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John 18:33-38 meaning

Pilate's First Interview with Jesus and his First Declaration of Innocence: Pilate enters the Praetorium and summons Jesus to investigate the charges brought against Him by the Jewish leaders. He focuses on the charge of insurrection, asking "Are You the King of the Jews?" Before He answers, Jesus asks a probing question to see Pilate's intent. After Pilate responds, Jesus elaborates that His kingdom is not of this world. Pilate, a bit confused, asks Jesus to clarify. Jesus states His purpose and that He is the king of truth. Pilate scoffs: "What is truth?", before exiting the Praetorium and announcing his verdict to the Jews outside. Jesus is not guilty of insurrection. This event is part of the first phase of Jesus's Civil Trial. It is known as Jesus's Arraignment before Pilate.

The parallel Gospel accounts of this event are found in Matthew 27:11-14, Mark 15:2-5, Luke 23:3-7.

These events are the continuation of the first phase of Jesus's civil trial. The first phase of Jesus's civil trial is called "Jesus's Arraignment before Pilate." This scripture details Pilate's interview with Jesus as recorded by John. The happenings of this account took place mostly inside the Praetorium (likely Herod's Palace which was built on the western side of the upper city along the city wall). 

This event happened while it was early in the morning (likely before 7:00 am). According to the Jewish calendar, the date was likely Nisan 15—the first day of Unleavened Bread. By Roman reckoning the day was probably a Friday.

To learn more about the timing and sequencing of these events, see The Bible Says' "Timeline: Jesus's Final 24 Hours." 

Jesus's Civil Trial occurred over the course of three phases.

  1. Jesus's Arraignment before Pilate (Matthew 27:1-2, 11-14, Mark 15:1-5, Luke 23:1-7, John 18:28-38)
  2. Jesus's Audience before Herod Antipas (Luke 23:8-12)
  3. Pilate's Judgment (Matthew 27:15-26, Mark 15:6-15, Luke 23:13-25, John 18:38 - 19:16)

The Jews Accused Jesus Before Pilate
Jesus's Civil Trial began with the Jews bringing Jesus from His sunrise trial under the supervision of Caiaphas at the temple where He was condemned to death on the religious charge of blasphemy to Pilate at the Praetorium (Matthew 27:1-2, Mark 1:15, Luke 22:66 - 23:1, John 18:28). 

The Praetorium was where the first and third phases of Jesus's civil trial was held. It was the Jerusalem residence and office of the Roman governor of Judea. The Praetorium was located in the western side of the upper city along the city wall. Inside was a luxurious fortress-palace built by Herod the Great. Because it was constructed under Herod, the Praetorium is sometimes called "Herod's Palace." Its judgment hall, with its paved court and judgment seat, were built on the outer side of the city wall and was likely canopied. Ruins of the Praetorium can be visited at the time this commentary is written (2023). 

Pilate opened the trial asking for the Jewish leaders to state their accusation and evidence against Jesus (John 18:29). The Jews gave an unacceptable answer (John 18:30) possibly because their star witness (Judas) had recently hanged himself (Matthew 27:3-5). At that point Pilate seemed ready to toss the case, telling them to "judge Him according to your own laws" (John 18:31a). 

The religious leaders explained that they were unable to judge Him because Rome did not permit them to put anyone to death (John 18:32b). Pilate seems to have then allowed them to resubmit their case. At this point, the religious leaders accused Jesus of three things:

  1. "We found this man misleading our nation…" (Luke 23:2a)
  2.  "and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar…" (Luke 23:2b)
  3. "and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King" (Luke 23:2c).

The first charge was that Jesus was a public nuisance because His teachings upset the status quo and threatened the fragile stability and order Rome desired. Depending on the severity of this crime, the penalty under Roman law could be death. 

The second charge claimed that Jesus was instructing the people to rebel against Roman authority by not paying their taxes. This charge was a total lie (see Matthew 22:15-22). It was a charge of sedition and likely carried the death penalty under Roman law. 

The third charge was that Jesus was challenging Caesar's political authority as the sovereign ruler of Judea. It was the charge of insurrection; and it was the most serious charge. Under Roman law the penalty for insurrection was death.

