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John 18:33-37 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 18-19. THE CONTEXT
We can really understand verses 33-37 only if we look at them in the context of chapters 18-19 which include the following:
THE BETRAYAL AND ARREST OF JESUS (18:1-11)
Simon Peter cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave (v. 10). Jesus repairs the damage and tells Peter to sheath his sword. That is significant for our Gospel lesson, where Jesus tells Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world. If my Kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight, that I wouldn’t be delivered to the Jews. But now my Kingdom is not from here” (v. 36). At his arrest, Jesus demonstrated that he intends no violence to Rome (Pilate’s primary concern).
JESUS BEFORE THE HIGH PRIEST (18:12-14, 19-24)
This is confusing. Who is the high priest, Annas or Caiaphas? There is supposed to be only one high priest, and the appointment is supposed to be for life. Annas is the high priest who questions Jesus, but Caiaphas is the high priest for this particular year (v. 13. See also Luke 3:2; Acts 4:6). The explanation is that the Romans, reluctant to invest one person with too much authority, forced changes of office. Annas served from 6 to 15 A.D., and was replaced by Caiaphas, who will serve until 36 A.D. Annas, however, retains authority in the eyes of the people.
“Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people” (v. 14)—more Johannine irony. Caiaphas intended to say that it is better for one person to die than for many to be led astray, but he inadvertently points to the propitiatory nature of Jesus’ death.
PETER DENIES JESUS (18:15-18, 25-27)
Craddock says that this is where the real trial is taking place. In the trial before Pilate, Jesus moves inexorably toward his glorification but, in the trial around the charcoal fire, Peter (and the church) are being tried and found wanting (Craddock, 481).
JESUS BEFORE THE SANHEDRIN (Matthew 26:57-68; Mark 14:53-65; Luke 22:66-71)
The Synoptics give detailed accounts of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, but this Gospel gives only short mention of Jesus’ appearance before Annas and Caiaphas (18:12-14) and no mention of the Sanhedrin.
JESUS BEFORE PILATE (18:28-32)
The Jews “didn’t enter into the Praetorium (Pilate’s headquarters), that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover ” (v. 28)—more Johannine irony. They are bent on killing an innocent man, but are fastidious about ritual defilement.
Pilate, ostensibly the most powerful man in the city, finds himself obligated to shuttle back and forth between the accused and the accusers, thus revealing the power that the Jews have over him. Earlier, Pilate had gotten off to a bad start, offending the Jews by raiding the temple treasury and displaying idolatrous symbols—so he must now be extra-careful of Jewish sensibilities. A Jewish revolt would call Pilate’s leadership into question, so he finds himself under pressure to meet their demands (Barclay, 278-280).
When Pilate asks the nature of the charge against Jesus, they specify no charges, but answer only “If this man weren’t an evildoer, we wouldn’t have delivered him up to you” (v. 30). Under such circumstances, Pilate should release Jesus. When he suggests that the Jewish leaders judge Jesus according to their laws, they respond, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death” (v. 31)—making it clear that their goal is Jesus’ death—and that they expect Pilate to do their dirty work for them.
Some scholars note that the Jewish leaders will kill Stephen (Acts 7:54-60), and wonder if the Jews are, in fact, allowed to execute those who violate their religious laws. Other scholars believe that the stoning of Stephen was a mob action rather than a legal action.
JESUS OF NAZARETH KING OF THE JEWS (19:15, 19)
The emphasis on Christ the King continues in chapter 19. Pilate has tried to get the crowd to let him release Jesus (18:38b-40), and has had Jesus flogged in the hope that the flogging will satisfy the crowd (19:1-7). The crowd, however, frustrates Pilate at every turn, demanding Jesus’ crucifixion (19:6, 15) and impugning Pilate’s loyalty to the emperor (19:12).
Pilate strikes back verbally, saying to the crowd, “Behold, your King!” (19:14) and asking, “Shall I crucify your king?” (19:15). Then the crowd, which demanded Jesus’ death because “he made himself the Son of God” (19:7), responds in the most astonishing fashion. “We have no king but Caesar,” they say (19:15). In other words, they criticized Jesus for putting himself in God’s place but themselves now put the emperor in God’s place. Pilate, by necessity loyal to the emperor, finally gives up and turns Jesus over to be crucified (19:16).
But Pilate has the last word. He has an inscription posted on the cross in three languages that says “JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS” (19:19-20). The chief priests protest, asking Pilate to change the inscription to read, “He said, I am King of the Jews.” Pilate responds, “What I have written, I have written” (vv. 21-22). Earlier, Pilate asked, “What is truth?” (18:38). Now, with Johannine irony, Pilate posts the truth for all to see.
