Notes on John 18:28-32 – God on Trial Part 1

Here are my notes on John 18:28-32, it is the first in several installments of the trial of Jesus Christ.

God on Trial Part 1

18:28-31 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. [29] So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” [30] They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” [31] 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.” 

Some Background

It is still “early morning” and Jesus has now moved from a Jewish trial to a Roman one.  John obviously stresses the “early” nature of these events.  Hendricksen notes that, “Rising at (or very soon after) dawn, and being ready for business at such an early hour, was not unusual in the ancient world, not even on the part of important officials, such as Pilate.”

The Jews wished to have Jesus killed, and while their council could decree the death penalty, they couldn’t execute such a decree – only the Romans could do that. Thus, in order to finally exterminate the existential threat Jesus posed to their political and social standing, this was the next necessary step.

Now in John’s gospel we miss some of the context for what happened at the Jewish council, so I want to just give that here so its fresh in our minds what Jesus just came from, and what the religious leaders just finished doing:

Then those who had seized Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders had gathered. 58 And Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and going inside he sat with the guards to see the end. 59 Now the chief priests and the whole councilwere seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, 60 but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward 61 and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.’” 62 And the high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?”[i] 63 But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God,tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” 64 Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” 65 Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. 66 What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” 67 Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him,68 saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?” (Matthew 26:57-66)

Self-Righteousness on the Outside, Murder on the Inside

In verse 28 we read something remarkable.  John says that the Jews didn’t want to enter the governor’s headquarters in order not to be defiled.  Being around gentiles made one impure – this is why when Jews in the diaspora came in for the Passover they cleansed themselves from having lived among gentile nations/people.  It is purely figurative, of course, but it was part of the ceremonial idea that these were God’s chosen people and that they weren’t to come to worship in an unclean way.

In addition to this, as Calvin notes, it wasn’t against the law to be with Gentiles, it was their traditions that added this to the law!

What is most remarkable, however, is not that they were working to keep themselves clean, but that in one sentence John has shown us why the religious leaders of that day got it so wrong.  They were so concerned about the ritual of not consorting with Gentiles, all the while their hearts were as black as soot.  Jesus decried this hypocrisy earlier in His ministry:

While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. [38] The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. [39] And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. [40] You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? [41] But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you. (Luke 11:37-41)

So these Pharisees march right up to the point of physical ceremonial defilement, just stopping short of the doorway so as not to mess up their feast days – wouldn’t want to do that – all while on a murderous rampage that has completely consumed them. They are totally bent on killing Jesus.

I think Matthew really captures their mindset well:

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. (Matthew 26:3-4)

As Calvin says, “…they carry more pollution within their hearts, than they can contract by entering any place however profane…and…they carry to excess their care about smaller matters, and neglect what is of the highest importance.”  “In short”, Calvin says, “they observe the shadow of the Passover with a false and pretended reverence, and yet not only do they violate the true Passover by sacrilegious hands, but endeavor, as far as lies in their power, to burry it in eternal oblivion.”

Augustine is simply aghast at this scene and details his thoughts in somewhat hilarious (to the modern reader) Shakespearean dialect, “O impious blindness! They would be defiled, forsooth, by a dwelling which was another’s, and not be defiled by a crime which was their own. They feared to be defiled by the praetorium of an alien judge, and feared not to be defiled by the blood of an innocent brother.”

Now, from a textual/background/timeline perspective, I want to just note that some have had difficulty with the phrase that John gives here that the Pharisees wanted to “eat the Passover” still.  Well, didn’t Jesus just eat the Passover meal with His disciples? I believe that He did indeed.  But Carson, who weighs all the opinions and scholarship from Bruce, Morris and others points out that what is likely meant is the continuation of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  Once you weigh all the points together (including the different potential defilements and their time penalty) one has to come to the conclusion that “the Passover” here is the continuation of the Passover celebration, and not the Pascal Meal itself. Therefore, “The Jews wanted to continue to participate in the entire feast; they wanted to eat the Passover” (Carson).

From Whence We Came…

The mindset of the Pharisees is one set on plots and death. And really, one of the things that we need to understand is that apart from God and His work in our hearts, we’d be right there with these guys. We’d think as they did, and we would despise the Lord of Glory.  It is an unnerving truth to face.  Can you imagine thinking evil thoughts about Jesus like “who do you think you are you miserable peasant from Nazareth!”

