John 18:33-37 is part of the Good Friday lectionary reading. The trial of Jesus was certainly not a modern trial where due process is a norm. This is Pilate, an arrogant representative of Roman power, inquiring about accusations against a nobody from the provinces.
It is clear from the text that some Jewish authorities have accused Jesus of claiming to be king of the Jews. You can doubt this as history. I mean, who was there to report on this? Did the early church really know what went on between Pilate and Jesus on that Friday? Yet the basic data that Temple authorities and others accused Jesus of political conspiracy against Rome, of claiming to be king of the Jews, is surely historically accurate. All the gospels report it. The sign, saying in three languages “the king of the Jews” and placed at the scene of the execution would have been public and well-known.
John’s gospel is giving us a spiritual interpretation of the facts known to the author. Pilate wants to know if the accusation is true. Jesus responds by asking Pilate a question: “is that your own idea?” Now in real life an inquisitor would probably have said, “I am the one asking the questions here.” But possibly Pilate would have been sarcastic and asked “Am I a Jew?” Pilate isn’t interested in Jewish theology. He wants to know what Jesus has done.
Pilate has two sources of information. One is the Jerusalem authorities who have petitioned him to act against Jesus. He doesn’t trust them and thinks they probably have an ulterior motive. So he separates out Jesus and inquires about his activities. He wants Jesus to be his second source so he can judge between him and the claims of his accusers.
Jesus responds based on the non-resistance of his followers who did not fight (Peter slashing someone’s ear does not factor in here a. because it was too insignificant, or b. because it was not against a Roman, or c. because it was part of a different passion story) when he was arrested. There is a parallel story that Pilate had in custody Barabbas and other insurrectionists. Jesus says he is not like these liberationists who wanted to set up a kingdom over against Rome in this world. His kingdom applies to a different world system (cosmos in greek). It derives from somewhere different.
Pilate hears this as “blah, blah, yes, I am a king.”
So Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice” (v. 37).
So the conclusion of this series of back-and-forth questions is that Pilate stands judged as someone who cannot hear the voice of truth. He is going to make a practical decision about what to do with Jesus based on the truth of this world. The truth of this world is that he has to get along as best he can with the Jerusalem authorities while appearing strong in his intolerance for any challenge to Rome.
The spiritual significance of this is that there is a parallel between the kingdom not of this world and the truth. The truth of Pilate’s world is not really true. There is a higher truth that Jesus testifies about. His truth is not about political survival and power. His truth is about true human thriving (in John’s gospel metaphors for this human thriving abound–living water, bread of life, new birth, and so on).
John’s passion story causes me to question the assumption that John’s gospel entails a fully realized eschatology, a view that people get eternal life now and there is little stress on a redeemed future world.
But in the passion story, Pilate’s system seems to win out. Jesus dies. Certainly he rises again and breathes God’s spirit upon the disciples. For John, though,the full picture must include the future fall of Jerusalem and Rome. It also must include the future resurrection of the dead and the last judgment. The Book of Revelation probably does belong to the John’s world of thought.
The kingdom not of this world is the kingdom of God’s future. The truth Jesus taught was a truth about what is coming.