EHP17: Day 15

John 20: 24 – 31

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

This is one of the most famous stories from the New Testament and the phrase ‘doubting Thomas’ is widely used both in religious and non religious contexts. It is only contained in this gospel and, as chapter 21 is generally thought to have been added in at a later date, represents the final scene (probably) in John’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry.

The rest of the disciples have already seen the risen Jesus in the previous, but Thomas was inextricably absent. He is made to wait a week before Jesus appears to them again. As in the previous story he arrives despite the disciples having locked themselves into their house. Jesus speaks to Thomas directly, knowing what he has said before, and inviting him to feel for himself what the other disciples saw previously, and know to be true.

To his credit, Thomas does not wait to act upon Jesus’ invitation, simply stating “my Lord and my God.” In doing this, Thomas is the first (and last) person in John’s gospel to look directly at Jesus, and address him as God. This is, perhaps, the culmination of John’s gospel, which has described how the word which was with God in the beginning, was made flesh, and finally was recognised as God by man. “Doubting Thomas” is the person who expresses exactly what is at the heart of John’s gospel.

Jesus gently rebukes him after this, citing all the people who will not see him but will still believe. This continues John’s theme of anchoring the story within the context of an established church. Cleary these people will not have seen Jesus, or even seen people who themselves saw Jesus. But Jesus does not treat Thomas unkindly. In fact, we might even view this ‘doubting Thomas’ moniker as unfair; we do not call Peter ‘denying Peter’.

The last paragraph is a conclusion, just as Thomas’ “my Lord and God” was a conclusion. John makes reference to other stories he could tell about Jesus, but the critical thing is that the people listening are able to have “life in his name”. This is the crux of the gospel, that Jesus has come to earth to set us free from fear, from worrying about earthly things and problems, and we are able to live life selflessly for God, and to the full.

As referred to earlier, while there is a Chapter 21 in John, it is not included in the earliest manuscripts and so most New Testament scholars consider it to have been added on, much like the last eleven verses of Mark.

And Jus as John has come to an end; this Daily Bread blog has too. Thank you for following the story of Jesus’ last night, death and resurrection with us through the Easter period. We hope you have been spiritually enlightened, or at least have learned, or can see, a few things that you didn’t before. If you have enjoyed looking at a passage from the Bible and reading a few paragraphs on it, why not get a biblical commentary and go through Jesus’ story from the beginning, or one of the letters, or even learn what the disciples did after Jesus’ death in the Acts of the Apostles next. The ones available on the bookstall are Tom Wright’s “x for everyone”, and also William Barclay’s daily bible readings. These are great ways to look at the story of Jesus as a whole, and pick up things that you couldn’t by just reading the text yourself.

EHP17: Day 14

John 20: 19 – 23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

This is a short passage, but there is a lot going on. Imagine the scene: Peter and the beloved disciple have returned from their sprint to Jesus’ tomb, none the wiser about what has happened. They make their way to where the rest of the disciples have been hiding since Jesus’ arrest and death. The rest have barricaded themselves in, for fear of what might happen if they are found there by the Judeans. They have been there for a number of days, and have had to rely on reports from others about what has happened: from the women, and some of the disciples brave enough to go outside. They knock on the door, make it clear who they are, and are let in.

They explain that the stone was rolled away when they arrived, but there was no body inside the tomb, and Jesus’ burial robes, the linen cloths, were strangely deliberately arranged. They have no more to tell, and they wait. Eventually Jesus arrives. John does not write that he entered through any door, but simply that he came and stood among them. He shows them his wounds, just as he will do to Thomas later on, and blesses them after they are convinced that he is indeed their teacher.

It is important, then, for John that Jesus’ has the same body as before. Despite the fact that he was not recognised immediately by Mary in the previous passage, which may have indicated he had been physically changed somewhat, he is able to show them his stigmata and the hole in his side caused by the Roman soldier’s spear. He definitely has the same body.

His language or tone is similar to when he last spoke to the disciples too. Previously in Jesus’ ministry, he himself was the focal point of his movement. Now he is not just showing the disciples what to do to continue it, but compelling them. He offers them his peace, twice, through the power of the Holy Spirit. He promised this in 14:27 and 16:33 and has now fulfilled it. Through God’s peace, and through the Holy Spirit he asks them to forgive and take on sin, and sinful behaviour. Jesus has been doing this throughout his ministry and they will keep it going. Were they good enough for this? Are we good enough for this now? No, of course not. But God enables it, wills it even. God helps us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

EHP17: Day 13

John 20: 11 – 18

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

When Mary first arrived at the tomb she did not know what to do, so she went to get Peter, and the disciple Jesus loved to show them the puzzling scene, to see what they made of it. Now, after they had come, seen it, and returned home, she is left alone, outside the tomb again. Whether she came to continue Jesus’ burial rites or just to be near his body and pray, she is stuck, unable to do either.