The revolting nature of this truth is a reminder that we are naturally at enmity with God – do you know what that means? It means that we hate God and have murderous intent toward Him.  It means that we are enemies of God – mortal enemies of God – before being saved.  Jesus didn’t die to save His friends.  Jesus died to save His enemies!

I’m saying this and reminding us of this here because it helps us to remember the lengths to which He went to save us, and the kind of people we were before we met Him. These truths – and seeing the Pharisees in all their ugliness – reminds us of our own ugliness, and helps us treasure the gospel all the more.

Listen to what Paul says on this:

…remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. [13] But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. [14] For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility [15] by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, [16] and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:12-16)

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, [22] he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, (Colossians 1:21-22 ESV)

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. [11] More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:10-11 ESV)

In all these verses we see two realities: 1. Our state of sinfulness and alienation of/from God prior to His saving us, and 2. That our salvation is grounded in the work Christ did on the cross at Calvary.

It is the gospel that while were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  That is what we see unfolding here with these evil religious leaders. They bathe in the filth of their heart’s delight.  So eager to get to get rid of this man, yet so loathe to taint themselves with uncleanliness that comes with consorting with gentiles.

Baselessness

I mentioned before, in the last section of teaching, that the accusations the Jews had against Jesus were just rubbish, and the trials by which they accused Jesus of blasphemy were all trumped up and really illegal by their own custom.  Now, they have to somehow convince Pilate, the Roman in charge of Jerusalem, that there was something worthy of dealing with him from a secular standpoint.

Pilate’s initial question is answered by the Jews by essentially a non-answer.  They say, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.”  In other words, “hey trust us on this one. He’s not a good dude, just deal with him.”  Well obviously that’s not good enough for Pilate, so he tells them to get lost and deal with their issues themselves.  But these Jews are determined.  Their hearts are full of hate.  They’ve been searching for this opportunity for months (at least), and they’ve been up all night to boot.  They aren’t backing down.

Pilate’s answer to them is filled with irony says Calvin, “Take you him. He says this ironically; for he would not have allowed them to pronounce on a man a sentence of capital punishment” – mostly because these people were obviously not capable of executing any kind of justice! A society governed by these men would have been nothing but corruption and anarchy, and Pilate must have been thinking as much at the time.

Carson brilliantly points out that the Jews had already secured a detachment of troops to capture Jesus, so they were likely thinking Pilate would simply ratify whatever the Sanhedrin Council concluded, yet here he was seemingly opening up a whole new trial and not simply rubber-stamping their decision to kill this man.  This is likely what got them worked up so quickly – perhaps they were expecting an easier go of it.

18:32 This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

“Did He Predict His Destiny?”

This past week or so we held a Vacation Bible School at the church, and one of the songs the kids sung asked the question “Did He (Jesus) predict His destiny?”  Those kids answered the question in the affirmative because, as they saw in the Scriptures, Jesus was able to know exactly what was going to happen to Him.  He predicted that all these things would come to pass.

And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, [18] “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death [19] and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” (Matthew 20:17-19) see also Luke 18:31-34

Luke Adds: “But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” (18:34)

Only the Son of God could have made this kind of prediction.  Only someone who knew the future could have said “here’s what going to happen, here’s how it’s going to happen, and here’s who is going to do it.”

This is just one more proof that John lays before us in order to establish in our minds the truth that this man Jesus was indeed the Son of God.  When we read things like this, it’s right to step back and be amazed.  These are the kinds of things that no normal man could have known.

Ryle rightly points out that this moment is the fulfilling of the entire Scriptures dating back to Jacob’s own predictions.  In an amazing bit of insight he says the following:

Let us mark here what a striking confession the Jews here made, whether they were aware of it or not. They actually admitted that they were no longer rulers and governors of their own nation and that they were under the dominion of a foreign power. They were no longer independent, but subject of Rome…By their own mouth and their own act they publicly declared that Jacob’s prophecy was fulfilled, “that the scepter had departed from Judah,” that they had no longer a lawgiver of their own stock, and that consequently the time of Shiloh, the promised Messiah, must have come.  How unconscious wicked men are that they fulfill prophecy!

Calvin agrees and adds that, “And, indeed, if we wish to read with advantage the history of Christ’s death, the chief point is, to consider the eternal purpose of God.  The Son of God is placed before the tribunal of a mortal man. If we suppose that this is done by the caprice of men, and do not raise our eyes to God, our faith must necessarily be confounded and put to shame.”

