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.
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.
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.
We also have the presence of the crowd throughout the scene, providing a public foil for the powers to persuade and manipulate—and isn’t that what the powers do? Pilate and Caiaphas are using Jesus as a pawn as they play their political game. What neither of them realized, is that their own wants, desires, and ambitions (being paraded to play on, manipulate, and provoke the crowd) are being used by God to save humanity.
Let’s see how this plays out for the church and the life of the church:
What neither of them realized, is that their own wants, desires, and ambitions are being used by God to save humanity
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)
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)
I am the author of Wasted Evangelism: Social Action and the Church's Task of Evangelism, a deep, exegetical read into the Gospel of Mark. All royalties from this book go to support our church planting ministry in the Hill community of New Haven, CT. The book and its e-formats can be found on Amazon, Barns'n Noble, (and most other online book distributors) or through the publisher, Wipf & Stock directly.