Our story begins in a garden, ends in a city, and centers around a cross. Yet this cross, this chopped up and planked together tree of torture and death, casts its shadow across every fiber of history. Two trees stood in the garden, one of life and the other of the knowledge of good and evil, which became a tree of death. New Jerusalem, the eternal city where God and man will again dwell together, is the final home to the tree of life, where it stands at the center of the heavenly metropolis. The cross, however, is another tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The cross, after all, deepens our knowledge of both good and evil. Upon the cross, we see the greatest evil ever committed, the murder of God’s only Son, the death of the Author of life. Yet a good far deeper than the mind can even begin to fathom was also revealed. The Son of God was not held against His will to the accursed tree. Death did not happen to Christ, as it does to us; He freely gave Himself to it in our place. Through His act of substitution upon the cross, Jesus removed the sting from the curse of death, which came from eating the tree’s forbidden fruit. The cross, therefore, is also the tree of life.
But I’m already getting ahead of myself.
Let’s rewind a bit.
From the moment that Adam and Eve rejected God as their king by blatantly rebelling against His decrees, the LORD did not leave His image-bearers without hope. Before the newly fallen man and woman, God promised that an offspring of woman would rise to crush the Serpent’s head, even though the Serpent would also bruise His heel. Eve likely hoped that Cain would be the Serpent-Crusher, but his lineage slipped so far into sin that God would erase His bloodline entirely with the global flood. Lamech probably hoped that his son, Noah, would be the promised one since Noah’s name means rest, but like Adam, he too sinned via fruit after coming off the ark.
God renewed the promise and deepens it with Abraham by promising that his offspring would a blessing to all the nations of the earth. The man of faith believed God, but his son, Isaac, was not the offspring of promise. Nor was Jacob, Isaac’s son. Joseph, Jacob’s son, appeared to be a blessing to the nations since God used him to rescue many people from a devastating famine, yet Joseph died as well. For all the blessing of Joseph, his people were quickly enslaved by the Egyptians after his death.
God called a prophet named Moses to rescue His people from the slavery. Through Moses, God led the Israelites, the descendants of Abraham, out of Egypt with many signs and wonders. Also through Moses, the LORD gave them His law, making a covenant with them to forever be their God with them as His people. Yet Moses died before he could lead the people into the Promised Land.
Under Joshua’s leadership, the Israelites secured their land, and they became an established kingdom with God as their king. Yet they quickly gave themselves over to sin to which God responded by permitting them to be conquered by neighboring nations. Sooner or later, they would repent, and God would send a judge to deliver them. But after a time of peace, they would sin again, and the process repeated as such for a few hundred years.
Eventually, the people rejected God as their king and demanded a human king to rule over them. God gave them their request, and the first king, Saul, began his reign well but ended it in sin and disaster. Their second king, David, was no less sinful than Saul, yet David ultimately cared more about God’s honor than His own and submitted to Him as the true king. Therefore, in spite of David’s failings, God promised that an offspring of David would sit for all eternity upon David’s throne.
Solomon, David’s son, was not that offspring. Nor was Rehoboam, Solomon’s son. In fact, most of the kings that descended from David failed even to follow David’s imperfect example, and they were certainly not the kind of king that anyone would want to have eternally.
Eventually, the very kingdom of Israel was dismantled, the northern part first by Assyria and the southern afterward by Babylon. Following the Babylonian conquest, God left His people as sojourners among foreign nations for seventy years before He brought them back to their homeland. Yet even when Jerusalem and the surrounding land began to be repopulated, Israel was not as it once was. They were no longer their own kingdom; rather, they were a piece of Persia, who had conquered the Babylonians. And when Alexander the Great defeated Persia, they then belonged to his empire. And when his empire broke into four pieces, two of them (the Seleucids and the Ptolemies) would play tug-o-war with Jerusalem for almost three hundred years.
The Roman juggernaut soon ended the contests for several hundred years. Owning much of the known world, the Roman Empire ruled with a rob of iron. Despite Herod the Great being named the king of the Jews, his rule was not absolute, and neither was his kingdom. Caesar was the true king. In fact, he was worshiped as a physical deity, as the son of the gods.