So she breaks down, entirely understandably, in front of the entrance where the rock once was. To her surprise, she is not alone. The angels had not been there when Peter and the other disciple had peered into the darkened tomb. They lead her to turn around and see a strange, but familiar figure. Her initial thought is that Jesus is the gardener. Remember Gethsemane? Jesus was compared to Adam there, and is again here. He is the gardener, with dominion over the earth. He is charged with creating order out of the disorder that the world has brought to itself. Mary still, however, does not know or understand who he is.

But the gentle, teasing rebuke of Mary is enough. She knows at once but Jesus quickly establishes that he has been changed in his resurrection. This “do not hold onto me” has puzzled scholars. It does not appear to mean that there has been some physical change, as otherwise the story of Thomas feeling Jesus’ wounds from the cross would not make sense. So it must be more that their relationship has been altered. He would no longer lead them, travelling around Judea, sharing meals and teaching.  He is preparing her, and his disciples when she tells them later on, that he would be leaving them soon. He is not long for this world.

The language Jesus uses when talking to Mary here is important too. While he has previously referred to God as his father, he now refers to him as our father, his God and our God. There is a new level of intimacy between us and God the Father which appears to have been unlocked through Jesus’ death. This is reminiscent of the Prodigal Son story in Luke again (as in the previous passage). Jesus’ story of a son rejecting his inheritance and venturing into a new land would have resonated with his Jewish listeners as being parallel to the Exodus story. Jesus has now fulfilled this, enabling a closer relationship with God than had ever previously been thought possible.

EHP17: Day 12

John 20: 1 – 10

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

Mary Magdalene, having almost not been mentioned at all in John’s gospel until being present at the death of Jesus, is now described as firstly discovering the empty tomb, secondly telling the disciples what she has seen, and thirdly (in the next passage) speaking to the risen Jesus first of anyone. In the other gospels she is accompanied by Mary mother of Jesus and perhaps two other women. While no one else is mentioned here she uses the first person plural when speaking to the disciples, indicating she may not have been alone. Perhaps, it being late when Jesus died, they were going to finish the burial rites started on the Friday with the industrial quantities of myrrh that Joseph had provided.

By this time the ‘disciple Jesus loved’ has reunited with the other disciples. In describing Jesus death, quick and terrible, he must have made Peter feel even worse after his performance, albeit a predicted one, on the Friday night. Perhaps they had not even visited Jesus’ tomb up to this point, as they were sufficiently worried of facing a similar treatment at the hands of the Roman authorities.

While Mary is unsure what to make of the rolled stone and discarded linen wrappings she found at daybreak, this young disciple sprints to the scene and knows straight away that Jesus has risen. Remember the parable of the prodigal son, running was frowned upon deeply in Jesus’ culture, and shows that the they were truly desperate to see and try to understand what had happened. Mary is described as having run back to the disciples too! Simon Peter, presumably much older than the young disciple, hurries after him but is not prepared to run.

Importantly, this young disciple, although he believes, he is not described by John as having understood what has happened. John states that this ‘understanding of scripture’ will come at a later date. It is enough, for the moment, for the disciple to ‘see and believe’. This phrasing will be used again later on in John in Jesus’ other resurrection appearances.

The linen cloth is very important in this scene, and is the key to the young disciple knowing what has happened. If Jesus body had simply been stolen by the Romans or Judeans, they would have probably taken the cloth along with them. If the body was unwrapped from its grave clothes, these would probably have been left in a sticky, myrrhy pile somewhere. But they are not: they are neatly folded with the headcloth some distance away. Would anyone have done this just to create an effect? When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he needed someone to unwrap him from his clothes. Jesus, on the other hand, has left them behind entirely.

While this doesn’t feel like a particularly complete or uplifting passage to read on Easter Sunday it reflects the confusion felt by the disciples on the first Easter. Sorrow at Jesus’ arrest and death now turns into confusion. What were they to make of the empty tomb, and what had happened to Jesus’ bloody and broken body? The men return to Jerusalem, unsure what to do next. But Mary stays…

EHP17: Day 11

John 19: 31 – 42

Easter Saturday

Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’ And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

As there is now, at the time that John’s gospel was written, there would have been a great deal of scepticism over Jesus death and resurrection. If he was alive (again) on the Sunday, might he not have died on the Friday? John specifically writes to negate this view or argument. It is likely the young boy, ‘the disciple who Jesus loved’ we read about in the previous passage who is the eyewitness John describes. He, unlike the other disciples, was brave enough to come and witness the death of Jesus.

