Pawn vs. king

The chess match is on. The chief priests make the first move, hauling Jesus before Pontius Pilate, trying to maneuver the governor into ordering a state execution. Pilate, in response, tries to find a way to both satisfy Jesus’ enemies and get Jesus released at the same time.

Through all of this, Jesus is largely mute. He doesn’t protest; he doesn’t defend himself (see Isa 53:7; Acts 8:32). The idea of his being the “King of the Jews” is only cause for mockery. This man, a king? He is more like a pawn to be sacrificed to either side’s end game.

At least, that’s how both Pilate and the chief priests seem to see the situation.

The pawn, however, has other ideas.

As we saw in the previous post, the news that Jesus has claimed to be the Son of God puts Pilate in a new and unsettling position: there’s more happening here than meets his jaded political eye. But that’s not to say that he understands what’s truly at stake, nor that he is ready to relax and stop trying to win the game.

He brings Jesus back inside the Praetorium and interrogates him again. This time, there is more urgency to Pilate’s questioning:

He went back into the residence and spoke to Jesus, “Where are you from?” Jesus didn’t answer. So Pilate said, “You won’t speak to me? Don’t you know that I have authority to release you and also to crucify you?” Jesus replied, “You would have no authority over me if it had not been given to you from above. That’s why the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin.” (John 19:9-11, CEB)

“Where are you from?” The question continues part of their earlier conversation; Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was from somewhere else, without saying where. And indeed, Jesus’ origin is the question in John’s gospel. His opponents have steadfastly refused to acknowledge that he has been sent by the Father. Even his disciples have been slow to believe, and it is their long-awaited confession that he has indeed come from God that seems to set the final drama of Jesus’ passion in motion (John 16:30).

So what answer could Jesus give that Pilate would understand or accept? The governor seems to be grasping at straws, imploring Jesus to give him something, anything to work with. But Jesus remains silent, and Pilate seems flustered. He has some vague, disturbing sense that Jesus is more than just a pawn, but still treats him as if he were merely a prisoner of the empire. Talk to me, fool. I hold the power of life or death over you.

Finally, Jesus answers. His last words to Pilate suggest what the governor already suspects: his power and authority in this situation is nowhere near absolute. Yes, Pilate, you can order my crucifixion. But you wouldn’t even be able to do that if it wasn’t what God intended. 

Jesus tells him that his actions, while morally wrong, are of less consequence than those of, say, Judas or Caiaphas (scholars disagree as to whom Jesus is saying has the “greater sin”). On the one hand, that’s rather gracious coming from the one who’s supposed to be the pawn in this life-or-death struggle.

On the other hand, it also implies a question which Pilate may be loath to answer: Who’s really the pawn here?

And as we’ll see in the next post, all of this may be just another instance of how John wants us to read the story at two levels: there is the drama happening on the ground, and there is the cosmic drama that neither Pilate nor Jesus’ opponents see.

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