by Doug Ward

The time that the disciples of Jesus spent in the company of their Master was full of remarkable experiences and teachings. We see this expressed by one disciple in the final verse of the Gospel of John: "Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written" (John 21:25).


Understandably, then, the disciples were not able to comprehend everything they experienced as it was happening. To assist them in the learning process, Jesus provided explanations during a period of forty days after his resurrection (Luke 24:27, 44-45; Acts 1:3). He also promised the Holy Spirit to his followers, through whom they could reach additional insights. As Jesus said on the eve of his crucifixion,


"But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (John 14:26).


So in the years after the resurrection of Jesus, his disciples thought back on everything that had happened and came to see, through the guidance of the Spirit, the deep significance of the things Jesus had said (John 2:22) and done (John 2:17; 12:16). It became clear to them that everything had unfolded according to a divine plan.


Even the words and actions of enemies of Jesus had only served to announce and promote the gospel. For example, the high priest Caiaphas, the one responsible for the arrest of Jesus, had told the Jewish Sanhedrin that "it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish" (John 11:50). Early Christians saw in this statement an unwitting prophecy that Jesus would die for the sins of the world (verses 51-52). Later Pontius Pilate, the Roman official responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, wrote an inscription for the cross that identified Jesus as "King of the Jews" (John 19:19-22). Although the sign was intended to mock Jesus, it actually proclaimed the truth about the man on the cross.


The Gospel of John also records a further remark of Pontius Pilate that can be taken as an unintentional assertion that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Although Pilate's remark is not explicitly identified as a prophecy, it was probably understood that way by early Christians. To identify Pilate's accidental prophecy and see how Jesus' disciples might have interpreted it, we will need to take a closer look at John 18-19 along with the words of the prophet Zechariah.


"Behold the Man!"

In the days of Jesus, the Sanhedrin did not have the authority to carry out death sentences, with the exception of cases in which a Gentile was caught trespassing closer to the Temple than the Court of the Gentiles.1 So on the morning after Jesus' arrest, Jewish authorities brought him to Pilate, the one authorized to approve executions.


Pilate, however, was not willing to simply grant the request for an execution. Perhaps he had been keeping track of the career of Jesus himself and was curious to hear what the popular teacher had to say. At any rate, he began his own questioning of Jesus and concluded that a king whose kingdom was "not of this world" constituted no real threat to Rome (John 18:33-38).


But even though Pilate believed Jesus was innocent, he did not immediately order his release. He may have feared that Jewish authorities would complain to Rome, and he would then lose his position as prefect of Judea. New Testament scholar Donald A. Carson aptly describes Pilate as "a morally weak and vacillatory man."2


Pilate tried sending Jesus to Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, since Jesus was a Galilean (Luke 23:6-11). Antipas, though, soon sent Jesus right back to Pilate. Antipas was already unpopular with his subjects because of his execution of John the Baptist (Mark 6) and may have wanted to avoid prosecuting another prophet.


Pilate then hoped to placate Jesus' accusers by having him beaten and humiliated (John 19:1-5). Soldiers dressed him in a purple robe and a crown of thorns as a way to make fun of the idea that he might be a king. Then Pilate presented Jesus to his accusers with the words, "Behold the man!" As Carson explains, Pilate was saying, in effect, "Here is the man you find so dangerous and threatening. Can you not see he is harmless and somewhat ridiculous?"3


A Coming King and Priest

Pilate's words were intended to mock both Jesus and the Jewish officials. However, when the disciples of Jesus heard about what Pilate had said, they were reminded of words communicated by God to the prophet Zechariah over five hundred years before.


Zechariah was one of a group of Jewish exiles in Babylon who returned to the land of Israel in 538-536 B.C. for the purpose of rebuilding the Temple of God in Jerusalem. Along with the prophet Haggai, Zechariah was entrusted with the task of encouraging his countrymen to complete the building project (Ezra 5:1-2).


God communicated through Zechariah that the rebuilding of the Temple was an important first step in a larger plan. He instructed the prophet to obtain gold and silver from Heldai, Tobijah, and Jedaiah, fellow Jews who had come from Babylon with donations for the Temple. Zechariah was to have the gold and silver made into a special crown (Zech 6:9-11). The Hebrew in verse 11 literally says that "crowns" were to be constructed from the precious metals, perhaps an indication that the crown was to be an elaborate one with multiple layers-like the "many diadems" pictured in Rev 19:12.


In a kind of coronation ceremony, the new crown was to be placed on the head of the high priest, Joshua the son of Jehozadak, who was supervising the building of the Temple along with Zerubbabel the governor. At this ceremony Zechariah was to announce a message from God:


"Behold, the man whose name is the Branch: for he shall branch out from his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord. It is he who shall build the temple of the Lord and shall bear royal honor, and shall sit and rule on his throne. And there shall be a priest on his throne, and the counsel of peace shall be between them both" (vv. 12-13).


For this message, as in the prophecy of Zech 3, Joshua was a "sign" symbolizing a coming figure called "the Branch" (Zech 3:8). Based on several references to this figure in the books of the prophets, the Branch is recognized in both Jewish and Christian tradition as a name for the Messiah.


In particular, the Branch would be a man (Zech 6:12) and a servant of God (Zech 3:8). He would be a "righteous" descendant of David, one who "shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land" (Jer 23:5). The branch would be "beautiful and glorious" (Isa 4:2) and would be involved in a divine cleansing of Israel (Isa 4:4). He would be a faithful judge filled with the Spirit of God (Isa 11:1-5).


As a leader in the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, the high priest Joshua was a forerunner of the Branch, who would later "build the temple of the Lord." The Branch's temple construction could involve both building the people of God and building a future Jerusalem temple. In both cases, "those who are far off"-people from all nations-would assist in the project (v. 15).


Joshua the son of Jehozadak was never a king, but in the coronation ceremony he was a type of the Branch, who would be both king and priest. With the royal and ecclesiastical offices combined in one person, there would be no church-state conflicts (v. 13) like the friction between Caiaphas and Pilate.


An Accidental Affirmation

For the first Christians, the prophecies of Zechariah were an important source for understanding their Master's ministry.  In Jesus' triumphal entry of Jerusalem, they saw him as the gentle king of Zech 9:9 (John 12:14-16).  In his crucifixion he was the ``pierced one'' of Zech 12:10 (John 19:37).  In his ascension he is the Lord whose feet will stand again on the Mount of Olives (Zech 14:4; Acts 1:9-11).  And so when Pilate proclaimed, ``Behold the man!'', they saw in the prefect's words an accidental affirmation that Jesus was the prophesied Branch who would build a new temple, cleanse Israel, judge righteously and rule as king and priest.  His crucifixion was not a defeat.  Instead, it was the means through which God would ``remove the iniquity of this land in a single day'' (Zech 3:9).  In Pilate's words, the original disciples of Jesus saw an additional assurance that God was in control, working out everything according to his plan. 


The prophecies of scripture still provide comfort for disciples of Jesus today.  When life circumstances and current events are confusing and discouraging, we can remember that God is in control and is working out a plan.  In due time he will lead us to understanding through his Spirit, just as he did for the early believers.


1On this point see the writings of Josephus (War 2.117; 5.193-194; 6.124-126).


2The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary, Eerdmans, 1991, p. 590.


3The Gospel According to John, comments on John 19:4-5.

Issue 30


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