John 18: 33 – 40
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 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?’ 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.’ 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.’ 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. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ They shouted in reply, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas!’ Now Barabbas was a bandit.
In the previous passage, Pilate was unable to get to the bottom of this Jesus character. He asked the Judeans why they were handing Jesus over to him and hadn’t got a straight answer. So he asks Jesus himself, directly. We have much more detail about this in John than in the synoptic gospels. He finds out what many have found out before him in this gospel, that when you ask Jesus a question, the answer is likely to be another question. So Pilate asks him whether he is, as the Judeans claim, the king of the Jews. Jesus’ answer is both incriminating and revealing. While he agrees he has a kingdom, this is not a kingdom from this world.
Pilate jumps on this kingdom idea, thinking the fact that Jesus states he has a kingdom confirms that he is the “King of the Jews” and so misses Jesus’ point somewhat. Jesus does not state, as some translations put it “my kingdom is not of this world”, which would imply that Jesus’ kingdom is ethereal, and unconnected with this world. Jesus in fact states that his kingdom is not from this world. This is a recurring theme in John, that the world is bad, or corrupt to some extent, and Jesus has come to bring his kingdom to it, from somewhere else – God.
As in the previous passage the closing is almost comic. Having found no compelling evidence to sentence Jesus to death, Pilate offers the Judeans a way out. There is a legal loophole that would allow the Judeans and Pilate to release Jesus, the custom of setting a prisoner free at the Passover each year. This is known as the ‘paschal pardon’ but is not referred to in any other historical documents than the four gospels, which all contain this story. The Judeans, however, have other ideas. They demand that Pilate release Barabbas, described as a bandit in John, a notorious prisoner in Matthew, and one involved in a riot, or a revolutionary in Mark and Luke.
Some historians have questioned whether this could be historically accurate or probable. This not only because this ‘paschal pardon’ does not appear to be widely mentioned, but also the idea that the man representing the Roman authority, backed by the Roman military, could be cajoled by an unarmed crowd into releasing Barabbas, a man condemned to death for insurrection against the Roman Empire, is questionable at best.
While interesting, and food for thought, this isn’t really the theological or spiritual point here. Jesus has explained to Pilate in detail that he is not concerned with worldly things. He came, or was sent, into the world “to testify to the truth” again invoking John 1, but Pilate misses this completely. He, as a career politician of the time, can only see things in black and white. In Pilate’s view the equation is binary and zero sum: one man goes free and another man is put to death. But Jesus is not just about to die for himself, he is about to die for Barabbas, for Pilate, for Israel, for you and for me. For the whole world.