33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. 39 But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” 40 They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber. – John 18:33-40 ESV
It doesn’t take long to recognize that Pilate, the Roman governor, has no clue as to the seriousness or scope of what is taking place outside his headquarters. His early morning routine has been interrupted by a contingent of angry Jewish religious leaders who are demanding the execution of one of their own people. Pilate, whose official residence was in Caesarea, the capital of the Roman province of Judea, has traveled to Jerusalem because of the Jewish Feast of Passover. This was one of the most well-attended of all the Jewish festivals, attracting pilgrims from all over the world. As a precaution, the Romans tended to increase their military presence in order to quell any trouble that might occur. So, Pilate was in town to ensure that the proceedings were peaceful and non-eventful. The last thing he would have wanted was a riot on his hands.
So, when the religious leaders showed up outside his door with a prisoner in tow, he was forced to give it his full attention. But it seems obvious that he saw the situation as nothing more than an internecine religious dispute that had nothing to do with Rome. He even demanded that they judge the man according to their own law. But the men who had dragged the beaten and disheveled Jesus to Pilate’s doorstep were not going to be satisfied by a sentence of ex-communication. They were seeking execution.
Leaving the Jewish leaders outside, Pilate entered his residence and had Jesus brought before him. In an attempt to get to the bottom of the matter, Pilate asked Jesus a series of short but direct questions.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” – vs. 33
“Am I a Jew?” – vs. 35
“What have you done?” – vs. 35
“So you are a king?” – vs. 36
“What is truth?” – vs. 38
Pilate’s line of questioning was directed at determining the identity of Jesus. He needed to know who this man was and what He had done to cause such an uproar among the religious leaders of Israel. Since the first question that Pilate posed had to do with kingship, it is apparent that the Jews had communicated Jesus’ claim to be the King of Jews.
Matthew records that during Jesus’ interrogation before the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas, the high priest had said to Him, “I demand in the name of the living God—tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (Matthew 26:63 NLT). And when Jesus had answered in the affirmative, His fate was sealed. They declared Him to be a blasphemer for having declared Himself to be equal with God. But knowing that the Roman governor would have no interest in Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah and the Son of God, the Jews put their charges in terms that would get Pilate’s full attention. This man was claiming to be the King of the Jews.
One of the greatest concerns of the Romans was any form of insurrection or uprising. So, a Jew claiming to be the rightful King of Israel was a potential problem that had to be addressed quickly and effectively. But Pilate, more curious than concerned, asked Jesus to confirm the charge against Him.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” – John 18:33 ESV
He was looking for a simple “Yes” or “No” answer. But instead, Jesus responds with a question of His own: “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” (John 18:34 ESV). Jesus doesn’t confirm or deny His kingship. He asks Pilate whether his question is based on personal curiosity or professional protocol. Was Pilate really interested in knowing if Jesus was the King of the Jews or was he simply reiterating the charges of the Sanhedrin?
But Jesus was not really looking for a response because He already knew the answer. Pilate, as a Roman, had no interest in whether Jesus was the legitimate king of the Jews or not. In his mind, Caesar was not only the king but his boss as well. And his job was to protect Caesar’s interests in Judea. And Pilate responds to Jesus with a tone of incredulity and disdain.
“Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” – John 18:35 ESV
What Pilate failed to understand was that Jesus truly was the King of the Jews. But not only that, He Pilate’s King as well. This royal prefect was staring into the face of the King of kings and Lord of lords. He was in the company of true royalty. Yes, Jesus’ face was bloodied and bruised, His clothes were disheveled, and His hands were bound, but He was no less a King.
And Jesus affirms and clarifies the nature of His kingship by declaring, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 ESV). In a sense, Jesus assuaged any concerns Pilate might have had. Caesar had nothing to fear from Jesus or His kingdom because it was of a different kind. His kingdom was other-worldly.
“If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” – John 18:36 ESV
In His high priestly prayer, recorded in chapter 17, Jesus made a declarative statement concerning His disciples:
“they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” – John 17:14-16 ESV
And now, He tells Pilate that if His kingdom was of this world, His followers would be mounting an insurrection to set their King free. But He alone stood before Pilate. There were no riots in the streets. There were no enraged followers pounding down the doors of Pilate’s residence demanding the release of their rightful King. And yet, Jesus was still affirming His kingship and His right to rule and reign.
But before Jesus could sit on His throne, He would have to hang on a cross. He had come to be “lifted up” but not on a royal dais wearing flowing robes and a jewel-encrusted crown. No, He would have His garments stripped from Him and a crown of thorns mockingly placed on His head. And just hours later, Pilate himself would command that a sign be placed above the head of Jesus as He hung on the cross. It would read: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19 ESV).
Pilate, clueless as to what Jesus was talking about, simply responds: “So you are a king?” (John 18;37 ESV). He had no time or interest in discussing the nature of Jesus’ kingdom. All he wanted to know was if the charge against Jesus was accurate. Did Jesus consider Himself to be the King of Jews? And, once again, rather than answer Pilate directly, Jesus somewhat cryptically responds:
“You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” – John 18:37 ESV
Jesus seems to be saying that Pilate’s use of the term “king” was laden with all kinds of misconceptions and misunderstandings. He and Pilate were talking on two different levels and the governor was incapable of understanding what Jesus was saying to him.
Pilate was stuck on the earthly topic of kingship. All he wanted to know was if Jesus was a real threat to Rome’s authority in the region. Had this obscure Rabbi from Nazareth been trying to mount an insurrection and establish Himself as the King of Israel? If so, then Pilate would have to deal with this threat quickly and effectively.
But Jesus claims that He was born into the world for a different kind of purpose. He was of the lineage and line of King David and therefore, the rightful heir to the throne. But He had come into the world to “bear witness to the truth.”
In the opening chapter of his gospel, John declared, “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16-17 ESV). Jesus came to earth in order to declare the truth regarding God’s plan of salvation. He was the embodiment of that truth. He had later declared of Himself, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV).
And Jesus confirms to Pilate that, while He was a King, He had not come to earth to set up an earthly Kingdom. He had come to reveal the truth about how sinful humanity could be made right with God. And this offer of redemption and restoration was available to “everyone.”
He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. – John 1:11-12 NLT
“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16 NLT
Pilate was standing face-to-face with the truth of God but didn’t realize it. So, he was left asking the question: “What is truth?” (John 18:38 ESV). The very “truth” that could set him free was standing right in front of him but all Pilate saw was a Jewish Rabbi bound with ropes and facing charges of insurrection.
So, he walked back out to Jesus’ accusers and announced, “I find no guilt in him. But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:38-39 ESV). Hoping to diffuse the situation, Pilate offered what he believed to be a viable option. Since he could find no legally viable reason to put Jesus to death, he offered to release him as a gesture of goodwill. But he made the mistake of referring to Jesus as “the King of the Jews.” And this unintended slight infuriated the Sanhedrin, leading them to demand the release of a common criminal named Barabbas. They preferred a convicted felon over the Savior of the world. The one who had been declared guiltless would take the place of the guilty.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.