And yet in all of this the gospel was played out.  For as Calvin continues, “But when we perceive that, by the condemnation of Christ, our condemnation before God is blotted out, because it pleased the Heavenly Father to take this method of reconciling mankind to himself, raised on high by this single consideration, we boldly, and without shame, glory even in Christ’s ignominy. Let us therefore learn, in each part of this narrative, to turn our eyes to God as the Author of our redemption.”  Amen!!!

Therefore there’s a second dimension to His predictions, and that is that not only did He know of these events, He allowed them to occur and steadfastly and patiently endured the corruption of justice by the Jews, and the human authority of the Romans, all in order to fulfill His great plan for our salvation.

Study Notes 12-2-12

8:48 The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”

They often used the Samaritans as a derisive term to indicate an evil or sinful person – because that’s how they viewed the Samaritans.

At this point I think its fair to say that these religious leaders are furious and getting more and more angry by the minute. But think of what they do in their anger; they slander the very Son of God who has come to save them from their sins. They verbally excoriate Him for His teaching, and here we see them even excuse Him of being possessed by a “demon.”  Can there be any more stark antithesis than the Son of God and a demon? Jesus is the very radiance of the Father (Heb. 1:1-3; 1 John 1:5) and yet He is being accused of having fellowship with a creature of the darkness – a creature that He created, and rebelled against His reign.

We casually look at this and perceive (rightly) that these folks are past the point of being granted the oft-used metaphor of walking on thin ice, for I think that at this point they’re walking over open flames!

Nonetheless, while we analyze this, let us not forget what it is that they are doing here that is so repugnant.  They are blaspheming Jesus.  Yet how many times have you personally taken His holy name in vain? How many times have you heard His glorious saving name used as a by-word in open derision and have not come to His defense and gently cautioned those who have slandered again their evil words?  It is something worth asking ourselves if we are as anxious to defend His name and reputation, as we are our own.  I wager this is a painful look inside…

8:49-51 Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. [50] Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. [51] Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”

First He says that they do not honor Him.  This might have been an odd thing to say at the moment, but it’s a sort of warning shot across the bow. There are several things like this He says throughout the conversation that would have served as strong hints to the Pharisees had they been paying closer attention.  For if He is saying they don’t honor Him, surely it means that they ought to honor Him. Therefore He is saying that He is worthy of such honor.  This may have gone over their heads, but not everything He said was ignored..

The next thing here is that He isn’t seeking His own glory.  It is as if He is saying “you aren’t giving me the honor I am due, but no matter, God is going to judge things at the end of the day and He is the One who ought to be honored in the end.”

We read in Philippians 2 about the utter humility of Christ and how He emptied Himself. This is yet another example of that fact displayed in His theology.

Lastly, He gives the spectacular promise that those who “keep His word” will never see death.  The means, undoubtedly, that all who follow Christ will never see spiritual death – the only real death that one need fear.

This is the gospel message.  By saying those who “keep my word” He is saying those who obey me and make me the Lord and leader of their lives. It implies obedience and a desire to submit to His rule (and His rules). This is a foreign and offensive idea to many today, and it was no less so to these men here.

8:52-53 The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ [53] Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?”

They have no doubt in their minds now that this man Jesus was either possessed, or crazy. He was a man, yet he was claiming to have the power to keep men from dying.  I believe that these men were intelligent, learned men.  But they had not the Holy Spirit to offer them discernment or insight into the words of Christ, and here they are engaged in a debate with the Son of God. I’m sure they are flustered, angered, and outraged.  In such a mood can one think clearly? In such a mood can one think spiritually?

So they are completely mystified at what Christ is saying, and so will the world be when we declare the truths of the gospel – that is something we must be prepared for.

But what I really like from their response here is when they ask, Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died?”  Well I’d say they stumbled into something for which we know the resounding answer is: YES.

First, this is something many in the church today don’t seem to understand from a practical standpoint.  What I mean by this is that we pay homage to Christ’s preeminence, but we often fall into the trap that the Galatians did who wanted to hang onto the traps of their old covenant legal system.

Brothers and sisters we are under a New Covenant – but not simply a NEW covenant, but a better covenant.  A covenant that says that Christ is first and foremost in all things.  A covenant that allows us the freedom to come to Him even though we haven’t kept the law, and have been previously rebels against His Father.  Nothing in the old covenants came close to offering what we enjoy under this covenant. So YES, Jesus is much much better and much much greater than Abraham! Indeed Abraham himself would agree with that – as we’ll see soon.

