John 18:1-40

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According to ancient Jewish sources, the Passover meal could only be eaten until midnight. (Tosefta, Pesahim 5:13) So it may have been around midnight that Jesus and the apostles sang the concluding portion of the Hallel (possibly Psalms 115 through 118) and then headed for the Mount of Olives. Leaving Jerusalem, they descended to the Kidron valley, crossed it, and then ascended the western slope of the Mount of Olives. (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26) Although knowing that he would be betrayed, Jesus did not alter his customary routine. (Luke 22:39) Arriving at a place called Gethsemane, he and the apostles entered a garden. (18:1; Matthew 26:36)

The betrayer Judas knew the place where Jesus would be, for he had often been there with the disciples. Initially, though, Judas and those planning to seize Jesus may have stopped at the house where he had been with the other apostles. Included in the group were Roman soldiers, Levite temple guards, and slaves. Besides a contingent of Roman soldiers (probably drawn from among those stationed at the Tower of Antonia and who were responsible for watching for any disturbance or uprising in the temple area and bringing it under control), there were subordinates or deputies of the chief priests and Pharisees, Levite temple guards, and slaves. They were equipped with torches, lamps, swords, and clubs. (18:2, 3; see also Luke 22:50, 52.)

While Jesus was speaking to the apostles, Judas and the armed men arrived. As it would have been hard for anyone without being personally acquainted with Jesus to recognize him in the dark, Judas had given the armed men an advance signal. “The one whom I kiss is he; seize him [and lead him away securely (Mark 14:44)].” (Matthew 26:47, 48; Mark 14:43, 44; Luke 22:47)

Approaching Jesus, Judas greeted him, addressing him as “rabbi,” and then kissed him. The preserved record does not indicate whether Judas responded to Jesus’ asking him why he had come and whether he was betraying the Son of Man with a kiss. (Matthew 26:49, 50; Mark 14:45; Luke 22:48) At this point, Judas appears to have withdrawn, taking a position with the crowd. (18:5)

Jesus was fully aware of what would happen to him. His response to the crowd demonstrated that he, voluntarily and in submission to his Father’s will, chose to enter upon a course of suffering that would terminate in a painful death. Courageously, he walked toward the crowd, asking, “Whom do you seek?” When they said, “Jesus the Nazarene,” he identified himself, “I am,” that is, I am he. Their reference to him as “the Nazarene” may well have been a slur, for they considered him as no more than a man from Nazareth in Galilee, a city without any distinction. (18:4, 5)

Jesus’ fearlessness appears to have caught the armed men by surprise. Startled, those in front may suddenly have backed up, causing those behind them to lose their footing and fall. No man among them came toward Jesus. So he again asked them, “Whom do you seek?” They again responded, “Jesus the Nazarene.” (18:6, 7)

“I told you,” he said to them, “I am.” Having left no doubt about his identity as the one whom they wanted to seize, Jesus, like a caring shepherd who looks out for the sheep, spoke up to protect his disciples. “If, then, you are seeking me, let these go.” Earlier, in prayer, he had said that he had watched over those whom his Father had given him and that none except the “son of destruction” (Judas) had been “destroyed” or lost. (17:12) Jesus continued to conduct himself in keeping with his prayer, thereby fulfilling his words, “I have not lost one of those whom you have given me.” (18:8, 9)

Becoming aware of what was about to happen to Jesus, the apostles closest to him asked, “Shall we strike with the sword?” With zeal for his Lord, Peter did not wait for an answer, reached for his sword, and struck one of the men. This one, the high priest’s slave Malchus, appears to have succeeded in quickly averting a fatal blow but still lost his right ear, which Jesus healed. Jesus stopped Peter from continuing to use the sword, telling him, “Put your sword into the sheath. Should I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (18:10, 11; see also Matthew 26:51, 52; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:49-51.)

