John uses the trial of Jesus before Pilate to reveal the true nature of Jesus' kingship. Jesus is not a king as we know kings, his kingly rule is through a divine word, a word that gathers and shapes his people.
v28. Having perpetrated a travesty of justice in a hastily convened and most likely illegal trial, the Jewish authorities now look to Rome to administer the death penalty. Note how John makes a point of describing the ritual sensitivities of the Jews as against their willingness to murder an innocent man.
v29-30. The Jewish authorities had obviously expected a stamped approval of their charge against Jesus, but Pilate sets about to retry him. They are not amused.
v31. Pilate knows well enough that under Roman law, the Jews may only execute someone who has defiled the temple. They couldn't prove this charge against Jesus and so were left with blasphemy. Of course, the charge they have presented to Pilate is one of treason. Pilate's words are a sacastic reminder of Israel's legal impotence.
v32. John identifies the divine hand behind the inability of the Jews to execute Jesus. Under Roman law, Jesus would be "lifted up", while under Jewish law he would be stoned.
v33. Here we see the substance of the politically slanted charge laid against Jesus. It is very easy to describe the long-awaited deliverer-king in the terms of a revolutionary terrorist, although Pilate obviously finds it hard to believe that this wondering rabbi is a terrorist. The "you" is probably emphatic; "am I supposed to believe that you are this king?"
v34. Jesus gives an offhanded reply. He is really not interested in defending a trumped-up charge. The die is cast, so what's the point? "So did you work this out for yourself or are you just mouthing what the Jewish authorities have told you?"
v35. Pilate's reply is quite possibly a genuine expression of ignorance, along with a desire to hear Jesus' defence.
v36. Jesus complies by pointing out that his kingship is spiritual, not political. If it were political, his followers would have fought to resist his arrest. His kingly reign does not intersect with Roman authority.
v37. "So then, after all, you are a king." The NIV has Jesus responding in the affirmative, but his response is more likely ambivalent: "It is you who are calling me a king." Not that Jesus isn't a king, rather it's not a title he would choose. As the deliverer-king, Jesus enters the world to proclaim a truth that has the power to eternally gather a people into the presence of the living God. Those who seek the truth, find it in Jesus.
v38a. "Truth, what is that?" The conversation has become far too spiritual for Pilate, so he ends the exchange with a throwaway line.
v38b-39. Pilate has heard the evidence and declares Jesus "not guilty." Instead of defying the Jewish authorities and setting Jesus free, Pilate attempts an expedient ploy by offering freedom to Israel's deliverer-king through the annual amnesty, but it backfires.
v40. "They", the Jewish authorities and the temple guards ("crowd" - synoptic gospels), call for the release of a real terrorist, instead of an innocent rabbi.
The church has often looked to Christ to wield his sword in defence of his people. In the face of man-made, or natural disasters, right through to the inroads of secularism, the church has looked to the mighty hand of Christ the king. The trouble is, Christ's reign doesn't intersect with much of the stuff of this age.
Of course, there are times when Christ's reign does intersect, but often not at the points where we would expect:
i] Christ is a king of a kingdom not of this world; a kingdom that does not belong here. Jesus' words to Pilate serve to explain that Christ's kingdom is not a political entity as is the Roman empire. It is certainly here, it does exist in this age and does impact on our age. Saint Augustine wrote that Christ's "kingdom is here till the end of time .... but does not belong here because it is in the world as a pilgrim."
So, Christ is a king of a kingdom that is in the world, but not of the world.
ii] Christ is a king who reigns through God's word; a word heard and believed. Where in the world does this pilgrim entity intersect with human existence? Jesus said he "came into the world to testify to the truth." God's revelation proclaimed, particularly the gospel, is where Christ's kingdom intersects with our world. Those who hear the word and believe the word, are changed, become a force for change, and are delivered into the presence of the living God.
So, Christ is a king who reigns, not by power or might, but by the Spirit inspired word of God.
We members of this pilgrim society do not always sit easily with the consequences of our not belonging to the world. I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, in his book "The Cost of Discipleship", proclaimed an ethic of "turn the other cheek", but then became involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler. How often have we resorted to marketing strategies designed to build our church when we know that the Word gathers and builds God's new society? So pilgrims we are, founded on the gospel.
1. In what sense is Christ's kingdom not of this world?
2. How is Christ's reign achieved through truth?