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Essays, Politics of Scripture

The Politics of a Misunderstood Kingdom—John 18:28-38 (Alastair Roberts)

As Christ speaks the truth of his kingdom to power, it is heard as if it were a foreign tongue. In Jesus’s cross-examination before Pilate we see two misunderstandings of the nature of his kingdom and a central challenge of Christian political theology is brought into clearer focus.

John 18:28-38
28 Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?’ 30 They answered, ‘If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’ 31 Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.’ The Jews replied, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death.’ 32 (This was to fulfil what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34 Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35 Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36 Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37 Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ 38 Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, ‘I find no case against him.

Of the select group of individuals who have entered into religious creeds over the course of history, Pontius Pilate is doubtless one of the most unlikely. It was Pilate who, through his spinelessness in the face of a crowd baying for blood, sentenced Jesus to death, even while personally finding no fault in him. Beyond the canonical gospels, the man whose name will forever be associated with the crucifixion of Christ also appears in the writings of Josephus, Philo, and Tacitus.

The prefect of the Roman province of Judaea, the portrait that we find of Pilate in the gospel of John is of a man who, while wrestling with his conscience, cynically chose to send an innocent man to his death rather than risk his own hide. In John, as in the other gospels, Pilate seems to be engaged in a game of hot potato. Too timorous to stand for justice in the face of a murderous mob, he exhausts all possible options for absolving himself of the responsibility for a murder that he dare not prevent. He declares that he finds Jesus to be innocent, he offers Jesus for release on account of a Passover custom, he sends Jesus to Herod, and he presents a scourged Jesus as an object of ridicule. At each point, the ball is put back into his court, until through his lack of nerve and his fear of the crowd he succumbs to the pressure and delivers Jesus to be crucified.

In John 18:28, Jesus is brought before Pilate for the first time. In the exchange that follows, we can see two contrasting misunderstandings of the nature of Jesus’s kingship and kingdom. The Jewish authorities deliver Jesus to Pilate as a royal aspirant, the ‘King of the Jews’. The triumphal entry a few days earlier (John 12:12-19) was a symbolically resonant action, characteristic of a self-styled king. We can presume that Pilate would have been informed of these charges before he began to question Jesus.

This apparent claim of kingship provided the Jewish authorities with a weighty charge against Jesus before Pilate. Any person claiming kingship in such a manner could be condemned as a traitor to the rule of Rome and sentenced to a traitor’s death. The challenge that Jesus purportedly presented to Roman authority also provided the Jewish authorities and the crowd with leverage: if Pilate did not accede to their wishes, not only would the unrest of the mob present a threat to his rule but he could be presented as disloyal to Caesar and his interests in Judaea (cf.19:12).

Within the charges levelled against him in Pilate’s court Jesus is presented as a political agitator, someone determined to gain power through violence. However, this impression of Jesus’s claims to royal status does not survive the cross-examination that follows and a new misunderstanding seems to take its place.

When Jesus does not provide a direct response to Pilate’s first question about Jesus’s claim to kingship, Pilate asks him again about what he has done. In response to this second question, Jesus provides an answer only recorded in the gospel of John. Rather than straightforwardly accepting or dismissing the accusation, Jesus clarifies the nature of his kingdom—‘My kingdom is not from this world.’ When Pilate inquires further concerning his claims to be a king, Jesus also explains the sense in which he is a king: ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

Between them, these two responses puncture the initial accusation. In his first response, Jesus makes clear that his kingdom is not advanced by means of violence, a startling divergence from the general modi operandi of political revolutionaries. In his second response, he presents himself as a king of ‘truth’. As Craig Keener observes, the term ‘truth’ would have carried a rather different force to hearers of different cultural backgrounds.[1] To a hellenized audience, truth (αλήθεια) would have denoted insight into reality, while to Romans (veritas) it would have represented ‘accurate, factual representation of events.’[2] Hearing Jesus’s responses to his questions, the Gentile Pilate would have been inclined to dismiss him as an innocuous sage, speaking of a ‘kingdom’ of philosophers.

Pilate’s dismissive retort—‘what is truth?’—seems to be consistent with his character and the prevailing outlook of the pragmatic world of realpolitik within which he was embroiled. A hard-nosed politician of his ilk had neither time nor patience for the abstractions of the philosophers. Of what use is truth in the world of power?

Both the Jewish authorities and Pilate, from their respective vantage points, misconstrue the character of Jesus’s kingdom and authority. In their inability to grasp who Jesus is they exhibit the failure of the darkness to grasp the light of Christ and for the world to know its maker, as described by John in his gospel’s prologue. Their obliviousness to Jesus’s true identity leads to an irony which surfaces at several points during the narrative. While they are playing a crucial role in the drama, they are entirely unaware of the true import of their actions. Despite their scrupulousness in preparing for the celebration of the Passover (v.28), the Jews authorities are unaware that they are preparing a greater Passover. In referring to and presenting Jesus as the king of the Jews, Pilate is saying and doing much more than he knows.

When Jesus declares that his kingdom is not of this world, he refers, not only to the origin of his authority, but also to the fact that his kingdom operates in a manner that cannot be understood in this world’s terms, and in a manner that exists in fundamental tension and antagonism with the workings of an evil world (cf. 17:14-16). Here Jesus identifies issues with which Christian political theology will never cease wrestling. The incompatibility between the operations of Christ’s kingdom and those of an evil world continue to produce opposition and misunderstandings to this day. The truth that Christ speaks to power is heard as if were a foreign tongue, lightly dismissed as inconsequential by some while attacked as a hostile and violent threat by others.

To any hearer familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus’s statements concerning the truth should have held a different set of connotations. God’s ‘truth’ is his commitment to his covenant promise and revealed character. This faithfulness, while not operating in the violent manner conceived of by rebellious Jewish patriots, was not the harmless philosophy envisaged by Pilate either. God’s truth, while not proceeding in the idiom of a world of corrupt power, is more than capable of turning such a world upside-down and inside-out.

Christ’s witness to this truth, to a faithfulness that upsets kingdoms of the earth and the mind, is a witness that has in turn been committed to us. As we declare the witness of Christ enacted in his life, death, and resurrection to the rulers of this world, we are assured of rejection. Few rulers, encountering the words of this foreign tongue, will call upon us to translate them. Nevertheless, as Jesus declares before Pilate, all who are of the truth will hear his witness and come to his light. Unable to come to terms with this kingdom, the world will ultimately prove powerless to resist it.

[1] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers), 2:1113.

[2] Ibid.

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