It may be that the Roman chiliarch (a commander with 1,000 soldiers under him) gave the order to seize Jesus. Roman soldiers and members of the temple guard then took hold of him and bound him. (18:12)

The crowd that had seized Jesus headed for the residence of the high priest, where Annas would first question Jesus. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Quirinius, the governor of Syria, had appointed Annas (Ananus) as high priest. (Antiquities, XVIII, ii, 1) He served in this capacity until the “procurator of Judea,” Valerius Gratus, removed him from office in 15 CE. Although no longer in the position of high priest, Annas continued to wield considerable power and influence. Five of his sons and one son-in-law (Caiaphas, the high priest at the time of Jesus’ arrest and who had earlier declared that it would be advantageous for one man to die for the people [11:49, 50]) became high priests. (Antiquities, XVIII, ii, 2; XX, ix, 1) While Caiaphas was then the official high priest, Annas appears to have had rooms in the same residence. This may be deduced from the fact that Peter’s denial occurred in the courtyard of the high priest, and there is no indication that anyone entered more than one courtyard during the course of the night. (18:13-18, 24, 25)

At the time Jesus was led away, the apostles had scattered. Later, Peter decided to follow the armed crowd, but maintained a safe distance. (Matthew 26:57, 58; Mark 14:53, 54; Luke 22:54) Another disciple also followed when Peter was on his way to the premises of the high priest. The female servant stationed at the gate there recognized this disciple, for the high priest knew him. She opened the gate, allowing him to follow “Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest.” Peter, however, was not permitted to enter but remained standing at the gate. (18:15, 16)

Many have assumed that John was the disciple whom the high priest knew. This does not seem very likely. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter and John were brought before Annas, Caiaphas, and the other members of the Sanhedrin for questioning. At that time, both of them were perceived to be unlearned and ordinary men, and the members of the high court recognized that they had been associated with Jesus. (Acts 4:5-7, 13) So it seems improbable that an ordinary fisherman from Galilee had the kind of access to the high priest that would have made his word carry sufficient weight for the female servant to allow Peter to enter the courtyard. (18:16)

The recorded details are too limited to draw any definitive conclusions about this other disciple and how it happened that he and Peter were together after Jesus had been taken through the courtyard. One possibility is that the other disciple, as a member of the Sanhedrin, had been summoned by the high priest and, while on his way, had met Peter. Two members of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus and Joseph from Arimathea, were secret disciples, and there may have been others. (Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50, 51; John 12:42; 19:38, 39) Members of the Sanhedrin were influential men whose request the female servant would not have hesitated to honor.

Peter had not been with the crowd that brought Jesus in but arrived later. Therefore, the female gatekeeper appears to have thought that Peter could only be one of his followers. So she asked him, “Are you not also one of the disciples of this man?” “I am not,” he replied. Peter’s first denial is mentioned as occurring before Annas questioned Jesus, and the other two denials are represented as taking place later. The accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke appear to be complementary and provide different details. Based on all the recorded narrations, it seems that the female servant at the gate was not satisfied with Peter’s initial response and began to talk to others. Altogether, he was confronted by various ones at three different times, and on each of these occasions he responded with denials. At the time of his first denial, Peter may not have thought that he had denied his Lord, but may have felt that the woman did not really know what she was talking about and that his response would end any further discussion. By his answer, however, he had committed himself to a lie and had failed to put an end to the suspicion about him. (18:17)

Slaves and subordinates (probably temple guards) who participated in the arrest of Jesus had started a charcoal fire in the courtyard, for it was cold that night. Peter joined those who were warming themselves around the fire. (18:18)

Meanwhile Annas questioned Jesus regarding his disciples and his teaching. In his response, Jesus pointed out that he had always spoken openly to the “world” (or the people), doing so in the temple precincts and in the synagogues, where the Jews assembled. After saying that he had not expressed anything in secret, Jesus continued, “Why are you questioning me? Question those who heard what I spoke to them. See! They know what I said.” One of the subordinates (probably a temple guard) then approached Jesus and slapped him, saying, “Is that how you answer the chief priest?” “If I responded wrongly,” Jesus said, “testify about the wrong. But if appropriately, why do you strike me?” After the interrogation, Annas sent Jesus bound to his son-in-law, Caiaphas the high priest. The account in the Gospel of John, however, does not include any details about the questioning of Caiaphas. (18:19-24)

After the first denial, Peter withdrew to the forecourt (an area closer to the gate) or to the gatehouse. (Matthew 26:71, 72) It appears that Peter later returned to the courtyard, stood there to warm himself, and was again confronted with the question, “Are you not also one of his disciples?” He denied it. A relative of the high priest’s slave whose ear Peter had cut off, spoke up, “Did I not see you in the garden with him [Jesus]?” After this third denial, a rooster crowed. (18:25-27)