Pilate Interviews Jesus
Such charges, especially the charge of insurrection, required the Roman governor to take them seriously. But without a witness (like Jesus's disciple Judas) to testify, Pilate would have to interview Jesus personally. All four Gospels record that this is precisely what he did next (Matthew 27:11, Mark 14:2, Luke 23:3, John 18:33-38). Of the four Gospel accounts of Pilate's first interview of Jesus, John's is the most extensive. 

Therefore Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus (v 33a).

The word Therefore indicates that the reason Pilate entered the Praetorium again was because the Jews had no evidence for their accusations. Because the charges were serious and carried deadly consequences, Pilate summoned Jesus to personally interview Him himself away from His accusers. 

This interview took place inside the Praetorium, which means it was removed from Jesus's Jewish interrogators who remained outside so they would not defile themselves (John 18:28). The Man whom Pilate was about to interview was by now a pitiable sight. Jesus had been beaten, slapped, spit-on, and His beard yanked out by the Jews in the hours leading up to this early morning (Isaiah 50:6, Matthew 26:67-68, Mark 14:65, Luke 22:63-65, John 18:22)

Pilate said to Jesus, "Are You the King of the Jews?" (v 33b)

Pilate pursued the third and most serious of the three charges recorded by Luke (Luke 23:2)— the charge of insurrection. 

The three synoptic Gospels record, and possibly summarize, Jesus's response to Pilate's question: "It is as you say" (Matthew 27:11, Mark 15:2, Luke 23:3). 

John records that Jesus responded to Pilate's question with a probing question of His own.

Jesus answered, "Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?"

Before Jesus answered Pilate's question, He respectfully wanted to understand the place it was coming from. Jesus wanted to know whether or not Pilate was genuinely asking this for himself—his own initiative—or if the governor was merely rephrasing the Jewish Council's charge (Luke 23:2). 

Everyone who comes to, and believes in, the Son of God does so (paradoxically) both from his own initiative, as well as at the invitation of God's grace. Others may tell us about and bring us to Jesus, but in order to know Him, our interaction must be authentic and personal and not disingenuous or parroted. Pilate had now heard that Jesus was the King of the Jews, and accordingly was asking Jesus about His identity—but was he asking sincerely or superficially? Pilate's intent was what Jesus wanted to ascertain (and wanted Pilate to be aware for his own sake) before He answered the governor's question. 

God takes our questions seriously. He often answers them according to their intent rather than how we present them with our words (Romans 8:26-27). If our intent is impure we are unlikely to understand His answers. This is part of why only the pure in heart will see God (Matthew 5:8)—those with insincere initiatives do not seek Him or ask the kinds of questions intended to seek to know Him by faith. And when they get answers they don't understand, they lack faith to gain wisdom so that they can know Him (James 1:6-8). 

Pilate seemed neither to fully understand or be particularly interested in Jesus's question. 

Pilate answered, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?" (v 35).

His response revealed that Pilate's question was not genuine. He was asking this on the basis of what others told him about Jesus

What Pilate responded was that he was not asking if Jesus was a king from the viewpoint of a Jew, but as a Roman governor, whose job was to protect and represent the sovereignty of Caesar. 

Pilate reminded Jesus that he did not care to consider the question from a Jewish perspective, and if he did consider it from a Jewish perspective Jesus would already be condemned because Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me. Pilate was interested in determining whether Jesus was claiming to be a King in a manner that defied Caesar. 

Pilate was asking Jesus: Are You the insurrectionist Your chief priests accuse You of being? Are You a threat to Rome? What have You done to make them say you claim to be the King of the Jews?

With Pilate's perspective now clear, Jesus answered the governor's original question: My kingdom is not of this world (v 36a). In other words, Jesus told Pilate, "I am not Caesar's rival nor am I trying to take over his earthly kingdom.

The first reason Jesus gave explaining how He was not a threat to Caesar (in the manner Pilate was asking) was My kingdom is not of this world. Jesus taught His servants that they would profit nothing if they attained the whole world but lost their soul (Matthew 16:26). Jesus had already rejected Satan's offer to rule the world according to the principles of Satan and this world (Matthew 4:8-10, Luke 4:5-8). Possibly what Satan was offering was to make Jesus the Caesar. 