JOHN 18:33-35. ARE YOU THE KING OF THE JEWS?
33Pilate therefore entered again into the Praetorium, called Jesus, and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34Jesus answered him, “Do you say this by yourself, or did others tell you about me?” 35Pilate answered, “I’m not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered you to me. What have you done?”
“Pilate therefore entered again into the Praetorium” (v. 33a). After the high priest questioned Jesus (18:19-24), they took Jesus to Pilate. The Jewish men who took Jesus to Pilate “did not enter (Pilate’s) headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them, asking, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?'” (18:28-29). Now he re-enters his headquarters and summons Jesus to be brought to him for questioning.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” (v. 33b). Pilate has only one legitimate concern, and that is whether Jesus poses a threat to Rome. If Jesus is assuming the role of king, that is treason—punishable by death. However, Pilate can hardly imagine that this ordinary looking man would be trying to pass himself off as a king—so he asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He must anticipate that Jesus will deny the charge, given the terrible penalty associated with a guilty verdict.
The irony is that Jesus is, indeed, a king, but one who poses no threat to Rome. Readers of this Gospel, privy to the rest of the story, know this. We want to interrupt and say, “Yes, he is a king, but not as the Jewish leaders are portraying him!”
“Do you say this by yourself, or did others tell you about me?” (v. 34). Before Jesus can answer Pilate, he must know the meaning of Pilate’s question. Is Pilate asking if Jesus intends to challenge Rome for power in Judea, or is he simply serving as a mouthpiece for the Jewish leaders?
Jesus’ question makes it clear that he understands the behind-the-scenes politics—that others have, indeed, have told Pilate about him—that Jesus’ enemies have enlisted Pilate to do their dirty work—that Pilate, presumably the most powerful man in Judea, has allowed himself to become a lackey to their interests.
Jesus’ question also reverses their roles—Jesus becomes the interrogator, the one asking the questions rather than the one submitting to examination.
“Pilate answered, ‘I’m not a Jew, am I?'” (v. 35a). Pilate has little respect for the Jewish people, so his question has a scornful tone. While Pilate phrases his question so that it expects a negative response, the trial will show Pilate as allied, however reluctantly, with the Jews who have rejected Jesus (O’Day, 817).
“Your own nation and the chief priests delivered (paredokan – from paradidomi) you to me. What have you done?” (v. 35b). Pilate confirms that others have, indeed, initiated this action. No charges have been brought. The Jews have complained only that Jesus is evil (kakon—translated “criminal” in the NRSV, v. 30). Pilate does not know why the Jewish leaders want to kill Jesus, but he understands that there is more here than meets the eye. He wants to expose the hidden agenda, so he asks Jesus to explain what is going on.
The Greek word paradidomi is used frequently in this Gospel to speak of Jesus being betrayed (6:64, 71; 12:4; 13:2, 11, 21; 18:2, 5; 21:20) or handed over to his enemies (18:30, 36) or handed over to be crucified (19:16).
JOHN 18:36-37. MY KINGDOM IS NOT OF THIS WORLD
36Jesus answered, “My Kingdom (Greek: basileia) is not of this world (Greek: kosmou—from kosmos). If my Kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight, that I wouldn’t be delivered (Greek: paradotho – from paradidomi) to the Jews. But now my Kingdom is not from here.” 37Pilate therefore said to him, “Are you a king then?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this reason I have been born, and for this reason I have come into the world, that I should testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
“My Kingdom (basileia) is not of this world” (kosmos) (v. 36a). Jesus confirms that he is a king, but assures Pilate that Rome has no reason to fear him. Jesus’ kingdom (basileia—used in 3:3, 5 for the kingdom of God) is “not of this world” (kosmos). Jesus seeks, not a kosmos kingdom, but a Godly kingdom.
Jesus cites the lack of resistance by his followers as evidence that he seeks no kosmos kingdom.
But this does not mean that Jesus has no interest in the kosmos-world. He has come from heaven to save the kosmos. He emptied himself of his Godly perquisites to come to earth to save the kosmos (Philippians 2:6-7)—”so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). But Jesus’ interest is not in assuming political kingship, but is instead desires that people will enthrone him in their hearts—just as the Father will soon enthrone him in heaven (Philippians 2:9-11).
“If my Kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight, that I wouldn’t be delivered to the Jews” (v. 36b). Jesus could have fomented a revolution. His band of disciples is small, but many people are drawn to him. They are unhappy with the Roman occupation, and hope for a leader who will organize them. Pilate has three thousand soldiers under his command, but only a few hundred are in Jerusalem at this time. If Jesus had wanted to make trouble, he could have done that.