When the Sanhedrin had determined that Jesus was deserving of death, the chief priests, other members of the court, and subordinates (probably Levite temple guards) led Jesus as a bound criminal to Pilate. A partially preserved inscription found at Caesarea in 1961 refers to Pilate as “prefect of Judea.” The first-century Roman historian Tacitus (Annals, XV, 44), however, referred to Pilate as procurator. This may be because “procurator” was the title by which later Roman governors of Judea were known. Roman officials started their work day early in the morning. Emperor Vespasian (69 to 79 CE), for example, began his day before dawn. So it would not have been unusual for Jesus to have been brought to Pilate at an early hour. (18:28; 19:6; see also Matthew 27:2; Mark 15:1; Luke 23:1)

At the time, Pilate was in the praetorium, where he had his official residence while in Jerusalem. The praetorium may have been the palace Herod the Great had built. This palace was situated in the northwest corner of the section of Jerusalem south of the temple. According to Josephus, Gessius Florus (War, II, xiv, 8), who served as governor or procurator at a later time, did use the palace when he was in Jerusalem. (18:28)

The chief priests and other Jews did not enter the praetorium because they were concerned about contracting ceremonial defilement, which would have prevented them from eating the Passover. The nature of the defilement is not revealed in the account. It could not have been a defilement that would have ended at sundown after the legal requirements for purification had been followed. Ironically, although they had been willing to override legal requirements in order to condemn Jesus to death, they scrupled about external purity. (18:28)

The night on which Jesus observed the Passover with his disciples was followed by the Sabbath at sundown of the next day. There is a possibility that, in years when this was the case, the Sadducees, unlike the Pharisees, reckoned Nisan 14 as Nisan 13. This could explain why those who brought Jesus to Pilate (or at least a significant number among them) had not as yet eaten the Passover meal. A definitive conclusion, however, is not possible on the basis of the available information in ancient sources. (18:28)

Probably in response to a message conveyed to him, Pilate came out to speak to the Jews, asking them what charge they were making against Jesus. They implied that there was no reason for Pilate to inquire about an accusation, for they would not be turning over to him a man other than a criminal. When Pilate told them to judge Jesus according to their own law, they responded that it was illegal for them to execute anyone. By seeking to have Pilate issue the death sentence, they served to fulfill Jesus’ words regarding the kind of death he would die, that is, as one elevated and crucified in an upright position. (18:29-32; compare Jesus’ earlier words [3:14, 15; 12:32, 33].)

It appears that, at this point, they set forth charges that were designed to incite Pilate, as the representative of Rome, to take action. They claimed that Jesus had inflamed the nation, forbidden the payment of taxes to Caesar, and proclaimed himself to be the Messianic king or ruler. In this way, they portrayed him as a dangerous seditionist who posed a serious threat to Roman authority. (Luke 23:2)

Pilate then had Jesus come into the praetorium for questioning, likely having Roman soldiers leading him. He asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (18:33)

Jesus countered with the question, “Are you saying this of your own accord, or have others told you about me?” Pilate’s response suggests that he had no firsthand knowledge. He was not a Jew, and it was members of the Jewish nation and the chief priests who had delivered Jesus into his hands. Pilate asked, “What did you do?” (18:34, 35)

In his reply, Jesus revealed that he posed no threat to the authority of the Romans, explaining that his kingdom was “not of this world.” It was not a rule that originated with or depended upon any human authority. If this had been the case, Jesus continued, “My subordinates would have fought.” Their reason for engaging in armed conflict would have been to prevent his falling into the hands of the Jews who opposed him. “But,” as Jesus added, “my kingdom is not from here,” indicating that it had no link to any human action or source. Pilate asked, “Are you a king?” Jesus’ reply, “You are saying that I am a king,” may imply that Pilate’s question acknowledged the possibility that he was a king. The fact that Jesus did not deny it could have served as an affirmative answer to the question. (18:36, 37)

Nevertheless, Jesus made it clear that his purpose was not to establish an earthly kingdom. He had been born and come into the world “to testify to the truth,” and persons who were “of the truth,” taking their stand for it, would listen to him. Pilate would not have understood what he meant. Jesus had made known the truth about his Father and how to become a part of the realm where he would be ruling by his Father’s appointment. As the intimate of his Father, Jesus was the embodiment of the truth and in a position to reveal his Father in a manner than no one else could. (18:37)

