is under Peter’s eye, bound, yet patient and submissive. The first is made when Peter is as yet with John: the second and third when he has associated himself with the enemies of Jesus. At the moment of the first Peter is in the ‘cold;’ at that of the second and third he has seated himself at the fire of charcoal. The first is expressed by ‘Peter saith:’ the second and third are much more emphatic, ‘he denied and said,’ ‘he denied again.’ So many particulars warrant the inference that here, as in various other passages of his Gospel, John sees the historical facts with which he deals presenting themselves in two pictures, both unfolding the same truth, but in a climactic form.

Verse 28

John 18:28. They lead therefore Jesus from the house of Caiaphas into the palace, and it was early morning. The ‘palace’ here spoken of was in all probability a part of the castle of Antonia at the north-west corner of the temple-mount. Pilate had come for the time from C├Žsarea to reside here, in order more effectually to repress the disturbances apt to arise at the season of the Passover. The hour, immediately after ‘cock-crowing,’ was certainly not later than 3 or 3:30 A.M. It need excite no surprise that the Jews should lead Jesus to Pilate at such an hour. During the whole night of the Passover the city would be in commotion; on this night in particular they were prepared for disturbance (comp. on chap. John 18:3); and the governor would certainly be ready to receive any delinquent. It is worthy of notice, however, that Pilate does not take his formal seat on the tribunal until 6 A.M. (John 19:14), the hour before which, according to Roman law, no judge was entitled to pronounce judgment.

And they themselves went not into the palace, that they might not be defiled, but might eat the passover. In a commentary such as the present, where space is necessarily limited, the difficulty occasioned by these words must be very briefly stated. Looked at in their present context, the words ‘that they might eat the Passover’ can refer to nothing but the Paschal meal properly so called, and not to any of the other meals of the Paschal season. Thus, however, the expression seems to indicate that the Paschal Supper had not been celebrated on the evening previous to the events now passing, but that it was to be celebrated on the evening of the day now begun. On the other hand, the earlier Evangelists distinctly state that it was from the Paschal Supper that Jesus and His disciples rose when they went into the garden, and when the betrayal took place. These Evangelists and John thus appear to be in direct contradiction to one another. We have to do with the question now only in so far as it concerns the verse before us. That verse cannot mean that the Jews referred to in it were looking forward to the celebration of the Passover on the evening of the day about to begin, or just begun. The hour was probably 3 or 3:30 A.M. The Passover was a night-festival. It certainly would not begin till the evening was well advanced; that is, not less than eighteen hours had to pass from the point at which we are now standing till we reach it. These hours include a sunset, the time at which uncleanness of a much more serious kind than that produced by entering into the house of a Gentile was removed by the simple process of washing with water. The Jews could have no fear that by entering into Pilate’s hall they would unfit themselves for eating a Paschal meal to be celebrated the following evening. But if it be so, what is the meaning of the words? The answer is, they were afraid that they might lose their Passover. The meal was not yet ended in the city. Jerusalem was crowded at the time: a very large number of lambs had to be killed and roasted after 3 P.M.; and it must have been impossible to close the feast in every Jewish family by midnight. The celebration must have gone on the whole night through. Now the persons here referred to had been interrupted in their feast. They may have sat down to the supper; but, before they had finished, Judas had been with them, his offer made, his plans accepted. They had hastily seized the opportunity, and had rushed out to the garden, resolving to return and finish their meal before daybreak. They had failed in this: yet they will take one step more. They will try to obtain from the Roman governor the pronouncing of a final sentence upon their victim. If, however, this is to be done, it must be done quickly. We shall see immediately the marks of haste upon the narrative. From their haste came most naturally their scrupulousness at the thought of entering Pilate’s house. To think that they would have been thus scrupulous had there been from eighteen to twenty-four hours to pass before they should be called to eat the Passover, is at variance with every feeling of human nature, as well as with the prescriptions of the ceremonial law. They were scrupulous because they desired to eat without an hour’s delay . They had lost time already; the night was flying fast; the morning light would soon appear; it would be too late then: no interruption that can be escaped must be allowed: they would not go into the palace ‘that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover.’ It is here that we see the marks of rapid action spoken of above: the effect of the true reading and the true rendering being to bring the two verbs ‘be defiled’ ‘and’ eat into close connection with each other. The Jews were afraid of defilement at that moment, because at that moment they were desirous to complete their feast. It may perhaps be said in reply that, if this was their intention, it failed. Morning broke before they left Pilate, and they lost the opportunity of eating. Precisely so. It is probably one of the very thoughts that John wishes us to carry away from his story as he tells it. Instead of welcoming the true Paschal Lamb, these Jews rejected Him. What thought more in the manner of our Evangelist than to let us see that, seeking to retain the shadow, and sacrificing the substance for its sake, they lost not only the substance but the shadow too (comp. chap. John 11:48)?