The second reason Jesus offered to Pilate which demonstrated how He was not a threat to Caesar (in the manner Pilate was asking) was If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews (v 36b).

Jesus submitted to arrest (Matthew 26:47-56, Mark 14:43-49, Luke 22:47-53, John 18:2-11). He ordered His servants to put down their swords. He taught His servants to turn the other cheek and to not physically resist an evil person (Matthew 5:39). He taught His servants to love and pray for their enemies (Matthew 5:44). He taught His servants to seek greatness by being a humble servant (Matthew 20:25-27). He embodied this example when He washed their feet, as a servant would do (John 13:5, 15-17).

Jesus's servants were not fighting the Jews or Rome. Therefore, His kingdom was not a threat of this world. And therefore, Jesus was not the insurrectionist that the Jews were accusing Him of being. 

After plainly stating His case and demonstrating His innocence, Jesus then added, But as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm (v 36b).

By making this claim, Jesus was implying to Pilate that He was a king with a kingdom, but that His kingdom was unlike any this world had ever seen. Jesus was not a king in the same way Pilate understood the term. He was, in fact, a king that was above all the kingdoms of this world. But He was not seeking the throne of Rome. 

The kingdom Jesus offered does not operate according to the ruthless kill-or-be-killed-world upon which Rome, and the Jews, and every other human-based dominion has been based since Adam and Eve were banished from Eden. The kingdoms of this world rise and fall, fight and contest, cheat and defraud, exploit and abuse for the right to possess and control. But they do it all for what they can never have apart from dependence upon God: human fulfillment. 

  • The kingdoms of this world are all based in pride and selfishness and every other sin. 
  • Jesus's kingdom is based in humility, mercy, service, and love. 
  • The kingdoms of this world destroy themselves in the pursuit of controlling one another (Matthew 20:25, Galatians 5:15). 
  • Jesus's kingdom will last forever and never be shaken (Exodus 15:18, Psalm 145:13, Daniel 4:3, 7:4, Hebrews 12:28, Jude 1:25).

The principles of Christ's kingdom are most clearly explained in Jesus's Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

Some have taken Jesus's remark My kingdom is not of this world to mean that He has no political designs or intent to rule the earth. This view is mistaken. The promise of the Messiah was to inaugurate heaven's rule upon the earth. The second request in the so-called "Lord's prayer"—"Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10) is a fervent petition for our Heavenly Father to establish His kingdom and manifest His perfect will on the earth. Jesus will establish His kingdom and manifest God's perfect will after He returns as "the King of Kings" (Revelation 19:16) to judge and rule the earth (Matthew 25:31). 

But when Jesus re-appears, He will have no rivals—not even Caesar will challenge him. Caesar, like everyone else, will bow before Him (Isaiah 52:15, Philippians 2:10-11). 

Jesus's statement my kingdom is not of this world was truthful and honest. Its power and principles were and are from Heaven. Jesus will not compete with the world on its own terms. But neither will the world be able to compete with Jesus on His terms as the King of Kings. His kingdom is literally not of this world. His kingdom is of heaven.  

Pilate heard what Jesus was telling him, but he was confused. On the one hand Pilate heard Jesus say He was not a rival to Caesar, but he also heard Jesus claim to have some kind of kingdom.

Therefore, Pilate said to Him, "So You are a king?" (v 37a). 

As the sole judge of this case, Pilate was trying to gain clarity on the issue of whether Jesus was an insurrectionist and/or posed a political threat to Rome. The governor's question appears to be, "If your kingdom is not of this world, in what sense are you a king?" 

Jesus answered Pilate: "You say correctly that I am a king," before going on to explain: "For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice" (v 37b).

Before we look at Jesus's elaboration, it is worth pointing out that the Greek text does not contain the word: correctly, within Jesus's response. The literal translation of Jesus's answer to Pilate would be: "You say that I am a king." This response is extremely similar to Jesus's answer to Pilate's question "Are you the King of the Jews? (Matthew 27:11a, Mark 15:2a, Luke 23:3a) as recorded by the other three Gospels: "It is as you say" (Matthew 27:11b, Mark 15:2b, Luke 23:3b).