The context does not indicate how Pilate’s question (“What is truth?”) is to be understood. Perhaps he intended it as a dismissive response, reflecting no further interest and no desire to be identified as a person who listened to the truth Jesus could have made known to him. (18:38)

Pilate went out to the Jews who were waiting for his decision regarding Jesus and told them that he had found nothing against him. The chief priests and Jewish elders objected, insisting that the teaching Jesus had begun in Galilee and carried on in Jerusalem had stirred up the people throughout Judea. Despite their continuing to level many charges against him, he remained silent. Pilate asked Jesus whether he did not hear the accusations being made against him. The fact that he said nothing in response filled Pilate with wonderment. After Jesus’ accusers mentioned Galilee, Pilate confirmed that Jesus was a Galilean and under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas. At the time, Herod was in Jerusalem for the Passover. Probably in an effort to avoid having to render the judgment Jesus’ accusers were seeking, Pilate sent him to Herod. (18:38; see also Matthew 27:12-14; Mark 15:3-5; Luke 23:4-7)

At the time Jesus appeared before Pilate and later before Herod Antipas, a notorious seditionist and bandit named Barabbas was being held in confinement and apparently was to be executed. Barabbas was guilty of murder. (Matthew 27:15, 16; Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19) Probably believing that if they had a choice between the release of Barabbas and Jesus, Pilate apparently thought that the Jews would ask for Jesus to be released. Based on a custom that had developed at the time of the Passover, Pilate presented this choice to those who had meanwhile arrived to petition for the release of a prisoner. (Matthew 27:15; Mark 15:6-8) The chief priests succeeded in inciting the petitioners against Jesus and to request the release of Barabbas. (Matthew 27:17, 20, 21; Mark 15:6-11; Luke 23:18) In the case of the petitioners, they may well have been inclined toward wanting an end to Roman rule. If so, their sympathies would have been with Barabbas who had acted violently in keeping with his fanatical opposition to Roman authority. (18:39, 40; see the Notes section for more information about Pilate and why he yielded to the Jews who were hostile to Jesus.)


It was in the year 26 CE that Pilate assumed his official duties as governor of Judea. It was in the same year that Tiberius transferred his residence to the island of Capri. Until his execution in 31 CE, Sejanus, the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, functioned as de facto ruler. The ancient historian Dio Cassius (Book LVIII, v, 1; translated by Earnest Cary) wrote regarding him, “Sejanus was so great a person by reason both of his excessive haughtiness and of his vast power, that, to put it briefly, he himself seemed to be the emperor and Tiberius a kind of island potentate.” Therefore, although an appointee of Tiberius, Pilate may have owed his elevation to Sejanus.

If so, the execution of Sejanus would have made Pilate’s position more vulnerable whenever any accusation might be made against him. Without any support from Sejanus, Pilate’s situation would have been precarious. While Sejanus exercised power, anyone close to him could practically be assured of the emperor’s friendship. (Tacitus, Annals, VI, 8)

Tiberius acted on very little evidence when seeking to have the death penalty imposed for laesa majestas (injured majesty). An excerpt attributed to Dio Cassius (though the exact source is not positively known) reads, “Tiberius put to death a man of consular rank, accusing him of having carried in his bosom a coin bearing the emperor’s likeness when he retired to a latrine.” The only thing Tiberius said to him was, “With my coin in your bosom you turned aside into foul and noisome places and relieved your bowels.” (This extract is found at the end of Book LVIII of Dio’s Roman History, translated by Earnest Cary.)

Pilate must have known how seriously Tiberius took any report suggesting that his majesty had been slighted. Therefore, for word to reach Tiberius that he was no “friend of Caesar” would have put him in a precarious situation.

Although the Scriptures refer to a crowd as crying out for Jesus to be crucified, the number of men involved would have been a small minority of those who were then in Jerusalem. The only ones the chief priests needed to persuade to call for the release of Barabbas were men who had come to petition Pilate for the release of a Jewish prisoner. As men with this kind of personal interest in the cause of imprisoned Jews whom the Romans regarded as criminals, they would have been more readily inclined to believe the chief priests that Jesus posed a threat to the nation and would in no way further its welfare.