“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 19:10–11, ESV)
Surely Jesus was the strangest, most baffling defendant in the long history of those who have come to the bar of justice accused of crimes. We never see this more clearly than in this exchange between him and Pilate.
Pilate, assuming all of his legal authority as Caesar’s representative in control of Judea says, “Listen Jesus, you should perhaps speak in your own defense. Do you not know that I have authority to condemn you to the most painful, shameful capital punishment (crucifixion) in the history of the world?”
Jesus’ response: You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.
Um, excuse me? Do you not know that you are on trial for your life, Jesus? Do you not understand that Pilate thinks you are innocent and yet is still considering having you crucified? Say something in your defense!!
Instead of what we expect, what we find Jesus doing is acting as if he is the one in authority between the two men. The scene is surreal! Jesus is beaten and bloody, rivulets of blood are running down his face and dripping onto his clothes. He is no doubt bound as he stands before Pilate. Shortly he will [we know] be led away to be crucified at the order of the very man who stands in front of him, and…
Jesus explains to Pilate from where Pilate receives his authority. It is given to Pilate, not from Caesar, but from above. [As an interesting side note, these are the very words that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus when he told him “You must be born again/from above.”] It’s as if Jesus thinks that he is the one in authority here and he calmly points out the fallacy in Pilate’s statement! Inconceivable.
As the reader of John’s gospel knows, this is exactly what is going on. Jesus is the one in authority here. He is going to the cross willingly because he knows that he came to earth for that very thing and Pilate is merely an actor in this great story who must play his part, and the part that he is playing has been given to him by God himself.
The punished has become the judge and the judge has become the defendant. It is an astounding reversal, one that Pilate does not recognize and probably will never recognize, until he dies and faces this very man.