Yet during the reign of Augustus Caesar, a self-proclaimed god-man, a king was born, the true king of Jews. Herod tried to kill the child but died shortly after failing to do so. By the time the boy, Jesus, grew into a man, the politics of the area had shifted a bit. Herod the Great’s son, Antipas, was given rule over Galilee, while Pontius Pilate served as governor over Jerusalem and all of Judea. Also, Tiberius took the mantle of Caesar once Augustus breathed his last. Around the year 30 AD, Jesus began proclaiming that God’s kingdom was at hand, and all people must repent. Furthermore, this man validated His heralding through performing countless signs and wonders, including resurrecting the dead.
For roughly three years, Jesus mostly kept to the smaller region of Galilee, but even still, both political and religious leaders took note of Him. And they were afraid. After repeatedly being called hypocrites by Jesus, the religious leaders of the Jews sought to execute Him. Since He had repeatedly treated Himself as equal to God by calling Himself God’s Son, they wanted to accuse Him of blaspheme. And whenever He arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, they saw their chance and arrested Him. Unfortunately, the Jews had no authority to execute anyone on their own. That was power reserved exclusively for Rome, which meant they needed Pontius Pilate to order His death.
Which brings us to our text.
JESUS & PONTIUS PILATE
John 18:28-19:16 describes Jesus’ examination before Pilate. For our study, we will break the text into a few parts: oscillating between Pilate’s conversation with the Jews and his two dialogues between Christ. After walking through and commenting upon the text, we will conclude with a few final remarks.
Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.John 18:28–32
After standing before the high priest, the Jewish leaders brought Jesus to Pontius Pilate. Notice that they refused to enter Pilate’s headquarters because being under a Gentile’s roof would have defiled them. The irony here is as thick as it is tragic. Ever careful to observe every letter of the law they failed to notice that they were in the act of murdering the Lawgiver. Rightly did Jesus speak of them: “you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).
Also consider their shallow answer to Pilate’s questioning of what accusation they had against Jesus. “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” Such a statement contains the same legal weight as saying, “Look, just trust us on this.” As it seems Pilate was quick to understand, they had no true accusation against Jesus. Even if He was guilty of blaspheme, such sins were of no concern to the Roman government, which is Pilate’s only true care.
But as the Jews acknowledged, they were no longer their own kingdom; they belonged to Rome. They could execute no one; only Rome held such power. Thus, they would need to convince Pilate that Jesus was real political threat to the Empire.
So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”John 18:33–38
For their first conversation, Pilate launched right into the matter at hand: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Since the Jews were a dogmatic and stiff-necked people, perhaps if this man claimed to be their leader He could have posed a threat to the Rome. Yet Jesus simply responds with a question of His own for Pilate, which Pilate deflects by exclaiming, “Am I a Jews?” You get the feeling that governing the Jews is both perplexing and burdensome for Pilate, given that their theology was so incompatible with the remainder of the Empire. He asks Jesus what He did to have His own nation and its leaders turn against Him.
Jesus’ response both separates Himself from the Jews and affirmatively answers Pilate’s original question. As the Pharisee Gamaliel would say at a later time, many men over the years attempted to restore the kingdom of Israel, but all of them died and came to nothing. While Jesus affirms that He is a king, even the King of the Jews, He notes that His kingdom was not of this world.
Trying to get a straight answer, Pilate asks, “So you are a king?” Jesus essentially responds by saying, “You said it.” He then declares that He was sent into the world to bear witness to the truth, to which Pilate seems to question whether there even is such a thing as truth.
So Pilate reports back to the Jews:
After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber.
Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands. 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.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!” 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.” 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.”John 18:38–19:7
In this section, Pilate attempted to assuage the bloodlust of the Jews by having Jesus flogged, yet suffering under Pontius Pilate was not enough for them, they demanded crucifixion. He attempted to waive them off by telling them to crucify Jesus themselves; however, such an off-the-books act could have been used against them later on. So, they appealed to Pilate again: “he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” This immediately caught Pilate’s interest, since Tiberius like Augustus before him claimed Divi Filius (Son of the Divine) as one of his many titles.
