Adultery in John 18-19
It is Good Friday, today. As I did last year, I listened to Arvo Pärt’s Passio. One of the threads that was especially prominent for me this year was the interaction between the Jews and the Romans, ie Pontius Pilate, the governor.
Even though there was a fierce theological dispute between the Pharisees and Jesus, a fundamental fear of the Jews was that Jesus’ claims would upset the delicate balance between them and the Romans. Hence, in John 11:47-48, after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the chief priests and the Pharisees expressed their concern as such:
What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.
In bringing Jesus to Pilate, two distinct motivations are described in the text. First, there is the theological dispute, and with that, the limitation on capital punishment that had been imposed by Roman law (John 18:31-32, 19:7). Second, there is the political motivation. The Jews appear to want to curry favour with Pilate, since they said to him when delivering Jesus, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you” (John 18:30). And again, when Pilate wished to release Jesus, the Jews said, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12). In this regard, delivering Jesus to the Romans served the purpose of protecting the Jews — by labelling him as a trouble-maker and cooperating with the authorities, one man would perish, but the nation of the Jews would be left untouched.
Tying the theological and the political together, we see the depths of Judea’s sin. In delivering Jesus to the Romans and seeking Roman authority to deal with their problems, the Jews dethroned God and worshipped Caesar: “We have no king by Caesar” (John 19:15). In the language of Hosea the prophet, the Jews have been adulterous, lusting after the kingdoms of the world and rejecting God.
This, in my view, makes sense of the cryptic remark Jesus makes in response to Pilate (John 19:10-11):
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.” [emphasis added]
The question is how to make sense of the word “therefore”. I propose looking at the idea of “from above” in the preceding sentence not as a direct reference to God, but a reference to the authority that had been given to God’s people, the Jews. The Jews were the ones who had the right authority to judge the truth, since they were the priesthood to the nations, the ones whom God had called “gods” (John 10:34, citing Psalm 82:6). They were the ones who had true authority, but they then gave that authority over to Pilate, in willingly subjecting themselves to him in order to maintain some semblance of peace. Therefore, Jesus says, the one who delivered Jesus to Pilate, ie the Jews, has the greater sin.
This is the sin of adultery and idolatry, seeking after the strength of the kingdoms of the world rather than the kingdom of God. As Hosea prophesied against Israel centuries before (Hosea 2:5–13):
For their mother has played the whore; she who conceived them has acted shamefully. For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’ Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns, and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths. She shall pursue her lovers but not overtake them, and she shall seek them but shall not find them. Then she shall say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband, for it was better for me then than now.’ And she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal. Therefore I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season, and I will take away my wool and my flax, which were to cover her nakedness. Now I will uncover her lewdness in the sight of her lovers, and no one shall rescue her out of my hand. And I will put an end to all her mirth, her feasts, her new moons, her Sabbaths, and all her appointed feasts. And I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees, of which she said, ‘These are my wages, which my lovers have given me.’ I will make them a forest, and the beasts of the field shall devour them. And I will punish her for the feast days of the Baals when she burned offerings to them and adorned herself with her ring and jewelry, and went after her lovers and forgot me, declares the LORD.