The additional word correctly is a (reasonable) interpretative translation of Jesus's response. Jesus likely intended to affirm Pilate's assumption that Jesus was a king. But He did so shrewdly. Without the word correctly in this answer, Jesus's reply could also be interpreted to mean: You (and My accusers) say that I am a king, but I have not said this of Myself."

Jesus was probably intentionally and shrewdly ambiguous (Matthew 10:16b). That way He could both affirm Pilate's correct assumption that He was a king, without making Himself guilty of the charges against Him through self-incrimination. 

Once again, Jesus shrewdly affirmed to Pilate that He was a king, but He was a different kind of king

Jesus explained to Pilate that: for this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world.

The phrase: for this, is an idiomatic expression indicating for this purpose. The purpose that Jesus was likely referring to here was His purpose to redeem the world and bring it back into harmony with God. He came to deliver the world from the wickedness and destruction of its violent and exploitative human kingdoms. 

  • It was for this reason that the Word became Flesh, to give Light and life to all men and to manifest God's grace to the world (John 1:14, 16).
  • It was for this reason that God gave Jesus, His only begotten Son, because He loved the world—His creation—so that all who believe in Him would live (John 3:16-18, 4:13-14, 5:24, 6:47, 6:51, 10:10, John 17:3).
  • It was for this reason that the Light came to shine in the darkness, to enlighten and make every man free from sin (John 1:4-9, 3:19-20, 8:32, 12:46).
  • It was for the purpose of Jesus demonstrating that the abundant life comes from following the will of the Father, even by laying down His own life in obedience to the Father, as well as through love for others (Isaiah 53:10-12, John 10:18, 12:24-25, 15:13).

It was for the purpose of dying in our place that the Resurrection and the Life came and was now standing before Pilate about to be condemned:

"And what shall I say, 'Father, save Me from this hour'? But for this purpose I came to this hour."
(John 12:27)

Jesus lived and taught the truth (John 8:32). Jesus was the truth (John 14:6). He came to give people the light of truth (John 3:19-20). And everyone who hears—listens to and receives—the truth by faith follows and obeys the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14, 16, 25-27).

Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to summarize Jesus's extended explanation from John: You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice. They summarize this as: "It is as you say" (Matthew 27:11, Mark 15:2, Luke 23:3). This was in response to Pilate's question: So you are a King? 

Pilate did not appear to understand all that he heard about this. But he had heard and understood enough to know that Jesus was not a threat to Rome and He was innocent of the charge of insurrection. We know there were a number of Roman soldiers who became believers (Matthew 8:5-10, Acts 10:22-34, Philippians 1:13). This is an opportunity for Pilate; what will he decide?

He sarcastically replied to Jesus: What is truth? (v 38a) and promptly ended the interview and his investigation.

The irony is that Pilate has just heard the voice of truth (Jesus) speak truly about Himself, and yet he did not realize it. Pilate's comment indicates that he did not know what truth is and he did not know Who truth is. It seems likely that Pilate's comment meant he did not believe there was such a thing as truth. Roman politicians had a habit of claiming that truth was whatever accumulated power to themselves. An example is emperors asserting they were divine. Now here before Pilate is one who actually is divine. Pilate seems to sense there was something about this abused and slandered Jewish prisoner, but he dismisses these thoughts prematurely and fails to see Who is talking and standing before him. 

Jesus is the Person of truth and He was speaking to Pilate who was preoccupied with the trial before him and therefore oblivious to this reality. His question may have been sarcastic, but it was a proper question for Pilate to ask as a matter of serious inquiry. However, this what is truth statement appears to be a dismissal, a statement indicating a hardened heart (Romans 1:18-21). 

There is no record of Jesus responding to Pilate's sarcastic question—What is truth? The implication is that Jesus did not reply to it. If He did not, Jesus was addressing the intent and initiative of Pilate's heart rather than to his empty words. This is how God often relates to us. He goes beyond our empty chatter and relates with us according to our heart's initiative and motives (Hebrews 4:12). God knows us better than we know ourselves, and always relates to us as we really are. He is not limited to our imaginations of ourselves or of our circumstances. 

Pilate Delivers His Initial Verdict
John writes: And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews and said to them, "I find no guilt in Him" (v 38b).

