John’s Gospel gives us the greatest glimpse of this interaction, so we’ll focus primarily on his account, but we’ll also fold in other references to flesh out our knowledge of the situation. We first come upon Pilate in the middle of John 18, where we’re told the Jewish leaders bring Jesus from Caiaphas the high priest to Pilate, who asks them, “What charges are you bringing against this man?”[i] Their response, in John, is essentially, “He is a criminal.” Mark tells us that they “accused him of many things”[ii] and Luke records them saying, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.”[iii] It is this charge that prompts Pilate’s interaction with Jesus, starting with a question recorded verbatim in all four Gospels:
“Are you the King of the Jews?”[iv]
We should note here that Jesus does not respond to any of the Jews’ accusations, “not even to a single charge.”[v] This mirrors His behavior when on trial before Caiaphas. He gave no answer, offered no defense, except in response to one question, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”[vi] Each of the Synoptic Gospels records Him confirming it. Now, before Pilate, Jesus is again silent until asked if He is the King of the Jews. He replies, “Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?”[vii] At first, this seems like a somewhat odd response, but I think Jesus is asking a much deeper question of Pilate. I think He is essentially asking the same question He asked the disciples, “Who do you say I am?”[viii] Let me unpack that.
Pilate’s question is an odd one as well, because the Jews have not had a king in over six hundred years. The Southern Kingdom, Judah, was captured by Babylon and the Jews were taken into exile in 586 B.C., approximately 135 years after the Northern Kingdom, Israel, was overthrown by the Assyrians. Currently, the Jews are under Roman control. Pilate, as governor, would clearly know this, and would never think to ask anyone—much less an itinerant rabbi, the son of a carpenter—if he was the King of the Jews unless either that person had made such a claim or someone had made the claim about the person (as noted in Luke, above). Even then, the question “Are you the King of the Jews?” would be asked the way a psychiatrist might humor a mentally unstable person. So why does Jesus reply the way He does?
There is another way the phrase King of the Jews could be meant, and to understand it, we have to go back to the Old Testament. In I Samuel, we read the following:
So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.”[ix]
God then had Samuel anoint Saul as king. Saul was followed by David, then Solomon, and then the kingdom split up into North and South until the respective captivities. But the divine plan was never for Israel to have a human king. Yahweh was to be their only king. This is the same Yahweh who revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush, saying “I am who I am.”[x] Jesus incited the Jews to attempt to stone Him when he said to them, “Before Abraham was born, I am!”[xi]—a declaration that He was Yahweh. (Interesting to note, “I am” in John 8:58 is translated from the Greek eimi, the same word we find when Jesus answers, “I am,”[xii] to the charge of the high priest in Mark’s Gospel.) Tie this all together and we see that the only true King of the Jews who was ever to be is Yahweh—the very Person standing before Pilate at that moment. And it would only be a person who recognized Jesus as such who could, on their own, come to the conclusion that He is the King of the Jews.
So when Jesus asks the question, “Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?” I would suggest to you He is really asking, on a deeper level, “Do you believe that I am Yahweh, the true King of the Jews, or are you responding to what someone else said?” In other words, “Who do you say I am?”
And what is Pilate’s response? A sarcastic, dismissive, “Am I a Jew?”[xiii] Pilate completely misses the question, and it leads to our first Pilate Error: When confronted with the truth—and in this case, Truth with a capital T—Pilate doesn’t even recognize it as such. There are two ways we can miss truth. We can be like the Jewish leaders, who knew to ask the question, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” They knew truth existed—they had been taught the truth all their lives, yet “refuse[d] to come to [Jesus] to have life.”[xiv] They were looking for Truth in the wrong place—they were looking for a political savior—and were so focused on their own power and self-righteousness that they didn’t realize they were in need of a spiritual savior. Or we can be like Pilate, who—not being a Jew—was not anticipating the coming of the Messiah. We can be ignorant that truth even exists to be found.
But don’t underestimate our God. Even if we fail to recognize that truth exists, He is still gracious to reveal Himself to us—as we will see as we study Jesus’ interaction with Pilate in more detail.
[i] John 18:29
[ii] Mark 15:3
[iii] Luke 23:2
[iv] Matthew 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3; John 18:33;
[v] Matthew 27:14
[vi] Mark 14:61
[vii] John 18:34
[viii] Matthew 16:15
[ix] I Samuel 8:4-7
[x] Exodus 3:14
[xi] John 8:58
[xii] Mark 14:62
[xiii] John 18:35
[xiv] John 5:40