Verses 28-40

From the examination before Caiaphas we are taken to the trial before Pilate. The scene is in every respect one of the most remarkable in the Gospel, alike in its selection of incidents and vividness of description, and in that tragic under-current of thought by which it reveals the humiliation, the condemnation, and the shame of the guilty Jews, while they clamour for judgment upon One whom a heathen would have set free. Again and again, in rejecting their true King, they confess the degradation to which they have reduced themselves, until at last that degradation culminates in words implying the forfeiture of all that had distinguished Judaism, all that of which it had been most proud. The passage contains one of those double pictures which mark the style of John, and the incidents of the two pictures are so arranged that the second exhibits an advance upon the first.

Verse 29

John 18:29. Pilate therefore went out unto them, and saith, What accusation bring ye against this man? Pilate was Procurator of Judea under the Roman government; and his character, as described by writers of the time, is that of a skeptical, cold, and cruel man, arbitrary in his acts, and cherishing no feelings but those of contempt for the religion of Israel. He was, however, a Roman judge, and until his passions were excited there is no cause to think that he would not show the usual Roman respect for law. His first question, accordingly, was that of one who would try the prisoner before him with all fairness.

Verse 30

John 18:30. They answered and said unto him, If this man were not an evil-doer, we should not have delivered him up unto thee. There is pride in the reply, a lofty sense of their own importance and dignity, that importance and dignity which they are so soon to sacrifice. The person whom we bring before thee is a malefactor: is it not enough that we say so, and that we deliver him up to thee?

Verse 31

John 18:31. Pilate therefore said unto them, Take him yourselves, and judge him according to your law. Pilate has already seen enough to satisfy him that no offence against civil order, calling for his interposition, has been committed. He will have nothing to do with merely religious squabbles, and he remits the whole matter to the Jews themselves. Thus the Jews are compelled to declare their purpose, and their self-confessed humiliation begins.

The Jews said unto him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death. Shortly before this time the Jews had lost the power of putting criminals to death. But the point now is, that they have to confess it. In their answer the Evangelist seems to see a mockery of their high pretensions. The bitter irony of circumstances forces from them an acknowledgment of their shame. But, while they are thus degraded, the Divine purpose proceeds calmly to its accomplishment.

Verse 32

John 18:32. That the word of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spake, signifying by what manner of death he was about to die. The ‘word’ referred to is chap. John 3:14, or still more probably chap. John 12:32. The appeal to Pilate paved the way for the ‘lifting on high’ there spoken of. The Jewish mode of putting to death was stoning. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment, and could be inflicted by the Roman power alone. Hence, accordingly, the fulfilment of that ‘word’ of Jesus by the very persons who seemed to have Him completely in their hands. So far from its being so, they were in His.

Verse 33

John 18:33. Pilate therefore entered again into the palace, and called Jesus, and said unto him. Art thou the King of the Jews? The emphasis of the question is remarkable. The word ‘thou’ stands in the original at the head of the sentence, as if Pilate would say: ‘Thou, thou so humbled, despised, handed over to me as a malefactor, art thou the King of the Jews?’ Pilate may not embrace the idea, but he at least thinks the question worthy of being asked. We may notice already that grouping of his materials by which the Evangelist would impress on us the folly as well as the sin of the Jews. Boasting of their superiority to the heathen governor, looking upon him as a ‘sinner’ and reprobate, they yet at this moment fall behind him in spiritual vision. They treat the claim of royal dignity on the part of Jesus as blasphemy. Pilate asks, ‘Can it be true?’ The charge leading to the question, omitted by John as not necessary to his purpose, is given in Luke 23:2.

Verse 34

John 18:34. Jesus answered, Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell thee concerning me? Many reasons have been suggested to account for this question of Jesus. The real reason seems to be, that the guilt of those now compassing His death may be fixed upon the proper parties. It is to appear that not Pilate before whose bar He stands, but others altogether are the guilty ones. The object is attained, for Pilate’s answer shows that he knew of no harm in Jesus.

