Here is your king (part 1)

Political spectacle: these days, the news is full of it. Those who govern battle each other in a contest of wills; they simultaneously court and demean the people they govern; the people themselves are divided. Conflicts are staged in dramatic terms and irony is everywhere.

But in some ways, it’s nothing new. All of this could just as well describe the social world of the New Testament, the world of the gospels themselves.

As we have seen, Pontius Pilate was engaged in a battle of wills with the Jewish leadership. At issue was the question of Jesus’ identity. Could this man really be the “King of the Jews”? If so, what kind of king could he be? Did he constitute any threat to the empire?

At first, Pilate treated the whole matter as cause for ridicule: This man, this peasant, a king? But then he heard that Jesus had claimed to be the Son of God (John 19:7) and began to wonder if there was more going on than he realized. He brought Jesus inside for further interrogation, and became even more convinced that he needed to find a way to convince the crowd to drop the whole sordid affair.

Thus John tells us:

From that moment on, Pilate wanted to release Jesus. However, the Jewish leaders cried out, saying, “If you release this man, you aren’t a friend of the emperor! Anyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes the emperor!” (John 19:12, CEB)

There was, apparently, some additional argument between Pilate and the Jewish leaders that John doesn’t record. The governor left Jesus inside the palace and came out, presumably to “reason” with those who wanted Jesus’ head. But the argument went nowhere. The Jewish leaders played their trump card, probably by design. They knew Pilate all too well — his instinct for self-preservation, his checkered reputation with the emperor. John doesn’t record their making any direct threat, but one is certainly implied: If you let this man go, we’ll tell on you. 

Being a “friend” of the emperor was never a secure status. Emperors (indeed, anyone with that much unilateral power) could be mercurial: you could be part of the in-group one day and the out-group the next. But surely no one wanted to be counted as an enemy, least of all Pilate. That thinly veiled threat put an end to any half-baked plan to get Jesus released.

Pilate sat in the judgment seat and brought Jesus out to face sentencing. John notes the details — the place, the time of day — as if they were somehow seared in memory (there is some controversy here over the differences between John’s narrative and the other gospels on the timing of events). We know that Pilate had already determined Jesus to be innocent. What sentence, therefore, would he pronounce?

Just this: “Here’s your king” (vs. 14).

It’s a strange verdict — but a significant one. John is fond of showing how the players in this political drama smugly believed in their power to shape the course of events, but were blind to the fact that they were following a divinely predetermined script. This man is your king, he seems to say, but you have no idea what that means.

At this point, Pilate was probably still hoping that presenting Jesus as their king might somehow turn the tide. But no. The chief priests had already called for Jesus’ crucifixion (vs. 6), and were not to be denied. Pilate tried one more time: “Do you want me to crucify your king?” (vs. 15).

He emphasized the word “king” to put the onus on them: You handed him over to me because he claimed to be your king. You want me to execute him on the grounds that this makes him an enemy of the state, even though I already told you that I don’t find any guilt in him. Well, then, here you go: I am declaring that he is in fact your king, perhaps the only pitiful kind of king you deserve. So tell me again — you want me to kill your king?

And what came back was the most damning response of all, from the lips of the chief priests themselves.

More on that in the next post.