“The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” 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 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.”” (John 19:7–11, ESV)
Pilate was persistent in not having a hand in putting Jesus to death. He repeatedly declared Him not guilty and he even had Him beaten and mocked in an attempt to gain the favor of the Jews. But the Jews persisted in their demand that He be put to death, and when Pilate told them to take Jesus and do it themselves the Jews still did not give up and insisted that he do their bidding.
In verse 7 we read that the Jews went back to their own law to demand that Pilate put Jesus to death. They said that because He “made Himself the Son of God” their law said that He ought to die. This was possibly referring to what Moses said in Leviticus where we read, “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And speak to the people of Israel, saying, whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:13–16, ESV)
Moses said that anyone who curses God or blasphemes the name of the Lord or the Name shall be put to death. The word “curse” has the meaning of making light, slighting, or bringing contempt on God and the word “blaspheme” has the meaning of speaking evil of, railing at, or reviling. The Jews claimed that when Jesus had made Himself to them as the Son of God He violated the Law of Moses and deserved to be put to death. And as we read just a few verses earlier the Jews also knew that they had no authority under Roman rule to do this for themselves. Their only legal option was to bring Jesus to the appropriate Roman authority and beseech him to do for them what they could not do for themselves.
But when Pilate heard their statement in response he became “even more afraid.” I’m sure he must have felt that he was already in over his head and that he was long past having an easy way out, and with the Jews push even harder it must have added to his sense of losing control and growing fear. Up to this point, from what we read in John, the charge seemed to only refer that which surrounded him being the King of the Jews. But with this statement the words “Son of God” were added to the mix. The man that Pilate had just had scourged with a whip, beaten, and mocked thought Himself to not only be a king but God as well. Pilate must have really wondered even more deeply what he had gotten himself into and questioned how he possibly could get out of it.
Though the Romans did not worship the God of the Jews they did recognize the power of gods and men with special powers. I don’t know the exact timing, but Pilate’s wife seems to have just sent a warning to him to steer clear of Jesus. We read in Matthew 27:19, “Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.”” (Matthew 27:19, ESV) His wife sent word telling him to have nothing to do with “that righteous man.” Pilate had already declared him innocent and now his wife was telling him the same thing, and beyond that she told him that she had suffered much because of Him that day in her dream. This man had affected Pilate’s wife and now the Jews spoke of Him making Himself the Son of God. Could it possibly be that He had special powers and all that Pilate had done was going to come back on him in some way? Clearly he was shaken and growing in fear. On one hand he had a check in his own heart to not do anything to Jesus, but out of fear he did. He was warned by his wife not to do anything to Jesus and he then did or probably had already done so. And the Jews were forcefully in his face demanding that Jesus be put to death. Pilate had no place to turn. Regardless of what he did he must have thought that he could not win.
Hearing this statement and having grown in fear we read that Pilate went back inside to where Jesus remained beaten, bleeding, and wearing a crown of thorns to face Him and ask Him, “Where are you from?” What had Pilate gotten himself in to? Who was this man? Where was He from? Was He really a god or even a man with special powers? Was there just cause for Pilate to refuse to move forward in listening to the Jews demands? These are all reasonable questions in light of all that Pilate would have faced.
But to his question, “Where are you from?” we read that Jesus again did not respond. Pilate spoke to Him again asking Him if He would speak to him, reminding Him that the decision of whether Jesus lived or died rested with him. It was to this statement that Jesus finally responded, and His response may have infuriated and probably even increased Pilate’s frustration and fears. Jesus said, “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.”
Pilate’s jaw must have hit the floor. He had just begged Jesus to answer him using his biggest trump card—the power of life and death, and Jesus told him that his trump card was worthless unless God put the card in his hand or gave it to him to play. Jesus told Pilate that he had no authority over His life unless God gave him that authority. Knowing that He came to die and that He was to be handed over to the Gentiles by the Jews for this to happen, Jesus knew that Pilate could nail Him to a cross. But He also knew that Pilate could not do this to Him unless the Father gave Pilate the power to do it.
Jesus had just told the governor who was sitting as His judge that he was just a pawn in God’s plan, and then to cap it off he told Pilate that he didn’t even hold him primarily responsible. That burden of sin was placed on the one who delivered Jesus over to Pilate. He did not say that Pilate did not sin, but He told Pilate that the greater sin—the greater responsibility was on the hand of another. And whether He was referring to Judas who betrayed Him or Caiaphas who sought after Him to kill Him and was even pressing Pilate at that very moment to carry it out we don’t know. What we do know is that Jesus did not fear Pilate or the apparent power He had. Standing there weakened by the beatings; rather than fearing man Jesus stood strong placing His entire trust into the absolutely sovereign hands and will of His Father.
What an incredible encouragement this is to us. We have been made children of God by the shed blood of Jesus Christ who was given over to Pilate by God that He might be crucified for us and then rise again that we might live. Ultimately Pilate was powerless before God except what God permitted Pilate to do. We saw this same thing with Satan and his interaction with Job. God is sovereign even in our hard times, even in the greatest persecution, even in the face of the loss of all we have, and even in the face of death. God is sovereign and He is faithful who will not allow us to be tested, tried, or even tempted beyond that which He also has given us the power to endure. And we know that endurance does the incredible work of perfecting us in Christ who did this for us.
“No temptation [test or trial] has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted [tested or tried] beyond your ability, but with the temptation [test or trial] he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13, ESV)
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials [tests or temptations] of various kinds, for you know that the testing [trying or tempting] of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2–4, ESV)
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16–18, ESV)