Verse 35

John 18:35. Pilate answered, Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests delivered thee unto me. What hast thou done? Nothing could more strongly express the contempt of the Roman governor for the Jews than these first words in reply, ‘Am I a Jew?’ No words of Jesus had called for a repudiation of Jewish birth, but He had spoken in such a way as might imply that Pilate had been taking counsel with the Jews about His case. Take counsel with them! The very suggestion of such a thing fills the governor’s mind with disgust, and he cries out, ‘Am I a Jew’ What have I to do with so contemptible a race? Thine own people have delivered thee to me. But for them and for their wretched squabbles I care not I make my appeal to thyself. Tell me thyself, what hast thou done?’ All tends to bring out the frightful degradation to which ‘the Jews,’ the very flower of Judaism, have reduced themselves. A Gentile treats them with open scorn, and prefers the words of one brought before him as a malefactor to theirs.

Verse 36

John 18:36. Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants strive, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence. Pilate had hardly comprehended the charge that Jesus made Himself a King. That Jesus really was so is the great point now to be established, the point to the confession of which Pilate shall ultimately be brought. Jesus, accordingly, without replying directly to die question, ‘What hast thou done?’ turns to this. It is not His chief aim to explain the distinction between a spiritual and a political kingdom, a distinction which the Roman governor would hardly have been able to appreciate. It is to satisfy Pilate that He may be and is a King, although in a sense different from that in which Pilate understood the word. For the same purpose He adds, ‘Then would my servants strive that I should not be delivered to the Jews:’ where the word ‘servants’ (the same as ‘officers’ in John 18:18) does not point to spiritual disciples of the Lord, but to such as would be His attendants and soldiers if He were a monarch of this world. The mark of an earthly kingdom thus selected is precisely to the purpose of our Lord’s argument as we have understood it. Pilate thought that He could not be a King, else His servants would strive to prevent His present humiliation and fate. That is no argument against My royal claims in their true sense, is the reply, for My kingdom is not one that has its origin in this world. In short, the whole argument is not one of self-defence alone; it is intended to lead Pilate to the acknowledgment that the prisoner before him is a King. Thus also the ‘now’ must be understood as the ‘now’ of the Divine counsels, not of merely present time. The period can never come when other words than those before us may be used of the kingdom of Christ. It is never ‘of this world,’ never ‘from hence.’

Verse 37

John 18:37. Pilate therefore said unto him, A king art thou then? It is of importance to notice the difference of construction between the question as put here and at John 18:33. There ‘Thou’ stands in the first place, here the ‘King.’ The difference corresponds exactly to the course of thought which we have endeavoured to trace. In the first passage ‘thou’ is emphatic; ‘thou so poor, so humbled, thou a King?’ In the second ‘King’ is emphatic; ‘a King then, high as that is, art thou?’ In the first the thing is regarded as impossible; in the second the possibility has dawned upon the mind.

Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a King. It is hardly possible to understand these words as a directly affirmative reply to the question of Pilate, for Pilate had not acknowledged that Jesus was a King. It seems better to understand them in the sense, ‘Thou usest the word king in regard to Me, but not in the right sense’; and then the following words point out what it was that really conferred on Jesus the empire that He claimed.

To this end have I been born, and to this end have I come into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth: every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. The transition here from the thought of kingship to that of ‘witnessing’ is very remarkable. It is to be explained by the consideration that, as ‘the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister,’ and as the true glory of His work lay in submission to the demands of self-denying love, so His kingdom consists in witnessing to that eternal truth which is the foundation of all existence, which all were created to own, and in which alone is life. The word ‘witness’ must be taken in a very emphatic sense. Jesus is not only the perfect, He is also the free and willing, Exponent or Revealer of all this truth to men. It is in His entire and voluntary surrender to it that His kingdom lies: His service is really His authority and power. In this respect, too, His dominion is universal over all who will own the truth: bowing to it, they must bow to Him in whom it is contained and by whom it is ‘declared.’ Thus in His witnessing He is King. We cannot fail to notice how the absoluteness of this witnessing is brought out by means of the formula used by Jewish writers, ‘I have been born and am come,’ as well as by the twice repeated ‘to this end.’ For this Jesus had become incarnate: for this He was still standing there. Was not such a witness to ‘the truth’ in all its glorious range of meaning in reality the universal King?

