John’s Gospel: Chapter 19:1-18 (“We have no king but Caesar!”)

(John 19:1 ESV) Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him.

“Flogged” doesn’t really care the sense of the Greek. Jesus was whipped so severely that he nearly died.

The translators of the NET Bible explain —

Three forms of corporal punishment were employed by the Romans, in increasing degree of severity: (1) fustigatio (beating), (2) flagellatio (flogging), and (3) verberatio (severe flogging, scourging). The first could be on occasion a punishment in itself, but the more severe forms were part of the capital sentence as a prelude to crucifixion. The most severe, verberatio, is what is indicated here by the Greek verb translated flogged severely (μαστιγόω, mastigoo). People died on occasion while being flogged this way; frequently it was severe enough to rip a person’s body open or cut muscle and sinew to the bone. It was carried out with a whip that had fragments of bone or pieces of metal bound into the tips.

Pilate seems to have been attempting to save Jesus’ life by brutalizing him nearly to the point of death, hoping this would satisfy the bloodlust of the crowd.

(John 19:2-3 ESV)  2 And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe.  3 They came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands.

Pilate added mockery to the physical torture.

(John 19:4-5 ESV)  4 Pilate went out again and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.”  5 So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!”

Odd, isn’t it, that Pilate would order such brutality against a guiltless man. It’s easy to see how the crowd was not persuaded.

Remember: the reason Pilate was involved is that Rome insisted on the exclusive “power of the sword,” that is, the exclusive right to capital punishment, because Rome considered its legal system and justice vastly superior to that of its subjugated people.

And yet Pilate felt compelled to let his subjects decide whether to execute Jesus — exactly contrary to the role of a Roman governor. He acted as the most venal of politicians rather than as an example of Rome’s supposedly superior sense of justice.

“Behold the man” was an unintentional reference to this prophecy of the Messiah —

(Zec 6:12-13 ESV)  12 And say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Behold, the man whose name is the Branch: for he shall branch out from his place, and he shall build the temple of the LORD.  13 It is he who shall build the temple of the LORD and shall bear royal honor, and shall sit and rule on his throne. And there shall be a priest on his throne, and the counsel of peace shall be between them both.”‘

Evidently, Pilate’s intention was to show that Jesus had been punished enough, and so avoid a crucifixion. But if that’s so, he seriously misunderstood the crowd’s mood —

(John 19:6-8 ESV)  6 When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.”  7 The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.”  8 When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid.

Pilate’s declaration: “Take him yourselves and crucify him” was not an authorization to actually do that, or else the leaders would not have continued to insist that Pilate execute Jesus. Rather, Pilate seems to be sarcastic, even dismissive.

But the Jewish leaders insisted that their law required that Jesus be killed because he claimed to be “the Son of God.” “Son of God” is a title that the Roman emperors claimed for themselves, because beginning with Augustus, each emperor deified his father, making himself a son of a god.

Whether Pilate was afraid of the crowds or afraid of the political repercussions is unclear. John seems right to conclude the Pilate was acting out of fear. In fact, he appears to be every bit the coward. After all, he was backed by the might of Rome. If he wanted to free Jesus, he surely could have done so.

(John 19:9-11 ESV)  9 He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer.  10 So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?”  11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.”

Amazingly, despite his weakness, even cowardice, and having just had Jesus scourged and mocked, Jesus says the real fault here is from the Jewish leaders who accuse him.

Pilate’s authority comes from God, and his job is to provide justice — Roman justice — but justice nonetheless. And Pilate has been dealt a difficult hand.

(John 19:12 ESV)  12 From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.”

Finally, the Jewish leaders made the accusation that forces Pilate’s hand. “Son of God” is an ambiguous claim, but to say that Jesus “makes himself a king” in opposition to Caesar puts Pilate in an impossible situation.

He thinks Jesus is innocent, but he’s admitted to claiming to be a king, although a spiritual king of some sort. And if word were to get to Herod or Caesar that Pilate has been weak in the face of treason, he’d lose his job — and perhaps his life.

Therefore, Pilate makes the easy choice. He chooses to protect himself.

(John 19:13-14 ESV)  13 So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha.  14 Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!”

Pilate seems to be playing political theatre. He subjects Jesus to their ridicule, sitting on a virtual throne.

The judgment seat (βῆμα, bema) was a raised platform mounted by steps and usually furnished with a seat. It was used by officials in addressing an assembly or making official
pronouncements, often of a judicial nature.

John notes the time of day because it ties Jesus’ death to the Passover —

For John, the time was especially important. When the note concerning the hour, about noon, is connected with the day, the day of preparation for the Passover, it becomes apparent that Jesus was going to die on the cross at the very time that the Passover lambs were being slain in the temple courts. Exo 12:6 required that the Passover lamb be kept alive until the 14th Nisan, the eve of the Passover, and then slaughtered by the head of the household at twilight (Grk “between the two evenings”). By this time the slaughtering was no longer done by the heads of households, but by the priests in the temple courts. But so many lambs were needed for the tens of thousands of pilgrims who came to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast (some estimates run in excess of 100,000 pilgrims) that the slaughter could not be completed during the evening, and so the rabbis redefined “between the two evenings” as beginning at noon, when the sun began to decline toward the horizon. Thus the priests had the entire afternoon of 14th Nisan in which to complete the slaughter of the Passover lambs. According to the Fourth Gospel, this is the time Jesus was dying on the cross.

The Jewish leaders were not satisfied with Pilate’s treatment of Jesus.

(John 19:15 ESV)  15 They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”

Of all people, the chief priests should know that they were uttering blasphemy. You see, in Jewish thought, the king of Israel is God (Psa 89:19; Isa 33:22)! By rejecting Jesus, the leaders were rejecting God.

(John 19:16-18 ESV)  16 So he delivered him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus,  17 and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha.  18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.

The Romans held their crucifixions in very public places, to make certain the masses were properly terrified of Roman might. However, the Jews insisted on conducting executions outside the city walls. Death might make someone unclean.

Jesus was surely crucified on Mt. Moriah, just outside the city gates — not far from where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac and God himself provided a substitute sacrifice.

(I don’t know if Bach intended this result, but to me, this piece reflects the sadness of chapter 19.)

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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