The chiasm outlined by Jo-Ann A. Brant has a classic seven-point structure.
A Exterior: John 18:29-32, Jesus is brought to Pilate with a demand for execution; Pilate refuses
B Interior: John 18:33-38, Pilate asks about Jesus’s royal claim
C Exterior: John 18:38-40, Pilate finds Jesus innocent, but the temple elite choose Barabbas
D Interior: John 19:1-3, Soldiers scourge and scorn Jesus
C’ Exterior: John 19:4-8, Pilate finds Jesus innocent, but temple elite charge capital crime
B’ Interior: John 19:9-11, Pilate asks about Jesus’s origins
A’ Exterior: John 19:12-15, Temple elite demand Jesus’s execution; Pilate agrees
We have crested the final arc in this chiasm, with only three more verses left, and in them will come a decision so momentous it changed the entire trajectory of human history for the rest of eternity.
Pilate could feel his face pulled into a scowl, as he stared at the crowd before him, and the Sanhedrin officials standing at the front. As he idly stroked the highly polished pommel of his judge’s bench, he mulled over the last words of this mysterious spiritual king. You do not have any authority and power over me at all if it had not been given to you from above.
And it was true. He had served with honor in the army, proven himself an able cavalryman, lethal with the short and long sword, and had risen to the coveted Imperial Equestrian Guard order. From plebian to nobleman, he was now a man of wealth, married to a king’s daughter, and Procurator of a large Roman province. Nevertheless, these things had been given to him from above him.
His thoughts turned to his erstwhile friend and mentor, Sejanus. For just a few years, Sejanus had been almost the most powerful man in Rome, and Pilate had reaped the benefits. But Sejanus had been stripped of his honorific, “Friend of Caesar,” and put to death. And it could happen to me, even if my Claudia is Tiberius’s daughter. Pilate absently rubbed the back of his neck, then his eyes, and cheek. His head ached. Rousted from his bed at first dawn, thrust into yet another contentious conflict with the Sanhedrin. He looked darkly at Annas.
He had done all he could to free this righteous and just man, standing on The Stone Pavement, waiting with tranquil dignity for his judgement. Justice was the bedrock upon which Pax Romana was built, the justice and righteousness of imperial Rome was what the world so desperately needed, and he had been appointed to uphold it. Yet though he had washed his hands of this tawdry and sordid case, he still felt oily and unclean.
The one who handed me over to you has greater sin. Pilate found himself hoping the vengeance of the gods would rain upon that guiltier one and spare himself. He had a trust to keep with the Caesars, and he was a man of his word, a man of integrity, a military man who understood orders.
With both hands now resting on the finials of his judge’s bench, feet arranged as a Roman patrician, jaw so clenched even his eyes hurt, shoulders so knotted his movements were stiff, he jutted his chin toward Jesus, and raised his voice just enough for the temple elite to hear him.
Behold your king.
His voice sounded rasping and forced, making him realize how sore his throat felt, constricted. He tried to pull in a deep draught of air, now noticing how hard it was breathe. He held Caiaphas with his eyes, drilling hostile contempt into the other man’s face.
John had been praying, his prayer shawl over his head, rocking back and forth, tears forming out of sheer exhaustion and fading shock. Blessed are You, O Lord our Adonai, King of the Universe, Who protects Your own. Please spare my rabbi.
He thought of those years ago—had it only been three?—when the Baptist had pointed to Jesus. Behold! That was all he had said, at first. But all the heads had swiveled and all the mouths had fallen open, as they followed the point of his finger. John smiled as his sight turned inward to remember that warm spring day.
Jesus had kept walking with a measured pace, as though he had not noticed every eye was upon him, almost as if to continue past the rapt crowd and their taut prophet.
The Lamb of God. The Baptist had not shouted the words, but it was as though his voice rolled from heaven itself, with such power and depth their very bones had felt as though to vibrate from their joints. John remembered looking at Andrew questioningly, and Andrew looking at their rabbi with the same question.
They had not known what to do. But the Baptist’s gaze had held steady as he continued to hold his hand out to Jesus, and it had seemed as though all the energy of the cosmos swirled around them. The sky had grown bluer, the clouds whiter, the sandy earth a brilliant ochre, olive trees and grasses had turned a luscious, verdant green as the Lamb of God walked through.
Then, as if their minds had been connected, he and Andrew had come to the same decision in the same moment. John’s breath caught, and his heart pounded as he remembered the moment Jesus had stopped, without warning, to turn and look at them, as they had been following him from a distance.
Who or what are you seeking after?
John swallowed as he remembered. Now he spoke back to that figure in his mind, You, rabbi, You, Master, the Lamb of God, we are seeking after you. John opened his eyes as he strained forward to hear the conversation happening far in front of him between the governor and the Sanhedrin officials. Somewhere afar off, trumpets from the temple mount caught his attention. It is the sixth hour, he thought. They were to have sacrificed a lamb together on this day, his family with Peter’s family.
Realization, with sharp clarity, fell on him with all the force and heat of a midsummer noonday sun. Today was the Preparation of Passover, and suddenly John was overcome by what was happening to his rabbi. But the blood of the Lamb of God had already been shed. Would it be enough? Would the Lord spare him? Or would he be slaughtered after all, and skewered as every Passover lamb was, to be roasted?
Would his beloved Master also roast in the sun today, on a cross?
Now the Gabbatha, the stone pavement on which Jesus stood before Pilate, where the procurator’s dais had been placed, seemed like the pavement of the temple precinct, the place where the lambs were led to be inspected, then sent to the altar.
Away! Away! Crucify him!
John had not heard what Pilate had said, but he could hear the chief priests’ loud cries, and the furious growls of the Sanhedrin elders.
Your king would I crucify? Pilate had leaned forward as he spoke, keeping both hands on the arms of his judge’s seat. John could just make out his words, for the governor had not spoken loudly. But the chief priests’ answer was easy to hear, shouted with such brazen abandon, John could feel the blood drain from his head, as a wave of nausea and vertigo swept through him.
We do not have a king if not Caesar!
The crowd were mostly Zealots and Zionists, pledged to protect the holy people of God from every foreign power, who hated the Roman imperialists, who despised Sadducean politics. They had come to demand Bar Abbas’s release, and those of his followers were already planning their next moves once he was out of prison.
Now angry rumbles rippled through as knots of people began to murmur against this saying of their religious rulers. They had no king if not the Hasmonean dynasty! Certainly not the Caesars!
Fear sickened John, as the press of bodies all around him began to surge forward. Pilate’s face jerked up as he noted the change in the people. The captain of the guard had also noticed, and already was leading Jesus away to the back where prisoners were kept. Herod’s Praetorium guard drew imperceptibly closer, their hands quietly tightening on shield and sword.
With a slight gesture, Pilate indicated court was now closed, and armed men, waiting along the hall’s perimeter now pushed into the crowd and dispersed the smoldering men. John tried to move in the direction of Jesus’s captors, but the crush of crowd and soldiers shoved him back and back, until he lost sight of the Master altogether.
[Story taken from John 19:13-16]
[Judgment at Gabbatha | The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain]