What does this mean? Jesus’ words here are difficult to interpret singly; as having a sole and lone meaning; definitively so. They contain so much meaning they act to confuse a reader of them; because meanings which a person might derive from them are able to permutate by means of overlap; and thereby they multiply in number.
Jesus’ words are his reply to the questions Pontius Pilate has put to him: here is some of the backstory, as the gospel of John lays it out.
The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”
When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, 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, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”
As I have noted in other articles it is hereabouts apparent in Pilate’s interviewing Jesus that the tables have turned in their relations with one another; at least from Pilate’s perspective; who has been under an impression at least up until this point that he is in charge and is the agency managing and directing this interview with Jesus.
But here at this point he has lost any appearance or assumption of authority in the interview. Under pressure from the Jewish leaders and also under pressure from what the Jewish leaders have argued to him about Jesus but; arguments they themselves do not realise the full import of:
“We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”
Suddenly Pilate’s shaky nerve loses it altogether when he hears this from the Jewish leaders; he has a greater understanding of the person of Jesus who is stood before him than do those Jewish leaders who handed him over to him. And so Pilate becomes ‘even more afraid’.
It is now Pilate who is stood in an insecure position of existential doubt, as he appears to experience a certain awe at beholding the grandeur of Jesus’ composure and nobility as he is stood before him accused even unto death by way of the hatred spite and ill will of the Jewish authorities. That a man in danger of death by execution should be so composed and self-possessed; even to a point of that man not even attempting a solicitation or a mitigation in his own behalf when before the governing authority; even when it is being offered in weakness and fear to him by Pilate here.
Pilate’s slightly tangential question; ‘Where do you come from?’ reflects his own sense of being caught off balance by these events and by how they have been progressing; particularly in regard to his being unable to get a grasp on the nature of this man stood accused. The question: ‘Where do you come from’ appears to reflect a certain floundering around in Pilate, him trying to make sense of Jesus as a man; as if he were perhaps seeking by asking this question here rather: ‘You puzzle me? I don’t understand you? Give me some stability, certainty, about you…?’
The final straw which has spooked Pilate sufficiently to get him into this frame of mind in which he is experiencing a growing fear; not of Jesus himself, whom, it appears, he wants to help, is that statement made by the Jewish leaders; ‘We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.’
It is this claim I believe which the Jewish leaders allege which spooks Pilate; when it has been taken into consideration with Jesus’ demeanour and words spoken to Pilate before him and on trial. We have testimony elsewhere of the magnificent and disarming, astonishing and perplexing effect that being in the presence of Jesus was able to compel upon others:;
“Then came the officers (who hand been sent by the Pharisees to arrest Jesus) to the chief priests and Pharisees; and they said unto them, Why have ye not brought him? The officers answered, Never man spake like this man. Then answered them the Pharisees, Are ye also deceived? Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him?”
“Whom seek ye? They answered him, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus saith unto them, I am he. And Judas also, which betrayed him, stood with them. As soon then as he had said unto them, I am he, they went backward, and fell to the ground.”
Pilate had also had word from his wife who had dreamed about Jesus and had warned her husband to ‘have nothing to do with that man’. Pilate was heavily spooked by now and thus his next utterance to Jesus; words which set the context for Jesus’ reply which is so very enigmatic and the subject of this article of mine. Pilate retorts: You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?
It appears convincingly probable tha here we are seeing Pilate actually offering to Jesus to ‘take the cup from him’ which His Father had set before him to drink; offering Jesus a get-out clause, or an out of jail free card to Jesus, in so many words. It looks like a probable reading of the text here, given the context and the tenor of the immediately previous and immediately subsequent verses bearing this conversation between Pilate and Jesus; that Pilate was going just about as far as he was able to go to extend to Jesus opportunity to ‘clear his name and go free’.
Pilate had been utterly unable to go any further and so to have offered any outright plain spoken ‘way out’ to Jesus because of Pilate having to have had a due regard to his own position as Ruler of The Procuratorship of Judea in all civil matters; and having had to have had a due regard to not have been seen to back down or to have lost face in front of the Jewish leaders and the crowds before him.
Pilate was the civil law. This could not be compromised – or rather could not be seen, or felt to have been compromised by his subjects. Thus he had a duty to Rome in the first instance; and to himself and his charges in the second place, to fulfil, and to be clear on and to be seen fulfilling his civil duties well and in due order. Hence Pilate had merely dangled a possibility on a line out to Jesus; who himself knowing wel what was being offered to him, side-stepped away from the offer and replied to Pilate that: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”
Jesus’ answer here to Pilate is a direct answer to Pilate’s question in regard to the authority to govern Pilate has resort to in his questioning; and proclaims his absolute right to judge this case on Jesus brought before him. It is peculiar that Pilate questions Jesus in a form of words offering as instances of his power two alternatives and extremes for Jesus: to be crucified and thus executed, or else to be released; and nothing between these two extremities?
