Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one the most influential novels in American history. I betcha didn’t know it has a subtitle: Or, Life Among the Lowly. Released in 1852, second best-selling book of that century only to the Bible. Uncle Tom’s Cabin depicted the reality of slavery, and, to some, helped to lay “the groundwork for the Civil War” A southerner reported saying that this novel “had given birth to a horror against slavery in the Northern mind which all the politicians could never have created” (David S. Reynolds). Even Abraham Lincoln, upon meeting Harriet Stowe, famously said, Is this the little woman who made this great war?
I love to tell stories. My daughter says, “Dad, you have a story for everything.” She didn’t say I had lots of stories, but for everything I had a story. Stories are for the hearer—they do something for those who listen. Just like Uncle Tom’s Cabin had unleashed “this great war” to help end slavery, so the Gospels are for changing us, motivating us, the gathered-church . . . no wonder God created the “Gospels” to immortalize His story to his gathered-churches.
I’m persuaded the Gospel of John was written in Ephesus and its audience was the household churches throughout western Asia Minor. These house gathered-churches were filled with believers who had had a very cultural, pagan temple-life, centered around the Roman empire, the Caesar-cult, and multiple deities, regional, local, and even household amulets; and, who celebrated this life at regular “suppers” of gathered guests and peers (known as diapnon). I know Pastor Andrew has drawn out the temple themes in John’s Gospel—and this should be no surprise, for as the gospel had so disturbingly penetrated the Gentile world and now . . . believing Gentiles and households of worshipping believers needed to learn a different temple-life. One that looked and felt more like a living room filled with unequal strangers . . . one that was treasonous to Caesar and the empire rather than one socially and culturally safe and approved by Caesar—or, like now, safe in a Christianized culture.
What would this episode in John 18-19 mean to those young household churches of mostly former (and some, for sure, still) temple-worshipping Gentiles; of families empire-dependent and encultured by pagan temple-life? In some way, this switch from going to temple and living a temple-habit life, in and out of one’s home, has some bearing on how we are to hear this epic set of scenes in John’s Gospel of Jesus before Pilate.
The question before us in this episode isn’t just historical (e.g., nice things to know about Jesus), but how does it speak to us as church? Not insights for our privatized Christian lives, but a story for church, a gathered-church, for Christ Presbyterian Church Fairfield or Christ Presbyterian Church in The Hill. As with any story, we should ask with whom do we identify? We’d be splitting hairs over identifying with the Jewish leaders or the crowd or with Pilate. Let’s not say Jesus . . . not this time. As with the nature and purpose of the Gospels, I say, it is the readers with whom we are to identify: what does this text mean for those early Christians and what is its significance to us, the gathered-church right here, right now?
There are lots of questions Pilate asks throughout this scene. John harnesses them as platforms for the listening gathered-church to hear and respond themselves to this story . . . there are three questions in particular that help us through this scene so we may respond as church.
I. This scene orients us toward fulfillment—it calls the church to have patient-trust in God’s fully capable providence
The first of our Pilate-questions comes at the scene’s beginning, verse 20: “What accusation do you bring against this man?” Though Pilate is asking the Jewish leaders to determine if Jesus should be before him in the first place, this question sets up the listener to learn that Jesus, despite all appearances, was before Pilate because God had put him there.
John records for us in 18:31-32
Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.
Later, in 19:10-11, after the Jews challenged Pilate’s authority, which made him fear, we hear Pilate demand of Jesus: “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above . . .” In this, we should detect the plan of God. Jesus is right where God put him.
The opening scene links the Jewish temple-leadership and the Roman imperial power together (18:28–32). After Jesus’ arrest, he is led from the house of Caiaphas, who was High Priest, to the governor’s headquarters to get Pilate to exam him. Although Pilate was a weak regent for Caesar in Judea, with him there, Caesar was there in that judgment hall nonetheless. And, despite appearances, the presence of Jesus was confronting temples and temple-powers. Yet, we should also note well the hypocrisy of the temple-leadership exposed here: “. . . They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover” (v. 28) They are willing to use the power of Caesar to do their dirty work in doing away with this troublemaker to their own established authority. Yet they didn’t want to touch the heathen plot of ground—they didn’t want to appear polluted, contaminated and so be denied the Passover. This is significant in that they knew full well that turning Jesus over to Pilate and in short order making it all about Caesar’s authority was to condemn Jesus to crucifixion. The irony: manipulating the political system to kill off the true Passover—1 Cor 5:7, Christ our Passover has been sacrificed. Here, too, we should detect the plan of God.
The first Christian book to be penned by an early church leader, the very first, do you know what the subject was? Tertullian penned Of Patience about 207AD.
But when the Lord says this about the flesh, pronouncing it “weak,” He shows what need there is of strengthening, it—that is by patience—to meet every preparation for subverting or punishing faith; that it may bear with all constancy stripes, fire, cross, beasts, sword; all which prophets and apostles, by enduring, conquered! (Chapter XIII)
A second general Christian volume comes to us from Cyprian of Carthage at about 257 AD. Guess it’s subject? The Advantage of Patience. What is so fascinating is that Cyprian linked patience to that scene in John’s Gospel of Jesus and Pilate:
Surely, He who was not rebellious, neither contradicted, when He offered His back to stripes, and His cheeks to the palms of the hands; neither turned away His face from the foulness of spitting. Surely it is He who, when He was accused by the priests and elders, answered nothing, and, to the wonder of Pilate, kept a most patient silence. . . (No. 23)
This is the first thing: As a church we need, despite all appearances, to have a patience-trust in God’s providence. Imagine the trust and patience that they needed . . . no leverage, no power, disconnected from everything that gave life meaning (no temple, no protection from honoring Caesar, no affirming the tiers of human-hierarchy that sustained the life of the empire), nothing but their fellowship of unequal strangers, somewhat unlawfully meeting in someone’s home . . . Jesus standing there at the end of Pilate’s (really Caesar’s) judgment . . . we, too, must have such patient-trust that we are right where God has put us as a church
 William Kaufman, The Civil War in American Culture (2006), 18.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.