‘Are you the King of the Jews?’

The Text: John 18:33-39


Every Christian has a calling to publicly confess and speak of our faith in Christ and our faith in the Triune God, before others, before the world and even before governors and kings. This confession the Church in our day is called to make—our confession of faith—goes right back to the Lord Jesus himself.

So let’s take a closer look at this good confession that Jesus himself makes, as we heard in our Gospel reading.

We encounter Jesus here in the middle of his trial, before Pontius Pilate. There has been this back and forth with the religious leaders outside, but now we’re inside, behind closed doors, and the focus is very much just on Jesus and Pilate.

Pilate wants to cut straight to the chase, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’

But like he often does Jesus is not too keen on answering questions directly. He responds in this sort of cryptic way, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ He immediately shifts the conversation onto his terms and it’s almost as if Pilate is the one under interrogation.

It seems that Jesus is trying to get back behind Pilate’s tough, matter-of-fact demeanor, and dig deeper, trying to engage Pilate about what really matters.

It reminds me a little of the way Jesus speaks to his disciples elsewhere: “What about you? Who do you say that I am?”

We can’t keep Jesus at arms-length forever and only be interested in information about him. It must become personal at some point, and Pilate, whether he like it or not, is having that encounter.

But Pilate doesn’t respond well. He is dismissive and scornful of Jesus’ question. It’s as if he’s saying, ‘Of course it’s others who have told me, I don’t care about your little Jewish squabbles, I’m not personally interested in whether you’re the king of the Jews or not, except that it’s beginning to cause me political problems and I want to sort it out. So–what have you done Jesus?

Again Jesus answers in an indirect and somewhat cryptic way, saying: ‘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 other Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here’.

Now why does Jesus answer like this? 

Pilate gets the implication. “So you are a King?” he says. For Jesus to say he has a kingdom is to admit he is a King. But perhaps Jesus answers like this because he knows that old rule of discussion and debate, about the need to define one’s terms. Pilate wants to talk about kingship, but he has in mind a very particular definition of what it means to be a King, which is about political strength, military action, and this worldly power.

And although Jesus is the true King, He is such a different sort of King. His kingdom has such a different character, that he can hardly name it as the same thing Pilate has in mind.

It comes from a whole other world, from above, from heaven, from God. And one thing this means then, that Jesus outlines here, is that his kingdom does not come and does not advance itself by human strength, not by political power and military might, and especially not by violence.

Jesus wants Pilate to consider that, if he were a King like the kings of this world, wouldn’t his followers be rising up in violent rebellion?

And yet they’re not! In fact when one of them did, Jesus stopped him and healed the one he had struck, because he’s an entirely different King, with an entirely different sort of Kingdom.

Now after this incredible statement it’s tragic that Pilate seems to miss all that and go back to the basic question, ‘So you are a King’. Pilate isn’t interested in these deeper questions and the nature of Jesus’ Kingdom, he just wants to work out if Jesus is claiming to be a King or not, and he wants to get on with the job.

But Jesus, in his graciousness and patience, comes at it from another angle, describing his Kingship and kingdom in another way. ‘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’.

Yes—Jesus is a king. And Jesus has a kingdom. But its primary concern is not land and wealth. It’s not bigger palaces and more luxury for the King and his court.

But notice this too, it’s primary concern is not in the first place even just making the lives of its subjects ‘better’ in worldly terms.

The primary concern of this King and this kingdom is truth, Jesus says. He’s come to testify to what’s real and what’s true.

Now this evidently grated with Pilate, as much as it still does with people in our day. Our human instinct is toward being pragmatic, even at the expense of the truth, finding what works, what’s relevant for me now today. But truth—well that can be in the too hard basket.

And this is also the temptation for us in the Church. It’s good for us to remember that although the Christian faith brings practical benefits in our lives, ultimately no one should be or become a Christian just because it works for them, but because it’s true.

Pilate’s final response though is the most dismissive and tragic of them all: ‘What is truth?’ And he simply walks away.

And yet Pilate’s encounter with Jesus had meant enough for him to be able to go back out and say, ‘I find no case against him.’

Although Pilate eventually let them have their way and crucify Jesus, his encounters with Jesus did mean enough that the inscription above him on the cross read ‘This is the King of Jews’, and Pilate would say, again somewhat mysteriously and cryptically: ‘what I have written, I have written’.

Little did Pilate know that the one in front of him was not only the true King of the Jews, but the very Son of God in human flesh, come to save the world.

Little did Pilate know, that the one who said he came to testify to the truth, was in fact himself the way, the truth, and the life, who came from heaven to earth, full of grace and truth.

Little did Pilate know that the one he sent to be crucified, had come to lay down his life for the Jews. For Pilate, for the world…and for each one of us.

And as he died and rose again from the dead, as he ascended to his Father, he has ushered in this kingdom, and has invited us into it. Jesus made his good confession before Pilate, as he went the way of the Cross for us. Let us be prepared to make our good confession before the world, of Christ, our King, the crucified and risen Saviour of the world. Amen.