God often uses negative situations to bring about great good. This is perhaps best seen in Jesus’ crucifixion, where the death of the Son of God brought salvation for all people. But it is also seen in the events leading up to Jesus’ death. John 18:28–19:22 records Jesus’ trial before Pilate and the inscription Pilate placed above the cross. This story is filled with schemes, lies, and compromises, all resulting in Jesus being condemned to death. But out of this very negative situation, God was able to bring about great good. Because the final result of Jesus’ trial was not a victory for the Romans or the Jews. Instead, it was precisely what they had tried to prevent by killing Him: a final, universal declaration that Jesus is King.
During the trial scene, there are three principal characters or groups involved: Jesus, Pilate, and the Jews. Each has a throughline1 during the trial as they react to events and take action, and each has something to teach us. There is much we could say about the Jews and their throughline, how over the course of the trial their zeal to ‘serve God’ by having Jesus killed leads them to reject God as their king and abandon all their moral principles. Their final words in the trial are, “We have no king but Caesar,” (19:15). We watch their descent step-by-step as they do or say anything they can to get Jesus killed. But for the sake of brevity, we’ll focus our time on Pilate and Jesus, which is where the heart of the action lies.
First, we come to Pilate, and his throughline of compromise. During this trial, there is a spiritual war being waged between Jesus and the world. Through his whole ministry, Jesus has been doing the will of the Father and proclaiming the truth—the truth about who He really is, and the truth about his Kingship. The world has been fighting against Jesus and trying to silence that claim. Now, Pilate finds himself caught in the middle of this spiritual battle, needing to make a decision and choose a side.
One thing we need to know about Pilate was that at the time, his career was in a very precarious position. Sejanus, his patron in Rome who had appointed him to the position of Governor, had just been executed by the Roman Emperor. This left Pilate vulnerable, lacking friends in high places to protect him. Also, the Roman Emperor’s policies had recently grown very pro-semitic, meaning he would favour the Jews over Pilate in a dispute. To make matters worse, Pilate already had a record of slip-ups and mistakes in dealing with the Jewish people. At the time of Jesus’ trial, Pilate would have been very insecure about his career, and this certainly influences how he acts on this occasion.
During the trial, Pilate faces a moral dilemma. On the one hand, he knows Jesus is innocent. He says twice, “I find no guilt in him” (18:38; 19:6). Once he starts talking to Jesus, it becomes clear He’s not the zealous revolutionary the Jews claim. Pilate knows the charges are false, and he wants to let Jesus go. However, given his fragile political position, he cannot afford to make the Jews angry—and freeing Jesus would make them very angry. Such a controversy would likely result in Pilate being deposed. So he faces a dilemma, needing to choose between saving his career or the life of an innocent man.
Over the course of the trial, Pilate tries to make a series of compromises, desperately seeking some middle ground where he doesn’t need to make this uncomfortable choice. The first compromise involves the tradition of releasing a prisoner. He says, “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?” (18:39). He offers a legally-acceptable solution that will allow Jesus to go free without punishment. However, the compromise fails, because the Jews demand the release of Barabbas instead (18:40).
Next, Pilate tries to compromise by choosing a lesser sentence. In 19:1–3, he has Jesus flogged. Pilate was probably hoping the Jews would be satisfied after this. He was hoping that once he brought Jesus out to them in such a pitiful state (19:5), they would relent. Instead, this only causes them to double down on their demands for his crucifixion (19:6).
Pilate continues to seek Jesus’ release, going back and forth between talking to the Jews and talking to Jesus, desperately seeking a way out, but finding found. Then, in John 19:12, the Jews play their final card. “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” They directly threaten Pilate’s job. They force him to make a decision, and when it’s all on the line, Pilate gives in and hands Jesus over to be crucified (19:16). He knew what was right, but had delayed too long in doing it, by trying to compromise. So, when the moment arrived, when the spiritual war came to its climax, Pilate found himself standing on the wrong side.
Then, we come to Jesus, and His throughline of kingship. This is where we really see God taking a negative situation and bringing about great good through a series of ironic reversals. Although neither Pilate nor the Jews believe Jesus is a King, His kingship continually takes centre stage throughout the trial: Jesus is called the King of the Jews almost every time He’s mentioned, we see royal imagery applied to Him even when He is flogged, and the final result of the trial is a written declaration of His kingship that was read by all who came to Jerusalem. Entirely contrary to the wills of everyone present—but in accordance with the will of God—Jesus’ eternal kingship was proclaimed for all to see.
When Pilate first speaks to Jesus in 18:33, he asks Him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” The theme takes root at the very start of the trial, and remains at the forefront throughout. Pilate mentions this charge because the Jews had refused to state their charge against Jesus (18:30), and this is Pilate’s best guess. He suspects that Jesus is trying to set Himself up as an earthly king to overthrow Caesar.