The Judeans wanted the body down because it was not just a Sabbath, but the time of Passover, the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar. Deuteronomy 21: 23 states that bodies of executed people should be taken down so that they do not contaminate the surrounding area. The Romans had other ideas though. It was, perhaps, not yet clear to observers that Jesus was dead. Crucifixion was usually a slow death, over a long period of time, even days. Jesus appears to have died unusually quickly, perhaps as a result of the torture the Romans subjected him to before his crucifixion. So it is understandable, then, that the Romans would want to make sure, by piercing his side with a spear. This would either confirm that Jesus was dead, or kill him. The water that came out with the blood proves that Jesus was dead at this point.

Joseph of Arimathea then asks Pilate if he can take Jesus body away for a proper burial. This is an extravagant, no-expense-spared sort of burial. The hundred pounds of spices is ten times the amount that Mary had anointed Jesus with in Bethany in John 12:3, which provoked complaints from the disciples. This is on another level. John emphasises the fact that the tomb has not been used before. This is important as it rules out the idea that the resurrection could have been caused by some sort of mix up.

As with Lazarus in John 11, this is a tomb hollowed out of rock. It would have taken time and money to create and usually would have been used a number of times. John intends us to remember this, the last time the story took place outside a tomb. Jesus wept (11:35), but when the stone was rolled away there was no stench of decomposition. John is intending us to wonder what will happen this time. But just as God rested on the Sabbath, we will have to wait until tomorrow to see.

EHP17: Day 10

John 19: 25 – 30

Good Friday

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Just as in the previous passage when the Roman soldiers crucify Jesus, the actual moment of his death is written in a simple, short way. A puzzling aspect of this is the presence of the women, but not any of the disciples. Scholars understand that this is because the disciples would have been captured or hurt if they had been anywhere near the cross. Women on the other hand were not considered a threat, and therefore would have been allowed to come much closer without fear of harm.

What of the ‘disciple whom [Jesus] loved’ then? This person is generally thought to be a very young boy, and so the soldiers would have ignored him too. We can understand this person to be an eyewitness for the crucifixion, and some think that it is the author ‘John’ himself.

Back to the women, though: the last time that John described Jesus’ mother was in the story of the wedding at Cana, when she had to explain to Jesus that the wine had run out. Jesus gently teased her then saying that his “time had not yet come”. His time has come now, and to fix this in our minds he calls for wine himself. The soldiers give him ‘sour wine’ that was considered the worst, which they would only drink themselves if they were out on patrol. John contrasts this with the wine that Jesus produced when asked by his mother, the best wine that was served at that wedding.

Christians consider this tableau to be the key to understanding the wedding at Cana miracle: Jesus has come not to turn water into wine for us to drink, but to change the nature of our lives, from the necessary but bland, unexciting water to the full richness of God’s wine.

The synoptic gospels have Jesus crying “lama lama eloi sabacthani” on the cross, a quotation from the first verse of Psalm 22 as referred to in yesterday’s commentary. John’s last words for Jesus are a bit different, perhaps more comparable to the final verse (Psalm 22: 31)

“They will proclaim his righteousness,

Declaring to a people yet unborn:

He has done it!”

While, perhaps not immediately obvious on the first reading, there is a subtle element of triumph in the words that Jesus speaks. This word that Jesus speaks is actually a single word in the original language, one which people would write on a bill after they had paid it. Jesus work is now complete: the price has been paid. And with that, as in Matthew 27:50, Jesus gives up the ghost.

EHP17: Day 9

John 19: 16 – 24

So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” ’ Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’ When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.’ This was to fulfil what the scripture says,

‘They divided my clothes among themselves,

and for my clothing they cast lots.’

And that is what the soldiers did.

In the previous passage the High Priests had managed to frighten Pilate into agreeing to put Jesus to death. The first verse in this passage then marks the handover of Jesus from the Judeans and the High Priests to the Romans. The soldiers, who were happy to beat and mock Jesus before Pilate sentenced him are not stopped from escalating this.

John 19: 19 – 20 explains why some pictures or sculptures of Jesus have “INRI” written on them. This is an acronym of the latin: “Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum”, or INBI which is the same in Greek. There is scholarly debate about why the High Priests question Pilate’s wording: on the one hand they do not wish to legitimise Jesus’ teaching, but on the other in previous verses they were prepared to act against their customs in order to ensure that Jesus would be killed.

There was no method of death more terrible than crucifixion in the ancient world. Originally conceived by the Persians, using it to ensure that that the ground the body stood on would not be defiled, it was passed to the Babylonians and then the Romans. It was not permitted for Roman citizens to be crucified, and was only permitted for killing slaves and criminals.

