John 18:1-11: With John 18 and 19 we get this gospel’s rendition of the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. There is a great deal of shared material with the other gospels, and some distinct Johannine touches which we will point out. I will repeat some of the reflection presented before about the significance of the death of Jesus.
John does not name the garden where Jesus and the disciples go after he prays for them, only noting that it is a place that would have been familiar to Judas. Judas comes with a detachment of soldiers and police, not the crowds of the other gospels. The authorities are religious and political. Jesus will be in control throughout this telling of the story. He always “knows” what is going to happen and he allows it to happen. John is making a theological statement about Jesus, about his own self-giving, his laying down his life for others. It is not as if this theme is not present in the other gospels, but there Jesus struggles more with a fate he is sure awaits him. Here he willing gives himself with the confidence that good will come out of it. John’s theology is reinforced by Jesus words, “I Am” – hearkening back to the phrase in Exodus where God is identified as “I Am Who I Am.” Jesus identifies himself, he is not betrayed by a kiss.
As in the other gospels, a sword is drawn and an ear cut off. Here Peter is identified as the wielder of the sword, and the slave is also given a name. Jesus tells Peter to stop. In the other gospels there is a hint that Jesus finds the violence not in keeping with who he is and with his understanding of the Kingdom of God. Here, drawing the sword is seen as useless, for there is a plan and Jesus is moving forward in it.
John 18:12-14: Religious and political police powers collaborate in arresting Jesus and he is taken to Annas, the father-in-law of the current high priest. There will be no “formal” trial by Jewish authorities in John’s telling of the story. Some have argued that the entire first part of the gospel (chapter 2-12) are written as if Jesus were on trial – signs are done and witnesses presented, and the verdict is that Jesus is who he says he is, one sent by God to glorify (“to glorify is to make visible the presence of God” New Interpreters Study Bible). “The Jews” in John have not been willing to pay attention to that verdict, so John does not offer an extended Jewish trial here.
John 18:15-18: In the other gospels, Peter’s denials of Jesus come all together, here they are interspersed in the narrative. Peter has come with another disciple, unnamed, to the high priest’s courtyard. It is the scene of the first denial of Jesus by Peter. That one of the disciples knew the high priest may be an indication that this person was a somewhat important Jew at the time, thus undercutting John’s often negative assessment of many Jews. Peter’s language “I am not” is a wonderful contrast to Jesus’ “I Am.” John provides a stark contrast.
John 18:19-24: Jesus is questioned and responds by stating that he has always taught openly and that there are witnesses to that. John uses “trial” language in the midst of what seems an informal hearing. Jesus is perceived as impudent and struck for it. He maintains he is innocent of wrong-doing.
John 18:25-27: Meanwhile, back at the fire, Peter is asked about being a disciple and he denies it. Again, this is a wonderful literary construct. Jesus is inside testifying openly, telling the high priest that he has taught in public all along. Peter is outside denying that he was one of Jesus’ followers.
John 18:28-40: Here we have the first part of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. While John gives short shrift to any legal proceedings among Jewish officials, he write more extensively about the trial before Pilate. Jesus trial before Pilate is the centerpiece and dramatic climax of the story of Jesus’ hour. There is nothing parallel to its scope or literary artistry in the trial narratives of the synoptic gospels. (New Interpreters Study Bible). Throughout the narrative, the world supposes it has placed Jesus on trial and condemned him by its own criteria. In this ironic scene, John reveals to the reader that it is “the world” that is on trial, and that in condemning Jesus it condemns itself. (People’s New Testament Commentary).
The Jewish officials who deliver Jesus to Pilate are careful to avoid entering his headquarters so that they can stay ritually pure for the Passover. Talk about irony! Pilate asks for charges, and the initial response is laughable – if he were not guilty of something would we have brought him to you. Christian concern for due process in a fair legal system could be motivated strongly by such a passage. Not only are they vague about the charges, but they tell Pilate that the man, Jesus, deserves the death penalty, but they are unable to render it. True, the Jews may have been able to stone Jesus for blasphemy (this is uncertain), but for him to be crucified required Roman authority (hence, verse 32).
So Pilate questions Jesus. “Are you the King of the Jews?” The question seems to come from nowhere, but in the context of the time it makes more sense. The Jewish authorities who have brought Jesus to Pilate have claimed that he deserved the death penalty. That may have been a backhanded way of claiming that Jesus was a political subversive. In their sincere religious understanding, Jesus was a dangerous threat to religion and society, who by biblical and Jewish law merited the death penalty. They are no more evil than other advocates of the death penalty as a means of preserving the values of their religion and society. (People’s New Testament Commentary). Christian concern for the death penalty could be motivated strongly by this passage.
The dialogue that follows between Jesus and Pilate is rich. Pilate tries to be evasive, he is not a Jew, why should he be involved in this? Jesus does not shy away from the claim to be a king, but he is a different kind of king. He is not a military threat to Rome or the other authorities. If he were that kind of threat, his followers would be fighting in the streets. He is a different kind of king, with a different kind of kingdom. But we ought not to deny that he is still a threat, especially to a Roman imperial theology that saw the emperor as both a political and spiritual leader, ruling by the power of the gods. Jesus proclaims a different God and a different meaning of peace and authority. Jesus' kingdom is not “from” this world, is not based in Roman imperial values, but comes from the truth. Pilate’s words here show him evading and avoiding. “What is truth?” The question is legitimate and powerful in many contexts. Here, however, it is used to keep truth at a distance. Does our own theological questioning sometime mask an attempt not to deal with hard truths about our lives?
Pilate tells those who have brought Jesus that he finds no case against him, and reminds them of a custom that he release a prisoner every year at the time of Passover. Should he release Jesus? They ask instead for one Barabbas – a thief, a bandit, a revolutionary (it could be any of these). Scholars contend that it is unlikely that there was a custom to release a prisoner at this time. This custom is not documented outside the Gospels. It is historically unlikely that a governor would release an accused terrorist in the midst of a patriotic festival. (People’s New Testament Commentary) If this is so, why has such a story become a part of the gospel narratives? Maybe each writer, in his own way, was making the point that we often chose something that immediately satisfies over something that while challenging our lives brings us life. If Barabbas were an insurrectionist, his thumbing his nose at Rome would have been blatant. And he may have done that without also calling his fellow Jews to a different way of life. Jesus challenged Rome just as strongly, but he also challenged the Jews to live their faith differently, to think about God’s dream for the world differently. Barabbas challenged the oppression of Rome. Jesus challenged oppression in whatever form it presented itself, even if it was religious.