In fact, there was some small violence associated with Jesus’ arrest. Simon Peter struck the high priest’s slave with his sword, cutting off his ear. Jesus responded by repairing the damage and telling Peter, “Put the sword into its sheath. The cup which the Father has given me, shall I not surely drink it?” (18:10-11). This is a recurring Johannine theme. Jesus is not the victim of treachery, but is walking a God-directed course—drinking the cup that the Father gave him to drink. No victim here! The Father is in charge, and the Son is faithfully executing the Father’s will.
“But now my Kingdom is not from here” (v. 36c). Jesus’ kingdom does not have its origins in the kosmos, but in God. His kingdom does not derive its authority from the kosmos, but from God. Jesus is no kosmos-king!
Like Jesus, the church today has much moral authority but little kosmos authority. The church is always tempted to seek kosmos authority—to ally itself with kosmos power. When it has done that, it has usually lost moral authority—has found it impossible to hold both moral and kosmos authority simultaneously. In most places where the church has held substantial kosmos power historically, the church is marginal or dead today.
The church does best when emulating the Son of Man who had nowhere to lay his head (Matthew 8:20) and who brought sight to the blind, helped the lame to talk, cleansed lepers, made the deaf hear, raised the dead, and brought good news to the poor (Matthew 11:5). Just as Jesus’ power was in the cross, so the church’s most effective witness is in service and sacrifice to people in need—and not in political connections, spectacular productions, or great architecture.
“Are you a king then?” (v. 37). Hearing the word, kingdom, Pilate goes on high alert! Even though Jesus said that his kingdom is not of this world, Pilate is concerned that Jesus’ kingdom might somehow have political implications. Pilate’s question probes the possibility that Jesus might be a political threat—invites Jesus to reassure him one more time that he is not.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this reason I have been born, and for this reason I have come into the world, that I should testify to the truth” (v. 37a). In the Gospel of John, Jesus has much more to say to Pilate than in the Synoptics, where he answers only, “So you say” (Matthew 27:11-14; Mark 15:2-5; Luke 23:2-5). In verse 37, Jesus says, “You say that I am a king,” (much the same as his response in the Synoptics) but then he goes on to spell out the meaning of his kingship.
• First, Jesus says, “For this reason I have been born, and for this reason I have come into the world” (v. 37). The Prologue to this Gospel says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. The Word became flesh, and lived among us. We saw his glory, such glory as of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:1, 14). Verse 37 restates these Johannine themes: incarnation— glory—truth.
Other than 7:42, where some people were saying that the messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, verse 37 is the only reference to Jesus’ birth in this Gospel. This Gospel is more concerned with Jesus’ true origin than his birth story. Yes, Jesus was born of a woman, but the greater reality is that he comes from God.
• Second, Jesus says that he has come into the world “that I should testify to the truth.” Truth is a major theme of this Gospel (1:14, 17; 4:23; 5:33; 8:32, 40, 44; 14:6, 17; 15:26; 16:7, 13; 17:8 17, 19; 19:35). We learn the following about truth from this Gospel:
• Jesus is full of truth (1:14).
• The truth makes us free (8:32).
• Jesus tells the truth (8:45-46).
• He is the way, the truth, and the life (14:6).
• He testifies to the truth (18:37).
• When Jesus departs, the Spirit of truth will come to be with us (16:7, 13).
“Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (v. 37b). This restates the theme from chapter 10 of the shepherd and the sheep who listen to the shepherd’s voice (10:4-5, 16). The sheep will not listen to a stranger, because strangers are not trustworthy. They listen for the shepherd’s voice, because the shepherd has words of truth and life. Those who listen to Jesus’ voice are his disciples.
In a verse not included in the lectionary reading, Pilate asks, “What is truth?” (v. 38).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, “The Gospel of John,” Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1955)
Borchet, Gerald L., New American Commentary: John 12-21, Vol, 25B (Nashville: Broadman Press, 2002)
Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970)
Bruce, F. F., The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983).
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R. and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Carson, D. A., The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991).
Craddock, Fred R.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Gossip, Arthur John and Howard, Wilbert F., The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1952)
Johnston, Scott Black, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (GrandRapids: Eerdmans, 2001)
Lincoln, Andrew T., Black’s New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to John (London: Continuum, 2005)
Moloney, Francis J., Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998)
Morris, Leon, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995).
O’Day, Gail R., The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Sloyan, Gerald, “John,” Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Smith, D. Moody, Jr., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: John (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999)
Williamson, Lamar, Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004)
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