Pilate went back out the door of the Praetorium to address Jesus's Jewish accusers who were waiting anxiously outside. Once there, he announced his verdict: I find no guilt in Him. Thus the verdict is given: "I find the defendant innocent." 

Luke records this moment thus: "Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, 'I find no guilt in this man'" (Luke 23:4).

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describe what happened next (Matthew 27:12-14, Mark 15:3-5, Luke 23:5).

The crowds of chief priests and elders erupted in angry protest at this verdict of innocence. An avalanche of harsh accusations broke down upon Jesus as they furiously pleaded with Pilate to reconsider.

Matthew observes how when this happened, Jesus remained silent (Matthew 27:12). Jesus's silence was in fulfillment of a Messianic prophecy within the fourth servant song of Isaiah (Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12):

"He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth."
(Isaiah 53:7)

This prophecy foretold how the Messiah would be silent before His oppressors as a lamb is before the priests who slaughter and sacrifice it.

Pilate also noticed Jesus's silence while the chief priests accused Him harshly (Mark 15:3-4),

"The chief priests began to accuse Him harshly. Then Pilate questioned Him again, saying, 'Do You not answer? See how many charges they bring against You!'"
(Mark 15:3-4)

But Jesus "did not answer him with regard to even a single charge, so the governor was quite amazed" (Matthew 27:14, see also Mark 15:5). In addition to His prophetic destiny, Jesus has already been pronounced innocent—and that ought to be the end of it under Roman law. 

Pilate was amazed at Jesus's remarkable composure and silence during the slanders levied against Him as His life was on the line. As the Roman governor of Judea, the final verdict was vested in Pilate. But tensions were high. It was clear that the leading Jews, the chief priests, hated Jesus and desperately wanted Him executed. And it was becoming apparent that they were determined to accept nothing other than this outcome. 

The chief priests "kept on insisting" that Jesus be killed in spite of Jesus being declared innocent by Pilate (Luke 23:5a). They would not take no for an answer. Their insistence might have been fueled by the knowledge that Jesus and His followers were aware of their plot, and at this point they might have reasoned that if Jesus did not die, they might lose their place (John 11:47-48). 

As Jesus's trial progressed, Pilate's responsibilities to both uphold Rome's laws as well as to maintain good order were becoming at odds. He believed Jesus to be innocent (Luke 23:4, John 18:38). But he needed the priests' and Jewish leaders' help in maintaining control over the masses of Jews who had crowded the city of Jerusalem for the Passover. If the province turned against Pilate, he would lose his honor, his job, and possibly his life. 

In any case, fear and indecision seemed to creep and fester within Pilate's heart as he tried to balance the law, which required Jesus's innocence, with keeping good order, which was essential for his political survival. Meanwhile, the Jewish priests and leaders obsessed over one goal—kill Jesus

The chief priests were relentless. In their accusations, they said: "He stirs up the people, teaching all over Judea, starting from Galilee even as far as this place" (Luke 23:5). It seems at this point they realized their only leverage was to concern Pilate that he might lose order if he did not do their bidding. 

This revelation that Jesus started from Galilee apparently gave Pilate an idea. An idea that could absolve him from having to make a decision that ran contrary to finding Jesus innocent. Pilate's verdict was becoming harder and harder to sustain the more the Jewish leaders protested:

"When Pilate heard it, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that He belonged to Herod's jurisdiction, he sent Him to Herod, who himself also was in Jerusalem at that time."
(Luke 23:6-7)

The Herod referred to here was Herod Antipas, son of King Herod the Great (builder), and the Roman magistrate of Galilee, the district Jesus was from. Herod Antipas was the ruler who beheaded John the Baptizer, Jesus's cousin (Matthew 14:1-12, Mark 6:14-29, Luke 9:9). Pilate sent Jesus to Herod to let him deal with this matter. 

This ended the first phase of Jesus's civil trial. It was: "Jesus's Arraignment before Pilate" (Matthew 27:1-2, 11-14, Mark 15:1-5, Luke 23:1-7, John 18:28-38).

The second phase of Jesus's trial will take place in the court of Herod Antipas. It is called, "Jesus's Audience before Herod Antipas" (Luke 23:8-12).

Click this link to read The Bible Says Commentary for this scripture detailing the second phase of Jesus's trial.

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