When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. 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?” 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.”John 19:8–11
Having said that He was sent into this world and that His kingdom does not belong to it, Pilate finally asked the right question: “Where are you from?”
Pilate appealed then to his authority as a representative of Caesar, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus’ answer is both calm and cutting: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.”
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.” 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. Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” 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.” So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.John 19:12–16
Pilate attempted to release Jesus. Those very words reveal that Pilate did not have as much authority as he believed. In reality, he was merely Caesar’s servant, one tasked with maintaining peace, and the Jews were threatening to cause a riot. From his seat of judgment, he mockingly declares Jesus to be the King of the Jews, although he must have questioned how someone so un-kingly could also possess such kingly authority. The Jews then reject verbally Jesus as their king, affirming Caesar instead. Thus was Jesus sent to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, to be crucified.
THE KING, HIS KINGDOM, & HIS CROSS
Jesus’ trial before Pilate is intriguing in part because it is a clash of authority… if can even call it a clash. Pilate governed a powerful region in the name of the most powerful man on the earth. Jesus appeared to be an itinerant religious teacher from a town (not a city) of no consequences. Pilate had the power to crucify; he held all the cards, all the authority.
Or so he thought. As he debates whether or not to crucify Jesus to satisfy the Jews, He stands before the governor almost as if Pilate were on trial instead. Indeed, does it not seem as though Jesus was permitting Pilate to exercise authority over Him.
As Jesus said, He was not of this world. Instead, Christ is the eternal Word, the logos of God, through whom all things were made and without Him was not anything made that was made (John 1:3). His claim was not blaspheme; it was fact. He is the Son of God, who from the beginning was both with God and was God. If Pilate seemed a bit flustered, his nerves were justified. He stood in the presence of the Immortal One who incarnated Himself into mortality. Pilate thought that he possessed authority, yet Jesus knew Pilate’s life from beginning to end before He, the Father, and the Spirit ever formed the first atom. Pilate believed that Caesar was the king of kings, but Jesus came to do the will of His Father, the almighty Creator and King of all creation.
Jesus, the Son of God, was also a descendant of King David, which also meant being an offspring of Abraham and of Eve. He is the promised King who light came to shine in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it. He is the Serpent-Crusher who bruised Satan’s head by allowing His own heel to be bruised. He left His throne to rescue the very rebels who rejected His authority. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried to ransom us from the curse of sin and death. And since death could not contain Him, His resurrection now cries out to us that the cross, the tree of death, has become for us the tree of life.
None, therefore, enter God’s kingdom apart from the cross. As in Eden and as when all things are made new, this tree of life stands in the midst of God’s people. But for a little longer while the garden remains closed and the heavens have yet to be dissolved, the LORD is still building His kingdom.
Though not of this world, the kingdom is nonetheless invading. Belonging to no particular tribe or language, the kingdom is piercing all nations, all ethnicities. Its arrival transforms its citizens subtly but powerfully. Servants of King Jesus continue on with their normal duties, yet they begin to take on the other-worldly qualities of their Lord. Their hearts belong somewhere else, to a place not here. These Christians are exiles within their very homes because their Home is still to come.
Against nearly all the collective counsel of how to construct a sermon, this one has contained no pointed application so far. But never fear, I close this sermon with one point of application, distilled down to only four words.
Is Jesus your king?
Don’t misunderstand me. The choice to accept Christ as king is only one for the present. When He returns, all creatures will bow before Him as Lord, but until that day, His kingdom remains open to us to become its citizens rather than its conquest.
So, is He your king? Have you eaten the fruit of the tree of life, casting your faith upon the Christ’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of your sins? If so, what does your citizenship of this otherworldly kingdom look like as you serve daily the King of kings?
May we, as Christ’s disciples, seek His kingdom before all other things.