“Are you the King of the Jews?” John 18:33
We can think about the Gospel reading in the way that people are spoken about in the third person, in the second person, and in the first person. In the third person, we think about Pilate, Jesus, the Jews, and everyone. In the second person, we think about the use of the words “you” and “your”. In the first person, we think about the ways “I” and “me” and “my” are used.
Saint John Chapter 18 Verse 33 tells us, “Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him.” In a few words John presents us with an extraordinary contrast. Pilate goes into his headquarters, a place described as the “praetorium” in some translations of the Bible. Originally, the praetorium would have been the general’s tent in a Roman army encampment. “Headquarters” doesn’t capture the same sense as “praetorium”, “headquarters” has the feel of it being an administration building whereas “praetorium” captures the sense of this being the very focal point of brutal power. Pilate himself represents the Empire, the greatest power people had known, he is a man of political and military might, he is a man whose word is absolute.
Jesus stands before him, alone and powerless, offering no defence, making no attempt to escape, making no use of the power he has shown at earlier points in his ministry. Pilate “summoned” Jesus – the ruler of a tiny Earthly province orders around the Son of the Most High God.
In the third person there is a sense of the contrast between Pilate and Jesus and also the contrast between “the Jews” in Verse 36 and “everyone who belongs” in Verse 37. Saint John’s Gospel was not written until perhaps sixty years after the time of Jesus. In earlier times, it would have been unthinkable that Jesus’ opponents would have been referred to as “the Jews”, for Jesus and his followers were all Jews, but in AD 85, the followers of Jesus were expelled from the synagogues and “the Jews” came to be a label for those who had opposed Jesus. In contrast to “the Jews”, there is “everyone who belongs”, instead of a group of people bound together by family, religion and history, “everyone who belongs” is a group of individuals who are brought together by nothing other than their choice to follow Jesus.
Power versus powerlessness, communities versus individuals, the contrasts are sharp.
When we look at the use of second person words, we see again the difference between Pilate and Jesus. In Verse 33, Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate is known to have been a bullying and violent man, and it is difficult to imagine that he asked the question without a sneer in his voice. “You” would have been used in an accusative manner, in a way that belittled Jesus. But Jesus’ response in Verse 34 is measured, it something we can imagine being said softly but firmly, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
Pilate seems unsettled by Jesus’ response, he is uncertain and he says to Jesus, “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Pilate is unhappy at seeming to lose the initiative in the conversation, he uses “your” and “you” in an aggressive way, as if trying to regain a sense of authority.
In Verse 37, “Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?” We can perhaps hear frustration in Pilate’s voice, frustration that Jesus has not been cowed by the encounter with the greatest power in the world, frustrated that he has not been able to bully Jesus. Again, Jesus deflects the question, “Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king.'” While Pilate uses “you” in a way that is about establishing power in the relationship, in a way that is intended to make it clear that he is the dominant person, Jesus uses the word in a probing way, seeking clarify the questions, seeking to discover what it really is that Pilate thinks.
It is when we come to the first person, to the use of “I” and “me” and “my”, that the contrast between Pilate and Jesus becomes the sharpest.
Saint John tells us, in Verse 35, that Pilate said, “I am not a Jew, am I?” Pilate tells us what he is not, does he ever tell us what he is? He is not the voice of truth or justice. He is all powerful, and yet he is nothing. He literally washes his hands of the killing of Jesus. According to legend, Pilate finished his days constantly wanting water to wash his hands, constantly aware that he failed, constantly aware that he had disowned the responsibility and power he should have exercised. Pilate’s words, “I am not” express what he was, a man who was not as he should have been.
In the first person, Jesus speaks of his own authority. In Verse 36, he tells Pilate and those gathered there, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Jesus is king, but it over a kingdom that Pilate and his military force cannot possibly control. Jesus’ words must have angered those who thought they could destroy him by violence.
In Verse 37, Jesus speaks of the truth of himself. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Jesus speaking in the first person speaks of the truth; Pilate speaking in the first person, avoided the truth.
Whether in the first, second or third person, the power of Pilate and the kingship of Jesus are in very sharp contrast: power against powerlessness; aggression against answers; falsehood against truth. For Christians there can only be one sort of kingdom to seek.