Verse 38

John 18:38. Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? Not surely the question of one seriously searching after truth, for in that case he would have waited for a reply; nor that of one in despair, which would presuppose a moral depth in Pilate’s character inconsistent with the light in which he comes before us both here and elsewhere; nor of mere frivolity, as if he were treating the whole subject lightly, for in that case he would probably have made fewer efforts to release Jesus; but simply the question of one who, having no correct ideas as to truth, and no conviction even that there was such a thing, found in this frame of mind a hindrance to the faith to which he might otherwise have risen. ‘Were there such a thing as truth,’ he says, ‘then I might believe Thee, but truth is nothing, and therefore Thy kingly position, if in this respect only Thou art a King, need not command my homage.’

And when he had said this, he went forth again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no crime. It is a distinct sentence of acquittal; and the point of the whole, as it presented itself to the eye of the Evangelist, seems to be in this, that a Roman governor, a Gentile, declares the innocence and even feels to some extent the true majesty of Him who, though King of the Jews, is rejected and doomed to death by that blinded and guilty people. This guilt of theirs, however, has to be brought out more fully. Another opportunity of retracing their steps has to be offered them, and to be cast away.

Verse 39

John 18:39. But ye have a custom, that I should release unto you one at the passover; will ye therefore that I release unto you the Sing of the Jews? The origin of the custom thus alluded to is unknown, although it is generally supposed with no small measure of probability that, as connected with the Passover, it had been introduced as a symbolical expression of the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt. Pilate’s object in making the proposal and in styling Jesus the King of the Jews is neither ‘unwise mocking bitterness,’ nor ‘abortive cunning.’ He had been impressed by the majesty of Jesus, and was satisfied of His innocence. But he had no depth of feeling in the matter, and his sense of justice was hardly a wakened by it. Any irony in his words therefore has reference to the Jews and not to Jesus. Surely the poverty, the humiliation, the sufferings of the latter make Him a fit King for the former. As he really cares not what becomes of Him, but sees no reason to detain Him, he will make an effort to let Him go.

One subordinate circumstance connected with the words now before us must be noticed. They supply an argument for the fact that the Passover had begun, and that John cannot be understood in other passages to mean that it was still to be celebrated, on the evening of the day following the night in which we at present find ourselves. Even were it true, as urged by some, that the phrase ‘at the Passover’ might have been used of the 14 th as well as the 15 th Nisan, it is to be observed that, on the supposition of variance between John and his predecessors, the 14 th, according to the ordinary method of reckoning, was not yet come, because daylight of, the 14 th had not yet broken. But if so, we must either accept the supposition that ‘at’ or rather ‘in’ the Passover could be applied to the night between the 13 th and the 14 th (for Pilate is speaking of the present moment), or we must reject the idea that this last is the night in which we are now standing. The former supposition, besides being in a high degree improbable, is destitute of all proof; and the only theory consistent with the facts is that which proceeds upon the perfect harmony of all the Evangelists, placing us, at the instant before us, in the night between the 14 th and the 15 th. It may be worth while to add that those who understand the words of chap. John 19:14, ‘the preparation of the Passover,’ as meaning the day previous to it, have no right to say that when the words ‘at the Passover’ occur here, we are substantially at the same point of time. Surely A.M. cannot be said to be ‘at the Passover,’ and 6 A.M. to be ‘the preparation of the Passover.’

Verse 40

John 18:40. They cried out therefore again, saying, Not this man, but Barabbas. The word ‘again’ is here peculiarly worthy of notice. No previous cry of the Jews had been mentioned by the Evangelist; and, had his story been constructed merely to illustrate an idea, he certainly would not have spoken of a second cry when he had said nothing of a first. The word can only be a historical reminiscence in the writer’s own mind. He knew that the Jews had cried out before, although he had not thought it necessary to mention it. Now, therefore, when a cry was to be spoken of, which he remembers was a second one, an indication that it was so comes naturally from his pen, ‘They cried out therefore again.’ The cry was, ‘Not this man but Barabbas;’ and the guilty nature of the cry is immediately intensified by a brief but emphatic statement, designed far more to bring out this guilt than to make us acquainted with a fact of history.

Now Barabbas was a robber. A robber! and yet they preferred him to the holy Jesus, to the Only-Begotten of the Father, to their King!

Bibliographical Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on John 18". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/scn/john-18.html. 1879-90.
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