Secondly, this reminds me of how just today a group of us men were talking about different theological heroes and perspectives and how there is a great wave of conservative Calvinists in our generation that have taken the church by storm. Someone then rightly pointed out that Calvin himself would have hated the moniker “Calvinist” as if what he believed or preached was anything more or less than the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He would have blushed and been furious to learn that a school of thought has crept up that bears his name. For Calvin understood what these men did not: Jesus is the greatest.  He is greater than Calvin, He is greater than Moses, and He is greater than Abraham.

8:54-55 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ [55] But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word.

He reiterates what He already said in verse 50, namely that it is the Father who will glorify Jesus, and it is the Father who is jealous for the glory and reputation of His Son, and it is the Father who will judge the intentions of all men’s hearts – for He knows and sees all things.

Jesus is finished pulling punches.  He tells them outright who they are, what they are, and why they are wrong. He comes right out and names them as liars! This ought not to surprise us, for we have already been studying how being sons of Satan they are simply following the character traits of Satan – Satan is a liar and a murderer.

We talked about this earlier, and John elaborates on this a great deal in his first epistle:

I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth. [22] Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. [23] No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. [24] Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. [25] And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life. [26] I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. [27] But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him. (1 John 2:21-27)

8:56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”

Can there be anymore delightful verse in this sting of disputations? There are a few things to note here.

First, the anticipation of Abraham that is described here is emblematic of all past saints who lived before the coming of Christ. They all eagerly looked forward to Christ’s coming – not only when they were on earth, but then especially after they had departed this earth and watched the pages of history unfold in great anticipation of the one whose righteousness would be imputed to their account, though they lived prior to His human life.

This is again what is meant by Paul’s statement, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed” (Gal. 3:8).

So scriptures and saints all looked forward to the day the Messiah would dawn the skin and frailty of a man so that He could bare their sins and they would be forever united with Him for all time.

Secondly, we see here something special in the knowledge of Jesus. Something that the Pharisees pickup on.  He’s talking from the perspective of someone who has not simply studied Abraham from reading Genesis, but knows him intimately and has even recently seen him!  What Jesus is, in fact describing here is the great emotion and celebration that Abraham and those righteous saint who had passed on, felt on the day of the incarnation!

Can you image? Can you make you mind to meditate on this great picture? Oh what a sweet scene!  In fact the celebration was so intense that it spilled over into the night sky. In Luke’s gospel we read how the angels can’t help but burst into song at the royal birth:

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14 ESV)

8:57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”

They continue to be mystified by the words of the Savior, though they can clearly get the idea of what He is claiming.  There is no mystery there.  He’s being perfectly clear in His remarks, but their minds automatically reject His words:

For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. (Romans 8:7)

8:58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”

This is perhaps one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture! The deity of Christ is so clearly spelled out. He is so clearly claiming to be God incarnate that one cannot help but read these words with great relish and great awe.  The ESV notes are really well done and say this:

If there had been any uncertainty about Jesus’ identity in other passages where he said, “I am” (e.g., 6:35; 9:5; 11:25), there was no confusion here because Jesus is claiming to be the one who was alive before Abraham was, that is, more than 2,000 years earlier. Jesus does not simply say, “Before Abraham was, I was,” which would simply mean that he is more than 2,000 years old. Rather, he uses the present tense “I am” in speaking of existence more than 2,000 years earlier, thus claiming a kind of transcendence over time that could only be true of God. The words “I am” in Greek use the same expression (Egō eimi) found in the Septuagint in the first half of God’s self-identification in Ex. 3:14, “I am who I am.” Jesus is thus claiming not only to be eternal but also to be the God who appeared to Moses at the burning bush. His Jewish opponents understood his meaning immediately and they “picked up stones” to stone him to death for blasphemy (see John 8:59).

The Greek is: εἶπεν αὐτοῖς Ἰησοῦς ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί

Transliterated: Iēsous legō autos amēn amēn legō sy prin Abraam ginomai egō eimi

This is a verse that ought to cause us to worship. It is one of my favorites because it so clearly paints that (accurate) picture in our minds of His reign, His eternality, His knowledge, and on and on. It’s simply a great expression of His deity.

8:59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

Can it be doubted that these people knew what Christ was claiming by His above statement? No indeed.  They knew perfectly well that He was claiming to be God incarnate, and now all of the threats, anger and plots were all set aside, now they simply picked up stones and took matters into their own hands.

Death was proscribed to anyone who blasphemed God (Lev. 24:16), but as some rightly point out, that was only a sentence carried out after a just trial with two or three witnesses, not a mobbing (Deut. 17:2-7).