The second of our Pilate-questions comes to us in v. 33, “Are you the King of the Jews?, and suggests that Jesus is no ordinary accused. This question sets us (the listeners of the story) up to realize we belong to another kingdom and serve another kind of king, that our belief and church habits should affirm this in our gathering and in our discipleship, in how we do church.
As Paul pulled from an early liturgy in Phil 2 (And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, 8) and certainly his the “Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed” (1 Cor 11:23), the church early on began to remember the events associated with what we call Passion Week. Some of the earliest Christian art portrayed the scenes in this episode of Jesus before Pilate, an indication of their importance in the habit and devotional life of the early church . . . “that which we have seen with our eyes and our hands have handled,” later John tells us—and then we have the creedal, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate.” God died–not in legend, not symbolically, not in a distant past, not in some mysterious realm. The gospel story is brought down to earth and made a part of the life of the church, a part of the life of a gathered-church.
Each Sunday Christians everywhere make as part of their confession two names: Mary and Pontius Pilate. Mary’s name as part of Christian creeds is no surprise, but something should jar us about the inclusion of Pilate into the church’s liturgical memory. Karl Barth once said that running into Pilate’s name in creedal recitation was akin to the movement of “a dog into a nice room.” This scene in John’s Gospel has been etched into the memory and habits of the church for centuries. We hear it in the Apostles Creed:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate . . .
Later in the Nicean Creed, about 325 AD we read (we recite), “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven . . . For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” For our sake . . . the initiation and weekly confession of our faith was linked to . . . Pilate and Jesus
We don’t know much about Pilate. We know that he was a Roman prefect over Judea and we know that he was married. Dorothy Sayers wrote: the importance of Christ before Pilate is that we no longer behold God-in-his-thusness, as transcendent, abstract, and universal, but rather God-in-his-thisness, as embodied in the person of Jesus, as immanent, concrete, now encountered as triune. Indeed, we are face-to-face with the shocking particularity of the Christian faith, made more scandalous by God’s weakness and poverty in the person of Jesus. Sayers reminds us that the threats of those in power mean nothing to those prepared to die, to those who know that dying and suffering is not the worst thing we do as human beings. The truth rests with those who, in humility, are not afraid because they know what is beyond this life–they know a different king and belong to a different kingdom. In this confrontation between Jesus and Pilate, the battle between the powers of this world and divine power comes to a pen-ultimate climax, with Jesus acknowledging Pilate’s limited culpability when Christ tells him “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.”
Pilate’s question in 18:39, ‘What is truth,’ exposes the perplexity of a person who is a stranger to himself, uncomprehending and confused, so very short of the freedom proper to human life (Sayers). But this is the same space the church occupies amid outsiders, for we know the truth. There is narrative parallel here between Jesus’ kingly authority and the mention of truth. In his Gospel, John closely webs Jesus’ presence and authority to the concept of truth:
- the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17)
- In John 5:33, Jesus refers to John the Baptist, “he has borne witness to the truth.”
- and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:32).
And in our scene this morning (v. 37): “. . . for this purpose (Jesus says to Pilate) I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
It is here that the Accused calls his judge to repentance and to choose what does not appear to be the case in that judgement hall. Jesus opens a path to faith for Pilate to believe Jesus is a king and has kingly authority: choose Christ or choose Caesar. The One in the dock (the old English word for the place of the accused in a courtroom) invites his judge to be his follower, to align himself with those who are “of the truth,” to deny Caesar. In this Jesus is very dangerous to all who have power. Isn’t this our calling? Isn’t this the church, a local gathered-church, set at the end of accusation . . . calling our accusers (the skeptical, the unbeliever, those that misunderstand us, those that judge us fools and foolish) to join us, to deny Caesar and all the powers aligned against God and to follow the One who went to a cross because that is the only way for life to happen, the only path of resistance to the powers of this world.
So this scene opens to us as church, we belong to another kingdom and serve another King, despite all appearances—for on the one hand, we stand in Pilate’s place, bear his guilt, share his fears, and think we can out-rank Jesus by trusting in the powers of this world or our own; and, on the other hand we need to know Jesus did not just suffer under Pontus Pilate, he suffered for him as well; so we, too, as church suffer (not redemptively, of course, but no less like Christ) for our own accusers (the doubters, skeptics, the antagonists). As Peter tells us, as sojourners and exiles, we are to keep our conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against, they may see our good deeds, glorify God, and perhaps make that choice of Jesus rather than Caesar (1 Peter 2:11-12).
It is our very presence, it is the witness of the very presence of the church, as it stands before Pilate if you will, before our neighbors, family, and friends, that opens the choice: choose Caesar or choose Christ . . .
And for us, right here, right now: If Jesus’ claims are to be believed and investment in the church is to be had, despite social, political, religious, and familia pressures to abandon or compromise, then the nature of Jesus’ authority, the nature of his kingship need to be clear—at the most critical moment, right here before Pilate (when life or death is the apparent choice) it is made very clear. This claim, the fledgling, persecuted, maligned, powerless church needed to hear, just as we do as a gathered-church right here: Life nor salvation would not be found in the temples that Caesar used to maintain his control over his empire; but, in the One standing before Caesar’s proxy—life and salvation is only found in the One who suffered under Pontus Pilate. Even this awful scene, despite all appearances, is gospel especially to a gathered- church.
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.