Pilate is both right and wrong. Jesus is a King—but not the kind Pilate is expecting. Jesus says in v. 36, “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.” Jesus’ kingdom is from above; it is a spiritual kingdom. Earthly kingdoms are established and maintained through force, but Jesus’ disciples are not fighting for Him, because His kingdom is of a different nature entirely. Jesus is the King of the Jews, but He’s not leading a rebellion against Rome. He is the spiritual King, the Messiah, the Saviour. He delivers them, not from political rulers, but from their sins. Rather than trying to defend Himself against the Jews’ charges, Jesus proclaims to Pilate the nature of His kingship.
Although Pilate dismisses Jesus’ attempts to reach him (v. 38), Jesus’ kingship remains central for the rest of the trial. From there onward, almost every time Pilate or his soldiers refer to Jesus, they call Him, “the King of the Jews” (18:39; 19:3, 14, 15, 19). Pilate doesn’t do this because he believes it to be true—but God’s will is working through this situation. Pilate does it largely to annoy the Jews, because they detest having Him called their king. It’s the principle reason they want Him crucified, so they can silence forever His blasphemous claims to be the Messiah.
Likewise, even when Pilate has Jesus beaten, the imagery of kingship remains central. John records, “The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’” (John 19:2–3).
But the theme of kingship finds its ultimate fulfillment directly after the trial. Jesus carries His cross to Golgotha, where He is crucified with a criminal on either side. Pilate places a final inscription over Jesus’ cross that reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (19:19). The high priests had pressured Pilate into crucifying Jesus against his own will. Although he had conceded to their demands, he had no desire to please them. Through this inscription, Pilate takes one final opportunity to antagonize the Jews. However, by the will of God, this simple inscription accomplishes so much more than that. This took place during the Passover, so all the Jews had to come to Jerusalem. And as they did, they saw Jesus and the inscription over His cross. In 19:20, John records that many Jews saw this inscription, for it was written in Greek, the lingua franca of the day; Aramaic, the common language of the Jews; and Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire. This final proclamation of Jesus’ kingship is seen and read by all who pass by. Being written in these three languages, this proclamation—like Jesus’ kingship—is universal. The chief priests had worked tirelessly to silence Jesus and deny His kingship. They had thought that by killing Him, they could finally stifle these claims. And yet, in John’s perfect irony, it was that very death that provided the means and occasion for this most universal proclamation of all.
The chief priests do not approve of this inscription, and they tell Pilate to write instead that Jesus claimed to be the King of the Jews (v. 21). But with God’s will working through the situation, the inscription stands. Pilate answers, “What I have written I have written” (v. 22). This declaration of Jesus’ kingship—not the decision to crucify Jesus—is the result of all the compromising, scheming and plotting. Jesus truly is the king of the Jews, the king of the whole world, and the king of our lives. By the end of the trial, though neither Pilate nor the Jews believed it, this eternal truth stood plainly written for all to see.
What does this mean for our lives today? The first application is that we cannot remain neutral in the spiritual battle that wages around us. Like Pilate, everyone is on one side or the other, whether they realize it or not. When we try to remain neutral by making compromises with the world, we only deceive ourselves. If we choose to follow God, then we must serve Him with all our hearts.
Compromises with the world can take many forms. They can be internal, when we choose to adopt the world’s values, as Pilate did when he valued his career above justice. They can also be external, when we choose not to stand up for the truth, or when we live by the morals of the world so as to fit in. It is reflected in how we spend our time and money, and in what we think about. We face much opposition from the world today, and neutrality can appear an enticing solution. But as Pilate discovered, we cannot remain neutral about Jesus. We must choose a side and commit to it fully. Everyone will be forced to make this decision eventually, but the more time we spend compromising, the more likely it is that we, like Pilate, will come down on the wrong side.
Second, as seen through this whole passage, Jesus is king. He is the King of the Jews, the Messiah, who has saved His people. He is the King of the world, seen in the universal nature of Pilate’s proclamation. And He is the King of our lives, ruling over everything we say and do. Jesus is the King, and the King must reign. Do our lives reflect His kingship? Is Jesus ruling in our hearts?
One day, Jesus will reign over all, whether they have accepted Him or not. But today, we have the choice of willingly and joyfully accepting His kingship for our lives. Jesus’ kingship is not a heavy burden, like the sort of kingship that belongs to the world, because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. But it does require us to give everything we have. If Jesus is to be King in our lives, then He must be King over all, because there can be no compromise. We must surrender every part of our lives to His lordship, and live each day to serve Him. Therefore, let us seek to make our every thought, word and action devoted to Him. Let us glorify Him in all that we do.
All praise and honour to our eternal King!
1 A Throughline: a common or consistent element or theme shared by items in a series or by parts of a whole. Merriam Dictionary