These verses comprise one of the most amazing narratives in all of world literature. They tell a terrible story of betrayal, hypocrisy, and weakness, evil and hate, yet through this quagmire of politics, dishonesty and intrigue God’s great eternal purpose is assured. Irony? That would be putting it mildly! These verses tell the story of Jesus’ condemnation to the cross, a story in which there are no heroes, villains aplenty and in which the system of this world is manipulated to condemn the very Son of God by the most religious of all God’s people: It is shameful, penetrating and a source of great insight into the motivations of those who will oppose God.
After Pilate’s attempt to free Jesus was thwarted in favor of Barabbas (18:39-40) Pilate orders Jesus flogged, a very severe application of torture that would precede crucifixion or that could be a form of punishment on its own. These verses describe briefly the treatment that Jesus suffers at the hands of his soldiers and the “fun” they have with Him, and then Pilate goes back out to the mob to once again attempt to release Jesus.
Pilate has told them he can find no basis for a charge against Jesus, and when Jesus appears he makes his fateful statement, “Behold the man” (KJV). What the crowd was “beholding” was a man broken by torture. Bleeding, beaten, bruised and in a condition fit only for the Emergency Room, there stood Jesus not looking like much of a threat to anyone. The bloodthirsty crowds led by their holy religious leaders go crazy demanding His crucifixion. It could be that Pilate thought they would be appeased by the sight; if so he was mistaken. His frustration is clearly evident when he says, “You crucify him!” The Jews will not relent; they want their Messiah dead and silenced once and for all.
In verse 7 the Jews finally tell Pilate the real reason they want Jesus dead: He has claimed to be the Son of God. In a sense they were right; making such a claim was a capital offense in the Law… unless of course Jesus was telling the truth. Pilate’s reaction was one of fear, and he goes back into the Palace taking Jesus with him. It is not clear from the text exactly what the source of his fear was: Was he afraid of an insurrection, or was he afraid of Jesus? In any event, Pilate asks Jesus a surprisingly intelligent question: “Where are you from?” The turning point in Jesus’ relationship with His disciples was when they finally came to realize that He had come from God, but when Pilate asks, Jesus is not going to answer. The hour for Him to die has come; it is the reason He has come to earth; everything hinges on this. Pilate points out that he has the power to have Jesus crucified, and this time Jesus does answer him. Jesus reminds Pilate that his authority is not his own, but that it came from above, in the immediate sense from his Roman superiors and in the larger sense from God. Such a reply under the circumstances is truly impressive. It is as though Jesus were trying to make Pilate feel better about his position when He pointed out that the leaders of the mob outside (the chief priests) have the greater guilt in the situation; Pilate is a pawn in a much bigger drama between God and Satan.
Pilate wants this to end, and he wants no part in killing Jesus. The mob responds with a threat to his career, having forgotten all about their religious claim; incredible the length of disingenuousness that they will go to.
There are many opinions about Pilate’s words in the final verses (13-16), but it seems to me that his frustration has turned to anger toward the Jewish leaders. He brings Jesus back out and sits in the judge’s seat. Whatever he announces from here is legally binding. Pilate’s reference to Jesus as “your king” in vv. 14-15 is a deliberate taunt to the crowd. Here is the pagan Roman governor sitting in judgment over the broken and bloody man they want killed and calling Him their king is incredibly insulting to a people who see God Himself as their ultimate king. Pilate is rubbing their noses in the fact that pagans rule the proud Jews; he has had enough of them!
And then it happens…
The chief priests shout back that they “have no king but Caesar!”
Now who has committed blasphemy and treachery? One can imagine the foundations of Heaven itself quaking at that moment. Pilate does what he has to do, and Jesus is taken away to save the world by shedding His precious blood on the cross.
Before the next lesson, carefully read what happened next in John 19:17-42; our story will pick up after that.