John writes Jesus crucifixion in a brutal way, what must have been a laborious and time consuming process planting the cross deep enough to ensure that it would not fall is all contained in a six word clause, with the tense suggesting the action has already happened.

The lack of empathy from the soldiers, although not surprising, is a stand out moment in the passage. They have no sooner erected Jesus’ cross than they are squabbling over who gets to take home his fashionable (?) seamless tunic. It is unclear why Jesus was carrying any extra clothes at this point, as he had effectively been a prisoner since the garden scene, some time ago.

Read Psalm 22, a favourite of mine, which is the scripture that the last verse refers to. While somewhat premature, as we read the death of Jesus tomorrow, the first two lines of Psalm 22 are what the Synoptic gospels describe Jesus as saying on the cross. Can we understand those words to shed a more positive light on the events unfolding if we keep the message of Psalm 22 close to hand?

EHP17: Day 8

John 19 : 1 – 16

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, ‘Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.’ So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’ When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.’ The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God’.

Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.’ From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.’

When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’ They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’ Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

This passage paints a confusing picture. Pilate has not found Jesus guilty of any crime, let alone sentenced him to any punishment, but his soldiers have already started treating him like a man condemned to death.

Throughout the Gospel John has been telling us that Jesus knows God intimately. That in the beginning Jesus was with God and was God. In John 14:6, Jesus states, “no one comes to the Father but through him”. He remains the true image of God even though he is beaten, bruised and bleeding, mocked by the soldiers who have dressed him up in the image of the Emperor, wearing purple. Pilate says “here’s the man”, not realising that Jesus is much more, but is still confused as to what to actually do with him.

The history of the Jewish people as told in the Bible is one of oppression. They had been captive for long swathes of biblical history. They were “strangers in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22) in Egypt, Babylon and now Judea, under the Romans, to name but a few. The Messiah the Jews of the time longed for would be a great military ruler. He would set them free from their Roman oppressors and enable them to live freely in their homeland. Therefore, the Judeans present at the time must have been acutely aware of the Emperor, their ruler, who ensured that they lived as subjects rather than free people.

It is therefore extremely unsettling to see the chief priests in this passage invoke Caesar’s name. They want Jesus to be put to death so much, that they are prepared to subvert this hated ruler for their own ends. They do this in a clever way, knowing that what Pilate fears most is Caesar finding out about something that he has done and disapproving. They as good as as Pilate: “you wouldn’t want Caesar to know that you hadn’t put this pseudo-Emperor to death, would you?”.  John writes that Pilate was afraid when they tell him Jesus claims to be the Son of God. He is even more afraid when Caesars’ name is mentioned over, and immediately hands Jesus over, sentencing him to crucifixion without a word.

EHP17: Day 7

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.

EHP17: Day 6

John 18: 28 – 32

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. So Pilate went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?’ They answered, ‘If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’ 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.’ (This was to fulfil what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)

In the previous passage, the high priests, the leaders of the Judeans were unable to come to a solution to the Jesus problem within their own laws and customs. They decide, then, to bring him to Pilate, the representative of the Roman occupiers of the area.

The scene is almost comic: the high priests know that their actions would be completely unacceptable under their law, so they firstly outsource putting Jesus to death to their Roman occupiers, and secondly refuse to actually enter where the Roman official is, in order that they may participate in their sacred ritual later. The more serious aspect of this is John reminding us again of the time of the year; in the Temple the lambs are being prepared for sacrifice, as Jesus is brought before the judge who will decide whether he lives or dies.

Pontius Pilate is a bone fide historical figure that served as the Roman prefect of the province of Judea under the Emperor Tiberius, from AD 26 – 36. He vanishes from history by AD 37 after losing office, after the Judeans accused him of arrogant, bullying and unpleasant behaviour. His main two policies as prefect appear to have been to firstly keep things as quiet as possible in the tempestuous Middle East (unfortunately things have not changed in this regard much) and secondly to make sure that his subjects, the Judeans, knew who was in charge at all points. Through these two lenses we can understand his actions.

While Pilate was the Roman official responsible for justice in his region, this ‘justice’ seems more pragmatic than anything else. His first thought on the situation is that this is a religious matter, and that he should have nothing to do with it. Pilate may well have known about Jesus already, and been comfortable with the fact that he was not stirring up a military revolution against the Romans. That Jesus was causing issues for the Jewish leaders was not strictly his problem. But the high priests are persistent enough that Pilate reluctantly agrees to interrogate Jesus.

John’s final bracketed line of this passage is highlights two previous verses: 3:14 and 12:32. Jesus said that he would be ‘lifted up’ like the snake in the wilderness (John 3:14), and that when he was lifted up he would bring all people to him (12:32). John is thus able to still include an element of control for Jesus over the whole situation.