Of course when we want to make a statement about such a thing as our authority we tend to choose to state the polar extremities of that authority we hold, as being a kind of rhetorical device so as to set ourselves in the best light possible. Pilate may be doing this here? He may also be. Or else he is stating his scope of authority thuswise because this is indeed what is going through his mind here, regarding the inevitable likely outcomes for Jesus. These inevitable outcomes being either freedom were Jesus just to bend a little and come a small way towards Pilate’s position and so set Pilate free from the dilemma he has wandered into; or else for Jesus to be condemned to death by Pilate by crucifixion.
As with so many things about Jesus, there was no middle way; and Pilate seems not to have liked feeling having been forced by the Jewish leaders on the one hand and by Jesus and via his uprightness without any expedient compromise on the other, into such a pincer claw. It seems to me that Pilate’s whole inclination and instinct; all the signs point to it from where he is standing, is telling him to set Jesus free; but his political and perhaps also his more craven side is forcing him to just keep the general peace at any cost, a small cost maybe one man’s life, and so do an injustice and condemn Jesus and thereby save his own neck?
Now we have what I believe to have been the basic context for Jesus’s remark to Pilate; a remark which is placed significantly as an answer, perhaps as the answer, to Pilate’s covertly gestured olive branch to Jesus, which had he taken up would have allowed him his freedom; this remark carries then enormous consequence and weight; so that any reasonably sound interpretation of its import is vital to us as readers to get to grips with.
As perhaps the definitive answer to worldly compromise this remark of Jesus’ may be important to our own managements of our own conducts concerning other scaled down worldly trade-offs we might want to make as followers of Christ Jesus?
What then is Jesus saying here exactly: You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”
The power of Pilate’s is given to him from ‘above’. Is this from The Emperor, or from God the Father or from both? Is it anything more and other than a secular power? How does Jesus’ handling of his interview with Pilate show this power of Pilate’s to be? Is it limited? Insufficient to the task befor ehim regarding Jesus? Is it irrelevant? Ineffectual. Or does it play a role in the actual condemnation of Jesus to death on the cross?
Is there a sense in which power is lent to Pilate by the Jewish leaders in this affair? If so is it merely secular power or more and other than just this? Is it being lent willingly to Pilate by the Jewish leaders; that is; are they fully aware of their intent and its repercussions. Is this power of the Jewish leaders lent here to Pilate in fact a double-edged sword for Pilate; in that he can usually make good use of its leverage in fulfilling his civic duties; but this time with Jesus it has been forced upon him, or else he has not been able to refuse it, and it is controlling him and his thoughts and actions at least in some palpably effectual measure in the judgement?
As for ‘the one who handed’ Jesus over to Pilate; is this simply Judas Iscariot and that’s that? Or is it (also?) the Leader(s) of the Jews, Annas or Caiaphas and/or the Sanhedrin? Is it indeed God himself; of course not as God being ‘guilty of greater sin’ but has God been an agency of any kind in this ‘handing over’ of Christ?
‘The greater sin’ refers here clearly to the sins of mere human persons, who are perhaps, apart from angels, the only beings able to commit sins? The theological implications, which I believe you might as readers be beginning to realise, are immensely important, complex and manifold. But I do not want to go into them; not my department.
Let’s just say for now that the essential item which clears up a lot of untoward confusion is the gift to humanity from God of freewill to choose and to act on our choices. Thus it is clear that Pilate had choice options all the way through his interview with Jesus, and so hypothetically, from a secular point of view, the outcomes of the interview had potential to transpire otherwise than they did. Likewise goes for the accusations of The Jewish leaders; they were freewill choices and could have been otherwise. The power designated from God to say The Emperor and to Pilate; and to Pilate through the delegation of power from The Emperor; all these are subject to human judgement and to human character as to how they are powers which are exercised and delivered as human and so imperfect justice and government. God is not responsible for these things.
All this application of freewill, and of its application being able to allow for situations which have happened to contain hypothetically a lost potential for having had ability to have happened otherwise than they did; I hope as an explanation in just the simple and straightforward terms I have used; and in the context of Pilate and his interview before the person of Christ, and the final answer Christ gave to Pilate on authority and thus on guilt for sin; I hope these things I have written to you have awakened and sharpened your sense of responsibility for the choices you make in your life; and that they have also shown you that ones choices lead to ones actions which in turn lead to consequences, sometimes huge consequences, which can go viral and go out of your, out of anyone’s, control sometimes.
Because God foresaw what was going to occur at the Pilate/Jesus interview does not make God responsible for its outcomes. Allege this and take away all human endeavour, hope, error, responsibility, duty, charity, faith, and worst of all, all of love, both human love and divine.
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